All Commentary
Sunday, April 1, 1962

The Genesis of Extremism

Suppose you have a property—some acres, orchards, herds, build­ings. Fearing that it might be despoiled, you employ a guard for protective purposes. He is pro­vided with your rifle and pistol. You contract with him to serve on behalf of that defensive force which inheres in your moral right to life, livelihood, and liberty.

Should no trespassers or ma­rauders appear, the guard remains alert but inactive. For defensive action is only a secondary action; it is brought into play only at the instance of someone else’s aggres­sive action.

Let us now assume that the guard becomes impatient with his inaction, that he despairs of his strictly negative role. Realizing that the self-same force he has been given to defend you can be used to take your life and liveli­hood, he turns on you, his em­ployer. Contrary to your wishes and using your own weapons, he takes it on himself to sell your produce, pocketing the cash. Some he uses to increase his own wage; he gives other parts of it to neigh­bors he thinks are “needy”; more of your dollars are allocated by him to a savings account for your old age, but actually he uses these to gratify a space craft hobby of his and deposits his IOU in the account; he goes into debt, but he monetizes the debt so that the dol­lars he allocates to you are not diminished but increased in num­ber; he dictates how much produce you may raise and the prices you may receive. In short, your hired defender comes to dominate your life.

Being a normal, self-responsi­ble, self-controlling individual, you rebel at this immoral and unwar­ranted authoritarianism, stoutly maintaining that you do not be­lieve in any part of the guard’s program.

The guard, in the meantime, will have rationalized his actions to the point of self-righteousness with two lines of defense. The first will justify his own actions, “But I am doing this for the good of all.” The second will belittle his critics by name-calling, “You are ex­tremists.”

Extremism, as currently pub­licized, is aimed almost exclusively at “the extreme right.” Khrushchev has not been labeled an “extrem­ist,” nor have any of our home folks who sponsor federal urban renewal, or TVA and its exten­sions, or compulsory social secur­ity, or foreign aid to socialistic governments, or whatever. By their definitions, none of them is “extremist.” But they are, almost without exception, the ones who hurl the epithet “extremist” at those who do not agree with their authoritarian actions.

For Every Reaction, There Must Be a Prior Action


What we are witnessing is an instance of action and reaction. The genesis of the reaction is the action, and the origin of the cur­rent “extremism” is socialistic ac­tion.

Let your memory or imagina­tion take you back three decades to pre-social security days. A per­son who then said he did not be­lieve in compulsory social security evoked no reaction at all. No one thought to classify him as belong­ing to “the extreme right.”

Then came compulsory social security, as socialistic as anything that falls under the definition. The authors of this legislation took the action. Reaction, in the form of dissent, followed. The actionists now call the reactionists “extrem­ists.” Had there been no socialistic action in the first place, there would be no antisocialistic reac­tion now. Nor would the term, “ex­tremist,” in its present context, have come into usage.

Parenthetically, there is, now and then, a person who remarks, “I deplore both the extreme left and the extreme right.” To un­mask this bit of nonsense requires only that it be translated: “I de­plore both action and reaction.” This makes no more sense than to deplore the thrust of a jet motor or the kick of a shotgun or the flight of a golf ball. Such remarks originate in thoughtlessness and thus do not admit thoughtful analysis.

Variable Responses


What ought to be considered, and carefully, are the varied types of antisocialistic reaction evoked by socialistic action. The social ac­tionists tend to disparage all re­action in one lump—”the extreme right.”

There are as many types of reaction as there are persons who react. There are those who do not react at all to socialistic flippancy, as unmoved as animals in the zoo. Others only mumble in their beards. These are allies of the so­cialists in the sense that they are inclined to “go along” with what is, regardless of its character.

But among us are numerous dy­namic reactionists. Some are calm and rational while others are vola­tile and emotional. Some proceed peaceably, others belligerently. Some expose the fallacies of social­istic ideas while others never rise above name-calling. Some confine themselves to educational methods, others to political devices. Some try to gain a better understanding and exposition of freedom princi­ples while others set out to reform “the ignorant masses.” Some see the fault in themselves and their own shortcomings; others think the socialistic debacle has its ori­gin only in the Kremlin. Some do their work for freedom joyously while others work only in anger. Some give no thought to the time element except their own economi­cal use of it; others insist that “time is running out” and promptly hurry in the wrong di­rection.

My concluding commentary on the current socialist action is that it may have some good in it. This is to suggest that this action, the forerunner of the antisocialist re­action, has a kind of value; it isn’t all to the bad. Liberty, as the late Paul Valery pointed out, is not primary within us; it is never evoked without being provoked. The idea of liberty is always a response. In the context of this analysis it is a reaction. We rarely think we ought to be free, or think about it at all, until something shows us we are not free.

The socialist action is a pref­ace to the reaction. Without such action most consciousness of and attention to liberty might well fade out of existence. Until re­cently the idea of liberty was close to extinguished in the minds of the American people. Something had to provoke a new, dynamic, libertarian sensitiveness. Short of a socialist action, what could ac­complish this? Reaction to it is the great and rewarding dividend. May the reaction be marked by in­telligence, integrity, good man­ners, determination; in short, may it take the form of an extreme in­tellectual, moral, and spiritual ren­aissance!

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  • Leonard E. Read (1898-1983) was the founder of FEE, and the author of 29 works, including the classic parable “I, Pencil.”