March 2008 -- Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 496 pages, $27.95.
With America committed to war overseas, an American president (who many consider to be racist) suspends vast swatches of American liberties. Opponents of the war are demonized, their patriotism routinely questioned. Even popular foods bearing the names of now-unpopular, formerly allied nations are spontaneously renamed, in banal demonstrations of mass support for the war effort.
Is this an account in 2004 by a blogger on the leftwing Daily Kos website, railing feverishly against President Bush and the Global War on Terror? No, it’s a description of the state of our nation in 1917, under President Wilson during World War I. As Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large of National Review Online, writes in his new book Liberal Fascism:
The liberty cabbage, the state-sanctioned brutality, the stifling of dissent, the loyalty oaths and the enemies list—all of these things not only happened in America but happened at the hands of liberals. Self-described progressives—as well as the majority of American socialists—were at the forefront of the push for a truly totalitarian state. They applauded every crackdown and questioned the patriotism, the intelligence, and decency of every pacifist and classically liberal dissenter.
Partly inspired by Leonard Peikoff’s The Ominous Parallels, Goldberg has done his homework assembling Liberal Fascism, going back to books and documents of the 1930s, ’40s, and even earlier. And understandably so: He knows that his book will be attacked and possibly dismissed for any mistakes in history, more than for his actual arguments.
That so little of this history is remembered, Goldberg argues, is the result of two things. First, since the left has a remarkably firm grip on academia, they tend to write history—and write it in a way that’s favorable to their side of history. Second, the left tends to have a remarkably short collective memory. While most conservatives and libertarians can name those movements’ founders (such as Hayek, Buckley, and Rand), the typical modern leftist tends not to remember his intellectual forefathers nearly as well. Or as liberal journalist and Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne Jr. wrote in his 2004 book Stand Up, Fight Back, “Liberals and Democrats tend not to view themselves as the inheritors of a grand tradition. Almost on principle, they are suspicious of such traditions, of too much theorizing, of linking themselves too much to the past.”
The result is that the intertwining of Marxism, Progressivism, and Fascism in the first decades of the twentieth century—the theme of Liberal Fascism—has been virtually forgotten among the modern left. That’s why it is now routine for conservatives, including whichever Republican happens to hold the highest national office at the time (e.g., Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, or George W. Bush), to be demonized by the left as Nazis. And that’s why Nazism—and fascism in general—are widely described by the left and by much of the culture as rightwing movements.
Of course, it was the Soviets of the 1920s who first began to describe fascism as being on the right. As a more populist strain of totalitarianism, it was, arguably, to the right of communism, which ultimately killed tens of millions more people during the twentieth century. But the collectivist nature of fascism is far, far to the left of American conservatism and especially American libertarianism. To paraphrase a remark by Charles Krauthammer shortly after the 2006 midterm elections: Americans play politics within the middle of the football field; since 1789, Europeans have confined themselves mostly to the forty yards on the left side of the field. This helps to explain why, when the wall dividing Berlin fell in 1989, the same region embraced a corporatist, nanny-state European Union only a few years later.
Goldberg does yeoman’s work researching and documenting material that the American left had consigned to the memory hole since 1945. By the 1970s, this pre-World War II past was considered hermetically sealed by liberals. As Goldberg writes, Ronald Reagan, a former FDR backer, was attacked in the Washington Post as late as 1981 for correctly pointing out the favorable lip service that he remembered being paid by FDR’s brain trust to Mussolini.
But lots of intellectuals and artists of the era before WWII had good things to say about Il Duce. Herbert Croly, a founder of the New Republic, offered, in Goldberg’s words, “qualified support for Mussolini” in the pages of his magazine. Cole Porter (or possibly P.G. Wodehouse, when he revised Porter’s lyrics for the British stage) name-checked Mussolini in an early version of “You’re the Tops.” In fact, the title of Goldberg’s book comes from a 1932 speech by H.G. Wells at Oxford University to Britain’s Young Liberals organization, in which he said, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.” Goldberg quotes George Orwell, discussing Wells nine years later: “Much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany.” Of Germany’s Italian counterpart, in 1933’s The Shape of Things to Come Wells wrote, “Fascism indeed was not an altogether bad thing; it was a bad good thing; and Mussolini has left his mark on history.”
In fact, Mussolini’s fascist Italy features rather prominently in Goldberg’s book, for numerous reasons. It predates Hitler’s vision of a National Socialist Germany. As David Ramsay Steele wrote in a 2003 essay titled “The Mystery of Fascism,” the ideology’s most influential thinkers—including Mussolini himself—evolved their positions in an attempt to create a more populist form of socialist government than Marxism, especially the Soviet revolutionary model. And as Goldberg writes, fascism, by its very nature, will embody the nationalist traditions of whatever nation it infects—which is why fascist Italy, Imperial Japan, and Nazi Germany were each very different regimes. Anti-Semitism, now often viewed as part and parcel of fascism, was a key historical component of Germany in particular. In contrast, Goldberg writes:
For most of his career, Mussolini considered anti-Semitism a silly distraction and, later, a necessary sop to his overbearing German patron. Jews could be good socialists or fascists if they thought and behaved like good socialists or fascists. Because Hitler thought explicitly in terms of what we would today call identity politics, Jews were irredeemably Jews, no matter how well they spoke German. His allegiance, like that of all practitioners of identity politics, was to the iron cage of immutable identity.
The word “fascism” is Italian for bundling together, derived from the Latin word fasces, and Mussolini adopted the original Roman symbol of power—a bundle of birch rods tied together with a red ribbon—for fascist Italy.
