Earlier this month, Lyndon LaRouche died.
You’ve probably never heard of him. But you should have. He was the best presidential candidate in American history. Or rather, he was the best at being a presidential candidate in American history. He ran for the office eight times, a national record. In every election from 1976 to 2004, he was a candidate. His base was small in numbers but big in enthusiasm, and their support kept him relevant despite never winning a race for any public office.
Remember those posters of Obama with a Hitler Mustache that went viral during the Obamacare debates in 2009? That was him. But don’t confuse him with right-wing lunatics like Steve Bannon or Steve King. Lyndon LaRouche defied any attempt to fit him into a political box.
His platform changed significantly over the course of his 50-year career in the spotlight, but generally speaking, he and his devoted followers supported investment into nuclear power, a return to a commodity-based monetary system (think the gold standard) and fixed interest rates, defending our way of life against an international conspiracy of the global Aristotelian elite that is led by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II to control the world through a combination of terrorism and the drug trade, and changing the pitch we use to tune our instruments to be slightly lower.
It is easy to read that and dismiss him as “what you get when you give a scientologist two pot gummies and lock them in a room with a flat-earther”, or “the most batshit insane conspiracy theorist I have ever seen” or “That Guy”. But it would be an injustice to lump him in with the likes of L. Ron Hubbard and Alex Jones. They don’t hold a candle to him.
Today, I will tell you the tale of Lyndon LaRouche. We will explore his life, his finest achievements and his greatest defeats. We will examine his worldview, and where his bizarre ideas and priorities came from. We will uncover the secrets of his enduring appeal. And we will examine the times where he actually got it right.
Which is more often than you might think.
1. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending”
Lyndon LaRouche was born in Rochester, New Hampshire, in the year 1922. His parents were Quakers, who forbade him from fighting other children, even in self defense. This consigned him to a neverending torment of bullying throughout his early years. He took to wandering alone through the woods, and threw himself into the comforting grip of books, particularly philosophy. From his 1979 autobiography: “I survived socially by making chiefly Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant my principal peers, looking at myself, my thoughts, my commitments to practice in terms of a kind of collectivity of them constructed in my own mind.”
He was, in short, a geek.
After high school, he attended Northeastern University in Boston, but was “disgusted with the methodological incompetence of most of [his] courses”. He left in 1942.
From there, he wandered through the maze of far-left groups that existed among students at the time. He joined the Socialist Workers Party in 1949, but dismissed them as merely “a custodial staff keeping premises warmed and aired out for the arrival of actual revolutionary leaders”. His contemporaries described him as having an extraordinary breadth of knowledge and “a marvelous ability to place any world happening in a larger context, which seemed to give the event additional meaning”. But the same accounts said his analysis was only skin-deep. His ideas were often contradictory and lacking in detail.
He was also a clear egotist. While a Marxist and Trotskyist by name, LaRouche fixated on their discussion of the elite intellectuals who would join the working class’s revolution. He thought they were talking about him. He believed that he was that philosopher-king who could lead the masses to victory in the US as Lenin had in Russia.
These impulses magnified through the 1960s and early 70s. He took to savagely critiquing his fellow leftists for their past disagreements with him, asserting that history consistently proved him right (note: Lyn Marcus was his pen name at the time). He predicted economic depressions and imminent fascist overthrow and communist revolution. This made him a polarizing figure on the left, with a few ever-more-devoted adherents being counterbalanced by total abandonment from the rest of his audience.
The 1970s: a Leader Emerges
In 1973, he formed the first of his many organizations: the National Caucus of Labor Committees. It’s worth reading over its founding principles for yourself, but I’ve picked out the most important:
12. “Therefore, the political existence of the working class depends upon the intervention of an “outside agency,” whose function it is to bring the political (working) class for itself into being. This “outside agency” can only be a social formation which has already attained an advanced approximation of the working-class consciousness which the working class itself lacks. Only a handful of the capitalist intelligentsia is capable of fulfilling this decisive role, by combining an anti-capitalist political and social orientation with the mastery of history, sociology and economics from the standpoint of the dialectical method.”
