Behind the Headlines
by Justin Raimondo
I am often asked what inspired me to help launch Antiwar.com, turn it into the focal point of anti-war activities on the Internet, and write literally hundreds of columns in a little over a year. I can only point to the picture hanging over my desk: a portrait of a man sitting at a typewriter (remember them?). His sleeves are rolled up, and his shirt slightly rumpled, but the bow-tie gives him an incongruous air of formality. His gaze is fixed on the sheet of paper unfolding in the stylized shape of a banner waving in the background, a bemused smile faintly tugging at the corners of his mouth. Underneath this portrait is the caption: "Murray N. Rothbard, greatest living enemy of coercive government."
If only he were here to see how far we have come. Rothbard died on January 7, 1995. During the course of his sixty-eight years, he had written 28 books and hundreds of articles that, taken together, are the foundation stones of a mighty ideological edifice outlining a paradigm of pure liberty. As the leading student of Ludwig von Mises, the greatest figure of the "Austrian" or pure free market school of economics, Rothbard almost single-handedly implanted the Misesian flag on American soil and not only that, but, building on the achievement of his mentor, Rothbard's monumental Man, Economy, and State clarified and expanded what Mises had wrought; Power and Market pioneered new frontiers in refuting the legitimacy and efficiency of state action in every possible realm of human endeavor; America's Great Depression exposed the role of bank-credit expansion, and not free market capitalism, as the true villain of that catastrophe. And then there is the capstone of his career, the two-volume Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought [Vol. I, Classical Economics; Vol. II, Economic Thought Before Adam Smith] a work that gives new meaning to the word "awesome."
If Rothbard's economic insights were the sum total of his contribution, that would have been enough for any man: but with Rothbard, that is just the beginning. As a social theorist, his interests and encyclopedic knowledge encompassed all of social science. There is Rothbard the historian: his four-volume set on the American Revolution, Conceived in Liberty, puts the first successful libertarian revolution in history in its political, economic, and socio-religious context, and is a veritable treasure house of knowledge, packed with nuggets of fascinating historical facts. There is Rothbard the political economist: his recently-republished The Ethics of Liberty is a model of theoretical and stylistic elegance. Then there is Rothbard the polemicist and best builder of an ideological movement: For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto is still the best introduction to libertarianism as a political worldview and program. Indeed, one could write a whole book on the subject of Rothbard and his intellectual impact and that indeed is what I have done. An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard will be published in July by Prometheus Books. As a thinker and a towering figure in the libertarian movement, Rothbard had an enormous impact on my development as a writer and an activist. I met him in 1978, when he was the leading intellectual light of the Cato Institute, then based in San Francisco. As part of a group of self-styled "radical" libertarians centered in and around the libertarian student organization, I was amazed and delighted when Rothbard took a personal interest in our intellectual and political development: here was this intellectual giant who not only paid attention to our juvenile polemics, but also was a whole lot of fun to be around. Knowing Murray was an education and a joy the two things most young people today assume are opposites in a dichotomy. The bonds of our friendship were both personal and ideological, and as far as the latter is concerned what really struck me, at the time of our first meeting, was the great emphasis that Rothbard put on opposition to globalism and imperialism. It was really the key to understanding his politics, and his ideological odyssey from the Old Right to the New Left and back again.
