How far can struggles against tyranny go without becoming tyrannical? C.M. Kornbluth’s The Syndic, a 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame winner

To make clear why each Prometheus winner deserves recognition as notable pro-freedom and/or anti-authoritarian works, the Libertarian Futurist Society is publishing an Appreciation series of all award-winners. Here is our Appreciation of C.M. Kornbluth’s The Syndic, one of two 1986 Prometheus Hall of Fame inductees for Best Classic Fiction.

By William H. Stoddard

C.M. Kornbluth’s novel The Syndic was an early winner of the Hall of Fame Award, in 1986.

Originally published in 1953, it was an example both of what Isaac Asimov called “social science fiction,” envisioning a change in technology or human behavior and working out its cultural implications, and of “thought variant” fiction, seeking to explore provocative ideas.

Such ideas were supposed to stir up discussion by going against conventional beliefs, in the style Robert Heinlein envisioned in Space Cadet as a required seminar in “Doubt”:

The seminar leader would chuck out some proposition that attacked a value usually attacked as axiomatic. From there on anything could be said.

Kornbluth picked a really provocative premise: A future North America ruled by organized crime, with the government driven into exile, creating a freer and happier society than that of his own time. This led to a story with a lot of action, but one where social speculation was never far from sight.

It has to be said that The Syndic isn’t based on standard libertarian ideas such as free markets or natural rights. It certainly isn’t anarchistic, despite its postulating that “the Government” has been abolished; its replacement in eastern North America, the Syndicate, is as exclusively in control as the former government had been, and continues to support local police forces.

In fact, its hero first appears as a tax collector for the Syndicate! His approach is more informal and has room for negotiation, but it’s clear that he’s a racketeer collecting protection money—a comparison, to be sure, that libertarians often make!—and thus the Syndicate fits Mancur Olson’s concept of the “stationary bandit” as the prototype of the state.

And the Syndicate has no sympathy for unregulated markets; a key scene has the hero’s mentor bullying a banker into given loans to clients of the Syndicate without demanding collateral or proof of solvency.

But the novel is written around a different libertarian idea: That, as Lysander Spooner wrote in the nineteenth century, “vices are not crimes,” and that morals laws do only harm.

In Kornbluth’s future society, liquor and tobacco are untaxed and freely available, and gambling and prostitution are unrestricted. In fact, Kornbluth is envisioning a society without repression, to put it in the Freudian terms that were popular in his time; and he postulates that the psychological nature of human beings has been changed, invalidating all the old findings of psychological research.

During his secret mission, the hero encounters an official of the exiled Government who denounces the sexual freedom of the mainland, and isn’t much mollified to hear that the hero knows a number of monogamous couples in their thirties or older — he doesn’t expect such things of the young! In effect, Kornbluth was envisioning the Sexual Revolution a decade or two before it happened.

On the other hand, the Government, in exile, has only gotten worse.

Its internal affairs involve ruthless power politics; its treatment of its subject populations is sadistic; and it still aspires to reconquer North America, and is seeking allies on the continent for the attempt. Kornbluth shows it as transformed back into a band of non-stationary bandits, rather as feudal aristocrats turned into highwaymen during the English Revolution.

No wonder, then, that the hero, and the woman who teams up with him, come back from their adventures determined to destroy the Government at any cost. But here Kornbluth raises a deeper libertarian issue: How far can the struggle against tyranny go without itself becoming tyrannical?

As Nietzsche warned, those who gaze into the abyss find the abyss gazing back, and those who fight monsters may become monsters.

Can any scheme for protecting human freedom, whether constitutional government, or anarchy, or rule by cheerfully tolerant gangsters, escape a kind of political entropy?

That’s a question worthy of Heinlein’s seminar in “Doubt,” and fitting such a seminar, Kornbluth leaves the reader to find their own answer. And that makes this novel especially worthy of libertarian attention.

Note: Cyril (C.M.) Kornbluth (1923-1958) was a Golden Age American science fiction author. He was relatively prolific during his short life, writing nine novels published between 1952 and 1959 and many short stories.

Cyril Kornbluth in 1955 (Creative Commons license)

Kornbluth, who collaborated with writer Frederik Pohl on the novels The Space Merchants and Gladiator-at-Law, died at 34 of a heart attack while running to catch a train to get to a New York job interview for the position of editor of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Pohl later completed and published a number of short stories that had remained unfinished at Kornbluth’s death. One story, “The Meeting,” co-won the 1973 Hugo Award for Best Short Story.
Several collections of his stories and novels have been published, including Eight Worlds of C.M. Kornbluth.


* Other Prometheus winners:   For a full list of winners – for the annual Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction (Hall of Fame) categories and occasional Special Awards – visit the recently updated and enhanced Prometheus Awards page  on the LFS website. (This page contains convenient direct clickable links to each Appreciation for Best Novel and Best Classic Fiction, as they are published on the Prometheus blog.)

* Read the introductory essay about the LFS’ 40th anniversary retrospective series of Appreciations of past Prometheus Awards winners, with an overview of the awards’ four-decade history that launched the series in 2019. If you’ve ever wondered why some fiction is recognized with a Prometheus, this series will help you better understand what LFS members see as the libertarian and anti-authoritarian themes in each winner.

* Join us! To help sustain the Prometheus Awards, join the Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS), a non-profit all-volunteer association of freedom-loving sf/fantasy fans, and help nominate, judge and vote for the annual Prometheus Award winners.

Libertarian futurists believe upholding and advancing culture is as vital as politics in spreading positive visions of the future, achieving a flourishing society based on cooperation instead of coercion and a better, free-er world (perhaps eventually, worlds) for all.

Published by

Michael Grossberg

Michael Grossberg, who founded the LFS in 1982 to help sustain the Prometheus Awards, has been an arts critic, speaker and award-winning journalist for five decades. Michael has won Ohio SPJ awards for Best Critic in Ohio and Best Arts Reporting (seven times). He's written for Reason, Libertarian Review and Backstage weekly; helped lead the American Theatre Critics Association for two decades; and has contributed to six books, including critical essays for the annual Best Plays Theatre Yearbook and an afterword for J. Neil Schulman's novel The Rainbow Cadenza. Among books he recommends from a libertarian-futurist perspective: Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist & How Innovation Works, David Boaz's The Libertarian Mind and Steven Pinker's Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.

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