The New Deal and the Emergence of the Old Right
[This article is taken from chapter 4 of The Betrayal of the American Right.]
During the 1920s, the emerging individualists and libertarians — the Menckens, the Nocks, the Villards, and their followers — were generally considered Men of the Left; like the Left generally, they bitterly opposed the emergence of Big Government in twentieth-century America, a government allied with Big Business in a network of special privilege, a government dictating the personal drinking habits of the citizenry and repressing civil liberties, a government that had enlisted as a junior partner to British imperialism to push around nations across the globe. The individualists were opposed to this burgeoning of State monopoly, opposed to imperialism and militarism and foreign wars, opposed to the Western-imposed Versailles Treaty and League of Nations, and they were generally allied with socialists and progressives in this opposition.
All this changed, and changed drastically, however, with the advent of the New Deal. For the individualists saw the New Deal quite clearly as merely the logical extension of Hooverism and World War I: as the imposition of a fascistic government upon the economy and society, with a Bigness far worse than Theodore Roosevelt ("Roosevelt I" in Mencken's label) or Wilson or Hoover had ever been able to achieve. The New Deal, with its burgeoning corporate state, run by Big Business and Big Unions as its junior partner, allied with corporate liberal intellectuals and using welfarist rhetoric, was perceived by these libertarians as fascism come to America. And so their astonishment and bitterness were great when they discovered that their former, and supposedly knowledgeable, allies, the socialists and progressives, instead of joining in with this insight, had rushed to embrace and even deify the New Deal, and to form its vanguard of intellectual apologists. This embrace by the Left was rapidly made unanimous when the Communist Party and its allies joined the parade with the advent of the Popular Front in 1935. And the younger generation of intellectuals, many of whom had been followers of Mencken and Villard, cast aside their individualism to join the "working class" and to take their part as Brain Trusters and planners of the seemingly new Utopia taking shape in America. The spirit of technocratic dictation over the American citizen was best expressed in the famous poem of Rex Tugwell, whose words were to be engraved in horror on all "right-wing" hearts throughout the country:
I have gathered my tools and my charts,
My plans are finished and practical.
I shall roll up my sleeves — make America over.
Only the few laissez-faire liberals saw the direct filiation between Hoover's cartelist program and the fascistic cartelization imposed by the New Deal's NRA and AAA, and few realized that the origin of these programs was specifically such Big Business collectivist plans as the famous Swope Plan, spawned by Gerard Swope, head of General Electric in late 1931, and adopted by most big business groups in the following year. It was, in fact, when Hoover refused to go this far, denouncing the plan as "fascism" even though he had himself been tending in that direction for years, that Henry I. Harriman, head of the US Chamber of Commerce, warned Hoover that Big Business would throw its weight to Roosevelt, who had agreed to enact the plan, and indeed was to carry out his agreement. Swope himself, Harriman, and their powerful mentor, the financier Bernard M. Baruch, were indeed heavily involved both in drafting and administering the NRA and AAA.1
The individualists and laissez-faire liberals were stunned and embittered, not just by the mass desertion of their former allies, but also by the abuse these allies now heaped upon them as "reactionaries," "fascists," and "Neanderthals." For decades Men of the Left, the individualists, without changing their position or perspectives one iota, now found themselves bitterly attacked by their erstwhile allies as benighted "extreme right-wingers." Thus, in December 1933, Nock wrote angrily to Canon Bernard Iddings Bell: "I see I am now rated as a Tory. So are you — ain't it? What an ignorant blatherskite FDR must be! We have been called many bad names, you and I, but that one takes the prize." Nock's biographer adds that "Nock thought it odd that an announced radical, anarchist, individualist, single-taxer and apostle of Spencer should be called conservative."2
From being the leading intellectual of his day, Mencken was rapidly discarded by his readership as reactionary and passé, unequipped to deal with the era of the Depression. Retiring from the Mercury, and thereby deprived of a national forum, Mencken could only see his creation fall into New Deal-liberal hands. Nock, once the toast of the monthlies and reviews, virtually dropped from sight. Villard succumbed to the lure of the New Deal, and at any rate he retired as editor of the Nation in 1933, leaving that journal too in solidly New Deal-liberal hands. Only isolated cases remained: thus John T. Flynn, a muckraking economic journalist, writing for Harper's and the New Republic, criticized the Big Business and monopolizing origins of such crucial New Deal measures as the RFC and the NRA.
Isolated and abused, treated by the New Dispensation as Men of the Right, the individualists had no alternative but to become, in effect, right-wingers, and to ally themselves with the conservatives, monopolists, Hooverites, etc., whom they had previously despised.