In the late forties and early fifties, when Rothbard came of age and began producing the veritable flood of political journalism that supplements his more scholarly work, the old "isolationist" (that is, noninterventionist) conservative movement was passing away, its defeated leaders and publicists either retiring or forced out by the triumphant (and vengeful) War Party. As an economics student at Colombia University, young Rothbard had entered this overwhelmingly leftist milieu as a convinced free marketeer of the "limited government" variety and he was literally a minority of one, at least on a campus where the Social Democrats constituted the "right-wing," the Stalinists occupied the "Center," and the Trotskyists claimed the Left. Where was a budding young libertarian scholar to find solace and support? The answer came, one day, as he perused the Colombia University bookstore newsstand, bulging with the usual Trotskyist newspapers and Stalinist tracts and perhaps the latest edition of The New Leader when his eyes locked on to a pamphlet whose title stood out as if on fire: "Taxation is Theft!" It was a pamphlet by Frank Chodorov, a disciple of Albert Jay Nock, and Rothbard fell upon it like a starving man on a morsel. Chodorov had just been fired from his job as editor of the Georgist periodical The Freeman for his opposition to World War II and was living in a loft in lower Manhattan, eking out a precarious living as editor of Analysis, a broadsheet with at most 1500 subscribers and Rothbard eagerly joined their ranks. "This," recalled Rothbard years later, "was it" he had found his libertarian lodestar, and his course was set.
Chodorov was an impressive man, a great raconteur and teacher, and he made a huge impression on young Murray Rothbard: he also ran a small libertarian book service: and their correspondence is filled with Rothbard's book orders along with a detailed account of his joy at discovering H. L. Mencken, Nock, Garet Garrett, Isabel Paterson, all the libertarian greats. Chodorov was a keen critic of the globalist policies of our ruling elites: in launching a crusade against Communism, we would absorb and mimic not only the methods but the ideology of the enemy. Just as Americans fought and beat the national socialists in the trenches, and then came home to discover that they had lost the battle for liberty on the home front, so the foresaw that they would come home from the great war against the Reds facing a similar anomaly. In "A Jeremiad," published in 1950, at the height of the cold war, Chodorov saw where it would all lead: "the net profit of The War will be a political setup differing from that of Russia in name only." War (or the hysteria that precedes it) would stunt and threaten to destroy whatever hope there was for human liberty. "There will be a resurrection," he wrote, "for the spirit of freedom never dies. But its coming will take much time and travail." Rothbard absorbed this insight and saw clearly, early on, the centrality of the war question, proudly referring to himself as an "isolationist," an epithet that he wore as a badge of honor. Now this label was in the category of a political swear word in the postwar period, even more than it is today: the War Party, having dragged us successfully into the European conflict, was intent on driving anyone who had ever opposed them out of politics and into disgrace. As I detailed in a previous column, they even staged sedition trials in the wake of their great "victory," and the triumphalist mood was inescapable and oppressive especially to Rothbard, who instinctively rebelled against the atmosphere of intellectual conformity and intimidation that permeates a country in wartime.
He struck back in the pages of Faith and Freedom, a libertarian journal put out by Spiritual Mobilization, a Christian group that had developed a consistently anti-statist ideology based on their interpretation of the fundamentals of Christian doctrine. Rothbard, a New York Jew, not to mention an agnostic, was perfectly willing to find any allies he could in a world dominated by collectivism, mostly of the left, be they Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, or Buddhist as long as they opposed the depredations of the State, and especially its penchant for periodic bouts of mass murder, his tolerance and willingness to work in a coalition was practically unbounded. This was in part due to his essential good humor, and in part the legacy of long years of being a member of a small minority all too often, in those days, a minority of one, a lone anarcho-capitalist and isolationist living in the postwar world of collectivism and global intervention. But his voice did not go unheard. Writing under the pen-name "Aubrey Herbert," Rothbard wrote a monthly column in which he plugged away at the idiocies of the cold war: in "The Real Aggressor," published in 1954, Rothbard attacked the conservatives who had jumped on the cold war bandwagon with such unseemly alacrity. Once champions of peace and noninterventionism, these very same people "have now become outright internationalists." Stating his case with characteristic directness, he wrote:
"Here I think one point should be made and made bluntly. Some people may prefer death to communism; and this is perfectly legitimate for them although death may not often be a solution to any problem. But suppose they also try to impose their will on other people who might prefer life under communism to death in a 'free world' cemetery. Is not forcing them into mortal combat a pure and simple case of murder? And is not anti-Communist murder as evil as murder committed by Communists?"
