A False Dilemma
Joseph R. Stromberg
and critics who deal with the life work of a significant thinker
tend to divide such a thinker’s work into periods. Even if the thinker’s
ideas did not greatly change over the years, it still makes them
feel better to do this. Sometimes there is a sufficient – even indecently
large – reason to do this. One thinks of Friedrich Naumann, whom
contemporary Germans imagine to have been their greatest "liberal",
who went from Christian socialism, to Kaiser-worship, to navalism,
to impatient "national-social" reformism, Central European
hegemony for Germany, to New World Order internationalism. The only
consistent thread is that everywhere and always Naumann was a Schwärmer
for massive state intervention into everything. This great "liberal"
never understood the first thing about markets, private property,
and the lot. One is reminded of our own Max Lerner, whose ideological
pratfalls set international standards. Our esteemed neo-conservatives
have made the long march from Trotskyism through right-wing social
democracy into their present eminence, whence they try to supply
what "brains" there are to be found in the Republican
such measures, the late Murray Rothbard never changed at all. There
is, however, a tendentious standard whereby Rothbard, having observed
that the outer world had changed a bit between, say, 1946 and 1992,
is burdened with inconsistency or – much worse – a terrible descent
into "conservatism." Some fifteen or twenty years ago,
one participant in such discussions – Samuel Edward Konkin III of
"agorist" fame began distinguishing between "left-Rothbardianism"
(his position) and "right-Rothbardianism" (allegedly Rothbard’s
own position at that time). Now we have to hear about "early"
versus "late" Rothbard or, even worse from Chris Sciabarra
writing in Critical Review and Liberty the shocking
"one-dimensionality" of Rothbard’s synthesis – Rothbard
apparently having never gone to school with Herbert Marcuse. And,
of course, there was the little sally from the contrarian editor
of Liberty, Mr. Bill Bradford, about historians thinking
Rothbard a good economist and economists thinking him a good historian.
Anyone who has actually read Murray Rothbard comes away thinking
he did rather well in both fields. Compared to the boring twits
in history and the dry-as-dust technicians in economics, Rothbard
was attempting something very bold: the shaping of an interdisciplinary
science of liberty, giving real meaning, one might add, to the largely
legless New Left demand for scholarly "relevance."
kind of relevance was not wanted everywhere. Clearly, he was a dangerous
fellow and one to be watched closely, lest he stir up the animals.
Alas, we are nearing intramural ground, and most of the strident
complainers about the alleged two – or more – Rothbards are to be
found in what passes these days for the "libertarian movement."
Many there are who are shocked – shocked – that Rothbard was, and
ever remained, a cultural conservative. To use a recurrent and defining
Rothbardianism, So what? Should he have taken up instead an "alternative
lifestyle" and devoted himself to configuring libertarianism
for a comfortable berth in an era of multicultural whining? Should
he have tailored his inquiries to the hermeneutics of suspicion,
which, oddly, only suspects the motives of white males? Not bloody
likely. To paraphrase LBJ, Rothbard had an abiding interest in preserving
"the only civilization that you’ve got."
approach to preserving civilization involved working to increase
human liberty. He never bought the traditionalist conservative line
that liberty leads to "license" and only line-by-line
familiarity with the works of Edmund Burke can prevent that sad
outcome. On the other hand, Rothbard didn’t exactly disbelieve in
what we might call "ordered liberty." He thought that
real "law" had been discovered by applying a few obvious
principles to cases (as in English common law and the evolved parts
of [Roman] civil law). The philosopher Christian Bay denounced Rothbard’s
A New Liberty as too "bourgeois" and a certain
publication in the sunburnt southwest, The Match, attacked
him as a "statist" for believing in any kind of law at
shall say this much about Rothbard’s "project" and "problematic"
(as the theory weasels would say): Rothbard meant to create a unified
science of liberty – a synthesis of classical liberalism, individualist
anarchism, critical sociology of states, historical revisionism,
and Austrian economics "science" because it could be
done rigorously; "unified" because each element corrected
or reinforced the others. Some of us think he did a very good job,
despite the high-theoretical complaints from one of those journals.
all his attempted "tactical alliances," participation
in and secession from the Libertarian Party, struggles with the
Donor, and so on, Rothbard’s views remained soundly "bourgeois"
and culturally conservative. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he
didn’t sign on for the present system of mandatory public sensitivity
dictated by the Left which, as we now know, was the real winner
in the Cold War. At the same time, Rothbard never praised any President
who held office in his lifetime. In a movement full of quasi-Reaganites,
his denunciations of Reagan and his works stood out. See his commentaries
all through the eighties if you don’t believe me.
who treat Rothbard’s cultural conservatism and alleged "insensitivity"
as deplorable later developments, brought on perhaps by too-frequent
meetings with Thomas Fleming and Samuel Francis, ought to re-read
some early Libertarian Forums. Besides, these critics aren’t
up to speed themselves. I mean, if they were really sensitive
they would be trudging around like the depressed monks in the Monty
Python film, rhythmically hitting themselves in the head with books
by critical race theorists.
libertarians never recovered from the famous Rothbard piece on the
"revolutionary" prison rebellion at Attica, New York.