It was thus that the modern right wing, the "Old Right" in our terminology, came into being: in a coalition of fury and despair against the enormous acceleration of Big Government brought about by the New Deal. But the intriguing point is that, as the far larger and more respectable conservative groups took up the cudgels against the New Deal, the only rhetoric, the only ideas available for them to use were precisely the libertarian and individualist views which they had previously scorned or ignored. Hence the sudden if highly superficial accession of these conservative Republicans and Democrats to the libertarian ranks.
Thus, there were Herbert Hoover and the conservative Republicans, they who had done so much in the twenties and earlier to pave the way for New Deal corporatism, but who now balked strongly at going the whole way. Herbert Hoover himself suddenly jumped into the libertarian ranks with his anti–New Deal book of 1934, Challenge to Liberty, which moved the bemused and wondering Nock to exclaim: "Think of a book on such a subject, by such a man!"
A prescient Nock wrote:
Anyone who mentions liberty for the next two years will be supposed to be somehow beholden to the Republican party, just as anyone who mentioned it since 1917 was supposed to be a mouthpiece of the distillers and brewers.3
Such conservative Democrats as the former anti-Prohibitionists Jouett Shouse, John W. Davis, and Dupont's John J. Raskob formed the American Liberty League as an anti–New Deal organization, but this was only slightly less distasteful. While Nock wrote in his journal of his distrust at the dishonest origins of the League, he already showed willingness to consider an alliance:
The thing may open the way occasionally for something … a little more intelligent and objective than the dreary run of propagandist outpouring…. I shall look into it … and if a proper chance is open, I shall lend a hand.4
In fact, the individualists were in a bind at this sudden accession of old enemies as allies. On the positive side, it meant a rapid acceleration of libertarian rhetoric on the part of numerous influential politicians. And, furthermore, there were no other conceivable political allies available. But, on the negative side, the acceptance of libertarian ideas by Hoover, the Liberty League, et al., was clearly superficial and in the realm of general rhetoric only; given their true preferences, not one of them would have accepted the Spencerian laissez-faire model for America. This meant that libertarianism, as spread throughout the land, would remain on a superficial and rhetorical level, and, furthermore, would tar all libertarians, in the eyes of intellectuals, with the charge of duplicity and special pleading.
In any case, however, the individualists had no place to go but an alliance with the conservative opponents of the New Deal. And so H.L. Mencken, formerly the most hated single person in the Left of the 1920s, now wrote for the conservative Liberty magazine, and concentrated his energies on opposition to the New Deal and on agitation for the Landon ticket in the 1936 campaign. And when the young libertarian Paul Palmer assumed the editorship of the American Mercury in 1936, Mencken and Nock cheerfully signed on as regular columnists in opposition to the New Deal regime, with Nock as virtual coeditor. Fresh from the publication of Our Enemy, the State, Nock, in his first column for the new Mercury, very astutely pointed out that the New Deal was a continuation of the very two things that the entire Left had hated in the statism of the 1920s: Prohibition and government aid to business. It was like Prohibition because in both cases a determined minority of men "wished to do something to America for its own good," and "both relied on force to achieve their ends"; it was like the 1920s economically because
Coolidge had done his best to use the government to help business, and Roosevelt was doing exactly the same thing…. In other words, most Americans wanted government to help only them; this was the "American tradition" of rugged individualism.5
But the attempt was hopeless; in the eyes of the bulk of the intellectuals and of the general public, Nock, Mencken, and the individualists were, simply, "conservatives," and "extreme rightists," and the label stuck. In one sense, the "conservative" label for Nock and Mencken was, and had been, correct, as it is for all individualists, in the sense that the individualist believes in human differences and therefore in inequalities. These are, to be sure, "natural" inequalities, which, in the Jeffersonian sense, would arise out of a free society as "natural aristocracies"; and these contrast sharply with the "artificial" inequalities that statist policies of caste and special privilege impose on society.
But the individualist must always be antiegalitarian. Mencken had always been a frank and joyous "elitist" in this sense, and at least as strongly opposed to democratic egalitarian government as to all other forms of government. But Mencken emphasized that, as in the free market, "an aristocracy must constantly justify its existence. In other words, there must be no artificial conversion of its present strength into perpetual rights."6 Nock came by this elitism gradually over the years, and it reached its full flowering by the late 1920s. Out of this developed position came Nock's brilliant and prophetic, though completely forgotten, Theory of Education in the United States,7 which had grown out of 1931 lectures at the University of Virginia.
A champion of the older, classical education, Nock chided the typical conservative detractors of John Dewey's progressive educational innovations for missing the entire point. These conservatives attacked modern education for following Dewey's views in shifting from the classical education to a proliferating kitchen-midden of vocational and what would now be called "relevant" courses, courses in driver-education, basket-weaving, etc. Nock pointed out that the problem was not with vocational courses per se, but with the accelerating commitment in America to the concept of mass education.
