The Left-Rothbardians, Part I: Rothbard
This article was originally published on the blog The Art of the Possible.

In “Libertarianism: What’s Going Right,” I mentioned Left-Rothbardianism as one possible basis for finding areas of agreement between market libertarians and the Left. I’d like to go into that in more depth now.

In 2004, I was extremely heartened by the “Era of Good Feelings” between the Libertarian Party’s Michael Badnarik and the Green Party’s David Cobb. It gave me some hope for the revival of an even more hopeful project of some 30-odd years before.

During the late 1960s, Murray Rothbard attempted a strategic alliance of the “isolationist” and comparatively anti-statist Old Right with the New Left. That period is the subject of an article by John Payne, “(PDF) Rothbard’s Time on the Left.” Payne writes:

By the early 1960s, Rothbard saw the New Right, exemplified by National Review, as perpetually wedded to the Cold War, which would quickly turn exponentially hotter in Vietnam, and the state interventions that accompanied it, so he set out looking for new allies. In the New Left, Rothbard found a group of scholars who opposed the Cold War and political centralization, and possessed a mass following with high growth potential. For this opportunity, Rothbard was willing to set economics somewhat to the side and settle on common ground, and, while his cooperation with the New Left never altered or caused him to hide any of his foundational beliefs, Rothbard’s rhetoric shifted distinctly leftward during this period.

I would add one qualification, concerning what Payne said about Rothbard setting economics to the side. In fact, as we will see below, Rothbard shared some common economic ground with the New Left. At his leftmost position, Rothbard’s Austrian critique of corporate-state capitalism was quite radical.

In the late ’50s, according to Payne’s account, Rothbard found himself at odds with W.F. Buckley and Frank Meyer at the National Review. His submissions on foreign policy, in a period when he saw the “war-peace question” as key to the libertarian agenda and referred to the “Verdamte cold war,” were rejected. Finally, in 1961, Meyer publicly read him out of the “conservative movement” (or at least out of National Review’s fusionism).

From the early ’60s on, Rothbard found himself increasingly attracted to the left-wing revisionist critique of 20th century state capitalism (or what the New Left called “corporate liberalism“). He was especially struck by the thesis of Gabriel Kolko’s book The Triumph of Conservatism, which came out in 1963.

Rothbard’s Misesian critique of the corporate state, which shared so much common ground with the New Left, was a considerable departure from Mises’ right-wing political affinities. For Mises, state interventionism was motivated almost entirely by anti-capitalist sentiment: what Nixon would have called the “filthy f**king hippies,” or Eric Cartman would dismiss as “a bunch of G*ddamn tree-hugging hippie crap.”

Rothbard, on the other hand, applied Austrian principles largely from the standpoint of Kolko’s critique, which saw state interventionism as motivated mainly by the desire of corporate capitalists themselves to protect their profits from the destructive force of market competition. Kolko directly contradicted the orthodox historical account of the regulatory state, as exemplified by the liberal Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. Specificially, he denied that the Progressive Era legislative agenda was formulated primarily as a populist restraint on big business, or that government had intervened in the economy in the 20th century as a “countervailing force” against big business. Rather, the regulatory state was an attempt by big business to achieve, acting directly though the state, what it had been unable to achieve through voluntary combinations and trusts carried out entirely in the private sector: the cartelization of the economy, and the creation of stable oligopoly markets characterized by administered pricing. Payne quotes this summary statement from Kolko’s book:

Despite the large number of mergers, and the growth in the absolute size of many corporations, the dominant tendency in the American economy at the beginning of this [the twentieth] century was toward growing competition. Competition was unacceptable to many key business and financial interests. . . . As new competitors sprang up, and as economic power was diffused throughout an expanding nation, it became apparent to many important businessmen that only the national government could rationalize the economy. Although specific conditions varied from industry to industry, internal problems that could be solved only by political means were the common denominator in those industries whose leaders advocated greater federal regulation. Ironically, contrary to the consensus of historians, it was not the existence of monopoly that caused the federal government to intervene in the economy, but the lack of it.

The purpose of state action was, first of all, to help overbuilt industry simultaneously to operate at full capacity and to dispose of the surplus product it couldn’t sell at cartel prices. Second, as an alternative, it was to enable cartelized industry to operate with high costs and idle capacity and still remain profitable by selling its product at cost-plus markup through monopoly pricing. (This might as well have been the mission statement of FDR’s National Industrial Recovery Administration, by the way.)

