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.”
America has not escaped fascism. Mr. Goldberg identifies three periods when the predominant ideas in the American political scene were those most fascists would find simpatico, or when our actual government could legitimately be called fascist, as under Woodrow Wilson during World War I.
Wilson curtailed Americans’ freedoms and bullied American citizens in ways that make Joe McCarthy seem like a rabid civil libertarian by comparison. Ways no American would stand still for today. Wilson was a “progressive” who saw WWI as “a crusade to redeem the whole world.”
The second period was the New Deal years, when FDR, who had been active in the Wilson administration, played fast and loose with Americans’ liberties in the name of fighting the Great Depression. The third period is the Sixties, where large numbers of young people and university students, always good fodder for the gauzy and romantic notions of fascism, perfected the technique of the tantrum in order try to bend human nature in the direction they thought they wanted.
Finally Mr. Goldberg addresses today, providing chapter and verse on what he sees as a political left pushing a secular, “for your own good” progressivism that may as well be called fascism because its aim is for the state to micro-manage every area of life. Progressivism’s wholly-owned subsidiaries include feminism and environmentalism as well as various food and health fetishes.
The various items we now refer to as the “nanny state” have long pedigrees through Bismarck’s Prussia in the 19th century and the various fascisms of Western Europe in the last century.
Mr. Goldberg largely avoids partisan political excursions, though he can’t help but identify the party of the left in America as the Democrats. And he can’t avoid commenting on one of the more visible current icons of the nanny-left.
“No more thorough explication of the liberal fascist agenda can be found than in Hillary Clinton’s best-selling book, ‘It Takes a Village’,” Mr. Goldberg writes. “All the hallmarks of the fascist enterprise reside within in pages.” These include the superiority of the state-directed life over individual responsibility, even to the extent of the state having more say than parents in the raising of children.
Mr. Goldberg is not making the point that American liberals are crypto-Nazis. They aren’t. The kind of feminine fascist government America would likely see probably wouldn’t have concentration camps but would have a Secretary of Hugs. More “Brave New World” than “1984.”
The book points out that conservatives, particularly the “compassionate” kind, are not immune to the totalitarian temptation. But most of the 24/7 social engineering comes from leftists, even while they insist they are not trying to force their values on anyone. They are the cultural aggressors, battling to push conservative values aside, and ready to call conservatives fascists when they resist.
“Liberal Fascism” is a kind of political scorecard which will enable careful readers and observers to identify the players. This is a long book, dense with detail and analysis. Readers will have to set aside some serious time to read it (as Mr. Goldberg obviously did to research it and write it). But for anyone wishing to understand the contemporary political scene, it will repay that reading time handsomely.
Larry Thornberry is a writer living in Tampa.