Rothbard, Murray, ed. Left & Right: A Journal of Libertarian Thought. Auburn. Alabama Ludwig Von Mises Institute. 2007
The mid-sixties was a unique time in the history of the libertarian movement, as well as in the world at large. US involvement in Vietnam was escalating, the Cold War was at its height, and the civil rights movement had achieved its biggest legislative victory. Dialogue from the political right had become increasingly internationally interventionist, dominated by National Review style anti-communist paranoia. The American political establishment on both sides of the aisle was united in favor of corporatism at home and militarism abroad.
It was in this environment that the seminal libertarian author and activist Murray Rothbard (who almost certainly needs no introduction on this site), became disillusioned with the political right and openly sympathetic to the New Left. This evolution in sympathies is captured in Rothbard’s Left & Right: Journal of Libertarian Thought, which was released in a series of volumes from 1965 to 1968. The complete journal is conveniently available, free of charge, here. In these volumes, Rothbard and his associates embrace Students for a Democratic Society, the Black Power Movement, the American Indian Movement, and the Anti-War movement (emphasizing the opposition to the draft). The authors seek a synthesis of their own libertarianism with anti-establishment leftism.
This is the closest Rothbard comes to a left-libertarianism, making Left & Right a favorite among left-libertarians. It is also quite a refreshing read, especially in today’s political climate in which vast sections of the libertarian movement have been seduced by Trumpian nationalism, white identity politics, and reactionary dog-whistling. Rothbard embraces the ideals of the culturally progressive college students of his day, and this stands in refreshing contrast to both his later, more reactionary, works and the current libertarian mainstream. This not to say there is not a hidden and troubling underside of this work that foreshadows Rothbard’s future reactionary output. There is, in fact, an ugly side of this book which will be addressed in this review.
At just under 700 pages, this book is something of a wild ride with subject matter scattered all over the place. While Rothbard is the biggest single contributor to this collection, his associates’ work makes up just as much if not more of the text. Readers who don’t enjoy a given essay need only wait until the next one to get something completely different.
Also of note is how surprisingly nonacademic this book is. Those looking for complex discussions on economic theory had best look elsewhere. However, readers looking for opinion pieces on everything from the draft to fishing rights are in luck. While many of the contributions are op-ed length, there are some lengthier pieces too. Some of Rothbard’s specifically go on longer than expected, but remain interesting throughout. For example, the Journal’s opener: Left and Right the Prospects for Liberty, provides a much more in-depth history of libertarian thought than would be expected from its opening paragraphs.
In this essay, Rothbard explains why traditional left-right thinking is no longer valid and builds an understanding of liberty which pulls from both ends of the spectrum. He argues that the traditional enemies of liberty have in fact been the conservatives who fought to preserve the monarchies, theocracies, and landed aristocracies of the past. He argues that the collapse of these old orders liberated people and improved living standards.
Thus, Rothbard contends, classical liberalism is the opposite of conservatism. Elsewhere, he specifically criticizes the conservatives of his era for their love of militarism, imperialism, and police brutality against black Americans. Among his more outstanding quotes is one that reads:
Conservatism is a dying remnant of the ancien régime of the preindustrial era, and, as such, it has no future. In its contemporary American form, the recent Conservative Revival embodied the death throes of an ineluctably moribund, Fundamentalist, rural, small-town, white Anglo-Saxon America.
He adds that state socialism (and by implication progressivism) are confused middle of the road philosophies that seek egalitarian and liberal ends while clinging to conservative, authoritarian means. These ideologies, therefore, suffer from a contradiction between means and goals. Unfortunately, his praise of the Industrial Revolution in this essay glosses over the state’s role in getting the rural population working in factories, but other essays in this collection cover the building of the industrial working class in greater detail.
In another of the lengthier pieces, Harry Elmer Barnes argues that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration knew about the upcoming Pearl Harbor attacks well in advance and intentionally allowed them to happen. The administration, Barnes claims, needed a surprise attack from Japan to move public opinion away from isolationism and build support for US involvement in World War II.
