How Heinlein went from socialist to right-wing libertarian

A review in the New Republic of volume two of the authorized biography of Robert A Heinlein takes the biographer, William H Patterson, to task for his uncritical approach to Heinlein's famously all-over-the-place politics. But there is enough (uncritical) details in the book that the reviewer feels able to parse out Heinlein's swing from socialist to right-wing libertarian (here's my review of part one).

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.

Robert A. Heinlein, Vol 2: In Dialogue with His Century Volume 2: The Man Who Learned Better [Amazon]

A Famous Science Fiction Writer's Descent Into Libertarian Madness [Jeet Heer/New Republic]

Heinlein memoir: LEARNING CURVE - the secret history of science fiction [Review of book one]

(via IO9)

Notable Replies

  1. Heinlein was a complicated motherfucker, and a reminder of how silly and inaccurate our binary "liberal/conservative" divide can be.

  2. Wait, are you saying Heinlein was always racist? By modern standards I wouldn't hold him up as a role model for anything, but (among other things) his 1955 juvenile Tunnel in the Sky featured a tough, take-charge, all-American hero who happened to be a black dude; when the editor refused to accept it, Heinlein removed the overt description but snuck in a passage that made his intentions clear to anyone paying attention. (There's an explicitly black female character, and the protagonist mentions that she looks like his sister.)

  3. I was wondering just the other day why one particular useful but sometimes-dangerous occupation is singled out as a requirement of full citizenship. No-one ever suggests that the franchise should be restricted to coal-miners.

  4. Funny, I always thought that Starship Troopers was a commentary against fascism. But maybe I'm remembering the movie more than the book.

  5. No, libertarianism is in opposition to statism. Centrism is about economic policy and usually shows a desire for a mixed economy. You can get libertarian socialists and libertarian capitalists, with libertarian centrists in between. The USA shows a strong bias towards the libertarian capitalists who are undeniably right wing though.

Continue the discussion

25 more replies