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May 2015

Murray Rothbard on the Struggle for Black Dignity and Equality

Babcock analyzes Murray Rothbard’s 1963 essay “The Negro Revolution.”

Murray Rothbard’s “The Negro Revolution” was first published in 1963, a time when the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was uncertain, and the short-term outcome of the civil rights movement and the broader struggle for dignity and equality was still unclear. This timing makes the article especially interesting; Rothbard could not, for example, tailor his analysis of nonviolence in light of the movement’s eventual outcomes, and he could only predict which trends of the time were important and which merely ephemeral. I have a special interest in Rothbard’s comments in the article about the moral legitimacy of sit-ins and similar tactics that violate property rights, and I will be discussing those comments in greater depth in the future. Before I can do that, however, I need to discuss the article as a whole; this is just as well—it’s a fascinating piece.

It’s also a piece that demands a close and careful analysis—because the topic of race demands more than the usual amount of carefulness, because Rothbard slides back and forth between analytical and evaluative accounts of nonviolence and black resistance, and because a reader, especially one unfamiliar with Rothbard’s prose style, might easily misread evaluative sections as analytical, or perhaps more dangerously, misread analytical statements as evaluative ones. Further, there is much in Rothbard’s analysis that disappoints, as well as much of value, and we should be careful to take away only the valuable insights.

Rothbard’s article, which covers a broad sample of the many factions comprising the black freedom and equality movement, contains neither wholesale praise or condemnation for either the faction associated with Martin Luther King, Jr. or the more militant faction often associated with Malcom X. Of the movement as a whole, from moderates to Maoists, Rothbard concludes:

To pass briefly from the analytical to the evaluative, what should be the libertarian position on the Negro movement? Perhaps the most important point to make here is that the issue is a complex one; the Negro Revolution has some elements that a libertarian must favor, others that he must oppose. Thus, the libertarian opposes compulsory segregation and police brutality, but also opposes compulsory integration and such absurdities as ethnic quota systems in jobs.

This section, which comes in the penultimate paragraph of the essay, makes clear that it would be wrong to characterize Rothbard as either simply “for” or “against” the movement, and suggests that most if not all of the foregoing discussion should be read as purely or at least predominantly positive, rather than normative. There are two sections where the positive/normative distinction is especially ambiguous and which merit further discussion.

The first section starts with the paragraph beginning “This does not mean, however, that the Negro Revolution will inevitably be victorious,” and continues through to the block quote several paragraphs later.

When Rothbard notes that the only ways the black “revolution” could be stopped are, on one hand, by large-scale violence against blacks by a resurgent KKK or similar group or, on the other hand, by the black movement’s leaders selling out to the establishment, one might read him as hoping for such an outcome. This is the reading of the passage offered by Michael O’Malley in his book Face Value: The Entwined Histories of Money and Race in America. In the book, O’Malley attempts to tie modern libertarian support for the gold standard to such boogeymen as “social Darwinism,” “genetic determinism,” and a view of the world where “all hierarchies are ‘natural.’” He quotes in full the paragraph beginning “This does not mean…” and ending “…the required scale,” framing the passage as evidence that Rothbard supports the violent repression described there.

It is exceedingly clear from context that O’Malley’s reading is mistaken. There is nothing in “The Negro Revolution” to suggest that Rothbard endorses either violence by the state or violence by racist vigilantes, and indeed he denounces both, putting special opprobrium, as one might expect, on racist police brutality.

After dismissing widespread white violence as a likely outcome, Rothbard discusses the possibility that the leadership of the black equality movement will “sell out,” an eventuality he considers more likely. Rothbard describes a “sellout” outcome as potentially resulting from an “attempt to cripple the revolution and channel it into ‘safe,’ orderly statist directions.” The implication here is that the more radical black political groups, many of which sought change outside the state rather than within it, were more likely to offer proposals compatible with libertarian ethics than their more moderate comrades, who were comparatively more likely to advocate “statist,” i.e. unlibertarian, means. A libertarian like Rothbard would, for this reason, be rooting against such a sellout, except perhaps in the case that it was the only path to avoid a Marxist group rising to prominence, a prospect Rothbard says he thinks unlikely.

Another section that requires a careful reading is Rothbard’s account of the shift in intellectual climate that contributed to the rise of the black equality movement as a political force to be reckoned with. It’s a more troubling passage, I think, than the section referenced by O’Malley. Here Rothbard identifies two distinct periods. Rothbard analyzes the prior period in this way:

At the turn of the century, and through the 1920’s, most American intellectuals were fundamentally “racist,” i.e., they upheld two guiding postulates: (1) that the white race in general, and the Anglo-Saxon wing of that race in particular, are inherently superior, intellectually and morally, to other races and ethnic groups, and particularly the brown and black races; and (2) that therefore the superior races had the right and perhaps even the duty to exercise political power over the inferior. Although (2) does not at all follow from (1), few people, whether pro- or anti-racist, have seen that this political conclusion is a non sequitur.

The period after the shift in opinion he analyzes this way:

Influenced partly by the racist excesses of Hitler and the atmosphere of World War II, American intellectuals, during the 1930’s and ’40’s, swung around to almost the opposite position. In their anxiety to preclude a racist brand of statism, the intellectuals adopted the opposite brand of egalitarianism. Their two new guiding postulates became: (1) all races and ethnic groups are intellectually and morally equal or identical, and (2) that therefore no one should be allowed to treat anyone else as if they were not equal, i.e., that the State should be used to compel absolute equality of treatment among the races. Here again, few people noticed that another non sequitur was being employed.

