Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
By Jonah Goldberg
(Doubleday, 496 pp., $27.95)
In graduate school I had a professor, a famous Marxist, who devoted a significant portion of a lecture to the subject of artifacts. He was, of course, a historical materialist, and so he was trying to get us--his jejune and perhaps incurably indoctrinated charges who took capitalist existence at face value--to understand that ordinary things, everyday objects, were actually particular products in the great chain of production of a society, and signified something about the organization and the needs of that society. I suppose he might as well have invoked ball bearings or pulleys, but he used the example of locks: he asked us to imagine our civilization in ashes, and its ruins being combed over by white-coated researchers, like something out of a Twilight Zone episode. What would our vast assortment, our infinite variety, of locks tell them about what our society was like?
I kept thinking about my old professor as I battled my way through Jonah Goldberg's book. Suppose those researchers came upon not a consignment of padlocks, but a few copies of Liberal Fascism. Suppose also that they were to discover, tucked inside, a New York Times best-seller list from, say, February 3, 2008, which showed that enough Americans had purchased this work to propel it to number three on that list. What conclusions would they draw about a society in which such a work was not only published by a respectable publishing house, but also flew off the shelves into the devouring hands of a polemic-starved public?
Goldberg no doubt believes that he has written something that will provoke, traduce, and infuriate liberals everywhere. (For all his supposed fearlessness, though, he pulled one haymaker of a punch: the original subtitle of the book was The Totalitarian Temptation From Mussolini to Hillary Clinton. I'm mildly curious about the logic by which a writer who insists that Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy were fascists thought that the original subtitle violated some canon of judgment or taste.) For about fifty or sixty pages, I confess, I took the bait, and did my best to work myself into a lather. By page 200--there are 405 pages of actual text--offense was beside the point, and I was mentally imploring the author to get it over with. By page 300, I was bored out of my skull. And by the time I made it to the final pages, I was wishing that I had been invited instead to review a multi-volume history of farm subsidies.
But I made it all the way to the end--and to the atypically succinct coda, in which Goldberg expresses the hope that his efforts will serve the same noble, lonely cause that William Buckley aided on national television in 1968 when, after Gore Vidal called him a "crypto-Nazi," he flung the word "queer" at Vidal. (Except Goldberg hopes for greater "civility"!) So I can report with a clear conscience that Liberal Fascism is one of the most tedious and inane--and ultimately self-negating--books that I have ever read. I suspect our white-coated researchers of the future would conclude mainly that we were a society with too much time on our hands--or at least that there was once a certain Goldberg with far too much time on his. Liberal Fascism is a document of a deeply frivolous culture, or sub-culture.
Let us start by describing Goldberg's thesis neutrally, even respectfully. There is, to be sure, a little something to it.
Goldberg states that fascism is an elusive concept--difficult to define, even by historians, and used carelessly in contemporary discourse. This slipperiness has resulted chiefly from the fact that some of the manifestations of fascism--especially one particular manifestation, the Nazi Party of Hitler's Germany--are so transcendently horrific that we might seem almost obligated to allow this magnitude of evil to constitute the definition of fascism itself. But of course we are not so obligated. The Nazis exterminated millions of Jews and others, but it does not follow that genocide is a definitional trait of fascism. There is nothing egregious about such a qualification. Goldberg also notes rightly that whereas we also agree across ideological lines that Mussolini was a fascist, we all understand that Mussolini showed little to no interest in oppressing Jews until quite late in his career.
So what, finally, is fascism? Goldberg offers his own definition. He claims that fascism is "a religion of the state":
It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy.
The chief "rival identity," of course, is that of conservatism, and Goldberg, a noisy conservative pundit, has as his stated agenda the need "to dismantle the granitelike assumption in our political culture that American conservatism is an offshoot or cousin of fascism." He makes it abundantly clear that when some dopey lefty calls George W. Bush (or, for that matter, Jonah Goldberg) a fascist it really grates his cheese, and so he has set out to even the libelous score. He has taken it upon himself to make the case that fascism really has its antecedents on the left--that the American Progressive movement "was a sister movement of fascism." He shows that many American progressives in the 1920s, and even into the 1930s, expressed admiration for aspects of Italian or German society--Lincoln Steffens, or Rexford G. Tugwell. (He also makes it clear with thirty-two citations of this magazine that he considers it something like the historic house organ of liberal fascism.)
Goldberg proceeds to trace the development of liberal fascism from Woodrow Wilson--Goldberg states outright (he likes outing thoughts in their wildest form) that Wilson was "the twentieth century's first fascist dictator"--to Roosevelt to Kennedy to Johnson to SDS to Hollywood, culminating, natch, in Hillary Clinton's secret plan (very secret, for most of us) to have children removed from their families and reared by the state. Whatever their intentions, each and every one of the aforementioned liberal figures is nothing more than a victim of "the totalitarian temptation: the belief that there is a priesthood of experts capable of redesigning society in a 'progressive' manner."
