Left and Right

Rothbard’s Time on the Left

Murray Rothbard was arguably the leading anarchist theoretician of the second half of the twentieth century. The classical anarchist movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries included a number of prominent and innovative thinkers: Stirner, Proudhon, Bakunin, Kropotkin, Tucker, Tolstoy, Spooner, and others. Yet the revival of interest in anarchism during the uprisings of the 1960s and 1970s failed to produce many new thinkers of this stature. An exception is Noam Chomsky, but Chomsky is primarily a critic of U.S. foreign policy and neoliberalism who functions as a left-liberal, social-democratic fellow traveler of anarcho-syndicalism. He’s added very little to the actual anarchist canon. Another exception is Murray Bookchin, who attempted to fuse the insights of classical anarchism with the ideas of the New Left, particularly the ecology movement, and eventually abandoned anarchism in favor of a new philosophy he simply called “communalism.” So it was ultimately Bookchin’s rival Rothbard (the two men regrettably didn’t get along) who ended up creating the most innovative and comprehensive body of anarchist theory in the postwar/late 20th century era. Virtually all other “anarcho-libertarian” thinkers of the time mostly copied Rothbard’s system, occasionally adding some ideas of their own: Morris and Linda Tannehill, David Friedman, Sam Konkin, George Smith, Karl Hess, etc.

Strategy was always an issue of primary concern for Rothbard, and he always aligned himself with the anti-state forces of the moment, wherever they were. In the late 1960s, this was obviously the radical Left. It would have been insanity for anarchists to attempt an alliance with conservatives at the height of the Vietnam War, while the Cold War was still raging, and when virtually all right-wingers were cheering on police repression of the antiwar movement. Instead, the natural allies of libertarians for the moment were the antiwar protestors, student rebels, youth counterculture, the black power movement, and other popular radical strands of the time. Rothbard even participated in a coalition with Trotskyists and Maoists under the banner of the Peace and Freedom Party. These efforts worked remarkably well for a time, and the libertarian movement experienced much growth during the late 1960s and early 1970s, due in large part to an influx of countercultural radicals from the New Left.

However, by the early 1990s, two decades later, Rothbard realized that the radical Left of the 1960s had grown up and was in the process of taking power politically, and that the cultural radicalism of the 60s had already become a stagnant cliche that was just as often used as a force for conformity and repression as liberation. Meanwhile, the Cold War had ended and at least some right-wingers were rediscovering their isolationist roots. Hence, the birth of paleoism, and the planting of the seeds for eventual explosion of Ron Paulism 15-20 years later along with the corresponding growth in libertarianism generally.

Read about Rothbard’s time on the Left.

Categories: Left and Right, Strategy

8 replies »

  1. “Virtually all other “anarcho-libertarian” thinkers of the time mostly copied Rothbard’s system, occasionally adding some ideas of their own: Morris and Linda Tannehill, David Friedman, Sam Konkin, George Smith, Karl Hess, etc.”

    Off hand, I cannot think of anything I got from Rothbard. My work was based mostly on neoclassical economics, with some influence from Heinlein’s fiction. I can’t speak for the other people you list.

    • Thanks for your comments and clarifications, David. I’m happy to have you posting here. You were a big influence on my thinking early on. So you and Rothbard came to the same basic anarcho-capitalist position completely independently of each other? You from Heinlein, and Rothbard from Tucker? I never knew that. I always figured Rothbard came up with anarcho-capitalism and the rest of you who were early theorists of an-cap took his ideas and ran with them.

      • If Rothbard were alive today, I doubt he’d have much use for me. He would be appalled by my rejection of Lockean natural rights theory in favor of a Nietzschean outlook. He’d say I had abandoned the moral basis of liberty in favor of fashionable postmodern nihilism.

        Worse yet would be my views on property rights. I don’t think there’s any universal mandate for Lockean theories of property rights. While I think property is necessary for liberty, privacy, prosperity, etc. I also think property rights are a social construct representing evolved traditions that are specific to particular eras, geographical regions, and cultures. In particular, Rothbard would react with great hostility to my sympathies to mutualism, syndicalism, anarcho-communism, and Georgism. He’d lambast me over this the same way he did with Karl Hess over the same issues.

        Of course, he’d be cheered by my foreign policy outlook and my previous support for Ron Paul, so maybe he wouldn’t write me off as a total lost cause.

      • I knew Rothbard, although not well, since we both were moving in libertarian circles, but that would have been mostly after Machinery was written. I’ve never read all of any of his books, although I’ve looked at parts and read articles of his. I knew he existed when I wrote _Machinery_, because I cite a comment attributed to him in one of the chapters of the first edition. I have a reference to his writing in the appendix to the second edition, but it refers to a chapter of mine added in the second edition so at least part of the reference must have been added then—I don’t have a copy of the first edition ready to hand to check.

        I was starting from the classical liberal position but unhappy with it because I didn’t see any way of morally justifying the state. On the other hand, it seemed to me that the arguments for the market depended on a framework provided by the state. Heinlein’s _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_ provided what seemed to me an internally consistent account of a society where the framework was endogenous, which started me trying to figure out if that could work in something more like modern day America. Which ended up with part III of _Machinery_.

        You might be interested in the new chapters for the third edition currently webbed on my site, incidentally.

    • _The Moon is a Harsh Mistress_. It provided what appeared to me to be an internally consistent account of a society where the legal framework was endogenous, which meant that any general proof that that was impossible had to be wrong (assuming it really was consistent). So I started trying to construct something analogous for a society like the one I was living in.

  2. “which meant that any general proof that that was impossible had to be wrong (assuming it really was consistent).”

    What do you mean by ‘general proof’?

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