The Brilliance of Frank Chodorov – Misconceptions

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I shall never forget the profound thrill — a thrill of intellectual liberation — that ran through me when I first encountered the name of Frank Chodorov.
Murray Rothbard

Frank Chodorov (1887-1966) is, like others in this series, a vexingly undervalued figure. Despite playing a foundational role in the formation of the modern American libertarian and conservative movements, he is quite unknown and rarely mentioned. Although most activists in either movement are unaware of him, they are likely aware of the organizations, figures, and publications resulting from his influence.

Described by Ralph Raico as “the last of the Old Right greats,” Chodorov was an unapologetic isolationist, individualist, and anti-statist. There is a clear influence in his thinking from his friend Albert Jay Nock, especially noticeable within his remarks on the ‘anti-social’ nature of the state.

Rothbard remarks on the genuineness of Chodorov’s passion. In a room filled with think tank free-marketeers and other professional activists, he clearly stood out as the most radical and dedicated. He was a steadfast isolationist in opposing American involvement in World War II, decrying conscription and even publishing his article “Don’t Buy Government Bonds” when such a position was incredibly unpopular.

When the New Conservatives began advocating greater interventionism as a reaction to the threat of communism, Chodorov didn’t budge an inch in his opposition. When the New Conservatives began to be more accepting of certain government interventions, Chodorov stayed true.

This change in the general right-wing temperament bothered him. He lived during a time where the American right was abandoning its anti-statism and embracing interventionism. Conservatism, once a term of derision for the anti-New Deal right, was becoming an accepted term for the more interventionist rightists. In fact, when a National Review article referred to him as a conservative, he replied, “I will punch anyone who calls me a conservative in the nose. I am a radical.” Though he would accept being described as a libertarian or classical liberal, he preferred individualist.

Chodorov edited several periodicals and wrote hundreds of articles. He was the founder and editor of the second edition of The Freeman (1937-1942) and then founded a small publication called Analysis in 1944, which merged with Human Events (which he helped edit from 1947-1960) a few years later. He wrote many articles for the third edition of The Freeman, which began in 1950, and lasted until 2016. He edited the magazine from 1954-1955. He wrote many articles for Faith and Freedom, National Review, and Fragments, and was also published in Mencken’s American Mercury, Ideas, and Spotlight, among others.

Chodorov was not one to sit in an ivory tower. He was constantly on the front lines reaching out to potential activists. In his view, he wasn’t out to convince the masses, but instead to find what Nock referred to as “The Remnant.” He believed that since the socialists were appealing to students, the individualists needed to as well. To do so, he started “A Fifty-Year Project” by founding the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists in 1953, one of the first American right-wing institutes with the goal of providing literature to college campuses. The organization later renamed itself to the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), an organization many libertarians and conservatives of today may be familiar with. (It is worth noting that ISI does not mention Chodorov as its founder on its about page.)

When reading Chodorov in our time, there is somewhat of an inevitable resulting sadness. Today’s mainstream American right is not anything close to what Chodorov would endorse. And the state is far larger than it was during his time.

But as optimistic as Chodorov’s work ethic might make him seem, his temperament seems similar to that of Nock’s. In his The Articulate Individualist (a memorial to Nock), he gives what sounds like a pessimistic view:

“What hope is there for a stateless society? If by an accident of nature this ‘remnant’ does run up as a proportion of the population, it may make its influence felt. Maybe a complete collapse of our civilization, brought about by the crushing weight of statism, will throw the ‘intellectual elite’ into the ascendancy, as a last resort, and some good will come of it. In the meantime, the only thing anyone can ‘do’ is to go to work on the one unit he can improve, the only one he has a right to tackle—himself.”

At times the fight against the state seems hopeless. But despite Chodorov’s appearance of pessimism, he follows it with a more optimistic comment:

“[I]t is very definitely not the point of view of a misanthrope. Far from it. Any self-improvement which the individual does effect is a gain not only for himself but also for those with whom he comes into contact. Say he makes of himself a better keeper of bees, a more reliable banker, a more finished actor, does he not add to the fund of satisfaction by which men live? Every man becomes his brother’s keeper by way of self-improvement, and it is the only way.”

His individualism inherited from Nock gave him a sense of self-control. Yes, the individual can do little against the state. However, he can impact the world around him to the extent that he can make his own choices. He can improve himself by becoming more informed on an unlimited number of topics. He can hone his own skills and talents, and through his own self-improvement, he can positively impact the world around him.

And therein lies his solution to many of the world’s problems. To Chodorov, the individual can improve society by improving himself. And to the extent that the individual has that power of self-improvement, he can improve his surroundings. And in all the time he spent spreading his ideas, it was not to achieve the impossible goal of convincing the masses, but as a means of finding the remnant. He did not waste his time trying to convince Soviet communists to become radical libertarians. He was looking for the few that would become the next great individualists. Regarding the future remnant, he said:

“Of this, however, we can be sure: enrolled in some nursery or freshman class right now is a Voltaire, an Adam Smith, a Locke, or a Godwin, some maverick who will emerge from the herd and lead it. Youth, as always, is in a ferment, is dissatisfied with things as they are. Well, since the only direction youth can go is away from the current collectivistic tradition toward its opposite, those who cherish individualistic stock of values must try to peddle them to these embryonic revolutionists. We must polish up our ancient arguments, apply them to the current scene, and offer them as brand new merchandise. We must do a selling job. Youth will not buy us out, lock, stock, and barrel, but will be rather selective about it; they will take what seems good to them, modernize it, build it into a panacea, and start a revolution. God bless them.”

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]

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