On My Life's WorkTags BiographiesHistory of the Austrian School of Economics
JEFF DEIST: One issue discussed recently at our Supporters Summit is whether we’re winning or losing. So two questions: Who is “we,” and are we winning?
LEW ROCKWELL: Well, the “we,” fundamentally, is everybody who believes in civilization, who is opposed to what’s been going on ever since the French Revolution, when the Left came to total power and set up a totalitarian state. This includes some, but not all libertarians, and many conservatives as well — but certainly not neoconservative warmongers.
Are we winning or are we losing? Both. We’re winning in some ways but losing in others. More and more young people on campuses are attracted to us. When they look at their professors — I’m talking about the smart, good kids — the professors might as well have signs flashing on their foreheads that say “liar, liar.” And the young people come to us because they want the truth and they want no baloney and they want no PC and they want a hard rigorous course of study and that’s what they get from us. On the other hand, it seems that much is going downhill, but this has always been the case throughout all of civilization. It’s always been a fight, and I think that we can win this fight, but we all have to work very hard. We have to educate ourselves, educate others and it’s possible to win, but it’s going to be a close run thing.
JD: Is some part of “we” on the Left? Is a Dennis Kucinich or a Caitlin Johnstone or the late Alexander Cockburn part of us?
LR: Yes. Caitlin Johnstone is a very interesting writer. She mostly says what’s true, although once in a while she falls from grace. Alexander Cockburn was tremendous. I think he was largely on our side. He was, for example, pro-gun and anti-green, which is very unusual on the Left. There are certainly left-wingers who are anti-war, who are anti-imperialist. They’re with us on those issues and it’s not necessary that people agree with
us on everything.
We welcome people who simply are anti-war and anti-imperialist, even if they’re wrong on economics or wrong on the state. If they agree with us on foreign policy, we have a foothold to convert them to libertarianism, though success is by no means guaranteed. It is possible that they can come to see that the institution that’s causing the imperialism and fighting the wars is also doing horrible things domestically that violate individuals’ rights. So, absolutely, we should reach out to everybody who’s interested in anything that we’re doing. There was a former LP presidential nominee who phrased it this way: there’s a train headed out of the station, heading for total freedom and people are welcome to hop on the train with us, ride just a certain distance, and then get off if they wanted. We’re glad to welcome them.
We have great inspiration from Mises and Rothbard and many other great men and women throughout the centuries who’ve defended our ideas, and it’s important to study their works. It’s important to fight every day the people like George Soros, who, in the guise of promoting the “open society,” want to bring about the destruction of Western civilization. We’re facing what Tom DiLorenzo, following Mises, called “destructionism” in his excellent talk at our recent Supporters Summit.
JD: Over the years you’ve talked about the Mises Institute and its role. You’re also the proprietor of LewRockwell.com. How do you see its role, and what prompted you to start it?
LR: I started LewRockwell.com in 1999. The basic idea originated earlier when Bill Clinton was fighting his wars and bombing Serbia. I’ll never forget, one day he announced the bombing of Serbia, and also hosted a conference at the White House for young people to promote the message that we don’t use violence when we differ. He was advocating peace in the high schools, while at the same time his policies led to mass murder abroad.
I started sending out messages about the wars to all the people on my email list. Then I copied the Drudge Report, a tremendous site. LRC has never reached Drudge proportions in terms of its readership, but I wanted every day to bring people news and opinion about what was going on in the country, about wars and the government, and make it available on the site. I’ve always seen LRC as an adjunct to the Institute and I’m amazed it still exists. It’s a financial struggle to keep it going, but I think it’s very much worth doing. I’ve had many young people write to me and say, “LRC has changed my life.” They read it. One gentleman at our Supporters Summit said, “I read LRC every morning after I say my prayers,” a very sweet thing to say. So, I think it’s had a good effect. It can have an even better effect and I must say I get a lot of joy out of doing it and talking about religion, talking about economics, talking about foreign policy, talking about domestic policy, talking about the state, all the ideas we’re interested in. But at LRC I do it in a simpler and less scholarly way than the Mises Institute does.
JD: But people don’t only need alternative economics and politics. They need alternative news, alternative history, and alternative views on healthcare. You don’t shy away from those things.
