Murray Rothbard: The Origins of the Old Right

Taken from Rothbard’s Betrayal of the American Right. Right now, it’s only $4 in the Mises store.

The Old Right, which constituted the American right wing from approximately the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, was, if nothing else, an Opposition movement. Hostility to the Establishment was its hallmark, its very lifeblood. In fact, when in the 1950s the monthly newsletter RIGHT attempted to convey to its readers news of the right wing, it was of course forced to define the movement it would be writing about — and it found that it could define the right wing only in negative terms: in its total opposition to what it conceived to be the ruling trends of American life. In brief, the Old Right was born and had its being as the opposition movement to the New Deal, and to everything, foreign and domestic, that the New Deal encompassed: at first, to burgeoning New Deal statism at home, and then, later in the ’30s, to the drive for American global intervention abroad. Since the essence of the Old Right was a reaction against runaway Big Government at home and overseas, this meant that the Old Right was necessarily, even if not always consciously, libertarian rather than statist, “radical” rather than traditional conservative apologists for the existing order.

Origins of the Old Right, I: Early Individualism

Individualism, and its economic corollary, laissez-faire liberalism, has not always taken on a conservative hue, has not always functioned, as it often does today, as an apologist for the status quo. On the contrary, the Revolution of modern times was originally, and continued for a long time to be, laissez-faire individualist. Its purpose was to free the individual person from the restrictions and the shackles, the encrusted caste privileges and exploitative wars, of the feudal and mercantilist orders, of the Tory ancien régime. Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, the militants in the American Revolution, the Jacksonian movement, Emerson and Thoreau, William Lloyd Garrison and the radical abolitionists — all were basically laissez-faire individualists who carried on the age-old battle for liberty and against all forms of State privilege. And so were the French revolutionaries — not only the Girondins, but even the much-abused Jacobins, who were obliged to defend the Revolution against the massed crowned heads of Europe. All were roughly in the same camp. The individualist heritage, indeed, goes back to the first modern radicals of the 17th century — to the Levellers in England, and to Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson in the American colonies.

The conventional historical wisdom asserts that while the radical movements in America were indeed laissez-faire individualist before the Civil War, that afterwards, the laissez-fairists became conservatives, and the radical mantle then fell to groups more familiar to the modern Left: the Socialists and Populists. But this is a distortion of the truth. For it was elderly New England Brahmins, laissez-faire merchants and industrialists like Edward Atkinson, who had financed John Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry, who were the ones to leap in and oppose the US imperialism of the Spanish-American War with all their might. No opposition to that war was more thoroughgoing than that of the laissez-faire economist and sociologist William Graham Sumner or than that of Atkinson who, as head of the Anti-Imperialist League, mailed antiwar pamphlets to American troops then engaged in conquering the Philippines. Atkinson’s pamphlets urged our troops to mutiny, and were consequently seized by the US postal authorities.

In taking this stand, Atkinson, Sumner, and their colleagues were not being “sports”; they were following an antiwar, anti-imperialist tradition as old as classical liberalism itself. This was the tradition of Price, Priestley, and the late 18th-century British radicals that earned them repeated imprisonment by the British war machine; and of Richard Cobden, John Bright, and the laissez-faire Manchester School of the mid-19th century. Cobden, in particular, had fearlessly denounced every war and every imperial maneuver of the British regime. We are now so used to thinking of opposition to imperialism as Marxian that this kind of movement seems almost inconceivable to us today.10

By the advent of World War I, however, the death of the older laissez-faire generation threw the leadership of the opposition to America’s imperial wars into the hands of the Socialist Party. But other, more individualist-minded men joined in the opposition, many of whom would later form the core of the isolationist Old Right of the late 1930s. Thus, the hardcore antiwar leaders included the individualist Senator Robert LaFollette of Wisconsin and such laissez-faire liberals as Senators William E. Borah (Republican) of Idaho and James A. Reed (Democrat) of Missouri. It also included Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., father of the Lone Eagle, who was a congressman from Minnesota.

Almost all of America’s intellectuals rushed to enlist in the war fervor of the First World War. A leading exception was the formidable laissez-faire individualist Oswald Garrison Villard, editor of the Nation, grandson of William Lloyd Garrison and former member of the Anti-Imperialist League. Two other prominent exceptions were friends and associates of Villard who were later to serve as leaders of libertarian thought in America: Francis Neilson and especially Albert Jay Nock. Neilson was the last of the laissez-faire English Liberals, who had emigrated to the United States; Nock served under Villard during the war, and it was his Nation editorial denouncing the progovernment activities of Samuel Gompers that got that issue of the magazine banned by the US Post Office. And it was Neilson who wrote the first revisionist book on the origins of World War I, How Diplomats Make War (1915). The first revisionist book by an American, in fact, was Nock’s Myth of a Guilty Nation(1922), which had been serialized in LaFollette’s Magazine.

