An Alternative History of The Nation

The lost libertarian leanings of a long-lived left-wing magazine


The Nation is turning 150. The left-wing weekly won't have its actual birthday until July 6, but it released its anniversary issue this week—a 268-page mammoth overflowing with excerpts from past articles, essays on the publication's past, and a three-part history of the magazine by its London correspondent, D.D. Guttenplan. There is also a congratulatory note signed by President Barack Obama, carefully phrased so as to praise the journal in general terms without being seen as endorsing any particular opinion the mag may have published over the last century and a half.

I love anniversary issues. They're a place where a magazine's editors frame their past within the present; their institution's current incarnation inevitably looks like the endpoint towards which its history has been moving. But if that history is a large as The Nation's, the current crew will almost certainly have to reckon with some predecessors who had a rather different social vision. That's always interesting to watch.

More specifically: The Nation's founding editor, E.L. Godkin, had views on subjects ranging from federal spending to organized labor that are anathema to the ideas expressed in the modern Nation. The magazine could be broadly categorized as classical liberal for its entire 19th-century run, and classical liberal ideas had a strong foothold in the outlet well into the 20th century. (Classical liberalism has a much more limited vision for the role of government than contemporary liberalism does.) Back in 1965, The Nation's 100th anniversary issue offered a detailed look at each incarnation of the magazine, criticizing the Godkin era but also finding continuities from the past to the present. This year's effort is less sympathetic: The teaser for the first section of Guttenplan's history describes the 19th-century Nation as a "moribund defender of the status quo." In the storyline that emerges here, the magazine made its turn to the left when Oswald Garrison Villard became editor at the end of the 1910s.

That's one narrative. And it's perfectly accurate as history, whether or not you agree with all of its political judgments. But it's possible to imagine a narrative that's just as historically accurate but nonetheless deeply different.

In the mid-1970s, Charles Koch tried to buy The Nation. Yes, that Charles Koch: the billionaire oilman whose support for various libertarian causes (*) and Republican politicians has made him a demon figure to many modern Nation readers. In those days Koch was looking leftward for libertarian allies, and he hoped to transform The Nation into a flagship for that partnership. He had the Rothbardian historian Leonard Liggio (who himself had written at least one Nation article, a review of Vo Nguyen Giap's The Military Art of People's War) write up a proposal that played up the journal's individualist past. When that bid failed, the Kochs instead funded a new magazine called Inquiry, where libertarian writers rubbed shoulders with radical intellectuals and investigative journalists.

Let's imagine a timeline where the Koch/Nation marriage happened, giving us a Nation that looked a lot like Inquiry. In our world, Inquiry folded in 1984, but for this exercise we'll imagine that the libertarians held onto The Nation for at least one more year, allowing them to put out an anniversary issue of their own when the magazine turned 120. Like any editors in that situation, they'd present themselves as the point towards which history had been moving. They'd find a writer—let's call him Doug Garvers—to tell that story. What tale would Garvers tell?

He'd start, like Guttenplan does, with an earlier publication. William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator had championed the abolitionist cause from 1831 to 1865, closing shop after the 13th Amendment outlawed slavery. A group of Garrisonites wanted a weekly that would continue The Liberator's efforts "on a broader ground," and thus The Nation was born. Garvers would highlight not just Garrison's opposition to slavery but his opposition to the state itself: A radical individualist who thought every form of government was "intrinsically inhuman," Garrison was a steadfast opponent of both statism and war. Or he was until the Civil War began, when the possibility of ending slavery on the battlefield led him to change his mind on both counts.

Garvers' history would acknowledge that Godkin was nowhere near as radical on these questions as the young Garrison had been. But it would highlight the founding editor's individualist orientation, perhaps quoting the description of Godkin's pre-Nation journalism that Richard Clark Sterne wrote in 1965:

Opposition to all "feudal" restraints, whether in Hungary or Mississippi, on men's freedom; belief in an independent press as a potent weapon against autocracy and secret government; "Manchester" faith in the "free market and free trade"; hostility to government "interference," whether abroad in the form of colonialism or at home in the form of regulation of workers' hours and conditions—all these convictions, in addition to confidence in universal education as an agent of gradual reform, stamp him in the model of a British Liberal.

In the real-world anniversary issue, Guttenplan regards Godkin with distaste, nodding to his anti-imperial views on foreign policy but generally writing him off as a reactionary. "Bound by his 'liberal' principles to oppose any attempt to interfere with the 'freedom of contract,'" Guttenplan writes, Godkin "worried that a government able to prohibit children from working in factories—a goal, he allowed, for which 'there is a great deal to be said'—might end by telling 'us what to eat, drink, avoid, hope, fear, and believe.'" Our alternative Nation might quote the same passage and call it prescient. But it would criticize the magazine's first editor too. Godkin was a classical liberal, but he was not a libertarian: He cheered on the government when it violently repressed strikes, and his support for civil rights had a paternalist streak that grew steadily more pronounced as he grew older, eventually to the point where his paternalism almost fully obscured any interest in expanding black freedom.

