This first appeared in The Libertarian Forum, Volume VII, NO.7, July, 1975
For sixty years, American foreign policy has been set on a course of global intervention, ostensibly on behalf of “making the world safe for democracy”, and of securing and expanding the “free world.” Now, sixty years later, the world – and the United States – manifestly far less free than when we began to launch our global Crusades; and dictatorships abound everywhere. Surely, at the very least, we must have been doing something wrong. Indeed, that wrong is the very policy of global intervention itself.
Three burgeoning dictatorships have been much in the news recently, and they provide instructive lessons for libertarians and for Americans generally. The most dramatic, of course, is the brutal takeover of India by Mrs. Indira Gandhi, jailing thousands of political opponents and imposing a drastic censorship on the press. Ever since World War II, theNew York Times and the rest of the Establishment press have trumpeted the glories and virtues of India as the “world’s largest democracy”; massive amounts of foreign aid have been pumped into India by the U.S. on the strength of this rosy view of the Indian subcontinent. At the very least, the Establishment press, standing there with egg on its face, will have to mute its paeans to Indian “democracy” in the future. Predictably, American press reaction has been far more in sorrow than in anger, and replete with pitiful hopes that Mrs. Gandhi will revert to democracy soon.
But Indian “democracy”, let alone Indian liberty, has been a sham and a mockery from the beginning. Even in political form, India has suffered from its inception under the one-party rule of the Congress party, with other opposing political groupings shunted to the periphery to preserve democratic camouflage. More important, the Indian polity is one of the most thoroughly rotten in the world: a collectivist mass of statist activities, controls, subsidies, taxes, and monopolies, all superimposed upon a frozen caste system that governs in the rural villages in which most Indians continue to live. Considering this unholy mess, the savaging of the opposition by Mrs. Gandhi comes, not as a sudden and inexplicable act, as Americans tend to see it, but as merely the last link in a chain of statist despotism fastened upon that blighted land. When we discard the myths propagated by the American Establishment, we see that, rather than a source of wonder, Mrs. Gandhi’s takeover becomes all too explicable.
Portugal is another country in the news – as a land slipping rapidly into a military-Communist dictatorship, or rather, into a military despotism employing Communist ideology and the Communist Party as its only political ally. Once again, the American press has reacted to the dramatic events without asking the crucial question: How come? For here was Portugal, governed for fifty years by the fascist military dictatorship of Salazar (and, then, his successors.) So seemingly efficient was Salazar in suppressing dissent that the Birch Society, in its annual “scoreboard” of nations, regularly adjudged Portugal as somewhere around zero percent “Communist”. Much American aid had been poured into the Salazarean regime. And yet, scarcely more than a year after the bloodless Spinola “revolution of the roses”, here in Portugal, of all places, going Communist!
But it is precisely here that an important lesson lies. Far from being a “bulwark” against each other, we should realize that fascist and communist dictatorships are not only similar but easily transformed one into the other. Right-wing and left-wing military dictatorships are readily convertible; for each of them build up the collectivist institutions of statist rule, of big government domination of the economy and of society, of militarist and police repression of their subjects. And so, Salazarean fascist corporatism, with its network of monopolies, restrictions, and controls, its military rule, its apparatus of police terror, can be easily transformed into Communist military rule. The institutions of statism are there; and all that is needed is a reshuffling of the power elites and ruling groups at the top. In this way, the centrist collectivism of the Weimar Republic smoothly paved the way for Hitler’s National Socialism; and the Nazi occupation of Europe, in turn, paved the way for the near takeover by Communist-led Resistance forces after World War II. The important lesson is that it doesn’t really matter who controls the statist and collectivist institutions of Big Government; the important point is the existence of these institutions themselves.
Another crucial, and corollary, point is the non-existence, in these countries, of any classical liberal (let alone libertarian) tradition of ideology or of activist political movements. Classical liberal thought and opinion has been non-existent in India; and the same is true for Portugal. Whatever such movement might have arisen was stamped out in advance by a half-century of Salazarean repression. Portugal, too, is an anomaly within Western Europe. A Backward and still semi-feudal land, Portugal has never really joined the Industrial Revolution, nor has it has any tradition of classical liberal thought or activism. Joined to this was a special Portuguese problem: already dominant in a backward land, the Portuguese military had been swollen and overblown in order to fight an endless and losing colonial war to keep its possessions in Africa. The Portuguese army suffered from an aggravated and triple source of resentment: the losing counter-guerrilla war in Africa; the spectre of obsolescence and unemployment as Portugal liquidates its colonies in Africa and brings the troops back home; and relative loss of income and status to the emerging middle class who had begun to develop in the last decade or so with the beginnings of economic development. In France, the resentful army in Africa turned rightward after its losing war in Algeria; but the Portuguese army scarcely had that option, since it was impossible to become more rightist than Salazar. Furthermore, the imposition of a fully military-Communist regime promised a hefty increase in jobs and status for the now obsolescent and over-expanded army; in short, the Portuguese army could now turn its “imperial” power inward, upon its own economy and society. And as usual under fascist repression, only the disciplined Communist party managed to retain its underground cadres, and so could function as civilian allies. And so the Portuguese army went Left.