While Rothbard makes it clear that he thinks no claims of racial superiority could justify political domination—indeed, Rothbard does not think political domination is ever justifiable—he regrettably does not offer any indication about whether he thinks the former or latter period’s evaluation of the intellectual and moral worth of the black and white races is closer to the truth. This leaves the door open to a reading where Rothbard believes that blacks are on the whole “intellectually and morally” inferior to whites, but knows better than to come out and say as much. Now, Rothbard is seldom reticent in other contexts where his opinions might put him outside the range of respectability, but we also have to consider, I think, the dubious intellectual company he kept during his late “paleolibertarian” period.

Questions of whether any one race is “inherently” superior to any other are, besides being in poor taste, malformed questions. Racial categories don’t neatly track anything “inherent,” if by “inherent” we mean something like “natural” or “inborn.” For a more detailed discussion, see Ta-Nehisi Coates’s column “The Social Construction of Race” and the articles Coates references. So if Rothbard endorses either the previous period’s “inherent” white supremacy, or the latter period’s “inherent” racial equality—and we can’t rule out that he endorses neither—he is employing a faulty analytical tool and will be blind to some of the ways racial categories operate.

It is plausible that Rothbard doesn’t endorse either proposition. This discussion comes in the predominantly descriptive part of the essay. It may be that Rothbard didn’t think his own opinions on race mattered to his analysis of what he took to be prevailing opinion among intellectuals, and that this belief, rather than a desire to conceal racist attitudes, accounts for his neglecting to make those opinions more explicit.

I don’t think anything in “The Negro Revolution” warrants the conclusion that Rothbard is racist, nor the conclusion that he’s not. This ambiguity has implications for our readings of Rothbard’s arguments about the black equality movement, and about nonviolence and property. We should be watchful for motivated reasoning and for suppressed false premises, especially of the kind that might be tied to racism.

Having established the correct frame of mind with which to approach Rothbard’s article, let’s examine one of the article’s key contrasts. Here’s what Rothbard says about Martin Luther King, Jr. and nonviolence:

The Reverend Martin Luther King brought to the Negro movement the truly revolutionary concept of non-violent mass action. The Gandhian concept of non-violent action had several advantages for the Negro movement, especially in that relatively early stage. For one thing, it imbued the movement with the prestige of a “philosophy,” however shaky much of the philosophy was; it was able to make use of the common Christianity of the country to appeal to the great Christian tradition of nonviolence; it placed a great moral advantage in the hands of the non-violent demonstrators as against their armed opponents; and, finally, it was the most practical course for an oppressed, unarmed minority facing the armed brutality of the Southern police. Probably, the most important of these advantages is the moral: for, nothing could be more potent in mobilizing support throughout the country, among Negroes and whites, than the news or pictures of unarmed and helpless Negroes beaten or clubbed by armed whites. And this despite the philosophical fuzziness of the King concept of “non-violence;” for mass invasion of private restaurants, or mass blocking of street entrances is, in the deepest sense, also violence. But, in the generally statist atmosphere of our age, violence against property is not considered “violence;” this label goes only to the more obvious violence against persons.

Rothbard claims that King’s nonviolence campaigns operated primarily by “mobilizing support,” that is, by persuading others of the justice of King’s cause. It is a common misconception that nonviolence is primarily a persuasive tactic. As I explained in my piece about Gene Sharp and in “Nonviolence and Modern Libertarianism,” properly executed nonviolence is not merely the passive acceptance of one’s oppression in hope of exciting sympathy, but rather a direct challenge to the oppressor by dismantling the means of oppression. While nonviolent tactics will be attractive for obvious reasons to a population that is outgunned, they are not necessarily simply the last resort of those incapable of defending themselves by force.

In contrast to his portrayal of King quoted above, Rothbard is highly sympathetic to armed self-defense by oppressed blacks:

Essentially, men like [Robert F.] Williams and the Muslims asked of the Kings a very intelligent question: why must only the Negroes exercise non-violence? Why may the white oppressors, whether in the form of Ku Klux Klan-type mobs or as armed police, be armed and violent, while only the Negroes must remain meek and disarmed? Why not preach non-violence to the whites for a change? In short, these radicals asserted the perfectly incontrovertible thesis: everyone has the right to defend himself against violence with violence; and therefore the Negroes have the right to defend themselves with violence against armed attacks. The views of Williams and the Muslims have generally been distorted in the press as advocating aggressive violence against whites; but they have been quite clear that they would only use violence defensively (although they, too, of course, would not consider such acts as sit-ins to be “violence”).

Rothbard’s praise of King and his faction focuses primarily on tactical acumen. He thinks that the more militant faction is correct, however, about the principle that “everyone has the right to defend himself against violence with violence,” and that King cannot demonstrate that nonviolence is morally required, even if it has helped King gain the rhetorical high ground and won much sympathy.

Toward the end of each of the quoted passages, Rothbard laments the fact that neither faction sees violations of property rights as acts of violence. He notes further, in the passage about King, that reserving the label of “violence” for violence against persons is a highly prevalent mistake. If anything, the tendency to only speak of violence as being done to persons has grown more prevalent since “The Negro Revolution” was published.

Next time, I’ll discuss that broader trend in greater detail, with a special focus on violence against persons and property in the context of protest.

Rothbard predicts that “If Congress does pass the civil rights bill, and no popular radical leaders emerge among the Negroes, then it is fairly certain that the Negro Revolution will be curbed, will be satisfied with limited concessions, and will finally simmer down or perhaps fizzle out.” This is something like what did happen. Rothbard’s article offers modern readers a vision of a time when this outcome was as yet unwritten, when history stood at a crossroads. “The Negro Revolution” is worth reading for many reasons, but the most compelling might be the questions Rothbard raises about what might have been.


Rothbard, Murray. “The Negro Revolution.” New Individualist Review Vol. 3 No. 1, Summer 1963.