James J. Martin (September 18, 1916 – April 4, 2004) was an American historian and individualist. He is one of the most prolific historians of the individualist anarchist tradition in America. His book Men Against the State: The Expositors of Individualist Anarchism in America, 1827–1908 has been an invaluable resource to us, as well as his Libertarian Broadsides (1967) series, that we have detailed in our Journals sections.
His book Men Against the State was published Libertarian Book Club in 1957, he was editor of a 1960 LBC edition of Paul Eltzbacher’s Anarchism, and finally edited and wrote the introduction to the 1963 Libertarian Book Club edition of The Ego and His Own.
An Interview with James J. Martin
REASON: On another subject, Dr. Martin, among libertarians there’s a lot of debate on the subject of natural rights. There are people who believe in them and there are people who say that a natural right is like a natural airplane. Since you’ve done some study on it when you did your work on Benjamin Tucker and Lysander Spooner would you give us your comments on the idea of natural rights?
MARTIN: Well, of course, Spooner believed there were such things and Tucker didn’t. What I did with these people was not necessarily to find some kind of synthesis which indicated that they’re all one happy little group–in fact they’re a bunch of jagged, diverse people who rarely saw eye to eye with each other on anything. And I didn’t come to any immediate conclusions on the subject myself from studying these men except to notice that each of them had totally different background and different tradition. Spooner was an 18th century man and Tucker was a 19th century man. And they argued from different positions because they were born at different times and listened to arguments which enhanced the position they took. Spooner, born in the aftermath of the American Revolution, and in the generation of the founding of the United States, of course was in an intellectual environment which was immersed with talk about natural rights. Anyone familiar with the rhetoric of the American Revolution can’t escape that, which in turn indicates dependence on an even earlier English philosophical tradition which invented the idea of natural rights. So it’s understandable.
Tucker was a product of a far later time–two generations removed, really, in terms of biology–who was acquainted with a totally different attitude toward things and grew up mainly with European ideas, many of which looked on the idea of natural rights as a sort of comforting fiction. A religious idea, really. Since it has no anatomical locus (nobody knows where your natural rights are like they know, for instance, where your pancreas is), it involves an ability to deal with intangible things of this sort. They amount to matters that really have no dimensions and I call them religious ideas–there’s no challenging them. Someone who supports a religious idea involving the Trinity or Transubstantiation or a number of other religious doctrines is irrefutable, there’s no way of proving these things and there’s no way of disproving them. If someone wishes to maintain that he has these intangible things called rights, well, what is one to say about it? You can’t disprove it–but again there’s no way of proving them either.
My own approach is more Tuckerian than Spoonerian–I’ve been much more influenced by Tucker than Spooner on that point. Of course Tucker got very angry periodically in hearing these endless word games; the hair-splitting, philosophical vine-climbing discourses on natural rights. And one day he just blew up in print and said: nobody has any rights, or what is the same thing, everybody has all rights and then ended getting involved in the argument. He stopped wrangling over the question of what these things were. One can do a good job in demonstrating that what people call rights are social conventions which tend to be recognized as conveniences which make life more tolerable. Everybody looks around at each other and says, OK, you’ve got a right to stay alive and I’ve got a right to stay alive because we’re going to mutually abstain from murdering each other.
REASON: You have also talked about the Columbus complex of many libertarians. Would you care to elaborate on this?
MARTIN: I don’t believe it’s a weakness of just libertarians–it’s a weakness of people in general who tend to be overly conscious of their own time and themselves, which is a natural propensity. People like to think that they are the discoverers of things and there is a feeling of satisfaction from advancing one’s notion of having discovered this or discovered that. Frequently it’s an indication that you have not spent much time investigating the history of the human race. A large part of what people discover and advance in philosophical and related lines has been mulled over by the race for thousands of years. There’s simply ignorance of history–which results in people’s coming to the conclusion that they have just discovered this or that just by themselves. The term “Columbus complex” was introduced years ago by the Harvard sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin. I acknowledge that, while using the term myself, since I didn’t invent it. It’s been a bit of common currency in analysis of historical matters, particularly in what you might call the history of ideas. The deeper you delve into things the more frequently you find that they’ve been rehearsed and mulled over and tossed around many many times before one’s time. I don’t think it’s particularly damaging that this sort of thing takes place. It’s a weakness of the young, frequently, and everybody has been a victim of it some time or another. The less you know of what preceded your time the more likely you are to fall into this particular pattern of behavior. It’s a sobering thing to discover frequently that someone had your ideas long before you, and that they may have been published in a variety of places by many different people. It’s refreshing probably also to recognize that you are part of a tradition.
REASON: In some quarters the opinion is often expressed that only two viable alternatives exist to oppose the creeping centralization that we find today. One of those alternatives is to man the barricades and to conduct active revolutionary activity against the established order. The other is to join in this political process either through the Libertarian Party or through some other organized political activities. What is your view as to these two alternative, and your view as to whether the alternatives should be limited to just two?
