Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning

Steven F. Hayward reviews Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, a book written by Jonah Jacob Goldberg.

Who’s Fascist Now?

A book review by Steven F. Hayward

Back during his 1976 campaign for president, Ronald Reagan made the offhand comment to Time that “Fascism was really the basis for the New Deal.” When Reagan finally grasped the Republican nomination in 1980, Democrats gleefully retrieved that remark to use as proof of Reagan’s supposed extremism. The media dutifully obliged, pressing Reagan on what he could possibly have meant with such an odd and inflammatory comment.

To the dismay of his campaign managers, Reagan defended the remark: “Anyone who wants to look at the writings of the Brain Trust of the New Deal will find that President Roosevelt’s advisers admired the fascist system. . . . They thought that private ownership with government management and control à la the Italian system was the way to go, and that has been evident in all their writings.” This was, Reagan added, “long before fascism became a dirty word in the lexicon of the liberals.” The Washington Post was agog: “Several historians of the New Deal period questioned by the Washington Post said they had no idea what Reagan was referring to.”

With the arrival of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, neither the media nor self-satisfied liberals will be able to retreat any longer behind such a veil of ignorance. Goldberg has set out to rescue the idea of fascism from the dustbin of cartoonish epithets and restore it as a meaningful category of political thought; and, moreover, to demonstrate that contemporary American liberalism owes its origin and character to some of the same core ideas and principles that gave rise to European fascism in the first half of the 20th century.

His thesis will raise hackles, when it isn’t deliberately ignored, for the reason Goldberg rightly identifies: Contemporary liberals are strangely uninterested in the pedigree of their own ideas. (When was the last time you heard a liberal discussing Herbert Croly, or even John Dewey, as a relevant source for contemporary understanding?) Instead, the left will go on deploying “fascism” as a conversation-stopper against conservatives, even though the term ought to be associated overwhelmingly with liberalism.

“In reality,” Goldberg argues at the outset, “international fascism drew from the same intellectual wellsprings as American Progressivism,” which was the precursor to contemporary American liberalism. And conservatism cannot be understood seriously as an offshoot or cousin of fascism.

Goldberg’s analysis comes in two parts. The first task is to clear away the tangled overgrowth of misconceptions about the meaning of fascism itself. The term has long been controversial or vague among political thinkers, and its popular conception understandably colored by its Nazi incarnation. Fascism should be understood as a supercharged nationalistic statism, finding its theoretical wellsprings in Hegelian historicism, Rousseau’s protean “general will,” Nietzschean will-to-power, Darwinian evolution, and a smattering of the Social Gospel thrown in for good measure–all of which overturned the older liberalism of Locke, the Enlightenment, and the American Founders.

In America this soup came to boil as Deweyite “pragmatism,” but despite the calm and practical associations pragmatism conjures, fascism thrives in an atmosphere of constant crisis, which only a bigger, more active state can confront.

As Goldberg makes abundantly clear, fascism is a species of revolutionary socialism, with totalitarian implications. Vicious racism is not an inherent aspect of fascism–though many American progressives, such as Woodrow Wilson, exhibited strong racist streaks–and Nazi fascism should be understood as an aberration peculiar to Germany. Mussolini, rather than Hitler, should be understood as the paradigm of fascism.

“Nazism was the product of German culture, grown out of a German context. The Holocaust could not have occurred in Italy, because Italians are not Germans,” writes Goldberg. This qualification is essential to his overall argument, because he is emphatic in avoiding the charge that he is engaging in reductio ad Hitlerum; that is, in arguing that liberalism is fascistic, he is not trying to suggest liberals are crypto-Nazis. Nonetheless, his survey of the origin and meaning of fascism cannot get around the ways in which the Nazis appropriated and transformed fascist thought to their own uses, and as such, the extreme cases of Hitler and Mussolini make it difficult to grasp the non-extreme case of American fascism.

Goldberg’s delineation of American fascism is the second part of his analysis and the bulk of the book. He identifies three fascist episodes in modern American history: the Progressive Era (and especially World War I); the New Deal; and the 1960s.

Most historical narratives portray World War I as the end of Progressivism; Goldberg rightly sees it as its apotheosis, with its propaganda efforts, its embrace of the purifying effects of militarism, and its ruthless crushing of dissent. Wilson openly argued for redefining the American constitutional order in Hegelian and Darwinian terms, and celebrated the expansion of state power necessary to direct human progress and guide people to “mature” freedom.

Wilson and other progressives disparaged “individualism” and the market economy, and advocated ever more powerful government social and economic planning. It is here we learn that Goldberg is not the first to use the category of “liberal fascism.” H.G. Wells used the term approvingly in 1932. He also (remember the date) said that progressives should seek to become “enlightened Nazis.”