17. “While the cadre organization must submit to the class interests of the potential political (working) class for itself, that means and demands insulating the vanguard organization from corrupting intrusions of reactionary (bourgeois) ideology dominant among working people generally, oppressed minorities, and radical students, etc., in a capitalist society. Realization of socialist conceptions means that alien political ideas have ipso facto no voting rights over the formulation of policy within the vanguard organization. It means that the less-developed consciousness of socialist principles must be subordinated to the most-advanced consciousness within the organization.”
In other words: LaRouche and his followers didn’t think an organic labor revolution was in the cards. They believed that the workers of the world needed to be united by an outside force of intellectuals. Only a few special minds would be up to the task. In practice, that meant Lyndon LaRouche and those who agreed with everything Lyndon LaRouche thought.
What’s more, the closing-off of dissenting voices was a foundational idea in the LaRouche movement. For the revolution to succeed, it had to be protected, even from the people it was ostensibly for.
The NCLC quickly took on the trappings of a cult. In 1974, the New York Times wrote of its practices:
It also describes a darker side. The early NCLC was obsessed with brainwashing, and LaRouche himself participated in a “deprogramming” incident with a member named Christopher White. He taped the entire affair, and in it one can hear sounds of weeping, vomiting, pleas for mercy, and LaRouche’s voice saying “raise the voltage”.
He probably selected White because he was British. Britain was a boogeyman to LaRouche, and remained so until his death. He believed that Imperial Britain never truly died, and that it continued to secretly fight to sustain capitalism. He believed that it and its allies controlled vast swathes of the world including the US intelligence agencies. And since he believed that he was the only one who could lead the revolution, they obviously were preoccupied with assassinating him.
Note: interestingly, the FBI really WAS monitoring LaRouche, and some agents even proposed taking steps to help the US Communist party eliminate him. The Bureau has long abused its authority to harass and disrupt both violent and non-violent leftist groups, and attacking LaRouche would not be out of character. I am, however, somewhat more skeptical that their tactics included mind-control.
By the mid-70s, LaRouche had abandoned any pretense of alliance with other leftist groups. Shortly after its formation, the NCLC would begin “Operation Mop-Up”: packs of LaRouchies would roam the streets of New York, beating to a pulp any members of rival leftist groups they found. One harrowing account was printed in the Village Voice.
He also began to reach out to a different kind of extremist groups: far-right fascists. He abandoned Marx (note: if you value your non-aching head, do not try to read that), became a vicious anti-environmentalist, and made overtures to groups like the KKK. This led many outside the movement to say he became a far-right fascist, though he continued to find allies at the fringes of both the left and right for the rest of his career.
Before we leave this era, I should mention that it saw his first Presidential campaign, in 1976. His platform predicted the apocalypse in less than 2 decades if he did not win. It also featured a paid half-hour address on prime-time T.V., which would become a mainstay of his candidacies.
He received just over 40,000 votes nationwide.
The 1980s: Pride and a Fall
LaRouche reached the height of his power in the Reagan administration. His organization moved from New York to a mansion in the sleepy town of Leesburg, Virginia. They turned it into a fortified compound, guarded by camouflaged devotees armed with guns. They harassed the locals, accusing the local garden club of being a Russian PsyOp and forcing one lawyer to abandon the town.
In his greatest electoral achievement at the state and federal level, LaRouche-affiliated candidates managed to win the democratic primaries for both Lieutenant Governor and Secretary of State in Illinois. The candidate for Governor declined to run alongside the LaRouchies and switched to a third-party bid. The republican ultimately won the race.
At the same time, he began to spread the most pernicious lie of his career: that AIDS wasn’t sexually transmitted, but could be caught from just a cough or a touch, and that victims should be quarantined for the good of the public. He put a proposition on the ballot in California to ban AIDS patients from holding jobs and their children from attending schools. While it was defeated, it got over a million votes. It seemed only a matter of time before his movement would win one of these races.
This success would not last. The International Plot had finally found his weakness: the money.
Throughout the 1980s, the FBI had quietly been investigating LaRouche and his organization for a host of alleged financial crimes, including widespread credit-card fraud. As the decade wore on, the list of active investigators expanded to include both the IRS and the Federal Election Commission.
