Playboy Interview: Karl Hess

At first glance, a no-holds-barred conversation with an anarchist might seem the most inappropriate centerpiece imaginable for a magazine issue marking the bicentennial of the United States of America. But then again, Karl Hess was no ordinary “anarchist.”

For all its brazen anti-statism, Hess’s “red-white-and-blue anarchy” fits like a glove with a cover that proclaims “Happy Birthday, America!” while placing popular Playmate Cyndi Wood, beaming with a joy utterly alien to the patriotism of what Matthew Yglesias calls “grim-faced folks and bourgeois respectability and military jets flying in tight formation”, in a tasteful restyling of the venerable imagery of a flag-carrying Lady Liberty clad in a robe somewhat more revealing than the traditional versions.

Indeed, the issue’s editorial comments place Hess’s American anarchism within the general questioning-authority attitude in the country at a time where, even after the cooling of the tumult of The Sixties, everything still seemed up for grabs. Hess’s explication of “why we’d be better off with no government at all” isn’t treated as all that much farther out than the dissident contributions on the state of the States from better-remembered Gil “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” Scott-Heron and Ron “Born on the Fourth of July” Kovic. As unlikely as it seems in retrospect, given that Hess is now half-remembered at best even in movements he sparked from small-scale technology to libertarianism, it really could seem plausible at the time that he might represent the overall course of the United States.

Befitting Playboy‘s reputation, Sam Merrill’s interview is freewheeling and wide-ranging, yet always clear and readable. Particularly notable is its precision about the sequence of events in Hess’s unruly life, frustratingly elusive in Hess’s own autobiographical writings. The pre-Q&A introductory blurb alone is more concrete than Hess’s entire first autobiography Dear America.

While judging Hess’s worldview to be “somewhat bizarre,” and occasionally breaking into sheer incredulity at some of Hess’s most startling views (such as when he denies that presidents are essentially different from kings or opposes child-labor laws as “just a typical example of snobby liberal elitism”), Merrill never gawks or patronizes, but carefully and sympathetically probes the underlying worldview behind Hess’s apparently wild changes in political affiliations, lifestyle and milieu that have usually led to the bewilderment summed up by Brian Doherty:

Hess transformed himself from a suit-and-tie anti-communist GOP platform-scribbler and Goldwater speechwriter into a Castro manqué Black Panther cheerleader and Institute for Policy Studies inmate. It’s not surprising that scholars unwilling to dig into philosophical roots might see libertarianism as some inconsistent, ad hoc cobbling together of leftist and rightist notions.

Indeed, Merrill carefully notes Hess’s consistent synthesis of “equal pinches of right-wing self-reliance and rugged individualism, left-wing ecology and conservation and liberal (although he shudders visibly at the word) concern for the welfare of the disadvantaged.” As the culture war lines have become ever more rigidly solidified, this counterexample is ever more welcome.  Nowhere is it more urgent than in environmentalism, with deeply entrenched denial by conservatives and equally entrenched reliance on technocratic solutions by liberals.

While it’s juicy fun to read Hess’s lampoons of a variety of widely-looked-up-to public figures — from FDR (“What makes you think I have anything against Roosevelt? Roosevelt was wonderful — if you like fascists”) to Arthur Schlesinger Jr. (“Most people would call him a left-wing historian.” “He is neither left-wing nor a historian.”); from placing Huey Long among totalitarian “right-wingers” to casually stating that Texas oil billionaire “[H.L.] Hunt was a Stalinist;” or simply listing “Humphrey, Ford, Jackson, Rockefeller, Kennedy, Reagan or any of the other state socialists of the American right” — they aren’t mere provocations.

Instead, they come from a consistent positive worldview. Hess is confident that almost all political power can be devolved to neighborhoods (though this enthusiasm doesn’t prevent some cutting criticism of his time in the suburbs). The few remaining larger-scale necessities would be taken care of by agreements similar to the federations of classical anarchism, sans their tendency towards bureaucracy suspiciously like representative democracy in all but name.  He completely rejects the textbook arguments that representation of any sort is necessary at all, and suggests that management could be handled by chimpanzees and pigeons.