LR: No. We run many healthcare articles that oppose big pharma, oppose big medicine and tell people there are alternative ways to do things. I must say revisionist history is probably the most popular thing that appears on LRC. People just love it when we talk about what really happened in World War I and World War II and the Civil War. The government always wants to lie and give people a phony view of what happened. Revisionist history is simply history as it actually happened. It’s very important to present that view and it’s fun to do it. I hear from people who are outraged that I would say that Franklin Roosevelt was responsible for the bombing of Pearl Harbor in order to secure America’s entry into World War II through the “back door.” But the evidence is clear on this topic and we have done a few podcasts on it. John Denson does a great job on historical podcasts. You’re right that this is a very important part of what LRC does.
JD: During the last presidential election some people saw LRC as pro-Trump. Give us your thoughts on Donald Trump today.
LR: Well, I was for Trump as against Hillary, although I didn’t myself vote. I don’t vote since your vote makes no difference whatsoever. It’s a useless thing, unless the election were to be decided by one vote. Despite its irrationality, voting assumes the role of a sacrament for the government. I enjoy not partaking of that sacrament.
I thought that Trump’s campaign was quite wonderful in that it was pro-peace and anti-establishment. He said many great things, but unfortunately, few of the programs he spoke about have come about in practice. I still think, though, that we’re better off than if Hillary had been elected; and for that reason, I publish pro-Trump articles. I also publish anti-Trump articles, because he has done so many bad things in terms of the military. Despite this, though, I still argue that he’s better than Hillary, I also enjoy the fact that he drives the Left up the wall. And he does talk about immigration, even though he’s done very little about it, whether because the courts won’t allow him to do so or because his anti-immigration rhetoric is insincere. Who can tell? He also talks about PC, like immigration a subject that needs to be considered in a negative light. Needless to say, I’m disappointed in him. However great my disappointment, though, there is no telling what Hillary might have done — my surmise is something far worse than what we now have.
JD: You mention PC. One criticism leveled at the Mises Institute, and at LRC, is that PC isn’t real or isn’t a problem. It’s a figment of privileged white male paranoia.
LR: To say that PC isn’t real strikes me as nonsense. People who say that are invariably violent advocates of political correctness. The universities today have in the humanities been taken over by the Left, following the plans set forward by Antonio Gramsci’s “march through the institutions” and the cultural Marxism of the Frankfurt school. And so, we have to oppose PC. One of the reasons students come to us is that they’re sick of the PC that they encounter these days, from the elementary grades through graduate school. They want a different view and we offer that to them. By and large, they like it. We do have our enemies who are PC-types, including many so-called libertarians.
But, I want to say it’s fun to fight them and we have to tell the truth about who’s doing what to whom; according to Lenin this is the key question in politics. We have to prevent people from doing bad things to us. We must fight the good fight. When I see the support for Trump’s anti-PC stance, I realize that it will count very much in our favor that we oppose PC. More and more Americans hate the guts of these PC people and they’re right to do so.
JD: On a related note, talk about the modern American political Left: the Bernies, the Elizabeth Warrens, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, Antifa, and the rest. Give us your rundown.
LR: Antifa is, of course, a very violent and dangerous group. They’re paid by George Soros and his ilk to hit people in the head with bicycle locks who are saying things they don’t like. I would hate to think that we’re going to end up in street fights, but this is what these people want. Ocasio-Cortez impresses me as a joke, not somebody really to be worried about. Bernie Sanders is a socialist. Does he actually want to take the means of production and nationalize them and have the government run everything? He says he doesn’t but I suspect he does. In every country that has tried this policy, it has led to the destruction of wealth and the spread of poverty. This is what Mises called destructionism, and it really is the goal of people like Bernie, and Elizabeth Warren, whom I find especially irritating, by the way, because she’s a phony Indian.
Moreover, their ideology is becoming increasingly detached from reality. I’ve run into young people who actually deny that Stalin killed 40 to 60 million people. They say it’s just a myth. So, it’s important that we teach about what happened in communist countries and the amount of poverty and social destruction that took place — and we must demonstrate that communism really is the worst economic and political system ever to exist. It really did horrendous damage wherever it was in power, whether it is Mao and his followers killing tens of millions in China, or the tens of millions of people who were killed in Russia and Eastern Europe under the Soviets. And then there’s Cuba and Cambodia.
