A Split in the Right Wing


This classic op-ed appeared in the New York Times, January 28, 1971, and helped give new energy to the rise of libertarianism as a social force in American life.

When William Buckley and the National Review crowd injected evangelical anticommunism into right-wing circles, the conservatives found themselves split into two broad camps: the libertarians who were very anarchistic on domestic issues and military isolationists in foreign policy, and the Russell Kirk and William Buckley traditionalists who saw the existence of atheistic communism as a threat to the religious and cultural inheritance of the Western world. Many libertarians went their own way, but others embraced the new fusionism which sought to draw a bridge between advocates of individual freedom on the one hand, and those who wanted to rid the world of Communism at any cost on the other.

It was inevitable that this internal schizophrenia would lead to a major eruption, and this occurred in 1968 when Karl Hess, Goldwater’s former speechwriter, threw off his anticommunism for total anarchism at the urging of free-market economist Murray Rothbard.

Now William Buckley is in a quandary. The hysteria he has been displaying in recent issues of National Review and in his syndicated column of January 14, 1971 is totally out of character for him. He is upset, it seems, because the New York Times Magazine carried articles on December 6 and January 10 dealing with the libertarian movement in the United States, and publicized the split occurring on the Right between conservative and anarcholibertarian factions. This is a development Buckley hoped to keep under cover – referring to it, whenever he did, as a family squabble rather than the permanent breach it has become.

The problem is not that libertarians will become the "Birchers of the ’70s," as Buckley suggests in his column entitled "Right Radicals Step Forward." The Buckley conservatives have eliminated that possibility by blending Agnewism so carefully with Robert Welchism that the remaining differences are scarcely noticeable. A case can be made that the conservatism of Buckley is even more dangerous than that of George Wallace and Robert Welch, since Buckley manages to spout the same hair-raising political philosophy in polysyllabic rhetoric. He makes it sound more respectable, so to speak. We all know who Agnew, Reagan and Thurmond are and what they stand for. They are remarkably clear-spoken men.

Not so with Chairman Bill. His chief contribution to conservatism has been to upgrade the quality of its style. He has managed to cloak his Roman authoritarianism under heavy layers of convoluted verbiage. Because he is so opaque, so adroit at sidestepping issues, he is a greater potential threat than his "plain-spoken" right-wing colleagues.

Nor is it any longer a question of libertarians criticizing conservatives for their "over-indulgence of state welfarism." The issue of state warfarism took precedence over that one long ago. The responsibility for the national disgrace brought about by our military presence in Southeast Asia now rests just as squarely on the shoulders of Nixon and Laird as it ever did on Johnson and Rusk.

The mass destruction of the lives and property of innocent civilians – especially by a gargantuan power like the United States – is a thousand times more serious, morally speaking, than the domestic liberal sins of deficit spending and inflation. And as far as that issue is concerned, there has been far more talk of decentralization and local control of institutions and public money on the Left than in the pages of National Review in recent years. Even left-liberals have begun to recognize the follies of corporate-liberalism and to call for reforms, so Buckley is whipping a dead horse when he attempts to raise the specter of laissez-faire "lunacies" on the libertarian Right.

The real issue is the erosion of Buckley’s power base in right-wing circles – an erosion that came into the open with the defection of Karl Hess to the Left in 1968, and gained further momentum at the Young Americans for Freedom convention in St. Louis in the summer of 1969. Suddenly Buckley has woken up and realized that there are elements on the Right that don’t take him seriously – that there are economic conservatives in the United States of America who are not at all interested in joining this Unholy Crusade to rid the world of Communists. This is a difficult fact for William F. Buckley to swallow whole, and this is why he has taken to losing his temper in public.

The purpose of this article is to urge others on the Right, others who care about such things as peace and justice and racial harmony, to reevaluate their status vis-à-vis Buckley-style conservatism. To reevaluate and then support political candidates who really mean peace when they say peace; who understand and intend to promote the politics of decentralization, of pollution control, of economic and judicial reform, and so on all the way down the line. To reevaluate and vote those people into office whether they are Left or Right, or of the Center.