Thursday, March 28, 2019

Karl Hess And The Libertarian Movement

Karl Hess
RW note: Below is a very important email exchange between Walter Block and Ken Western about the early history of the Rothbardian-led libertarian movement.

Open letter to those who can help Ken in his quest: please write him with your recollections, information. Thanks, Walter

—–Original Message—–
From: Ken Western []
Sent: Friday, March 08, 2019 12:24 PM
Subject: Radical Libertarian Alliance

Hello, Dr. Block – I am a retired journalist (former editorial page editor
of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix) who is working on a biography of Karl
Hess. You provided a very interesting and personal look at Karl in your
2013 interview that is posted on LRC. I know much time has passed since
those days, but I would love to talk with you by phone or e-mail a few
questions about the Radical Libertarian Alliance. Karl was the North
American coordinator and you served as the treasurer, as outlined by Dr.
Rothbard in The Libertarian in June, 1969. I’ve found a few pieces of
material at the Hoover Institution on RLA, but would very much like to get
a better feel for it and what the hopes were for the organization. Also, I
know you discussed the YAF convention in St. Louis in your interview, but
I would also like to just get a sense from what what it was like when the
libertarians and anarchists met at the Arch to hear Karl. Similarly, I
think I have found just about everything written about the Columbus Day
meeting, but what was that event like? What, again, were the hopes of
where this could lead?

Thank you so much for your consideration,

Ken Western
Phoenix, AZ

Dear Ken:

I’d be delighted to cooperate with you on this important matter.

I suggest you first hit me up with some questions by e mail. Then, when
you get my responses, we can chat by phone or skype. Ok?

Karl was a very important figure in our libt movement.

Best regards,


—–Original Message—–
From: Ken Western []
Sent: Saturday, March 09, 2019 1:16 PM
To: Walter Block <>
Subject: Re: Radical Libertarian Alliance

Dr. Block – Thank you very much for your interest in sharing your views and
experiences regarding Karl. Here are a number of questions regarding the
Radical Libertarian Alliance, YAF, Columbus Day weekend conference and Karl’s
legacy. There are quite a few questions (too many, I’m afraid, about RLA),
but my goal is always to as accurately as possible describe events and get
the little things right, too. I know you are very busy, so whatever we can
cover is most appreciated. As an aside, I very much enjoy picking out the
autobiographies of people, known and unknown, to read in your book, “I Chose
Liberty.” This is really a significant contribution to understanding the
thinking and experiences of libertarians.

Many thanks,


Radical Libertarian Alliance

  1. Dr. Rothbard described the Radical Libertarian Alliance as being
“born” at the May 17, 1969 Libertarian Forum in NYC. This was the third
meeting of the Forum. Was the idea for forming RLA a natural outgrowth of
these meetings, of where do we go next? Or do you think the formation of RLA
was always the intent of Dr. Rothbard in having these forums?

Always his intent

2.  Karl was given the title of North American coordinator of RAL. Did this
make him the head of the organization? Was he the face of RLA at the outset?

I think Murray was the head of this, Karl, second in command

3. What were Karl’s biggest responsibilities as North American coordinator?
I can obviously see him speaking and writing on behalf of RLA, but was
management or organization of RLA also part of his duties?

Speaking and writing, mainly

4. In reality, was Dr. Rothbard behind the scenes, serving as the guiding
force of RLA? What role did he play?

Yes, eminence gris

5. As treasurer, do you recall much money coming in? Was funding an issue?
Was there a budget? If so, what were the priorities? Were there any

I don’t remember any money coming in; I don’t remember any budget. I think
my position as treasurer was an honorary one

6. Did you have other duties beyond treasurer? Did you interact much with
Karl? Were you affiliated with a chapter within RLA?

Yes, I interacted with Karl. Lots. But, I think most of this was personal,
not related to RLA. I remember spending the night with Karl and Jerry
Tuccille at some spa in St. Louis. I must have had, oh, a score of lunches,
dinners with Karl. I remember I once ticked him off. We were at a
libertarian conference in Sweden and a bunch of leftie hippie Swedes wanted
to join us. I opposed this on the ground that leftie hippies were a dime a
dozen, and we had plenty of them back in the US. I thought it was more
important to keep our conference limited to libertarians. Karl disagreed.

