January 08, 2008
The Betrayal of the American Right, by Murray N. Rothbard
Edited and with an introduction by Thomas E. Woods, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 231 pages, $20
Reviewed by Justin Raimondo
Part I— Who We Were
Sometime in the late 1970s, I came into possession of an unpublished manuscript by Murray N. Rothbard, the late great libertarian theorist and economist: by the time I was done reading The Betrayal of the American Right, I had already determined to popularize and elaborate on Rothbard’s theme with a book of my own: Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement was published by the Center for Libertarian Studies in 1993. Fourteen years later, the original inspiration for my efforts is seeing print for the first time – and I have to say it is being brought into a world far more hospitable to its message than existed in 1971, the year it was written.
This book really opened my eyes, and gave me a sense – for the first time – of where I was, politically, and, more important, where I was going. I had grown up a conservative, weaned on National Review, the “fusionism” of Frank Meyer, and the bedrock constitutionalism of Barry Goldwater, and then the dogmatic certainty of Ayn Rand’s “Objectivism,” which provided entrée into the wider libertarian movement. At that point, however, I had no idea of the history of the movement I was joining, no sense that the legacy I was upholding extended farther back then, say, the founding of National Review in the mid-fifties. Oh sure, I knew about Albert Jay Nock, and had some idea that there was a proto-libertarian tendency beginning to raise its head in the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and similar groups in the dim dark days of the New Deal era, but I had no clue that I was part of a movement that pre-existed the National Review crowd and Buckley’s circle: as far as I was concerned, the libertarian movement was founded at the 1969 convention of Young Americans for Freedom ,where a libertarian burned his draft card and a fistfight with the “trads” led to the founding of a separate libertarian youth group, and then the creation of the Libertarian Party itself in 1971.
Murray gave me a copy of the manuscript around 1990 or thereabouts. I couldn’t put it down. From the very first chapter – which starts out by asking how the conservative movement became apologists for the Establishment in a very Seventies scene with the “hardhats” (remember them?) – to the final section, which segues into an autobiographical account of life in the Old Right, the narrative had me utterly transfixed. So, this is what it’s all about! – I thought to myself. And so it was …
“How many Americans realize that, not so long ago, the American right wing was almost the exact opposite of what we know today?” Murray made this trenchant inquiry some forty years ago, and yet his question is more relevant today than it ever was, what with the American right being identified with perpetual war, drunken-sailor-spending, and the all-powerful central state – “principles” that, if you had identified them to National Review’s readership in, say, 1960, would have thought you were talking about some other movement entirely.
How did this incredible reversal take place? The Betrayal of the American Right was written to answer this question, and it does so by revealing the hidden history of American conservatism – the story of the Old Right that flourished in the United States long before the New Buckleyite Dispensation.
The essence of the so-called “New Right” was revealed by the Sage of Sharon in an early piece (1952) for Commonweal, wherein he praised Nock as his ideological lodestar, and yet sadly concluded that, because the "thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union imminently threatens U.S. security,” the libertarian dream of returning to a system of constitutionally limited government had to be indefinitely delayed in favor of "the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy.” This meant that conservatives must support, for the duration, "large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington–even with Truman at the reins of it all." And not only that, but “We have got to accept Big Government for the duration–for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged…except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores."
Nothing ever changes, does it?
Rothbard takes us on a historical journey, through the early individualism of the Jeffersonians, the Jacksonian [.pdf file] movement, and all the way back to Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, who fought for religious and individual liberty among the American colonists. He debunks the academic leftist prejudice that radical movements in America were co-opted by the Socialists and the left-Populists, pointing to the New England Brahmins such as Edward Atkinson and William Graham Sumner as the founders of the Anti-Imperialist League – laissez-faire proto-libertarians who mounted the main opposition to America’s first venture into the business of empire-building, opposing the war in the Philippines.
This is really the essential message of Betrayal, and that is that the Old Right movement was inextricably bound up with the history of the anti-imperialist impulse. In the late 1800s and early 20th century, the Anti-Imperialist League argued that the acquisition of colonies meant the beginning of an internal corruption that would end in the fate that awaits all empires, i.e. decline and fall. By 1940, the America First Committee was essentially making the same argument: that in taking sides in the European war, we would risk contamination by the same totalitarian-collectivist virus that had infected the Old World and would surely prove fatal to our republican institutions. In the winter of 2007, Ron Paul and his supporters are making a modern variant of the same point: that, in choosing between republic and empire we are really faced with a choice between renewal and decline.
In all these movements, the question of war and peace, and of America’s role in the world, has always been the core principle, the catalytic factor that set them in motion. War, the great radicalizer, is ever the mortal enemy of liberty, and property, not to mention morality: which is why, at least until recently, staunch opposition to it has, historically, been at the heart of the movement to conserve American institutions and the traditional folkways of the nation, including its libertarian, anti-imperialist tradition.
We are, after all, a republic born in a war against a colonizing power, Great Britain, whom some would model us after. The desire to preserve the Constitution against all attempts to revise or ignore it, the impulse to get back to the nation’s roots as a truly revolutionary exemplar of an anti-imperialist power, is the quintessence of American conservatism. That’s why you see so many people at these Ron Paul rallies wearing tricornered hats, and carrying “Don’t Tread on Me” Revolutionary War flags. It’s truly a crusade to restore our Old Republic, and that’s why the neocons hate it with such intensity – because it represents a challenge to their hegemony on the Right. From the size of Paul’s rallies, it looks like they have reason to be worried.
