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RIP Russell Means

The prominent American Indian rights activist Russell Means has died at 72. Means had a complicated and sometimes-controversial career, but he did as much as anyone to energize Indian rights activism and to bring to mainstream attention the history of violations of Indians’ rights by the United States government.

Of particular interest around these parts, he was a Libertarian (capital-L– a party member, not just someone with libertarian normative commitments) and ran against Ron Paul for the 1988 LP presidential nomination, promising a campaign that would have offered much more outreach to the left than Ron Paul’s. I’ve occasionally wondered how the libertarian movement would have been different if Means rather than Paul had been its most public face for the late 1980s and early 1990s.


See this much more substantial post from Brian Doherty at Hit & Run, including a response to my wondering.

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  • martinbrock

    If libertarians expect to change the state from within, Ron Paul seems a more salable face than Russell Means, but a libertarian expecting to change the state from within is like a Protestant expecting to change the Catholic Church from within. Changing the Church from within requires joining it first, and even a subversive only pretending loyalty to the Church while climbing its hierarchy ultimately finds the Church changing him more than he changes it.

    Something like the Republic of Lakota seems the right idea, but Means overreached. He and a few libertarians could never hope to defend such a large territory from a United States government indisputably willing to exterminate people resisting its assertion of sovereignty, and the U.S. would never accept the loss of such a large territory, even if most of the territory’s inhabitants favored withdrawal. It wouldn’t even accept the secession of Vermont or New Hampshire.

  • Jeffrey Friedman

    Excellent point, Jacob. And I think Doherty is quite wrong in answering that it wouldn’t have mattered. It would have mattered to Libertarians’ conceptions of themselves and of libertarianism. Means challenged libertarianism at its root–it was a philosophical challenge packaged in a cultural challenge–and if he had been the Libertarian presidential candidate, it surely would have prompted serious reflection among libertarians about what they really stood for.

    Libertarianism was then, and it still is now, a Rothbardian veneer over a Randian core. (Don’t get me wrong–the veneer is as bad as the core.) This is the farthest thing possible from BHL, and it makes possible such wonderful moments as “let ’em die!”
    Libertarians say they favor laissez faire because it would help those in poverty, like those on the Sioux reservation. But the philosophical edifice bequeathed by Rand and Rothbard makes that an afterthought, at best.

    Means projected an image and a reality
    of empathy with those outside the cloistered, marginal, gold-bug world
    of the LP. If he had been the LP candidate, it could have been a huge
    turning point for a fringe-right movement that has remained fringe and
    right-wing. Paul epitomized the right-wing image and reality. He was Rothbard’s
    candidate, and the Rothbardians were frightened and furious about the
    possibility that Means could win. An American Indian? They’re so “irrational” that they don’t have private property!! And my God, he wore his hair in braids, snicker snicker.

    I used to identify as a libertarian and a Libertarian. I saw Ron Paul
    and Russell Means at an event in San Francisco during their battle for
    the 1988 LP presidential nomination. The LP was desperate then to recover the momentum it had lost when Rothbard took it over and expelled the “Crane machine” in 1984. When the LP repudiated Means, despite his fame and charisma, in favor of a colorless and obscure down-the-line libertarian ideologue, it helped me realize that I was done with these people–and these ideas.

    Yet I think things *could* have been different. Rothbard had been challenged, successfully, on many fronts in those days. If Means had beaten Paul, Rothbard probably would have left the LP earlier than he did and a rethinking might have occurred in an organization that was then still the main focus of libertarians’ efforts.

    • martinbrock

      Don’t let the braids fool you. Means was a gold-bug who endorsed Ron Paul in 2012.

    • Carl

      Good solidarity shown here, wimp. Serious reflection shows you don’t really own your money. Or if you do, at least spout a few we-are-the-world bromides while you horde it. Gold! What a cranky notion.

      Show solidarity with braids. Rightwingism makes you squeamish! How horrid and unsophisticated these private property thugs are!

      Granted, laissez faire will actually help those in poverty. Rothbard was advocating a tried and true method for relieving poverty, the free market. But that doesn’t matter because he acted as if every soul in the country was not his responsibility – what a neanderthal!

      • Jeffrey Friedman

        I just want everyone to know that I did not make “Carl” up, or pay him to prove my point!

        • Sean II

          Having incompetent opposition like Carl doesn’t prove anything for you. Let me try and give you a better challenge, by pointing out the flaws in what seems like a totally ahistorical position, loaded with hindsight bias…and frankly, ingratitude.

          By the late 1980s, Rothbard (and Rand if she’d hung on that long) had just lived through a period during which:

          1) Violent crime rates increased every year for almost forty years in a row.

          2) The Soviet Union (the most un-libertarian entity in the history of the universe) stood ready to kill anyone it couldn’t enslave, including every human being in the northern hemisphere who lived west of the Elbe and east of the Amur.

          3) After some promising moments in the 1960s, the American Left came to be defined by its total refusal to deal with problem 1) and its often disgusting refusal even to acknowledge problem 2).

