Libertarians are in danger of forgetting a hero. In his lifetime, he had been the star of an Oscar-winning film, a writer whose best works appeared in Playboy, an outlaw who legally could hold no money, a children’s book author, a motorcycle enthusiast, and the most important member of the Republican Party. He was not a clean-cut, bow-tied, impeccably groomed academic. Instead, he was a hippy farmer and welder with a scraggly beard and thick wire-frame glasses.

The hero was Karl Hess.

Today, Liberty.me is proud to present never-before-seen footage of this iconoclastic freedom fighter. Recorded on VHS and 8MM tapes in 1987 by Robert Kelsey, the series captures Hess at his finest. A consummate idealist, he began as a speechwriter for Barry Goldwater before losing all faith in politics.

His 1969 article “The Death of Politics” was the beginning of modern libertarianism as we know it. His sympathies with the victims of police power and his anti-war outlook drove him to the New Left. His very close relationship with Murray Rothbard throughout the 1960s and 1970s left an indelible mark on both. Hess still has so much to teach us today about how liberty is not a policy or platform–it’s a life to live. Liberty.me would like to thank Robert Kelsey for sharing these videos with us so that we may continue Hess’ legacy.

In the first of these five videos, Karl Hess (1923-1994) discusses the practical advancement of one’s own liberty. While he is quick to note the benefits of a political movement, Hess recognizes that an individual commitment to liberty is key. He recognizes the tension that libertarianism faces between the anti-political and Party activists, a divide that certainly persists today.

Karl Hess’s libertarianism was a touch more radical in ethos than that of the more subdued leaders of today. But he was, and is, an extremely important figure for a movement that was, and now again is, finding its sea legs, so to speak. He could straddle the left-wing and right-wing tendencies of libertarianism better than any other figure. After being pushed to the periphery of a philosophy where he ought to be front and center, it’s high time that the life and work of Karl Hess was rediscovered by libertarianism at large.

Karl Hess was born to a wealthy family in Washington, D.C. His mother, a fiercely independent woman, left with young Karl after marital trouble surface, and refused any sort of government aid. Instead she worked as a telephone operator. Young Karl disdained public education as useless and by 15, had dropped out and started work with a radio station. Hess would rise through the ranks in journalism. He remarked that he was once fired because he had spent the night of Franklin Roosevelt’s death celebrating rather than writing a glowing obituary.

Soon his work would put him into contact with Senator Barry Goldwater. Hess was employed as Goldwater’s speechwriter shortly thereafter. By virtue of clear and powerful rhetoric for the Old Right, Hess soon became a favorite of the Republican establishment and went on to write the party’s platforms in 1960, and in 1964 for Goldwater’s presidential campaign. He would throughout his life speak fondly of tinges of radicalism in Goldwater’s politics.

Goldwater’s defeat in 1964 prompted Republicans to distance themselves from the Senator and his circle, Hess included. Hess took up welding as a means of supporting himself when speechwriting was no longer an option. He also made a very significant change to his lifestyle during this political exile; he bought a motorcycle. He was disgusted when neighbors would look down their noses at him for this. This would lead him to resent the suburban culture of conformity that conservatism promoted.

As Hess’s social perspective evolved, the political sphere moved to change his world even more. Perhaps out of spite, or political favors, President Lyndon Johnson ordered the IRS to audit Hess. After a difficult and grueling process, he decided that he had enough looking through receipts and declarations. Instead, Hess mailed the IRS a copy of the Declaration of Independence. The IRS responded with yet another declaration: Hess now owed 100% of his future earnings! Now forced to live on his wife’s income, Hess had truly been cut off from the establishment.

During the late ’60’s, Hess also came into contact with political radicalism. He joined the far Left Students for a Democratic Society, particularly its anarchist wing. He also began a friendship with Murray Rothbard. As Hess, Rothbard, Robert LeFevre and a young Sam Konkin III began collaborating on a left-right alliance with SDS, Hess wrote what should be one of the defining works of modern libertarianism. In the March, 1969 issue of Playboy, “The Death of Politics” was published.

In “The Death of Politics,” not only does Hess clearly affirm libertarianism’s opposition to all things political, but also remarks on the sins of those in the political sphere. Conservatives had become defenders of business, not the market and used politics to keep their vision of conformity. Liberals had done much of the same; they gave blacks just enough to keep them quiet, but not what they need, power and self-determination.

Hess also drew from the popular disdain for the establishment that young hippies and yippies held, and stated a clear libertarian opposition to the interventionist Vietnam War:

If our freedom is so fragile that it must be continuously protected by giving it up, then we are in deep trouble. And, in fact, by following a somewhat similar course, we got ourselves in very deep trouble in Southeast Asia. The Johnson war there was escalated precisely on the belief that southern Vietnamese freedom may best be obtained by dictating what form of government the south should have — day by day, even — and by defending it against the North Vietnamese by devastating the southern countryside.

“The Death of Politics” combined the counter-culture’s rebelliousness with the optimism of the nascent liberty movement and the individualism of American tradition. In doing so, he paints a marvelous portrait of radical libertarianism and touched a “liberty Zeitgeist.”

Hess continued to write and be a voice for liberty in the 20th century, even as the left-right alliance deteriorated in the early Seventies and Rothbard began to drift rightward once more. In 1975, he published yet another brilliant work, Dear America. As much a personal statement as it was an iteration of his philosophy, Dear America builds on “The Death of Politics” in creating an anarchism that meshed with “American values.” Still, Dear America is more steeped in naturalism and a hippyish reverence for environmentalism than Hess’s past work. This is a reflection of another lifestyle change. Hess and his wife had bought land in rural West Virginia and lived as autonomously as possible.

During this time, he became a leader in alternative technology (although he would say that are only practitioners, no leaders). Hess saw industrial technology and nuclear power as the children of statism and big business, and sought to counter it with environmentally friendly, free-market alternatives like solar and wind energy. Hess put the technology into practice not only in his own rural home, but also in the poor African-American DC neighborhood Adams-Morgan. In many ways, Hess was an early agorist and an agorist for the poor.

As the Eighties rolled around, Hess found himself more active in the Libertarian Party as a speaker and eventually editor for the Party’s newsletter. He was the subject of the Oscar-winner for Best Short Form Documentary in 1980’s Karl Hess: Toward Liberty. Toward Liberty spans 30 minutes, and succinctly captures Hess’s rejection of politics and embrace of alternative technology. It, along with “The Death of Politics” is a far greater primer to Hess’s life and philosophy than I can hope to offer. Hess also was the focus of a segment of the 1982 mega-documentary Anarchism in America.

But as the decade dragged on, Hess slowly receded from the limelight. No longer was he in documentaries or Playboy, nor did he have a book as huge as Dear America. By the time of his death in 1994, libertarianism seemed to be moving away from Karl Hess.

Once a titan for laissez-faire, individualism, and autonomy, Karl Hess and his works have seen a slow decline into obscurity within the liberty movement. Perhaps because he occupied an odd position between left and right at a turning point for libertarianism, Hess was left without an intellectual home when left and right came undone in the movement. Perhaps he was too much of a hippy for the paleoconservatism of the ’80’s and ’90’s, and too linked to the Old Right for the then-anemic libertarian left.

It’s time for a Karl Hess renaissance. More so than Murray Rothbard, Hess was a human link of libertarianism to both the Old Right and the New Left. He would present his libertarianism with equal parts radicalism and folksy Americana and, more impressively, assert that they were one and the same. In a 1976 Playboy interview, when Hess was asked what it meant to embody his goal of being a “perfect anarchist,” his answer was to be “a good friend, good lover, good neighbor… what did you expect, a lot of rules?” His libertarianism could not be reduced to a principle, axiom, or logical rule, but instead of a series of values of community, peace, compassion, and progress.

Hess was a rare individual for whom, when speaking to a conference for environmental anti-corporate technology, it made sense to say that at least conservatives get some things right, and that the one mistake he had avoided was being a liberal. In a single speech or conversation, he could compare Ayn Rand to Emma Goldman, extoll the values of the free market while decrying the evils of corporations that ate away at the environment and robbed workers, or assert the state’s role in upholding racism as he pointed out its incompetence in combating racism. And it all, in his earnest and plainspoken voice, was perfectly coherent.

Karl Hess reminded libertarians that they were both radicals and inheritors of an old tradition. But most importantly, he not only talked the talk, but he walked the walk. As a tax rebel and proto-agorist, he lived, almost paradoxically, in both diametric opposition to, and total isolation from, the state. Hess was a revolutionary and a traditionalist, an intellectual and a laborer, a Leftist and a Rightist, a champion and an outlaw. He is, was, and will be a quintessential figure in libertarianism.

Jackson Stucker, Anarchy Is Just Around the Corner

 

UPDATE:

Exclusive Video: Karl Hess on Elements of Liberty, Tools of Liberty (Part 2 of 5)

Exclusive Video: Karl Hess on Elements of Liberty, Management of Liberty (Part 3 of 5)

Exclusive Video: Karl Hess on Elements of Liberty, The Skills of Liberty (Part 4 of 5)

Exclusive Video: Karl Hess on Elements of Liberty, The Love of Liberty (Part 5 of 5)