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Book Review: Reclaiming the American Right

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Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement
by Justin Raimondo (Burlingame, CA: Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993); 287 pages.

In the first issue of the conservative quarterly Modern Age — Summer 1957 — there was an essay by Felix Morley entitled, “American Republic or American Empire?” His argument was that in taking on the role of world leader and global policeman in the Cold War, the United States was becoming more of an imperial power and less of a free society. Freedom of the press was being challenged; military conscription constrained human liberty; massive defense spending served as a Keynesian rationale for increased government spending and deficit “pump-priming”; greater amounts of private wealth were being transferred into the hands of the state through taxation in the name of fighting communism; and private enterprise was becoming more and more regulated and subservient to the dictates of the state. In the name of fighting tyranny abroad, Americans were losing their freedoms at home. Increasingly, the individual lived to serve and obey the state, rather than the state existing as an agency operating under severe constitutional restraints to protect the people’s liberties and individual rights.

In the second issue of Modern Age , there appeared a series of letters and comments by several prominent conservatives, most of them extremely critical of Felix Morley for not appreciating that the global crusade against communism had to take precedence over all other concerns, even the apparent loss or diminishment of some liberties and private-sector opportunities at home. If the battle against world communism was lost, these critics of Felix Morley argued, then no freedoms would remain in America to be preserved. In the name of fighting Soviet totalitarianism, all of our dearest possessions, including some of our freedoms, might have to be sacrificed to win this war against Marxism.

What makes Felix Morley’s 1957 article stand out is that he was criticizing America’s global interventionism not as a left-wing apologist trying to whitewash or deny the evils of Soviet tyranny, but rather as a conservative who was an uncompromising anticommunist. Even those conservatives who remained critics of American intervention in the First and Second World Wars, like Rene Wormser in his book The Myth of the Good and Bad Nations (1954), believed that in the conflict with communism, America could not be “isolationist.” In the 1950s, Felix Morley was a peculiar conservative — an anticommunist who, in general, was suspicious of an interventionist American foreign policy.

Yet before 1945, Morley’s “peculiarity” was to a great extent the mainstream conservative point of view. In his recent book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement , Justin Raimondo resurrects the pre-Cold War conservative movement in a series of chapters devoted to a summary of the major contributions of some of its most insightful protagonists.

Today, such names as Garet Garret, Albert Jay Nock, John T. Flynn, and Frank Chodorov are either unknown or merely vague memories, but fifty and sixty years ago, they were leading voices and prominent spokesmen, along with an articulate army of other “right-wing” intellectuals, who opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal at home and his interventionist policy in foreign affairs.

The general view of these anti-New Deal conservatives was that the 1930s and 1940s had brought about a dramatic change in the relationship between the state and individuals, between local government and national power in Washington. As David Lawrence (the founder of U.S. News & World Report ) expressed it in the title of his 1934 book, America was Stumbling into Socialism . It was not (as yet) the brutal or comprehensively dictatorial socialism of Stalin’s Russia or Hitler’s Germany, but it was, nonetheless, a creeping collectivist revolution in which the federal government was expanding its control over the economic, political and cultural affairs of the nation.

And in the process of this revolution, all of the elements that had made America unique and great — its philosophy of individualism, community voluntarism, economic liberty and limited government — were being undermined and lost. America was being transformed from a society of free men into a paternalistic state in which increasing numbers of people were becoming wards of the state, dependent upon government for their livelihood and security in the economic order.

For these older conservatives, Roosevelt’s foreign policy was merely an extension of his domestic policy: unrestrained executive power, as a result of which the lives and fortunes of the American people were now at the discretion of presidential decision-making. The issue of war and peace was no longer a matter of congressional deliberation; Roosevelt decided that America should be involved in the war against Hitler, so he found a “back door to war” in the Pacific. The issue of international treaties and international commitments were no longer matters of congressional approval; Roosevelt believed that he knew how to handle “Uncle Joe” Stalin, so he signed the Yalta Agreement that turned over Eastern Europe and large parts of China and Japan to the tender care of the “best friend” of every Soviet child.

Mr. Raimondo argues that a primary reason for the undermining of the Old Right and its non-interventionist views on both domestic and foreign policy in the post-World War II period was the capture of the conservative movement by many ex-communists and anti-Stalinists. Among this group, he explains, were James Burnham, Max Eastman and Irving Kristol. In the middle of the 1950s, several of these former communists-turned-conservatives found a new home in William F. Buckley’s National Review . And starting in the 1960s and 1970s, many of these same individuals became the nucleus of the neo-conservative movement-determined to aggressively push an interventionist foreign policy against the “evil empire” they had rejected long before and interested as well in fostering a domestic policy that advocated a market economy cushioned by a cost-efficient welfare state.

Now, as the Cold War passes into history, Mr. Raimondo believes that the time is right for a revival of the Old Right’s political legacy. He sees in the political philosophies of such prominent libertarians as Murray Rothbard and conservatives as Patrick Buchanan a common ground that could turn America back to a political and economic course that would combine policies of economic liberty at home and non-interventionism abroad. While the libertarian and traditionalist conservative agendas do not perfectly overlap, he suggests that there are sufficient similarities in their outlooks concerning the dangers from state power that an alliance is possible for opposition to the further expansion of governmental authority and to perhaps reverse state intrusion into many aspects of daily life.

In the present state of affairs in America, no stone should be left unturned in the fight against collectivism. If such an alliance can assist in this fight, it can only be wished well.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).