Two years after reaching to the top of the non-fiction bestseller lists, Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism remains an influential book on the right. If you blog on topics that overlap with its subject matter, especially if you argue in any way against its thesis, conservative commenters will link you to it, seemingly under the presumption that, if only you had fully imbibed of its wisdom, you could never be so complacent about the evil ones on the other side of the American discussion.
As for that other side, Goldberg may at least have made leftists a bit more self-conscious about dropping the political f-bomb on their opponents, perhaps because those opponents have learned a set of comebacks. In fact, partly due to the work of those who have taken up Goldberg’s arguments and run with them, the thesis has been taken a step further than the author claimed he wanted to go. Goldberg writes insistently that, of course, he didn’t really mean to suggest that liberals are the same, or virtually the same, or as bad as, the real fascists. Yet it’s not hard to find that thinking, in pretty much those words, on the internet right. In part by lending his services to popularizers, but also by virtue of the argument as he set it down in 400-plus pages, Goldberg has encouraged that development.
Here’s Goldberg’s “working definition” of fascism, from LF‘s first chapter “Everything You Know About Fascism Is Wrong”:
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. I will argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies all of these aspects of fascism.
Though I don’t presume an obligation to treat reference works like Webster’s Dictionary or, even less, Wikipedia as authoritative, I prefer their more conventional definitions, on what I believe to be strong historical as well as common sense grounds. Webster’s defines fascism as “a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.” The Wikipedia entry commences as follows:
Fascism […] is a radical and authoritarian nationalist political ideology. Fascists seek to organize a nation on corporatist perspectives; values; and systems such as the political system and the economy. Scholars generally consider fascism to be on the far right of the conventional left-right political spectrum although some scholars claim that fascism has been influenced by both the left and the right.
Fascists believe that a nation is an organic community that requires strong leadership, singular collective identity, and the will and ability to commit violence and wage war in order to keep the nation strong.
Both reference works stress, and Wikipedia goes on to refer repeatedly, to violence (political violence, coercive force, and war) and to nationalism/racism (nation and race being intimately connected in fascist theory and practice).
If you return to Goldberg’s definition, you will find vague, highly subordinate references on these themes, under a generally softer language. Goldberg also acknowledges no need to address the other half of his title, and I believe this omission may be indicative: No separate definition of “liberal” needs to appear, because it’s already encompassed in his prejudicial treatment of the other term. “Fascism” is already “liberalized” – the definition presumes the proof. In other words, the author has beveled the sharp edges of his square peg, fascism, to make it slide easily into the round hole of liberalism.
Goldberg is well aware of the fact that his definition is non-standard, but when he addresses the standard view of fascism, he merely performs the same sleight-of-hand a second time:
It we are to be believe that “classic” fascism is first and foremost the elevation of martial values and the militarization of government and society under the banner of nationalism, it is very difficult to understand why the Progressive Era was not also the Fascist Era.
And so a direct and remainderless equation of Progressivism and Fascism is already being narrated, if not quite fully affirmed.
In the above passage Goldberg is referring to the “war socialism” of the Wilson Administration. We should note that the historical moment, the end of Wilson’s tragic second term, marks the end of the historian’s first generation of progressivism, and took place at least 40 years after the word “progressive” first came into broad usage in America to denote post-Reconstruction thinking about social, economic, and political reform. Whether war socialism was the crystallization of early progressivism or its transformation into something else altogether is debatable, but, whichever side you tend to on this question, we can also note that many progressives of Wilson’s day, the capital S Socialists and capital P Progressives, opposed Wilson on the war – the perennial Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V Debs from prison, the famed Progressive Senator Robert La Follette only somewhat more comfortably from the Senate floor, to which for one climactic war debate he felt the need to carry a loaded gun.