By the time Godkin was forced out in 1899—he had a habit of giving himself long paid vacations, and the rest of the operation was fed up with him—The Nation was a weekly supplement to the New-York Evening Post, a combination that's pretty funny in light of the directions both publications have taken since then. For nearly two decades after Godkin's exit, the outlet moved away from classical liberalism and toward modernity-fearing conservatism. Guttenplan's history passes almost instantaneously over this period, and Garvers' article in the alternative Nation probably would skip it too. For both writers, the most notable development of this era would be that Oswald Garrison Villard—William Lloyd Garrison's grandson—began his association with the magazine during it, eventually becoming editor in 1918 and severing the publication from the Post.

Guttenplan treats Villard's ascension as a shift toward the left. And that it was. But our alternative Nation would be just as justified in treating it as a turn back toward liberal principles. Villard was a champion of civil liberties and civil rights (he co-founded the NAACP), and he despised all war. In economics, he began as a laissez faire man but gradually came to support a number of economic interventions, including portions of the New Deal; if Godkin stood to the typical libertarian's right, Villard stood to the typical libertarian's left. But his magazine was a place where individualist liberals and collectivist progressives wrote side by side, a place whose roster of contributing editors included both the libertarian critic H.L. Mencken and the socialist minister Norman Thomas. The radical anti-statist Albert Jay Nock was briefly a staffer at Villard's Nation before he left to launch the original Freeman; the magazine's other contributors in the Villard years included such notable libertarians as Henry Hazlitt, Felix Morley, Victor Yarros, and Suzanne La Follette. (Hazlitt, who would later write the free-market favorite Economics in One Lesson, was on the Nation masthead as late as the 1930s.) Even after the much more statist Freda Kirchwey took the editorial reins in 1933, the outlet continued to run relatively individualist voices—not least Villard himself, whose weekly column was sometimes at odds with his editors. (He opposed Franklin Roosevelt's court-packing scheme, for example, while they came down on the president's side.) He finally broke with the publication in 1940 over its eagerness to intervene in World War II.

Guttenplan doesn't mention Villard's falling out with the magazine, but the split comes up in another article in the anniversary issue, an essay by Rick Perlstein about Nationers who departed the left. I like most of Perlstein's piece, but I think he gets Villard wrong, calling him "one of the first leftists to abandon the tribe in the pages of The Nation." In my reading of Villard's final column, he wasn't leaving the tribe at all; he was accusing his editors of leaving the tribe. His "retirement," he wrote, "has been precipitated at this time by the editors' abandonment of The Nation's steadfast opposition to all preparations for war, to universal military service, to a great navy, and to all war." America should be protected, he said, not "by guns and warships" but "by greater economic and industrial wisdom, by social justice, by making our democracy work." Say what you will of this argument, but it is not a farewell to the left.

In this world's anniversary issue, Kirchwey and her successor, Carey McWilliams, are heroic figures. Our alternative Nation is more likely to describe them with the tone Guttenplan reserved for Godkin. The 150th anniversary issue praises The Nation for its opposition to McCarthyism. In the alternative Nation, Garvers would no doubt agree, but he would probably also mention sorrowfully that the Kirchwey-era magazine basically redbaited the conservative opponents of the Marshall Plan, declaring in 1950 that these "super-appeasers" and their "appeal to the provincial little souls who have always looked with a jaundiced eye on the U.N." ought to "set the bells ringing in the Kremlin as nothing since the triumph of Stalingrad." Garvers might also be more upfront about how frightfully dull the magazine could be in the 1960s. (Not always dull, mind you. Hunter Thompson's best book, Hell's Angels, began as a five-page Nation story. But in a decade overflowing with lively left-wing writing, it's pretty striking how little of it appeared in the left's flagship journal.) And Garvers might mention the free-market radicals who still occasionally popped up in the publication's pages during the McWilliams years, from Liggio to Jerome Tuccille.

But Garvers does not exist. The Koch bid to buy The Nation failed, and the magazine instead came into the hands of publisher Hamilton Fish and editor Victor Navasky. I regularly read the Navasky Nation in my teens and twenties; the best thing about it was Navasky's willingness to bring in strong voices who disagreed with each other and, at times, with the journal's dominant opinions. Alexander Cockburn, Christopher Hitchens, and their periodic feuds provided some of the most fun a reader could have in the political-mag world of the '80s. Add Andrew Kopkind, Gore Vidal, and other talented freethinkers, and there were plenty of reasons to keep up with the magazine, even if it meant paging past an endless parade of pieces trying to salvage Alger Hiss's good name.

In our imaginary parallel timeline, the story of The Nation is a story of classical liberalism first bending rightwards, then bending leftwards, and finally getting buried before it bursts back out of the ground. In the real world, the story ends differently, and so the years that led up to that endpoint look different as well; Godkin's version of the magazine becomes an unfortunate detour, and the sheer variety of Villard's version is forgotten. That's the way it is with anniversary issues, and with historical memory in general: The past is constantly reimagined to fill the needs of the present. Happy birthday.

(* Full disclosure: Including Reason!)