Conservatives were "sinking into a war psychosis" and fast abandoning their devotion to free markets and individual liberty in the interests of pursuing the anti-Communist jihad. This was, he believed, because they misconceived the nature of the State as a policeman, instead of a criminal gang with a monopoly on crime, a legitimized and considerably more powerful version of the Mafia except without their code of honor. After all, Mafia hit men only carryout small scale massacres: a dozen at a time, at most. The State is truly the engine of mass murder and this insight was what drove Rothbard to swim determinedly against the tide and make one last isolationist stand against the rising tide of "anti-Communist" interventionism. At Rothbard's suggestion, an all-isolationist issue of Faith and Freedom was published, featuring not only "The Real Aggressor" but a gem of a piece by Garet Garrett and an excellent article by the industrialist Ernest T Weir. This unusual event a sudden resurgence of dreaded "isolationism" on the Right brought the nascent libertarian movement to the annoyed attention of The New Leader, the semiofficial organ of social democratic anti-Communism. In its pages William Henry Chamberlin charged that Rothbard had "laid down a blueprint for American policy tailor-made to the specifications of the Kremlin."
It was a shock being red-baited, but the shock soon wore off. Here he was, sitting at the feet of Ludwig von Mises, absorbing the profoundly anti-collectivist doctrines of the most consistent and radical advocate of the free market and at the same time researching and writing his own seminal works that would be the foundation stones of a thoroughgoing philosophy of freedom and the conservatives of the "New Right" variety were calling him a Commie! The great irony was that William Henry Chamberlin had been highly critical of US intervention in World War II, and had in fact staunchly opposed it, even going so far as to write an entire book detailing the reasons for his stance: America's Second Crusade, as Rothbard pointed out in a letter to The New Leader. But the irony was lost on the humorless and fanatical wackos who were in the process of taking over the conservative movement. Most of them were ex-Communists or some kind of exotic anti-Stalinist leftist, and were consumed with a desire to wreak vengeance on the god of their youth, which had so conspicuously failed and betrayed them.
Rothbard took up the cudgels on behalf of the old isolationism, but it was a struggle he was doomed to lose at least for the moment. In column after column he lashed out at the bloody and profitable business of the cold war bloody for most of us, profitable for a few. In 1955, he took on the powerful China lobby, which had built up a large base of support in the American conservative movement: "Why Fight for Formosa?" was published in the summer of 1954, and it caused a controversy that led to Rothbard's departure from the magazine. How would we react if there was a large Communist contingent parked on a island somewhere very close to the American coast, just bristling with weaponry? It would be a few years yet before Americans horrified by the Cuban missile crisis would be able to answer such a question with any honesty. At any rate, such impertinence caught the eye of one Willi Schlamm, an ex-Commie turned "conservative" who had once edited Red Flag, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Germany: Schlamm attacked Rothbard in the pages of Faith and Freedom: it was yet another cheap red-baiting slur. "Why do the pro-war conservatives," asked Rothbard, in his rebuttal, "supposedly dedicated to the superiority of capitalism over Communism, by thirsting for an immediate showdown, implicitly grant that time is on the side of the Communist system?" Schlamm sneeringly replied:
"The trouble with libertarian economists is that they presume everybody else to be guided by their own genteel value system (in which productivity excels). They are right as economists, but fatally wrong as theologians: they do not perceive that the Devil is real and that he can generously satisfy powering human cravings."
As a student of Mises, Rothbard knew that communism could not endure: Mises had demonstrated the economic impossibility of socialist economic planning as early as 1926, and all attempts to refute him had failed. What Schlamm and his ilk did not realize is that being right as an economist is quite enough; that productivity is not only a nice luxury to have around but absolutely necessary to human survival. While the socialist Devil is indeed real, the great paradox is that he defeats his own followers to the extent that they are successful. Communism had to fail: it could not possibly compete with the relatively free economies of the West, and would soon fall behind in every respect. But the Potemkin village of the old Soviet Union was, at the time, pictured in the Western media as a mighty colossus by both the Left and the Right, albeit for different reasons. The Left because they admired this power, or wanted to, and the Right because they feared it: both contributed to the myth of Soviet invincibility.
