Current Events

If You Love Freedom, Thank an Anarchist

It’s often said – particularly on holidays like Veterans Day and Memorial Day – that Americans owe their freedom (such as it is) to u.s. military veterans.


This claim has always puzzled me. In what war in living memory was the freedom of Americans at stake? Without u.s. military action, were Japanese or German troops – let alone Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, Panamanian, Afghani, or Iraqi ones – really going to be marching though Times Square? If anything, given the notorious ratchet effect whereby wars tend to produce permanent increases in government power, it seems more probable that u.s. military action has contributed to a diminution of our freedom.

Yet Americans do enjoy a greater degree of liberty, however inadequate, than citizens of many other countries around the world. To whom do we owe that fact?

Many people wear shirts that say, “If you love freedom, thank a veteran.” I wear a shirt that says “If you love freedom, thank an anarchist.”

So what have anarchists (and other fractious dissidents) done for the cause of freedom? In answer, I quote from two recent articles:

Anarchists have never taken power. We have resisted authoritarianism and oppression in every arena. From calling out Marxism long before its draconian aspirations became public record, to fighting and dying to resist Fascism, fighting Franco until he couldn’t afford to join Hitler and Mussolini and leading the resistance against the Nazis across Europe. We’ve fought the robber barons, the czars, the oligarchs, and the soviet bureaucrats.

And we’ve been extraordinarily popular in different regions at different points in history, although we have not yet had sufficient critical mass to completely transform the world. In every instance where anarchism surged to localized popularity with a few million adherents, as in Spain but also Ukraine and Manchuria, every surrounding power immediately put their wars on hold to collaborate in snuffing out the examples we provided of a better world, of better ways of interacting and settling disputes with one another, that do not turn to control but build a tolerable consensus for all parties when agreement is needed.

We’ve been at the forefront not just of technology like cryptocurrencies and the tor project, but we’ve also been at the forefront of struggles against patriarchy, racism, homophobia, ageism, ableism, etc., etc. Since long before there were popular coalitions like “feminism.” We smuggled guns to slaves and ran abolitionist journals. We’ve coursed through the veins of our existing society, pioneering myriad social technologies like credit unions and cooperatives. We’ve consistently served as the radical edge of the world’s conscience, and played a critical role in expanding what is possible while developing and field testing new insights and tools.

Anarchism – as many commentators have noted – has served as the laboratory of the left, of social justice and resistance movements around the world. Even where we remain marginal, the tools we invent eventually become mainstream.

— William Gillis, “Transhumanism Implies Anarchism



[The] claim that our rights are something “given to” us, handed down from above by the government and its soldiers, is a pernicious, authoritarian, damned lie.

Who has given us our rights? Nobody. We have taken them. Every right we have, we have because we fought for it from below. We have these rights because we resisted violations of them, because we fought those who violated them &#150 sometimes fighting “the Soldier” – and compelled the state to recognize them. And the state recognizes them because it’s afraid that if it violates them we’ll damn well fight it – and its soldiers – again.

Rights have never been granted by authority. They have always been asserted against authority, and won from it. We don’t have our rights because the government and its soldiers are nice – but because we’re not. It’s not the Soldier – it’s the dissidents, the hell-raisers, the dirty flag-burning hippies, the folks with bad attitudes towards authority in general, who have given us our rights throughout history, by fighting for them.

— Kevin A. Carson, “No, It’s Not ‘The Soldier’



Published on:
Author: Roderick Long
  • Pingback: If You Love Freedom, Thank an Anarchist | Austro-Athenian Empire()

  • Jason Brennan

    Is there any serious evidence that anarchists or anarchist movements in the US were significantly instrumental in creating conditions of freedom for most Americans? The quotations above don’t give any evidence of that, or, well of anything really.

    • martinbrock

      An article on Transhumanism can’t provide serious evidence of anything, but Carson doesn’t claim that anarchists or anarchist movements created conditions of freedom for Americans. He claims that no one did (or that noone exercising political power did).