Compared to Hess’s other works, his viewpoint is closest to the previous year’s Dear America and the documentary Karl Hess: Toward Liberty in capturing him at his leftmost. As Merrill notes, “you’ve really moved as far left as you can go.”

This Hess prefers “anarchist” to “libertarian”, and his position on capitalism is: “Theoretical, laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t strike me as immoral — just unnecessary. I’d prefer it to many other ways of running things, but it’s wasteful and causes people to be overly concerned with numbers”.

And Hess pitilessly dissects the empty sophistry of the vulgar libertarian propaganda he used to write for the wealthy: “Mostly, I wrote speeches praising ‘the great system that produces all our material well-being.’ It was easy. I simply leaped from the fact of the productivity to a generalized justification of everything associated with it.”

In discussing his personal experiences with powerful conservative leaders from William F. Buckley Jr. to Gerald Ford, Hess is candid but charitable, and never bitter. He still holds out his original hope that Barry Goldwater would become a New Leftist, though one of Goldwater’s suggestions, that the Soviet Union would eventually become freer than the United States, is too radical for even Hess’s credence.

While skewering conservatives’ phoniness in their lip service to what are still Hess’s ideals of self-reliance and local control, their bloodthirstiness and their devotion to national security, militarism and law and order, Hess would still agree with Matt Stone’s “I hate conservatives, but I really fucking hate liberals”:

“The only reason I’m knocking conservatives is because they’re worth knocking. Liberals scarcely are. Conservatives make a number of grievous errors, but they also make a number of correct analyses. It is not known to me that liberals make any correct analyses.” Liberals’ unlimited elitism and grasping for centralization of power infuriates Hess even more than conservatives, and puts them “slightly farther along the road to dictatorship.”

Surprisingly, Hess retains sympathy for the Norman Thomas socialism of his pre-conservative youth, seeing value in its social programs before the New Deal’s elites removed them from popular control.

To many, Hess’s relative sympathy for Israel may be even more unexpected. He praises its (and Sweden’s!) parliamentary structure for its absence of an executive branch, and thus a personality cult around its leader.  He baffledly replies “I neither endorse nor understand it” when asked about the left’s favoring the Arab states, which rather than being socialist “are feudal … actually pre-capitalist!” While acknowledging that its current location in the Middle East makes it “a roadblock to world peace for generations to come” (though “I think you can make a fairly good case for its having happened in self-defense”), for all his antistatism he believes that “a Jewish state, located in a politically hospitable region [such as “Texas or Orange County. Those areas aren’t being used for much now”], would almost certainly become a great benefit to all mankind.”

Hess comes across as far as possible from the Bill Ayers-style hard leftists who came to be identified with the revolutionary ends of the radical left, disclaiming any attraction to leadership even when pressed if it would be “even for a brief, transitory period”. Indeed Playboy calls him a “humane revolutionary”. While Hess puzzles why conservatives don’t admire the Black Panthers and amends NRA slogans to be more antigovernment, he conspicuously lacks enthusiasm for putting counterrevolutionaries up against the wall: “the freer a society gets, the less need there is to shoot people”. His sheer personal modesty and lack of self-aggrandizement is telling, lacking any impulse towards puffery or dropping the many names he easily could. As he sums up his anarchism: “What did you expect, a lot of rules?”

Hess evinces a commendable skepticism of the counterculture’s widespread and often-disastrous attraction to dubiousness and charlatanism, lacking the trendy enthusiasm for drugs (“pleasurable, but they don’t expand your mind. They make you useless”) or Mao (“an elitist, a bureaucrat”). If anything he takes this a bit too far; he’s unduly dismissive of Timothy Leary as “a clown” (certainly a huckster, but an often-prescient one) and it’s jarring that an anarchist outlaw would have no sympathy for Bonnie and Clyde.

Ours is an era where the left has, in diametric opposition to Hess and Voltairine de Cleyre, become steadily more hostile to American culture — with their occasional attempts to invoke it coming off as insincere — while becoming wedded ever more intimately with its government, and anarchism seems to have difficulty remembering its anti-statism.

When the label of “libertarian” has become so diluted that a recent Playboy interviewee could in the same breath claim it while insisting he’s “not for” marijuana legalization, we need some public figures with Hess’s down-to-earth, plainspoken, yet unbending radicalism.

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