Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal

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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!

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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."

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.

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."

this The Nation replied with typical liberal Red-baiting:
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."

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."

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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

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 Jr.

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.

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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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 power.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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!

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.

left/right tendency has begun to be noticeable on the new left,
praised and damned by those aware of the situation.

old colleague Ronald Hamoway, 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.

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.

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 left.

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

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

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 the author of Man,
Economy, and State
, Conceived
in Liberty
, What
Has Government Done to Our Money
, The
Case Against the Fed
, and many
other books and articles
. He
was also the editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report

Rothbard Archives

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