LIBERAL FASCISM: THE SECRET HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN LEFT FROM MUSSOLINI TO THE POLITICS OF MEANING
By Jonah Goldberg
Doubleday, $27.95, 487 pages
REVIEWED BY LARRY THORNBERRY
Jonah Goldberg’s book is a major contribution to understanding the history of political ideas and attitudes over the last two centuries and change. It’s also elucidates the present intense culture clash between traditionalists and folks calling themselves liberals, leftists, progressives, etc. The current favorite with the latter lot is “progressive” because it sounds benign.
Mr. Goldberg’s case is that American liberalism has much more in common intellectually and attitudinally with fascism than conservatism does. The American variety of fascism, liberal fascism, is a mild business compared to what’s taken place in Europe. It’s fascism with a smile. A mommy fascism.
Fascism is one of those words used by many who have no clue what it means or what its pedigree is. This is partly because the concept is vague. Political scientists don’t even agree what fascism is. We could say of fascism what philosopher George Santayana said of snobbery, another difficult concept to define, that to be called a fascist, like being called a snob, “is a vague description but a very clear insult.”
Almost always when the term fascism is used today the intent is insult rather than precision. The word has a toxic association with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. So leftists in America (and elsewhere in the West) freely and intentionally use it to tar anyone who disagrees with them or their policies. The word is a polemical weapon rather than a clarifying term of description.
Comes now Mr. Goldberg, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a contributing editor to National Review, to provide clarification and history. Readers of Mr. Goldberg’s column and articles are warned that they will find little of his usual humor and whimsy. “Liberal Fascism” is not a tome. But it’s a relentlessly analytic treatment of a large, serious and complex subject.
Fascism, in its various incarnations, is a kind of supercharged nationalism that rejects individual liberty in the name of the state and is often, but not always, racialist, militarist, and expansionist. It’s usually hostile to religion, firing God and replacing Him with a secular dictator. Mussolini invented the word totalitarian “to describe a society where everybody belonged, where everyone was taken care of, where everything was inside the state and nothing was outside: where truly no child was left behind.”
Mr. Goldberg locates fascism’s theoretical beginnings in Hegelian historicism, Rousseau’s “general will,” Darwin’s survival of the fittest. These ideas, the last stop on all of whose lines is totalitarianism, have long been in competition with the ideas of the Enlightenment and America’s Founding Fathers.
They’re also directly crosswise with the teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first ugly incarnation of fascism followed the French Revolution, which gave us perhaps the first two recognizably modern dictators in Robespierre and Napoleon.
Mr. Goldberg dispels the commonly-held idea that communism and fascism are left/right opposites. He argues fascism is simply communism with a national rather than an international and class-based spin, and is a phenomenon of the left. Communism and fascism are both forms of socialism (Hitler’s party was, after all, the National Socialist German Workers Party). They are, “closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space.”
It’s also important to recognize that all fascisms are not alike. As fascism is a national phenomenon, it takes on the character of its host country. Italian fascism, for example, was not nearly as jack-booted as the German variant, and wasn’t even anti-Semitic until the Nazis forced the Italians late in the game to be allies in “Final Solution” thinking.
“Nazism was the product of German culture, grown out of a German context,” Mr. Goldberg writes. “The Holocaust could not have happened in Italy, because Italians are not Germans.”