Le Québécois Libre, August 15, 2009, No 269.
When it comes to radical, left-wing icons, John Lennon is perhaps second only to Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the minds of many. But while the man who entreated us to "imagine no possessions" was certainly a radical of sorts, his actual socialist bona fides are more questionable.
I began to have my suspicions after watching the 2006 documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon recently. Intrigued, I then read the extended, book-length version of the interview he and Yoko Ono gave to Playboy Magazine just a couple of months before he was shot dead in December 1980, and judging from this source, John Lennon was practically a libertarian.
Okay, I'm exaggerating a bit. The truth is that Lennon was not a philosopher with a consistent, rigorous worldview, but a poet and an artist. He was a perceptive observer of life whose ideas were still evolving at the ripe old age of 40, when his life was stolen from him by a crazed gunman. Yet through it all, there appear to have been some constants: Lennon remained always an anti-authoritarian peacenik, unafraid of challenging sacred cows of the left and the right. And there are many points he made that brought a nod of agreement from this libertarian.
Give Peace a Chance
The first clue that Lennon was a political animal was from his peace advocacy, and more specifically, from his opposition to the Vietnam War. In this, most libertarians are on his side. War is the health of the state, an excuse for power-lusting leaders to steal more blood and treasure from their own citizens and extend their spheres of influence over greater swaths of the globe. It is also an excuse for governments to curtail their own citizens' civil liberties, as we saw recently with the Bush administration's Patriot Act and warrantless wiretaps. In the Vietnam era, to make matters worse, there was a military draft, robbing hundreds of thousands of young, able-bodied men of their innocence, and tens of thousands of their very lives.
Lennon himself felt the heavy hand of the state as a direct consequence of his outspoken opposition to President Richard M. Nixon's war. The U.S. vs. John Lennon tells this story in great detail. (If I have one criticism of the documentary, it is that it makes the Vietnam War sound like it was all Republican President Nixon's idea, when it was in fact Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon's Democratic predecessor, who escalated the conflict tremendously while in office. Nixon actually campaigned on the promise of ending the war—though, of course, he failed to do so for many long years after becoming President.)
Lennon was living in New York City at the time, and was threatened with deportation over a minor drug charge from years before back in England. This was clearly just an excuse to get the influential pop star out of the country. In documents that were finally revealed in the years-long court case that ensued, it was shown that high-level Nixon administration officials were involved in persecuting the young activist for purely political reasons. Displaying their creativity and wit, on April Fool's Day, 1973, long before the case was finally dismissed in 1976, Lennon and Ono declared themselves citizens and ambassadors of Nutopia, a "conceptual country" with no land—and as ambassadors, they declared that they were seeking "diplomatic immunity."
Who Needs Leaders?
Although by all accounts, Lennon was always somewhat of a rebel, this trying episode with the U.S. government surely helped to reinforce his skepticism about leaders. In The Playboy Interviews with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, he quotes a Bob Dylan lyric about not following leaders. He then elaborates: "We can have figureheads, and we can have people that we admire and like to have standing up and all that. We can have examples… But leaders is what we don't need." He comes back to this idea a little later on, saying, "The idea of leadership is a false god."
Later still, he suggests that a lot of people are actually looking for father figures, and that leaders (religious or political) are really substitute fathers. Electing a president, he says, is all about the search for a substitute daddy to make everything better. "Then we put him on a platform and start punishing him and screaming at him because daddy can't do miracles: Daddy doesn't heal us; we don't feel better. So then we move the daddy out in four years and we get a new daddy."
Suspicion of authority and leaders, like peace advocacy, is not uniquely libertarian by any means, but it is consistent with libertarianism. I would go further, though, and say that today, in the year 2009, libertarians are the foremost voices out there warning everyone not to put too much trust in leaders and not to ask them to try to perform miracles. Libertarians, more than anyone else, chafe at the very notion of being led, and understand that expecting leaders to bring heaven on earth is the surest road to hell (see "Why on Earth—Do Leaders So Often Disappoint?" August 11, 2009).
No Possessions? Really?
There are other examples I could cite to bolster my case, like Lennon's opposition to the Drug War or his distaste for public schools, but the real sticking point will still be his views of markets. Well, you know what? If Lennon was not a clear libertarian on this issue, neither was he a clear socialist. The evidence is simply inconclusive, with some things he said or wrote supporting the libertarian reading, and others supporting the socialist reading.