Goldberg clearly means to shock us with these truffles that he has dug out of the woeful soil of the twentieth century. But very little of the story he tells is news to students of history. We had already heard that Steffens said of the Soviet Union, "I have been over into the future, and it works," so it is not exactly a shock to read that he had kind words for a similarly regimented society. We similarly understand that the Wilson administration did indeed shut down The Masses and fan racism and xenophobia and round up radicals, and no liberal today thinks of these moves as things to be proud of or to duplicate. We are also acutely aware that some New Dealers were fans of the totalitarian Soviet Union. Roosevelt's second vice-president was one such, and he kicked Henry Wallace off the ticket in 1944 for just that reason. Since Roosevelt did not manage to keep Wallace's expulsion out of the papers, it is not exactly a secret.
We have also recognized, since at least the 1950s and in some prescient instances even earlier, that certain consanguinities between the far left and the far right did exist in those days, and that the Nazi program was in some respects a left-wing program, appealing on a class basis--and, always, a racial basis--to German workers and the petit bourgeoisie. It was not called National Socialism for nothing. Goldberg goes into great detail on all this in his chapter titled--are you sitting down?--"Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left."
Now that is revisionism. But for all his chapter and verse on the proletarian rhetoric that Nazis employed, Goldberg somehow forgets to mention certain other salient matters, like the fact that within three months of taking power Hitler banned trade unions--and on the day after May Day, 1933. Their money was confiscated and their leaders imprisoned. And the trade unions were replaced with the Nazi "union" called the German Labor Front, which took away the right to strike. Hitler did many worse things, of course. I single out this act because it would hardly seem to be the edict of a "man of the left." And there exist about a million nearly epileptic quotes from Hitler and Goebbels and other Nazis expressing their luminous hatreds of liberalism and of communism, none of which seem to have found their way into the pages of Liberal Fascism.
These points are not all that is missing from Goldberg's "analysis." I wondered, while reading his execration of Wilson (with which one can agree up to a point) how he could be so worked up about "liberty cabbage"--the name given to sauerkraut during World War I, in a fit of xenophobic bowdlerization-- as evidence that America was at the time an explicitly fascist state, without it occurring to him that maybe, just maybe, his conscience should compel him to make note of our more recent business about "freedom fries." Remember this was not an abstraction: the name of French fries was in fact changed to "freedom fries" in all the House of Representatives cafeterias in 2003. But of this, not a word.
And why not a word, except for the lazy intellectual deception with which he had to know some reviewer would charge him? Here is where Liberal Fascism gets simply ridiculous. For Goldberg, the fact that Progressivism and totalitarianism shared certain traits--a belief in the possibility of collective action through the state, basically--tells him all he needs to know about both creeds. Ipso facto, any totalitarian impulse must therefore have leftish origins. Never mind that there actually was a totalitarianism for which the left was responsible--the one called communism. Goldberg is after more arcane understandings.
Meanwhile his own creed, conservatism, is a thing entirely apart, a blameless and wholesome--and, it practically goes without saying, vastly outnumbered--tendency that has had to fight Nazis and communists and liberals alike tooth and nail so as to prevent any sign of the incubation of a religion of the state. Hence there is no connection between "liberty cabbage" and "freedom fries": the former was the handiwork of statist brainwashers, the latter the handiwork of the native rising up of noble individualists.
And the connection, historically and ideologically, between fascism and conservatism? Goldberg explicitly denies that there is any such connection, any such complication. It is in fact categorically impossible for him, because conservatism is sagely not in the business of trying to improve people. And the attempt to improve people is Goldberg's only actual measure of what constitutes politics. Economics, the law, the tax code, the rights of workers or women or minorities--these things are worthy of some attention, but at the end of the day they do not really define politics. What defines politics is whether a belief system imposes itself on the individual. That Hitler had the backing of many conservative financiers whose names are well-known to history but missing from this book--Fritz Thyssen, Hjalmar Schacht, and the rest--isn't interesting to this conservative student of fascism. That Hitler and his cohort were vegetarians and health nuts, and thus similar to some left-leaning Americans today--now that is fascinating! Why, Dachau even "produced its own organic honey." What better proof of the kinship between fascism and liberalism?
Read again the passage I cited above, Goldberg's definition of fascism. Is it really equally true of liberalism and fascism that each "views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve the common good"? Is it equally true under each system that "everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives"? Is there really no appreciable difference--how clever, the way he slides quickly past this!-- between "force" and "regulation and social pressure"? This is ignorant nonsense, and over the course of four hundred pages it becomes excruciatingly dreary nonsense. Goldberg would have difficulty distinguishing between, say, seat-belt laws and the banning of political parties. Yes, the former may well be a manifestation of the "nanny state," but it does have an indisputable social utility--and more importantly it is not exactly comparable to the latter. Is Social Security a fascist program? Goldberg implies as much, partly because Roosevelt felt moved to push for the program owing to pressure from his (admittedly) quasi-fascistic left in the persons of Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and partly because Social Security is, after all, administered by the state. And once you start implementing public pension systems, well, how far away can the execution of political opponents really be?