      • Farstrider

        I’m not sure what you mean by your third paragraph. The Bill of Rights at a minimum enshrined – I would say “created” but no need to go down that rabbit hole again – certain rights, insofar as it prohibited the government violating them. Later amendments, like the Thirteenth and Fourteenth, among others, did the same. The Somerset case did something similar, by preventing both the government and a private citizen from keeping Somerset in chattel slavery. Without these acts of government, liberty would have been seriously curtailed.

        • martinbrock

          Rights codified in the Bill of Rights were already rights of citizens in Britain and the American colonies. You could say that the Bill of Rights retains the rights under the new state established by the new constitution following the revolution, and the Bill of Rights itself does say so. A bloody revolution to establish these rights was unnecessary, because the rights already existed.

          The Somerset case is evidence that the American Revolution was a movement to protect slavery as an institution in the American colonies rather than a movement to resist slavery.

          • stevenjohnson2

            The Somerset case and the fears for slavery it may have inspired had no role in the revolutionary violence in New England in 1775. This is what made the revolution a true revolution. The region with the most to lose to Somerset was the South, but it was the South, and its commercial entrepot of New York City, that had the strongest loyalist movement, something inexplicable on this hypothesis. These facts refute this preposterous view.

            Also, the argument that slavery was on the way out in the British Empire is a counterfactual. It is certainly true that the West Indian planters were not a large enough faction to dissuade other forces in London. But counterfactual arguments may enlighten only insofar as they go into detail. Assuming the West Indian interest wouldn’t find effective pressure from allies in the South is an absurdity that makes this counterfactual a deceit instead. For abolitionists to overcome a handful of planters is one thing. For abolitionists to overcome the planters and the opposition to paying the costs of administering abolition against planter resistance in the American colonies is something else entirely?

            Right-wing propagandists love to play fake left “gotcha!” It may be good reactionary politics but it’s an offense to reason.

          • martinbrock

            I doubt that Somerset had no influence on revolutionary violence in New England in 1775, but even if it didn’t, this violence alone was not sufficient for the revolution and certainly was not sufficient for the constitutional state that followed the revolution. The revolution followed the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and a slave holder wrote this declaration.

            Slavery was already out on the British isles by 1776, and a movement for eliminating the slave trade, and slavery itself, throughout the empire already existed. It’s not like people only decided after Somerset that slavery was a bad idea, not only on the British isles but as a general proposition. This point hardly needs historical evidence, but I can find some evidence if you want it. “On the way out” describes this growing, classically liberal movement, which was realized in Somerset, so it’s not counterfactual.

            “Deceit” is laughable. How can you possibly know my intentions?

            Substantial evidence suggests that a movement for abolition was growing in the American colonies themselves before the revolution and that the revolution strengthened slavery in the former colonies, but regardless of any speculation, we know as a matter of historical fact that slavery ended everywhere else in the British empire in 1833 and ended in the former American colonies only decades later following a bloody civil war. Slavery also ended outside of the British empire without war.

            Where do I say anything remotely “right-wing”? People identifying themselves with “the right” never invite me to dinner. Why the name calling all of a sudden?

          • Farstrider

            It’s not like people only decided after Somerset that slavery was a bad idea, not only on the British isles but as a general proposition.

            True. But there were also many – including the backers of the slaveholder in the Somerset case itself – that were pro-slavery. If, as you say and as I think is right, Somerset itself did not change many minds, then that only cuts against your argument that the South would have been persuaded to peacefully give up its sole economic asset by Parliament. It took war to put down slavery in the South because it was the core of their economy and way of life. No law written in far off London was going to change that economic fact.

          • martinbrock

            Somerset did not change minds. It marked a change in the state reflecting changed minds.

            Slaves were not the sole economic asset of slave holders the South. They held land. Southern abolitionists, like Hinton Rowan Helper, argued that slavery depressed the value of land in the South.

            It didn’t take war to end slavery in Brazil. The Abolition Act had no relevance to slavery in the South, but slavery was stronger in the South following the American Revolution.

            I haven’t taken any position on the American Civil War here, but that war was necessary to end slavery in the South is counterfactual. Slavery ended elsewhere without war as a matter of fact.