In any case, Betrayal is really essential reading for those tens of thousands of Ron Paul fans who probably don’t know they stand at the end of a long and proud tradition, starting with the “Tory anarchism,” as Rothbard calls it, of H. L. Mencken and Albert Jay Nock. What Rothbard trenchantly notes is that both these literary giants were considered radical liberals and even extreme “leftists” during the 1920s, when Mencken’s American Mercury and Nock’s The Freeman, were bastions of World War I revisionism and opposition to the militarism and internal repression brought about by the Great War. By the time the New Deal and the looming threat of another world war rolled around, both Mencken and Nock were considered extreme “right”-wingers, “reactionaries” who stood in the path of Progress and yet another “progressive” crusade to make the world safe for capital-‘D’ Democracy. And all without changing their views!
The New Deal saw this alliance of libertarian and liberal tendencies begin to diverge, with the latter taking up with Franklin Roosevelt’s Popular Front with Big Labor, Big Business, and Big Government and embracing the president’s war agenda. After the Hitler-Stalin Pact gave way, they were joined by the Communist Party in the drive to war, and conservatives mobilized a counter-movement in the America First Committee.
Rothbard’s account of the struggle between the two camps is wide-ranging, detailing how the individualist liberals of the 1920s became the anti-New Deal conservatives of the 1930s and 40s, including Mencken, Nock, John T. Flynn [.pdf file], and Garet Garrett, a prolific and talented author and an editorial writer for the staunchly anti-interventionist, anti-New Deal Saturday Evening Post, under editor-in-chief Wesley Stout. The very aspects of the Hoover regime the liberals of the 1920s had hated – subsidies to business, regulations favoring cartels, government crusades to coerce people “for their own good” (i.e. Prohibition) – they came to embrace during the New Deal era.
On the key question of war and peace, too, the liberal inversion was complete, and even more radical. The interventionists went after the antiwar opposition, and shut them completely out of the media. Mencken was forced out, as was Nock: John T. Flynn was kicked out of The New Republic, with editor Bruce Bliven publicly denouncing him for not going along with the program. Particularly fascinating is Rothbard’s account of how, when “Dr. New Deal” turned into “Dr. Win-the-War,” as the President put it, the Anglophiles of Wall Street and the East Coast Ivy Leaguers flocked to the cause, so that the mighty pro-war pro-New Deal Popular Front extended all the way from Communist Party headquarters in New York City’s Union Square to the Wall Street digs of the big investment bankers and corporate lawyers
Rothbard points out that the advent of the war reshuffled the left-right spectrum once again, and turned former liberals into conservatives, and vice-versa. Old style liberals such as John Flynn, Senator Burton K. Wheeler, and the writer John Dos Passos, under the pressure of the pro-war pro-Big Government New Deal, became trenchant critics of collectivism, and were considered thereafter to be on the “right” side of the ideological aisle. Forged in the heat of war and economic Depression, the Old Right was engaged in a battle for the heart and soul of the nation – and it was a fight with no holds barred. Rothbard gives us a blow by blow account of the smear campaign directed at the so-called “isolationists,” and the rise of the professional “isolationist”-baiters, such as the “Friends of Democracy,” led by the Reverend Leon M. Birkhead, and John Roy Carlson, the professional sneak and liar, who sought to depict the America First Committee – of which John Flynn was the New York City chairman – as the “Nazi transmission belt.” Much as the neocons, today, are eager to brand anyone who opposes the Iraq war, or their proposal to launch “World War III,” as a collaborator with “terrorism.”
The terrific smear campaign, and the militarized conformism that ushered in the war era, drove the Old Right underground: with the America First Committee dissolved, and opponents of the New Deal beleaguered on all sides, the libertarian-conservative “Remnant” survived, albeit barely. Rothbard treats us to illuminating portraits of John Flynn, the redoubtable Frank Chodorov, Garet Garrett, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Paterson, and others, such as the founders of Human Events, including Felix Morley, the President of Haverford College, Henry Regnery, the conservative publisher, and the writer Frank Hanighen, painting a very different picture of the conservative movement from the one we know today. I would note that Hanighen was the author of a widely-read muckraking book, The Merchants of Death, published in the 1920s, which famously exposed the armaments industry as one of the chief agitators for war – hardly the sort of literary credentials one would expect, these days, from a man of the Right, and yet not at all out of the ordinary for the Old Right of the 1940s (Human Events was founded in 1944). Merchants of Death was an important impetus for the hearings of the Nye Committee, in 1924, which exposed the inner workings of what was later to become known as the “military-industrial complex.” Hanighen joined the right-wing interventionist stampede, however, and was instrumental in driving the conservative movement into the War Party’s back pocket.
Also waiting in the wings was the small but high-powered contingent of libertarian-conservative economists, whose critique of socialism and interventionist economics was virtually unknown, such as Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek. The latter, however, did not remain obscure: his The Road to Serfdom attracted much attention, both pro and con, and became a bestseller. The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s best-selling novel about an individualist architect who wouldn’t compromises his standards, also hit the bestseller list. The impact of these works was meteoric: they flared, for a moment, and then flickered out. As Rothbard put it: “But this impact, and indeed the quieter ripples made by the other libertarian works during the war, was visible only as a success of the day. There did no seem to be any lasting result, any sort of movement to emerge out of the black days on which the libertarian movement had fallen.”
Ah, but the postwar renaissance of the Old Right was boiling just beneath the surface, as Rothbard relates in Chapter 7, when the narrative takes a new and surprising turn as the author switches to the first person, and the story really begins to get interesting …..