The Betrayal of the American Right

The Betrayal of the American Right
© 2007 Murry Rothbard
231 pages

When I began exploring politics and forging my own ideas, I steered leftward out of hatred for the war on terror and Bush’s burgeoning police state. I soon discovered, however, that not only were most progressives more partisan than principled (the antiwar/civil liberties crowd vanished into thin air when Obama continued Bush’s same policies), but that there had existed and still existed, conservative resistance and outcry against the war state. Murray Rothbard offers a history of how the Old Right, typified by its contempt for the establishment and its full-throated support of individualism, was fractured and corrupted into neocons, typified by their embrace of the corporate-military complex. Unpublished until after Rothbard’s death, Betrayal is at the same time a history of modern Individualist-Libertarian thought, and an intellectual biography of Rothbard, who came of age during World War 2, formed unique alliances with the left, and kept the torch of liberty alight during the darkest years of the 1950s. Rothbard’s review of political thought and literature throughout the early 20th century turns convention on its head, and makes for compelling reading.

Rothbard’s narrative begins in the late 19th century, when DC’s nascent imperialism in the Philippines and Cuba, and the growing influence of corporate titans on its policies, inspired resistance from right and left alike, who defended the individual and looked askance at government collusion with the powers of big business. There were no shortage of stalwart voices active in this time: H.L. Mencken, Lysander Spooner, and Albert Jay Nock’s works feature prominently. They scoffed at the mob, argued that the state was guilty of breaking the laws it claimed to enforce, and cried foul whenever tycoons attempted to put the government to work for them. The downfall began with the Great War, as some left-individualists were attracted by Wilson’s crusade for ‘democracy’ (nevermind the fact that the hypocrite Wilson was imprisoning war protestors), and was made permanent by the arrival of the New Deal. Although individualists made some common cause with the powers of business then — including Hoover, who was once decried as a cartelist but who was now attacking FDR — the onset of war saw that momentary alliance destroyed immediately, as Eastern money saw in the growing military-industrial complex their income for life. Increasingly isolated, dismissed as Hitlerites if they dared criticize DC, individualists of this time were no less active: John T. Flynn wrote a prescient work amid World War 2, for instance, called As We Go Marching, which posited that the United States had become a militarized, imperialist state in its mission to destroy Hitler, and that after the war it would seek to surpass Great Britain in being a global hegemon. Flynn was prophetic: DC immediately assumed responsibility for all of creation, seeking out the Red Menace to destroy — throwing away money and then later the lives of young men across the world, most notably in Korea and Vietnam. In this time of perpetual war and McCarthyism came William F. Buckley and the National Review, which completed the work of persuading those with individualist sympathies that the threat posed by Moscow should override their concerns about the growth of the state and its effect on individual liberty — and if it didn’t, they were no-good god-hating commies.

Rothbard’s recounts this not as a historian who can only see in the rearview, but as someone who was an active participant. Coming of age in the late forties and fifties, he was invigorated by New York’s holding of anarchist-libertarian literature, attended lectures from Mises, and worked in numerous organizations defending individualism, attacking the state’s usurpation, and advancing economic education. When an entire body of thought disappeared, reduced to a superficial part of Buckley’s new Conservatism, Inc, Rothbard sought out allies on the left. While the likes of SDS proved too self-destructive for that to last, the experience made him rethink the spectrum of political thought: he concludes the book by arguing that if the individual-libertarian position is an extreme left position, then Buckley and Kirk’s throne-and-altar conservatism is an extreme right position, and socialism is a muddled in-between, aspiring for emancipation from the state but embracing its worst practices and doomed by its internal contradictions. Rothbard also throws Russell Kirk into the Buckley camp, which is a disservice to Kirk given his deep distrust of the war state and loathing of ideology. Having read a fair bit of Kirk, I don’t think Rothbard had more than a cursory appreciation of his work. Although the history of the right’s full takeover by the neo-con movement of Cheney and Bush is only complete up to the 1970s, Rothbard’s personal participation in so many of the events gives this book an unexpected perspective.

“The Neocon Takeover of the American Right“, Tom Woods interview with Paul Gottfried
We Who Dared Say No to War, ed. Tom Woods and Murray Polner. A collection of anti-war writing from both the left and right.
Never a Dull Moment: A Libertarian Looks at the Sixties. A collection of 1960s articles from Rothbard, collected by Justin Raimondo. Raimondo has penned Reclaiming the American Right, a book with shares Rothbard’s subject here.
Ain’t My America: The Long and Noble History of Antiwar Conservatism, Bill Kauffman
Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of American Libertarianism, ed. Brian Doherty

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3 Responses to The Betrayal of the American Right

  1. Marian says:

    Well, there goes my plans of shortening the TBR. 😆 This sounds really informative, and as someone with a less positive view of US involvement in WWII, I’d like to read the book by Flynn, for sure.

    After the past 6 years, I don’t really know where I fall on this spectrum anymore. It seems like big government is inevitable for big sovereign states, but it’s just this kind of political gluttony that is going to get us into a messy collapse. I wonder if there’s a kind of “Dunbar’s Number” for size of a nation.

    Last thought… I don’t know if you’ve ever stumbled across the YouTube channel “chycho” – he’s what I would call a true leftist, with some interesting opinions on politics and society. Anyways, he recently talked about the original definition of fascism by Mussolini, which can be summarized simply as big, intrusive government. Seems like the modern use of the term often obscures that idea, but it really explains why the extremes of both sides look the same at core.

    • This is a particularly dangerous book for hoarders, because Rothbard references so many interesting and often obscure works — like Lysander Spooner’s “Letter to Grover Cleveland”, something I’d never heard.

      I suspect the nature of political power is to aggregate as far as circumstances allow before stagnating and collapsing. In our day technology allows far more growth and concentration at a quicker rate than before. I suspect there is something like a Dunbar’s Number — the Swiss state, to my knowledge, is very stable and decentralized. I need to look into it further, though.

      I haven’t heard of chycho, but I’ll take a look tonight! Fascism as a word is so much abused that I tend to instantly stop taking people seriously when they use it…unless they qualify their definition, anyway. It tends to be used for big, overbearing government, but then that confuses states like Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany with the Soviet Union, or any totalitarian There are a LOT of commonalities, especially economically, but they’re distinct approaches. I know of at least two definitions for fascism I like — one is emphatic that there’s a racial/tribal element (in which the State and “The Race” are conflated together, and the economy is controlled for the benefit of the Race), and the other regards a corporate-state fusion as fascistic, with no mention made of race at all. I think Gottfried has written a book on fascism as a concept.

      • Cyberkitten says:

        The use of the ‘F’ word tends to be VERY loose – on both sides of the pond. But at least the Europeans tend to use the ‘C’ word correctly, know the difference between it and Socialism and not to confuse C & F and use them interchangeably! [grin]

        Of course the use of Left & Right all depends on where you’re standing. The use of the word ‘Left’ to describe the US Democrats (for example) makes us laugh. Here the Dems would be centre *Right*. Even someone like AOC probably wouldn’t be considered Left here – and definitely not HARD Left! Political terms are funny things…

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