Frank Chodorov (2/15/1887-12/28/1966) was a libertarian’s libertarian. Born in New York’s lower East Side and brought up on the lower West Side, his inspiration was his father, an immigrant peddler who worked hard and built a successful department store (his “mother operated a lunch room in the rear of the store”), the bequest to his children by the time of his father’s death. During college, Chodorov was attracted to anarchism.
I don’t know whether I took to Kropotkin and Prudon (sic) because they furnished me with arguments with which to refute the socialists on the campus or because they wrote much about individualism, which seems to be ingrained in my make-up. At any rate, I experienced a violent love affair with anarchism, which was terminated only when I looked into the economic doctrines of the various schools of anarchism then extant. All of them took a dim view of the institution of private property, without which, it seemed to me even then, individualism was meaningless. (Out of Step: The Autobiography of An Individualist (New York: Devin-Adair, 1962. p. 104)
Graduating from Columbia University in 1907 and marrying in 1909, he spent the next 30 years working in a variety of jobs, including a stint as an advertising representative and running a clothing factory. At first, he turned to teaching (initially wanting to become a poet) but would not conform to the required curriculum and quit after a year. He decided to write and became involved in copywriting for a Chicago mail order house and, as a sideline, wrote lyrics for a number of years.
From four to seven years was about all I could take of any occupation throughout my life. I went at each job I undertook with verve, mastered it and when it became routine I lost interest and went looking for something else. (Out of Step, p. 75)
It was a few years after he graduated from Columbia that he had come across Henry George’s Progress and Poverty. Upon reading it several times, he had become enthralled with the ideas in it.
When I returned to New York in 1917 (I had read Progress and Poverty in Chicago) I happened to meet with a group who called themselves the Single Tax Party. Though I knew nothing about politics, and instinctively distrusted politicians, the poverty of the Single Tax Party and the devotion of its members appealed to me, and I threw myself into its work for a couple of years. (ibid., p. 51)
Chodorov traveled to New York by WWI with the intention of copywriting for a clothing house, but the company received a government contract and he wound up managing a factory — one with union problems. Having been around radical circles, Chodorov understood union tactics of the time and was able to fend off potential violent altercations. The notoriety of his success against the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America provided him with an invitation to lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Business in 1923. He found that the Harvard students were moving toward Marxism and unsympathetic to his defense of capitalism.
He decided to go into business for himself. Although he was quite successful, like many free-market advocates of the time, and he realized that the economy was moving toward a depression, he was unprepared for it when it occurred, and his business failed. He tried becoming a travelling salesman for a period until he was offered the position of Director for the struggling Henry George School of Social Science in New York. Being well-experienced in advertising and management, he was a perfect match for their needs. Until December, 1941, that is. With the Pearl Harbor bombardment, his anti-war stance became unpopular with the managing board and he was ousted.
I learned a lesson from this experience that has caused me to reassess my previous estimate of the behavior of men dedicated to a “cause”; namely, that men do not generally act on principle, but are primarily motivated by considerations of convenience and profit. The trustees were as much opposed to the war as I was but thought that we “should keep quiet” for the duration; that is, their convenience and profit replaced principle. (ibid., p. 79)
Thus Chodorov began analysis, his four-page broad sheet which ran for seven years until its merger with Human Events, which he would write for another four years. After which, he became editor of the Foundation for Economic Education’s The Freeman for a couple of years. It is in the essays found in analysis and The Freeman where Chodorov the libertarian poet excels.
Chodorov founded in 1953 the ISI. The original title of the organization was the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. ISI (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute) is the oldest national college conservative organization in the country. The organization has an annual budget of $4.7 million and claims more than 55,000 student and faculty members on U.S. campuses. In 1995, the organization assumed control of the Collegiate Network, which funds more than 50 conservative college publications, ranging from the Harvard Salient to the Dartmouth Review to the Oregon Commentator.
When he started ISI, Chodorov patterned it on the Intercollegiate Society of Socialists (ISS). ISS’s founder and first president was Jack London; famed media critic Walter Lippman was an early member. From his perspective in the 1950s, Chodorov believed ISS was a source of the turn of the nation from individualists into collectivists over a half-century
In its struggle to win the minds of American youth, ISI continues to reprint books and distribute them on college campuses. In addition, students can attend ISI summer workshops or lectures sponsored by the group. Students can also read the national magazines ISI publishes and distributes free: Campus: America’s
Student Newspaper, with an annual print run of 350,000, and The Intercollegiate Review: A Journal of Scholarship and Opinion.