Whether military-Communism will succeed in ruling Portugal is still open to question. For the Portuguese Communist Party, headed by the hard-line fanatic Alvaro Cunhal, rests within the rather broad spectrum of world Communist opinion somewhere on the near-lunatic fringe. Cunhal almost makes Stalin look like Tolstoyan pacifist. And so, they might just blow it. But, at any rate, the crucial point is to see the interpenetrability of despotism, right and left, and the hopelessness of liberty in a land where no movement exists on behalf of even classical liberalism, let alone libertarianism.
In seeming contrast to Portugal’s left-wing military dictatorship, Chile’s right-wing military despotism was born, in the fall of 1973, in a revolutionary’ coup against Allende’s Marxist regime. Part of that overthrow was a genuine popular revolution – especially, the revolt of the self-employed truckers and other middle-class groups against the statism and runaway inflation suffered under Allende. But the major faction that engineered the coup – the armed forces, with the help, it now turns out, of the CIA – simply proceeded to continue all the worst features of the old regime, and to add to it a systematic use of massive torture against dissidents and political prisoners. After nearly two years in office, Chile still suffers from nationalization and controls – and from a staggering runaway inflation rate of nearly 400% per year. Unemployment ranges from 13 to over 26%, the armed forces enjoy nearly half the national budget, and foreign investments have not really materialized. Moreover, military officers are in charge of all high schools and colleges, the teaching of all “conflictive subjects” is prohibited, and a compulsory nightly curfew is still in effect.
As Professor Petras writes, even the New York bankers (especially the First National City Bank), the leading backers of the Chilean junta, have become disgusted and are unwilling to pour more good money after bad. As Petras writes, for the New York bankers, “the problem is the disintegrating state of the Chilean economy and the frightening spectacle of a 400 per cent inflation rate.” Chilean Finance Minister Jorge Cauas discovered at his meeting on May 8th with the bankers, that the latter are no longer satisfied with the new regime’s shifting of all the blame on Allende for the present crisis. For “U.S. bankers want to know how promises of cutbacks in public spending, credits and public employment can take place when the junta promises at the same time to reduce unemployment by financing massive public works programs.” (James Petras. “The Chilean Junta Besieged,” The Nation, June 28, 1975 pp. 784ff.)
The final irony is that Cauas is an avowed disciple of Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, and has been busy using Friedmanite rhetoric as a cloak for the galloping statism and inflationism of the dictatorial regime. Thus, once again (as in Friedman’s misguided endorsement of the indexing policy of the Brazilian dictatorship), Friedmanism is being used as a free-market cloak for state despotism. Such is the tragedy that must result when “free-market” economists attempt to influence the State from above, and to become efficiency experts for despotism. (See Frank Maurovich, in the San Francisco Sunday Examiner & Chronicle July 13, 1975).
Again, the major lesson of the Chilean tragedy should be clear. Once again, a right-wing dictatorship has simply taken over the pernicious institutions created by a previous left-wing dictatorship. Right and left are brothers under the skin. Once again, massive U.S. foreign aid (supplemented this time by CIA) has only succeeded in strengthening the yoke of despotism upon a foreign land. And, finally, once again we see the absurdity of expecting victories for liberty in a land where no libertarians or classical liberals exist.
The lessons of India, Portugal, and Chile, in short, are the same lessons as those offered by the debacle of American policy in Southeast Asia. The United States must cease its interventions and meddling in foreign lands; interventionism is not only immoral and aggressive; it doesn’t work. We must regain liberty at home, end all interventions in other countries, and return to the historic, forgotten “foreign policy” of serving as an example and a beacon-light of liberty to the rest of the suffering and strifetorn world.
Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian School, founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic officer of the Mises Institute. He was also editor – with Lew Rockwell – of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, and appointed Lew as his executor. See Murray’s books..