Freedom Discussions

National Review and the Triumph of the New Right

by Murray N. Rothbard

This article is excerpted from chapter 12 of The Betrayal of the American Right.

Garet Garrett had called the shots: in referring to the triumph of the New Deal and then of American Empire, he had summed up the strategy: “revolution within the form.” The New Right did not bother, would not rouse possible resistance, by directing a frontal assault on the old idols: on the dead Senator Taft, on the Bricker Amendment, or on the old ideals of individualism and liberty. Instead, they ignored some, dropped others, and claimed to come to fulfill the general ideals of individualism in a new and superior “fusion” of liberty and ordered tradition.

How, specifically, was the deed done? For one thing, by hitting us at our most vulnerable point: the blight of anti-Communism. For red-baiting came easily to all of us, even the most libertarian. In the first place, there were the terrible memories of World War II: the way in which the Communist Party had gleefully adopted the mantle of war patriots, of “twentieth-century Americanism,” and had unashamedly smeared all opponents of war as agents of Hitler.

Conservative and former liberal isolationists could scarcely forget and forgive; and hence, when the Cold War began, when the “great patriotic coalition” of the United States and Russia fell apart, it was difficult for the Old Right to resist the temptation to avenge themselves, to turn the agents-of-a-foreign-power smear back upon their old tormentors. Furthermore, blinded by hatred of Russia as an interventionist power, we mistakenly believed that repudiation of the fruits of the Russian alliance, including Teheran and Yalta, was in itself a repudiation of World War II. We unfortunately did not realize – as later New Left historians were to point out – that the Cold War and the intervention into World War II were part and parcel of the same development: that one was the inevitable outgrowth of the other, and that both were an integral part of American imperialism rampant.

But the problem was still deeper than that. For our main problem was our simplistic view of the ideological-political spectrum. We all assumed that there were two poles: a “left” pole of Communism, socialism, and total government; and a “right” pole of libertarianism and individualist anarchism. Left of center were the liberals and social democrats; right of center were the conservatives. From that simplistic spectrum we concluded, first, that conservatives, no matter how divergent, were our “natural” allies, and second, that there was little real difference between liberals and Communists. Why not then fuzz the truth just a bit, and use the anti-Communist bludgeon to hit at the liberals, especially since the liberals had become entrenched in power and were running the country? There was a temptation that few of us could resist.

What we didn’t fully realize at the time was that the Communists and socialists had not invented statism or leviathan government, that the latter had been around for centuries, and that the current developing liberal-conservative consensus and in particular the triumph of liberalism was a reversion to the old despotic ancien régime. This ancien régime was the Old Order against which the libertarian and laissez-faire movements of the 18th and 19th centuries had emerged as a revolutionary opposition: an opposition on behalf of economic freedom and individual liberty. Jefferson, Cobden, and Thoreau as our forbears were ancestors in more ways than one; for both we and they were battling against a mercantilist statism that established bureaucratic despotism and corporate monopolies at home and waged imperial wars abroad. But if socialism and liberalism are reversions to the Old European Conservatism, then it becomes clear that it is statist conservatism – now joined by liberalism and social democracy – that is still, and not simply in 1800, the major enemy of liberty. And if liberals and Communists sound alike, this does not mean, as we thought then, that liberals had somehow become crypto-Communists; on the contrary, it was a sign that Communists had become liberals!

But for us this analysis – to be developed by Leonard Liggio – was still far in the future. During the 1940s and ’50s we merrily engaged in red-baiting. My own position was characteristically libertarian: I distinguished between “compulsory” red-baiting, using the power of the State to repress Communists and leftists, which I deplored, and “voluntary” red-baiting by private organizations and groups, which I supported. The former included the Smith Act prosecutions, the McCarran Act, and the inquisitions of HUAC. Another of my blind spots is that I did not realize the virtual impossibility of keeping domestic and foreign red-baiting strictly separate; it was psychologically and politically impossible to persecute or harass Communists or leftists at home, while at the same time pursuing a policy of peace, neutrality, and friendship with Communist countries overseas. And the global anti-Communist crusaders knew this truth all too well.