The New Deal, as Ronald Reagan had the imagination to perceive and the courage to declare, was America’s second fascist episode. Goldberg’s copious and detailed research demonstrates beyond doubt that the New Dealers themselves understood their project as wholly congruent with what they saw approvingly in Italy and Germany. Waldo Frank declared in 1934 that Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration “is the beginning of American Fascism” and the Nazis expressed their admiration and enthusiasm for FDR’s program. (Hitler, in particular, praised American eugenicists.) The New York Times reported in 1933: “There is at least one official voice in Europe that expresses understanding of the method and motives of President Roosevelt. This voice is that of Germany, as represented by Chancellor Adolf Hitler.”

America’s third fascist episode was the 1960s, and especially the rise of the New Left, whose philosophy and tactics bore distinct echoes of the Hitler Youth. Goldberg cites the liberal scholar Irving Louis Horowitz, who recognized that sixties radicalism was “a fanatic attempt to impose a new social order upon the world” and, forthrightly, called it fascism of the left. Moreover, the fascist impulses of the 1960s have not yet run their course. The liberal enthusiasm for regimenting society on behalf of our own good (smoking bans, healthy eating mantras, etc.) or “for the children” (especially Hillary Clinton’s style of thought in It Takes a Village) represent the still-vibrant residue of the last wave of fascist enthusiasm.

“The edifice of contemporary liberalism,” Goldberg argues, “stands on a foundation of assumptions and ideas integral to the larger fascist moment. Contemporary liberals, who may be the kindest and most racially tolerant people in the world, nonetheless choose to live in a house of distinctly fascist architecture.”

This reference to the purported “niceness” and sincere good intent of modern liberalism raises a number of problems for which Liberal Fascism, despite all its splendid research and analysis, begs some important questions that, on the surface, the author does not appear to resolve.

Are we supposed to understand liberalism as a hateful and destructive thing, as we do fascism? While deploring fascism and its influence on liberalism, Goldberg draws back from the implications of equating liberal fascism with communism as a species of malignant revolutionary socialism. “Fascism was a human response to a rapidly unfolding series of technological, theological, and social revolutions,” he writes. “Those revolutions are still playing themselves out”–and not just on the left. Goldberg rightly scorns some of the same tendencies he sees in certain quarters on the right, such as Pat Buchanan’s nationalism and George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. We’re all fascists now, he writes in his last chapter.

Perhaps Goldberg has rehabilitated fascism a bit too much, in hopes of blunting the visceral and unreflective, but inevitable, liberal rejection of his unwelcome parallels. Goldberg goes out of his way to offer exoneration to liberals by reference to their good intentions. On the one hand, he makes clear the totalitarian temptation of liberal fascism: Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning” speech, for example, “is in many respects the most thoroughly totalitarian conception of politics offered by a leading American political figure in the last half century.” But he is quick to add that “Hillary is no Führer, and her notion of ‘the common good’ doesn’t involve racial purity or concentration camps. . . . When I say that Hillary Clinton’s ideas in general are fascist, I must again be clear that they are not evil.”

This effort at balance and reasonableness may, in part, be designed to set him and the book’s inflammatory title apart from the sensational, sales-oriented polemics of other conservative bestsellers of recent years. From the standpoint of the prose alone, it is notable that the wit and snark that enliven Goldberg’s newspaper columns and blog posts are conspicuously missing from this sober volume. But in larger measure he has tried to diminish fascism as a mindless epithet so that readers will think harder about the deep general tendencies, both historical and philosophical, that gave rise to the phenomenon in any of its forms.

Goldberg thinks that the extreme kinds of fascism that took root in Europe never caught on in America because of an antigovernment, or antistatist, strain deeply embedded in the American character. Americans don’t like to be bossed around, and would never tolerate Canadian-style health care rationing, for example. But this turns out to be the key issue of the whole book, and he unfolds it with such subtlety that casual readers will miss his treatment. Liberal fascism is not about to slam totalitarianism down on America in some Kristallnacht-style convulsion. But liberalism, “the organized pursuit of the desirable,” is committed to an ever-expanding state, without any limits in principle.

The core liberal promise of delivering security and human fulfillment through state action may erode the antistatist American character with the grim effect-iveness of the drip-drip-drip of water torture, and slowly succeed in “rewriting the habits of our hearts,” eventually creating “some vast North American Belgium.”

“If there is ever a fascist takeover in America,” Goldberg believes, “it will not come in the form of storm troopers kicking down doors but with lawyers and social workers saying, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help.'”

Reprinted with kindley permission of The American Enterprise Institute.


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