7. The idea was that the RLA chapters would be autonomous. By providing
education and coordination to these chapters, RLA would provide a real
service. Was that ever a reality?

Sorry, I don’t remember

8. The June 1970 Abolitionist lists chapters in NYC, New Jersey, California,
Washington, D.C., Texas, Louisiana and Michigan. Do you recall how chapters
were created or recruited?

Sorry, I don’t remember

9.  Did RLA ever become the nationwide libertarian organization that Dr.
Rothbard envisioned when he announced its formation? The dates I have seen
for its existence are 1969-1972. Does that sound accurate?

Yes, accurate. Not, it never went nationwide. To the best of my
recollection, the center for libertarian studies took over the role of RLA

10. Was it thought that RLA could become as big and powerful as YAF and SDS?
Was there much success in attracting members from either YAF or SDS?

If that was the hope, it was not realized

11. A draft statement of RLA principles was written in the summer of 1969
(“We propose to abolish the State as fast as we can accomplish this feat.”).
It does not list an author, but it has Karl’s address at the National Press
Building at the bottom of it as the contact for RLA. It certainly sounds
like Karl wrote it. Is it likely Karl wrote this?

My recollection is that Karl wrote most of it, with Murray as an editor,
supporter. Others, too, may have been involved: Walter Grinder, Ron Hamowy,
Ralph Raico,  Leonard Liggio, me, Larry Moss, Jerry Woloz, Mario Rizzo,
Jerry O’Driscoll, Joe Salerno.

12. When Karl and Dr. Rothbard parted ways at the Libertarian Forum in April
1970, did that effectively end Karl’s involvement with the Radical
Libertarian Alliance?

Karl started as a right wing supporter of Barry Goldwater. Then, he moved
left to libertarianism. But, he kept moving left, and thus left the
libertarian movement.  Karl not only left the rla, he left libertarianism

13. You were part of the Abolitionist newsletter or newspaper. Were there
other things happening with RLA in terms of outreach, speakers, materials?

14. What was the impact of RLA?

It was but one vehicle to promote Rothbardian libertarianism. Not the most
effective. More effective was the journal Left and Right, the Center for
Libertarian Studies, and the Libertarian Forum.

15. Dr. Rothbard blamed factional differences within RLA “on the problems of
revolution, relations with the left, and communalism v. individualism.”  He
attributed “an extreme-left tendency within the anarchy-capitalist movement”
to Karl’s influence. In the end, did Karl’s rapidly changing politics mean
he was no longer the right guy for RLA?

Yes, eventually, Karl was no longer “the right guy” for libertarianism at
all. He befriended Murray Bookchin, an anarcho commie, sort of like Noam
Chomsky. These people were all pretty good on foreign policy, opposing US
imperialism, but HORRID on economics.

YAF Conference in St. Louis

1. You asked William F. Buckley to debate Karl when Buckley had a press
conference before his speech to YAF. Do you recall how you framed your
request? What was your reaction when Buckley declined your offer?
How big would such a debate have been for conservatives and libertarians

I was exceedingly polite to Buckley. He also, very politely, declined my
invitation to debate Karl. Karl was then at the height of his
libertarianism. He was nothing short of magnificent. Always an electrifying
speaker, he was then a hard core Rothbardian libertarian. Had that debate
taken place, we libertarians would have garnered lots of publicity.

2. You distributed numerous copies of the Libertarian Forum urging rebellion
to YAF members at the convention.  What was the typical reaction from YAF
conservatives when you handed out the copies?

They called us “lazy fairies.” This was not anti gay. Rather, it was an
attack on our political philosophy: laissez faire economics.

Were Karl and Dr. Rothbard working closely together to reach YAF members at
the convention? Or were they on separate paths? What was your connection to
Karl Jr.? Was there ever any consideration of having Dr. Rothbard make the
trip to St. Louis to also address members?

Karl was front and center at that convention. Murray did not attend. This
took place during the times when Murray didn’t travel.

3. Karl spoke to a reported 300 YAF members at the Arch around 11 pm after
Buckley’s speech. Do you remember the reaction to his speech? Did it fire up
the audience? Or was it one of Karl’s conversational-type speeches?
Any favorite anecdotes of that night? Of anything else that occurred at the

Yes, Karl was nothing short of magnificent.