In 1986, the FBI raided LaRouche’s offices in both Virginia and Massachusetts. They found extensive evidence of a host of financial crimes, enough for a Boston grand jury to indict LaRouche and the leadership of his movement. That jury, led by a young US Attorney named Robert Mueller, alleged that LaRouche’s organization had committed over 2,000 cases of credit card fraud, and made extensive efforts to obstruct the investigation and destroy evidence. The defense lawyers described (accurately) an extensive campaign of harassment against the organization by the FBI. The trial began in early 1987, and dragged on well into 1988. In the end, the government was forced to declare a mistrial: the case had gone for so long, and enough jurors had been excused for having to return to work, that they could no longer maintain a jury.
The case then moved to Virginia, where it progressed more quickly. It also took on more charges: for some reason, the government felt it was strange that a man who lived in a fortified mansion hadn’t filed a tax return in a decade.
LaRouche was ultimately convicted on fourteen different counts of varying forms of conspiracy and fraud, and sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The Long Goodbye
Incarceration did not stop Lyndon LaRouche. He received daily intelligence reports from his organization while in prison, and even ran for president from a jail cell in 1992. He also shared a cell with the infamous televangelist Jim Bakker, who later remarked that “to say LaRouche was a little paranoid would be like saying that the Titanic had a little leak.”
LaRouche was released early in 1994. But it was never quite the same. His organization had been hollowed out by the investigation, and what was left had atrophied without his peculiar charisma.
At first, he threw his resources behind a campaign to exonerate him, but it sadly failed. With that failure, he turned towards 9/11 conspiracy theories and other, almost run-of-the-mill fringe beliefs like global warming denial.
He also began to suffer a clear mental decline. His writings had never been the clearest, but they grew more and more bizarre, almost nonsensical. They lurched uneasily from discourse on sense-perception to asides on Truman’s presidency, with little rhyme or reason.
There are three remaining events of import in his story.
The first was his accurate prediction of the 2008 financial crash. It’s a real achievement on his part, albeit watered down by the fact that he had been predicting the crash was imminent for several decades. Better late than never.
Second, he was a pioneer of the most pernicious smears of the Obamacare debates. I mentioned the Hitler-mustache posters earlier, but he was also an early adopter of the death-panels myth, referring to the healthcare bill as “genocide” months before the republicans caught on. It would later become Politifact’s “Lie of the Year”.
Finally, his last political act was to throw his support behind Donald Trump’s campaign. Because of course he did.
LaRouche died on February 12 this year. He was 96. He leaves behind a tight-knit group of several thousand devotees, many of whom have stuck with him since he first founded the NCLC.
For his entire career, LaRouche was an enigma to those of us on the outside. His bizarre mix of issues and theories seemed to have no rhyme or reason whatsoever. But there was a method to the madness, and a reason why so many people stayed so loyal to him for so long.
2. “The Good therefore may be said to be the source not only of the intelligibility of the objects of knowledge, but also of their existence and reality”
In order to grok Lyndon LaRouche, you first have to grok his worldview. And for that, we have to go back all the way to ancient Greece, and the discourse of Plato and Aristotle. I am not going to explain every aspect of the two philosopher’s beliefs, but the most pertinent debate covered the obscure and minor subject known as “the nature of reality”.
Plato believed in an idea of the “forms”: roughly, reality, ugly, imperfect, and chaotic, was a reflection of a set of greater Ideas. The chair I’m sitting in is just an imperfect realization of the Idea of “chair”. He described our struggle to understand and contemplate those forms in the famous “Allegory of the Cave” that you probably read in high school.
Aristotle took a more naturalistic approach. He did not believe that there was some perfect representation of “chair” out there for us to understand. He saw these as unproductive thought experiments. He preferred to ground himself in observations of the natural world around him.
Lyndon LaRouche has turned that dispute into the driving force of all of human history since. To him, every intellectual in every discipline has, without realizing it, been a follower of Plato or Aristotle. The pursuers of the Ideal, and the Church of Sense Perception. Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Kepler are Platonists. Kant, Locke, and Hobbes are Aristotelians.
He also takes a side. The Platonists are right. The Aristotelian tradition of pure naturalism has led us astray. He blames the failed leadership of the Aristotelians (which are usually oligarchs) for most, if not all, of the world’s ills. To him, the intellectual descendants of this Greek philosopher powerful and power-hungry, and we must stop them at any cost.
And Lyndon LaRouche is the only man who can do it.
