23 April, 2008 by Kevin Holtsberry
Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg
When I was a graduate student at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management the following exchange happened in one of my classes:
Professor: Does everyone know who Robert Bork is?
Student: Yes, he is a fascist!
Why do I bring this up? It came to mind while watching Jonah Goldberg discuss his book Liberal Fascism at Denison University Monday night. This sort of exchange has been witnessed by nearly every conservative in America. If they haven’t been called a fascist of some sort they have had one of their intellectual heroes (Reagan, William F. Buckley, etc.) called one.
Tired of constantly hearing about how the threat of fascism, if not its actual existence, was from conservatism Jonah decided to write a book to correct this glaring popular misconception. AndÂ Monday night he outlined his arguments for a gathering of college students and what seemed to me like a number of adult Goldberg fans (they actually ran out of books to be signed).
Long time readers will be aware that I am not exactly an unbiased observer in the controversies that have erupted surrounding Jonah’s book. Jonah helped me get my start in online Journalism at National Review Online and I had the opportunity to read Liberal Fascism in galley form.
So feel free to take my opinion with whatever grains of salt you feel are appropriate, but I think Liberal Fascism (LF) is a fascinating, timely, and important book. I meant to write about the book, the controversy surrounding its publication, and even interview Jonah but a variety of factors led to that not happening. Hearing Jonah’s talk Monday night made me feel a little guilty for not having put my thoughts down on paper when the book came out.
So I am belatedly attempting to remedy that today. More after the jump.
What Jonah tries to do in LF is set aside for a moment the overwhelming association of fascism with the Nazi Holocaust and instead explore the actual philosophical and political underpinnings of fascism as a political movement. Goldberg makes the argument that if you really look at fascism it is clear that it was a left wing movement antithetical to what is labeled as conservatism or the Right in the Anglo-American context. Fascism was socialist and statist and opposed to the very things that define conservatives today: free markets, limited government, individual responsibility, a respect for religious faith and tradition, etc.
In this context, communism and fascism were not polar opposites that are somehow connected because of their extremism, or totalitarian excesses, but because they are both heresies, or offshoots, of socialism. Communism was international socialism and fascism was national socialism. The bloody battles between these two movements was for control of the same political space. Mussolini, for example, was kicked out of the socialist party in Italy because of his support for the war not because he was a conservative in the twentieth century Anglo-American sense.
The reason we have come to associate fascism with the Right is because the Marxist view of things gained a decisive foothold in the intelligentsia and thus influenced popular cultural and political views. Because fascism was seen by Marxists as a dangerous rival for the hearts and minds of workers, they set out to marginalize and demonize it. Stalin began to call anyone not loyal to Moscow a fascist. Someone as integral to the Russian Revolution as Trotsky was soon a fascist.
The Marxists in essence were the winners who wrote the history. Thus was born the seed of the idea that fascism is a right-wing problem. This is very convenient because it is in fact progressives who have fascism as an intellectual heritage. Jonah notes how American progressives embraced fascism and saw it as a role model up until the holocaust became the dominant association with the term. This made sense as they shared similar aims and assumptions. And politicians from Woodrow Wilson to FDR and JFK used these ideas and assumptions in creating and implementing policies.
Jonah then connects the leftist history of fascism and progressivism by arguing that the modern American liberals unwillingness to explore and digest this history lead them on a dangerous path toward what might be called soft fascism or the liberal fascism of the title.
This danger grows out of the Utopian belief in the power of the state to mold society and mankind and the call for whatever tactics are neccesary to make this heaven on earth a reality. Goldberg grants that the goal isn’t genocide or terror but notes that a kinder gentler oppression is still oppression. The nanny state may not want to kill you but it wants to control your life in a myriad of ways.
The book lays all of this out in much more detail and precision that this rambling synopsis of mine. And from my perspective Goldberg makes a compelling case that we have turned history on its head when it comes both the underpinnings of fascism and the threat of its resurection in our time. As Goldberg pointed out in his talk, the totalitarian future we face is not Orwell’s 1984 by Huxley’s A Brave New World.
