David McDonagh – RIP

David McDonagh "The role of 'The Wealth of Nations' as a pristine ...It is with great sadness that I must report the death of David McDonagh. Details are as yet scarce, but I am told that he suffered a heart attack on the 12th June.

I first met David in 1980, back in the days when there was just one Libertarian Alliance. We would attend LA meetings at the Conway Hall in London – I as an earnest student, sat in the audience, he as one of the luminaries of the Movement, sat behind one of those trestle tables that shook every time someone breathed.

When the Libertarian Alliance suffered its Great Schism, I found myself in the Chris Tame Faction. However, though David was part of the other Faction, we remained on friendly terms. We became significantly more friendly after Chris died in 2006, when I became a semi-regular speaker at events organised by his part of the Libertarian Alliance.

In all the time I knew him, David never seemed to change. Except he grew more battered over the years, he wore much the same clothes, and he never changed the style of his hair or moustache. He also never changed his opinions. From first to last, he was a Cobdenite Liberal. There was always something about him of the early twentieth century, when Cobdenism was last a viable movement. He could be irritating in debate – pedantic, repetitive, very much in love with the sound of his own voice. These were traits he carried into his written correspondence. At the same time, he possessed a large fund of simple goodness, and I am not aware of anyone who disliked him. I certainly never did.

Because he had been for so long a fixture of the British libertarian movement, predating even my own involvement, I had retained a young man’s belief that his elders would live forever. His death is a shock to me and a cause of much sadness. I will pay tribute to all that he did to keep libertarianism alive – let us face it, a thankless task given the circumstances of at least the past thirty years. He lived and died a man of immoveable principle and personal decency. We must lament his death, but also celebrate his life.

He will not be forgotten.


  1. I sat opposite David on the train back from an LA meeting in London in the ’80’s. We had a long and interesting conversation about selfishness; he thought there was only one possible completely selfish act which we needn’t go into here. R.I.P.

    Nick Russell, Hereford

  2. Having debated with this man online, I know what you are getting it: he was very fixed in his views, maybe overly fixed and dogmatic, but he wasn’t unpleasant about it. He once told me that I was in thrall to the state, which I thought was a bit much at the time, but looking back at it I find it quite funny. I thought he was all right.

  3. This is sad news. And you’re right, Sean; David did much to keep the liberty movement in the UK alive. Myself, I didn’t find him quite as fixed and dogmatic as some others seem to. He was a good man.

  4. Sad news indeed Sean. I well remember those Conway Hall meetings – and the trestle tables! Before that we used to sit on the floors of the flats of the few members that we had. When we got to around ten converts Chris told me that “I think there may be two more up in Manchester!” One was probably the now Professor Steve Davies. Incidentally, the last Kilmarnock vote for the Scottish Libertarian Party would, if extrapolated, imply that there are now 250,000 libertarians in the UK!

    David was always around in those early days. I would be hard pressed to explain the cause of LA split and I too was in the Chris faction. My then boss told me to concentrate more on my professional exams and less on the exciting battles in the LA. At one post-split meeting when Chris was still with us – possibly at the Red Lion in Westminster – David McDonagh turned up and he came straight up to me an we started chatting. No strong reaction from Chris. He may well have said “hello” to David. At least a nod I think.

    I’m glad that Sean and David worked together for the cause. No doubt we’ll have to get government approval to talk in the future… But victory can be achieved. Just a couple of hundred yards from my flat here in Edinburgh are Cobden Terrace and Bright Terrace – both constructed co-operatively by members of the working class who appreciated what liberty had done for them.

    • I’ve been several times through the archive you gave me in 2011, and through the further mass I got from Chris. What it was all about and who was to blame both remain obscure. I’m glad I got on so well with David.

    • David Ransay Steele writes:

      “I am shocked and saddened to hear of the death of my dear friend David McDonagh. He has probably had a greater impact on my life and thinking than anyone else I have personally known. He was born and raised in tragically dysfunctional circumstances and spent much of his childhood in institutions, from which he emerged with nothing in the way of a respectable education. He became a general laborer, then a painter-decorator. Because of being a painter-decorator, he immediately reacted to the TV adaptation, and then to the book, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, that remarkable socialist story in which painter-decorators in their work breaks sit around talking about what is wrong with society. A little later than me, he joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain, and thus did acquire something of an education. By the early 1970s, we both had severe doubts about socialism/communism, me primarily because of Mises, McDonagh primarily because of Michels. And so by the mid-1970s we both arrived at libertarianism. We each got our Form Fs (Form A is when you join the SPGB, Form F is when you cease to be a member). Owing to a traffic accident, he lost the use of his right arm. He used to say “Circumstances are the victims of people”; after his accident he would add, “but sometimes the circumstances hit back.” He then went to Warwick University and got a degree in philosophy. He was the most perfectly honest person I have known. He said “Honesty is an achievement,” meaning that honesty does not come naturally or spontaneously but requires work. He challenged and changed the ideas of thousands of people. Human civilization is a bit more fragile because of his passing.”

  5. As I was catching up on some of Sean’s unread newsletters last night sadly I just learn about David’s recent passing. I never met David in person but he made a huge positive impact on my life for which I’m profoundly grateful. David and I corresponded with each other both privately and through email responses on some internet forums on which he sure spent countless hours responding to others and in which I mostly observed and occasionally interjected, I have in total more than seven thousand emails from him dated as far back as Feb 2013, the vast majority of which I’ve read.

    He was such an avid reader and a true philosopher. I’m not sure about the claim that he was “very much in love with the sound of his own voice”, but one thing for sure was that if you wrote to David, you can pretty much expect a proper response because David loved to debate, he saw it as an invaluable way to correct or eliminate errors in our thinking which otherwise may follow us forever. So judging by how much he debated others I can only conclude that his ideas were very fine-tuned and polished or at least more than what I can ever aspire.

    The type of conversations that I personally found of most interest were discussions about the Socialist’s economic calculation problem, primarily directed to some folks over the SPGB. Karl Popper’s Three Worlds. he also wrote a good deal against Political Correctness and the case for Classical Liberalism. He hated the State, he hated war and poor Nietzsche, he hated him too, said that: “he was a cretin”. He very much liked Hobbes, as well as Niccolo Machiavelli, he wrote to me once saying that Machiavelli was one among very few honest writers that understood the truly alien nature of the State and properly understood it as an entity that is foreign to society’s main interests, and lamented that he suffered unjustly at the hands of his torturers.

    He also lamented and offered me a recount of the events that led to the Libertarian Alliance separation, he knew exactly who to blame for it. It doesn’t matter much now but he agreed with me that the whole thing was a bit silly.

    What I liked the most about David is that he had a solid goal in life: To win people over [to Liberalism] and thus was truly dedicated to his cause. I never saw a shred of arrogance, cynicism, or intolerance in any of his correspondence with others and it irritated me more than him when others didn’t pay him back in kind. I know he organized or conducted regular LA meetings which I occasionally followed on Youtube and which I was hoping one day I could crash and surprise him with a visit to finally know him in person, sadly now that won’t ever happen.

    He cared a lot for his best friends, among which are Jan, David and Ray. My condolences to you.

    As for me, he wrote to me once saying: “It has been wonderful to have you as a friend, Kleber.”

    … Likewise my friend. May your body rest in peace but your soul and spirit live forever.


    PS. In case anyone’s interested, a lot of David’s writings can be found here:

    Critical Cafe: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/critical_cafe/info
    Libertarian Alliance Ltd: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/libertarian-alliance-forum/info
    Libertarian Alliance Forum https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/libertarianallianceforum/info

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