What I call the Old Right is suddenly back! The terms “old” and “new” inevitably get confusing, with a new “new” every few years, so let’s call it the “Original” Right, the right wing as it existed from 1933 to approximately 1955. This Old Right was formed in reaction against the New Deal, and against the Great Leap Forward into the leviathan state that was the essence of that New Deal.
This anti–New Deal movement was a coalition of three groups:
the “extremists” — the individualists and libertarians, like H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, Rose Wilder Lane, and Garet Garrett;
right-wing Democrats, harking back to the laissez-faire views of the 19th-century Democratic party, men such as Governor Albert Ritchie of Maryland or Senator James A. Reed of Missouri;
moderate New Dealers, who thought that the Roosevelt New Deal went too far, for example Herbert Hoover.
Interestingly, even though the libertarian intellectuals were in the minority, they necessarily set the terms and the rhetoric of the debate, since theirs was the only thought-out, contrasting ideology to the New Deal.
The most radical view of the New Deal was that of libertarian essayist and novelist Garet Garrett, an editor of the Saturday Evening Post. His brilliant little pamphlet “The Revolution Was,” published in 1938, began with these penetrating words — words that would never be fully absorbed by the Right:
There are those who still think they are holding a 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.
The revolution was, said Garrett, and therefore nothing less than a counterrevolution is needed to take the country back. Behold then, not a “conservative,” but a radical Right.
In the late 1930s, there was added to this reaction against the domestic New Deal a reaction against the foreign policy of the New Deal: the insistent drive toward war in Europe and Asia. Hence, the right wing added a reaction against big government abroad to the attack on big government at home. The one fed on the other.
The right wing called for nonintervention in foreign as well as domestic affairs, and denounced FDR’s adoption of Woodrow Wilson’s global crusading, which had proved so disastrous in World War I. To Wilson-Roosevelt globalism, the Old Right countered with a policy of “America First.” American foreign policy must neither be based on the interests of a foreign power — such as Great Britain — nor be in the service of such abstract ideals as “making the world safe for democracy,” or waging a “war to end all wars,” both of which would amount, in the prophetic words of Charles A. Beard, to waging “perpetual war for perpetual peace.”
And so the Original Right was completed, combating the leviathan state in domestic affairs. It said “no!” to the welfare-warfare state. The result of adding foreign affairs to the list was some reshuffling of members: former rightists such as Lewis W. Douglas — who had opposed the domestic New Deal — now rejoined it as internationalists, while veteran isolationists, such as Senators Borah and Nye, or intellectuals such as Beard, Harry Elmer Barnes, or John T. Flynn, gradually but surely became domestic right-wingers in the course of their determined opposition to the foreign New Deal.
“In addition to converting intellectuals to the cause, the proper course for the right-wing opposition must necessarily be a strategy of boldness and confrontation, of dynamism and excitement, a strategy, in short, of rousing the masses from their slumber and exposing the arrogant elites that are ruling them, controlling them, taxing them, and ripping them off.”
If we know what the Old Right was against, what were they for? In general terms, they were for a restoration of the liberty of the old republic, of a government strictly limited to the defense of the rights of private property. In the concrete, as in the case of any broad coalition, there were differences of opinion within this overall framework. But we can boil down those differences to this question: How much of existing government would you repeal? How far would you roll government back?
The minimum demand that almost all Old Rightists agreed on, which virtually defined the Old Right, was total abolition of the New Deal, the whole kit and caboodle of the welfare state, the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act, going off gold in 1933, and all the rest. Beyond that, there were charming disagreements. Some would stop at repealing the New Deal. Others would press on, to abolition of Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom, including the Federal Reserve System and especially that mighty instrument of tyranny, the income tax and the Internal Revenue Service. Still others, extremists such as myself, would not stop until we repealed the Federal Judiciary Act of 1789, and maybe even think the unthinkable and restore the good old Articles of Confederation.
Here I should stop and say that, contrary to accepted myth, the Original Right did not disappear with, and was not discredited by, our entry into World War II. On the contrary, the congressional elections of 1942 — elections neglected by scholars — were a significant victory not only for conservative Republicans, but for isolationist Republicans as well. Even though intellectual rightist opinion, in books and especially in the journals, was virtually blotted out during World War II, the Right was still healthy in politics and in the press, such as the Hearst press, the New York Daily News, and especially the Chicago Tribune. After World War II, there was an intellectual revival of the Right, and the Old Right stayed healthy until the mid-1950s.
Within the overall consensus, then, on the Old Right, there were many differences within the framework, but differences that remained remarkably friendly and harmonious. Oddly enough, these are precisely the friendly differences within the current paleo movement: free trade or protective tariff; immigration policy; and within the policy of “isolationism,” whether it should be “doctrinaire” isolationism, such as my own, or whether the United States should regularly intervene in the Western Hemisphere or in neighboring countries of Latin America, or whether this nationalist policy should be flexible among these various alternatives.
Other differences, which also still exist, are more philosophical: should we be Lockians, Hobbesians, or Burkeans: natural rightsers, or traditionalists, or utilitarians? On political frameworks, should we be monarchists, check-and-balance federalists, or radical decentralists? Hamiltonians or Jeffersonians?
One difference, which agitated the right wing before the Buckleyite monolith managed to stifle all debate, is particularly relevant to right-wing strategy. The Marxists, who have spent a great deal of time thinking about strategy for their movement, always pose the question: Who is the agency of social change? Which group may be expected to bring about the desired change in society? Classical Marxism found the answer easy: the proletariat. Then things got a lot more complicated: the peasantry, oppressed womanhood, minorities, etc.
The relevant question for the right wing is the other side of the coin: who can we expect to be the bad guys? Who are the agents of negative social change? Or, which groups in society pose the greatest threats to liberty? Basically, there have been two answers on the Right: (1) the unwashed masses; and (2) the power elites. I will return to this question in a minute.
In the differences of opinion, of the question of diversity in the Old Right, I was struck by a remark that Tom Fleming of Chronicles made. Tom noted that he was struck, in reading about that period, that there was no party line, that there was no person or magazine excommunicating heretics, that there was admirable diversity and freedom of discussion on the Old Right. Amen! In other words, there was no National Review.
What was the Old Right’s position on culture? There was no particular position, because everyone was imbued with, and loved, the old culture. Culture was not an object of debate, either on the Old Right or, for that matter, anywhere else. Of course, they would have been horrified and incredulous at the accredited victimology that has rapidly taken over our culture. Anyone who would have suggested to an Old Rightist of 1950, for example, that in 40 years, the federal courts would be redrawing election districts all over the country so that Hispanics would be elected according to their quota in the population, would have been considered a fit candidate for the loony bin. As well he might.