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What’s Left of the Old Right

Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, Justin Raimondo, ISI Books, 369 pages

Human Events, the periodical that takes credit for “leading the conservative movement since 1944,” has indeed captured the spirit of conservatism since its inception. Felix Morley, opponent of political centralism and foreign war, co-founded the publication; six years later he broke with it over the Cold War. Today, he wouldn’t recognize it.

Now the paper generally offers undying loyalty to American aggression, the GOP, and the official Right’s talking points. It features shrill partisan commentators such as Ann Coulter and knee-jerk attacks on all things Democratic or “Islamist.” At the same time, however, Human Events also publishes Pat Buchanan, dissenter from Bush’s (and McCain’s) foreign and domestic policies and critic of U.S. wars going back to the 19th century. This dissonance reflects the central paradox of conservatism today—the tension of supporting both traditional limited government and the expansionary warfare state.

To strengthen one’s grasp on the struggle within modern conservatism, I recommend Justin Raimondo’s Reclaiming the American Right, first published in 1993 and now reprinted with a new introduction by George W. Carey and critical essays by Scott P. Richert and David Gordon.

As Raimondo tells it, the American Right was hijacked shortly after it was formed. The Old Right “was that loose grouping of intellectuals, writers, publicists, and politicians who vocally opposed the New Deal and bitterly resisted U.S. entry into World War II.” It comprised Hoover Republicans, disaffected progressive Democrats, individualists, and Middle American populists who wanted freedom and peace. Its members survived and opposed the early Cold War before being crowded out by the New Right.

The antagonists here are big-government conservatives, from William F. Buckley Jr. to the neocons. Raimondo examines several waves of destructive infiltration into the Right by leftists. James Burnham, who broke with Trotsky over support for the Soviet Union, personified the first coup. He abandoned the dialectical materialism that saw communism as inevitable and, in his famous The Managerial Revolution (1941), he described a “new ruling elite … made up of administrators, technicians, scientists, bureaucrats, and the myriad middlemen who have taken the means of production out of the hands of the capitalists.” He cheered the Cold War for regimenting American society and in 1953 became associate (later senior) editor at National Review. He was, Raimondo notes, “a decisive influence on what was to become the fountainhead of American conservatism.”

The second round of infiltrators was led by Max Shachtman from the Trotskyite Workers Party. Shachtman believed that “Stalinism had become the barbarism predicted by Trotsky” and that “there was no … alternative to the totalitarian brutality of the Kremlin except the imperfect but democratic United States.” Eventually, the Shachtmanite “conception of Stalinism … as the ‘mortal enemy of Socialism’ … became the ideological cornerstone of anticommunist leftism in the late 1950s.” The anti-Stalin Left blended in with conservatives, accepted propaganda financing from the CIA, and embraced the Cold War—often in the name of socialism. The Right became home to ever more ex-Communists, Trotskyites, social democrats, and a myriad of pro-war liberals. Neoconservatism rose in intellectual influence.

It is tempting, therefore, for anti-interventionist rightists to decry the hawks among them as imposters and perpetual war as a leftist program smuggled in by socialists with no claim to true American conservatism. But such a thesis oversimplifies. Much of the World War I opposition came from the Left, as did many of our Old Right heroes. In a terrific chapter on John T. Flynn, Raimondo explains that this 1930s muckraking journalist was a “conventional liberal, whose views were not out of place in that bastion of liberal orthodoxy, The New Republic.” And what was a liberal back then? “Flynn supported the Democratic Party platform of 1932, which called for an end to the extravagant spending of the Republicans, a balanced budget, and the abolition of the new government bureaus and commissions.” It also opposed fiat money, alcohol prohibition, high tariffs, and belligerence abroad.

“But Flynn was soon disillusioned,” writes Raimondo. “During the first hundred days of his administration, Roosevelt racked up a deficit larger than the one it took Hoover two years to produce.” Flynn was “particularly horrified” by FDR’s National Recovery Administration, which was largely modeled on Mussolini’s corporatism. He called it “probably the gravest attack upon the whole principle of democratic society in our political history.” The New Deal radicalized Flynn against the central state as his liberal colleagues swooned over FDR’s corporatism. Raimondo explains, “The entry of the United States into World War II completed the transformation of Flynn from a disenchanted liberal to a proto-libertarian advocate of laissez-faire and non-intervention.”

Other Old Right stalwarts came from the Left. Rose Wilder Lane was a communist sympathizer, but “quite unlike her opposite numbers in the Future Neocons of America contingent,” she turned against socialism and came “to challenge the central premise of statism.” H.L. Mencken was not a conservative but a radical. There is nothing right-wing about his shockingly irreverent Notes on Democracy, which lambastes nationalism, small towns, creationism, religion, prohibition, World War I, and puritanical busybodies. As for Albert Jay Nock, today’s conservatives might see his views on family, landownership, and police as “Cultural Marxism.” And the anarchistic Frank Chodorov warned that anyone who called him a conservative would “get a punch in the nose.”