This initial perception by Rothbard, that New Left revisionist historiography was useful for a free market critique of twentieth century corporate capitalism, led to a considerable amount of cooperation with New Left scholars.

Rothbard participated in Studies on the Left, a project of New Left historians James Weinstein and William Appleman Williams. It was Weinstein, in The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State, who coined the term “corporate liberalism.” And Williams devised the thesis of “Open Door Imperialism” to describe American foreign policy. Some of Rothbard’s contributions to Studies on the Left were included in a paperback collection of articles resulting from the group’s efforts through 1967: For a New America.

Rothbard retained friendly ties to the scholarly New Left long after his disillusionment with the radical student movement. His second venture in collaborative scholarship (at the comparatively late date of 1972) was A New History of Leviathan, a collection of critical essays on New Deal corporatism coedited by Rothbard and the libertarian socialist Ronald Radosh.

He contributed one article (“Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal“), in 1968, to Ramparts. (Both David Horowitz and Ronald Radosh, who both later became two of the most odious members of a neoconservative movement characterized by its odiousness, were associated with this leading periodical of the New Left.)

Rothbard founded the journal Left and Right in 1965 as a vehicle for this academically oriented Left-Right alliance. If you’re at all interested in this kind of things, browsing the archives there will well repay your effort.

From his initial scholarly collaboration with New Left academics, Rothbard moved on to attempt a mass movement in alliance with student radicals.

The high point of this alliance occurred in 1969. The radical libertarian/anarchist caucus of the Young Americans for Freedom walked out of the YAF convention in St. Louis (mainly over the Vietnam War and the draft). The roots of the contemporary libertarian movement, and most of its founding personnel, can be traced to this act of secession. Not long afterwards, Rothbard (along with Karl Hess, a former Goldwater speechwriter who coined the phrase “extremism in defense of liberty,” and subsequently moved considerably to the left) organized a mass meeting of the YAF’s libertarian dissidents with similar libertarian socialist secessionists from the SDS. During that event, Hess addressed a combined audience of YAF and SDS insurgents wearing combat fatigues and a Wobbly pin.

Rothbard’s journal The Libertarian Forum was founded in 1969, at a time when Rothbard was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the New Left, and the New Left itself (and specifically the SDS, under onslaught from the Maoist Kool-Aid drinkers in Progressive Labor and the nihilist nutcases in the Weather Underground) was disintegrating. Although Rothbard could get along pretty well with New Left academics, he apparently suffered considerable culture shock in 1969 at finding out just how radical the student radicals really were (their blanket denunciations of academic economists and the wearing of neckties were a particular affront to Rothbard, who was guilty on both counts). Nevertheless the first volume of Libertarian Forum was packed with heady commentary on the New Left alliance.

Take, for example, this quote (PDF) from the May 1, 1969 issue:

[The students] see that, apart from other tie-ins, corporations have been using the government schools and colleges as institutions that train their future workers and executives at the expense of others, i.e. the taxpayers. This is but one way that our corporate state uses the coercive taxing power either to accumulate corporate capital or to lower corporate costs. Whatever that process may be called, it is not “free enterprise,” except in the most ironic sense.

Consider also this statement (PDF) by Hess:

The truth… is that libertarianism wants to advance principles of property but that it in no way wishes to defend, willy nilly, all property which now is called private.

Much of that property is stolen. Much is of dubious title. All of it is deeply intertwined with an immoral, coercive state system which has condoned, built on, and profited from slavery; has expanded through and exploited a brutal and aggressive imperial and colonial foreign policy, and continues to hold the people in a roughly serf-master relationship to political-economic power concentrations.

Libertarians are concerned, first and foremost, with that most valuable of properties, the life of each individual…. Property rights pertaining to material objects are seen by libertarians as stemming from and… secondary to the right to own, direct, and enjoy one’s own life and those appurtenances thereto which may be acquired without coercion….

This is a far cry from sharing common ground with those who want to create a society in which super-capitalists are free to amass vast holdings and who say that that is ultimately the most important purpose of freedom….

