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A Thinker You Should Know: Frank Chodorov
The following excerpt comes from Lee Edward’s book Educating for Liberty: The First Half-Century of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.
Frank Chodorov had been tilting against windmills all his life. As a student at Columbia University in the early 1900s, he had fought it out with the socialists, arguing that “man ‘s management of man is presumptuous and fraught with danger.” He had voted in 1912 for independent Theodore Roosevelt rather than Democrat Woodrow Wilson or Republican William Howard Taft; he never voted again in a presidential election, arguing that politics was not the solution, but the problem.
Born in New York City of immigrant Jewish parents, Chodorov turned to atheism as a young man, stung by antisemitic remarks at Columbia, and assented that religion was “at the bottom of social discords.”
But in his later years he came to believe in what he called “transcendence,” even writing an essay titled, “How a Jew Came to God.”
Chodorov insisted that the income tax was the root of all evil and took up the philosophy of the nineteenth-century reformer Henry George, the apostle of the single tax. As editor of The Freeman in the 1930s, Chodorov delighted in attacking the economic prescriptions of the New Deal and President Franklin D. Roosevelt and opposed U.S. involvement in the Second World War right up to Pearl Harbor.
Like his near anarchist friend and mentor Albert Jay Nock, Chodorov condemned the state as the enemy. Though uncompromising in his beliefs, he was no ideologue. He was a devotee of Adam Smith, not John Stuart Mill, with a respect for “‘the integrity of personality and a mistrust of aggregated power. ” His books and his journalism in the first decade after World War II, wrote the historian George H. Nash, “influenced many younger conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr.”
The socialism that Chodorov saw almost everywhere in postwar America had been inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution. It was presented in the United States under the indigenous banners of Progressivism and secularism and was adopted by the architects of the New Deal in the 1930s. Socialism in America had expanded due to the requirements of World War II Now, with the war won, wrote the historian Mortimer Smith, postwar planners were insisting that “the individual must surrender more and more of his rights to the state” in exchange for what was “euphemistically called security.”
To those who believed in the heritage of Western civilization and the principles of the American republic, there could be only one possible answer to such a perfidious proposal.
In 1950, therefore, sixty-three-year-old Frank Chodorov determined to challenge one of the most powerful institutions in the country—the American academy—which he believed was largely responsible for the shift from “individualism” to socialism in America.
By individualism, Chodorov did not mean a radical laissez-faireism but an “historic liberalism” that accepted the doctrine of natural rights, proclaimed “the dignity of the individual,” and denounced “all forms of statism as human slavery.” His modest proposal (published in 1950 in his newsletter analysis)—to create a network of campus clubs for individualists, to launch a lecture bureau, and to start a publication “directed at the student mind”—would become the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (ISI). ISI was thus born at the dawn of the Cold War when totalitarian states and command economies threatened the existence of liberal democracy and the free society. And it was born battling John Dewey and the other educrats who viewed schools as the “levers” of social progress.
The collectivization of America, Chodorov wrote, had begun when college students of the early 1900s adopted the slogans of the socialists, impressed by their pretensions to “scientific exactitude.” Campus socialists were soon organized into the Intercollegiate Socialist Society (which changed its name to the League for Industrial Democracy in 1921). ISS’s members included Clarence Darrow, John Reed, Walter Lippmann, Walter Reuther, Frances Perkins, Norman Thomas, and Stuart Chase. Around the country, speeches were made, pamphlets were distributed, and conventions were held. The “success” of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution added impetus to the socialist crusade in America. Long before the coming of the New Deal, thousands of college-bred socialists had become labor leaders, ministers, teachers, lawyers, and writers. As heads of college departments, Chodorov wrote, the socialists practiced their peculiar kind of “academic freedom,” scrupulously hiring their own kind.
When Franklin D. Roosevelt looked for advice on how to deal with the Great Depression, he chose champions of the Left who had established themselves by their academic books and articles. Businessmen were ignored because they were “bewildered” by the economic collapse and, more importantly, because the socialists had already convinced the public that businessmen “were at the bottom of all the trouble.”
Chodorov argued that the only way to stop the descent into evermore statism was not by changing socialist laws through the political process but by inculcating the values which “make such laws impossible.” Such a “chore,” he conceded, was difficult and lengthy—lasting perhaps as long as fifty years—and called for a “sincerity of purpose amounting to religious fervor.” It required the kind of zeal that had first brought socialism to America, and it ought to start where the socialists had begun—on the college campus.
Socialism’s triumph offered opportunity, Chodorov said. The time was ripe for “something new and different,” like the ideas of the free market and individual freedom that socialistic propaganda had “so effectively submerged.”
To shift the mind of the coming generation in the direction of freedom, argued Chodorov, it was necessary to dig up the old values “out of the ash heap of the current culture” and present them in brand-new garb. “Individualism,” he wrote, “must be offered as first-class radicalism—which it is, these days.”
Chodorov knew that at least some college students would respond favorably to a “radical” idea like individualism—he had given well-received talks at schools in New York City and as far away as New Haven, Connecticut. The size of the audience did not matter to him—he considered a crowd of only thirty or forty people “almost massive.”
What mattered was the students’ willingness to listen and to reflect on what he said. As a Yale undergraduate, Bill Buckley remembered Chodorov’s manner of speaking as quiet, firm, “resolutely undemogogic.”
The purpose of teaching individualism, Chodorov emphasized, was not “to make individualists but to . . . help them find themselves.”
About the Author
Lee Edwards is the Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought at the Heritage Foundation and the author or editor of twenty-five books, including Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution, William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, and his memoir, Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty.
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