Monday, December 26, 2011

Murray Rothbard and Third Parties

Murray Rothbard
By Robert Wenzel

As part of the recent attacks on Ron Paul, some have raised the point that attempts were made to reach out to various right wing groups. Murray Rothbard was probably influential with these attempted alliances, although I'm not sure how seriously he took them himself. In addition to being a genius, making major contributions in economics, history, political philosophy and legal theory, he had a bug for third party politics.

At times, approaches to right wing groups were made, but Rothbard also once endorsed Norman Mailer for Mayor of New York City and at another time called for William Kunstler to be freed from jail.

Bottom line: Rothbard was all over the map, in Diogenes fashion. But instead of looking for an honest man, Rothbard was looking for a political party of some sort, where he could introduce a libertarian point and quench his thirst for third party activism.

Here's Rothbard's hilarious take on his infiltration of the Maoist wing of a Leninist-Trotskyite party:
The peak of my political activity on the New Left came during the 1968 campaign. In the spring of 1968, my old enthusiasm for third party politics was rekindled, albeit in a different direction. The Peace and Freedom Party (PFP) which had become (and still is) established in California, decided to go national, and opened up shop in New York. I found that the preliminary platform and the only requirement for membership contained only two planks: the first was immediate U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, and the second was some plank so vague about being nice to everyone that almost anyone, left, right, center could have endorsed it. Great: here was a coalition party dedicated only to immediate withdrawal from Vietnam and requiring no commitment whatever to statism! As a result, our entire libertarian group in New York poured happily into the new party.

The PFP was structured around clubs, most of them regional – such as the powerful West Side (of Manhattan) club, the hippie Greenwich Village Club, etc. One was occupational – a Faculty Club. Since there were very few actual faculty members in this very youthful party, the PFP generously widened the definition of "faculty" to include graduate students. Lo and behold! On that basis, of approximately 24 members in the Faculty Club, almost exactly one-half were our people: libertarians, including myself, Leonard Liggio, Joe Peden, Walter Block and his wife, Sherryl, and Larry Moss. The legislative arm of the PFP was to be the Delegate Assembly, consisting of delegates from the various clubs. The Faculty Club was entitled to two delegates, and so we naturally divvied it up: one going to the socialists, and one to us, who turned out to be me.

At the first meeting of the Delegate Assembly, then, here I was, only in the Party for about a week, but suddenly vaulted to top rank in the power elite. Then, early in the meeting, some people got up and advocated abolishing the Delegate Assembly as somehow "undemocratic." Jeez! I was just about to get a taste of juicy political power, when some SOBs were trying to take it away from me! As I listened further, I realized that something even more sinister and of broader concern was taking place. Apparently, the New York party was being run by a self-perpetuating oligarchical executive committee, who, in the name of "democracy," were trying to eliminate all intermediate social institutions, and to operate upon the party mass unimpeded, all in the name of "democracy." To me it smacked of rotten Jacobinism, and I got up and delivered an impassioned speech to that effect. After the session ended, a few people came up to me and said that some like-minded thinkers, who constituted the West Side Club, were having a gathering to discuss these matters. So began our nefarious alliance with the Progressive Labor faction within Peace and Freedom.

It later turned out that the PFP and its executive committee were being run, both in California and in New York, by the Leninist-Trotskyite Draperites, International Socialists run by Berkeley librarian Hal Draper. The Draperites were the original Schachtmanites, Trotskyites who had rebelled against Trotsky as Third Camp opponents of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The New York party was being run by the Draperites, including as their allies a motley collection of assorted socialists, pacifists, counter-cultural druggies, and Left Libertarians.

The opposition within PFP was indeed being run by the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL), who the Draperites feared were plotting a takeover. Actually, it soon became clear that PL had no such intention, but were only keeping their hand in, and were using the West Side Club to recruit candidate-members into PL. Both PL and the Draperites were keeping the structure loose while waiting for an expected flood of Gene McCarthy followers after Humphrey’s expected Democratic nomination victory – a flood that, of course, never materialized. Hence the loose ideological requirement, and the fact that the platform was up for grabs. The alliance between PL and us libertarians was highly useful to both sides, in addition to cooperating in fending off Draperite dictatorship in the name of democracy. What PL got out of it was a cover for their recruiting, since no one could of course call us vehement antisocialists tools of Progressive Labor. Whatwe got out of it was PL’s firm support for an ideological platform – adopted by our joint caucus – that was probably the most libertarian of any party since the days of Cleveland Democracy. The PL people were pleasantly "straight" and nondruggie, although quite robotic, resembling left-wing Randians.

The great exception was the delightful Jake Rosen, the absolute head of PL’s fraction in the PFP. Rosen, bright, joyous, witty, and decidedly nonrobotic, knew the score. One of my fondest memories of life in the PFP was of Jake Rosen trying to justify our laissez-faire platform to his Maoist dunderheads. "Hey, Jake, what does this mean: absolute freedom of trade and opposition to all government restrictions?" "Er, that’s the ‘antimonopoly coalition’." "Oh, yeah." Jake, with more sincerity, joined us in opposing guaranteed annual income plans; he considered them bourgeois and "reactionary." About the only thing Jake balked at was our proposal that our caucus come out for immediate abolition of rent control. "Hey, fellas, look, I’d love to do it, but we have commitments to tenant groups." Graciously, we let him off the hook.
But after all those flirtations, Rothbard very early on (pre-1992) spotted a man who could deliver the libertarian message across the board:

Rothbard would have been very proud of the success that Ron Paul is having right now and its terrible that those who should know better are trying to paint Rothbard as someone that he was not. Rothbard always fought for freedom, and probably did more in that way for people around the globe than almost anyone else. But it did not stop there. On a personal level, and Rothbard told me this directly, he supported third world children through the monthly donation programs such as Save the Children.