          • Farstrider

            Slaves were not the sole economic asset of slave holders the South.

            Not sole, that was hyperbole. But you are underplaying their value considerably. The market value of slaves was between 1 and 2 years of national income for the entire U.S., and up to 3 years of income in Southern states. In 1860, slaves were worth more than than all the industrial and transportation capital in the United States. Thus, it was hardly “counterfactual” or even surprising that it took war to end slavery in the South. In other countries where slavery ended peacefully, it was only a tiny fraction of their wealth. But for the South, slavery was their wealth.

          • martinbrock

            The market value of slaves was between 1 and 2 years of national income for the entire U.S., …

            I doubt both your macroeconomic analysis of the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century and your economic determinism, but maybe the Civil War was inevitable. Maybe all wars are inevitable. The point of counterfactual (or speculative) analysis of the past is not to change the past but to change decision making about the future.

            The Soviet state claimed to own all productive means in the Soviet Union. How many years of national income did the value of all of this capital represent? The question seems pointless to me. The Soviet Union dissolved without a war regardless. Its dissolution led to wars among its former constituents, but no external power forced the Soviet apparatchiks to surrender their control over all of this wealth.

            If a state similar to the CSA existed today, an invasion killing half a million people followed by an incredibly destructive occupation with many unforeseen consequences, in order to free subjects of the state from the authority of its officers, would not be my preference. Individual liberty is my preference, but wars “for liberty” are like wars “for equality” and wars “for justice”. The slogans of warriors have little bearing on the consequences of their wars, and less violent tactics can prevail.

          • stevenjohnson2

            If you think “deceit” has to mean that you personally devised this nonsense with the conscious intent to mislead, I withdraw it. Perhaps you are merely deluded.

            West Indian planters were in the Caribbean, not the western parts of India. The English invasion of Haiti after the revolution according to C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins aimed at the restoration of slavery, another indication that the counterfactual premise, that the Empire was turning against slavery, is false. If they had won, the slave interest would have become even more powerful. It was I suggest the huge English losses in pursuit of slavery in Haiti that made London think that slavery was a bad deal for the general interest of the empire, requiring too much military expenditure.

            You make two gross factual errors. After the revolution, slavery was not strengthened in the north, but finished off, just like established churches. And universal (white) manhood (literally) suffrage came in too. Slavery was indeed strengthened in the South. This is not a trivial detail. It undermines your entire thesis.

            Further your phrase “certainly was not sufficient for the constitutional state that followed the revolution…” implies that the Constitution was in some sense a product of slaveholder interests. It was in the sense that slaveholder interests had to be assuaged in order for there to be any agreement on it in the first place! The slaveholders were quite suspicious the new state would not serve them well, even though they were fools enough to delude themselves that their states would be the ones to grow rich and populous.

            The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions were soon passed when the southern slavers so quickly found that the new national government wasn’t necessarily going to be their puppet. Most libertarians seem to think highly of the moral principles in these resolutions, even though they favored the slave power. The rhetoric of the Declaration of course rapidly fell out of favor precisely because, despite the authorship by a slaveholder, it did not favor slavery when Jefferson wrote “all men are created equal…” It is not enough to have a mental reservation about who counts as a man.

            John Stuart Mill is about the only classical liberal writing in English that I know of who favored the North in the Civil War. It’s not clear how he reconciled this concession to humanity with his classical liberalism. The moral and intellectual bankruptcy of classical liberalism should be painfully obvious to anyone who lived after 1848. The whole general notion that some false facts and the far fetched assumption that liberalism was going to abolish slavery no matter what the course of events really was can truly justify claiming the American Revolution was in fact the American Counter-Revolution is not just silly: It is every bit as reaction as I’ve said. It is indeed a deceit, even if you personally are not the author of the deception.

            The other gross factual error is the notion that the violence in New England was irrelevant because it was anti-state. On the contrary, it was the creation of a new revolutionary state that promptly besieged the English in Boston.