The world war constituted a tremendous trauma for all the individuals and groups opposed to the conflict. The total mobilization, the savage repression of opponents, the carnage and the US global intervention on an unprecedented scale — all of these polarized a large number of diverse people. The shock and the sheer overriding fact of the war inevitably drew together the diverse antiwar groups into a loose, informal and oppositional united front — a front in a new kind of fundamental opposition to the American system and to much of American society. The rapid transformation of the brilliant young intellectual Randolph Bourne from an optimistic pragmatist into a radically pessimistic anarchist was typical, though in a more intense form, of this newly created opposition. Crying, “War is the health of the State,” Bourne declared:

Country is a concept of peace, of balance, of living and letting live. But State is essentially a concept of power…. And we have the misfortune of being born not only into a country but into a State….

“The history of America as a country is quite different from that of America as a State.”

– Randolph Bourne

The State is the country acting as a political unit, it is the group acting as a repository of force…. International politics is a “power politics” because it is a relation of States and that is what States infallibly and calamitously are, huge aggregations of human and industrial force that may be hurled against each other in war. When a country acts as a whole in relation to another country, or in imposing laws on its own inhabitants, or in coercing or punishing individuals or minorities, it is acting as a State. The history of America as a country is quite different from that of America as a State. In one case it is the drama of the pioneering conquest of the land, of the growth of wealth and the ways in which it was used … and the carrying out of spiritual ideals…. But as a State, its history is that of playing part in the world, making war, obstructing international trade … punishing those citizens whom society agrees are offensive, and collecting money to pay for it all.11

If the opposition was polarized and forced together by the war, this polarization did not cease with the war’s end. For one thing, the war and its corollary repression and militarism were shocks that started the opposition thinking deeply and critically about the American system per se; for another, the international system established by the war was frozen into the status quo of the postwar era. For it was obvious that the Versailles treaty meant that British and French imperialism had carved up and humiliated Germany, and then intended to use the League of Nations as a permanent world guarantor of the newly imposed status quo. Versailles and the League meant that America could not forget the war; and the ranks of the Opposition were now joined by a host of disillusioned Wilsonians who saw the reality of the world that President Wilson had made.

The wartime and postwar opposition joined together in a coalition including Socialists and all manner of progressives and individualists. Since they and the coalition were now clearly antimilitarist and anti-“patriotic,” since they were increasingly radical in their antistatism, the individualists were universally labeled as “leftists”; in fact, as the Socialist Party split and faded badly in the postwar era, the Opposition was given an increasingly individualistic cast during the 1920s. Part of this opposition was also cultural: a revolt against hidebound Victorian mores and literature. Part of this cultural revolt was embodied in the well-known expatriates of the “Lost Generation” of young American writers, writers expressing their intense disillusion with the wartime “idealism” and the reality that militarism and the war had revealed about America. Another phase of this revolt was embodied in the new social freedom of the jazz and flapper eras, and the flowering of individual expression, among increasing numbers of young men and women.

Origins of the Old Right, II: The Tory Anarchism of Mencken and Nock

HL Mencken

Leading the cultural struggle in America was H.L. Mencken, undoubtedly the single most influential intellectual of the 1920s; a notable individualist and libertarian, Mencken sailed into battle with characteristic verve and wit, denouncing the stodgy culture and the “Babbittry” of businessmen, and calling for unrestricted freedom of the individual. For Mencken, too, it was the trauma of World War I, and its domestic and foreign evils, that mobilized and intensified his concern for politics — a concern aggravated by the despotism of Prohibition, surely the greatest single act of tyranny ever imposed in America.

Nowadays, when Prohibition is considered a “right-wing” movement, it is forgotten that every reform movement of the 19th century — every moralistic group trying to bring the “uplift” to America by force of law — included Prohibition as one of its cherished programs. To Mencken, the battle against Prohibition was merely a fight against the most conspicuous of the tyrannical and statist “reforms” being proposed against the American public.

And so, Mencken’s highly influential monthly The American Mercury, founded in 1924, opened its pages to writers of all parts of the Opposition — especially to attacks on American culture and mores, to assaults on censorship and the championing of civil liberties, and to revisionism on the war. Thus, the Mercury featured two prominent revisionists of World War I: Harry Elmer Barnes and Barnes’s student, C. Hartley Grattan, whose delightful series in the magazine, “When Historians Cut Loose,” acidly demolished the war propaganda of America’s leading historians. Mencken’s cultural scorn for the American “booboisie” was embodied in his famous “Americana” column, which simply reprinted news items on the idiocies of American life without editorial comment.