Many have tried to label LaRouche as either a “Marxist” or a “Fascist”. But they never fully fit. He is at times one, and then the other. His political ideology does not match any other movement in our history, because philosophically, he acts on a different axis. They, like the poor souls in Plato’s cave, see only the shadows his worldview casts on the wall. The light flickers, and the shadow changes from left to right and back again, but the object stays the same.
Likewise, the many accusations of anti-semitism, racism, and homophobia fail to land. While he may have been all three, and he certainly used racist, homophobic, and anti-semitic language and pursued hateful policies against each, such concerns were tangential to him. It’s the reason why he managed to lead a movement with so many jews it alienated the KKK while authoring pieces titled “My View on the Jewish Question”. He didn’t use pseudo-philosophical conspiracy theories as coded language for antisemitic beliefs. He used antisemitic rhetoric as coded language for his pseudo-philosophical conspiracy theories.
Once you accept the core premise of Plato vs. Aristotle, you begin a descent down a truly bottomless rabbit-hole of paranoia and pseudo-history, pseudo-philosophy, pseudoscience, really all the pseudo’s you can muster. Kepler’s theories of planetary orbits become a real-life manifestation of the platonic forms. They, in turn, are a metaphor for the discrete stages of human progress (an idea originally taken from Marx). The deeper you go, the more his bizarre panoply of policies make sense. Take his opposition to environmental regulation and support of nuclear power. If you see the purpose of humanity as unlocking these higher spheres of progress, like expanding out through Kepler orbits, then anything that obstructs our progress is an evil thing. We can’t afford to waste time caring about our impact on the world around us if it would arrest our forward motion intellectually. And we’ll need a lot of energy to fuel our philosophical explorations as more people devote their time to the arts…
If it doesn’t make perfect sense to you, don’t worry. I’d be concerned if it did.
3. “All Men by Nature Desire to Know”
It is easy for those of us on the outside to dismiss LaRouche’s ideas as the worst sort of crypto-fascist nonsense and his followers as misguided morons. We all want to think that there is no way we’d ever fall for such blatant malarkey. But the science of cults tells us that belief is as much a fantasy as anything that came out of Lyndon LaRouche’s mouth. If you don’t believe me, I suggest you check out this Ted Talk from a former member of a different cult on how they lured her in, though I should warn you, it has some awfully disturbing imagery.
At its core, the movement’s appeal comes from our own search for meaning. It begins by targeting people who are already struggling with that question: the young and idealistic, the lonely and isolated, and the grieving. Essentially, people who feel in some way unmoored in our large and uncertain world.
LaRouche and his followers take these vulnerable people and give them an anchor. Where the rest of us offer chaos and confusion, LaRouche offers clarity and confidence. He tells you that the world isn’t all that complicated after all. He tells you that the truth is out there, and he can help you find it. Most importantly, he tells you that you are special. That you have a purpose. You were meant to fight in this titanic struggle between good and evil. Only you can learn how the world really works. And your job is to help spread that knowledge to others. All you have to do is listen to the man on the brochures.
The group’s pitch is both personal and interpersonal. Movements like LaRouche’s offer a strong sense of social comradeship. The other members are your tribe now, and they look out for their own. New recruits are encouraged to abandon their old ties to friends and family, replacing them with bonds to fellow LaRouchies. When they do so, they provide the same social validation to the next wave of recruits.
Then there is the initiation process. The other members purge your mind of its preconceptions that might interfere with the movement’s goals, in order to ensure your loyalty. Often, this gets physical (“Raise the voltage”), but it is certainly not always. It can be as tame as attending a rally under the right conditions. Outsiders call this process “brainwashing” and “programming”. Larouche described it as bringing out the recognition that “one’s self as presented to the world is not ‘the real me,’ not the ‘soul.'” I use a different term: hazing. We try to exoticize the process by calling it “brainwashing” to convince us that we wouldn’t fall for it, but the truth is that it is not so different from your average fraternity initiation or elaborate team-building exercise. The operate on the same basic principle: validating your sense of belonging to the group through shared suffering or sacrifice.
Whatever our individual differences, all humans are united by a few fundamental desires. We all want to feel like we belong, like we have some identity to be proud of. We all want a sense of purpose and fulfillment in our daily lives. We all want to feel right, like we are a good person, and like we know what to do next. Ideologies like LaRouche’s are a one-stop shop for all of these basic needs. They give you that identity. They give you that purpose. They give you the certainty that you are right, because LaRouche is right, and you’re with him.