Chodorov had gone on to edit yet another journal titled The Freeman, this one run by the libertarian Foundation for Economic Freedom. But this new position did not last very long, for he would not go along with the holy war against the Soviet Union, and in a spirited exchange with the indefatiguable Willi Schlamm Chodorov declared once again his implacable opposition to the new internationalist dispensation: the old isolationists of the 1940s, he wrote, had accurately predicted the results of the late world war: conscription, centralization, confiscatory taxation, the loss of individual liberties, inflation and mountains of debt. "All this the isolationists of the 1940s foresaw," he concluded,
"not because they were endowed with any gift of prevision, but because they knew history and would not deny its lesson: that during war the State acquires power at the expense of freedom, and that because of its insatiable lust for power the State is incapable of giving up any of it. The State never abdicates."
Words to remember but they were written to no avail. Chodorov was soon out as editor of The Freeman, and shortly after that Rothbard's column at Faith and Freedom discontinued. With the death of Garet Garrett, and the legendary Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the isolationist publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and the retirement of others such as John T Flynn, the purge of the old isolationists from the American Right was complete. The America First generation gave way to the William Buckley generation a degeneration that Rothbard found increasingly intolerable.
The really juicy details of the Rothbard-Buckley encounter as well as Rothbard's stormy relationship with Ayn Rand are between the covers of my book, and I won't spoil it for you: suffice to say that he passed rather quickly through these circles, writing a lot of book reviews for National Review and socialized to some extent with the Buckley circle. But he soon found the atmosphere of cold war hysteria prevalent among the editors to be utterly intolerable. In a memoir of that time, he recalls listening to an argument between a National Review editor and his wife over luncheon: the subject of their debate was whether, upon launching a nuclear first strike against the Soviet Union, we should or should not give them some warning.
In a letter to Buckley, Rothbard detailed the reasons for his optimism that the Soviet state was even then withering at its core. The revolutionary spirit had gone out of the Soviet rulers, and while they make motions in the direction of the old Marxist icons, "the point is that the new opportunists do not care anymore." The old dream of a world communist revolution has been abandoned by the nomenklatura, which is only concerned with feathering its own nest. Far from overthrowing capitalism in the West, the Soviets were faced with the high probability of a revolt at home and soon. "I am not expert enough to say how far this process has already gone in the Soviet Union," he wrote,
"But the point is that it must, in the nature of things, be underway already, and its importance will grow as time goes on. If we realize this, and remember also that revolutionary inspiration has always, historically, died out after a time, we will see that Time is on our side, and we will realize that we need not dig in for a long and bloody battle to the death with an enemy that is even now withering from within."
In the winter of 1957, with the cold war never colder, this was a radical proposition. It was also radically right. But Buckley, who has strongly implied if not actually stated that he was working for the CIA at the time and I'm inclined to believe him, since they were apt to pick up any number of intellectuals-for-sale at this time was not at all amenable to this view, and so they parted ways. Rothbard also parted ways with Ayn Rand: The occasion was a silly "trial" staged by the Randians, in which he was cast into the outer darkness for the sin of refusing to give up his Episcopalian wife (the Randians were atheists). But another major reason for the break was Rand's ignorant endorsement of the cold war, and her crazy contention that the West had a moral right to launch a military invasion of any communist country at any time. As Americans went about their business while a nuclear sword of Damocles hung over their heads, the "Objectivists" (as Rand's followers called themselves) sat at the feet of the Master and absorbed her abysmal ignorance of and indifference to foreign affairs.