            By the way, a trivial error is the assumption that the Declaration was somehow the event that revolutionized men’s minds. Even if somehow you think some sort of written set of ideas has to be responsible for everything, then the ideas that caused the American Revolution should be traced to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. He wasn’t a slaveholder though, so I suppose it’s somehow irrelevant, because, goodness knows, the thesis that the American Revolution was really, in essence, a reactionary conservative movement (just like libertarianism!) just has to be The Truth.

          • martinbrock

            “Deluded” is more of the same. Adds nothing to your point and takes nothing from mine.

            I misread your reference to West Indian planters. Your assertion that slave holders in the West Indies could have or would have somehow formed an alliance with slave holders on the American continent, to resist the abolitionist movement leading to the Abolition Act of 1833, remains unsubstantiated. The counterfactual success of an English invasion of Haiti is supposed to be evidence of this counterfactual alliance? Do you have any evidence that anyone supporting the Abolition Act in 1833 argued that enforcing slavery was simply too costly, citing defeats in Haiti? If an English invasion of Haiti prevailed, it would have restored slavery, and this new slave holding colony would have allied with southern American colonies remaining in the empire, and this alliance would somehow have defeated supporters of the Abolition Act? That’s a lot of counterfactuals.

            I never suggest that slavery was strengthened in the North, so the assertion cannot be a factual error of mine.

            The Constitution clearly, explicitly, protects slave holder interests.

            “All men are created equal” is a political slogan with little relevance either to the rights of colonists before the revolution or the rights of U.S. citizens after the revolution.

            Slavery did end in the British isles and elsewhere in the British empire without war, and it ended in Brazil and elsewhere outside of the empire without war, so surmising that it could have ended in the former British colonies without war hardly requires deception.

            I never suggest that anti-state violence was irrelevant, so this assertion again cannot be my factual error. Your straw men are full of them though.

            I never suggest that the Declaration of Independence revolutionized men’s minds either.

          • martinbrock

            British citizens did not (and still do not) enjoy the religious or speech rights in the First Amendment, just to pick on obvious example.

            The First Amendment only limits the U.S. Congress, and its author and supporters at the time clearly understood it only to limit a Federal government that the Constitution authorized. Nothing about the First Amendment was supposed to limit the former colonial legislators.

            Members of the English Parliament claimed free speech rights from 1689, and colonial parliaments were similarly constituted, so colonial parliamentarians could speak freely among themselves about how to regulate the speech of their subjects, and the First Amendment, as enacted, did not change this fact.

            Subsequent interpretation of the First Amendment is broader, because the United States subsequently ceased curtailing the speech of its subjects more broadly.

            Other amendments are related to acts of the British government in the years leading up to the revolution. I concede this point.

            … humans are not pure.

            Human purity is not the issue here. The state is not a human being. It is an organization of human beings, and like all such organizations, it has a mind of its own emerging from a complex interaction between its individual constituents. When we speak of “state action”, we’re never discussing the will of individual human beings. Legislation is an expression of the mind of an legislature, but it has no single, human author.

            This is inconsistent with your last quote, that attributed the Revolution in part to a desire to protect slavery.

            I don’t see the inconsistency. Constituents of the United States government (the individuals constituting the government), following the revolution, clearly wanted to preserve slavery and protect slave holders. If the colonies had not seceded from the empire, various individuals would still have wanted to preserve slavery. If colonial governments had ceased enforcing their property in slaves in 1833, some slave holders wouldn’t have liked it, though they would have been compensated for their losses under the act.

            … what makes you think it wouldn’t be a motive to do the same thing in 1833 or 1860?

            I was the motive of some people in 1833, but most of these people surrendered their slaves for the compensation offered by the act, this avoiding more violent expropriation, and this approach seems meritorious to me. 600,000 people died in the Civil War, never mind all of the other costs of the war. How much are 600,000 lives worth? As a libertarian, I believe that slavery is indefensible, of course, but war is not the only possible remedy, and other remedies have cured the disease as a matter of historical fact.

            I don’t know why you would assume it would have gone peacefully without the US Constitution.