Barnes points out that the US had decoded the Japanese transmission encryption system (referred to as “Purple” by US Intelligence) by early December of 1941, and multiple messages had been received indicating a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on the 7th. He notes that any attempts to warn the commanding officers in Hawaii, General Walter E. Short and Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, were routinely blocked by officials close Roosevelt, especially General George C. Marshall (Roosevelt’s Chief of Staff of The Army) and General Carter W. Clarke. Marshall, Clarke, and Roosevelt are unequivocally the bad guys in Barnes’ narrative, while Short and Kimmel are the unfairly blamed fall-guys.
Barnes notes that, by the time of the Pearl Harbor attacks, Roosevelt had already committed to a US response to Japanese movements towards South East Asia with the Dutch and the British. He notes the administration increasingly escalated tensions with Japan, including rejecting all of Japan’s proposed peaceful settlements.
Barnes indicates that secret communications between Roosevelt and Churchill made it clear that Roosevelt wanted to enter the war in Europe and that a Japanese attack would have been a convenient back door to do so, as no attacks were coming from Germany or Italy. Barnes’ case makes for an interesting read, though most readers will likely lack the historical background needed to evaluate his claims without a great deal of further research.
This is unfortunate as Barnes’ claims often require some educated skepticism. Barnes’ isolationism has led to a vulgar willingness to under-emphasize, if not outright deny, the crimes of the regimes the United States was warring against. He says nothing of the brutal atrocities imperial Japan had committed on the Chinese mainland prior to the Pearl Harbor bombing. It gets much worse, as he was also an early promoter of Holocaust denial and all the antisemitism that comes with it. Furthermore, Barnes had been promoting these views up to the time of his contribution to this volume. Rothbard was almost certainly aware of this when he invited Barnes to contribute here, further staining his own legacy.
Unsurprisingly, much of this volume is focused on US involvement in Vietnam and the associated anti-war movement. Multiple essays focus on David Mitchell, a young anti-draft activist whose prison sentence was ultimately overturned. One of these essays includes early claims that the US and its agents had been torching Vietnamese villages, burning food supplies, and engaging in torture, or more broadly speaking committing crimes against humanity.
The criticisms brought forward in these volumes also extend to the growing military industrial complex, specifically targeting General Dynamics. The university system is also criticized for emphasizing career paths that funnel human resources to military-related industries. University of California President Clark Kerr is singled out in this regard. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan is in fact praised for firing Kerr, though it is somewhat acknowledged that Reagan did the right thing for the wrong reasons, namely because Kerr was perceived as weak in the face of left-wing radicalism on campus.
A great deal of distinction is made between the Old Left of the Democratic establishment and the anti-authoritarian New Left. Rothbard’s criticisms of the Old Left sound almost Chomskyan as he contends that the Old Left wanted to reduce the masses to passive observers. Rothbard praises the New Left because they were not satisfied to merely take control of existing state institutions, but rather wanted to create parallel alternatives. He also claims that their use of civil disobedience made the New Left a “movement of heroes.”
Likewise, the contemporary Right is viewed as deplorable sell-outs. He shows a strong dislike of William Buckley Jr. and his National Review staff for favoring intervention abroad and a strong police presence at home. He mocks National Review‘s desire to purge the conservative movement of embarrassing elements, such as the John Birch Society (disfavored by more mainstream conservatives due to their conspiratorial anti-communist paranoia). He argues that the “Birchers” were embarrassing only because they took the National Review’s rhetorical style to its ultimate conclusion.
No review of this work would be complete without commenting on Rothbard’s distinct writing style. While he clearly conveys passion for his subject matter, he often does so in a way that comes off as over the top, if not outright pretentious. Examples include his frequent and un-ironic use of terms like “glorious” to describe anything he favors. In another instance, the heartfelt mood of Rothbard’s glowing obituary to his mentor, Frank Chodorov, is disrupted when Rothbard compares the discontinuation of one of Chodorov’s publications to the death of a “dearly beloved” family member, with no hint of exaggeration.
Additionally, Rothbard opens the first volume by declaring “A new Journal of public opinion must justify existence; our justification is a deep commitment to the liberty of man.” While his commitment to liberty is laudable, one is left wondering why a journal must have such a justification and what happens if a new journal goes without one?