I don’t really have the energy or time to take on the book’s critics (even the few more serious ones). But let me just note a few things about some of the responses:
- The response to the title (that it is somehow out of bounds or over-the-top) is a stupid distraction. As the book explains, the title comes from a talk by HG Wells. It is not some made up slur but a term coined by a liberal/progressive who had a great deal of influence at the time and who thus makes a clear connection to the ideas Jonah is outlining. Far too many people refused to take the book seriously for this manufactured reason and a great many did it with colossal hypocrisy.
- The book doesn’t argue or imply that modern day liberals are the equivalent of Hitler or Mussolini. In fact, it goes out of its way to assume the good will and intentions of liberals. What Goldberg is decrying is the bad history; the refusal of many liberals to acknowledge their intellectual heritage despite attempts to connect any and all sins of the past to conservatives no matter how tenuous the connection or relevance; and the continued labeling of conservatives as fascists even today. Goldberg does argue, however, that liberalism’s Utopian tendencies present a danger, but that danger is of a different sort entirely and this is repeated ad nauseum. More people than I care to count simply refused to admit this.
- It also needs to be emphasized that this is a work of popular history and to a certain degree of polemics. Far too many seemed to decry the fact that LF wasn’t written or marketed as a dry and tightly worded academic work. This too is silly. How dare Goldberg mention liberalism and fascism in the same book! How dare he put a Hitler smiley face on the cover! Ann Coulter!!!! Sheesh.
- The book contains a lot of documentation and patient outlining of his argument and the facts that back them up, but this is not a work of academic history nor does it seek to be one. The point is that popular culture has soaked up a lot of nonsense and the book attempts to counter that with its own popular culture argument. Just because the author and publisher attempt to sell books doesn’t invalidate it as a serious work. You can combine polemics with scholarship and serious argument. Far too many approached the book as a chance to take potshots at someone they didn’t like rather than engaging with the arguments.
- There is no reason the book has to be an all or nothing proposition; and the initial polarization of reactions to the book are unfortunate. One can appreciate the history and enjoy its perspective without having to agree with all or any of the book’s arguments in their totality. You can agree that fascism is of the left and yet not find the later chapters on more modern liberalism convincing, etc. Potential readers shouldn’t be left with the impression that it is simply a partisan attempt to use history to smear liberals, but a book that attempts to dethrone some major shibboleths connected to our view of history and politics.
To wrap this meandering post up, let me say that I think the book succeeds on a coupe of levels:
– One it makes a strong historical, yet approachable, case for fascism as a phenomenon of the left. It came to be in a time of liberal ascendance and embraced the very ideas and concepts that in many ways still motivate the left today. The connection of the term to the right is clearly of Marxist origin and ahistorical. Minus the holocaust fascism would be recognized today as a messianic socialism it was not some right-wing counterpart to communism.
-Two, it further highlights the refusal of progressives to deal with their history in any meaningful way. The response of the angry vulgar online left made this point abundantly clear. They either pretended it doesn’t exist or dismissed Goldberg’s argument as old news; something everyone already knew. This last is particularly laughable. And of course most did this without having even read the book. In this world while conservatives are always the heirs of racism and hate the left never has to answer for its racist imperialism, destruction of civil liberties, eugenics, etc. Progressivism is simply taken to mean good and healthy no matter the evidence to the contrary.
– Lastly, whether you agree with all of the arguments or not, I found Liberal Fascism to be an interesting read and one that forces you to understand and wrestle with many of the fundamental political issues of the twentieth century and their implications for today. If you are in any way a history of political buff then I think this book would be a must read.
So if you haven’t yet read Liberal Fascism I highly recommend it. Read it and judge it for yourself. And if Jonah comes to a college or town near you, be sure to attend. I think you will find it as entertaining and intellectually stimulating as the book.