On the other hand, the Old Right was thoroughly anti-egalitarian, traditionalist, anti-internationalist, and anti-modernist. Raimondo’s hero Garet Garrett, for example, upheld Americanism and nationalist freedom. The great Colonel McCormick was no leftist, nor were Robert Taft or Howard Buffet, leaders of the GOP’s anti-Eisenhower wing.

As the Old Right lost the day, however, opponents of war and statism looked elsewhere. The intellectual leader of modern libertarianism, Murray N. Rothbard, split from the Right during the Cold War, sought alliances with the New Left, and worked to, in Raimondo’s words, “reorient libertarian thought away from the pessimism of the [Old Right] Remnant by harking back to the optimism of nineteenth-century liberalism.”

Rothbard’s outlook transcended Left and Right. On foreign policy, he argued that all modern war, by expanding the state and killing the innocent, failed the libertarian test. This went much further than the America First position, which relied on nationalism to curb warmongering.

By the 1990s, when Raimondo wrote Reclaiming the American Right, the Cold War was over and he and Rothbard sensed new opportunities rightward: “Some conservatives looked for new enemies to conquer. But others were reminded of the original concept of the Right’s anticommunist crusade as a temporary expedient, an extended but necessary diversion from the main task of building a free society.” Seeing libertarians abandon principle—some backed Operation Desert Storm—and Buchananites echoing America First, Rothbard, Raimondo, and others spied the possibility of a new Old Right alliance of libertarians and conservatives against the welfare/warfare state.

That decade gave reassurance to such hopes. When Bill Clinton pursued an illegal war on Serbia and sought unconstitutional police powers, Republicans objected. In 2000, George W. Bush called for a more “humble foreign policy.” Then 9/11 happened. Almost all right-wingers reverted to Cold War-style support for the total state in the name of national security. But a conservative remnant has survived with its sanity. Raimondo maintains his affinity with that minority, while encouraging coalitions with the Left against the unlimited war on terror. In this magazine in 2004, he endorsed Ralph Nader as the Old Right choice.

For some libertarians, however, a fusion with conservatism has become impossible. Today, one of the modern Right’s fiercest critics is Lew Rockwell, Rothbard’s student and colleague, a proponent of paleo alliances in the 1990s, a friend of bourgeois values and the Old Right. Last month, Rockwell spoke at Ron Paul’s Rally for the Republic in Minneapolis. “I for one no longer believe that Bush has betrayed conservatives,” he said. “In fact, he has fulfilled conservatism, by completing the redefinition … that began many decades ago with Bill Buckley. … What does conservatism today stand for? It stands for war. It stands for power. It stands for spying, jailing without trial, torture, counterfeiting without limit, and lying from morning to night.”

By contrast, Scott Richert’s essay at the end of this edition draws a distinction between conservatism’s defense of liberty and the “(abstract) libertarian ideal of nonaggression.” For Richert, the trouble with neoconservatism “is not that the wrong ideology won, but that ideology won at all.” True conservatism is grounded in Russell Kirk’s “permanent things,” not abstractions: “Rather than attempting to ‘reconcile liberty and tradition,’ we need to recover the traditional roots of liberty and recognize that liberty without tradition cannot long survive.” This difference in emphasis will always separate libertarians from paleoconservatives, even as we all celebrate the generation that opposed FDR and Truman.

But which movement today best embodies the Old Right spirit? Ron Paul’s coalition is, like the Old Right, loose, populist, independent, traditionalist, and radical—the “realignment” in politics that was Colonel McCormick’s dream. In the end, however, Paul’s campaign was more libertarian than conservative, appealing more to Democratic and independent voters than to Republicans.

Modern conservatives would have despised the Old Right. Indeed, in November 2004, Sean Hannity denounced McCormick for publishing classified information in the Chicago Tribune. In January 2005, Rush Limbaugh loudly accused left-liberals of abandoning the resolute interventionism of FDR and Truman. Regnery Publishing, which used to bring out criticisms of World War II, today prints books defending Japanese internment.

Conservatism today is not too ideological or insufficiently traditional. Rather, it is ideologically devoted to the wrong traditions. It sees the U.S. empire, the police state, the Republican Party, and other right-wing symbols as proxies for freedom, as institutions worth more than liberty. It has adopted coercive nationalism and utilitarian collectivism and cast away the traditions of constitutionalism, freedom, and natural law on which bourgeois values depend.

At the same time, libertarians often neglect their own radical history. Far too many have backed Bush’s war. Both libertarians and paleocons would profit from reading Raimondo. We are not the same movement, but we have common cause and overlapping heritage. Revisiting these traditions will help remind non-Hannitized conservatives of the ideals they are supposed to uphold and provide libertarians with the crucial history behind their own beliefs and tradition. 


Anthony Gregory is research analyst at the Independent Institute, a columnist at LewRockwell.com, and adviser for FFF.org. Visit him at AnthonyGregory.com.

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