Steve Bannon, who has been pulling Trump’s strings, has hit some setbacks. He got booted from his post at the National Security Council and there are whispers that he’s feuding with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who is suddenly very important in the administration. Still, there are reasons to believe that “Bannonism” will live on, even if Bannon has a reduced (or no) role in the administration. But what is “Bannonism?” Bannon’s agenda is outside mainstream politics and his “worldview comes across as a fairly incoherent hodge-podge of incompatible ideologies whose common thread is hatred of elites.” Part of my goal in this blog is to show that Bannon’s ideology, or at least as much as we can see of it, has a specific history in the postwar American right.
Many aspects of Trump’s administration are a disaster, the White House in in chaos, Trumpcare failed, the Muslim ban was overturned, and things are generally heading south and it is only a matter of time before chaos takes over. It may well be, however, that Bannon wants the chaos. One of the more interesting quotations attributed to Bannon was reported by historian Ronald Radosh:
“I’m a Leninist,” Bannon proudly proclaimed. Shocked, I asked him what he meant. “Lenin,” he answered, “wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.” Bannon was employing Lenin’s strategy for Tea Party populist goals. He included in that group the Republican and Democratic Parties, as well as the traditional conservative press.
So the inspiration for the hero of the Alt-right is Vladimir Lenin, leader of the Bolshevik Communist party and founder of the Soviet Union. To call this incongruous might be putting the matter mildly. The American right has always prided itself on its opposition to any kind of socialism (which they inevitably call communism) and the USSR in particular:
Some Trump supporters were horrified as well as mystified. Others went for the always reliable “The whole story is a liberal lie” which is a tough sell given that it was reported by reliable arch conservative Ronald Radosh. There is an easier explanation: Lenin has long been an inspiration for the American radical right and Bannon is simply a continuation of that tradition.
To find Lenin in the Alt-Right we need just look to the libertarians. For good reason, many think that Ayn Rand is the inspiration for a lot of mainline Republicans. People have made really, really bad movies based on Rand’s work. There probably won’t be any movies based on the work of Murray Newton Rothbard (1926-1994) but there are good reasons to think that his influence is greater than Rand’s among the libertarian cognoscenti. If Rand was the godmother of the Tea Party, then Rothbard was, as the New Yorker claimed the godfather.
Rothbard was a follower of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. Like his mentor, Rothbard was an advocate of the free market. Rothbard believed in the free market A LOT. So much that he saw no role at all for a government of any kind. Rothbard thought Rand was a dangerous “collectivist” or “statist” because Rand believed that the government should have some role in police protection and national defense. That was nonsense according to Rothbard since there was no reason that those social functions could not be privatized along with everything else. He was an anarcho-capitalist: one who believed that capitalism eliminated the need for any government whatsoever. There are some fascinating things we could explore about anarcho-capitalism and Rothbard but for now I want to concentrate on how Rothbard thought we could achieve such a blessed state. In short, Rothbard recommended that libertarians adopt the methods of Vladimir Lenin.
Lenin laid out his plan for how to achieve his revolutionary goals in 1902 with his tract What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of our Movement. The important passage for us is:
“Farther on we shall deal with the political and organisational duties which the task of emancipating the whole people from the yoke of autocracy imposes upon us. At the moment, we wish merely to state that the role of vanguard can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by an advanced theory. (p. 22)
As historian Daniel Bessner shows in an excellent article on Rothbard, the notion of a “vanguard,” of enlightened individuals who can pull the sluggish masses out of their state of oppression was mirrored in the libertarian right in the United States. One of the founders of libertarianism in the twentieth century, Albert Jay Nock, wrote of “The Remnant” in the 1930s:
The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either.
