Murray Rothbard on the Soviet Union

My latest blog post, Murray Rothbard on Organized Crime, was shared by a couple of persons on Facebook – and in one comment, I was accused of “cherry picking”, because I chose only one article and took it as representative of Rothbard’s entire view.

Cherry picking” is an inductive fallacy which consists in taking the inductive generalization one wants to reach for granted and then only giving examples that support this generalization and ignoring or suppressing evidence that points in another direction. Proper induction, of course does not start with a generalization; the generalization is the end product of the induction. (This fallacy could also be called “inductive circularity”: it begs the question, just like deductive circularity does.)

As an aside, I was not accused of “cherry picking” for linking to several books and pamphlets by Rothbard, leading to the inductive generalization that he was a great economist. But if Rothbard has made major mistakes as an economist (as opposed to a political thinker), I have not discovered them; so I can hardly be accused of deliberately ignoring or suppressing them.

Anyway, I will now “cherry pick” some things that Rothbard has written about Communism and the Soviet Union in particular.

In his pamphlet Left, Right, & the Prospects for Liberty (first published in 1965) one can read the following:

Libertarians of the present day are accustomed to think of socialism as the polar opposite of the libertarian creed. But this is a grave mistake, responsible for a severe ideological disorientation of libertarians in the present world. […] Socialism, like Liberalism and against Conservatism, accepted the industrial system and the liberal goals of freedom, reason, mobility, progress, higher living standards [for] the masses, and an end to theocracy and war; but it tried to achieve these ends by the use of incompatible, Conservative means: statism, central planning, communitarianism, etc. Or rather, to be more precise, there were from the beginning two different strands within Socialism: one was the Right-wing, authoritarian strand, from Saint-Simon down, which glorified statism, hierarchy, and collectivism and which was thus a projection of Conservatism trying to accept and dominate the new industrial civilization. The other was the Left-wing, relatively libertarian strand, exemplified in their different ways by Marx and Bakunin, revolutionary and far more interested in achieving the libertarian goals of liberalism and socialism: but especially the smashing of the State apparatus to achieve the “withering away of the State” and the “end of the exploitation of man by man.” (P. 15f; italics mine.)

So Libertarianism (of the Rothbardian variety) has the same ultimate goal as Bakunin and Marx: the smashing, or withering away, of the State. Bakunin and Marx are allies in this struggle. (While thinkers like Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand, who did not want to smash the State, only to reduce it to its proper functions, are not allies but rather enemies. Rothbard would not call Mises an enemy, but this is the clear implication.[1])

It was in reaction to this collapse that Lenin broke out of the Second International, to re-establish classic revolutionary Marxism in a revival of Left Socialism. […] In fact, Lenin, almost without knowing it, accomplished more than this. […] There were, indeed, marked “conservative” strains in the writings of Marx and Engels themselves which often justified the State, Western imperialism and aggressive nationalism […] Lenin’s camp turned more “left” than had Marx and Engels themselves. Lenin had a decidedly more revolutionary stance toward the State, and consistently defended and supported movements of national liberation against imperialism. The Leninist shift was more “leftist” in other important senses as well. For while Marx had centered his attack on market capitalism per se, the major focus of Lenin’s concerns was on what he conceives to be the highest stages of capitalism: imperialism and monopoly. Hence Lenin’s focus, centering as it did in practice on State monopoly and imperialism rather than on laissez-faire capitalism, was in that way far more congenial to the libertarian than that of Karl Marx. (P. 22f.)

In other words: Bakunin and Marx are regarded as allies, because they were against the State; but Lenin is even more of an ally, since he was even more against the State!

There is, of course, one big question that Rothbard should have had the sense to ask of himself: How come those state haters and would-be state-smashers, Marx and Lenin even more, founded what is probably the most totalitarian and most oppressive state in all of history? Rothbard has no explanation for this – unless you call this an “explanation”:

… the Communists did not attempt to impose socialism upon the economy for many years after taking power: in Soviet Russia until Stalin’s forced collectivization of the early 1930s reversed the wisdom of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, which Lenin’s favorite theoretician Bukharin would have extended onward towards a free market. (P. 45.)

What, then, does Rothbard have to say about Communism’s and the Soviet Union’s quest for world domination, about the fact that the whole of Eastern Europe were satellites to the Soviet Union from the end of World War II and until the late 1980’s, about its efforts to export Communism to Cuba and to Third World countries? Rothbard explains that those thing have never taken place. In his For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto there is a chapter on Libertarian foreign policy, in which he writes:

Any idea of “exporting” communism to other countries on the backs of the Soviet military is totally contradictory to Marxist-Leninist theory. […] When the Bolsheviks took power in Russia in1917, they had given little thought to a future Soviet foreign policy, for they were convinced that Communist revolution would soon follow in the advanced industrial countries of Western Europe. When such hopes were dashed after the end of World War I, Lenin and his fellow Bolsheviks adopted the theory of “peaceful coexistence” as the basic foreign policy for a Communist State. The idea was this: as the first successful Communist movement, Soviet Russia would serve as a beacon for and supporter of other Communist parties throughout the world. But the Soviet State qua State would devote itself to peaceful relations with all other countries, and would not attempt to export communism through inter-State warfare. The idea here was not just to follow Marxist-Leninist theory, but was the highly practical course of holding the survival of the existing Communist State as the foremost goal of foreign policy: that is, never to endanger the Soviet State by courting inter-State warfare. Other countries would be expected to become Communist by their own internal processes. Thus, fortuitously, from a mixture of theoretical and practical grounds of their own, the Soviets arrived early at what libertarians consider to be the only proper and principled foreign policy. As time went on, furthermore, this policy was reinforced by a “conservatism” that comes upon all movements after they have acquired and retained power for any length of time, in which the interests of keeping power over one’s nation-state begins to take more and more precedence over the initial ideal of world revolution. This increasing conservatism under Stalin and his successors strengthened and reinforced the nonaggressive, “peaceful coexistence” policy. (P. 290f.)

