Rothbard’s role in shaping the character of the American libertarian movement cannot be overstated. In the early years, the movement was made up of a small number of individuals and, like a small town, everybody knew each other. The rapid expansion since then gave rise to a founder effect. The particular idiosyncrasies of our founding fathers and mothers latched onto more and more brains as new generations of libertarians read up on classic texts, and modern texts were influenced by said founders.
It’s a common refrain in the libertarian movement, depending on how you feel about the left or the right, that Rothbard was good in the 60s (or at least further left), but then defected to the right afterward. It is certainly true that he reached out to the left more in the 60s and more to the right later (and later still, the most unsavory elements of the far right). From a distance Rothbard’s intellectual evolution may look like a wild roller coaster, but on closer inspection, there may be more continuity than initially meets the eye.
As Rothbard’s political strategy (or his ideology — it’s difficult to tell where his unrealistic realpolitik ends and his personal ideological failures begin) drifted further and further into the right fringe of American politics, he pursued alliances with the worst sorts of scoundrels and riff-raff. These strategies would attract people with noxiously statist beliefs to the libertarian movement itself. In the 90s he went as far as praising former KKK Grand Wizard, David Duke’s political program in “Right-Wing Populism”:
It is fascinating that there was nothing in Duke’s current program or campaign that could not also be embraced by paleoconservatives or paleo-libertarians; lower taxes, dismantling the bureaucracy, slashing the welfare system, attacking affirmative action and racial set-asides, calling for equal rights for all Americans, including whites: what’s wrong with any of that? And of course the mighty anti-Duke coalition did not choose to oppose Duke on any of these issues. Indeed, even the most leftist of his opponents grudgingly admitted that he had a point. Instead, the Establishment concentrated on the very “negative campaigning” that they profess to abhor.
How did Rothbard, someone who was praising the Black Panthers in the 60s, drift so far afield in a few decades? Again, there may be more continuity than meets the eye. In his 1970 essay, “Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature,” which on paper represents a critical breaking point from the left for him, he criticizes feminists of the time in a way that suggests a view of black liberation as simply separatism (emphasis mine):
As for the women’s liberationists, perhaps we might begin to take their constantly repeated analogies with the black movement more seriously. The blacks have, indeed, moved from integration to black power, but the logic of black power is starkly and simply: black nationalism – an independent black nation. If our New Feminists wish to abandon male–female “integrationism” for liberation, then this logically implies Female Power, in short, Female Nationalism. Shall we then turn over some virgin land, maybe the Black Hills, maybe Arizona, to these termagants? Yes, let them set up their karate-chopping Amazonian Women’s Democratic People’s Republic and bad cess to them. The infection of their sick attitudes and ideology would then be isolated and removed from the greater social body, and the rest of us, dedicated to good old-fashioned heterosexuality, could then go about our business undisturbed.
These are surely valid criticisms of feminists of the time if his accusation of this crude analogy to black liberation really was as widespread as he suggested. Nonetheless, his dismissal of women’s issues makes it difficult to imagine him having been on the side of social justice just a few years prior. 1970 Rothbard, quite frankly, already sounds like 1992 Rothbard. But it’s more damning that he apparently believed in a consensus among black liberationists in favor of separatism. Particularly when his earlier support of the Black Panthers was one way he established his leftist cred. Not that the Black Panthers were necessarily separatists, but his support may have been based on the idea that they were. Here in his 1969 editor comment, he expresses his disappointment at their apparent abandoning of black nationalism (emphasis mine):
The Panthers have three great virtues: (1) their enormous ability to upset and aggravate the white police, simply by going around armed and in uniform—the supposed Constitutional privilege of every free American but apparently to be denied to radical militant blacks; (2) their considerable capacity for organizing black youth; and (3) excellent black nationalist ideas—particularly in emphasizing a black nation with their own land in such areas as the Black Belt of the South—as expressed in some writings of Eldridge Cleaver.
But there are growing offsetting tendencies so serious as to call the overall merit of the Panthers into grave question. In the first place, there are increasing tendencies for the Panthers to abandon black nationalism almost completely for the Old Left virus of black-white Marxist working-class action. The problem is not only increasing infusions of Marxist rhetoric into the Panther material, but an unfortunate eagerness to reach out and make alliances with white radicals, thereby contradicting the whole point of black power, which is to develop separate black movements resulting in black national self-determination.
Rothbard didn’t like Marxists of course. But his disagreement with the direction they were allegedly going was “in the first place” their apparent abandonment of black nationalism. That is, black separatism.
At best, characterizing liberation movements as simply separatist or integrationist discards important subtleties, subtleties that should concern any libertarian. Also curious is that someone could hold a cosmopolitan, anti-state ideology but still dismiss integrationism after decades, centuries even, of forced segregation by the government.
More worrying still is that support for black separatism is perfectly consistent with his later overtures to white nationalists. I am not making the case here that any and all non-black people who support black nationalism must simply wish for black people to fuck off. I’m also not commenting on the conflict within black liberationists on the subject of assimilation. I’m not really touching these subjects. Instead, I only claim that support for black separatism by a white person is consistent with also supporting white supremacists, as Rothbard later did. Meaning that race is an issue for which there is continuity between the early and late Rothbard.
Indeed, the growing tendency of fascists over the decades to use a pan-secessionist strategy to network nationalism of the oppressor with those of the oppressed, fits nicely with Rothbard’s descent into the “paleo strategy” and the aforementioned overtures to the far right. As Alexander Reid Ross notes throughout Against the Fascist Creep, pan-secessionism can work as a wedge to bait-and-switch radicals into supporting white nationalism. As he notes in an interview about his book:
Without understanding the way that those ambiguous ideas are applied in different milieus, like with national anarchism and autonomous nationalism and those sorts of things, radicals can fall for easy platitudes. Pan-secessionism is another great example. When radicals start talking about the need for separatism without a clear, cosmopolitan follow-up strategy, they leave ourselves wide open to their influence and the insinuation of fascism and the ability for fascist ideas and movements to gain ground in the radical milieu and also in the broader subcultures and in mainstream cultures. When they start talking about ethnic separatism—particularly white separatism, whether de jure or de facto—they’ve basically given up the field.
It seems that the quasi-leftist early Rothbard took the bait. White supremacists supporting black liberationists when and only when they pine for a nation-state of their own has a long history. As noted in SPLC’s exposé on the KKK’s networking with Nation of Islam:
Flanked by a dozen storm troopers in swastika armbands, Rockwell told an audience of 5,000 Nation devotees that he was “proud to stand here before black men. … Elijah Muhammad is the Adolf Hitler of the black man.”
Sporadic contacts between Black Muslims and white supremacists continued after Louis Farrakhan set up his own branch of the Nation of Islam in 1975.
Klan leader Tom Metzger was so impressed with Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic bombast that he donated $100 to the Nation after a Farrakhan rally in Los Angeles in September 1985. A month later, Metzger and 200 other white supremacists from the United States and Canada gathered on a farm about 50 miles west of Detroit, where they pledged their support for the Nation of Islam.
I’m not claiming here that Rothbard was secretly part of a strategy to link up separatists and bring about a racially balkanized world. He lost interest in black nationalism as soon as he was convinced black liberationists themselves had largely abandoned these ideals for Marxism. And I give him the benefit of the doubt that he was sincere in supporting secession as a step in the direction towards seccession of the individual, however nonsensical I find that view. Rather, I believe the kinds of alliances he made and the positions he took during his era of flirting with the new left were a prelude to his later career. Some warning signs were already present and if we understand them we can avoid letting further libertarian celebrities gain too much influence and do too much damage.