Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal

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This classic
piece appeared in Ramparts,
VI, 4, June 15, 1968. It was the fulfillment of an ideological trend
that began a few years earlier when consistent libertarians, led
by Rothbard, sensed an estrangement from the American right-wing
due to its support of militarism, police power, and the corporate
state. Here Rothbard presents a rationale for why he and others
had, by 1968, largely given up on the Right as a viable reform movement
toward liberty, realized that the Right was squarely on the side
of power, and thereby developed an alternative
intellectual historiography
. The relevance of this essay in
our own time hardly needs to be explained, given the record on liberty
of the Republican president, congress, and judiciary, to say nothing
of conservative and right-wing media.

Twenty years
ago I was an extreme right-wing Republican, a young and lone “Neanderthal”
(as the liberals used to call us) who believed, as one friend pungently
put it, that “Senator Taft had sold out to the socialists.” Today,
I am most likely to be called an extreme leftist, since I favor
immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, denounce U.S. imperialism, advocate
Black Power and have just joined the new Peace and Freedom Party.
And yet my basic political views have not changed by a single iota
in these two decades!

It is obvious
that something is very wrong with the old labels, with the categories
of “left” and “right,” and with the ways in which we customarily
apply these categories to American political life. My personal odyssey
is unimportant; the important point is that if I can move from “extreme
right” to “extreme left” merely by standing in one place, drastic
though unrecognized changes must have taken place throughout the
American political spectrum over the last generation.

I joined the
right-wing movement — to give a formal name to a very loose and
informal set of associations — as a young graduate student shortly
after the end of World War II. There was no question as to where
the intellectual right of that day stood on militarism and conscription:
it opposed them as instruments of mass slavery and mass murder.
Conscription, indeed, was thought far worse than other forms of
statist controls and incursions, for while these only appropriated
part of the individual’s property, the draft, like slavery, took
his most precious possession: his own person. Day after day the
veteran publicist John T. Flynn — once praised as a liberal and
then condemned as a reactionary, with little or no change in his
views — inveighed implacably in print and over the radio against
militarism and the draft. Even the Wall Street newspaper, the Commercial
and Financial Chronicle, published a lengthy attack on the idea
of conscription.

All of our
political positions, from the free market in economics to opposing
war and militarism, stemmed from our root belief in individual liberty
and our opposition to the state. Simplistically, we adopted the
standard view of the political spectrum: “left” meant socialism,
or total power of the state; the further “right” one went the less
government one favored. Hence, we called ourselves “extreme rightists.”

our historical heroes were such men as Jefferson, Paine, Cobden,
Bright and Spencer; but as our views became purer and more consistent,
we eagerly embraced such near-anarchists as the voluntarist, Auberon
Herbert, and the American individualist-anarchists, Lysander Spooner
and Benjamin R. Tucker. One of our great intellectual heroes was
Henry David Thoreau, and his essay, “Civil Disobedience,” was one
of our guiding stars. Right-wing theorist Frank Chodorov devoted
an entire issue of his monthly, Analysis, to an appreciation
of Thoreau.

In our relation
to the remainder of the American political scene, we of course recognized
that the extreme right of the Republican Party was not made up of
individualist anti-statists, but they were close enough to our position
to make us feel part of a quasi-libertarian united front. Enough
of our views were present among the extreme members of the Taft
wing of the Republican Party (much more so than in Taft himself,
who was among the most liberal of that wing), and in such organs
as the Chicago Tribune, to make us feel quite comfortable with this
kind of alliance.

What is more,
the right-wing Republicans were major opponents of the Cold War.
Valiantly, the extreme rightist Republicans, who were particularly
strong in the House, battled conscription, NATO and the Truman Doctrine.
Consider, for example, Omaha’s Representative Howard Buffett, Senator
Taft’s midwestern campaign manager in 1952. He was one of the most
extreme of the extremists, once described by The Nation as
“an able young man whose ideas have tragically fossilized.”

I came to know
Buffett as a genuine and thoughtful libertarian. Attacking the Truman
Doctrine on the floor of Congress, he declared: “Even if it were
desirable, America is not strong enough to police the world by military
force. If that attempt is made, the blessings of liberty will be
replaced by coercion and tyranny at home. Our Christian ideals cannot
be exported to other lands by dollars and guns.”

When the Korean
War came, almost the entire old left, with the exception of the
Communist Party, surrendered to the global mystique of the United
Nations and “collective security against aggression,” and backed
Truman’s imperialist aggression in that war. Even Corliss Lamont
backed the American stand in Korea. Only the extreme rightist Republicans
continued to battle U.S. imperialism. It was the last great political
outburst of the old right of my youth.

Howard Buffett
was convinced that the United States was largely responsible for
the eruption of conflict in Korea; for the rest of his life he tried
unsuccessfully to get the Senate Armed Services Committee to declassify
the testimony of CIA head Admiral Hillenkoeter, which Buffett told
me established American responsibility for the Korean outbreak.
The last famous isolationist move came late in December 1950, after
the Chinese forces had beaten the Americans out of North Korea.
Joseph P. Kennedy and Herbert Hoover delivered two ringing speeches
back-to-back calling for American evacuation of Korea. As Hoover
put it, “To commit the sparse ground forces of the non-communist
nations into a land war against this communist land mass [in Asia]
would be a war without victory, a war without a successful political
terminal . . . that would be the graveyard of millions of American
boys” and the exhaustion of the United States. Joe Kennedy declared
that “if portions of Europe or Asia wish to go communistic or even
have communism thrust upon them, we cannot stop it.”

To this The
Nation replied with typical liberal Red-baiting: “The line
they are laying down for their country should set the bells ringing
in the Kremlin as nothing has since the triumph of Stalingrad”;
and the New Republic actually saw Stalin sweeping onwards
“until the Stalinist caucus in the Tribune Tower would bring out
in triumph the first communist edition of the Chicago Tribune.”

The main catalyst
for transforming the mass base of the right wing from an isolationist
and quasi-libertarian movement to an anti-communist one was probably
“McCarthyism.” Before Senator Joe McCarthy launched his anti-communist
crusade in February 1950, he had not been particularly
associated with the right wing of the Republican Party; on the contrary,
his record was liberal and centrist, statist rather than libertarian.

Red-baiting and anti-communist witch-hunting were originally launched
by liberals, and even after McCarthy the liberals were the most
effective at this game. It was, after all, the liberal Roosevelt
Administration which passed the Smith Act, first used against Trotskyites
and isolationists during World War II and then against communists
after the war; it was the liberal Truman Administration that instituted
loyalty checks; it was the eminently liberal Hubert Humphrey who
was a sponsor of the clause in the McCarran Act of 1950 threatening
concentration camps for “subversives.”

McCarthy not
only shifted the focus of the right to communist-hunting, however.
His crusade also brought into the right wing a new mass base. Before
McCarthy, the rank-and-file of the right wing was the small-town,
isolationist middle west. McCarthyism brought into the movement
a mass of urban Catholics from the eastern seaboard, people whose
outlook on individual liberty was, if anything, negative.

If McCarthy
was the main catalyst for mobilizing the mass base of the new right,
the major ideological instrument of the transformation was the blight
of anti-communism, and the major carriers were Bill Buckley and
National Review.

In the early
days, young Bill Buckley often liked to refer to himself as an “individualist,”
sometimes even as an “anarchist.” But all these libertarian ideals,
he maintained, had to remain in total abeyance, fit only for parlor
discussion, until the great crusade against the “international communist
conspiracy” had been driven to a successful conclusion. Thus, as
early as January 1952, I noted with disquiet an article that Buckley
wrote for Commonweal, “A Young Republican’s View.”

began the article in a splendid libertarian manner: our enemy, he
affirmed, was the state, which, he quoted Spencer, was “begotten
of aggression and by aggression.” But then came the worm in the
apple: the anti-communist crusade had to be waged. Buckley went
on to endorse “the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed
to support a vigorous anti-communist foreign policy”; he declared
that the “thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union”
imminently threatened American security, and that therefore “we
have to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an
offensive nor a defensive war can be waged . . . except through
the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”
Therefore, he concluded — in the midst of the Korean War — we must
all support “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central
intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization
of power in Washington.”

The right wing,
never articulate, has not had many organs of opinion. Therefore,
when Buckley founded National Review in late 1955, its erudite,
witty and glib editorials and articles swiftly made it the only
politically relevant journal for the American right. Immediately,
the ideological line of the right began to change sharply.

One element
that gave special fervor and expertise to the Red-baiting crusade
was the prevalence of ex-communists, ex-fellow travelers and ex-Trotskyites
among the writers whom National Review brought into prominence
on the right-wing scene. These ex-leftists were consumed with an
undying hatred for their former love, along with a passion for bestowing
enormous importance upon their apparently wasted years. Almost the
entire older generation of writers and editors for National Review
had been prominent in the old left. Some names that come to mind
are: Jim Burnham, John Chamberlain, Whittaker Chambers, Ralph DeToledano,
Will Herberg, Eugene Lyons, J. B. Matthews, Frank S. Meyer, William
S. Schlamm and Karl Wittfogel.

An insight
into the state of mind of many of these people came in a recent
letter to me from one of the most libertarian of this group; he
admitted that my stand in opposition to the draft was the only one
consistent with libertarian principles, but, he said, he can’t forget
how nasty the communist cell in Time magazine was in the
1930’s. The world is falling apart and yet these people are still
mired in the petty grievances of faction fights of long ago!

was the central root of the decay of the old libertarian right,
but it was not the only one. In 1953, a big splash was made by the
publication of Russell Kirk’s The
Conservative Mind
. Before that, no one on the right regarded
himself as a “conservative”; “conservative” was considered a left
smear word. Now, suddenly, the right began to glory in the term
“conservative,” and Kirk began to make speaking appearances, often
in a kind of friendly “vital center” tandem with Arthur Schlesinger

This was to
be the beginning of the burgeoning phenomenon of the friendly-though-critical
dialogue between the liberal and conservative wings of the Great
Patriotic American Consensus. A new, younger generation of rightists,
of “conservatives,” began to emerge, who thought that the real problem
of the modern world was nothing so ideological as the state vs.
individual liberty or government intervention vs. the free market;
the real problem, they declared, was the preservation of tradition,
order, Christianity and good manners against the modern sins of
reason, license, atheism and boorishness.

One of the
first dominant thinkers of this new right was Buckley’s brother-in-law,
L. Brent Bozell, who wrote fiery articles in National Review
attacking liberty even as an abstract principle (and not just as
something to be temporarily sacrificed for the benefit of the anti-communist
emergency). The function of the state was to impose and enforce
moral and religious principles.

Another repellent
political theorist who made his mark in National Review was
the late Willmoore Kendall, NR editor for many years. His
great thrust was the right and the duty of the majority of the community
— as embodied, say, in Congress — to suppress any individual who
disturbs that community with radical doctrines. Socrates, opined
Kendall, not only should have been killed by the Greek
community, whom he offended by his subversive criticisms, but it
was their moral duty to kill him.

The historical
heroes of the new right were changing rapidly. Mencken, Nock, Thoreau,
Jefferson, Paine — all these either dropped from sight or were soundly
condemned as rationalists, atheists or anarchists. From Europe,
the “in” people were now such despotic reactionaries as Burke, Metternich,
DeMaistre; in the United States, Hamilton and Madison were “in,”
with their stress on the imposition of order and a strong, elitist
central government — which included the southern “slavocracy.”

For the first
few years of its existence, I moved in National Review
circles, attended its editorial luncheons, wrote articles and book
reviews for the magazine; indeed, there was talk at one time of
my joining the staff as an economics columnist.

I became increasingly
alarmed, however, as NR and its friends grew in strength
because I knew, from innumerable conversations with rightist intellectuals,
what their foreign policy goal was. They never quite dared to state
it publicly, although they would slyly imply it and would try to
whip the public up to the fever pitch of demanding it. What they
wanted — and still want — was nuclear annihilation of the Soviet
Union. They want to drop that Bomb on Moscow. (Of course, on Peking
and Hanoi too, but for your veteran anti-communist — especially
back then — it is Russia which supplies the main focus of his venom.)
A prominent editor of National Review once told me: “I
have a vision, a great vision of the future: a totally devastated
Soviet Union.” I knew that it was this vision that really animated
the new conservatism.

In response
to all this, and seeing peace as the crucial political issue, a
few friends and I became Stevensonian Democrats in 1960. I watched
with increasing horror as the right wing, led by National Review,
continually grew in strength and moved ever closer to real political

Having broken
emotionally with the right wing, our tiny group of libertarians
began to rethink many of our old, unexamined premises. First, we
restudied the origins of the Cold War, we read our D.F. Fleming
and we concluded, to our considerable surprise, that the United
States was solely at fault in the Cold War, and that Russia was
the aggrieved party. And this meant that the great danger to the
peace and freedom of the world came not from Moscow or “international
communism,” but from the U.S. and its Empire stretching across and
dominating the world.

And then we
studied the foul European conservatism that had taken over the right
wing; here we had statism in a virulent form, and yet no one could
possibly think these conservatives to be “leftist.” But this meant
that our simple “left/total government — right/no government” continuum
was altogether wrong and that our whole identification of ourselves
as “extreme rightists” must contain a basic flaw. Plunging back
into history, we again concentrated on the reality that in the 19th
century, laissez-faire liberals and radicals were on the
extreme left and our ancient foes, the conservatives, on the right.
My old friend and libertarian colleague Leonard Liggio then came
up with the following analysis of the historical process.

First there
was the old order, the ancien régime, the regime of
caste and frozen status, of exploitation by a despotic ruling class,
using the church to dupe the masses into accepting its rule. This
was pure statism; this was the right wing. Then, in 17th and 18th
century western Europe, a liberal and radical opposition movement
arose, our heroes, who championed a popular revolutionary movement
on behalf of rationalism, individual liberty, minimal government,
free markets, international peace and separation of church and state,
in opposition to throne and altar, to monarchy, the ruling class,
theocracy and war. These — “our people” — were the left, and the
purer their vision the more “extreme” they were.

So far so good;
but what of socialism, which we had always considered the extreme
left? Where did that fit in? Liggio analyzed socialism as a confused
middle-of-the-road movement, influenced historically by both the
libertarian left and the conservative right. From the individualist
left the socialists took the goals of freedom: the withering away
of the state, the replacement of the governing of men by the administration
of things, opposition to the ruling class and a search for its overthrow,
the desire to establish international peace, an advanced industrial
economy and a high standard of living for the mass of the people.
From the right the socialists adopted the means to achieve these
goals — collectivism, state planning, community control of the individual.
This put socialism in the middle of the ideological spectrum. It
also meant that socialism was an unstable, self-contradictory doctrine
bound to fly apart in the inner contradiction between its means
and ends.

Our analysis
was greatly bolstered by our becoming familiar with the new and
exciting group of historians who studied under University of Wisconsin
historian William Appleman Williams. From them we discovered that
all of us free marketeers had erred in believing that somehow, down
deep, Big Businessmen were really in favor of laissez-faire,
and that their deviations from it, obviously clear and notorious
in recent years, were either “sellouts” of principle to expediency
or the result of astute maneuverings by liberal intellectuals.

This is the
general view on the right; in the remarkable phrase of Ayn Rand,
Big Business is “America’s most persecuted minority.” Persecuted
minority, indeed! Sure, there were thrusts against Big Business
in the old McCormick Chicago Tribune and in the writings
of Albert Jay Nock; but it took the Williams-Kolko analysis to portray
the true anatomy and physiology of the American scene.

As Kolko pointed
out, all the various measures of federal regulation and welfare
statism that left and right alike have always believed to be mass
movements against Big Business are not only now backed to the hilt
by Big Business, but were originated by it for the very purpose
of shifting from a free market to a cartelized economy that would
benefit it. Imperialistic foreign policy and the permanent garrison
state originated in the Big Business drive for foreign investments
and for war contracts at home.

The role of
the liberal intellectuals is to serve as “corporate liberals,” weavers
of sophisticated apologias to inform the masses that the heads of
the American corporate state are ruling on behalf of the “common
good” and the “general welfare” — like the priest in the Oriental
despotism who convinced the masses that their emperor was all-wise
and divine.

Since the early ’60s,
as the National Review right has moved nearer to political
power, it has jettisoned its old libertarian remnants and has drawn
ever closer to the liberals of the Great American Consensus. Evidence
of this abounds. There is Bill Buckley’s ever-widening popularity
in the mass media and among liberal intellectuals, as well as widespread
admiration on the intellectual right for people and groups it once
despised: for the New Leader, for Irving Kristol, for the late Felix
Frankfurter (who always opposed judicial restraint on government
invasions of individual liberty), for Hannah Arendt and Sidney Hook.
Despite occasional bows to the free market, conservatives have come
to agree that economic issues are unimportant; they therefore accept
— or at least do not worry about — the major outlines of the Keynesian
welfare-warfare state of liberal corporatism.

On the domestic
front, virtually the only conservative interests are to suppress
Negroes (“shoot looters,” “crush those riots”), to call for more
power for the police so as not to “shield the criminal” (i.e., not
to protect his libertarian rights), to enforce prayer in the public
schools, to put Reds and other subversives and “seditionists” in
jail and to carry on the crusade for war abroad. There is little
in the thrust of this program with which liberals can now disagree;
any disagreements are tactical or matters of degree only. Even the
Cold War — including the war in Vietnam — was begun and maintained
and escalated by the liberals themselves.

No wonder that
liberal Daniel Moynihan — a national board member of ADA incensed
at the radicalism of the current anti-war and Black Power movements
— should recently call for a formal alliance between liberals and
conservatives, since after all they basically agree on these, the
two crucial issues of our time! Even Barry Goldwater has gotten
the message; in January 1968 in National Review, Goldwater
concluded an article by affirming that he is not against liberals,
that liberals are needed as a counterweight to conservatism, and
that he had in mind a fine liberal like Max Lerner — Max Lerner,
the epitome of the old left, the hated symbol of my youth!

