Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Lively Night With The Editor of 'Never A Dull Moment'

In  conjunction with the publication of Never a Dull Moment: A Libertarian Look at the Sixties By Murray Rothbard, Justin Raimondo, editor of the essays collected in the book, visited Circle Rothbard in San Francisco on the evening of August 7, 2016. Below are the remarks he prepared for the event.

I have to say that I’m very jazzed to see this book in print, finally. I was rooting around in my old files, going through a lot of stuff, and what should I happen upon but the complete manuscript of all of Murray Rothbard’s columns for the Freedom Newspaper chain, written in the late 1960s. I think I got it from the late Bob Kephart, who handed over a good deal of his files to Laissez-Faire Books back in the day, and good old Anita Anderson called me and asked me if I wanted to copy some of the files that pertained to Murray. Of course I ran right down there and spent a few days laboring at the copy machine.

Then I filed it away and forgot about it for two decades.

At any rate, I want to put the book in context, that is, in the context of Rothbard’s ideological journey. Now I cover a lot of this ground in my biography of Rothbard, but for those of you who haven’t read it let me give you a short outline.

Rothbard identified with what we call the Old Right: that is, the loose agglomeration of intellectuals, politicians, and organizations that opposed both the New Deal and US entry into World War II. Rothbard’s problem, however, is that by the time he grew to adulthood the Old Right had basically petered out. The so-called “isolationism” of such Old Right leaders as Robert Taft, Howard Buffet, John T. Flynn, and the organizers of the America First Committee, had given way to the crazed interventionism of the National Review Right. The Buckleyites wanted nothing so much as a military conflict with the Soviet Union, and in the intra-conservative foreign policy debate, they won out as the older generation faded away.

Rothbard was writing for National Review at one point, but he soon fell out with them over foreign policy and other matters – and by way of explaining his turn toward the Left – Never A Dull Moment can be seen as exemplifying what we might call his “left period” – I included in this volume Murray’s “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal,” and I just want to read a paragraph from that to give you some more context:

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.

The key to understanding Rothbard’s “left turn” is understanding a key element of Rothbard’s political thought: the idea that foreign policy isn’t just one element of libertarianism, it’s central to the fight for a libertarian world. It was the conservative movement’s turn toward interventionism that alienated Murray from the National Review crowd, and the first thing he did after breaking with them was to sit down with Leonard Liggio and come up with a new theory of the cold war. A theory that placed the blame for starting that conflict – a conflict that nearly ended in World War III – on the West.

The idea was that the triumph of Stalinism over the Trotskyites amounted to a basic revision of Communist doctrine – and Soviet foreign policy. Whereas the original idea had been a world communist revolution, Stalin revised this idea and turned it into its exact opposite: the doctrine of “socialism in one country.” And so Soviet foreign policy was essentially defensive. The West, led by the United States, was pursuing a policy of “rollback” – their goal was to destroy the Soviets. It was, in fact, the West that started the cold war, with its official launching Winston Churchill’s “iron curtain” speech, although the military campaign actually started much earlier.

In any case, Rothbard was here explicating his point about the centrality of foreign policy, a point understood by the Old Right – which had always opposed interventionism – and studiously ignored by the New Right of Bill Buckley and Company. The whole Buckleyite scam was noted by Rothbard in his private newsletter, The Vigil, which he wrote when he was in his 20s and sent out to various friends. He noted back then Buckley’s article in a 1952 article in the Catholic magazine Commonweal, and I’m quoting here:

Buckley favors "the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy," and by implication supports ECA aid and 50-billion dollar "defense" budgets. He declares that the "thus far invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union imminently threatens U.S. security," and that therefore "we have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores." Therefore, he concludes, we must all support "large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington — even with Truman at the reins of it all."

What Rothbard understood – and, apparently, so did Buckley – is that we can’t roll back State power as long as we have a worldwide empire to defend and extend. Buckley chose empire – Rothbard chose to stay faithful to his Old Right heritage. And so an independent libertarian movement was born based on this split.

Rothbard and Liggio soon started a new journal, Left and Right, the purpose of which was to appeal to – and educate – a new force on the American scene: the New Left. The “free speech” movement at Berkeley was rising and spreading across the country, and the war in Vietnam – which had been ongoing since the Eisenhower administration – suddenly captured the nation’s attention and became a big issue.

These issues were taken up by Rothbard in Left and Right, and in his new newsletter, the Libertarian Forum – and also in the newspaper columns that are gathered together in Never A Dull Moment. When Bob Lefevre of the Freedom School asked Murray to contribute a column to his short-lived “Pine Tree Features” syndicate, which would then be published in the newspaper chain owned by libertarian R. C. Hoiles, Rothbard happily complied. And we can see in these columns Rothbard’s unique approach to building the libertarian movement.