          By 1988 Rothbard was an old man. To him and lots of other old men the future must have promised something like “A Clockwork Orange” if you’re lucky, “The Day After” if you’re not.

          So we sit here now, alive and not mugged, and we say “What a creep that old man was! He formed an alliance with a bunch of yucky hicks and racists when he should have been out founding the BHL movement with Russell Means. Why, if it wasn’t for Rothbard and his stupid disciples with the newsletters we’d probably have a president in office by now.”

          Yeah, right. As if Lew Rockwell’s racial slurs and Ron Paul’s position on abortion are the main things standing between us and big league political relevance. As if Rothbard was supposed to know that, come 2012 AD, murder and nuclear war would be yesterday’s news and everyone would have the luxury of thinking that racism is the worst bad thing in the world.

          Libertarianism isn’t unpopular because of the unsavory people in its ranks. Every movement has those, and the successful movements always get away with having them.

          Libertarianism is unpopular because people don’t want liberty. It’s not a failure of salesmanship or anything simple like that.

      • Graham Shevlin

        The idea that anybody owes “solidarity”, plus your use of the word “wimp”, is proof that you are either a Poe or an authoritarian bloviator, or both.

    • Thanks, Jeff. Yes, in my idle wonderings, I’m thinking partly about the shifts in what would have happened with Paul and Rothbard when, not (as Brian interpreted me to mean) whether Means would have successfully recruited some transformatively huge number of people from his own constituencies into libertarianism.

      The Ron-Rockwell-Rothbard alliance took on a particular and toxic shape during and after the 1988 race that had effects long after neither one was active in the LP (indeed that still had effects, via the newsletters, on Ron Paul in 2012). Their turn to the hard populist-apocalyptic white right had as its proximate cause Paul’s failure to do better in the general election. Imagine if he hadn’t made it that far! We’d have gotten to the end of 1988 with Rothbard exiting the LP in disgust a few years early, but with his anger directed at the LP rather than at the voters; Ron Paul without the built-up network that provided him with the financial incentive for the political newsletter business in the following several years; and a smaller and more marginalized LP that nonetheless had a very different tone and orientation from the group that actually existed.

      • Sean II

        On the other hand, if you’re going to play with counter-factuals you’ve got to be strictly fair. Let’s say Means wins the LP nomination in 1988 and most Americans never hear of Ron Paul. What’s to say we wouldn’t be reading this today:

        “Looking back, it’s hard to understand why the small libertarian minority of the late 1980s decided to let itself be represented by the symbol of an even smaller minority, in the form of Russell Means and the American Indian Movement. To say his loyalties were divided would be an understatement. Means never made a secret which agenda came first for him. As a result, the Libertarian Party came to seem quaint and quixotic in its better moments, crazy and borderline terroristic in its worst. Much of the blame for that can be traced directly to Means’ influence in the years after 1988.

        History can only wonder what might have happened if the nomination had gone instead to Dr. Ron Paul, a grandfatherly obstetrician from Texas with proven electoral success and, as they say in the trade, no “negatives”…

    • Fallon

      The character failings of Rothbard do not serve as an argument against free market money. What but atavism would motivate a proponent of government money monopoly to call themselves a libertarian anyway?
      Maybe Friedman can explain why he considers Rothbard “Right” when so many “Left” libertarians find so much to approve of in his work– some that blog here at BHL even.
      Why would Rothbard quote that lefty Gabriel Kolko so copiously, e.g.?
      But of course, what should one expect from a Cato sycophant that vacuously lays the blame for the Financial Crisis on mere regulatory contradictions?

    • Great points! It would be a different world had the LP not suffered from the Rothbard, Rockwell, Paul, Paleo strategy.

    • Brian Doherty

      Not to discount the importance of losing Jeffrey Friedman, but I think anyone who spent a couple of hours reading the way Russell Means defended and explained libertarianism who thinks he would have been a good leader in growing a political-intellectual movement would disagree with his premise here. Also, those of us who lived through the early 1990s grossly overprivilege its actual importance in the libertarian movement of today. Ron Paul (and Lew Rockwell) got past that stuff. Rothbard didn’t live to. Except for a handful of people who hate him for other reasons, it had surprisingly little impact on Paul’s current fans and his prospects in American politics—which, as I point out in that Reason story (, have been interestingly left-leaning and shockingly successful. I am always confused by critiques that act as if the Paul of 2007-2012 was either the same as or ruined by the regrettable aspects of Paul 1988-1992. It’s largely not true, and Paul 2007-12 strikes me as a pretty best case scenario for libertarian ideas in modern politics given the world as it is, not some lost opportunity to be regretted because of Rothbardianism-Randianism. I think it just bothers some people who did live through the movement wars that the Rothbardianism (mostly) of Paul has been, amazingly, the libertarianism that broke through as a mass movement.

  • Mike Elliot

    “I’ve occasionally wondered how the libertarian movement would have been different if Means rather than Paul had been its most public face for the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

    Answer: Libertarians would be even more inconsequential than they are now.

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