The First Libertarian*
The following article was written by Chris Sciabarra and published in the August 1999 issue of Liberty.

(*Actually, the first “dialectical” libertarian!)

In his short review of The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer, Timothy Virkkala (May 1999) praises Tim S. Gray’s discussion of the great classical liberal’s methodology as a synthesis of “individualist” and “holist” approaches to social theory. But Virkkala remarks

This method–I’m tempted to call it “dialectical,” but Spencer’s prose and position seem so far from Hegel’s that the term is almost indecent–confuses many readers. But it is surely his strength. Gray is one of the few Spencer scholars to see this method as fundamental, and to present sophisticated analyses of Spencer’s syntheses.

It is unfortunate that Virkkala refuses to give into his temptation, because crucially significant aspects of Herbert Spencer’s work are, indeed, dialectical.

Some will say: “Ah, there goes Sciabarra. He thinks everyone is dialectical!” The truth is, of course, that though a genuine dialectical mindset is rare, not a few of the major classical liberal and libertarian thinkers have had a strong dialectical sensibility–and the neglect of this dialectical streak has been something I’ve tried to remedy for many years. The project encompasses a trilogy of works that began with Marx, Hayek, and Utopia (SUNY, 1995), where I argued that Hayek’s critique of “constructivism” is essentially dialectical because it views utopianism as a revolt against the broad conditions within which freedom is born and nourished. Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical (Penn State, 1995) is the second part. There I argue that Rand was a master at tracing the relationships among disparate factors within a dynamic context; her emphasis on the epistemic, psychological, ethical, and cultural requirements of freedom was simultaneously a vision of an integrated human existence that triumphed over conventional dichotomies–mind versus body, fact versus value, theory versus practice, etc. My forthcoming book, Total Freedom, completes the trilogy by tracing the history and meaning of the concept of dialectic from the pre-Socratics to Murray Rothbard, focusing on its relevance to our defense of liberty.

Dialectics is a methodological orientation toward contextual analysis of dynamic, structured systems. Dialectical techniques have been championed by Hegel, Marx, and those on the left, but they are as old as Western philosophy. They originated in the argumentative arts. A two-person dialogue constituted a dialectic of sorts, a means of contextualizing a problem by looking at it from different vantage points. While Plato gave expression to the Socratic form in his many dialogues, Aristotle was the first theoretician, the father, of the enterprise. His Topics and Sophistical Refutations were the first textbooks of dialectic. He articulated its principles and was probably its teacher in Plato’s Academy.

In the evolution of dialectics, it was inevitable, perhaps, that it would be applied to objects and phenomena far beyond the confines of discourse. As long as an object of study can be treated as a structured totality–as a specific kind of whole constituted by dynamic relations–dialectical analysis becomes possible. There are many distinct phenomena–a language, a philosophy, a culture, an economy, a political organization, a social system, and even the relations among these–that can be analyzed as structured totalities. Because none of us can achieve a godlike vantage point on the whole, because the desire for omniscience is what Hayek called a “synoptic delusion,” dialectics requires that we grasp any given object in its multiple dimensions by successive shifts in our perspective.

For years, Marxists derided liberals as thoroughly “undialectical” because their allegedly “atomistic” approach reduced social analysis to an abstract mental gymnastic on the life and times of Robinson Crusoe. But the history of liberalism is replete with rich, textured, context-sensitive thinking. In this regard, Herbert Spencer was one of the most important classical liberal thinkers to pioneer an alternative “dialectical libertarianism.” His contributions to this project have yet to be fully appreciated, although his contributions to general systems theory in sociology are well known.

Hayek tells us too that Spencer’s work had an impact on some of the early Austrian economic thinkers, including Friedrich von Wieser. But as Tibor Machan argues, Spencer was also among the first to provide “a full-blown scientific justification” for the liberal worldview, just as Marx had done for communism (in Spencer [1879-93] 1978, 9). His evolutionary approach shared much with that of Darwin and provided inspiration for Collingwood, Kuhn, and Toulmin. It displayed all the “architectonic instinct[s]” and “propensit[ies] for synthesis” that we have come to expect from bona fide dialectical modes of inquiry (Copleston [1966] 1985, 145).

Spencer ([1879-93] 1978) admits into his conception a genuine appreciation for reciprocal relations among factors within a wider totality. It was Aristotle who first explored the mutual implications of “correlatives,” such as “master” and “slave.” Hegel stressed the same notion in his analysis of the relationship between “lord” and “bondsman.” Like Aristotle and Hegel, Spencer explains “that correlatives imply one another,” as surely as a father requires a child, and a child requires a father.