So Stalin was a man of peace, according to Rothbard. No explanation is given for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the joint attack on Poland that inaugurated World War II; but he makes some fuss about the necessity for the Soviet Union to defend itself against the German attack later in the war. Another quote:

So unprepared was Stalin for the assault, so trusting was he in the rationality of the German-Russian accord for peace in Eastern Europe, that he had allowed the Russian army to fall into disrepair. So unwarlike was Stalin, in fact, that Germany was almost able to conquer Russia in the face of enormous odds. (P. 292.)

And to the question why Stalin, after the end of World War II, took the opportunity to take over the whole of Eastern Europe, Rothbard does have an answer: It was to protect the Soviet Union from the threat of invasion from the West!

Since their victory over German and associated military aggression [from, e.g. Finland] in World War II, the Soviets have continued to be conservative in their military policy. Their only use of troops has been to defend their territory in the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet bloc in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops—reprehensibly, to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive rather than expansionist manner. (P. 295.)


Russia, therefore, governed Eastern Europe as military occupier after winning a war launched against her. Russia’s initial goal was not to communize Eastern Europe on the backs of the Soviet army. Her goal was to gain assurances that Eastern Europe would not be the broad highway for an assault on Russia, as it had been three times in half a century—the last time in a war in which over twenty million Russians had been slaughtered. In short, Russia wanted countries on her border which would not be anti-Communist in a military sense, and which would not be used as a springboard for another invasion. Political conditions in Eastern Europe were such that only in more modernized Finland did non-Communist politicians exist whom Russia could trust to pursue a peaceful line in foreign affairs. And in Finland, this situation was the work of one far-seeing statesman, the agrarian leader Julio Paasikivi. It was because Finland, then and since, has firmly followed the “Paasikivi line” that Russia was willing to pull its troops out of Finland and not to insist on the communization of that country—even though it had fought two wars with Finland in the previous six years. (P. 294.)

Another word for the “Paasikivi line” is Finlandization. In short, Finland had to very carefully toe the line in its dealing with the Soviet Union.

If the Soviet Union and Communist states in general were so peaceful and never waged war except in self-defense, then what states are not that peaceful?

… empirically, taking the twentieth century as a whole, the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States. (P. 277.)

If it is understood and expected, then, that the United States will try to impose its will on every crisis everywhere in the world, then this is clear indication that America is the great interventionary and imperial power. The one place where the United States does not now attempt to work its will is the Soviet Union and the Communist countries … (P. 278.)

One does not have to be an ardent admirer of US foreign policy to sense that there is something wrong here …[2]

Well, I think this is just about enough “cherry picking” for today.[3]

(For Scandinavian speaking readers: I said much the same in an article I wrote in 1993.)

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Update August 5 2014: Rothbard also admired Che Guevara. Why? Well …

… we all knew that his enemy was our enemy – that great Colossus that oppresses and threatens all the people of the world, U.S. imperialism.

The obituary is not signed, but it was published as an editorial in Rothbard’s own newsletter, so if he did not write is himself, he at least must have approved of it.

(Hat tip to Justin Templer.)

Back in the late 50’s, on the other hand, he admired Ayn Rand. (Hat tip to Stephen Hicks.)

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Update June 11 2015: With regard to Soviet foreign policy, Mises held the exact opposite view. I quote from Planned Chaos:

For the time being [1947], the ominous peril of the communist parties in the West lies in their stand on foreign affairs. The distinctive mark of all present-day communist parties is their devotion to the aggressive foreign policy of the Soviets. Whenever they must choose between Russia and their own country, they do not hesitate to prefer Russia. Their principle is: Right or wrong, my Russia. They strictly obey all orders issued from Moscow. When Russia was an ally of Hitler, the French communists sabotaged their own country’s war effort and American communists passionately opposed President Roosevelt’s plans to aid the democracies in their struggle against the Nazis. The communists all over the world branded all those who defended themselves against the German invaders as “imperialist warmongers”. But as soon as Hitler attacked Russia, the imperialistic war of the capitalists over night changed into a just war of defense. Whenever Stalin conquers one more country, the communists justify this aggression as an act of self-defense against “Fascists”. (P. 43f; or p. 504 in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, where this short book is included as an epilogue.)

According to Rothbard, the Soviets foreign policy after World War II was not aggressive at all! It was all a matter of self-defense! Mises certainly was more realistic.

[1]) On Mises’ view, see my short piece Ludwig von Mises on Anarchism. – Rothbard did view Ayn Rand as an enemy, but that is beside the point in this context.

[2]) Murray Rothbard was not personally oppressed by the Soviet Union, since he did not live there. He was, no doubt, oppressed by the government of the United States. But I am oppressed by the Swedish government, and it does not make me an apologist for the Soviet Union.

[3]) Just one epistemological note: If one has reached an inductive generalization from observing a few instances, one would expect future observations to fall into line – just as one expects all future tables to be pretty much similar to the few tables from which one originally formed the concept. This is not “cherry picking”.

One may find exceptions – and then one will have to look into what explains those exceptions. A simple example: One has formed the inductive generalization that paper quickly starts burning, when it comes into contact with fire. Then one finds a counter-example: paper that does not catch fire or does so only slowly. Looking into the matter, one finds that this particular paper bundle is soaked with water. The exception is explained.

And it might just happen that one finds some instance of Rothbard making sense, even when he writes about politics; and then one has to look for an explanation …