Nock was a bit of a gloomy Gus, believing the masses were simply unreachable and the only hope was that enough of The Remnant (which, needless to say, included Albert Jay Nock!) woke up to save us all from socialism. By contrast, Rothbard, was a tireless organizer of libertarian causes as well as one of its leading intellectual lights. He set out his admiration for Lenin as early as 1961 in a memo to the Volker Fund, a philanthropic foundation that underwrote a lot of Rothbard’s own work as will as other libertarians. Rothbard entitled the memo, in an explicit invocation of Lenin’s strategic manual, “What is to be Done?” Rothbard’s concern was to chart a course between opportunistic “sell-outs” of the libertarian cause who would accept some statism for advancing another libertarian goal and doctrinaire libertarian purists who refused to work with anyone but other purists, thus severely limiting their own effectiveness:
“I think that here we can learn a great deal from Lenin and the Leninists—not too much, of course, because the Leninist goals are the opposite of ours—but particularly the idea that the Leninist party is the main, or indeed only, moral principle. We are not interested in seizing power and governing the State, and we therefore proclaim, not only adhere to, such values as truth, individual happiness, etc., which the Leninists subordinate to their party’s victory.
But from one aspect of Lenin’s theory of strategy we can learn much: the setting forth of what “revolutionaries” can do to advance their principles, as opposed to the contrasting “deviations from the correct line,” which the Leninists have called “left-wing sectarianism” and “right-wing opportunism.” (In our case, the terminology would be reversed, perhaps: “left-wing opportunism” and “right-wing sectarianism.”)”
Rothbard embraced Lenin’s notion of the vanguard, which is fully informed about sophisticated social theory, engaging in political action consistent with that theory and therefore, little by little, moving the great mass of people toward the ultimate goal, which for Rothbard was the complete elimination of the the State.
There are further similarities between Bannon and Rothbard. Bannon is apparently obsessed with a book called The Fourth Turning which embraces a cyclical view of history and predicts we are in the midst of a catastrophic event that will upend the world and cause a massive reorganization of society. Rothbard too was convinced that the statist system must be on the verge of collapse; he argued that “the existing system (“capitalism” for Lenin, “statism and social democracy” for myself) will inevitably lead to various grave crises” and it was up to cadre of thinkers to lead society out of the chaos (p. 65). Bannon’s hatred of elites (discussed in my introduction) perfectly mirrors Rothbard’s: “we live in a statist country and a statist world dominated by a ruling elite, consisting of a coalition of Big Government, Big Business, and various influential special interest groups” (p. 39).
Some have found Lenin’s tactics on display in the White House but with Bannon possibly losing his job, perhaps we shouldn’t worry about him. But, as Daniel Bessner argued, we can have “Flynnism” even though Michael Flynn is gone; we can have Bannonism without Bannon. The money-man behind Bannon and Trump is Robert Mercer. Far less known than the notorious libertarians the Koch Brothers, Rothbard had no use for the wimpy libertarianism of the Koches and fell out with them. Mercer is much more committed to the kind of Alt-Right principles outlined by Rothbard. As one Alt-Righter put it:
Koch = establishment = Romney; Mercer = in your face = Trump. Which path offers the better chance for change? Mercer listened to Rothbard and succeeded; the Kochs kicked Rothbard out and have achieved…nada.
It is probably safe to say that Lenin inspires the Right far more than he inspires the Left these days. The Alt-Right dreams of watching the world burn and are sure that they, the Leninist vanguard, will rise from those ashes in a libertarian paradise.
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Nice read John!!
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What I find most interesting is the somewhat testy relationship between anarcho-capitalists and promoters of neoliberalism. Both Rothbard and Fredreich Hayek cite von Mises as an inspiration. Hayek actually worked for Mises. Rothbard attended Mises lectures and consulted him while writing Human Action.
I’m not sure what “promoters of neoliberalism” you are referring to. Rothbard thought Hayek was a “collectivist” and “statist.” Rothbard and Freidman actively disliked each other.
Mises wrote HUMAN ACTION not Rothbard. Rothbard held himself up as (and in fairness probably was) as Mises’s most loyal disciple. The “purity” of the anarcho-capitalist vision meant they didn’t really get along with anyone.
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