The growth of the movement against the Vietnam war and the draft was the impetus that set an independent libertarian movement on its course, and Rothbard was the catalyst. With Leonard Liggio, he developed a new analysis of American corporatism and its relationship to foreign policy, with an emphasis on historical revisionism. He and Leonard, who became prominent in New Left circles, were applying the insights of the Old Right to a new situation in which war, once again, was the number one topic of discussion. Together they founded Left and Right, the seminal journal of modern American libertarianism, devoted to creating a New Left-Old Right alliance against imperialist war, featuring scholars from all sides of the political spectrum, as well as the work of libertarians and the important essay, "Left and Right: The Prospects for Liberty," Rothbard's manifesto breaking with the old conservatism and raising the banner of a reborn classical liberalism. Strategically, this meant an alliance with the New Left against the liberal-conservative pro-war "center." Later Rothbard recalled his jubilation at the first big demonstrations against the Vietnam war:
"Here at last was not a namby-pamby 'peace group like SANE [the Committee for a Sane Nuclear policy, made up of cold war liberals] but a truly radical antiwar movement which zeroed in on the evils of American warmaking; and here was a movement that excluded no one, that baited neither reds nor rightists, that welcomed all Americans. Here, at last, was an antiwar Left that we could be happy about!"
Anti-militarism pervaded the New Left critique of the university, Rothbard noted, with the left-libertarian complaints of anarchists like Paul Goodman echoing the Nockian analysis of mass education as a contradiction in terms. Conservatives had criticized the massification of education and its increasing subordination to the State for years yet now that the students were finally rebelling, the Right could only demonize them. Some people are just so hard to please, but Rothbard was clearly delighted with this new upsurge of protest. Left and Right took off, and wound up in the back pockets of growing numbers of libertarian activists organizing on campuses nationwide. Merging the insights of the New Left historians, such as William Appleman Williams and his students, with the wisdom of his Old Right forebears, Rothbard evolved a comprehensive analysis of imperialism as a function of corporate state capitalism. Using the State as their instrument, "big business, big labor, and the Big Intellectuals" had entered in a Tripartite Alliance for the perpetual maintenance of their mutual power and profit. The Marxist analysis of the state and revolution was a mild, centrist compromise: the Left recognized the criminal character of the State, but only wanted to have it "wither away" over a long period of time during which, as the Leninists would have it, we would be subject to the vagaries of the "dictatorship of the proletariat." Rothbard was fully confident that libertarians could more than hold their own against this kind of confused centrism. In view of the fact that ruling elites never give up their power voluntarily, the prognosis for the commie State "withering away" of its own accord was poor, at best: libertarians, on the other hand, insisted that it be abolished (or at least radically reduced in size) as soon as possible. Next to libertarianism, the recycled Marxism of the Maoists, Panther-worshippers, and dime-store Stalinists was tame stuff indeed. This, at least, is what Rothbard expected would happen if libertarians entered the antiwar movement, and joined with the New Left in opposing the bloody debacle then unfolding in Southeast Asia: that the Marxists would lose the intellectual competition, and that libertarians would make substantial headway. And he was right: hundreds and then thousands were won to the libertarian movement in this period. Left and Right, a quarterly, became the Libertarian Forum, a biweekly, and then the organized libertarian movement really took off. But then radical movements for social change were springing up all over the place, and in relation to the others libertarianism went practically unnoticed for a long time, until well into the seventies.
By then, the Libertarian Party (LP) had been founded, and I will leave even the basic outlines of that long story to readers of my Rothbard biography. But it needs to be said here that, for years, it was Rothbard and his close friend and colleague Williamson Evers who almost alone successfully fought the Randians in the party who had inherited Rand's unreasoning militarism and sought to enshrine their ignorance of foreign policy in the LP platform. Throughout his long association with the LP, Rothbard fought to keep Libertarians in the forefront of any and all opposition to war: it was an often lonely and difficult fight, but he won it and the LP whatever its other problems has to this day strictly adhered to noninterventionism. This is also true in the case of another institution he was in on the founding of: the Cato Institute, which was born basically in Rothbard's fertile brain, where the dream of a libertarian thinktank (properly endowed) had long incubated. Without going into any of the juicy details, once again, Rothbard's relationship with the Cato Institute was seminal and stormy, eventually leading to a break. While not acknowledging the man who is for all intents and purposes their founder, the Cato Institute, like the LP, has stuck to its early noninterventionism with admirable consistency.