To begin with the latter, there is, of course, "Imagine." In that song, Lennon does ask the listener to imagine a world with no possessions, where there is "no need for greed or hunger," a veritable "brotherhood of man," with "all the people sharing all the world." This is Marxism, clear and simple. And some of the things Lennon says in the Playboy Interview back this up. For instance, at one point, Yoko Ono starts talking about the capitalist trap of undermining family life in order to get more single people who will work harder because they don't have to be home evenings and weekends spending time with their families. (This is an odd notion, since singles are actually probably more likely to party harder and if anything have fewer reasons to need to work hard, fewer mouths to feed.)
Lennon not only seems to agree with this; he finds another reason for capitalism to undermine families and favour singles: "Everybody has to buy their own TV, their own phone, their own apartment, their own clothes. You know, there's no sharing or anything." Naomi Klein would be proud, I'm sure, but this is pure nonsense. When people could not afford individual phones, it was common for many households to share just one, and it is still common for less-wealthy singles to share apartments. And I don't see why singles can't share clothes by donating them to charity, if they want. The simple fact is that people share less when they can afford to have their own phones, apartments, and clothes. It's called progress.
A More Nuanced View
At any rate, these rants about markets are balanced with plenty of evidence of a more libertarian view as well. For instance, Lennon complains at one point that "the car industry is trying to pass laws and it's pointing fingers and… saying 'Buy America'." Sound familiar? Lennon counters, "You don't have to put an American flag on it. If it's good, we'll buy it. If it ain't no good, we're going to buy cars made in Venezuela." This is a critique, not of free-market capitalism, but of crony capitalism, of corporatism, where companies try to curry favour with the state instead of providing a product people want at a price they are willing to pay. Many libertarians have been sounding the very same notes in the past year, as both GM and Chrysler went begging for, and got, massive taxpayer bailouts.
In another section of the Interview, Lennon is asked why the Beatles don't reunite to do benefit concerts to raise money, maybe as much as two hundred million in a single show, to help poverty-stricken South America, for example. He responds, "So where do people get off saying that the Beatles should give two hundred million dollars to South America?" This simple sentence is a principled, individualistic defence against the altruistic assumption underpinning wealth and income redistribution, which is that the rich are morally obliged to help the weak. But this is not all. Lennon goes on to say, "You know, America has poured billions into places like that. It doesn't mean a thing. After they've eaten that meal, then what? It only lasts for a day." Take that, Bono.
A little further on, Lennon admits that he once thought money was "equated with sin." His views evolved, however: "Money itself isn't the root of all evil. Money is just a concept; also it's just energy. So now you could say I've come to terms with money and making money."
And when asked point blank about "all this talk of transcending possessions," Lennon answers, "You can transcend possessions without walking around in a robe. Possessions can be in the mind. A monk who's off in a cave dreaming about fucking, sucking, and eating is in far worse position than me who has so-called money in his back pocket. I'm over the conflict that says you can't be awake and have money. That's absolute rubbish." And here's the kicker: Yoko Ono, who as far as I can tell was more of a socialist than John Lennon ever was (and more prone to spouting mystical mumbo-jumbo), "actually helped a lot with the lyrics" to "Imagine."
Whatever Gets You Through the Night
I probably haven't succeeded in convincing you that Lennon was a full-fledged libertarian. I haven't really convinced myself of that. Nowhere does he seem to realize, for instance, that international market interdependence (i.e., globalization) is the surest route to lasting peace. But judging from the sources I consulted, there was an awful lot of overlap between his views and libertarianism, and not just on the obvious issues. And I think, too, that there is a lot of overlap with a lot of people who consider themselves left wing, but the whole while are actually railing against crony corporatism, not free-market capitalism.
Let me leave you with one last quotation. Again in response to a question about a Beatles reunion, Lennon says, "What's this game of doing things because other people want it? The whole Beatle idea was to do what you want, right? To take your own responsibility, do what you want and try not to harm other people, right? Do what thou wilst, as long as it doesn't hurt somebody." To my ears, that sounds like a tolerably good expression of the fundamental libertarian principles of non-aggression and self-ownership. That may not make John Lennon a libertarian icon, but it does show that he had a lot more in common with libertarians than we might at first have imagined.
* Bradley Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.