Murray Rothbard versus the Progressives
There has been a radical change in the social and political landscape in this country, and any person who desires the victory of liberty and the defeat of Leviathan must adjust his strategy accordingly. New times require a rethinking of old and possibly obsolete strategies. —Murray N. Rothbard1
Murray Rothbard wrote the above words in 1994, shortly before his untimely passing. They sum up the main theme of a series of brilliant articles that he published in the 1990s calling for a radical readjustment of libertarian strategy to the new political and social realities that had emerged in the aftermath of the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In these articles, Rothbard identified both the abstract social philosophy and the concrete political movement that then had emerged as the greatest menace to liberty and society. He also proposed a radical reformulation of the political spectrum and a revised political vocabulary to express the new strategy called for in the altered ideological and political context.
Before proceeding further, I want to point out that Rothbard’s articles, despite their deep insight and radical implications for libertarian strategy, have been largely overlooked by friend and foe alike for a couple of reasons. First, when he wrote the articles, Rothbard was hard at work on his monumental two-volume treatise on economic thought. Understandably, he wrote the articles quickly as one-off responses to particular events, ideas, and political developments during a period of rapid change, from 1991 to 1994. Rothbard’s new views on strategy were therefore presented as fragments in different articles containing inevitable repetition and overlapping. This obscured the fact that taken together these articles presented a systematic and comprehensive strategy for radical social and political change. Second, the articles appeared in the Rothbard-Rockwell Report a journal of social, political, and cultural commentary. Unfortunately, Triple R’s scintillating polemics and its coverage of an incredibly broad range of topics sometimes diverted the reader from the deep theorizing that informed many of its articles. I confess that I did not appreciate the significance of Rothbard’s articles, and their unity and breadth of vision, until very recently.
Social Democracy: Identifying the Enemy
After the collapse of communism, and with Nazism and fascism “long dead and buried,”2 Rothbard argued that social democracy was the only remaining statist program, and its advocates were hell bent on making the most of their ideological monopoly. In the “new post-communist world,” Rothbard wrote:
The Enemy of liberty and tradition is now revealed full-blown: social democracy. For social democracy in all of its guises is not only still with us … but now that Stalin and his heirs are out of the way, social democrats are trying to reach for total power.3
Not only is social democracy still with us in its many variations, but it has managed to define “our entire respectable political spectrum, from advanced victimology and feminism on the left over to neoconservatism on the right.”4 Make no mistake about it, Rothbard warned, “on all crucial issues, social democrats however they label themselves, stand against liberty and tradition and in favor of statism and Big Government.” Furthermore, social democracy is far more insidious than other forms of statism because it claims “to combine socialism with the appealing virtues of ‘democracy’ and freedom of inquiry.”5 As shrewd observers of the political scene for a century and a half, social democrats—or left liberals in the American political lexicon—are indeed seriously committed to democracy. As Rothbard explained:
The maintenance of some democratic choice, however illusory, is vital for all varieties of social democrats. They have long realized that a one-party dictatorship can and probably will become cordially hated … and will eventually be overthrown, possibly along with its entire power structure.6
Picking up on the insight of the contemporary political theorist Paul Gottfried, Rothbard noted that the social democrats’ devotion to democracy also serves as a pretext for an attack on those who assert the “absolute” inviolability of the right to free speech and a free press. This assault on free speech, Rothbard presciently pointed out in 1991,
constitutes an agenda for eventually using the power of the State to restrict or prohibit speech or expression that [neocons and social democrats] hold to be “undemocratic.” This category could and would be indefinitely expanded to include: real or alleged communists, leftists, fascists, neo-Nazis, secessionists, “hate thought” criminals, and eventually … paleo-conservatives and paleo and left-libertarians.7
Progressivism: The Social Philosophy of Social Democracy
Rothbard probed deeper to expose the peculiar social philosophy that is at the root of all strains and variants of social democracy as well as communism. He identified this philosophy as progressivism, which is far more than a social and economic program for the here and now. It is a Utopian social philosophy that looks toward the establishment of a future heaven on earth. The core belief of progressives is based on the Enlightenment myth that history is an inexorable and ever upward march toward the perfection of mankind. In the case of social democrats, perfection is defined as a society ruled and engineered by a righteous, efficient, and egalitarian socialist state. Moreover, unlike traditional Marxists, social democratic progressives believe that history unfolds not through class struggle and bloody revolution but through the relentless forward march of democracy. In Rothbard’s words:
The left are in their bones, “progressives,” that is, they believe in Whig or Marxoid fashion, that history consists of an inevitable March Upward into the light, toward and into the Socialist Utopia. They believe in the myth of inevitable progress: that History is on their side.8
The ultimate goal of this progressive and inevitable transformation of society is not, as it is with traditional Marxists, the eradication of all class distinctions and the collective ownership of the means of production under the dictatorship of the proletariat. Rather it is, in Rothbard’s words, “a socialist, egalitarian State run by bureaucrats, intellectuals, technocrats, ‘therapists,’ and the New Class in general in collaboration with accredited victim pressure groups striving for equality.” The capitalist and entrepreneur class will not be liquidated, nor will their means of production be expropriated. Instead, the market economy will be kept but heavily taxed, regulated, and restricted. According to Rothbard:
The Social Democrats realize that it is far better for the socialist State to retain the capitalists and a truncated market economy to be regulated, confined, controlled, and subject to the commands of the State. The Social Democrat goal is not “class war,” but a kind of “class harmony,” in which capitalists and the market work for the good of society and of the parasitic State apparatus.9
Revising the Political Spectrum
With “neoconservative” progressives having hijacked the conservative movement and the so-called New Democrat Bill Clinton revealing his hard-left progressive inclinations, Rothbard realized that the urgent first step in combating progressivism was to completely revamp the prevailing conception of the US political spectrum and its vocabulary. On the left of his reconstructed spectrum, Rothbard arrayed all political factions inspired by the progressive-Marxist vision of social change. These groups were also fanatically devoted to democracy not merely as the surest means for instituting the progressive political and economic agenda but, in Rothbard’s words, “as a shibboleth, as an ultimate moral absolute, virtually replacing all other moral principles including the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount.”10 In Rothbard’s view the Left ranged from official conservatives and neoconservatives to left liberals and included their allied intellectual and media elites and official victim groups.
On the right, Rothbard grouped all those who cherished traditional American liberties and social institutions and who aimed to stop, rollback, and undo progressive encroachments on them. Rothbard initially puzzled over the label that best suited his proposed grand coalition or “fusion” of right-wing opposition groups, which included many (but not all) lib
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