Excerpts From a Letter to a Friend
Apropos your series of articles on Human Rights:
There was a University of Chicago “professor” who wrote a book entitled Might is Right, under the pseudonym of “Ragnar Redbeard.” In it he maintained that life is essentially a battle in which “to the victor belonged the spoils,” and claimed that truth of this fundamental warfare is disguised by various pretenses, ruses, and moral codes, originated and propagated by the weak who couldn’t stand up to the stern realities and ego expected to soften-up their adversaries. He elaborated his contentions by citing history, politics, business, religion, etc., in fact all the activities of humans (and animals?) the book is rather uncomfortably convincing, though I think the author was terribly unscientific and unreasonable in justifying what seems a pretty sorry scheme of things.
It does not seem to require much acumen to realize that the power of might is the most potent ingredient regarding human conduct, and over-rides all “rights,” and until mankind decides to forego the use of might it will naturally be the deciding determinator. Sticker said “I would rather have a handful of might than a bagful of right,” or words to that effect. Anyhow, that is the only language that governments, as such, understand.
“Rights” could hardly have preceded government in some form, as you surmise.” Your “rights” are postulated as being against something, and the only thing anyone could be against was some hindrance to living, viz., government. “Rights,” therefore, are usually considered as limitations on government (such as the Magna Carta and the American Bill of Rights, etc.). That governments had power, and could often over-ride “rights,” made it appear that the “rights” were granted by governments. Naturally, it wasn’t long before the theory arose that governments themselves were protectors of human “rights.” In fact, this is the kind of baloney taught in all “state-supported” schools, everywhere and at all times; and of course religious schools and churches teach that God grants all “rights.”
Whether warfare, even though disguised, was and is a normal mode of human activity, it has been fairly well established that the origin of government was a band of robbers who in conquest set themselves up as rulers over the people they had plundered and subjugated. As it was to no advantage to have these slaves scramble among themselves, the tyrants “maintained law and order” among them, and in time directed them in “public works,” such as building roads, making armor, battleships, etc. originally of course for the purposes of further plunder and conquest. As time went on, the slaves actually believed they couldn’t do without their masters, until today we see them concernedly run to the polls to elect new ones every few years.
These stupid human animals can become inured to almost anything, and only occasionally rebel, and demand “rights” for themselves, against their masters. They never dream of abolishing mastership itself. The most energetic advocates of “rights” are, naturally, authoritarian socialists, communists, fascists, nationalists, 100% Americans and what have you, and other such lack-word ad nauseam, who want to set up a supreme master in the State which will take care of them and direct them in all things.
Prior to government, there could not have been any concept of “rights” whatever. Men breathed, ate, hunted, propagated, etc., because it was the natural thing to do. No one could even imagine that he did so because he had the “right” to do so. The American Indian, for example, lived in this clime not because he thought he had a “right” to use the earth. “Rights,” in land, originated or rather were brought here from Europe where property in land was “right.” By the way, I think your obsession with “rights” is a hangover from your ardent single-tax days.
Altho[ugh] it is improbable, “rights” may have originated by men agreeing to forego the use of might, to make recourse to consultation, compromise, and agreement as the most economical method of getting by in the world. And natural selection might indicate that those who resorted to this method, rather than settling differences by warfare, in the long run survived. This was Kropotkin’s and, I think, Herbert Spencer’s interpretation. However, mutual agreements put into the form of contract are of different origin and nature than so-called “rights.” They came into existence among equals.
At any rate, the stupid belief that “rights” originated from either God or the State is pure supersition, promulgated by preachers and politicians to promote their game of getting a living without work and to enhance their “take.”
The plain fact of the matter, it seems to me, is that, like many other transcendental, teleological, and social “truths,” all theories of “rights” are merely human inventions, used by one party or another in order to enhance, as they think, their ability in getting along in the world. “Ethics” is another branch of the same tree.
The foregoing is, at least, a hasty outline of my convictions anent the doctrine of “Rights.” The very advocacy of “rights” is itself a hostile attitude and I doubt whether a peaceable and gregarious society can be built on such a premise.
A more useful alternative to whatever you might write on the subject (which in any event would only be a rationalizing of your own desires) would be to discard all hallucinations about “rights” and propose acting as one’s inclinations direct—in short, that “instinct” is the safest guide. Of course this will demand considerable courage from the individuals in our modern goose-stepping snivelization, and will not meet acceptance by the proponents of the “natural depravity” or “original sin” theory. Another and perhaps better alternative would be to gauge all human action according to consequences. This might involve a “transvaluation of values.”
To summarize briefly, I contend that there is no such animal as “natural rights” and that all you might say about governments, constitutions, or edicts of God (ten commandments, etc.) would be mostly hogwash for the gullible. No person has any “right” to do anything, unless he has the power to do it, or because his neighbors do not prevent him from doing it. Or, if it be claimed that he does have “rights,” I maintain that they are not of much value if the State or “Society” take it in hand to veto them.
