« Song of the Day #1611 | Main | Andrea Rich, RIP »

Rothbard, Rand, and Revisionism

Very soon I hope to provide some information on some important resources that will be made available to scholars of the work of Murray Rothbard, thanks to my preservation of them for nearly 40 years.

However, a recent discussion on Rothbard has broken out, especially with regard to his contentious relationship with the inner circle of Ayn Rand, on the FB site of "For the New Intellectual" and I just wanted to bring together, in a single Notablog entry, the various comments I made about Rothbard, especially in light of that forthcoming announcement. I observed that I was

second to none in criticisms of Murray Rothbard; Part Two of Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism criticizes him especially for the context-dropping that is inherent in his dualistic view of the triumph of anarcho-capitalism as a panacea for society's ills. But my book also praises his highly dialectical (read: context-sensitive) analyses of the boom-bust cycle, the incestuous relationship of the state and banking, and the class conflicts that arise under a political economy of statism, as well as the emergence of the welfare-warfare state from the Progressive era, and so forth.
But it should be noted that when so few came to Rand's defense in the time after the publication of Atlas Shrugged, it was Murray Rothbard who wrote a rousing endorsement of the book in the magazine Commonweal. In Barbara Branden's Passion of Ayn Rand, he would later state that he was "in agreement basically with all her philosophy," and that it was Rand who convinced him of the theory of natural rights that his books would champion.
But there are such things as deep personality clashes and there was a lot of bad blood between Rothbard and Rand when their circles came into contact with one another. Rothbard headed the "Circle Bastiat" which had some intellectual fireworks with Rand's Collective: in the end, Bastiat "members" Robert Hessen and George Reisman hitched up with Rand, while Leonard Liggio, Ralph Raico, and others stayed with Rothbard.
But I don't think it can be denied that Rothbard was a remarkable intellect; his Man, Economy, and State and Power and Market are brilliant re-statements and extensions of the insights of Ludwig von Mises; his various historical works, from his four-volume work, Conceived in Liberty, to The Panic of 1819 to America's Great Depression and a recent collection of his essays on The Progressive Era were path-breaking studies. And his essays in A New History of Leviathan, which he coedited with, then "Democratic Socialist" (now, neoconservative) Ronald Radosh, is one of the great classics of revisionist history. Add to that his two-volume work on The History of Economic Thought, works on The Mystery of Banking, and so many other books---and it is simply hard to dismiss his work as unoriginal or unserious . . .
I also should acknowledge that [Rothbard] was an important figure in my intellectual evolution on "How I Became a Libertarian."
I think Rothbard was imperfect; I have criticized him even in his later years, when he attempted to correct for the obvious hole in his strategy to achieve libertarianism. When he finally recognized the role of culture in the fight for liberty, what he embraced was a kind of social conservatism that, to me, was anathema to the achievement of freedom.
But I don't think he was a nihilist looking to make a name for himself; he was just as much an outsider as Rand. To focus on minor comments he made when Patrick Buchanan was running for President and to dismiss his entire corpus because of it does seem to lose a sense of proportion. It would be like somebody fixating on Rand's idealized picture of William Hickman, using it as the pretext for dismissing everything she later wrote because she seemed to be celebrating a serial killer.
For the record, Rothbard talked much about the importance of the relationship between science and ethics; when folks argued that the state could do things better than the market and that all we needed were those who adhered to more efficient "scientific" policies of state planning, he remarked famously that there was a high-IQ high-culture Western European nation that once embraced more efficient "scientific" policies of exterminating millions of people in gas chambers and that it should not be our goal to have I.G. Farben help the Nazi Germany's of this world to come up with more effective means of mass destruction. I don't think this amounted to denial of the Holocaust at all.
And while I disagree with some of Rothbard's revisionist historical work, I think most of it is spot on: it is eminently clear that it was big business that worked toward destroying the free market by lobbying for and helping to create the entire regulatory apparatus, which they used to destroy entry into whole fields of economic endeavor and to consolidate their profits; I think his view of the rise of "war collectivism" in World War I was key to our understanding of the roots of the creation of the New Deal, which even Mussolini applauded for its corporatist ideal. You don't have to accept all his conclusions to appreciate some of his contributions.

