Chris Matthew Sciabarra, Ph.D.

TOTAL FREEDOM

TOWARD A DIALECTICAL LIBERTARIANISM

REVIEWS

PETER G. STILLMAN, AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 96, no. 1 (MARCH 2002):  193-94.


Stillman writes:  "Sciabarra's book attempts to conjoin dialectics with libertarianism to produce total freedom.  He is led to this seemingly odd conjunction by a concatenation of concerns.  He sees dialectics as the logic or method most attentive to contexts and libertarianism as a radical political ideology of freedom.  He sees the opportunity to free dialectics of its totalitarian (including Marxist) overtones and libertarianism of its apparent irrelevance, which is the more galling now that once-popular Marxism has failed as radical social theory.  He wishes to combine his own academic appreciation of the dialectical elements of Marx's method with his long-standing love of libertarian ideas.  Primarily, he hopes to expand libertarian thought from a narrow concentration on economic self-interest and the state as repressive to a broader concern with the cultural, social, and historical preconditions of freedom, and he sees dialectics, with its emphasis on contexts, dynamism, and relations, as a method that can be appropriated by libertarians to realize these broader concerns and to propound a comprehensive and radical social theory.  No longer need libertarian thought be seen as atomic individualism struggling for freedom against state violence; building on dialectical thinking shorn of its Marxist content, libertarians can embrace whole individuals living in rich social environments that can carry out, without violence, the social powers that the state has illegitimately appropriated. . . .

"Sciabarra's approach . . . verges on the encyclopedic.  He presents a topic or thinker by encompassing a wide range of secondary sources or alternative positions (or both).  Whether the topic is Marx on the dialectic or Rothbard on the origins of the state, he wishes to report almost every possible opinion that might be germane, and his bibliography (48 pages) shows it.  He responds to critics of his past two books on points relevant to this one; he appends explanatory or exploratory footnotes that mention interesting, significant, or tangential issues; and he includes many footnotes thanking colleagues for helpful comments or communications, implying a community of scholars and interested parties working together on a novel but important political undertaking.  No one can doubt the amount of his scholarship, his commitment to his topic, his generosity of spirit, and his desire to encompass as many opinions as possible.

"The result is a hefty book.  But I kept wishing that the book were twice as long, so that Sciabarra could have made informative arguments about every issue he mentions, or---and better, half as long, so that he could have focused on the central points and developed them with careful analysis and examples.  I also kept thinking that Sciabarra has written two books---one scholarly, the other hoping to influence libertarian ideas---that are melded uneasily into one volume."

Stillman believes that readers' evaluations of Part One will "vary widely."  For Stillman, however, though the chapters here offer "a treasure trove of statements about dialectical methodology," he did "not find them illuminating."  He is most critical of Sciabarra's treatment of Hegel, especially in Sciabarra's use of references "without apparent discrimination" and "few references to (and little analysis of) original texts." He criticizes Sciabarra's definition of dialectics as "too general and vague" and "disconnected from the history" of the concept, but recognizes that "the sheer volume of information [is] useful . . . Sciabarra himself might well reply that he wishes to present a workable sense of dialectics for libertarian thought and so gives statements that lead to defining it in terms that can be readily understood and easily applied, even if unsatisfactory for scholars."

Part Two raises many questions for Stillman, but "Sciabarra's wide-ranging and extensive presentation of Rothbard's libertarianism is doubtless the best secondary treatment of the subject, including both sympathetic understanding and severe critique---though much of the critique focuses on Rothbard's (nondialectical) dualism."  Stillman remains wondering if such a "Manichean dualism between the good market and the evil state" can ever "be dialectical." 

Stillman concludes:  "In short, this book is not a scholarly or analytic discussion of dialectics or a complete dialectical critique of Rothbard's libertarianism.  But perhaps it was meant to be not a scholarly work but a book dedicated to reshaping libertarian theory and ideology.  Total Freedom suggests that relational, contextual, and dynamic (i.e., dialectical) methods might strengthen some of the weak points of libertarian theory and might overcome some of the unpopular gaps in libertarian ideology.  So it should be read by libertarians and by those who study Rothbard's thought.  Even beyond the project of dialectical libertarianism, Sciabarra's book might provoke some thinkers to look again at dialectics---but they will have to go beyond his book if they wish to make sense of dialectical thinking."

Peter G. Stillman

Vassar College


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