Young people don’t know what socialism is, and even its advocates can’t define or describe it. We support the free market, and, as Mises kept reminding us, it’s our job to fight a war for the truth, a war both fun and invigorating to engage in. There is a dangerous situation in Europe, in Latin America, and in Asia, as well. On the other hand, we did see the Soviet Union collapse, and Eastern Europe and China become much freer. But, I’ve had people from China tell me that, it’s so interesting how they’re moving away from communism just as America’s moving toward communism. And of course, it’s true.
JD: And you actually have (American) Indian ancestry.
LR: Yes, I’m a one-eighth descendant of the Abenaki, a tribe of New England and Canada. They were driven out, mostly from New England, by the British, and are an official tribe in Canada, though not here. If they had oil on their land, I’d probably own part of a gambling casino, assuming official recognition in the US! Needless to say, I didn’t use my part-Indian ancestry to gain an advantage in college admissions or employment. But as for the non-Indian Elizabeth Warren, it seems to me that she’s an evil woman, a real socialist who favors total state control.
JD: Give us your thoughts on the modern political Right in America, the Nikki Haleys, the John Boltons, the Mitch McConnells, the Fox News audience.
LR: I was glad to see Nikki Haley resign. Unfortunately, Trump praised her as the greatest thing since sliced bread. She’s of course horrendous. I don’t know why she resigned and I don’t believe her statement that she just wanted to take time off. Something has happened, but I do not know what it is. She’s entirely controlled by the neocons, our biggest enemies on the Right. These are former left wingers, for the most part Trotskyites, who during the Vietnam War and after, moved into the conservative camp, calling themselves neoconservatives. This term cannot now be spoken, but that is what they are. It’s a relatively small, smart, effective, and wealthy group that runs the American Right, as well as most of the people in Congress.
They don’t run Ron Paul, needless to say, as well as a few others allied with him. Are they better than the Democrats? Well, they were all for Kavanaugh, not a good guy, but probably better than anybody the Democrats would bring into power. And also it’s important to see the feminists defeated. So, I’m glad he was confirmed but I think the American Right, except for the people in our sector, are by and large trouble.
Judge Napolitano is a great force for good on Fox. And so is Tucker Carlson. Most of the Fox people, unfortunately, are neocons, like the Republican Party and the conservative movement generally.
The conservative movement has been really bad ever since Bill Buckley, who set out with money from the CIA to establish National Review. Various CIA agents also became editors of the magazine. They were determined to destroy the Old Right, and Buckley pretty much crushed it for a time. He wanted to have a pro-war right wing and the Old Right was anti-war, in particular as regards Franklin Roosevelt’s war in Europe and in the Pacific. Buckley was very talented, very smart, very well-funded, very charming. He succeeded in doing horrific damage. But once he passed away, he entirely disappeared. It’s a good thing to remember that, for most of us, our footprints in the sand are soon washed away. But, with Buckley, it seemed, not even a wave was needed. He just was gone. I think he has no effect anymore beyond the fact that the remaining neocons, whom he backed, have taken over the right wing.
While there are good people in the right wing, notably the paleocons, and the paleo libertarians, most of the right wing presents us with a problem, the neocons most of all. Murray Rothbard, an effective and wonderful writer in all areas, was especially good at combatting them. I urge everybody to read what he had to say about the neocons. It arms you for the battle.
JD: There are parallels here because Buckley had his great purge of the Old Right and the John Birchers and such. There are people within libertarian circles who would like to purge anyone who doesn’t accept a whole host of progressive cultural precepts.
LR: I do think that there are some student organizations that make a big point of this that may be having an effect on the students they attract, but we just have to fight it.