The very tendency of thinking in terms of “rights” usually results in the smug assertion of them, and then waiting until politicians embody them in laws before they can be acted upon. Why not try to get people out of the clouds in their thinking about what they may, should, or can do. Direct action is what is needed. Tell people what to do, and don’t worry about their “right” to do it, like some pettyfogging lawyer.
Humans are neither good nor bad, but egoistic. I personally believe they are rather congenial cusses, but they are so astoundingly stupid and have little confidence in their neighbors. That is why demagogues have such an easy time of it playing on their hopes and, mainly, fears. If they would only have sense enough to treat each other fairly, or at least leave each other alone, there would be no inordinate amount of trouble in the world. They would certainly have to do away with that relic of a warlike age, the State, that messes up all their activities. And yet, when I look around me and see so many of the dubs even more ignorant than myself, I can have little hope for the human race.
So, my advice to you is to investigate human well-being directly, as you have been doing, rather than indulge in a lot of circumlocution and useless speculation about “rights.” The latter can safely be left to metaphysicians and theologians.
Commentary – Eric Fleischmann:
The letter from which this excerpt is taken was written in 1949 but to whom it was penned is unclear. My suspicion is that the recipient is Mildred J. Loomis, a friend and colleague of Labadie’s at Ralph Borsodi’s School of Living and an advocate for a combination of mutualist and Georgist property systems. Regardless, it seems to have first appeared in popular publication in Ralph Myers Publisher’s Laurance Labadie: Selected Essays in 1978 and then decades later by Ardent Press in Sidney Parker’s 2014 Enemies of Society: An Anthology of Individualist and Egoist Thought and was recently made available via The Anarchist Library. This piece is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the nuanced relationship between Labadie and the work of Ragnar Redbeard. First, however, it should be pointed out that there is no evidence that, as Labadie claims, Redbeard was a professor at the University of Chicago—though it seems to have been published in the city. It is generally thought that the work was penned by author, Australian labor activist, and, at times, ‘Indigenous rights activist’ Arthur Desmond (aka Arthur Uing, Richard Thurland, Desmond Dilg, and Gavin Gowrie)—though some, such as Anton LeVay, founder of the Church of Satan, assert that the author is actually Jack London.
But, moving on, it is clear that like many individualist anarchists—such as S.E. Parker and the now infamous James J. Martin—Labadie has a complicated relationship with Redbeard. The book is still to this day cited by white supremacists and, as such, Labadie, in his own introduction to the 1972 Revisionist Press edition, expresses his hesitancy to share the book even with close friends in case he “might be identified with some of the lunacies it contained, particularly its race prejudice. But his interest in Redbeard is held with the caveat that the author “was terribly unscientific and unreasonable in justifying what seems a pretty sorry scheme of things,” and instead relies on the position that the world described therein—one of racial and religious hatred, patriarchal dominance, and horrific violence—is an accurate depiction of the world as it exists; not to mention his belief that one should read “a book of this nature with objective humor” whether or not it “was written with tongue in cheek.” Redbeard’s cries of “[d]eath to the weakling, wealth to the strong” and his assertions that “[m]an’s anatomy, external and internal; his eyes, his teeth, his muscles, his blood, his viscera, his brain, his vertebra; all speak of fighting, passion, aggressiveness, violence, and prideful egoism” are not to be taken, according to Labadie, as somehow morally correct but as factually correct from his pessimistic point of view and, ultimately, to be mitigated through the abolition of the state and capitalism without the introduction of (the conventional understanding of) socialism or communism.
It is through this lens that Labadie approaches the topic rights. Rights are often considered, especially by libertarians such as his contemporary Murray Rothbard in The Ethics of Liberty, to be a natural phenomenon capable of universalization. But Labadie, through the vision of the world outlined by Redbeard, argues that rights are, at best, a paternalistic phenomenon to be violated at the whims of the powerful and, at worst, hegemonic lies perpetuated by said powerful to keep the majority of the population subservient. Labadie rejects natural rights and instead follows Max Stirner’s assertion that “[w]hoever will be free must make himself free. Freedom is no fairy gift to fall into a man’s lap. What is freedom? To have the will to be responsible for one’s self” . Ultimately, Labadie’s thoughts on Redbeard and the nonexistence/irrelevance of rights (as well as morality) could be taken to a conclusion similar to a Nietzschean-Stirnerite anarchism that calls, as Émile Armand writes, for anarchists to be “pioneers attached to no party, non-conformists, standing outside herd morality and conventional ‘good’ and ‘evil’, ‘a-social’.” Though perhaps this would be too optimistic for Labadie’s taste.
- I cannot find this quote in any of Stirner’s works, but it is attributed to him in Forbes Vol. 78 (1956) and Jacob Morton Braude’s Lifetime Speaker’s Encyclopedia (1962).