The enormous scope of Mencken’s interests, coupled with his scintillating wit and style (Mencken was labeled by Joseph Wood Krutch as “the greatest prose stylist of the 20th century”), served to obscure for his generation of youthful followers and admirers the remarkable consistency of his thought. When, decades after his former prominence, Mencken collected the best of his old writings in The Mencken Chrestomathy (1948), the book was reviewed in the New Leader by the eminent literary critic Samuel Putnam. Putnam reacted in considerable surprise; remembering Mencken from his youth as merely a glib cynic, Putnam found to his admiring astonishment that H.L.M. had always been a “Tory anarchist” — an apt summation for the intellectual leader of the 1920s.

But H.L. Mencken was not the only editor leading the new upsurge of individualistic opposition during the 1920s. From a similar though more moderate stance, the Nation of Mencken’s friend Oswald Garrison Villard continued to serve as an outstanding voice for peace, revisionism on World War I, and opposition to the imperialist status quo imposed at Versailles. Villard, at the end of the war, acknowledged that the war had pushed him far to the left, not in the sense of adopting socialism, but in being thoroughly “against the present political order.” Denounced by conservatives as pacifist, pro-German, and “Bolshevist,” Villard found himself forced into a political and journalistic alliance with socialists and progressives who shared his hostility to the existing American and world order.12

Albert J. Nock

From a still more radical and individualist perspective, Mencken’s friend and fellow “Tory anarchist” Albert Jay Nock, cofounded and coedited, along with Francis Neilson, the new weekly Freeman from 1920 to 1924. The Freeman, too, opened its pages to all left-oppositionists to the political order. With the laissez-faire individualist Nock as principal editor, the Freeman was a center of radical thought and expression among oppositionist intellectuals.

Rebuffing the Nation‘s welcome to the new Freeman as a fellow liberal weekly, Nock declared that he was not a liberal but a radical. “We can not help remembering,” wrote Nock bitterly, “that this was a liberal’s war, a liberal’s peace, and that the present state of things is the consummation of a fairly long, fairly extensive, and extremely costly experiment with liberalism in political power.”13

To Nock, radicalism meant that the State was to be considered as an antisocial institution rather than as the typically liberal instrument of social reform. And Nock, like Mencken, gladly opened the pages of his journal to all manner of radical, anti-Establishment opinion, including Van Wyck Brooks, Bertrand Russell, Louis Untermeyer, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, William C. Bullitt, and Charles A. Beard.

In particular, while an individualist and libertarian, Nock welcomed the Soviet revolution as a successful overthrow of a frozen and reactionary State apparatus. Above all, Nock, in opposing the postwar settlement, denounced the American and Allied intervention in the [Russian] Civil War. Nock and Neilson saw clearly that the American intervention was setting the stage for a continuing and permanent imposition of American might throughout the world. After the folding of the Freeman in 1924, Nock continued to be prominent as a distinguished essayist in the leading magazines, including his famous “Anarchist’s Progress.”14

Most of this loose coalition of individualistic radicals was totally disillusioned with the political process, but to the extent that they distinguished between existing parties, the Republican Party was clearly the major enemy. Eternal Hamiltonian champions of Big Government and intimate government “partnership” with Big Business through tariffs, subsidies, and contracts, long-time brandishers of the Imperial big stick, the Republicans had capped their antilibertarian sins by being the party most dedicated to the tyranny of Prohibition, an evil that particularly enraged H.L. Mencken. Much of the opposition (e.g., Mencken, Villard) supported the short-lived LaFollette Progressive movement of 1924, and the Progressive Senator William E. Borah (R-Idaho) was an opposition hero in leading the fight against the war and the League of Nations, and in advocating recognition of Soviet Russia. But the nearest political home was the conservative Bourbon, non-Wilsonian or “Cleveland” wing of the Democratic Party, a wing that at least tended to be “wet,” was opposed to war and foreign intervention, and favored free trade and strictly minimal government. Mencken, the most politically minded of the group, felt closest in politics to Governor Albert Ritchie, the states-rights Democrat from Maryland, and to Senator James Reed, Democrat of Missouri, a man staunchly “isolationist” and anti-intervention in foreign affairs and pro-laissez-faire at home.

It was this conservative wing of the Democratic Party, headed by Charles Michelson, Jouett Shouse, and John J. Raskob, which launched a determined attack on Herbert Hoover in the late 1920s for his adherence to Prohibition and to Big Government generally. It was this wing that would later give rise to the much-maligned Liberty League.

To Mencken and to Nock, in fact, Herbert Hoover — the prowar Wilsonian and interventionist, the Food Czar of the war, the champion of Big Government, of high tariffs and business cartels, the pious moralist and apologist for Prohibition — embodied everything they abhorred in American political life. They were clearly leaders of the individualist opposition to Hoover’s conservative statism.

Taken from Rothbard’s Betrayal of the American Right. Right now, it’s only $4 in the Mises store.

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