When I joined ISI in 1968, it had already been converted into a conservative organization and was rapidly shedding its libertarian principles for Burkean/Kirkian conservatism and had already changed its name from the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists. It was disappointing in that respect, but there were still enough libertarian elements in it for me to continue with it for some time. He would later become a lecturer for Robert LeFevre’s Freedom School until a debilitating stroke. Chodorov died in 1966.
The following is a reprint of my review of his last collection of essays, with a few comments following the review and a list of Chodorov’s current essays online.
Chodorov’s Fugitive Essays
FUGITIVE ESSAYS: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov (Indianapolis: Liberty Press, 1980. 429 pp. Biographical essay, selected bibliography and index), compiled, edited and with an introduction by Charles H. Hamilton.
One of the final acts that Frank Chodorov was to perform as editor of the Henry George School of Social Science journal, The Freeman (Dec. 1942, not to be confused with Albert Jay Nock’s The Freeman, 1920-24, or the later The Freeman which was begun by Henry Hazlitt, John Chamberlain and Suzanne LaFollette and later taken over by FEE), was to reprint a classic anti-militarist tract by Henry George, “Our Need of a Navy.”
As George said in the essay, “Standing armies and navies have always proved the ready tools of tyranny, and in every country in which they have been suffered to pass a certain point have proved the death of liberty.” George regarded military establishments akin to “leprosy (that) have developed among a people that might be clean and whole.”
This libertarian theme is one that Chodorov echoed throughout his life, both in his opposition to World War II, the Korean War and to military escapades in general. Fugitive Essays contains many of his finest statements on the subject.
Fugitive Essays is a compilation of Frank Chodorov’s later essays gleaned from, mostly, his articles in analysis (about half of the essays are from this source) and The Freeman (in its various reincarnations) with the rest of the essays from an assortment of other places. They cover the major areas of concern for Chodorov — the nature of politics, natural rights, socialism, taxation, foreign policy, strategy — all viewed from the perspective of one who is deeply concerned with liberty. How to nurture and protect liberty are the central themes of these essays and, indeed, of Chodorov’s life.
The witty, irreverent essays included in Fugitive Essays direct the attention of the readers to the absurdities of politics, to the vagaries of political life that are too often forgotten by modern libertarians, so called, who try to become a monster without being a monster, try to become a politician without being a politician. As Chodorov said in an essay not included in this collection (possibly, because it was written before 1940), all politicians succumb to a narcotic, and
that poison is Officitis — that which there is no seductive siren, whiskey nor narcotic more weakening to the moral fibre of a reformer… It is an axiom that politicians prefer office to principle. A statesman (in theory at least) will go down with his policies, but a politician will abandon an entire platform if need be to retain his position…This is not dishonesty of purpose; it is that pardonable human frailty — Officitis. The office overcomes the man. (“Reformers, Respectability and Officitis,” Land and Freedom Jan.-Feb. 1935, pp. 114-116.)
One can almost hear Chodorov chuckle as he writes of the “psychosis” of Washington and of the “Robespierres” within our midst. It is impossible not to chuckle along with him, for Chodorov was a master craftsman of the written word. His economy of style leads the reader through the intricacies of libertarianism with a clarity few can match.
Just as we can laugh with Chodorov and admire the clarity of his stance on the nature of rights, we can learn from the strength of his position defending the classical liberal view of the military, which has often been tagged as the isolationist impulse of the “Old Right.”
It was perhaps this last issue that brought Chodorov into deepest trouble with the “New Rightists.” For, while they could sympathize with his criticism of the foreign aid programs as bribery, they were totally opposed to the other aspects of Chodorov’s (and, indeed, of all libertarians’) opposition to the war measures so warmly embraced by the anti-communist witch-hunters of the McCarthyite generation.
What should be done to eliminate the “communists” in the federal posts in Washington? Eliminate the federal posts. How should America prepare for war with Russia? Eliminate inflation and then move forward to a laissez-faire economy, as Chodorov said in his essay, “Free Trade for Preparedness” (included in this collection):
We have seen how all sorts of plants were turned almost overnight into war machines, and since free trade must increase the productivity of all industry by the simple expedient of widening the market, it is evident that free trade is the best assurance of a ready-made, well-oiled and superior defense potential.
With the rise of the protective tariff, the greatest navy in the wold, the American merchant marine, began its decline. The cost of this navy to the American taxpayer was minuscule and it brought wealth into the country. This powerful navy was totally private and was, according to Chodorov, “immediately convertible into an auxiliary of the fighting ship, while its personnel [were] graduates of the most important naval academy,” experience.