In another post, I acknowledge that Rothbard's personal biases became the basis of raging interpersonal wars even among those in libertarian circles. But for Objectivists to point to this as proof that he was off his rocker is a bit like: Pot. Kettle. Black. The same stuff has happened within Objectivist circles for eons, and Rand's behavior was not exemplary at all times and in all cases. But that doesn't mean we throw the baby out with the bathwater. I also acknowledge my disagreements with Rothbard on such subjects as Gandhi and the strategic use of nonviolence, mentioning that no single theorist has done more for that area of study than the late Gene Sharp, who was a friend and colleague. Check out especially his book, The Politics of Nonviolent Action and his many works on Gandhi's political strategies. But the charges that Murray Rothbard was enamored by folks connected to the Holocaust-denying Institute for Historical Review led me to post further on the charges of Rothbard's alleged "anti-Semitism":

I knew Rothbard personally; to my knowledge, his later attraction to some of the ideas in Charles Murray's book ("The Bell Curve") is ironic (in the context of any alleged anti-Semitism), especially since Charles Murray talks so much about the high IQs and cultural commitments to learning among Jews.
It was not so controversial to observe, as Rothbard certainly did, that many Jews were among the intelligentsia of the left. But considering that Rothbard himself was Jewish, as was his mentor Ludwig von Mises, his Austrian colleagues Israel Kirzner and Fritz Machlup, among others, the idea that he was a supporter of anti-Semitism sounds a bit strange to me. For God's sake, the Nazis drove Mises out of Europe and confiscated his library---which they preserved and which, ironically, ended up in the hands of the Soviets, when the secret police recovered the library of a Jewish free-market economist and preserved it under Stalin's directives (See here.) They were later recovered with the help of Richard Ebeling.
Even Rothbard's admiration for some of the work of Harry Elmer Barnes had nothing to do with any Holocaust denial. It was because Barnes correctly characterized America's political economy as one based on "perpetual war for perpetual peace." This was an argument that one could find among revisionist thinkers of the Old Right (John T. Flynn, Isabel Paterson, Albert Jay Nock, and incidentally, Ayn Rand, who opposed U.S. entry into World War I, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam**) and the New Left (Gabriel Kolko, James Weinstein, William Appleman Williams, Ronald Radosh), and even President Dwight David Eisenhower who, in his farewell address to the American people warned of the growing and destructive power and influence of the "military-industrial complex."
I don't know how Donald Trump's foreign policies will ultimately pan out---but this is certainly a guy who stirred enormous controversy with his statements that the U.S. hasn't been "so innocent" in its policies abroad and who has assailed U.S. intelligence agencies, which have corrupted more elections and toppled more regimes abroad than one can count. So I find it odd that [some] Trump-supporter[s] can be so upset with Rothbard, given Trump's own expressed views of the corrupting influences of U.S. policies at home and abroad. I may not be a Trump supporter, but at least his campaign rhetoric to pull back U.S. intervention abroad was, to me, the only thing that I could genuinely applaud. I guess that makes him as revisionist as the America Firsters of the Old Right and the antiwar New Left---the same folks that Rothbard interacted with over his many years of intellectual life.

In a later post, somebody presented anecdotal evidence of somebody else who had a conversation with Rothbard, in which he showed skepticism about the Holocaust. I replied:

Unfortunately, this is also too anecdotal for evidence. I read virtually everything Rothbard ever wrote in preparation for Total Freedom and I have never come across a single published statement that doubted the Holocaust. But there is this classic statement of his from a Free Market essay, "The 'Partnership' of Government and Business":
"In our enthusiasm for privatization, . . . we should stop and think whether we would want certain government functions to be privatized, to be conducted efficiently. Would it really have been better, for example, if the Nazis had farmed out Auschwitz or Belsen to Krupp or I. G. Farben?"
Does this read like the works of a man who denied the existence of the Nazi concentration camps or the producers of the Zyklon-B insecticide that was used to gas millions of people? Not to me it doesn't.