A good example of his method is the very first column he wrote, in which he supported the student rebellion roiling the nation’s campuses but denounced their demand for “free” tuition. If the students wanted the freedom to engage in political activities, all fine and good, but paying for their own tuition would ensure that the independence of the universities from government diktat was assured. He didn’t pander to them: he instructed them, while endorsing the admirable aspects of their struggle.

On the issue of the civil rights movement, he took a similar tack. While Martin Luther King was the anointed patron saint of the liberals, Rothbard was critical – and I might add that his commentary on the death of King is bound to be controversial. He took King to task for calling for federal troops to put down black “rioters,” and endorsed the black nationalist self-determination doctrine of Malcolm X. He covered the riots that shook the nation, and in view of the recent attention given to the “Black Lives Matter” movement his commentary on police tactics reads like it might have been written today.

Of course, the Vietnam war was a major preoccupation of those tumultuous years, and Rothbard wrote about it regularly, rightly defining the National Liberation Front of Vietnam as a nationalist movement that was fighting for independence against colonialism and calling for the immediate withdrawal of US forces from the region. While the liberals were hailing Eugene McCarthy as the great white hope of the antiwar movement, Rothbard called him out as essentially a fake – who opposed the war simply because it was a failure, and not because he opposed imperialism in any principled way.

I don’t have the time or inclination to go through Never A Dull Moment and point out its many highlights, but something needs to be said about this whole “left’ period in Rothbard’s ideological evolution.

As Rothbard was writing these columns the libertarian movement was being born. That is, libertarians were breaking from their alliance with conservatives and forming their own organizations. A libertarian faction of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), the conservative youth organization founded by Buckley and his associates, and the groups that came out of this eventually went on to found the Libertarian Party in the early 1970s.

But before that could happen, the results of the Rothbardian “left turn” had to come in and be evaluated – and the result wasn’t uniformly good. While the movement had grown exponentially – and this was reflected in the greatly increased circulation of the Libertarian Forum – problems had arisen, as they do with any growing movement. For the nascent libertarian cadre had been thrown into a much bigger movement, the New Left, without any real grounding or support in terms of ideological back up. And so the result was that, in a number of instances, these young libertarians – they were practically all college and high school students – over-adapted to the leftist milieu, and in effect became leftists. This unfortunate trend is covered in Never A Dull Moment in Rothbard’s polemic against an article by Stephen Halbrook that appeared in Libertarian Outlook magazine, in which Halbrook hailed Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” as a “libertarian” phenomenon. This was too  much for Rothbard, who promptly tore apart his arguments in a piece that was meant as a corrective to the rampant ultra-leftism that was invading libertarianism at that point.

This invasion of the Left culminated at the first Libertarian Conference, held in New York City from October 10-12, in 1969. The first part of the conference was devoted to talks given by libertarian scholars: Rothbard, Liggio, Roy Childs, Mario Rizzo, etc. This was a success, but there was an unfortunate undercurrent coursing through the conference, an ultra-left current that manifested itself the next day when Karl Hess gave a rousing speech devoted to the alleged necessity of pure “action.” This cry was taken up by the hippie-ultraleftist contingent, which then focused on a New Left demonstration that was supposed to take place at Fort Dix, in New Jersey. Forget all this empty talk about libertarian economics and theory: what we need is Action Now! And so the ultra-leffists among the attendees marched off to join the Fort Dix demonstration, which turned into a violent confrontation with the National Guard.

Thus were the dangers of ultra-leftism brought home in a close up and personal way to Rothbard. And it was just at this time that the New Left was disintegrating in a miasma of craziness and violence, with the Weathermen blowing themselves up in a New York City townhouse and the remnants of SDS turning to Maoism, Stalinism, and other totalitarian “isms” that were the complete opposite of the quasi-libertarian impulses they exhibited at the outset.

And so the results of this “left period” in Rothbard’s career were mixed. On the one hand, the libertarian movement had expanded way beyond the confines of his living room. It had achieved not only growing numbers but an independent organizational existence and acknowledgment from the media – Never A Dull Moment includes an op ed piece published in the New York Times that chronicles the libertarian split from the Buckleyites. On the other hand, the cultural prejudices and idiosyncracies of the Sixties were imported into the libertarian movement, and this had significant consequences – which we are still experiencing to this day. But I guess we can talk about that when we get to questions….

Justin Raimondo is the editorial director of and author of  An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard

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