Usually, when non-members talk to true believers, we fixate on the contradictory evidence the true believers rationalize away or ignore. We look on in disbelief as they dismiss overwhelming scientific consensus, the apocalyptic predictions that didn’t happen, even proven criminal activity as “fake news” and “propaganda”. But that behavior is only an exaggerated version of impulses we all share. When we are presented with information that contradicts our worldview or identity, we find a way to disregard it. LaRouche and his adherents are just more audacious in their confirmation bias than we are.
This appeal can work on anyone. Intelligence and education are no shield: the first members of LaRouche’s movement were Columbia students. Rich and poor, black and white, men and women, we all share the same cognitive biases and we all are vulnerable to the undeniable pull of a movement that has all the answers.
4. “I much prefer the sharpest criticism of a single intelligent man to the thoughtless approval of the masses”
A funny thing happened while I was researching this post: frequently, far more frequently than I ever expected, I found myself agreeing with Lyndon LaRouche.
Sure, he said some crazy stuff. I have barely scraped the surface of the lunacy he espoused over the course of his career. You could fill a book with all the bizarre, absurd, and incomprehensible theories the man has come up with. Many people have, including LaRouche himself.
But the great tragedy of Lyndon LaRouche, what sets him apart from Alex Jones and Louis Farrakhan and the other also-rans of our political fringe, is just how often he actually got it right.
Take a line like this: “automation not only wipes out jobs, it wipes out the need for old-style, repetitive factory labor. In place of production workers, we will need an equal or greater number of engineers and scientists. Our whole educational system will be hopelessly outdated by these changes in the means of production. Educational changes must be made so that we may have the skills we need.”
Today, that sounds like an almost trite observation of our post-industrial economy. Automation and the collapse of manufacturing jobs across this country helped elect Donald Trump. It is a fundamental force shaping our entire culture. And education and re-education are contributing factors: we have far too many unemployed steel-workers, far too few software engineers, and no good way to convert one into the other. Right now, that passage is uncontroversial.
Even his core delusion, the Aristotelian conspiracy, is rooted in a real philosophical dispute. Aristotle and Plato really did disagree. And while I’m unconvinced that their dispute is the driving force of history, when LaRouche starts talking about objectivity and its limitations, he makes an uncomfortable amount of sense:
“In reality, what we call “modern science” is a highly subjective business. People who run around talking about “objective science” really show that they don’t know much about the history of science.”
That statement is true. History has shown us that, while the scientific method may be immune to bias, its practitioners are not. If science and its practitioners really were objective, it wouldn’t advance one funeral at a time.
Note: in the section after that quote, he says a cabal of gay British Aristotelians are concealing the evidence that cold fusion is real and also that rock music is a Satanic plot. I didn’t say the man was perfect.
Every account by outsiders who knew LaRouche describes astonishment at the breadth of his intelligence. He was well-read, sharp-witted, and at times downright insightful. I don’t know whether his paranoia was built into his genes or if some therapy and the right environment of fellow thinkers might have tamed his worst impulses. But I do know that buried within the lunatic was a true visionary.
5. “There is a strange charm in the thoughts of a good legacy”
History will not be kind to Lyndon LaRouche. His lies have done too much damage for him to be more than a figure of scorn, if he is remembered at all. His legacy will be the violence of his followers, his misinformation campaigns about AIDS and Obamacare, and his climate change denialism. That is a good thing. The pain they have caused has already outlived him, and will continue to haunt us for decades to come.
And yet, it feels wrong to celebrate his departure, to reduce him to his greatest crimes. He was more than just another cultist or con-artist hovering at the fringes of our politics. He was a living contradiction, a proof that our understanding of our own culture isn’t as concrete as we’d like to believe. He made allies of black nationalists and the Ku Klux Klan. He was completely insane, but his brainwashed followers are probably better-versed in the classics than you are. He was a politician, a philosopher, a cult leader, a communist, a fascist, a felon, even (horrifyingly) a poet. He was, by a significant margin, the weirdest person in American politics.
Lyndon LaRouche died at the age of 96. For the first time in a century, we are living in a world without him. It’s a different world from where we lived before. It may be better off for his absence. It probably is. But whatever else, it is certainly less interesting.