In addition to his flowery language Rothbard tends to write as if the audience is automatically inclined to agree with him. However, these tendencies are usually a source of amusement for the reader rather than an annoyance, as Rothbard’s work is often sandwiched between that of other writers. At times it even works to his advantage, especially when he is in attack mode. This is the case in his scathing review of National Review contributor Frank S. Meyer’s book on the “Moulding of Communists.“
Meyer is himself a former Communist Party member, but his insider report of the maliciousness of American communists focuses on the tendency of Communist Party members to befriend like-minded individuals, develop friendships with other Communist Party members, and develop a conformity of thought and dedication to the cause. Rothbard points out that these behaviors are not in any way unique to communists, but are associated with all forms of dedicated “organization men,” whether they be dedicated General Motors employees or, horror of horrors, National Review contributors. Rothbard’s condescending delivery of this point is genuinely hilarious.
Overall the book has an interesting take on the issue of international communism. While Rothbard and his associates view it as a wrong-headed ideology, they do not see it as a clear or present danger to freedom in the United States. They see using warfare and militarism to fight or contain communism internationally as itself a threat to freedom and security and the use of government to crack down on communist activism in the US a violation of personal freedom. Furthermore, they note that this anti-communist fervor has been used to justify a massive expansion of the state.
Leonard P. Liggio, another prolific contributor, argues that many of the 20th century’s communist movements formed in opposition to authoritarian forms of tribalism, feudalism, and slavery, much like classical liberal movements in previous centuries. Thus he sees them as having anti-colonial and anti-imperial aspects that are essentially positive.
There are unsurprisingly many parts of the book that have not aged well. The fact that a major contributor was also a Holocaust denier, is the most blatant. The fact that his contribution is preceded by a glowing introduction and eulogy from Rothbard (Barnes died shortly after writing his contribution to this journal), is even worse. Rothbard praises Barnes as “a teacher and a friend.” He elaborates by describing Barnes as “cheery, courteous, a witty and often ribald raconteur, a marvelous and lovable companion.” Rothbard does not directly mention Barnes’ Holocaust denial but praises his World War II revisionism in general and works of which Holocaust denial was a major part.
That Rothbard, who was himself Jewish, would so glowingly praise and provide an outlet for such a figure, reflects a long-term valuing of ideology over truth or decency that would continue to haunt his work in the decades to come. The fact that the Mises Institute has reprinted the piece on their own site without comment, reflects poorly on them as well.
Other instances of datedness abound in this book, such as the use of terms like “Negro” and “Japs.” While the former was, to an extent, the accepted term at the time, its inclusion does remind the reader how much has changed since. The latter always was and remains an insult. Even some of the essays with seemingly-progressive messages betray problematic tendencies in the authors’ thought.
The editorial “A Cry for Power Black, White, and Polish,” argues for a sort of black nationalism, where black majority areas secede from the US government and become autonomous units. The author affirms that forms of nationalism focused on freeing an oppressed people from the hands of their oppressors is a positive thing, and thus a black power movement that seeks to do this is a positive thing as well.
The author goes on to add, that “white power” could also be a positive thing for under-privileged parts of the white population. “Polish Power” is presumably favorable as well. The pieces here seem to show a preference for black separatism over integration into the larger “white” society, that seems to be built on some flawed, unstated assumptions that black Americans are in fact unwilling or unable to become part of the larger society. While there is a legitimate criticism to be made against the liberals of the day using the state to forcibly integrate populations, favoring the opposite extreme is also unreasonable.
Unsurprisingly many of the treatments on Communism seem to under-emphasize the horrors of communist regimes in a similar vein to Barnes’ silence on the horrific crimes of imperial Japan and his Holocaust denial.
In addition to the original material, there also reprints of classic libertarian pieces by figures such as Herbert Spencer (discussing the evils of imperialism) and Lysander Spooner (discussing his understanding of natural law). All of which feels relevant to the postwar political atmosphere of the time.
Due to the diverse range of subject matter and the amount of detail in these essays, there is far more here than can be discussed in a review of reasonable length. This book has something for every type of libertarian, as well something for every type of libertarian to find objectionable. This does not mention the things in it which everyone should find objectionable. Ultimately the collection reflects the thinking of its time, including some highly problematic assumptions, while giving a glimpse of how libertarian ideals and leftist ones can converge in the future.