            I don’t know why you assume that it would not have gone as peacefully as it went in other parts of the empire or as peacefully as it might have gone if the United States had pursued a different course. No one disputes what actually happened, but many people believed that the Soviet Union would never surrender its empire voluntarily until it did.

            … we should credit the government for ratcheting back that interference at the behest of the people.

            It didn’t ratchet back power as much as it kept power in the state legislatures rather than surrendering it to the Federal Congress. Later, the Federal government successfully expanded its application, and now we have the Patriot Act.

            How important the Bill of Rights is, historically, as an inspiration to people seeking greater individual liberty is debatable. Maybe this role is very significant, but I’m not disputing the point here. I’m discussing what the United States government actually did after the American Revolution, and it didn’t end slavery or much protect anyone’s right to speak or worship. It didn’t establish a church either, so the First Amendment did effectively constrain the Federal government to some extent, although it now does all sorts of things that people in the 18th century would have associated with a state church, without calling itself a “church”.

            In Somerset, for example, one man put another in bondage against his will. That is a private actor doing violence to another.

            No. Property rights are enactments of a state. Somerset ended slavery in the British isles. Kidnapping was already illegal.

          • Farstrider

            “Rights codified in the Bill of Rights were already rights of citizens in Britain and the American colonies.”

            This is not right. While some parts of the Bill of Rights incorporate English common law, others are an explicit rejection of it. British citizens did not (and still do not) enjoy the religious or speech rights in the First Amendment, just to pick on obvious example. The Third Amendment was passed in response to Quartering Acts passed by the British parliament during the build up to the American Revolutionary War, which had allowed the British Army to lodge soldiers in private residences.The Fourth Amendment was adopted in response to the abuse of the writ of assistance, a type of general search warrant issued by the British government and a major source of tension in pre-Revolutionary America. And so forth. It was the British government’s trampling of these liberties, later enshrined in the Bill of Rights, that led to the Revolution in the first place.

            “The Somerset case is evidence that the American Revolution was a movement to protect slavery as an institution in the American colonies rather than a movement to resist slavery.”

            I’ll agree that there were mixed motives underlying the revolution, which is hardly surprising given that it was an action by humans and humans are not pure. I do not doubt that self interest motivated many a revolutionary. But this does nothing to help your argument that the Bill of Rights did not also expand liberty (for some).

            “Slavery presumably would have ended in central North America earlier (with the Abolition Act of 1833), and without a bloody civil war, if the American Revolution had never happened and the U.S. Constitution had never existed, so attributing the rights of freed slaves to the Constitution is odd.”

            This is inconsistent with your last quote, that attributed the Revolution in part to a desire to protect slavery. If that was a motive in 1776 that led to revolution, as you hypothesize, what makes you think it wouldn’t be a motive to do the same thing in 1833 or 1860? Indeed, a perceived attempt to abolish slavery in North America DID lead to a revolution in 1860. In light of this history, I don’t know why you would assume it would have gone peacefully without the US Constitution. Your view also ignores the historical fact that while the British government outlawed slavery in England, it actually sided with, and supported, the Confederacy in the Civil War, because the US’s raw cotton exports were critically important to England’s industrial revolution economy in the 19th century. So it is far from certain that Parliament or the Crown would have outlawed US slavery in the first place, and it is even less likely that, had they done so, the South would have accepted such a mandate without bloodshed.

            “When government ceases its own curtailment of liberty, we attribute the liberty to government?”

            Two points. First, the Bill of Rights was a historically important, if not unique (but for Magna Carta), event, insofar as it was a chartering document that expressly limited government power. Since the prior government(s) had considerable power to interfere with their citizens’ liberty, yes, we should credit the government for ratcheting back that interference at the behest of the people. If the government had stopped the sunrise for 250,000 years, and then suddenly permitted it, then yes it would be fair to give the government at least some credit for its new, enlightened view. Second, many curtailments of liberties involve both public and private actors, and the protection of liberty of one often requires suppressing the liberty of others. In Somerset, for example, one man put another in bondage against his will. That is a private actor doing violence to another. Had the government permitted that wrong, it would also be culpable for the violation. But the government rejected the private actor’s wrongful conduct. In other words, by refusing to enforce one man’s claimed property rights (specifically, his right to own people as property), it provided a much greater liberty to another. As much as it pains people on this board to hear it, it is an undeniable truth that curtailing liberty for the few can sometimes greatly increase liberty for the many. The difficulty is in finding the right balance.

  • Jerome Bigge

    Historically “rights” have been taken from “government” by force. Or the threat of force. The Magna Carta, which established the idea of rights enjoyed by the people, was taken with the “sword”.by a group of English nobles who forced their king to sign this agreement establishing certain “rights” that the king would have never agree to otherwise. The right of the American people to govern themselves came about after the defeat of King George the Third’s armed forces here in what is now the United States of America. The Bill of Rights is a part of the Constitution today because of concerns that it was necessary to preserve on paper that the American people did have these rights. Note that these rights only exist as long as there is the threat of violence behind them. In countries where the government is all powerful, there are effectively no rights that the government is obliged to honor. It is interesting to compare the degree of personal freedom Americans of 1916 enjoyed compared to those of today. The only major change since then is in the field of anti-discrimination laws, which exist now, but did not exist back then.

    • Farstrider

      Neither the Bill of Rights nor the Constitution was imposed by force. Neither came directly from the revolution. Rather, the Articles of Confederation were in place for eight years before the US Constitution was ratified, and the Bill of Rights followed shortly thereafter. Both were adopted by voting, not by force.

      • Jerome Bigge

        We separated from Great Britain by force. We won the Revolution at the cost of over 4,000 American lives. The history behind the Second Amendment and the discussions about “standing armies” by those responsible for establishing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights indicates that there was concern about government and the “protection” of human rights. Would we have the civil rights we have today if there hadn’t been a “threat of force”? I personally experienced the 1960’s. There was quite a bit of violence at times.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Historically the societies that are more free, are those that underwent a revolution, or conquest by another power that had undergone revolution. This is especially true if you don’t narrowly define freedom but include the dispossession of oppressive monarchs/nobles, dispossession of an established religion and liberation of a nation from foreign rule.

    Revolution is authoritarian. As counterrevolutionary ideologies, anarchism and libertarianism ultimately oppose freedom.

    • jdkolassa

      Was that intended to be a coherent comment, or did you just take a box of words and throw it at a wall and saw what stuck?

      • stevenjohnson2

        I hear a gored ox bellowing.

        • jdkolassa

          Ok, so the latter. Thanks for clearing that up.

          • stevenjohnson2

            “Eppur si muove.” Freedom was born in revolution, not markets.

  • 看看您的博客!

  • CJColucci

    I’ve long thought that we should thank Jehovah’s Witnesses instead. Important First Amendment cases in the early 20th century, on which most of our modern law of free expression is based, involved Jehovah’s Witnesses. (People now living can remember when the state of free expression law was radically different — though they are of an age when they might not remember.) When I first read those cases, I was certain that had the parties claiming free expression rights not been harmless cranks like the Jehovah’s Witnesses but had been, say, Communists or anarchists, they would have come out the other way. I have often been reminded of this because for years I could see the Jehovah’s Witness headquarters through some of the windows in the old federal courthouse in Brooklyn..

  • Someone

    Anarchists HAVE taken power, during the Spanish civil war and it was a disaster.

  • DST

    Without u.s. military action, were Japanese or German troops – let alone Italian, Vietnamese, Korean, Panamanian, Afghani, or Iraqi ones – really going to be marching though Times Square?

    I’ll grant you that the nations the U.S. was fighting in the late 20th and early 21st centuries were never going to invade the U.S., but given that Japan briefly invaded part of Alaska, I think the Axis Powers launching a larger invasion and occupation of the U.S. was clearly a possibility.

  • Pingback: If You Love Freedom, Thank an Anarchist - Sheldon Richman -

  • Lacunaria

    No True Anarchist would do such a thing.

  • Pingback: What's So Bad About Flag Burning? - Bleeding Heart Libertarians()