From early in the postwar period, the major carriers of the anti-Communist contagion were the ex-Communist and ex-leftist intellectuals. In a climate of growing disillusion with the fatuous propaganda of World War II, the ex-Communists hit the intellectual and political worlds like a bombshell, more and more forming the spearhead of the anti-Communist crusade, domestic and foreign. Sophisticated, worldly, veteran polemicists, they had been there: to naïve and breathless Americans, the ex-leftists were like travelers from an unknown and therefore terrifying land, returning with authentic tales of horror and warning. Since they, with their special knowledge, knew, and since they raised the terrible warnings, who were we to deny that truth? The fact that “ex-es” throughout history have tried frantically to expiate their guilt and their fear of having wasted their lives by attempting to denigrate and exterminate their former love – that fact was lost on us as well as on most of America.

From the very end of the war, the “ex-es” were everywhere on the Right, whipping up fear, pointing the finger, eager to persecute or exterminate any Communists they could find, at home and abroad. Several older generation “ex-es” from the prewar era were prominent. One was George E. Sokolsky, columnist for the New York Sun, who had been a Communist in the early 1920s. Particularly prominent on the Right was Dr. J.B. Matthews, foremost Communist fellow traveler of the early 1930s, who by the end of that decade was chief investigator for the Dies Committee; Matthews was to make a fortune out of his famous “card files,” a mammoth collection of “Communist front” names which he would use to sell his services as finger man for industries and organizations; pleasant and erudite, Matthews had been converted from socialism partly by reading Mises’s Socialism. But the first libertarian-red-baiting marriage was effected shortly after the end of the war by the veteran red-baiter Isaac Don Levine, who founded a little-known monthly called Plain Talk, which featured a curious mixture of libertarian political philosophy and ferocious exposés of alleged “Reds” in America. It was particularly curious because Don Levine has never, before or since that short-lived venture, ever exhibited any interest in freedom or libertarianism. When Plain Talk folded, Don Levine moved to West Germany to play in the revanchist politics of East European emigré groups.

Plain Talk disappeared after several years to make way for the weekly Freeman in 1950, a far more ambitious and better-financed venture which, however, never achieved anything like the influence or readership of the later National Review. Again, this was a libertarian-conservative-red-baiting coalition venture. Coeditors were two veteran writers and journalists: Henry Hazlitt, a laissez-faire economist but never an isolationist; and John Chamberlain, a man of libertarian instincts and a former isolationist, but an ex-leftist deeply scarred by a Communist cell which had been nasty to him in Time magazine.[1] And so the isolationist cause was never well represented in the Freeman; furthermore, Willi Schlamm later came in as book editor, and Chamberlain brought in the profoundly antilibertarian Forrest Davis to be a third coeditor. Davis, along with Ernest K. Lindley, had written the official Roosevelt administration apologia for Pearl Harbor, and then moved on to become a ghostwriter for Joe McCarthy.[2]

It was, in fact, McCarthy and “McCarthyism” that provided the main catalyst for transforming the mass base of the right wing from isolationism and quasi-libertarianism to simple anti-Communism. Before McCarthy launched his famous crusade in February 1950, he had not been particularly associated with the right wing of the Republican Party; on the contrary, his record was more nearly liberal and centrist, statist rather than libertarian. It should be remembered that red-baiting and anti-Communist witch-hunting was launched by the liberals and, even after McCarthy arose, it was the liberals who were the most effective at this game. It was, after all, the liberal Roosevelt administration that passed the Smith Act, which was then used against Trotskyites and isolationists during World War II and against the Communists after the war; it was the liberal Truman administration that prosecuted Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs – and that launched the Cold War; it was the eminently liberal Hubert Humphrey who put through a clause in the McCarran Act of 1950 threatening concentration camps for “subversives.”

In fact, New Left historians Steinke and Weinstein have shown that McCarthy himself learned his red-baiting from none other than the saintly social democratic figure Norman Thomas. During the 1946 campaign, McCarthy first ran for the Senate against the great isolationist leader Robert LaFollette, Jr. While McCarthy did a little red-baiting of the still-consistent isolationist LaFollette in the primary, McCarthy was then a standard internationalist, or Vandenberg, Republican, with indeed a few maverick endorsements of the idea of negotiating peace with the Soviet Union. Then, on August 26, 1946, Norman Thomas, speaking at an annual picnic of the Wisconsin Socialist Party, red-baited the Democratic senatorial candidate, Howard J. McMurray. Thomas in particular accused McMurray of being endorsed by the Daily Worker, an accusation that McCarthy picked up eagerly a few weeks later. McCarthy had gotten the bit in his teeth; he had learned how from a veteran of the internecine struggles on the Left.[3]

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