The brand spankin’ new Murray Rothbard book, The Betrayal of the American Right
, is so far (since I’m still reading it) delivering what I anticipated — a first-rate history not of the conservative right-wing but of the 20th century journey taken by individualist laissez-faire liberals on the road to modern libertarianism. And I think the book is vital reading for radical libertarians who still struggle with the idea of making their home on the Left.
Most of us familiar with Rothbard’s seminal essay “Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty” understand how laissez-fairists dominated the oppositional Left against the Old Regime in the late 18th century, then began sharing that end of the spectrum, sometimes uncomfortably, with socialists and “progressives” by the late 1800s. That alliance was strengthened, Rothbard explains, during World War I in resistance to the despotic evils of the Wilson camp:
“During the 1920s, then, the emerging individualists and libertarians — the Menckens, the Nocks, the Villards, and their followers — were generally considered Men of the Left; like the Left generally, they bitterly opposed the emergence of Big Government in twentieth-century America, a government allied with Big Business in a network of special privilege, a government dictating the personal drinking habits of the citizenry and repressing civil liberties, a government that had enlisted as a junior partner to British imperialism to push around nations across the globe. The individualists were opposed to this burgeoning of State monopoly, opposed to imperialism and militarism and foreign wars, opposed to the Western-imposed Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, and they were generally allied with socialists and progressives in this opposition.”
What had not been thoroughly documented until now, though, was the ol’ switcheroo of the 1930s, when radical individualists found themselves expelled suddenly from the Left and pushed into alliance with the conservative right-wing. Rothbard places this unfortunate event at the feet of FDR’s New Deal. Libertarians, he explains, recognized the New Deal as “the imposition of a fascistic government upon the economy and society,” with Big Business playing a major role in running the show. But much to their astonishment, these laissez-faire radicals discovered that “their former, and supposedly knowledgeable, allies, the socialists and progressives, instead of joining in with this insight, had rushed to embrace and even deify the New Deal, and to form its vanguard of intellectual apologists.” Rothbard continues:
“The individualists and laissez-faire liberals were stunned and embittered, not just by the mass desertion of their former allies, but also by the abuse these allies now heaped upon them as ‘reactionaries,’ ‘fascists,’ and ‘Neanderthals.’ For decades Men of the Left, the individualists, without changing their position or perspectives one iota, now found themselves bitterly attacked by their erstwhile allies as benighted ‘extreme right-wingers.’ …
“Isolated and abused, treated by the New Dispensation as Men of the Right, the individualists had no alternative but to become, in effect, right-wingers, and to ally themselves with the conservatives, monopolists, Hooverites, etc., whom they had previously despised.”
I don’t really buy into the idea that Mencken, Nock, and the others had no alternative but “to ally themselves with the conservatives, monopolists, Hooverites, etc.” Granted, going their own way, standing firm in their laissez-faire Leftism, and participating in a multi-front attack on the New Deal may have seemed at the time less effective politically than joining a broader coalition. But the fact is, even that broad coalition, philosophically weak as it was, couldn’t stop the FDR steamroller. And what's worse, the individualists essentially surrendered the left-wing to corporate collectivists for 70 years.
It’s now our job as radical Rothbardians to reclaim our position on that left wing of the political spectrum, and even lead it.
Labels: books, leftlibertarian, movement history, Murray Rothbard, revisionist history