How Robert Heinlein Went from Socialist to Right-Wing Libertarian

Illustration for article titled How Robert Heinlein Went from Socialist to Right-Wing Libertarian

The second massive volume in William Patterson's fannish biography of classic science fiction author Robert Heinlein has just come out, and it explores — in part — the writer's strange political transformation. It all started, and ended, with free love.


Jeet Heer has a fantastic article about the late Patterson's biography in The New Republic today. Heinlein always claimed that his politics had remained exactly the same throughout his life, but that both left and right-wing groups had simply moved further and further to the left — stranding Heinlein out on a right-wing libertarian limb. Heer points out that Patterson completely buys into this line, ignoring even the evidence that he gathered himself for the book.

Heer points out that Heinlein managed to capture audiences on both ends of the political spectrum, partly because he did slide around on it so much himself:

Heinlein's most famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961), was a counter-culture Bible, its message of free love inspiring not just secular polygamous communes but also the Church of All Worlds, a still-flourishing New Age sect incorporated in 1968. Heinlein was equally beloved in military circles, especially for his book Starship Troopers (1959), a gung-ho shout-out for organized belligerence as the key to human survival. A thoroughly authoritarian book, it included an ode to flogging (a practice the American Navy banned in 1861) and the execution of mentally disturbed criminals, yet Heinlein became a hero to libertarians: Milton Friedman praised Heinlein's 1966 novel The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress, which chronicled an anti-statist rebellion on a lunar colony, as a "wonderful" book and commended Heinlein for popularizing the slogan TANSTAAFL ("There ain't no such thing as a free lunch").

Despite Heinlein and his biographer's protestations that Heinlein's politics were unwaveringly "radical liberal" and "democratic," Heer is able to piece together a story of Heinlein's political slide from left to right.

Heer writes:

Later in life, as a libertarian, he would rail against "loafers" and the welfare state but in his leftist days he knew how much he depended on the government. As he acknowledged in a 1941 letter, "This country has been very good to me, and the taxpayers have supported me for many years." The popularizer of TANSTAAFL ate more than his share of subsidized meals.

In discovering his midlife vocation as a science-fiction writer, Heinlein was aided immeasurably by his second wife Leslyn, who he married in 1932 (an earlier marriage in 1929 fizzled after a year). Both were socialists and sexual radicals—it was an open marriage with each having many lovers—and in the 1930s both were leading figures in the grassroots movement End Poverty in California (EPIC), working to push the Democratic party to the left. When Heinlein started selling science fiction in 1939, Leslyn served as his un-credited collaborator and story-editor ...

Heinlein's leftwing politics got him blacklisted from the Navy, which didn't want his services even during World War II when the military was so desperate for trained recruits that they found office jobs for disabled soldiers. Instead he worked as a civilian engineer in Philadelphia, helping to design the high-altitude pressure suit, a precursor to the astronaut suit. In 1944, Heinlein met Lieutenant Virginia Gerstenfeld, and after the war tried to bring her into his house as part of a ménage à trios. Gerstenfeld accepted but her stay with the Heinlein's was brief and stormy. This wasn't the first love triangle in the Heinlein residence (they had earlier been in a consensual threesome with L. Ron Hubbard), but Leslyn found Virginia threatening so the marriage collapsed in 1947. Heinlein and Gerstenfeld wed the following year, a marriage that would also be open.

Whereas Leslyn was a liberal Democrat, Virginia was a conservative Republican. Some of Heinlein's friends speculated that his shift in politics was connected to his divorce and remarriage. That's too simplistic an explanation, but Heinlein acknowledged that Virginia helped "re-educate" him on economics.

In truth, Heinlein's shift to the right took place over a decade, from 1948 to 1957. In the early 1950s, the Heinleins travelled around the world. The writer was already a Malthusian and a eugenicist, but the trip greatly exacerbated his demographic despair and xenophobia. "The real problem of the Far East is not that so many of them are communists, but simply that there are so many of them," he wrote in a 1954 travel book (posthumously published in 1992). Even space travel, Heinlein concluded, wouldn't be able to open enough room to get rid of "them." Heinlein treated overpopulation as a personal affront.

Heinlein had caught a bad case of the Cold War jitters in the late 1940s. He accused liberal Democratic friends, notably the director Fritz Lang, of being Stalinist stooges. With Heinlein's great talent for extrapolation, every East-West standoff seemed like the end of the world. "I do not think we have better than an even chance of living, as a nation, through the next five years," he wrote an editor in 1957. The USSR's Sputnik launch in 1957 and Eisenhower's moves toward a nuclear test ban the following year both unhinged Heinlein, who called Ike a "slimy faker." By 1961 Heinlein concluded that even though it was a "fascist organization," the John Birch Society was preferable to liberals and moderate conservatives.

The turning point came in 1957. After that year, Heinlein's books were no longer progressive explorations of the future but hectoring diatribes lamenting the decadence of modernity ...

Only on the issue of sex did Heinlein remain faithful to the radicalism of his youth, with some of his late books portraying a future where bisexuality is the norm. Yet even on sex, late-period Heinlein is an untrustworthy guide. Many readers have been disturbed by the pro-incest arguments found in such books as Farnham's Freehold, Time Enough For Love (1973), and To Sail Beyond the Sunset (1987). Perhaps the best that can be said on Heinlein's behalf is that incest served as an objective correlative to his libertarianism and solipsism.


You must read the whole article over at The New Republic



What would a left-wing libertarian be then?