Libertarian History/Philosophy

Sam Konkin, RIP


Samuel Edward Konkin III died this past weekend. The man might not be as well-known as some of the other libertarian activists of his generation, but he deserves to be remembered for at least three reasons.

The first was New Libertarian, the zine he edited from 1970 until the 1990s (and periodically promised to revive up to the end of his life). There was a time when the libertarian milieu lacked well-funded think tanks and slick-paper magazines, and when offering a low-budget alternative was not a simple matter of launching a blog. New Libertarian, which I know almost entirely from reading other people's back issues, was a scrappy, freewheeling labor of love, a place where antistatists of all stripes—not just Konkin's circle of "agoric" anarchists—could trade ideas and blows. (The masthead announced proudly that "Everyone appearing in this publication disagrees!") The magazine published clever satire, serious literary criticism, and sharp philosophical debates. It also published bad comic strips, strange conspiracy theories, and the occasional creepy crypto-totalitarian. It's tempting to write off the latter elements as lapses in editorial judgment—and sometimes that's exactly what they were, as when Konkin opened his pages to Mr. Death-style believers in Holocaust "revisionism." But the amateurish and eccentric stuff was part of what made the mag fun to read. While other libertarian outlets reached for respectability, Konkin's zine proudly embraced the fringe; the results could be great and the results could be ugly, but they could never be boring.

The second reason was Konkin's own niche in the libertarian universe. He embodied three tendencies in the movement, one no longer as common as it used to be and the others still flourishing today. The first was the effort to align libertarians with the radical left. Another was a marked hostility to voting. The last was the enormous intersection between libertarians and science-fiction fandom. Konkin also made several contributions to the political lexicon, of which the most popular is the word "minarchist."

Finally, there is Konkin the man. Sam had a lot of friends and he had a lot of enemies; some people he charmed and some he rubbed the wrong way. I knew him moderately well when I lived in Los Angeles, and for all my disagreements with him I was definitely among the charmed. Konkin and I differed on many matters, but he always entered our disputes with friendly arguments, not nasty rhetoric. Except, perhaps, when he insisted on referring to the magazine that employs me as Treason. But that was kind of charming, too. (Konkin believed Reason was far too soft and moderate to deserve the label "libertarian.")

I don't know how old he was (in his fifties, I think), and I don't know what caused his death (apparently he simply collapsed). As an obituary, these comments are terribly incomplete. But Konkin isn't the sort of figure who's likely to receive an obit in the newspaper, so I feel obliged to offer at least a sketchy memorial here.