Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal
[This 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!
It 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.
I 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 conscription.
All 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.”
Originally, 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.
In 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.
What 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 fossilized.”
I 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.”
When 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.
Howard 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.”
To this The Nation replied with typical liberal Red-baiting: “The 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.”
The main catalyst for transforming the m
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