Goldberg does yeoman’s work researching material that the American left had consigned to the memory hole since 1945.
As Goldberg mentioned to me in a recent interview, Mussolini similarly invented the word “totalitarianism” as a way to describe a cradle-to-grave socialism that would bind all aspects of his nation together. “Mussolini meant it to be appealing to people,” Goldberg said. “It was a sales pitch for his kind of government. He meant it as we would use words like ‘holistic’ today, as sort of covering every aspect of life; everyone’s going to be included, everyone’s going to be part of the community. No child is going to be left behind. That was the meaning of totalitarianism in its original conception.”
These sorts of reminders are part of Liberal Facism’s strength. Goldberg does not just look back with ninety years of hindsight and editorial bias. He presents the concepts and the words used in the way they were envisioned at the time.
It’s only after WWII that totalitarianism understandably became associated with militaristic, jackbooted thugs. But militarism wasn’t exclusive to European fascists. The collectivists of the first half of the twentieth century—from Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to the Soviets—chose military forms and imagery because they were thought of as the most efficient ways to mobilize their nations. The New Dealers were inspired by Wilson’s handling of World War I—both in the trenches in Europe and almost as aggressively while fighting the administration’s enemies domestically. And much of the New Deal was an attempt to place the Depression–addled U.S. economy under the equivalent of a wartime footing. As Goldberg notes, the imagery promoting the National Recovery Act was virtually indistinguishable from much of the concurrent propaganda of 1930s–era Germany.
That the wartime pitch of the 1910s, 1930s, and 1940s was global is one of the reasons why Orwell’s 1984 predicted that socialist England could come to resemble a mélange of fascism and Stalinism only a few decades after its 1949 publication date. And ever since, 1984 has been seen as the model of a totalitarian future. But modern, post–1960s collectivism—whether it’s the EU and its “soft” but all-encompassing policies; Hillary Clinton with her “It Takes a Village” imagery; or President Bush with his “compassionate conservatism” catchphrase—has generally moved away from militaristic imagery and instead uses muted, much more seductive language, symbols, and programs to expand government. Which is why Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Goldberg writes, is the more apt model for modern socialism and its cradle-to-grave nanny state.
This also explains the “have a nice day” smiley face with the Hitler mustache on the dust jacket of Liberal Fascism. It’s one of the few signs of humor in this otherwise scholarly book, from a writer known for drafting very funny columns during the early days of National Review Online.
Since I’m writing this over a month before the book’s publication date, I’ll be quite interested to see how liberal elites respond to it. We already know what the rank-and-file left thinks: Months before publication, its Amazon.com page was full of the most vile ad hominems and slander, when it wasn’t being hacked; and since no one attacking the book on Amazon had yet read it, it’s safe to assume that their attacks were based almost solely on the book’s cover art and title. Which illustrates one of Goldberg’s central theses remarkably well: How many of the book’s detractors know that they’re attacking it for language written by H.G. Wells from 1932?
One debatable point I noticed was in the chapter on New Age mysticism, where Goldberg writes:
Tom Wolfe, in his essay, “The Great Relearning,” details how the counterculture, inspired by the German Bauhaus, wanted to start over, to declare a New Year Zero (much as the Jacobins and Nazis did), to go back to the fork in the road where Western civilization allegedly took the wrong path.
I think Goldberg misses Wolfe’s point and inadvertently draws the inaccurate conclusion that the ’60s U.S. counterculture took some inspiration from Bauhaus theories. The history of the left during the twentieth century is one of an endlessly repeating theme, “start from zero”; that theme connects the artists of the Bauhaus with the hippies of the sixties. But otherwise, modernism was anathema to the countercultural denizens of Haight-Ashbury. If they had even heard of the Bauhaus, hippies rather forcefully rejected its modernist aesthetics, which were then at their cultural peak in the form of every major corporation’s skyscraper.
Also, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with the concluding paragraphs of Goldberg’s book:
In 1968, in a televised debate on ABC News during the Chicago Democratic National Convention, Gore Vidal continually goaded William F. Buckley, eventually calling him a “crypto-Nazi.” Vidal himself is an open homosexual, a pagan, a statist, and a conspiracy theorist. Buckley, a patriotic, free-market, antitotalitarian gentleman of impeccably good manners, could take it no more and responded: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”
It is one of the few times in Buckley’s long public life that he abandoned civility, and he instantly regretted it. Nonetheless, having been on the receiving end of many similar insults and diatribes, I have deep sympathy for Buckley’s frustration. For at some point it is necessary to throw down the gauntlet, to draw a line in the sand, to set a boundary, to cry at long last, “Enough is enough.” To stand athwart “progress” and yell, “Stop!” My hope is that this book has served much the same purpose as Buckley’s intemperate outburst while striving for his more typical civility.
This ending seemed to cheapen, just a hair, what is overall quite a remarkable book. For a moment, I was left thinking that Liberal Fascism is little more than a “Nyah!”—a thumbing of the nose back at liberals for decades of calling conservatives Nazis. But it’s so much more than that. And I’m worried that these two paragraphs will be reported as the whole theme of the book (er, as I just did).
But Goldberg’s real point is inescapable: The modern American left totes a lot of historical baggage, much of which it’s unaware. And that baggage continues to inspire it, even as the left mutates into softer, kinder, gentler, squishier forms unthinkable by its ancestors when they “started from zero” ninety-some years ago.