I received some criticism from readers who argued that Murray Rothbard wasn't a very nice guy and that he did things that were not above board, especially in his dealings with Rand, Branden, and others in the Objectivist movement. I replied:

The whole point of the second (and bulkiest) part of my book, "Total Freedom: Toward a Dialectical Libertarianism" was to separate what I believed was the dialectical (radical) wheat from the nondialectical (utopian) chaff that formed Rothbard's theoretical worldview. One cannot engage in a study of that worldview without having read it. And what emerged, I think, was a powerful critique that kept what was valuable, tossed what was not, and moved on, in its final chapter, to discuss promising future trends in libertarian scholarship that would avoid the pitfalls of utopian thought in Rothbard and in the works of other libertarians ("utopia" after all, means "nowhere") while moving libertarian social theory to the next, far more radical, far more "dialectical" level.
To be clear, my entire trilogy ("Marx, Hayek, and Utopia", "Ayn Rand: The Russian Radical," and "Total Freedom") has been based on the assumption that there is this distinction between utopian and radical thinking, and that utopian thinking---whether it be right or left---leads us down a road to "nowhere", sometimes a very destructive "nowhere", while the more dialectical alternative will provide us with the analytical tools to understand the "root" of social problems (the essence of radical theory) as a means of resolving them.
On that score, Rothbard's works offer us a mixed bag, but that which is valuable, in my view, cannot be denied. This is quite apart from what he was or wasn't as a human being. Karl Marx, as some studies of his personal life have revealed, may not have been that nice of a guy, but I learned a lot by reading him and understanding him. "Take what you want and pay for it," as the Objectivists used to say; precisely what I've done: taken what I have thought of value, from every thinker I've read, giving credit where credit is do, and moved on.

I will have more to say about the forthcoming original resources that will soon be available to Rothbard scholars.

---
** For those who doubt Rand's opposition to U.S. involvement in the European theater of World War II, I added this note:

Check "The Roots of War" but also check out the discussions of Rand's relationship with Isabel Paterson in Stephen Cox's book The Woman and the Dynamo: Isabel Paterson and the Idea of America. It is there that Cox makes clear that both Rand and Paterson found it obscene for the United States to be sending Lend Lease aid to the Soviet Union in its fight against the Nazis; in their view, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were both evil dictatorships and should have destroyed each other. And then, if the U.S. were forced into the conflict for any reason, it would have faced a much-weakened foe. (Some of the feel of this can also be found in Rand's appearance before HUAC.)
This, of course, was all a moot point after December 7, 1941, when the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor---followed by the joint declarations of war by Germany and Italy against the United States in the days that followed thereafter. But for Rand, World War I, the "war to make the world safe for democracy" produced Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Fascist Italy, while World War II handed over Eastern Europe to the Soviets and led directly to an endless "Cold War" that consumed the lives of thousands of Americans in other wars to stop communist aggression and to bring "democracy" to countries that had no concept of either democracy or individual rights.
For that matter, also read what Heller has written (in Ayn Rand and the World She Knew) about Paterson and Rand ("They preferred to let Hitler march unimpeded into Russia and then enter the war against whichever dictator was left standing") and Barbara Branden's Passion of Ayn Rand, where she states that "Ayn was passionately opposed to any American involvement in the war in Europe" and "was horrified that Willkie [the candidate she supported against FDR] did not speak out unequivocally against such involvement."
And where on earth does one find in any essay Rothbard wrote about Barnes that he agreed with Barnes that the Holocaust never happened? I've written quite a bit about the contributions of Karl Marx in his application of dialectical method to social analysis. Does my "association" with Marx and Marxist scholarship imply consent to Marxist ideas? It is possible to acknowledge that there are writers in intellectual history who have provided important work without it implying that one agrees with everything the writer ever said on every subject.
My mentor was a Marxist: Bertell Ollman; he provided blurbs for each of the books of my trilogy. I was even the cofounder of a discussion group called "marxism-thaxis" (THeory and praXIS). I consider myself a "known libertarian author"---but I have openly associated myself with many on the left. What does this say about me?
I must be a closet Marxist. And here I thought I was out of the closet all along. :)
In many ways, I believe that Ayn Rand was the libertarian movement's answer to Karl Marx---using that word "libertarian" loosely. But be that as it may, do you realize how many folks in the "America First" movement were smeared as Nazi-sympathizers or anti-Semites? Well, in fact, some of them were (Charles Lindbergh was dogged by those charges for years). But Rand, Flynn, Paterson, Nock, and others were also a part of that "America First" movement. And yet, I didn't see a single one of them as having a soul shaped by the swastika.
It is no coincidence that Trump has resurrected that very phrase, "America First"---and I don't think he's a dumb man; he knows perfectly well what problems that very phrase once caused among those in the establishment. Anyway, Mike, you know I like you a lot, even with the disagreements we've had. I'm willing to just agree to disagree; I've got so much work to do, and it is to your credit for sucking me into this discussion! LOL