There would undoubtedly be no Antiwar.com if it hadn’t been for Murray N. Rothbard. I am writing this column on January 7, the twenty-first anniversary of his death, and I can’t think of a more important topic at a time when the issue of war and peace looms larger than any other.
For those readers unfamiliar with the great libertarian theoretician and polymath, I refer you to my 2000 biography: An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Book). Suffice to say here that he was the inspirer and de facto founder of the organized libertarian movement in the twentieth century. His contributions to the theoretical foundations of libertarianism provide the essential framework for those who see themselves as the intellectual heirs of the nineteenth century classical liberals and their successors right up to the present day. The sheer depth and scope of his writings presents a complete vision of liberty: of not only what a free society will look like, but also how we are going to get there. (Go here for his massive bibliography.)
To those of my readers who are not libertarians, however, the question may arise: why should I care about him one way or the other? The answer lies in the trajectory of his life, and the intellectual journey that I and so many others traveled along with him.
Rothbard started out in what he called the “Old Right.” Although brought up in a very left-wing New York Jewish family – certain of his relatives were members of “the Party,” as they referred to it – he was a right-winger from the get-go. Now, in those days, before the advent of Fox News, the label had far different connotations than it does today. He grew up during the war years, when leftism was associated with militarism as well as State-worship. Remember that it was the Communist Party that agitated ceaselessly for getting into the war once the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. The Old Right, which opposed US entry into World War II, was denounced by both Communists and liberals alike as “isolationist” – and that was one of the milder epithets hurled by the fellow-traveling Left. This was an era when that most “progressive” of Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, ordered his Attorney General to put antiwar activists on trial for “sedition,” and when ostensible liberals cheered as Japanese-Americans were herded into concentration camps.
In those dark days, the overwhelming intellectual and political consensus favored the two ideas most antithetical to liberty: statism at home and militarism abroad. There was almost no dissent, even as the postwar years dawned. It was the “end of ideology,” as announced by some of those who came to be known as neoconservatives, the idea being that the great ideological battles of the 1930s had come to an end, and all issues had essentially been settled. It was a preview of Francis Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” thesis; the Welfare State and the Warfare State is here to stay!
As postwar America strode onto the world stage, the tentacles emanating out of Washington fastened themselves on to the lives of peoples from Bushwick to Bangladesh. Our old republic was passing from the scene, giving way to a corrupt and rapacious empire. And no one rose to challenge this monstrous transition.
Well, almost no one. Here and there, the remnants of the Old Right gathered together to memorialize what was and revile what was coming. Garet Garrett, former editor at the Saturday Evening Post, wrote and published his prescient trilogy, the third volume of which was entitled Rise of Empire: “We have passed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire,” he predicted. “How now, thou American,” he wrote in The American Story,
“Do you know where you are? Is it security you want? There is no security at the top of the world.”
Rothbard was a great fan of the old Chicago Tribune, far different from the rag that carries that name today. The publisher, Colonel Robert Rutherford McCormick, was an intransigent opponent of Franklin Roosevelt and all his works, and the Tribune the leading antiwar newspaper in the country. It also ran muckracking articles exposing the schemes of various warmongers, collectivists, and other dicey characters, such as a series on the “Rhodes scholars” who plumbed for interventionism and injected fealty to British imperialism into the minds of young up-and-comers. Although Rothbard lived in New York City, he subscribed, and joyfully read the Colonel’s Stentorian editorials denouncing the New Deal, the War Party, and antics of the various do-gooders, collectivist crackpots, and sundry fellow-travelers who overpopulated the political landscape in those days.
In his life as an intellectual combatant, a fighter for liberty, Rothbard’s hegira took him to many different places, and some have wrongly suggested that this was the mark of someone whose politics were determined by his moods. In the 1950s, he aligned himself with the Old Right: his articles appeared in publications like Faith and Freedom, The Freeman and – up until the early 1960s – in National Review. When the 60s got going, however, he changed course, and aligned with the New Left: his articles began appearing in Ramparts, WIN (the magazine put out by the War Resisters League), and his own journal, Left and Right. Later on, as the libertarian movement established its organizational and literary presence on the scene, he was a regular contributor to the Cato Institute’s Inquiry, and Libertarian Review. After his break with them, and – even later – with the Libertarian Party, he went rightward again, and his byline graced the pages of Chronicles magazine, the premier paleoconservative journal.
Yet there was no inconsistency whatsoever in the path he trod: for, like H. L Mencken and Albert Jay Nock, two libertarian lodestars, it wasn’t he that changed – it was the world that had undergone a transformaton. By standing still in one place – the anti-State anti-war stance of his youth – he was labeled a “reactionary,” a “radical leftist,” and then once again a “reactionary.” Yet he never changed his basic position.
What was great about Murray, and what gave me the opportunity to interact with him all those years, was that he most emphatically did not live in an ivory tower. When one sees the volume and quality of his works – the over thirty books and hundreds of scholarly articles on economics, philosophy, history, and every aspect of the social sciences –without knowing him it’s possible to assume he spent all his time thinking and writing, with no action involved. That would be a very wrong assumption to make. For he was vitally interested in developing libertarianism as a successful and growing movement, in bringing to fruition the ideas he promulgated.
As a young libertarian activist, I had occasion to know him, and to collaborate with him over many years. And that was a privilege indeed, in more ways than I can elaborate on here. But I want to make one important point about this: it was through Murray that I came to understand and develop the core idea that motivated me and Antiwar.com founder Eric Garris to develop this web site. Antiwar.com was founded a year after he died precisely because we saw ourselves as continuing the Rothbardian tradition of always putting opposition to war as the central axis of our libertarian worldview.
If we look at the course of Rothbard’s career as a public intellectual, this is the thread that runs through all his different “phases.” When the Left was pro-war, in the 1940s, he was allied with the Right. When the Right was pro-war during the cold war years, he tacked to the Left. And when the cold war ended, and some on the Right came to understand the essential link between perpetual war and statism, he jumped at the opportunity to educate them and collaborate with them.
It was 1995, and both Eric and I were out of the Libertarian Party. Our efforts to infiltrate the GOP, via our Libertarian Republican Organizing Committee (LROC) – essentially a Ron Paul movement before Ron Paul abandoned the Libertarian Party – had petered out. What was a Rothbardian to do?
I asked myself that question knowing it was beyond my power to start an entire political movement single-handedly, or even in collaboration with a few co-thinkers. So I narrowed it down: what, I thought to myself, is the single most important issue of our time? What political question impacts on all the others, and determines whether we are going to live in a free society or live, to some degree, as slaves? And being a Rothbardian, I didn’t have to ponder the question for very long.
Yes, without Rothbard, there would be no Antiwar.com – and, I would remind my libertarian readers, no libertarian movement. Absent Rothbard’s living room, where the best libertarian minds and most dedicated activists gathered from the 1950s onward, there would be no “liberty movement” as we know it today. It would be a much darker, drearier world, one that I’m not sure I’d care to live in.
Boy, do I miss him! I only wish he could see us now, carrying on the Rothbardian tradition in cyberspace, spreading the message of peace and liberty to our many thousands of readers and supporters. How he would have loved the Internet!
His wisdom, his incredible store of knowledge, his kindness to us young ignoramuses as we argued with him, even his anger when we crossed him – I miss it all.