In this respect, they follow in the footsteps of Buckley who was extremely effective at purges. I knew him slightly. He was extremely smart and charming — a concert-level harpsicord player, by the way. He knew a great deal about music and many other topics and was a very effective worker for the CIA. He’d been a CIA agent and I think remained one for the remainder of his life. As they say about the KGB, I think we can say about the CIA too, you never cease being an agent. Once in, you’re always in. People often think that he purged the John Birch Society because of Robert Welch’s book, The Politician, saying that Dwight Eisenhower was a communist. (Murray Rothbard, by the way, liked that book very much. He said if only Welch had said that Eisenhower was an agent of the Rockefeller conspiracy rather than the communist conspiracy, the book would have been just great.) But, that’s not why they purged it. They purged the Birch Society because they came out against the War in Vietnam and to all these people, war is the key issue. They love war, they want war, they profit from war and this was why they got rid of all the anti-war people in the Old Right. But thank goodness Murray and many others didn’t disappear. Their ideas are back and there is a real right-wing, anti-war movement. It’s a small movement, but it’s real. It’s effective and the neocons hate it, and we have no love lost for them.
JD: You had interactions with Ayn Rand along with Buckley. Any thoughts or recollections about her?
LR: She was, of course, very smart, an autodidact. She was brilliant, extraordinary and again, entirely self-taught. She was tremendous. I had a chance to be in a room with her at a private home after she had spoken at the Ford Hall Forum in Boston, where I saw her several times. As she had very short legs, she sat on the couch with her legs curled under her. Everybody was invited to ask questions but I was a teenager and found her extremely intimidating. I remember her basilisk stare. I thought, “There’s no way I’m asking her anything.”
But, what can we say about somebody who comes from Russia and becomes a bestselling novelist in a second language? That alone is a tremendous achievement. She also got all her supporters to read Mises and Hazlitt. By and large, she had a good effect, but she had her problems. She hated Christianity and wanted to destroy it, but still she was an aid to our side. And it’s interesting that she was not always pro-war. She was not pro-World War II, for example. Unfortunately, she later became pro-war in some ways, especially against the Palestinians.
JD: Give us a personal recollection of the first time that you met Ludwig von Mises: his presence, how he carried himself, what he was like in person.
LR: Neil McCaffrey, the grandfather of our faculty member Matt McCaffrey, was the head of Arlington House Publishers, the only company that would publish conservative or libertarian books. Neil was brilliant, saintly, and scholarly. He was a very great family man, a very serious and knowledgeable Catholic, and was sound on Austrian economics. For example, most conservative Catholics agree with the earlier view of the church that usury is bad. He was just terrific in explaining why interest rates are necessary to a successful capitalist society. He called me into his office one day and said, “How would you like to be Ludwig von Mises’s editor?” I, of course, said I’d be thrilled. So, I talked to Mises on the phone once or twice, and much more frequently to Margit von Mises, who as Murray Rothbard said, was a one-woman Mises industry. We brought three of his books back into print. We also worked on a monograph never before published. When these books came out, Leonard Read held a reception at FEE [the Foundation for Economic Education] in honor of their being brought back into print.
I loved Leonard Read, an important man in my life and a great man in libertarianism for his founding of FEE and for all the work that he did when he was there.
FEE in those days was a mansion with a wonderful dining room. I went into the dining room, entirely empty except for Ludwig and Margit von Mises, who sat at the other end of the room. I thought to myself, “Do I dare go over there?” Of course, I had to. Mises was extremely impressive, very articulate and brilliant. As Murray Rothbard said, a gentleman in his clothes and in his manners. He was everything I might have hoped he would be. He wore a beautiful suit and his tie, his shirt, his hair, indeed everything about him, were impressive. He just was an extraordinary man. I would guess that his bearing was not unusual in pre-war Vienna, but it was rare in this country and the chance to talk to him for about 40 minutes was an experience of a lifetime. And his wife, Margit, who’d been both a play translator and an actress, had just a tremendous ability to present herself.
JD: Of course, she lived many more years after he died.
LR: Yes, she did.
JD: And you had a much longer relationship with her, a close relationship.