In the discussion of war socialism, and of a self-consciously provocative claim that Wilson headed the world’s first fascist government, Goldberg never notes that the overt militarism, avaricious nationalism, and glorification of war that were part and parcel of “classic” fascism were all things that Wilson distinguished himself by opposing – even to the last extremity of his health. For Mussolini, writing in the Doctrine of Fascism, “war alone key[ed] up all human energies to their maximum tension and set… the seal of nobility on those peoples who have the courage to face it.” For Hitler, war was the vehicle through which the Master Race would prove its superiority. Quite typically, when finally facing defeat in international trial by combat, he judged the German people as having proved themselves worthy only of extinction. War for both fascist leaders and for their movements was the continuation of political violence by improved means. It was to be embraced as the supreme test of worth and truth, not resisted.
The contrast to Wilson is diametrically stark. Though in earlier years he had spoken approvingly, if abstractly and non-militantly, on imperialism, as president he opposed intervention in the internal affairs of Mexico, which was undergoing revolutionary turmoil over an extended period. Restraint on Mexico was the true origin of the famous slogan of Wilson’s 1916 re-election campaign, “He kept us out of war.” Wilson himself understood how the statement was being overextended to include the Great War as well, and expressed reservations, since he knew that events beyond his control might sweep the U.S. into the conflict at any time.
Goldberg repeats the common misremembering of Wilson’s supposedly violated peace promise, then glibly determines the actual declaration – prompted among other things by German meddling in Mexico, unrestricted submarine warfare against merchant shipping, the collapse of the Russian front, and a wave of popular pressure – to have been “probably… misguided.” (One suspects that in parallel circumstances today, such provocations would receive a rather different response from Goldberg or at least from his usual political allies.) After years struggling to broker a peace, attacked by the era’s doves and hawks, across parties, Wilson finally did bring us into war, but did so while calling for “peace without victory” and the establishment of a League of Nations designed to keep that peace. Given the political and personal sacrifices Wilson made to those ends, and the fight he undertook against those united around earlier intervention and then harsher demands, to group him retrospectively with history’s greatest warmongers verges on obscenity.
The discussion of war socialism is not Liberal Fascism‘s only slanted and highly selective historical recitation. The question it leaves a reader with can stand for others raised by the book: If Wilson’s war administration betrayed fascist characteristics – heightened and even excessive internal security measures, reduced civil liberties, earnest efforts to rally support, and hope that it all might be good for something after all – which wartime government ever, anywhere, hasn’t done so, according to the reigning means, methods, and values of the time and place?
Rather than reaching for a useful answer on this and parallel questions, Goldberg instead ends up saying things – or seeming to – that I suspect he doesn’t really believe at all, as when, in the joint denunciation of “Third Way” and “Progressive” movements that follows the war discussion, he leaves himself with no political alternative on Earth between “laissez-faire individualism and Marxist socialism” – no alternative, that is, other than the imposition of “a unifying, totalitarian moral order.”
It’s a political philosophy of the extruded and amputated middle. In Goldberg’s reading the echoes between progressive and fascist desires to “transcend class differences” make it “very difficult not to notice how the progressives fit the objective criteria for a fascist movement set forth by so many students of the field.” I suspect that in almost any other context, the conservative fans of LF would proudly affirm the traditional American disregard for Old World class structures. In the pages of Liberal Fascism, this aspect of Americanism suddenly turns deeply and darkly suspect, just as any recent or historical statements in favor of national unity, social justice, the responsibilities of the wealthy, war bonds, or dental hygiene are treated as signs of fiendish conspiracies and the end of America by those even less restrained in their rhetoric than Goldberg is.
Liberal Fascism remains worth reading as background for contemporary political discussion, and for understanding our peculiar political moment – which has come into view as the prematurely announced death and unexpected re-efflorescence of a demonstratively self-confident conservatism. Yet the comforting exaggerations and ideological short-cuts, historical curse words, the imputation of the the worst imaginable intentions to all political adversaries, reflect an unreformed, self-defeating desperation. Maybe, as Goldberg writes in the last paragraph of Liberal Fascism, when protesting the other side’s insulting tactics, it’s past time to cry, “Enough!”