The Character of American Individualism
Individualism, and its economic corollary, laissez-faire liberalism, has not always taken on a conservative hue, has not always functioned, as it often does today, as an apologist for the status quo. On the contrary, the revolution of modern times was originally, and continued for a long time to be, laissez-faire individualist. Its purpose was to free the individual person from the restrictions and the shackles, the encrusted caste privileges and exploitative wars, of the feudal and mercantilist orders, of the Tory ancien régime.
Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, the militants in the American Revolution, the Jacksonian movement, Emerson and Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison and the radical abolitionists—all were basically laissez-faire individualists who carried on the age-old battle for liberty and against all forms of State privilege. And so were the French revolutionaries—not only the Girondins, but even the much-abused Jacobins, who were obliged to defend the Revolution against the massed crowned heads of Europe. All were roughly in the same camp. The individualist heritage, indeed, goes back to the first modern radicals of the 17th century—to the Levellers in England, and to Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson in the American colonies.
The conventional historical wisdom asserts that while the radical movements in America were indeed laissez-faire individualist before the Civil War, that afterwards, the laissez-fairists became conservatives, and the radical mantle then fell to groups more familiar to the modern Left: the Socialists and Populists. But this is a distortion of the truth. For it was elderly New England Brahmins, laissez-faire merchants and industrialists like Edward Atkinson, who had financed John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, who were the ones to leap in and oppose the US imperialism of the Spanish-American War with all their might.
No opposition to that war was more thoroughgoing than that of the laissez-faire economist and sociologist William Graham Sumner or than that of Atkinson who, as head of the Anti-Imperialist League, mailed antiwar pamphlets to American troops then engaged in conquering the Philippines. Atkinson’s pamphlets urged our troops to mutiny, and were consequently seized by the US postal authorities.
In taking this stand, Atkinson, Sumner, and their colleagues were not being “sports”; they were following an antiwar, anti-imperialist tradition as old as classical liberalism itself. This was the tradition of Price, Priestley, and the late-18th-century British radicals that earned them repeated imprisonment by the British war machine; and of Richard Cobden, John Bright, and the laissez-faire Manchester School of the mid-19th century. Cobden, in particular, had fearlessly denounced every war and every imperial maneuver of the British regime. We are now so used to thinking of opposition to imperialism as Marxian that this kind of movement seems almost inconceivable to us today.
By the advent of World War I, however, the death of the older laissez-faire generation threw the leadership of the opposition to America’s imperial wars into the hands of the Socialist Party. But other, more individualist-minded men joined in the opposition, many of whom would later form the core of the isolationist Old Right of the late 1930s. Thus, the hardcore antiwar leaders included the individualist Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and such laissez-faire liberals as Senators William E. Borah (Republican) of Idaho and James A. Reed (Democrat) of Missouri. It also included Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., father of the Lone Eagle, who was a congressman from Minnesota.
Almost all of America’s intellectuals rushed to enlist in the war fervor of the First World War. A leading exception was the formidable laissez-faire individualist Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the Nation, grandson of William Lloyd Garrison and former member of the Anti-Imperialist League. Two other prominent exceptions were friends and associates of Villard who were later to serve as leaders of libertarian thought in America: Francis Neilson and especially Albert Jay Nock. Neilson was the last of the laissez-faire English Liberals, who had emigrated to the United States; Nock served under Villard during the war, and it was his Nation editorial denouncing the progovernment activities of Samuel Gompers that got that issue of the magazine banned by the US Post Office. And it was Neilson who wrote the first revisionist book on the origins of World War I, How Diplomats Make War (1915). The first revisionist book by an American, in fact, was Nock’s Myth of a Guilty Nation (1922), which had been serialized in LaFollette’s Magazine.
The World War constituted a tremendous trauma for all the individuals and groups opposed to the conflict. The total mobilization, the savage repression of opponents, the carnage and the US global intervention on an unprecedented scale—all of these polarized a large number of diverse people. The shock and the sheer overriding fact of the war inevitably drew together the diverse antiwar groups into a loose, informal, and oppositional united front—a front in a new kind of fundamental opposition to the American system and to much of American society. The rapid transformation of the brilliant young intellectual Randolph Bourne from an optimistic pragmatist into a radically pessimistic anarchist was typical, though in a more intense form, of this newly created opposition. Crying, “War is the health of the State,” Bourne declared,
Country is a concept of peace, of balance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power.… And we have the misfortune of being born not only into a country but into a State.…
The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force.… International politics is a “power politics” because it is a relation of States and that is what States infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war. When a country acts as a whole in relation to another country, or in imposing laws on its own inhabitants, or in coercing or punishing individuals or minorities, it is acting as a State. The history of America as a country is quite different from that of America as a State. In one case it is the drama of the pioneering conquest of the land, of the growth of wealth and the ways in which it was used … and the carrying out of spiritual ideals.… But as a State, its history is that of playing part in the world, making war, obstructing international trade … punishing those citizens whom society agrees are offensive, and collecting money to pay for it all.
If the opposition was polarized and forced together by the war, this polarization did not cease with the war’s end. For one thing, the war and its corollary repression and militarism were shocks that started the opposition thinking deeply and critically about the American system per se; for another, the international system established by the war was frozen into the status quo of the postwar era. For it was obvious that the Versailles treaty meant that British and French imperialism had carved up and humiliated Germany, and then intended to use the League of Nations as a permanent world guarantor of the newly imposed status quo. Versailles and the League meant that America could not forget the war; and the ranks of the o opposition were now joined by a host of disillusioned Wilsonians who saw the reality of the world that President Wilson had made.
The wartime and postwar opposition joined together in a coalition including Socialists and all manner of progressives and individualists. Since they and the coalition were now clearly antimilitarist and anti-“patriotic,” since they were increasingly radical in their antistatism, the individualists were universally labeled as “leftists”; in fact, as the Socialist Party split and faded badly in the postwar era, the opposition was given an increasingly individualistic cast during the 1920s.
Part of this opposition was also cultural: a revolt against hidebound Victorian mores and literature. Part of this cultural revolt was embodied in the well-known expatriates of the “Lost Generation” of young American writers, writers expressing their intense disillusion with the wartime “idealism” and the reality that militarism and the war had revealed about America. Another phase of this revolt was embodied in the new social freedom of the jazz and flapper eras, and the flowering of individual expression, among increasing numbers of young men and women.
This article is excerpted from The Betrayal of the American Right, chapter 2, “Origins of the Old Right I: Early Individualism” (2007).