LR: Well, she was very much an old-fashioned lady. I remember a time when people thought that she needed somebody to stay with her. And so, a friend brought a female graduate student from NYU over to her. In very short order, she called him and she said, “I don’t want that woman here.” He said “why not?” She said, “she’s not a lady.” And he said, “what do you mean she’s not a lady.” She said, “She came out of her room in a bathrobe, not dressed.” She was unbelievable. Once she was going to Alpbach, a place in the Austrian Alps that she and Ludwig had visited as a couple. She went downtown to get her ticket from Lufthansa — she always flew Lufthansa — and as she entered the revolving door, caught her foot and was thrown to the ground. She got up, and bought the ticket, returning to her apartment, though bruised and battered. She was then in her 90s, and although any other woman that age would have had a broken hip, she was able to make the trip to Alpbach. All her life she was dedicated to her husband. She wanted to make sure that all his books were in print, translated into as many languages as possible. She was very strict and very sweet. She loved to have Mardi and Pat and me over to have tea. She would make hors d’oeuvres and serve sherry. It was a small apartment, but just a wonderful place. I had the chance to be there many times, and talked to her many other times as well.
When I took her to the Russian Tea Room, her favorite restaurant, and told her that I wanted to start an institute, asking her to be the chairman, she accepted. She was excited about it, but in looking at my résumé, which she had asked to see, she saw that I had had a number of jobs. She said, “I want to make sure you’re going to stick with this for your whole life.” And I told her I would agree to do that. She was an active chairman, somebody I regularly consulted. She was really brilliant and dressed beautifully. She was a tremendous presence and as I said, she was an actress. She too was from an earlier and a better age and it was a great honor of my life to know her and to work with her.
JD: You were close with Murray Rothbard for many, many years, and he was your biggest intellectual influence. What don’t people know about him as a person?
LR: Milton Friedman, who like Murray was very smart, was extremely arrogant, Murray was the opposite. He was a very sweet and kind person. The only thing that would upset him and even outrage him was somebody selling out, but if somebody was moving in the right direction, even though they still held many wrong views, he was very tolerant and very eager to help. If he saw just a spark of intellectual curiosity or ability, he was like a man pumping air into the fire in the stove to get the heat going. He didn’t just stick to people on his level — obviously. Except for Mises, there was nobody on his level. Basically, he knew everything. We say that about David Gordon and David does know everything, but Murray knew everything more than David. If you were in his apartment and you were talking about some particular point he’d say, “Lew, check page 216 of this book in this bookcase.”
He and his wife, Joey, were very close. He called her “the indispensable framework,” in the dedication of one of his books and she was indeed. She was very smart. Margit von Mises said, “Murray, you’re responsible for the fact that Joey didn’t get a PhD.” She could easily have gotten a PhD, but she decided to dedicate herself to Murray. I could have pointed out to Margit that she had also made a similar choice to Joey’s: “You dedicated yourself to your husband and she’s dedicated herself to her husband.”
JD: And that’s viewed as a bad thing today, of course.
LR: Oh my gosh, it would be considered an evil thing. Joey had a Master’s degree in history. Her hobby was Wagnerian opera, about which she was an expert. Murray would have her read everything he wrote before it was published and sometimes she would say, “Murray, you don’t want to say that.” He had a wonderful home life. I remember once being in Las Vegas and when I came into the dining room, the table was covered with about two feet of academic papers. I asked Murray what this was. He’d been to the Western Political Science Association convention, not one of the high-level meetings. He picked up every single paper there and went through them all.
Despite the vast range of his reading and writing, he wasn’t an academic hermit. He loved sports, for example, the Olympics in particular, about which he knew everything. If you were to talk to him about a particular event, he might say, “Well really, this guy’s nothing like the 1924 champion.” He loved basketball, especially the UNLV basketball team.
Because they were willing to publish him, he wrote articles for probably more than 100 tiny periodicals that nobody’s ever heard of. He was always happy, always cheerful, always optimistic, and never down. Mises, by the way, I was told by Murray, was never down and never let anything that had happened to him get to him. Murray said the only note of regret he heard from Mises was in talking about a former student of his, now a professor at Columbia, Mises said that it must be a wonderful thing to be a full professor at Columbia. By contrast he had a horrible position at NYU where he was no more than a visiting professor for so many years. The dean there — John Sawhill, who later was one of Nixon’s energy czars — would actually tell students not to take his courses and would put him in the worst, dampest classroom at the worst hours. But Mises never complained about it and I never heard Murray complain. The only time I ever heard him say a word of regret, was when he was talking about David Hackett Fisher who had written Albion’s Seed at the time. Murray said, “Imagine, Fisher has 16 graduate students researching stuff for him.” So, obviously, Murray would have loved it if he had had that, but, he had to do everything on his own. Imagine what he would have achieved if he’d been in a regular university with PhD graduate students.
Murray was extremely funny. You weren’t in his presence for more than a few minutes or even seconds before you were laughing out loud. I remember when we had a very funny professor who gave a great talk against feminism. I said, “Murray, he’s a standup comedian.” He replied, “Do you notice any similarities between him and me?” And of course, they were both Jewish and from New York.
Murray grew up in a building where Arthur Burns lived. Burns himself was described as having a very high-pitched, W.C. Fields voice without the humor, and he didn’t like Murray, even when Murray was a child. He was on the Columbia economics faculty, though not on Murray’s dissertation committee. Murray’s committee passed his PhD, which was later published as a book: The Panic of 1819, even today considered the definitive work, often cited by people in the mainstream, on its topic.
Burns claimed it wasn’t good enough. Murray, probably correctly, thought Burns had it in for him and it delayed his getting his PhD for several years. Burns was such a powerful personality in the economics department that by opposing Murray, he was able to prevent him from getting his PhD, even though not on his committee. It wasn’t until Burns went to Washington when Eisenhower made him chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, that Murray got his PhD. Joey said that when she was meeting Murray for a date, when he thought that Burns was going to prevent him from ever getting the PhD, she found him sitting down and crying on the curb. But he was soon back to being his normal optimistic self, and I never saw him as anything else.
The Volker Fund, gave him a job of reviewing important books in history, economics, and other areas and we have all of the extraordinary papers he wrote for the Fund. There are great academic papers on important books, both good and bad ones, and Joe Salerno and Patrick Newman are going to publish more of these papers. Some of them we’ve already published, in collections edited by Roberta Modugno and David Gordon. We still have vast numbers of unpublished papers.
JD: And his personal correspondence.
LR: His letters are the most extraordinary I’ve ever seen. Almost every letter is a paper and yet they are fun and interesting. In fact, his personal correspondence will require many volumes when it is edited and published. I know David would like to do that and he’d be, of course, a great editor.
JD: Rothbard and Mises were very different in temperament. Talk about their relationship.
LR: When I asked Murray if he would be part of the Institute, and told him Margit had given me permission to start it, he clapped his hands in glee. He thought it was one of the greatest things he’d ever heard about. He loved Mises and when he would give a speech about him, he would tear up at the end. Mises was in essence a loveable person. He didn’t suffer fools gladly in Vienna, people say, but in this country, he was just sweet, interesting, happy to help anybody who wanted to learn and happy with his position at NYU. He was never paid by NYU, never got any kind of health insurance or that sort of thing from NYU. He had wonderful people who put up the money for his salary and thank goodness for that. Mises taught there for many years. His seminar included Murray Rothbard, Ralph Raico, Ronald Hamowy, Bettina Greaves and many other important people. The late Robert Nozick, in a speech at the 100th anniversary of the birth of Mises, talked about why the people at NYU hated Mises. He said that one of the reasons was that Mises attracted smart, achieving people from the outside world — businessmen, financial people, Wall Street people, and others of significance to audit his classes.
Nozick said that regular professors have never seen anything like this and they hated Mises and were envious of Mises for doing that. What an honor it is to do our best to carry on his legacy, Rothbard’s legacy, Margit von Mises’s legacy, Joey Rothbard’s legacy.
And just one word about David Gordon and Murray. I remember a breakfast with David and Murray at Mises U in California, and when David walked in, I saw Murray’s face just light up and it was at that moment I realized that really David was Murray’s son. I mean, he was the son that Murray would have loved to have had and, of course, he’s carried on Murray’s legacy exactly as a great son would do. But, he was a joy to Murray. They talked on the phone every day.
As for me, I miss him every day and what an honor and what a delight it was to know him.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
Cite This Article
Llewellyn H. Rockwell Jr., "My Life's Work," The Austrian 4, no. 6 (2018): 4–15.