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Rothbard and Hummel on Private and Semi-Private Warfare


In his chapter on the radicalism of the American Revolution from Conceived in Liberty, Murray Rothbard digressed into a brief aside about the role of guerrilla warfare as a type of non-state military defense:

The American Revolution was radical in many other ways as well. It was the first successful war of national liberation against western imperialism ... As a people’s war, it was victorious to the extent that guerrilla strategy and tactics were employed against the far more heavily armed and better trained British army—a strategy and tactics of protracted conflict resting precisely on mass support. The tactics of harassment, mobility, surprise, and the wearing down and cutting off of supplies finally resulted in the encirclement of the enemy. Considering that the theory of guerrilla revolution had not yet been developed, it was remarkable that the Americans had the courage and initiative to employ it. As it was, all their victories were based on guerrilla-type concepts of revolutionary war, while all the American defeats came from stubborn insistence by such men as Washington on a conventional European type of open military confrontation.

George Washington, who never at any time exhibited any sort of impressive military prowess, disliked militias and insisted on European-style pitched battles. Washington probably imagined that the French-subsidized military victory at Yorktown was probably the main contributing factor to the British surrender in 1783, but in reality, it was the effectiveness of the guerrilla strategies employed by by independent Patriot militias and by the troops under  Nathanael Greene who were the deciding factor in the eventual British decision to abandon the effort to reconquer the colonies. (See Chapter 55 in Volume IV of Rothbard's Conceived in Liberty.) Rothbard further expanded on his fondness for guerrilla warfare in his review of the 1980s version of Red Dawn, noting

This is hardly a great picture, and is indeed flawed. But Red Dawn is an enjoyable teen-age saga, and, apart from right-wingy pro-NATO credits at the beginning of the film, it is not so much pro-war as it is anti-State. The warfare it celebrates is not interstate strife, but guerrilla conflict that the great radical libertarian military analyst, General Charles Lee, labeled "people's war" two centuries before Mao and Che.

One of the best parts of the picture is the graphic portrayal of how the Red response to the Wolverines runs the gamut of the U. S. counter-revolutionary responses to the Vietnamese. That is, at first the Russian commander decides to hole up in the cities and military bases, into the "safe zones," whereupon the Wolverines boldly demonstrate that in guerrilla war there are no safe zones, and that the "front is everywhere." At that point, another crackerjack Russian commander takes over, and replicates the "search and destroy" counter-guerrilla response of the Green Berets. This is more punishing, but still does not succeed.

One big problem with the picture is that there is no sense that successful guerrilla war feeds on itself; in real life the ranks of the guerrillas would start to swell, and this would defeat the search-and-destroy concept.


These comments come about a decade after this 1973 interview with Rothbard in which he further elaborates in why guerrilla warfare can be a type of non-state warfare, and is indeed more strategically effective:

The difference between the Revolutionary War and an interstate war is that, in the first place, an interstate war is a war of one government against another – it’s a war that aggresses against the innocent civilians of the opposite government, it’s a war that increases taxes at home, and conscription usually, to pay for it. Revolutionary war is a war against the state apparatus, a war from below by the armed public. It doesn’t have to injure innocent civilians, and it usually doesn’t. It often does not involve taxes or conscription – if it does, it does so on a very small scale. The American revolutionary effort didn’t have any taxation even on a state level for the first few years of the Revolutionary war. In other words, put it this way – when you have a revolutionary war against the existing state apparatus – say the American people against the British Crown and their collaborationists at home, the guerrilla revolutionary effort can pinpoint their attacks against the State apparatus. They do the pinpointing, and they have to do the pinpointing. They can do it and they have to do it – in other words, they don’t spray innocent people with machine guns, they don’t H-bomb if they have the H bomb, their object is to zap the forces of the existing government of the Crown – the Crown officers and so forth.
On the other hand, the reason why they don’t injure civilians is usually not just from moral reasons, but from basic strategic ones – that is, that no revolutionary, no people’s war can succeed unless it has the broad support of the mass of the population. Mao tse Tung and Che Guevara, of course, enunciated this – as "The guerrillas are to the people as fish are to water." But actually Charles Lee saw this much earlier – he was the brilliant Revolutionary theorist who was the second in command to George Washington for the first few years of the American Revolution. He was a British soldier of fortune and libertarian and wandered all over the world picking up military insights. As soon as the American Revolution broke out, Lee rushed to the United States to help out in the war effort, and was made second in command. Lee set the pattern for the American victory, not Washington – well, I won’t go into that, but Lee set the pattern by pointing out that the American Revolution could only succeed as a people’s war from below – a guerrilla struggle, it you will – against the superior fire power of the British government.
The government’s lacking the essential popular support, the guerrillas therefore become the people, and people became the guerrillas in the old battle grounds of Lexington and Concord, which victories were the first great American guerrilla action. The British, just as the Americans now in Vietnam, had very great difficulty distinguishing between the peasants and the guerrillas. They say they all look alike – well, they are alike, they are them. In other words, peasants in the daytime pick up the guns at night and pop the British soldiers.

