[This book review is scheduled to be published in the Spring 2009 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 139-142.]

Book Review 

 

Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement

Justin Raimondo

ISI Books, 2008 

 

            Educated Americans and others interested in the American ideological debates of the past century would do well to be familiar with such names as Garet Garrett, John T. Flynn, Robert McCormick, Rose Wilder Lane, Isabel Patterson, Leonard Read and Ayn Rand.  Perhaps the principal merit of this book is that it gives a good introduction to each of them and their writings.  They were among the main figures within the Old Right of the middle third of the twentieth century, which championed a near-anarchist laissez-faire philosophy and an insistence that America “mind its own business” in world affairs.

            Justin Raimondo is well suited to write such a book.  His own “libertarian” orientation is apparent from his having written a biography of economist Murray Rothbard, a leading American personality in the Austrian School of Economics after World War II and in the libertarian movement.  Presently, Raimondo is the editorial director for “Antiwar.com” and a fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute.

            Although mostly Raimondo is very favorable to the people just listed, an interesting and instructive part of the book comes with his debunking of one of them—Ayn Rand.  This is something of a brave undertaking, because even in death Rand, an overpowering personality, is a towering figure of ego and didactic ideology.  One can conjure up in his imagination the fearsome prospect of her reaching up from the grave to grab Raimondo by the scruff of the neck.

            The debunking comes in large part from his revealing the extent to which Rand semi-plagiarized from the work of Garet Garrett in her two most famous novels, Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead (which, no matter, are two of the “must reads” for anyone interested in political and social philosophy, even someone who has no proclivity toward becoming one of Rand’s disciples).  Readers of Atlas Shrugged know how central the question “Who is John Galt?” is to the story,  and will be astonished to learn that Garrett’s 1922 novel The Driver had a character named Henry M. Galt who took “over the bankrupt Great Midwestern Railroad and turn[ed] it into a mighty empire.”  Raimondo says that “like Atlas Shrugged, The Driver is a paean to the entrepreneur as creator.”  He points out that “a stylistic device used throughout Atlas Shrugged also occurs in The Driver… [Like John Galt], Henry M. Galt is introduced as a man of mystery, whose secret gradually unfolds.”  For Garrett, this gave rise to the question “Who is Henry M. Galt?” 

            We will leave it to a reader to peruse Raimondo’s book to see all of the points of similarity he mentions.  But we should take time here to notice that Rand seems also to have carried over some key imagery from The Driver into her The Fountainhead.  Raimondo speaks of “the scene in The Fountainhead where Dominique [the main female character] throws the priceless statue of a Greek god down an air shaft,” and points out that “in The Driver, Vera Galt does the same thing to a costly African sculpture for similarly perverse reasons.”  Raimondo prudently shies clear of calling all of this “plagiarism,” but readers can draw their own conclusions about Rand’s originality.  Such a cloud on her creativity is all the more distressing because she put her philosophy forward as the epitome of pure reason, and was powerful in her denunciation of “second-handers.”

            A second ground for debunking Rand is pressed vehemently by Raimondo when he criticizes her and her followers’ claim that her philosophy was “something entirely new under the sun,” with no philosophical precursors or intellectual inheritance other than that of Aristotle.  Raimondo calls this “a confession of ignorance so abysmal that it could only be excusable in the very young.”  He sees important precursors in Nietzsche, Mencken, Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, Chodorov—“and, indeed, in the entire tradition of nineteenth-century classical liberalism.”  One of the precursors, no doubt, was Garrett, from whom she borrowed so much.  The writer of this review has long seen other influences as central to Rand’s thinking: Ludwig von Mises, for his extended exploration of market economics and limited government; Friedrich Nietzsche, for his exaltation of “the superman” (which shows up in Rand’s super-heroic individuals); and Nikolai Chernyshevsky, the nineteenth century Russian nihilist whose morality painted everything stridently into pure black and pure white.  (The tie to Chernyshevsky isn’t based on direct evidence, but is rather inferable from Rand’s Russian childhood and the remarkable similarity in Savonarola-like moral stridency.)