Government, planning, centralized administration, social engineering, fascism, totalitarianism: for Goldberg they are all finally the same. Why isn't he an anarchist? And when you get to this point, what isn't fascist? Consider, for example, the text of the Emancipation Proclamation. It declared, "All persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free." What is that, if not the state imposing its heavy-handed will upon private, their-own-business-minding individuals (those who owned slaves)? It is all just bizarre--rather like saying that if I love The White Album, knowing that Charles Manson loved The White Album, then the heart of a mass murderer lurks somewhere inside me. We are, in sum, in methodological hell. The analytical interest in distinctions--in similarities and differences--has disappeared. Likewise the respect, fundamental to all serious intellectual inquiry, for countervailing evidence.
However much or little Goldberg knows about fascism, he knows next to nothing about liberalism. Anybody familiar with Liberalism 101 grasps that there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty. Liberal theorists from John Locke to Cass Sunstein, with hundreds in between, have addressed this point. It is absolutely central to liberal theory and liberal practice. We do believe in such a thing as the common good, yes we do. We want more of it, and we want a democratic leader who will summon us to believe in it, who will locate for us the intersection of self-interest and common interest at which citizens can be persuaded to participate, together, collectively, in a project larger than their own success. But where that collective urge crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals--I mean liberals who know something about liberalism--get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.
Goldberg is entitled, obviously, to his opinion that that line has been crossed in America. This is one of the central arguments between liberalism and conservatism. But please. No liberal Democratic president ever banned the opposition party. The Civilian Conservation Corps was not the Hitler Youth. Labeling food is not the same thing as forcing everyone by diktat to eat only quinoa. To suggest that they are the same is to waste the republic's time.
Here Goldberg would object: "Ah, but I don't say they're the same." And he would have a point. Throughout Liberal Fascism, he takes pains to say they are not the same. The book is replete with cautious backtracking. Here is an instance, from his chapter on liberal racism. "If you fall outside the liberal consensus [on race and diversity]," he writes, "you are either evil or an abettor of evil." And he hastens to add: "Now, of course you're not going to get a visit from the Gestapo if you see the world differently; if you don't think the good kind of diversity is skin deep or that the only legitimate community is the one where 'we're all in this together,' you won't be dragged off to reeducation camp. But you very well may be sent off to counseling or sensitivity training." I can't help thinking how much preferable counseling would have been to the Jews in the 1940s and sensitivity training to the Cambodians in the 1970s. And I note, with a modicum of gratitude, that Goldberg is here conceding that "liberal fascism" is a soft fascism, whose enthusiasm for enforcing its decrees is not the equal of fascism at its most classical.
Likewise, about Hillary Clinton, Goldberg notes, as if to be scrupulous, that "the liberal project [she] represents is in no way a Nazi project." A fair- minded admission for a right-winger! And maybe even a courageous one, where he lives. And he continues: "The last thing she would want is to promote ethnic nationalism, anti-Semitism or aggressive wars of conquest." Once again, the mutanda have been admirably mutated. But not mutated enough. He concludes this way: "So while there are light-years of distance between the programs of liberals and those of Nazis or Italian Fascists the underlying impulse, the totalitarian temptation, is present in both." As always in this book, the canard survives the complexities.
Isn't all this at once so broad and so qualified as to be meaningless? (Don't worry, my ellipses do not cut out anything inconvenient to my argument. See for yourself on page 327.) Hillary Clinton does not seek any of the goals that fascists have traditionally sought, but somehow she is like them. And so on. Whole Foods is obviously a pretty fascistic enterprise, especially its EnviroKidz cereal line, but "none of this is evil, and it is certainly well- meaning." Also, liberals "are not cartoonish Nazi villains," and "the danger they pose isn't existential or Orwellian." Lurking behind all these futile disclaimers may be Goldberg's well-founded fear that intelligent or knowledgeable readers might conclude that he is crazy.
The great danger, Goldberg writes in the book's closing pages, is simply that "the promise of American life will be frittered away for a bag of magic beans called security." So that's it? Four hundred-plus pages, three-plus years of writing (I have been hearing about this book since 2005), and the concluding indictment is only that liberals are over-eager in their desire to use the state to provide people with material security? In the good old days of contemporary anti-liberalism--I mean the 1980s--right-wingers used to be able to make that point in just a sentence. Like I say--too much time on his hands.
Michael Tomasky is the editor of Guardian America, the U.S.-based website of the Guardian (UK).