Now, Rothbard did not invent the state, he did not invent state
prisons, and he never said a kind word for Nelson Rockefeller. On
this occasion, however, he said in effect, given that there
is a state prison, given that the worst murderers and thugs
in New York have taken hostages, what exactly was the Governor to
do? Call in a high-powered team of Canadian negotiators? Send out
for tea and crumpets? I actually slogged through most of Tom Wicker’s
Gothic Southern Liberal crying jag on Attica, before I got Rothbard’s
point. (I quit around page five hundred and something, when Wicker
let slip that a handful of white prisoners, who had somehow survived
the "revolution" for a while, suddenly turned up dead,
which fact the racially sensitive author had neither time nor need
the Way-Back Machine for 1971, we find Rothbard writing that "apart
from the tendency on the Left to employ coercion, the Left seems
to be constitutionally incapable of leaving people alone in the
most fundamental sense; it seems incapable of refraining from a
continual pestering, haranguing and harassment of everyone in sight
or earshot." On such matters, Early, Middle and Late Rothbard
will be found saying precisely the same things. Rothbard’s infamous
– in some circles – or merely premature attack on radical feminism
came two years before the words just quoted. I can’t recall that
his position ever differed much from that of 1969. If anything,
he became more caustic as feminism and the other isms became more
entrenched and aggressive.
years 1970-1972 are a gold mine for Rothbardian critiques of the
Left. And why should he have taken such a line when, arguably, the
Left was pursuing the good work of opposing the war in Vietnam?
Precisely because the New Left displayed the traits of the Old:
hooliganism, destruction of private property, contempt for ordinary
life, and a pressing need to make everyone listen to "The East
is Red" all day, every day.
why did Rothbard "move right" once the Soviet Union fell?
He wrote that it was like coming home to the Old Right of his youth.
He had denounced conservatism war-mongering and interventionism
for decades, and now some conservatives at least were moving towards
a new "isolationism." Rothbard had plenty of fights with
conservatives on many questions; but he knew that, in the end, they
were not in general the sworn enemies of the only civilization we
have. It is not possible to say that of the Left.
always defended the "old culture" and real films, which
he called "movie movies" films which had some sort of
point, continuity, and artistry and were not just vehicles to express
a director’s nihilism and angst. Unlike certain neo-conservatives,
he did not arbitrarily pick out the high-modernist art of circa
1950, centered in Manhattan, and proclaim it the summit of human
achievement. He had a real sense that before World War II there
had been an American culture, one shown in old films, which will
soon have to be banned lest the sheep notice the difference between
the New York of the thirties and the New York produced by six decades
of liberal benevolence and philanthropy.
rejected egalitarianism – a book of his essays, after all, bore
the title Egalitarianism As a Revolt Against Nature – and
was always a "paleo" because he believed there was an
ontological order, a nature of things, which included human nature.
His participation in the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical tradition
partly explains his interest in the Roman Catholic intellectual
tradition. Catholics had been around longer than Randians, he once
remarked, and might be thought to have solved a problem or two in
that time. Rothbard admired the rationalism he found in that tradition.
G.K. Chesterton was one of his favorite writers. In addition, he
understood that Western civilization without Christianity would
not be Western civilization. He never signed on for the new touchy-feely
civilization just over the horizon – heralded by the "classical
liberal" Reason Magazine – which will all turn out for
the best, just as soon as we learn to be more accepting of
Others and tee-totalitarian-tolerant. (The Others, apparently, are
already up to speed on these virtues.)
was politically incorrect at the beginning and at the end of his
career. In 1948, he was, he later wrote, probably the only New York
Jew to support the State Rights Party ticket of Strom Thurmond.
In the early fifties he denounced pending Hawaiian statehood as
an affront to the continental and organic character of the American
federation. In recent years, his slogan was "universal rights,
locally enforced." That second part is especially wicked. It
would leave nothing for NATO and the empire to do – a horrifying
the embarrassment of latter-day followers of J.M. Keynes at some
of their leader’s actual beliefs, Rothbard liked to say "Keynes
was a Keynesian." But Keynes really believed in his own ideas.
So did Rothbard. Rothbard was a Rothbardian. I can’t see the harm
R. Stromberg is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com
and an adjunct scholar with the Ludwig
von Mises Institute and the Center
for Libertarian Studies. An earlier version of this article
appeared in SpinTech Magazine.