In The Myth of National Defense, in a chapter titled "Mercenaries, Guerrillas, Militias, and the Defense of Minimal States and Free Societies," Joseph Stromberg picks up on many of these ideas and explores the role of guerrilla fighting in non-state warfare. Stromberg draws upon several examples, including the Viet Cong, the American Revolutionaries, and the rebels in the Boer Wars. He also notes that the Southern Confederacy's naive refusal to employ guerrilla warfare likely sealed the fate of that rebellion. Some of these guerrilla efforts have been more successful than others, but in a great many cases, such military defense is notable for the fact that it does not rely on any centralized state to be effective. Rather than rely on taxes for revenues, guerrilla fighters instead sustain themselves on stolen goods and provisions from the invaders. The assertion that effective military defense can only be mounted through centralized state-directed efforts, as Mises himself so wrongly claimed in the 3rd edition of Human Action, can be shown to have been demonstrably false on numerous occasions in which guerilla forces have gained either total expulsion of foreign threats or the attainment of more favorable terms from an overwhelming military force.

The Role of Militias 

But need a free society wait until invasion occurs before an effective military force can be raised? Is there no role for deterrence by maintaining ready-made tools for military defense? In this, we can look to militia systems for the necessary tools in fielding defensive forces to head off approaching threats. Stromberg writes:

Republican military systems, which typically combined “middle-class” infantry with aristocratic cavalry, departed from an older Indo-European model, which (ideally) excluded economic producers from war. The writings of Aristotle, Titus Livy, and Polybius—and their successor, Machiavelli—are the seedbed of republican theory. Their ideas were taken up by eighteenth-century Americans, in whose war of secession from Britain’s empire both militia and republican ideology played a role. The Second Amendment to the American Constitution reflects the practical and ideological background, although the amendment also enshrines an individual right of self-defense which grew out of English law and practice.

In reading Stromgberg's description, many may assume that militias will therefore depend on some type of centralized state structure for funding and organization. The American experience in the 19th century shows this is not necessarily the case, however. In his essay "The American Militia and the Origin of Conscription:  A Reassessement," Jeffrey Rogers Hummel examines the role of private militias in the 19th century. These militias, while created by state charter, were often characterized by private and exclusive membership and by private funding. They were also to be contrasted with the official state-run militias which relies on conscription. In states on the Western frontiers (which at the time were more or less the states bordering the Mississippi River) these private militias were important as the most effective system of military defense against raiders from Indian tribes, which themselves employed effective cavalry-based warfare.

Hummel notes that the private militias were more effective militarily and enjoyed  a more impressive success record than the government  militias. Moreover, during the Mexican War of 1846-1848, the private volunteers militias, which moved west to assist American federal regulars in that American war of Conquest against Mexico,  became famous for their success in battle against the professional and often-better-armed troops put into the field by the central government of Mexico. Indeed, among international observers, many agreed that the Mexicans were destined for victory in the conflict because the US was relying primarily on part-time voluntary militias, while the Mexican state could rely on professional regulars. The eventual American victory further illustrated the military value of volunteer militias. In fact, for Hummel, many of the militias in the American Revolution were far too reliant on centralized states. Hummel writes:

If libertarians wish to look to the past for guidelines about a free society’s ideal defense, they must pass over the traditional militia system. Despite its appealing decentralist rhetoric and its close ties with the American Revolution, it was from the very core a coercive system, one clearly inimical to liberty. Instead, they should cast their eyes upon the volunteer militia of the Jacksonian period. Although maligned by military historians, forgotten by all others, and corrupted by post-Civil War statism, it is the one military precedent that most closely embodies libertarian precepts.