What of a standing army? Isn’t this necessary? As Chodorov said in the same essay,
Rumor has it that Russia has a standing army of three million — a semi-trained army of millions more. If this is so, Russia is getting weaker day by day. The cost of maintaining a nonproductive institution of anything like that size must be debilitating. But, more than that, every man who marches and drills is a man who not only is not producing, but because of lack of training is incapable of producing when production is most important. In the last war, the comparative technical skills and capacities of the two sides told off in the end. In the next war this factor will be of even more importance… In the final analysis the nation with the biggest and most productive factories will be superior to the one with the biggest and best drilled army. Those factories are the product of a free economy — in which free trade is an essential element.
Chodorov provided some of the keenest insights into the political realm possessed by libertarians. In his writings, he recognized the central role of consent in justifying the actions of the state. This was a point that he was to make time and time again. The state
is not a system which creates privileges, it is a number of morally responsible mortals who do so. A robot cannot declare war, nor can a general staff conduct one; the motivating instrument is a man called king or president, a man call legislator, a man called general. In thus identifying political behavior with persons we prevent transference of guilt to an amoral fiction and place responsibility where it rightly belongs. (“On Doing Something About It,” included in Fugitive Essays.)
Recognizing that the state is a group of individuals who are up to no good, we should then
treat them accordingly… If someone high in the hierarchy hires a hall, and with your money, stay away; the absent audience will bring him to a realization of his nothingness. The speeches and the written statements of the politician are directed toward influencing your good opinion of political power, and if you neither listen to the one nor read the other you will not be influenced and he will give up the effort. It is the applause, the adulation we accord political personages that records our acquiescence in the power they yield… Without a cheering crowd there is no parade.
If there is any area of the Fugitive Essays that I have problems with, it is the biographical essay by Mr. Hamilton. He covers the period following 1937, when, at the age of fifty, Chodorov became the director of the Henry George School of Social Science and editor of the HGSSS periodical, The Freeman, somewhat satisfactorily. He does miss several important points, the most important of these was the Bernstein/Chodorov affair.
Bernstein, a pro-war Georgist who had taught at the HGSSS, filed complaints with the New York State Education Department, the F.B.I. And the Treasury Department claiming that the HGSSS (under the direction of Chodorov) “disseminated anti-democratic and pro-appeasement propaganda.” This, and the events at Pearl Harbor, led to Chodorov’s banishment from the Henry George School.
But it is the early single-tax career of Chodorov that should not have been left unmentioned, for it is his activities in single-tax politics that led him down the path of libertarianism. What changes took place between the time in 1918 when Chodorov said that he was of the “voting-for-what-we-want” class and when, in 1945, he suggested that we should “stay away from the polls”?
Here is a brief account of this period of Chodorov’s life:
In 1918, Chodorov was the State Secretary of the Single Tax Party of New York. From 1920 through 1924, he was a member of the National Executive Committee of the Single Tax Party, helping to do the usual political activities — destroying a rival minor political party, The Committee of Forty-Eight (which had a number of single taxers in its midst), getting State parties on the ballot, petitioning, leafletting, etc., etc., etc…
By 1924, Chodorov had moved from New York City to Springfield, New Jersey and had rapidly become one of the top leaders of the Commonwealth Land Party in that state (by 1924, the Single Tax Party had changed its name to the Commonwealth Land Party), running for Attorney General, becoming one of the slate of presidential electors and performing, again, much of the legwork for the Party.
By 1935, he still believed that political action would eventually be necessary, but that the time was not right, nor was the form determinate. It may be that separate party action, referenda or initiative petition will eventually suffice. But, an important element becomes much more prominent in his writings: Education.
Without educating a significant portion of society, all of the political efforts would come to naught. If legislation were passed, either through the legislature or direct legislation, the reforms would be quickly discredited and either ignored or thrown out, possibly retarding the maintenance of the reform for many years. By the end of the 1920’s the Single Tax Party members had learned this lesson well, for their political efforts had only created a backlash, consigning Georgists to the crank file of history.
From this time onward, Chodorov turned further into libertarianism, accepting the anti-statism of Nock, although still disliking landowners, calling them thieves and blackmailers as late as 1937. It was only during his teaching stints at the Freedom School in Colorado in the late 1950’s that he would come to finally reject the single tax panacea.
In any event, outside of these caveats on the introductory essay, Fugitive Essays is a delight to read and a must for every libertarian library.
Reprinted from RAMPART INDIVIDUALIST: A Journal of Free Market Scholarship (Vol I, #1&2. Winter & Spring 1981. pp. 97-99)
Just a thought.