4. What were your thoughts when you left the conference?

That I had, along with many others, done a good job in promoting liberty

Columbus Day Weekend

1. Do you recall the name of the paper (among the 500 you’ve written!) that
you presented at the infamous Columbus Weekend conference in 1969? Or what
your paper was about? What was the response from the audience, which
apparently became quite restive with the presentation of papers?

Sorry, I don’t remember the talk I gave. I don’t read papers at conferences.
I speak extemporaneously. Restive? The only ones who were restive were Karl
and several dozen of his followers. They left this conference to go and
protest at some event in New Jersey at Fort Dix Murray had worked long and
hard on putting together this event. Karl in effect trashed it. Not only was
Karl at this point veering away from libertarianism, this action of his also
demonstrated that he didn’t think much of the life of the mind, of
intellectual pursuits. He was more an activist than a scholar, always, but
this departure of his from our conference highlighted his departure from
Rothbardianism. For Murray, activism was a long way down his list; making
the intellectual case for Austrian economics, libertarianism, revisionist
history, was very high.

2. If one of the purposes of the conference was to develop the Radical
Libertarian Alliance, then did the split that occurred with Karl leading
folks to Fort Dix pretty much spell the beginning of the end of RAL? Or
point up major  challenges?


3. This also was when it became quite evident Karl was veering far left. Do
you recall Dr. Rothbard saying anything to you about Karl around this time?
What were your observations?

Yes, Murray and I, and the people I mention above, all saw Karl as veering
far left as you put it, and, also, veering away from scholarship.

4. Did you stay for the entire conference? If so, when it ended, what was
your reaction to what had occurred?

Yes, ticked off at Karl

5. What accounted for Karl’s bent to take action through protest with the
aim of bringing about a revolution rather than taking a more thinking

I don’t know. His personality? The fact that he didn’t have much formal

You really ought to get ahold of Joe Salerno, who have magnificently just
revived the Libertarian Scholars conference, the follow up to the Columbus
Day Weekend. Also, he recollections of the things you ask me about will be
very important. Is it ok with you if I copy him on this?

Karl’s Legacy

1. What do you think Karl’s place is in the pantheon of modern libertarian

There’s that aphorism about the “little girl with the curl”: when she was
good, she was awfully good. When she was bad, she was horrid. That’s Karl.
When he was good, he was second to Murray in terms of his contribution.

2. When Karl started attending the living room sessions with Dr. Rothbard,
how well did he fit in? He lacked the academic background of probably
everybody else, but he seemed consumed with a zeal to learn. Plus, he was
quite a bit older?

Yes, all the rest of us had phds, or were getting them. Were academics,
professors. Karl was different. But, when he was in his libertarian phrase,
he fit in very well indeed.

3. One writer in his 20s or 30s suggested that Karl has been largely
forgotten by libertarians. Do you think there is any truth to that?

A little bit of truth. I’ll certainly never forget Karl. For a while he made
really important contributions to our movement.

4. In one of his columns around 1970, Buckley called Karl a publicist for
libertarians. I don’t believe this was meant as a compliment, but is there
some truth to that in terms of his ability to publicize libertarianism
through his writing, speeches and activism?

I would change that to “magnificent publicist.” One of the very first things
I ever wrote was this: Block, Walter E. 1969. “Against the Volunteer
Military,” The Libertarian Forum, August 15, p. 4;

Karl was very helpful to me in this. He was a great editor.

4. What is your opinion of his “The Death of Politics” essay in the March
1969 Playboy?

Really, really good. Excellent. He was then at the height of his libertarian

5. How should Karl be remembered? What were his major contributions?

He was inspirational.

I hope and trust this is helpful to you


  1. I remember him as the Goldwater speechwriter (extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice... moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.. YES, he wrote that!!)
    who wound up as a metal sculpteur who lived in a cave!!!
    A life well lived.
    BTW very much a parallel to my own journey of discovery. But in CAPITAL LETTERS!!

  2. FYI, there is a documentary on Hess, “Toward Liberty”, that won a 1981 Oscar for Documentary Short Subject. On Youtube.