In response
to our isolation from the right, and noting the promising signs
of libertarian attitudes in the emerging new left, a tiny band of
us ex-rightist libertarians founded the “little journal,” Left
and Right, in the spring of 1965. We had two major purposes:
to make contact with libertarians already on the new left and to
persuade the bulk of libertarians or quasi-libertarians who remained
on the right to follow our example. We have been gratified in both
directions: by the remarkable shift toward libertarian and anti-statist
positions of the new left, and by the significant number of young
people who have left the right-wing movement.

This left/right
tendency has begun to be noticeable on the new left, praised and
damned by those aware of the situation. (Our old colleague Ronald
Hamowy, an historian at Stanford, set forth the left/right position
in the New Republic collection, Thoughts
of the Young Radicals
(1966). We have received gratifying
encouragement from Carl Oglesby who, in his Containment
and Change
(1967), advocated a coalition of new left and
old right, and from the young scholars grouped around the unfortunately
now defunct Studies on the Left. We’ve also been criticized, if
indirectly, by Staughton Lynd, who worries because our ultimate
goals — free market as against socialism — differ.

Finally, liberal
historian Martin Duberman, in a recent issue of Partisan Review,
sharply criticizes SNCC and CORE for being “anarchists,” for rejecting
the authority of the state, for insisting that community be voluntary,
and for stressing, along with SDS, participatory instead of representative
democracy. Perceptively, if on the wrong side of the fence, Duberman
then links SNCC and the new left with us old rightists: “SNCC and
CORE, like the Anarchists, talk increasingly of the supreme importance
of the individual. They do so, paradoxically, in a rhetoric strongly
reminiscent of that long associated with the right. It could be
Herbert Hoover . . . but it is in fact Rap Brown who now reiterates
the Negro’s need to stand on his own two feet, to make his own decisions,
to develop self-reliance and a sense of self-worth. SNCC may be
scornful of present-day liberals and ‘statism,’ but it seems hardly
to realize that the laissez-faire rhetoric it prefers derives
almost verbatim from the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill.”
Tough. It could, I submit, do a lot worse.

I hope to have
demonstrated why a few compatriots and I have shifted, or rather
been shifted, from “extreme right” to “extreme left” in the past
20 years merely by staying in the same basic ideological place.
The right wing, once in determined opposition to Big Government,
has now become the conservative wing of the American corporate state
and its foreign policy of expansionist imperialism. If we would
salvage liberty from this deadening left/right fusion on the center,
this needs be done through a counter-fusion of old right and new

James Burnham,
an editor of National Review and its main strategic thinker
in waging the “Third World War” (as he entitles his column), the
prophet of the managerial state (in The
Managerial Revolution
), whose only hint of positive interest
in liberty in a lifetime of political writing was a call for legalized
firecrackers, recently attacked the dangerous trend among some young
conservatives to make common cause with the left in opposing the
draft. Burnham warned that he learned in his Trotskyite days that
this would be an “unprincipled” coalition, and he warned that if
one begins by being anti-draft one might wind up opposed to the
war in Vietnam: “And I rather think that some of them are at heart,
or are getting to be, against the war. Murray Rothbard has shown
how right-wing libertarianism can lead to almost as anti-U.S. a
position as left-wing libertarianism does. And a strain of isolationism
has always been endemic in the American right.”

passage symbolizes how deeply the whole thrust of the right wing
has changed in the last two decades. Vestigial interest in liberty
or in opposition to war and imperialism are now considered deviations
to be stamped out without delay. There are millions of Americans,
I am convinced, who are still devoted to individual liberty and
opposition to the leviathan state at home and abroad, Americans
who call themselves “conservatives” but feel that something has
gone very wrong with the old anti-New Deal and anti-Fair Deal cause.

Something has
gone wrong: the right wing has been captured and transformed by
elitists and devotees of the European conservative ideals of order
and militarism, by witch-hunters and global-crusaders, by statists
who wish to coerce “morality” and suppress “sedition.”

America was
born in a revolution against Western imperialism, born as a haven
of freedom against the tyrannies and despotism, the wars and intrigues
of the old world. Yet we have allowed ourselves to sacrifice the
American ideals of peace and freedom and anti-colonialism on the
altar of a crusade to kill communists throughout the world; we have
surrendered our libertarian birthright into the hands of those who
yearn to restore the Golden Age of the Holy Inquisition. It is about
time that we wake up and rise up to restore our heritage.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice
president of the Mises Institute.
He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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