The Libertarian Forum, edited by Murray N. Rothbard; March 15, 1970.
We have to face it; we must face it: the New Left is dead. Dead as a doornail. Kaput.
In this issue, Rothbard laments the death of what he describes as the New Left; as will be seen, perhaps more like a co-option than a death.
Almost from its inception, SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] was the heart and soul of the New Left, the bearer and carrier of its best libertarian instincts.
Rothbard focusses specifically on the period 1964 – 1969 in his praise for this group. The heart and soul of the group during this time was its anti-war focus. The downfall came quickly, with “every cause but the kitchen sink” grafted onto the anti-war foundation.
The “grafted on” causes included environmentalism (“Will the fellow who advocates air pollution please stand up?”) and “does one more ‘black studies institute’ really matter?” Even the black nationalists have disappeared, “finished since the murder of that superb leader, one of the great men of our epoch, Malcolm X,” replaced by the “Afro haircut.” “The black liberation movement is dead.”
Although the new left movement was dead, its short life was glorious:
It created the most intense, the most notable, and the most far-flung anti-war movement in the history of protest against American imperial wars.
Unfortunately, in the wake of the New Left one will find the destruction of American society and culture; as Rothbard describes it: a “cultural revolution,” or a “counter-culture.”
It is possible that this transformation was no accident:
…it is relatively easy for the Establishment to co-opt the cultural rebels by simply adopting the new “counter-culture,” and keeping the erstwhile rebels content on the ancient formula of despots: “bread and circuses,” except that now it’s dope and circuses.
By “circuses” I think Rothbard means “sex.”
This counter-culture was praised by the establishment media, glorifying the “Woodstock Nation” while ignoring Altamont. In the place of reason, society adopted the lifestyle of insanity.
Rothbard describes this transformation, and it is from here where I hold to a view different than Rothbard’s – but, I believe, a view similar to that held by the older and wiser Rothbard of later years:
…the New Left wished to emphasize individual or personal liberation. But instead of arriving at a philosophy of individualism and rationality, the form of personal “liberation” which it came to adopt was the counter-cultural “liberation” from reason and the consequent enslavement to unexamined whim.
Personal liberation absent an underlying ethic will never be made manifest by “reason,” at least not “reason” that is meaningful for sustaining and advancing civilization. Rothbard rightly laments the overthrow of the “strong rational elements of our Western Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition,” but what is this tradition (just like any generally accepted tradition) other than a hindrance to “personal liberation”?
Rothbard sees the cure in a return to the wisdom of the Enlightenment, in its devotion to “reason, science, technology, human progress, individual liberty, free trade, and the free-market economy.” But the Enlightenment left no room for the human progress that culture, tradition, and the wisdom of countless generations discovered and bequeathed as a free gift, a legacy.
In other words, the Enlightenment was a critical step in man’s turn to the slavery we live under today. Instead of man governed by “our Western Greco-Judeo-Christian tradition,” it was deemed “enlightened” for man to be governed by man. And guess what? The “man” doing the governing isn’t you.
And this, I believe, is what the younger Rothbard missed – and found later in his intellectual journey.
Rothbard saw as the solution “to make a stand for reason”:
…liberty, no matter how glorious, is not enough… We must raise the banner of Liberty and Reason, Now and Forever, One and Inseparable!
It is all capitalized in the original, in the same way that I capitalize “God,” “Christ,” and “the Bible.”
Man’s reason is sufficient – forever! Can it really be that this will bring us some semblance of liberty?