The Life and Death of the Old Right
Murray N. Rothbard
published in the September 1990 issue of The
libertarian movement was once a mighty movement, hardcore but not
kooky, part of the mainstream of American ideological and political
life. In the 18th and 19th centuries (for
example, in the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian movements), libertarians
were even the dominant political force in the country. America was,
indeed, conceived in liberty. But right now, Iím not going back
that far: Iím talking about the origins of the modern 20th
century movement. For various reasons, the Progressive movement
had wiped out 19th century intellectual and political
libertarianism, and, by the 1920s, it was reduced to a few vibrant
but lone intellectuals such as H.L. Mencken and his friend, Albert
then something happened to shock libertarianism back to life
the cataclysmic Great Leap Forward into collectivism hailed as the
New Deal. Itís a process of historical reaction: a sudden social
change will often give rise to a fierce opposition. Opposition to
the New Deal was, necessarily, a coalition politics united on a
negative: hatred of the socialism of the New Deal. Increasingly
gathering into that coalition were the few libertarian or individualist
intellectuals, the heritage and the remnants of the old Jeffersonian
Democracy left from the days of Grover Cleveland men such
as Senator James A. Reed of Missouri and Governor Albert Ritchie
of Maryland, and Republicans, including formerly stalwart statists
and Progressives such as Herbert Hoover, who condemned FDR for going
much too far.
the New Deal intensified and was championed by the Democrats, the
opposition inevitably coalesced around the Republican Party. It
was a strange transformation, since, from its inception in the 1850s,
the Republican Party had always been the party of statism and centralized
Big Government. Well, life is strange some times, and this shift
was no stranger than what had happened to the Democrats, during
the 19th century the party of minimal government and
Roosevelt dragged America into World War II, the growing opposition,
which I have called the "Old Right," shifted its moorings
and changed some of its alliances. Some economic free-marketeers,
such as Lewis W. Douglas, became ardent pro-war New Dealers; while
former progressives, mainly Republican, who opposed the war, began
to see the deep connection between interventionism and Big Government
in domestic as well as foreign policy. As a result, by the end of
World War II, the Old Right, largely Republican but still including
Jeffersonian Democrats (such as Rep. Samuel Pettingill of Indiana),
was consistently libertarian, opposing statism at home and war and
Old Right was a strong and vibrant movement, dominant in the Republican
Party in Congress (especially in the House of Representatives) and
constituting roughly the Taft wing of the party. The Old Right was
firmly opposed to conscription as well as war or foreign aid, favored
free markets and the gold standard, and upheld the rights of private
property as opposed to any sort of invasion, including coerced integration.
The Old Right was socially conservative, middle class, welcoming
people who worked for a living or met a payroll, and was the salt
of the earth.
the Old Right lacked was not a political mass, but rather an intellectual
cadre, and the small but increasing number of hard-core libertarians
influenced by Mises and Rand and Nock after World War II provided
a growing intellectual foundation for that movement. What we have
to realize, and we almost have to shake ourselves to believe, is
that hard-core libertarians were not considered kooks and crazies;
we were treated only as extreme variants of a creed that almost
everyone on the Old Right believed: peace, individual liberty, free
markets, private property, even the gold standard. And since we
were simply consistent upholders of a creed which the entire Old
Right believed, we were able, though small in number, to influence
and permeate the views of the broad mass of Old Right Americans.
It was a happy symbiosis.
why, politically, all libertarians, whether minarchists or anarcho-capitalists,
were happy to consider ourselves "extreme right-wing Republicans."
[The general term for the broader movement was "individualist"
or "true liberal" or "rightist" the word
"conservative" was not at all in use before the publication
of Russell Kirkís Conservative
Mind in 1953].
was a great time for a libertarian to be politically active. Neither
did the Old Right collapse with the onset of the Cold War. On the
contrary, the Old Right reached a peak in its last days: for it
was virtually the only opposition to the Korean War. [Only the Communist
Party and I.F. Stone opposed U.S. entry into the Korean War; the
entire rest of the Left, including Henry Wallace, supported it in
the name of the old interventionist slogan: "collective security
opponents of the Korean War were such libertarian and Old Right
publicists as Garet Garrett and John T. Flynn, F.A. Harper and Leonard
E. Read; influential newspapers such as the Chicago Tribune;
and major political opponents such as Senators Bridges and Wherry
and the libertarian Congressman Howard H. Buffett of Omaha.
was after the Korean War that the Old Right collapsed. The catalyst
was the literal theft of the Republican presidential nomination
in 1952 from Senator Taft by the Wall Street elite behind Eisenhower;
the deaths of Taft and Colonel McCormick, owner of the Chicago Tribune;
and the capture of the political reins of the Republican Party by
the "conservative" New Dealers constituting the Eisenhower
movement. Whereas the right-wing Republicans aimed to repeal and
abolish the New Deal, the Eisenhower forces aimed at consolidating
the New Deal and fastening it permanently upon American life, and
in this they succeeded all too well.
probably the most important reason for the collapse of the Old Right
was not external blows, but the loss of its own soul and principles.
As the older intellectual and political leaders died or retired,
a powerful new force arose in 1955 to fill that vacuum. This new
force people grouped around National Review
set out to transform the nature of the American Right, and they
succeeded brilliantly. Headed by a brace of shrewd ex-Communists,
steeped in Marxist-Leninist cadre organizing tactics, allied to
youthful Eastern seaboard Catholics, the New Right determined to
crush isolationism, and to remold the right-wing into a crusade
to crush Communism all over the world, and particularly in the Soviet
first, NR had a patina of individualism, in order to capture
the considerable amount of Old Right libertarian sentiment and wed
it to a policy of global war. The Buckley machine founded Young
Americans for Freedom as its youthful political arm. The Intercollegiate
Society of Individualists for libertarian-minded student intellectuals,
and headed by NR publisher Bill Rusher, moved to capture
the College Young Republicans, then the YRs nationally, and finally
moved to dominate the Republican Party with the Goldwater movement.
in this process, moreover, National Review, in the late 1950s
and early 1960s, moved quickly to read out of the New Right, or
"conservative" movement, all "extremists" who
would prove an embarrassment in its march to power. And so, in a
series of purges, the Birch Society, the Randians, and the libertarians
(those who remained isolationists) were ousted from the right wing.
NR and the New Right were ready to achieve power, which they
eventually would attain with the Reagan administration. But the
point is that the ideological transformation into a warmongering
and vaguely theocratic movement was achieved by the early
1960s. The Old Right was dead, and those libertarians who still
remembered and cleaved to their principles, were out in the cold.
© 1990 by Murray N. Rothbard.
Copyright © 2003 by the Ludwig von
All rights reserved.