Alongside the conscription-based militia system, up until the Civil War, there had long been a network of private militias, even going back to the 17th century:

Within this fundamentally coercive system, a volunteer component did emerge. Alongside the common militia, just described, was what came to be called the volunteer militia, consisting of privately recruited military units. The earliest such unit was the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Boston, organized in 1636 and still in existence. At first, these volunteer units were completely independent of the common militia. Later, colonial governments and successor state governments integrated them into the general militia systems. Volunteer units provided much of the cavalry, artillery, and elite infantry within the militia. Men could gain exemption from the common militia by joining a volunteer unit. But many of these units still remained private fraternities with exclusive memberships.

By the time of the Civil War, Hummel writes, the "official" militia system in the United States had been largely supplanted by the voluntary and private system that had grown up during the Jacksonian period. The conscript militias had gone into decline partially due to their relative incompetence and due to the rise of anti-state and individualist attitudes during the Jacksonian era:

The supplanting was so thorough that some historians call the volunteer component of the pre-Civil War militia the organized militia while designating the common component the enrolled militia. In prior periods, of course, organized units had come from both the common and volunteer militia. In short, the Jacksonian era witnessed nearly total transformation of the militia from a compulsory to a voluntary system. Because many volunteer units were privately organized, recruited, and equipped, the militia became a partially privatized system as well. A third terminological variation clearly reflects this last trait: the volunteer militia became popularly known as the uniformed militia. States rarely provided uniforms to any militia units, so volunteer units purchased their own. Many military historians have unfairly characterized the transformation to voluntarism as “the decay” of the militia. Because of this so-called decay, the Mexican War became the first in U.S. history to be fought solely with volunteers.
A remnant of the common militia survived, and Congress gave President James K. Polk the power to call the militia into national service for six months rather than the three months specified in the Calling Forth Act. Early in the war, General Edmund Gaines, commanding at New Orleans, made an unauthorized call for militia from the Southwestern states, and Louisiana’s governor threatened a draft in order to raise his state’s allotment. But the Polk administration quickly relieved Gaines and canceled his call.

Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, politicians made efforts to nationalize militias and use them for the purposes of the American state, with mixed results:

[N]early every subsequent President continued to suggest militia reorganization in his annual messages. President Martin Van Buren’s Secretary of War, Joel R. Poinsett, made the last serious effort to nationalize the state militias in 1840.41 But all these suggestions died from lack of interest. The national government relied for the most part upon a small regular army. Still, during the Second Seminole War (1835–1842)—the first protracted counter-insurgency campaign by the U.S.—large numbers of militia from various states supplemented the regulars, and some of them from the Florida territory itself were drafted. Although the state governments continued to depend heavily upon their militias throughout the post-War of 1812 period, the entire militia system by this time was coming under sustained criticism at the state level. Launching these political attacks was a collage of radical Jacksonians, peace advocates, and moralistic reformers. The Workingmen’s Party in New York, precursor of the laissez-faire “Locofoco” Jacksonians, condemned militia fines because they fell unfairly upon laborers and the poor.
The common militia also became the butt of an effective campaign of ridicule and civil disobedience. Men would muster for mandatory training with cornstalks, brooms, or other silly substitutes for weapons, giving rise to the derisive sobriquet “cornstalk militia.” In some locations, disgruntled militiamen would elect the town drunk their commander. As a result of these attacks, the compulsory features of the common militia began to ease... Only in the South were the compulsory features of the militia maintained, probably because of their vital connection with slave patrols.[1]

By the Civil War, however, the role of the volunteer militias had become so widespread that it is clear that the role of the Federal regulars were something of an afterthought. In fact, if we look to one of the few sizable military operations launched by the Federal government between the Mexican War and the Civil War, we find that the US Army was in fact a tiny operation. In 1857, when President James Buchanan sent 2,500 US Federal troops to Utah as part of the Utah War, 2,500 men was one-sixth of the entire US army. In other words, the US army consisted of 15,000 soldiers to defend a territory the size of the Continental US today. Needless to say, the US was not "undefended." It merely relied on quasi private militias for its defense, and did so rather successfully in spite of Mexican and British forces near the borders, plus numerous indigenous tribes (including the Lakota who were notoriously effective and successful combatants on horseback) within the borders of the US's claimed territories.  The Americans of the time recognized the quality of this style of defense and responded accordingly. Hummel writes:

A remarkable growth in the volunteer militia was concomitant with this decline in the common militia. Expanding steadily since the Revolution, the number of volunteer units exploded during the Jacksonian period. Three hundred sprang up in California between 1849 and 1856. One out of every twenty-nine people in the District of Columbia belonged to a volunteer company. With this burgeoning mass appeal, the volunteer militia was no longer the preserve of a wealthy elite... The volunteer militia was so vibrant at the beginning of the Civil War that it brought to each side an enthusiastic influx of units—more units, in fact, than either could process. Civil War historian Kenneth P. Williams has observed that, within four months of the firing on Fort Sumter, the Union army multiplied by an astonishing factor of twenty-seven despite the defection of nearly half the country and of many professional officers. That sharply contrasts with the army’s mere threefold growth, under a rigid system of conscription, during the four months at the beginning of the U.S. entry into World War I. It is doubtful that the Confederacy, which had to turn away as many as 200,000 volunteers during the Civil War’s first year, could have so quickly mobilized a major army from scratch without the foundation provided by the volunteer militia.


[1] In a telling footnote for those who, like me, consider the slaveholding class of antebellum South to be a rent-seeking interest group bent on extracting wealth from the larger society of whites, Hummel notes: "When scholars do consider the slave patrol, they are understandably more concerned with its impact on the slaves than on free whites. Nonetheless, this scholarly gap is doubly unfortunate, because the compulsory slave patrol was one way that slave owners socialized the costs of maintaining the slave system, thereby distorting the economic calculation of those costs and transferring them to non-owners. The operation of the compulsory slave patrol thus has enormous implications for the controversies about slavery’s economic efficiency.    

Further Reading

Stromberg has also compiled a short bibliography on "Unconventional Warfare and Alternate Models of Defense" He writes:

Attempts to break out of the imperialist world order have fostered irregular forms of warfare. On this see Lin Piao, Long Live the Victory of People's War! (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1965), Vô Nguyen Giap,People's War, People’s Army (New York: Bantam Books, 1962), Michael Collins, The Path to Freedom (Boulder: Roberts Rinehart, 1996), Ernesto Che Guevara, Guerrilla Warfare (New York: Vinatage Books, 1968), Deneys Reitz, Commando: A Boer Journal of the Boer War (London: Faber & Faber, 1975 [1929]), John Ellis, A Short History of Guerrilla Warfare (London: Ian Allan, 1975), Robert B. Asprey, War in the Shadows: The Guerrilla in History (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), and Joseph P. Kutger, "Irregular Warfare in Transition," Military Affairs, 24, 3 (Autumn 1960), pp. 113-123. For libertarian perspectives, see William F. Marina, "Weapons, Technology, and Legitimacy," in Morgan Norval, ed., The Militia in 20th Century America (Falls Church, Va.: Gun Owners Association, 1985), pp. 185-226, Murray N. Rothbard, "Society Without a State," Nomos, 19 (1978), 191-207, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe, "The Private Production of Defense" (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, Essays in Political Economy, n.d.) and Democracy: The God That Failed, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, "National Goods Versus Public Goods: Defense, Disarmament, and Free Riders," Review of Austrian Economics, 4 (1990), 88-122. For a pacifist view, consult Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action: The Methods of Nonviolent Action (Boston: Extending Horizons Books, 1973). For guerrilla warfare in US history, see Marina, "Militia, Standing Armies and the Second Amendment" and "Revolution and Social Change: The American Revolution As a People's War," Kerby, "Why the Confederacy Lost," Jones, Gray Ghosts and Rebel Raiders, and Williamson, Mosby’s Rangers, cited in previous sections.


Contact Ryan McMaken

Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is a senior editor at the Mises Institute. Send him your article submissions for the Mises Wire and Power and Market, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has a bachelor's degree in economics and a master's degree in public policy and international relations from the University of Colorado. He was a housing economist for the State of Colorado. He is the author of Breaking Away: The Case of Secession, Radical Decentralization, and Smaller Polities and Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.