Libertarianism is a people’s movement and a liberation movement. It seeks the sort of open, non-coercive society in which the people, the living, free, distinct people may voluntarily associate, dis-associate, and, as they see fit, participate in the decisions affecting their lives…. It means people free collectively to organize the resources of their immediate community or individualistically to organize them; it means the freedom to have a community-based and supported judiciary where wanted, none where not, or private arbitration services where that is seen as most desirable. The same with police. The same with schools, hospitals, factories, farms, laboratories, parks, and pensions. Liberty means the right to shape your own institutions. It opposes the right of those institutions to shape you simply because of accreted power or gerontological status.

In another article in the same issue, “Confiscation and the Homestead Principle,” Rothbard proposed a model of privatization far removed from the kind of corporate looting of state assets you commonly find advocated in mainstream libertarian venues these days.

What most people ordinarily identify as the stereotypical “libertarian” privatization proposal, unfortunately, goes something like this: sell it to a giant corporation on terms that are most advantageous to the corporation. Rothbard proposed, instead, was to treat state property as unowned, and allowing it to be homesteaded by those actually occupying it and mixing their labor with it. This would mean transforming government utilities, schools and other services into consumer cooperatives and placing them under the direct control of their present clientele. It would mean handing over state industry to workers’ syndicates and transforming it into worker-owned cooperatives.

But if this was the appropriate way of dealing with state property, Rothbard asked, then what about nominally private industry which is in fact a branch of the state? That is, what about “private” industry that gets the majority of its profits from taxpayer subsidies?

But if Columbia University, what of General Dynamics? What of the myriad of corporations which are integral parts of the military-industrial complex, which not only get over half or sometimes virtually all their revenue from the government but also participate in mass murder? What are their credentials to “private” property? Surely less than zero. As eager lobbyists for these contracts and subsidies, as co-founders of the garrison stare, they deserve confiscation and reversion of their property to the genuine private sector as rapidly as possible. To say that their “private” property must be respected is to say that the property stolen by the horsethief and the murderer must be “respected.”

Such factories should be taken over by “homesteading workers,” he said. But he went further, and suggested that a libertarian movement, having captured the commanding heights of the state and proceeding to dismantle the apparatus of state capitalism, might actually nationalize such state-subsidized industry as the immediate prelude to handing it over to the workers. He went so far as to say that even if a non-libertarian regime nationalized state capitalist industry with the intention of hanging onto it, it wasn’t anything for libertarians to get particularly bent out of shape about. The subsidized industry was no more the “good guys,” and no less a part of the state, as the formal state apparatus itself. “…[I]t would only mean that one gang of thieves–the government–would be confiscating property from another previously cooperating gang, the corporation that has lived off the government.”

I’d go Rothbard one further. Why is the criterion for de facto government status the amount of profits directly subsidized from state revenue? What about corporations that function within a web of state regulatory protections, and artificial property rights like Bill Gates’ “intellectual property,” without which they couldn’t operate in black ink for a single day. Anyone who’s read much of my work for any length of time knows that I consider the entire Fortune 500 a pretty good proxy for such de facto branches of the state. As I already argued in an earlier post, the largest corporations are so intertwined with the state that the very distinction between “public” and “private” becomes meaningless.

To reinforce that impression, bear in mind that (as Hess’s remarks above on property suggest) Rothbard considered all land titles not traceable to a legitimate act of appropriation by human labor to be utterly null and void. That meant that titles to vacant and unimproved land were void, and all such land in the United States should be open to immediate homesteading. It meant all the real estate in Southern California currently held as real estate investments by the railroads, pursuant to the land grants of the nineteenth century, should immediately become the absolute freehold of those currently making rent or mortgage payments on it. It meant that all the land in the Third World currently “owned” by quasi-feudal landed oligarchies should immediately become the property of the peasants working it; and land currently being used by corporate agribusiness and other cash crop operations, in collusion with those same landlords, should be returned to the peasants who were evicted from it.

In short, Rothbard didn’t exactly fit the “pot-smoking Republican” stereotype you see the commenters over at Kos regurgitating. This is getting way, way long. I originally intended to fit all the Left-Rothbardian material into one post. But I’ll save the material on Rothbard’s left-libertarian successors (Sam Konkin, Joseph Stromberg, and the rest) for another post.

This entry was posted on Monday, March 31st, 2008 at 9:28 pm

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory