And at this point, the title I chose for this blog series has become somewhat of a misnomer. It has outlived its time. For no longer is there anything best described as an Old Right. It has died. Its remnant is scarce and far between. The circumstances in which the somewhat tenuous coalition presented itself — in reaction to the foreign and domestic New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt — is long gone. The libertarian hard core has been marginalized, or has passed on. Rothbard and a few remain, but the right, in all popularly conceived senses, is nothing like it was in the years of Garrett, Mencken and Nock.
The anti-World War II coalition — which, as Rothbard astutely and importantly points out, somewhat in passing, was never so grand and impressive once the war was underway; the true non-interventionists were few after the populist America First movement was depopulated by the cataclysm of Pearl Harbor — gave way to something approximating its precise opposite on the right: The Cold War coalition. Domestically, the alienated and persecuted rightwing struck back at the left with McCarthyism and grassroots red-bating — a concoction of political revenge so tempting, and so well cloaked in the garb of anti-Communism that Rothbard himself was taken in at first. Then, of course, there was the nakedly coercive backlash: The repression of civilian socialists, a program that our principled libertarian author rejected outright and always saw as a vile and pernicious practice. Then there was the war itself: War against godless Communism, against the greatest threat to mankind, which a totalitarian American bureaucracy, even with Truman at the reins of it all, must be erected and glorified for the duration of the titanic clash between Civilized American Man and the Soviet Devil. On this program, Buckley (RIP) transformed nearly the entire right into a movement for which war, even nuclear war, was the fundamental issue, under which all else would be subordinated, and for which the official gatekeepers would come to purge the movement of classical liberals, antiwar rightists, those with Randian or Bircher alliances and, of course, Murray N. Rothbard. The conservative movement, which has persisted in that essential character to this day, was born. The Old Right was dead.
Thus does the last phase of the story described in Rothbard’s The Betrayal of the American Right commence.
Rothbard began to rethink everything as he came to the inescapable conclusions that war along with its inevitable domestic statism was the most important issue, that the New Right thought so as well, and that on this, the issue that would make or break any serious ideological coalition, he and the overwhelming bulk of the right were of irreconcilably opposing minds. Indeed, Rothbard came to see all war as being at total odds with libertarian ethics, as he explained so trenchantly in his 1963 essay, “War, Peace and the State.”
The implications of this disagreement were far too significant to ignore. The right had turned its back completely on distrust of central economic planning and war. It had turned the anti-dissent tactics used by the Old Left (including against radical socialists) to oppress its own enemies. It had taken up, as its one unifying issue, a cold war of indefinite duration — a war started by the Liberal Democrats, at that!!
Rothbard quotes Ron Hamowy’s characterization of the New Right’s doctrines, as made apparent from scouring National Review:
(1) a belligerent foreign policy likely to result in war; (2) a suppression of civil liberties at home; (3) a devotion to imperialism and to a polite form of white supremacy; (4) a tendency towards the union of Church and State; (5) the conviction that the community is superior to the individual and that historic tradition is a far better guide than reason; and (6) a rather lukewarm support of the free economy.
Sound familiar? It would seem a reasonable position that all this talk about Bush and the neoconservatives turning their back on the conservative movement is out of touch. As Hamowy put it nearly 50 years ago, the new conservatism was
not of the heroic band of libertarians who founded the anti-New Deal Right, but the traditional conservatism that has always been the enemy of true liberalism, the conservatism of Pharonic Egypt, of Medieval Europe, of Metternich and the Tsar, of James II, and the Inquisition; and Louis XVI, of the rack, the thumbscrew, the whip, and the firing squad. I, for one, do not very much mind that a philosophy which has for centuries dedicated itself to trampling upon the rights of the individual and glorifying the State should have its old name back.
But what about Communism? Was it not a menace? Was it not the exact negation of libertarian principle? Sure, in theory, and domestically in practice, Rothbard concluded. But in terms of the cold war, support for perpetual conflict with Russia, with the dream for it to come to nuclear holocaust, put things into perspective. American communists “opposed to nuclear weapons and atomic war” whereas the New Right supported it, making Rothbard wonder if the New Right was “more of an Enemy than the Communists.”
As Rothbard dug deeper into history, he began rejecting the Old Right interpretation that the US had sold out to Russia during World War II and that, ever since, Russia has been the principal aggressor in world affairs. He came to adopt the New Left positions on foreign policy, defended by such historians as William Appleman Williams, leading him to the conclusion that it was the US, in fact, that had been the major aggressor in the Cold War, and was seeking to expand its war to Indochina. He also began opening up to the economic analysis, but of course not the theory, of such New Left economic historians as Gabriel Kolko, deciding that, in fact, big business has been the major proponent of domestic regulatory socialism. In many ways, Rothbard came to see himself as more left than right, all in the context of a terrible foreign policy hailed by the right and increasingly derided by a refreshing left, which showed some promise of ever improving.
Rothbard, once a proud extreme right wing Republican, now saw himself as having much more in common with the left wing of the Democrats. This experience, along with the crucial insights of his good friend Leonard Liggio, led him to the view that he would outline in the inaugural issue of his new journal, Left and Right, in a cover article called “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty.” He saw the political spectrum not as he once did, with the libertarians on the far right, the conservatives to the left of that, then the liberals, and then the socialists. No. Conservatism was, and always had been, the ideology of power, privilege, corporatism, militarism, theocracy, slavery and reactionary, coercive hierarchy. Libertarianism, having come from classical liberalism and individual anarchism, was the opposing doctrine of liberty, private property, peace and freedom of association, enterprise and trade. The liberals’ goals had been liberation and empowerment of the masses; they had championed progress, the industrial revolution, and the destruction of the Ancien Régime.
The socialists professed the same goals. They were not the opposite of libertarians. They were in the middle of the road – desiring to use conservative, statist means to achieve liberal ends. This new outlook inspired Rothbard to continue work with the left against the warfare state, police brutality, and a centralized, managerial political economy of state-corporate privilege. In terms of electoral activism and such, he worked with such groups as the Students for a Democratic Society and the Peace and Freedom party until, sometime around the early 1970s, he realized the New Left was now on the decline, no longer interested in intellectual work but now obsessed with mindless “action.” His interests would soon shift to libertarianism proper, as a radical and growing freedom movement emerged with neither the anti-property trappings of the left nor the bloodthirsty pro-war totalitarian obsessions of the right.
The modern libertarian movement that continues to this day was thus born, in the shadow of a dying New Left, itself a reaction to the New Right that had perversely developed from and cannibalized its roots on the Old Right.
This book is amazing. Everyone interested in any of these issues – American war, conservatism, the left, the right, Rothbard, libertarianism – needs to read it. I have had fun liveblogging it but have not done it justice. There are many great nuggets in there, all sorts of who’s-who information, and a host of wonderful insight and information. The end alone is a must-read for anyone interested in the modern libertarian movement. This is an inspiring and fun book. Read it!