Rothbard was always one step ahead of his followers, often so far ahead that they lost sight of him: such was the case when his prediction of the Communist collapse came true and the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and, with it, the political boundaries and labels that had kept him out of the conservative movement for as long as the cold war lasted. The great Thaw meant that the isolationist and nationalist impulses of American conservatives were reawakened and here Rothbard saw a great opportunity, one that was not to be missed. Getting back to his Old Right roots to a conservative movement that once more had room for an old isolationist Rothbard started new periodical, with his friend and colleague Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., the Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and announced the formation of a paleo-libertarian movement, which hearkened back to its Old Right origins and rejected the cultural nihilism of the counterculture, which had come to predominate in libertarian circles. He found new allies: in the paleo-conservatives of the Rockford Institute, whose brilliant magazine Chronicles lights up the darkness of our neo-barbarian culture and also in the 1992 presidential campaign of Patrick J. Buchanan.
Against the smears of the rabid neoconservatives, who hate any and all manifestations of "isolationism," Rothbard defended Buchanan in broadsides of increasing length and passion: Buchanan had won his support on the basis of his stalwart noninterventionism, particularly his brave and very public stance against the Gulf War. He put together an "Encyclopedia of Anti-Buchananiana" that catalogued all the various smears against Pat, categorized them by type, and then systematically refuted them. He attended the 1992 Republican convention as the guest and toast of the Buchanan Brigades, where he schmoozed with Phyllis Schlafly, and, although later somewhat disappointed by what he considered undue emphasis on protectionist economic nostrums, always had a great admiration and liking for Buchanan.
Rothbard's turn toward the New Left in the sixties had been prefigured by his support for Adlai Stevenson in 1956 against the far more ominously militaristic Eisenhower. Stevenson had been for taking steps toward nuclear disarmament, and the aggressive behavior of the US during the Eisenhower years typified by the infamous U-2 incident, in which an American spy was shot down flying over Soviet territory and the pilot captured horrified Rothbard because it raised the real possibility of nuclear war. Rothbard's turn toward the revived Old Right in the nineties was prefigured by his enthusiasm for Buchanan, who explicitly invoked the spirit of the old America First Committee and those brave isolationists, of Chodorov's rank, who had stood up to the War Party in the 1940s. Ever the optimist, he always gave his champions the benefit of the doubt and if he was disappointed, his optimism, based on an inner certainty, was easily revived.
Of course, the Murray Rothbard story cannot be told in a single column after all, my book is some 360 printed pages, not including a section of photographs, and it's useless to try to fit it all into the space of this piece. I can only add that, if Rothbard was an enemy of the State, then he was also as a corollary an enemy of the War Party; indeed, among the biggest. And that is why his memory, and his work, is of interest to today's antiwar movement, and indeed to anyone who finds our forced march to the New World Order just a little bit ominous. In his writings, and his actions, Murray N. Rothbard was an exemplar of the antiwar activist: his passionate opposition to the mass-murdering foreign policy of imperialism and New World Order-ism was the leitmotif of his politics and vital to understanding his conception of libertarianism.
At this year's fantastically successful Antiwar.com conference, the question I heard the most was: what inspires you to write so much, and still be able to organize events like this convention? I could only shake my head, look tired, and shrug. Now that An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard is finally coming out, all I have to do is point to it and ask: "Have you read my book?" Inspiration is hard to come by, these days, but take my word for it: you won't be disappointed. Not only libertarians, but antiwar activists of all hues will be fascinated and charmed by Rothbard the man and the thinker. Just click on the above title and check it out.
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