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02-21-2010, 01:41 AM

Mark Twain's Radical Liberalism

Mises Daily: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 by Jeffrey A. Tucker


"Biographers and critics have had difficulty figuring out how the same person could champion the interests of Newport capitalist class while founding the Anti-Imperialist League."

Part of the difficulty of understanding Mark Twain's political outlook is due to terminology and the tendency of politics to corrupt the meaning of everything. As often as you see him called a liberal, he is called a conservative, and sometimes both in the same breath. Critics puzzle about how one person could be champion of workers, owners, and the capitalist rich, while holding views that are antigovernment on domestic matters, antislavery, and antiwar. They often conclude that his politics are incoherent.

Part of the reason for the confusion has to do with the changed meaning of liberalism as an ideology and the incapacity of modern critics to understand its 19th-century implications.

Twain was born as Samuel Langhorne Clemens in 1835, when the meaning of liberalism was less ambiguous. To be liberal was to favor free enterprise and property rights, oppose slavery, reject old-world caste systems, loathe war, be generally disposed toward free trade and cosmopolitanism, favor the social advance of women, favor technological progress — and to possess a grave skepticism toward government management of anything.

The tradition of thought extends from Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson through 20th-century Misesians and Hayekians. This outlook on the world might be nearly extinguished from politics today (two flavors of statism), but it was the one embraced by Clemens.

By the time Clemens died in 1910, liberalism was on the verge of transformation. The Gilded Age of capitalist accumulation had come and gone, and inspired envy and ideological fanaticism all around. Liberalism's progressive outlook led to sympathy for socialism and government management, and, later, to the war economy as a means of imposing economic regimentation in the absence of democratic consensus. A half century later, liberalism would have moved full swing toward the very opposite of its 19th-century meaning, while those who opposed government management and favored free enterprise were called conservatives.

It is for this reason that Twain's political views are so frequently misunderstood, as the vast literature on his life and work easily demonstrates. Biographers and critics have had difficulty figuring out how the same person could champion the interests of Newport capitalist class while founding the Anti-Imperialist League. He loved America's attachment to property and commerce but emerged as the country's most severe critic of the warfare state (he said that the United States should make a special flag for the Philippines: "white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.")
Mark Twain flag

Nearly alone in the Twain literature, Louis J. Budd's pioneering work Mark Twain: Social Philosopher[1] described his outlook as unambiguously liberal in the mold of the Manchester School of Cobden and Bright. "There is no good government at all & none possible," he quotes Clemens in summary of his creed.[2]

It is in the Budd book that we learn that Clemens was a great champion of technological progress and commerce, never worked up enthusiasm for welfarist measures, for society in the "business age" is governed by "exact and constant" laws that should not be "interfered with for the accommodation of any individual or political or religious faction."[3]

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