MARTIN: Well there’s never just two ways to do anything. There are as many ways as there are people and I would not necessarily become involved in either of the two you mention–I’m for what I call the unassociated, anonymous individual going the way which he prefers by himself. He doesn’t have to join with anybody. This is an approach that anybody can take and there are as many alternatives as there are people. I don’t disparage these other approaches. I don’t find them attractive to me and I haven’t been involved in organized activities for a long, long time. What I would call the “political self interdict” is probably more common in Europe than here, but it’s a tradition I’m familiar with and in many ways I find it far more attractive. I suppose it grows out of my long acquaintance with Stirnerite approaches which stress the anonymous, low-visibility, probably pragmatic or opportunist way of dealing with things. In this instance the motivating factor is survival, at least as far as I’m concerned–I suppose that has the major part to play in the choice I make.
REASON: Would you regard “active violation of the law” to be a viable alternative in opposing the state?
MARTIN: It can be. It depends on the price you pay for it. And how it’s done. Obviously a great many laws are violated all the time by people who don’t publicize their behavior. I wouldn’t necessarily go out on the street corner and bare my breast to the muskets of any established order just to demonstrate that I’m willing to defy their edicts. I’m for minimum compliance with anything that’s been established as the correct behavior and I’m willing to let it go that far. We see thousands of violations of traffic laws and other minor legislation. The people involved probably aren’t conscious of it or think about it as a program they worked out in advance, but that happens to be what is going on. As far as publicizing such behavior, there again I run into a barrier on grounds of unworkability. I don’t believe in preparing a manual so that someone can pursue me–what I call gratuitous self-exposure. Most of these things involve such private matters that I don’t believe there’s any profit in investigating them, at least with people who are circumspect to recognize this and believe that their behavior is their own business.
REASON: One more question. Your ideas on the libertarian temperament are somewhat unorthodox among libertarians. Would you care to state what they are?
MARTIN: Well, I don’t think they’re original with me. But my attitude that seems to disturb the majority of people is my insistence on the biological and genetic basis for the substance of philosophic and ethical views and that’s not something I invented, it was something I was exposed to years ago in the writings of the woman radical named Voltairine de Cleyre. She wrote to this effect around the turn of the century–a very much neglected and overlooked lady revolutionist and thinker of great importance in this country. I’m amazed that nobody’s discovered her recently. Voltairine de Cleyre advanced the notion that at bottom, if you kept going down to the bottom, in an attempt to search out the reason for the existence of this or that individual attitude toward ethical, philosophical, and related questions, you got back down to a biological basis–what she called temperament–which was not capable of being understood or measured by any kind of rational approach; and that it was a genetic factor.
I mulled over that for a long, long time and am still doing so and am applying it everywhere I can. I can’t find any way to crack her case, and as a result I’ve adopted it. It explains my attitude of casual lack of interest in propaganda tactics, in the hopes of maximizing the existing number of libertarians. In this I’ve been influenced by additional forces, including the whole circle of Ernest Armand in France in the 1920s and 1930s who mulled over the problem themselves to a great extent, wondering why the ranks of libertarians increased so slowly, if at all. And it has dawned on me over the years that Voltairine de Cleyre explained why–that there’s a problem of the inability of the genetic process to produce libertarians in any larger volume than exists.
In looking over the scenery a little more closely I didn’t see any evidence that persuasion by way of literature, conversation, preaching, psychic intimidation, nor any other known device, had maximized the number of such people and that in most cases in which it was reported by individuals that they had gone through some magical transformation from whatever they were to some libertarian position, all they had done was to find out what they really were.
They had come to such conclusions as a result of self-exposure so to speak–they had revealed to themselves what they really were and had not gone through any conversion at all. They were psychically conducive to that attitude, as a matter of temperament. They had been inhibited from such awareness for a variety of reasons involving all kinds of things ranging from religious or home pressures or various other things which prevented them from taking wing.
Now it would be pleasant for me to adopt a contradictory position and believe that by the expenditure of a lot of money and a great deal of exposure to literature and much eloquent talk we would suddenly convert all the totalitarians and authoritarians of the world into libertarians. And I would suggest that before that happens, as Krushchev said, you will probably hear shrimps whistle. The process of conversion is futile.
Therefore, I’m satisfied that the ranks of the libertarians will always be small, that they will probably be in about the same ratio to the total population as they are now, and I’m satisfied to contemplate that situation without developing suicidal tendencies or becoming morose, depressed or anything else. It happens to be a fact of life and I’m ready to put up with that and I will change that view when I have some evidence for it. In my own lifetime I haven’t seen one scrap of evidence to the contrary.
REASON: Thank you very much, Dr. Martin.