Beyond the primary truth that no idea of a whole can be framed without a nascent idea of parts constituting it, and that no idea of a part can be framed without a nascent idea of some whole to which it belongs, there is the secondary truth that there can be no correct idea of a part without a correct idea of the correlative whole. There are several ways in which inadequate knowledge of the one involves inadequate knowledge of the other. (37)

An examination of the part of a whole must not reify that part as “an independent entity,” or it will risk the misapprehension of “its relations to existence in general . . .” (37). And the relations must not be viewed “statically,” says Spencer, but “dynamically” and “organic[ally]” (38). Spencer absorbs the organic metaphor from Aristotle in much the same way as Hegel did. In Parts of Animals, Aristotle examines the connections of parts that derive their essence from their constitution of the living organism as a whole. A hand disconnected from the body to which it belongs is a hand in name only, for “it will be unable to perform its function” (1.1.640b34-641a10).   Spencer ([1879-93] 1978) argues likewise that “a detached arm” is one in name only and that it must be integrally understood as part of the organic whole to which it belongs. The moon’s orbit cannot be understood apart from the movements of the larger solar system; the loading of a gun is “meaningless” outside the context of the “subsequent actions” performed; the “fragment[s] of a sentence” are “unintelligible” when disconnected from “the remainder”; and moral conduct “is an organic whole . . . of interdependent actions,” in which each action is “inextricably bound up with the rest” (38-39).

This dialectic is extended to the whole network of social intercourse. Long predating Hayek, Spencer ([1984] 1981) views society as a spontaneous “growth and not a manufacture.”  His focus on the “mutual dependence of parts” within a society and on the analytical “integrity of the whole” does not lead him to embrace the organic collectivism of traditional holistic approaches. He maintains that society lacks a collective brain, a “corporate consciousness,” and since each person within the community retains an individual consciousness, the “corporate life must here be subservient to the lives of the parts, instead of the lives of the parts being subservient to the corporate life.”  As a society becomes more and more integrated, there is a greater need for heterogeneity and differentiation among the individuals who compose it (392-93).

This individualist insight does not prevent Spencer ([1850] 1970) from suggesting that the “body-politic” requires the freedom of each of its members in order to achieve freedom-in-general (405). In Spencer’s conception of the social world, “whatever produces a diseased state in one part of the community must inevitably inflict injury upon all other parts.” It is a “salutary truth” of the ideal community “that no one can be perfectly free till all are free; no one can be perfectly moral till all are moral; no one can be perfectly happy till all are happy” (409).

Eric Mack has recognized that this kind of utopian vision is “implausible and doctrinally corrosive” to the individualism that Spencer espouses (xvii). In the first place, it is virtually impossible to measure interpersonally people’s level of morality and happiness. And if the human community requires such “perfect” freedom across the globe, freedom is likely to remain a chimera for a long time to come. But despite these problems in Spencer’s work, we can still appreciate how he integrates the theoretical lessons of conservatism and radicalism, moving back and forth between adaptation “to old conditions of existence” and “becoming adapted to new ones” (Spencer [1950] 1970, 420).

What makes his contribution so important is his penchant for tracing the connections among social relations as manifested across different organizational structures and institutions. He sees an organic unity between the increasingly bureaucratic domestic state and its militarism abroad, between the interventionist dynamic and social disintegration. These ties are endemic to the statist system as a whole, as it evolves and influences each of its parts. Each part becomes a microcosm of the wider injustices, Spencer declares, even as all the parts reproduce injustice on a macroscopic scale.

The lesson is one that contemporary libertarians should heed. Those who advocate a single change in one part of society, namely government, will not sustain their revolution. To focus solely on rolling back the state, while not paying attention to the complexities of social psychology, ethics, and culture, is a sure prescription for failure. As Spencer might say, to disconnect a single aspect from its broad context is to achieve partial, one-sided, “inadequate knowledge” of all that is necessary to achieve fundamental change. That Spencer was among the first “dialectical libertarians” to grasp this principle remains an enduring legacy of his work.


Copleston, Frederick. [1966] 1985. A History of Philosophy, BookThree Volume VIII. Bentham to Russell. Garden City, N.Y: .Image Books.

Gray, Tim S. 1996. The Political Philosophy of Herbert Spencer. Avebury.

Spencer, Herbert. [1879-93] 1978. The Principles of Ethics, 2 vols. Introduction by Tibor R. Machan. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.

___. [1940] 1981. The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society, and Freedom. Foreword by Eric Mack. Introduction by Albert Jay Nock. Indianapolis: Liberty Classics.

___. [1850] 1970. Social Statics: The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of Them Developed. New York: Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

Virkkala, Timothy. 1999. Booknotes: The Synthetic Man. Liberty 13, no. 5 (May): 59-60.

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory