New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative— A Review

New Reformation: Notes of a Neolithic Conservative

T.J. Nelson
February 25th, 2012

Most people are familiar, from the writings of Hayek, Rothbard, and Ludwig von Mises, with the libertarianism of the Right. But during the 1960s, the hippie generation also spawned its own brand of left-wing libertarianism. Its main proponent was Paul Goodman, a writer, pacifist, and self-described anarchist who provided much of the intellectual infrastructure to what later became known as the New Left. It may be hard to imagine it today, because the 60s movement was destroyed by the bomb-throwers, Marxist radicals, and drug pushers who took it over in the 1970s, but in the beginning there was a strong element of libertarianism in the hippie movement—groovier, perhaps, than the austere economics of Hayek and Rothbard, but just as authentic. What was it all about, and why did its flame die out?

The anti-establishment hippies of the 1960s were quite different from their anti-male, anti-white, anti-Western civilization ideological descendants that we see on the college campuses today. Like today’s Tea Partiers, the early hippies were anti-government and open to radical change. True, they adopted a few odd habits, such as forgetting to bathe, killing the cells in their auditory nerves with bad rock music, and getting stoned out of their minds on LSD. Ideologically, however, the two groups had many similarities. Both had a strong distrust of the authoritarian tendencies of big government. Both were aware that they were being unfairly maligned and deceived by the establishment Media. Both felt oppressed by government infringements on their freedom and by the intense pressure to conform with the prevailing dogmas of their day. But in other ways, there are vast gulfs between them.

Even by the standards of today’s ill-informed Internet ramblings, many of Goodman’s early ideas, such as those from The May Pamphlet (1945), are idiotic: he proposes, for example, (p.24) that soldiers go to war and commit war crimes because of repressed homosexuality. Seemingly unaware of the existence of geopolitics, he seemed to believe that war is just a bunch of guys who pick up bombs and go off to kill each other. He believed that most of the inmates in American prisons were “political prisoners” because they had committed crimes because they were oppressed. He was also out of touch with the realities of the worker: “It is treasonable … to exhaust our time of day in the usual work in office and factories, merely for wages” (p.43). These views, and his later attempts to psychoanalyze war, won Goodman few friends in those days.

It is scarcely worth the effort to argue against these anarchist views, because anarchism as a political system is impossible. Power abhors a vacuum. Nonetheless, echoes of his ideas are still sometimes heard today: workers are “exploited”, advertising is “coercive”, and every person should strive for self-actualization. A person should be free to do whatever he or she wants, including committing violent crimes, if it suits their ideology, regardless of the effects on others or on society as a whole. This may be individualism, but it is hedonistic bordering on solipsism.

Goodman’s views gradually became less radical, and in Growing Up Absurd (1960) he became the elder voice of the counterculture. Unlike the works of libertarians on the Right, like Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, Goodman’s books are full of quotable sound bites, which greatly helped his rise to popularity.

Even so, Goodman’s writings during the 1960s show a lack of understanding, typical of writing from that era, of what was happening and what needed to be changed. He calls for “decentralization” and “anarchy” and praises the SDS and the hippies, but the actual tone is a generalized angst about modern life. In almost the same breath, he calls the student protesters jejune and the SDS dictatorial. He writes: “The American young are usually ignorant of political history. The generation gap, their alienation from tradition, is so profound that they cannot remember the correct name for what they in fact do” (p.90).

Whatever they really wanted, the main effect of the protestors on the universities was to set liberal American education on a long course of decline. I was there. One year we had rigorous physics and philosophy courses. Only a year later, physics lab was a cake course and philosophy was eliminated as a requirement to protect the draft-dodgers and accommodate the waves of barely-literate students that the school was forced by the government to admit. Philosophy was replaced by trash courses like History of Jazz (which I almost flunked, having had such a low opinion of the professor that I never attended his lectures).

As his ideas matured, Goodman evolved the idea of decentralization of power to local neighborhood groups. He often quoted Jefferson as saying that as laws tend to be defied, it is best to have as few of them as possible. This sentiment is gospel to today’s libertarians. He wrote: “Citizenship springs from liberty and so must start from local and occupational liberty” (p.99). In those days it was still difficult to grasp that it was government assistance that was undermining citizenship and destroying neighborhoods. But it was true. Societies are not only powered by money, they can be destroyed by it. Predicting the outcomes of even the smallest change is fiendishly difficult. One small change of a rule by the government can result in catastrophe—witness the destruction of corporate R&D over the past two decades, thanks in large part to well-meaning government intervention.

The antiwar movement eventually led to America pulling out of Vietnam, consigning thousands to torture and death under Communism. Between 165,000 and 500,000 additional Vietnamese died after the Communist takeover. The Communist genocide in Cambodia that followed, proving the truth of the Domino Theory, was so horrifying that even Vietnam felt compelled to intervene to stop it. Their invasion of Cambodia in turn led to a war between Vietnam and Red China in 1979, which killed roughly another 56,000 troops and up to 100,000 civilians.

In New Reformation (1969), Goodman sees the ’60s counterculture as essentially a religious movement. “The worldwide youth movement, perhaps especially in its fanaticism and self-righteous violence, has come to look more like the Reformation than like other historic movements” (p.33). Increasingly Goodman distanced himself from the New Left, as he discovered that his attempts to educate the radicals about the virtues of classical liberalism were like lecturing to a cornfield, falling on deaf ears. The students were too much like Goodman was in his youth, and adopted many aspects of his early anarchist philosophy, while at the same time remaining stubbornly ignorant of the possibility that life as we know it could have existed before 1960. Goodman became increasingly frustrated at the ignorance and anti-intellectualism of his “students.”

In the end Goodman realized he had helped give birth to a movement of intolerance. Like today’s conservatives, he found himself heckled as students, intolerant of dissent, attempted to disrupt his lectures. “‘Do your thing’ means do their thing,” he wrote. They were “so insecure and resentful that they hotly resent criticism, and they are so alienated that they don’t understand it anyway.” They had become a noisy, furious mob, wallowing in post-modernistic nihilism. Just as after so many other revolutions before, there was no room for reason, only destruction. Because of its alliance with the far Left, the counterculture movement weakened America and, ironically, led to a massive increase in the size of the government the hippies so distrusted. Postmodernism, which later degenerated into greedy civilization-bashing, was their legacy. As Goodman saw it, the revolution was mindless. Yet by and large, even toward the end, while he was self-deprecatingly calling himself a “conservative” because of his belief in the value of knowledge of the past, he was its facilitator.

Like William F. Buckley, in the end Goodman found himself standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!”. Unlike Buckley, Paul Goodman got run over.

Back to Paul Goodman’s Author Page | Back to Taylor Stoehr’s Editor Page | Back to Michael Fisher’s Author Page