            Reclaiming the American Right isn’t primarily about debunking, since he is mainly concerned about resurrecting several long-forgotten giants and their philosophy.  Just the same, his dissection of “neo-conservatism” is worth the price of the book.  He traces the messianic, world-saving “American hegemony” outlook of neo-conservatism back to the Red Decade of the 1930s and to several anti-Stalinist New York intellectuals.  Over the course of time, the ideology of “democracy” came to occupy the role that Marxism had once filled in their lives.  One senses correctly that an important goal of Raimondo’s book is to draw a clear line in the sand, clarifying the difference between the long-standing “mind our own business” premise of the American right and what he sees as  the more recent post-Cold War usurpers of American conservatism who hope to universalize social democratic policy through American power.

            This is an easy-enough distinction to make, but Raimondo runs into some difficulty when he goes further and broaches a subject integral to American conservatism of the non-neo variety.   This is whether the anti-Communism that dominated the American Right during the Cold War was itself (a) a form of “messianic interventionism” or was rather (b) a necessary, decades-long exception to the non-interventionist philosophy—an exception seen to have been made necessary by the worldwide threat posed by an expansionist totalitarian ideology.  Raimondo brings to the fore a from-the-Right criticism of anti-Communism that was seldom heard among American conservatives during the Cold War, and quite apparently sides with that criticism.  He speaks of such a thing as “the hysteria over containing and/or rolling back the Communists,” even though at one point he acknowledges that “the Right’s anticommunist crusade [was seen as] a temporary expedient.”  

            His hostility toward Cold War anti-Communism is, it would seem, rather unfortunate in light of his desire to invite Americans to “reclaim” the tradition of non-intervention in foreign affairs.  Many of the very people he hopes to bring together as philosophical allies don’t have any trouble seeing the distinction between fighting totalitarian expansion and a policy designed to make the United States the social worker and policeman of the world after that threat has been defeated.  One suspects that it is Raimondo’s seeking for ideological purity—for a “consistent” holding to non-interventionist principle regardless of world circumstances—that impels him to offend such readers.

            A glaring omission in Raimondo’s understanding of the American Right, at least as would appear from this book, comes by way of his foreshortened perspective.  He says that the Old Right emerged during the New Deal years of the 1930s.  This drops the entire context of America’s ethos of classical liberalism throughout American history up to that time.  It is as though a concern for limited government, for a market economy, and for staying out of foreign entanglements was born out of the ear of Zeus after a century and a half of the United States’ existence as an independent country.  There is an occasional glimpse at that past that would tend to indicate that he knows better (such as the fleeting reference to nineteenth century classical liberalism mentioned above). 

            For the history of America’s long-standing non-interventionist foreign policy, which in the main continued until it was shattered by the adventures of 1898, Raimondo would do well to read Patrick Buchanan’s A Republic, Not an Empire.  (It is likely that he has read it, but oddly hasn’t incorporated it into his thinking.)  Buchanan wrote a Foreword to the 2008 republication of Raimondo’s book, the bulk of which was first published in 1993, but graciously refrained from making a point out of this.

            Even while focusing on the 1930s, Raimondo never mentions the anti-New Deal majority on the U.S. Supreme Court.  You would think that such names as Sutherland, Van Devanter, McReynolds and Butler, the four Justices of the Court who stood out most consistently against the Roosevelt program, would be prominent in his pantheon of heroes.

            All this notwithstanding, the book has considerable merit for its educational value, introducing readers to several major personalities in the libertarian, non-interventionist tradition.  It seems strange, though, that Raimondo’s 1993 claim of a resurgence of the Old Right would be republished without some hint of embarrassment in 2008, a year when the American people were absorbed in politics from beginning to end but without a single major presidential contender, even among the Republican candidates, coming anywhere close to carrying that banner.  (We don’t mean to ignore former congressman Ron Paul, who conducted a valiant campaign but could hardly be considered to have been a major contender.)  

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Dwight D. Murphey