The classical education confined itself to a small minority, an elite, of the youth population. And only a small minority, according to Nock, is really "educable," and thus suitable for this sort of curriculum. Spread the idea that everyone must have a higher education, however, bring the great mass of uneducable youth into the schools, and the schools necessarily have to turn to basket-weaving and driver-ed courses, to mere vocational training, instead of genuine education. Nock clearly believed, then, that the compulsory attendance laws, as well as the new great myth that everyone must graduate from high school and college, was wrecking the lives of most of the young, forcing them into jobs and occupations for which they were not suitable and which they disliked, and also wrecking the educational system in the process.
It is clear that, from an equally libertarian (though from a "right-wing" rather than a "left-wing" anarchist) perspective, Nock was anticipating a very similar position by Paul Goodman thirty and forty years later. While clothed in egalitarian rhetoric, Goodman's view equally condemns the current system, including compulsory attendance laws, for forcing a mass of kids into school when they should really be out working in purposeful and relevant jobs.
One of the most forceful aspects of the developing ideology of the Right was the focusing on the dangers of the growing tyranny of the executive, and especially the president, at the expense of the withering of power everywhere else in society: in the Congress and in the judiciary, in the states, and among the citizenry. More and more power was being centered in the president and the executive branch; the Congress was being reduced to a rubber stamp of executive decrees, the states to servitors of federal largesse. Regulatory bureaus substituted their own arbitrary decrees, or "administrative law," for the normal, even-handed process of the courts. Again and again, the Liberty League and other rightists hammered away at the enormous accession of executive power. It was this apprehension that led to the storm, and the defeat of the administration, over the famous plan to "pack" the Supreme Court in 1937, a defeat engineered by frightened liberals who had previously gone along with all New Deal legislation.
Gabriel Kolko, in his brilliant Triumph of Conservatism, has pointed out the grave error in liberal and Old Left historiography of the alleged "reactionary" role of the Supreme Court in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in striking down regulatory legislation. The Court has always been treated as a spokesman of Big Business interests trying to obstruct progressive measures; in truth, these judges were honest believers in laissez-faire who were trying to block statist measures engineered by Big Business interests. The same may one day be said of the "reactionary" Nine Old Men who struck down New Deal legislation in the 1930s.
One of the most sparkling and influential attacks on the New Deal was written in 1938 by the well-known writer and editor Garet Garrett. Garrett began his pamphlet "The Revolution Was" on a startlingly perceptive note: conservatives, he wrote, were mobilizing to try to prevent a statist revolution from being imposed by the New Deal; but this revolution had already occurred. As Garrett beautifully put it in his opening sentences:
There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.8
The New Deal, Garrett charged, was a systematic "revolution within the form" of American laws and customs. The New Deal was not, as it superficially seemed to be, a contradictory and capricious mass of pragmatic error.
In a revolutionary situation mistakes and failures are not what they seem. They are scaffolding. Error is not repealed. It is compounded by a longer law, by more decrees and regulations, by further extensions of the administrative hand. As deLawd said in The Green Pastures, that when you have passed a miracle you have to pass another one to take care of it, so it was with the New Deal. Every miracle it passed, whether it went right or wrong, had one result. Executive power over the social and economic life of the nation was increased.
Draw a curve to represent the rise of executive power and look there for mistakes. You will not find them. The curve is consistent.9
The New Deal and businessmen were using words in two very different senses, added Garrett, when each spoke of preserving the "American system of free private enterprise." To the businessmen these words "stand for a world that is in danger and may have to be defended." But to the New Deal they "stand for a conquered province," and the New Deal has the correct interpretation, for the "ultimate power of initiative" has passed from private enterprise to government.
Led by a revolutionary elite of intellectuals, the New Deal centralized political and economic power in the executive, and Garrett traced this process step by step. As a consequence, the "ultimate power of initiative" passed from private enterprise to government, which "became the great capitalist and enterpriser. Unconsciously business concedes the fact when it talks of a mixed economy, even accepts it as inevitable."10
- 1. See Murray N. Rothbard, America's Great Depression (Princeton, N.J.: D. Van Nostrand Co., 1963), pp. 245–51.
- 2. Robert M. Crunden, The Mind and Art of Albert Jay Nock (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1964), p. 172.
- 3. Albert Jay Nock, Journal of Forgotten Days (Hinsdale, Ill.: Henry Regnery, 1948), p. 33.
- 4. Ibid., pp. 44–45.
- 5. Crunden, Mind and Art, pp. 164–65.
- 6. Robert R. LaMonte and H.L. Mencken, Men versus the Man (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1910), p. 73.
- 7. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1932.
- 8. Garet Garrett, "The Revolution Was," in The People's Pottage (Caldwell, Id.: Printers, 1953), p. 15.
- 9. Ibid., pp. 16–17.
- 10. Ibid., p. 72.