Jun 16 2008

Liberal Fascism:

Category: Uncategorizedharmonicminer @ 9:14 pm

I just finished reading Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg.

A particularly thoughtful review from a critical friend of the author, historian Michael Ledeen, can be found here. Ledeen, while sympathetic with Goldberg, has many more or less scholarly reservations about this aspect or that of the book, while not denying the essential validity of Goldberg’s thesis. Sometimes, I think Ledeen misses the main point over an academic disagreement about the definitions of terms, but he is someone whose opinion is worth knowing.

Essentially, Goldberg is tired of the “F______ bomb” being dropped on conservatives and the “right”. (So am I.) It’s very common for the Left to call anyone they don’t like on the Right a fascist.

Goldberg’s project is to show that while fascism may be hard to define, if the term means anything other than “the people you don’t like”, it applies more to the Left (European and American) than to the American Right, especially the Right since the 1950s (and following) conservative movement in the USA.

I confess that I have always been confused by the assignment of “left” to Soviet Communism, and “right” to German national socialism, when both were revolutionary, statist, dictatorial, war-like and socialist (in different ways). In NAZI socialism, the state did not own all the means of production, but it surely dictated what the “owners” could and could not do (not vice versa), and central planning was the order of the day in either case. For two systems called “left” and “right”, they seemed to have much more in common than in opposition.

If you have wondered about this, and don’t think you know the answer now, you probably need to read this book. If you haven’t wondered about it, you may be too incurious or too hide-bound to benefit from it. If you think you already know the answer, blessed are you. Go write your own book. Send me the link.

Some people say that, in regard to fascism in the USA, “It can’t happen here.” Some on the Left will say that it might, and if it does, it will come from the Right.

Goldberg says it (fascism) already happened here, under the Wilson Administration during the run-up to World War I and shortly following, under “war socialism”, sedition laws (something like 150,000 arrests of people who spoke against the war, even in the privacy of their own homes), economic central planning, the first large, professional, national propaganda ministry, etc. And, Goldberg traces the lines from Wilson and Progressivism to Mussolini and, to a lesser extent, Hitler, both of whom admired Wilson’s programs and approach, which was also a major influence on Franklin Delano Roosevelt a generation later.

Finally, his main point is that the modern Left in the USA wants to practice “nice” fascism, that is, mostly non-violent, but still statist, authoritarian, and centrally directed by a ruling elite who possess wisdom superior to the rest of us, as well as better motives. This immediately forces out-of-bounds a criticism of the book that implies he is saying the modern Left is composed of “Nazis”. He is saying that the modern Left and classical fascists had many similar aims and philosophies about the relation of the state to the governed, and similar concepts about the more-or-less infinite plasticity and perfectability of humans, if only the proper social and governmental context was present. That’s why the book cover has a “smiley face Fuhrer”.

One of the very best aspects of the book, whether or not you agree with its central thesis, is the enormous number of quotations in it. There are a lot of sources, including quotes I never saw in a school or university history text.

Goldberg quotes from some authors whose work I have read, and for those, at least, I can testify that he uses them fairly.

One thing to watch as you read the book is how he uses the word “liberal”. It has two meanings in the USA: “classical liberalism” (more or less the founding fathers’ vision expressed in the Declaration and the Constitution, personal liberty, minimal state intrusion into most aspects of life, Locke, Burke, Smith, etc., more or less the vision of the American Right since the 1950s or so) and modern “left liberalism”, the lineal descendant of the Progressive movement of the late 19th/early 20th centuries, itself a descendant of Rousseau via the 19th Century socialists/marxists. Mostly, his use of the term is clear in context, but occasionally you’ll need to reread a sentence to be sure which he’s discussing. (Lately, since many liberals hate to be called that, they’ve begun using the term progressive for themselves.. again. Maybe, if we’re lucky, in a couple of decades we can have the word “liberal” back, and use it as it was meant to be used.)

Some of the most negative reviews of the book on the web are by people who admit to not having read it, and to people who seem to have read half of it, based on the accusation of omissions of items that are in fact present in the book, if you actually read it. And, there are some who seem deliberately to misunderstand which use of the term “liberal” is meant in a given place, in order to construct a logical flaw where there is none.

At the very least, it’s time to stop hurling the epithet “fascist” at every person, idea or institution you don’t like. In future, use of that term against an opponent should probably be viewed as being as far out of bounds, and silly, as calling someone Hitlerian, the “reductio ad hitlerum”, also a fond tactic of the Left. The exception: it is intellectually acceptable to apply the term if you can define it first. VERY few should try, since some serious scholars seem to struggle with it.

Sadly, some of the reviewers do call him a fascist, simply for writing the book and saying what he says.

Statists everywhere, look out: we’re coming for you. (Sorry… couldn’t resist.)


Here is a series of youtube presentations by Goldberg at the Heritage Foundation. There’s more if you search youtube for “Jonah Goldberg”, including 3 question/answer segments. If you find any of this interesting, the book is better, but, as always, video is relatively painless as a quick intro to something.

Liberal Fascism (1) — Jonah Goldberg ** UNEDITED **

Liberal Fascism (2) — Jonah Goldberg ** UNEDITED **

Liberal Fascism (3) – Jonah Goldberg ** UNEDITED **

Liberal Fascism (4) – Jonah Goldberg ** UNEDITED **

Liberal Fascism (5) – Jonah Goldberg ** UNEDITED **