Rothbard never wrote of this publicly (though the records might still be around), it was the private Rothbard and much different from the way Ron Paul-haters are trying to spin things.

Robert Wenzel is Editor & Publisher of and Target Liberty. He also writes EPJ Daily Alert and is author of The Fed Flunks: My Speech at the New York Federal Reserve Bank and most recently Foundations of Private Property Society Theory: Anarchism for the Civilized Person Follow him on twitter:@wenzeleconomics and on LinkedIn. His youtube series is here: Robert Wenzel Talks Economics. More about Wenzel here.


  1. That’s a snippet of my video from 1989. The whole thing is here:

    Earlier that day, we had a panel with Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell and Richard Ebeling (and others):

    That happens all the time, right?

    Good thing I brought along my tripod and lots of VHS tape.

  2. You are certainly lucky to have known this great man Robert.

  3. While no man is perfect, for the simple, obvious reason that we are all fallible, finite creatures, Rothbard was someone worth emulating from a libertarian perspective, IMO.

    And while there have been, and are, many great thinkers and doers throughout history worthy of acknowledgement for their accomplishment(s), precious few have had the same impact, broadly speaking.

    What an icon.

    Rothbard rules!

    Thanks for the vid BR.

    Rothbard rules.

  4. There are so few videos of Rothbard's speeches, so I have to say, "thank you, Bob Roddis".

    I mustn't forget to also be thankful for a market that could provide you with the means of making that recording, but that just goes without saying.

  5. From about the 7 minute mark (or so):

    "The program should be consistent with the objective or goal... For example, if you want to abolish the income tax, you don't say, 'you know, we should have a huge sales tax', because first of all, what usually happens is that you have both... Our objective is not to help the State along and to advance its programs. Our objective is to try to whittle is down."

    I seem to remember some "libertarians" proposing such things in the past, a few of which who also fancy themselves to be Austrians. This is not to say that Rothbard is the "word of truth", or some other fanciful delusions, but that he is absolutely correct here.

    Compromise is not a solution in many cases, and this comes from somebody (myself) who often looks for the most pragmatic course of action to most problems.

  6. Mr. Wenzel - you knew Mr. Rothbard?

  7. I took him to lunch once. Met with him on two other occasions and saw him at a couple of conferences.

  8. Again Bob Wenzel has hit the nail on the head.

    Rothbard was always looking for alliances across the political spectrum to advance what he called "the plumb line" libertarian cause. The resulted in flirtations with the New Left and the "paleo" right.

    In general he was looking for alliances with those seeking to reduce the main center of centralized power at the time. Following Lord Acton, Rothbard realised only a small minority of people are genuinely interested in liberty and in taking libertarian ideas to their radical conclusion. Thus liberatarians (with a small 'L') of necessity are thrown into coalition building with allies with different motivations. This to Rothbard and Acton was unfortunate reality.

    Of course his ideas and thinking evolved over time so I don't want to paint an overly simplistic picture, but he supported Strom Thurmond in 1948 and in 1961 he was supporting the most radical wing of the civil rights movement, as seen in his little known 1961 piece on 'The Negro Revolution.'.

    Rothbard wasn't so much "all over the shop" or inconsistent. In fact the opposite. He had a "use 'em and lose 'em" attitude to allies. Thus accounts for his various changes - they were tactical political alliances not statements of ideological solidarity and brotherhood.

    Here is Rothbard outlining his attitude to alliance making and breaking in "The Task Ahead" (PDF) from 1970.

    "The burning question before us is: where do we go from here? How do we accelerate our growth and build upon, rather than lose, our momentum? This is a problem which all of us must think about and discuss, especially since strategy and tactics are an art rather than anything like an exact science.

    It seems to me that the prime consideration is to develop the libertarian movement--the cadre"--as such. Many libertarians spend too much of their time and energy worrying about alliances: should they ally themselves with Right or Left or whatever? A far more important task is to build our own movement, especially now that we are strong enough to do so. Only by building our own movement, after all, can we spread and develop our own notably important and striking body of ideas. Strategic and tactical alliances with other groups are all very well, but they should flow from our own strength, with the idea always uppermost that we are "using" our allies as leverage to make our own ideas more effective.

    Unfortunately what has happened all too often is that libertarians have forged alliances out of weakness, and then have begun to abase themselves before those allies, whether of Right or Left, so that soon the means becomes an end in itself, and preserving the alliance, or keeping our allies happy, comes to take on more importance than the spread of our own doctrines. Let us always remember that we should be using our allies, rather than the other way round. This means that it is fatal to stop criticizing our allies from our own principled point of view; for once we stop doing that, we begin to abase outselves before tactical allies, and to lose sight of the point of the whole proceeding: the advancement of libertarianism. We should stop worrying about alienating our allies, and let them worry more about alienating us."

  9. By the way, great to see the Rothbard videos. Thanks Mr Roddis!!