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Poor Scholarship, Wrong Conclusions

HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism

"Fascism is definitely and absolutely opposed to the doctrines of liberalism, both in the political and the economic sphere," proclaimed Mussolini in his co-written The Doctrine of Fascism from 1932, for this is the century of authority, a century tending to the "right", a Fascist century.  If the nineteenth century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the "collective" century, and therefore the century of the State.  It is quite logical for a new doctrine to make use of the still vital elements of other doctrines.

But what did he know?  Had Mussolini's co-author been a pugilistic journalist like Jonah Goldberg rather than a fascist intellectual like Giovanni Gentile, that keystone of texts on fascist ideology would have sounded more like this, from a chapter remarkably entitled "Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left":  "What distinguished Nazism from other brands of socialism and communism […] was that it forthrightly included a worldview we now associate almost completely with the political left:  identity politics."  Or this:  "saying 'it's a black thing' is philosophically no different from saying 'it's an Aryan thing.'"  Or again:  "The white male is the Jew of liberal fascism."  And finally:  "Vegetarianism, public health and animal rights were merely different facets of the obsession with the organic order that pervaded the German fascist mind then, and the liberal fascist mind today."  (73, 282, 368 389; references made to 2007 edition).  If you believe Liberal Fascism – and if you do, truly, you will believe anything – fascism is absolutely apposed to liberalism, part of a century tending to the left, not the right.  All the same, in his afterword, Goldberg claims to "have written this book largely to set the record straight and to educate myself – and others – about the real meaning and nature of fascism." (393)

Yet even The Doctrine of Fascism would not be fascism in Goldberg's hands.  For fascism is not fascism here.  It is anything Goldberg wishes it to be; notably trends in modern American politics and culture that he clearly dislikes.  The few references above make Goldberg's polemicist style evident; this is certainly not a book for anyone attempting a better understanding of fascist ideology, although it may be a useful barometer of the so-called "culture wars" in the contemporary United States.  At points, Liberal Fascism even admits as much; for example, "one of the main reasons I've written the book [is] to puncture the smug self-confidence that simply by virtue of being liberal one is also virtuous" (317-8).  Indeed, the book's first paragraph already sets out the real antagonists in Goldberg's account, namely "[a]ngry liberals" and "besieged conservatives."  Regrettably, his hostility better characterizes the rhetoric of ideological rivals like fascism and communism – radical right-wing and radical left-wing, respectively, despite Goldberg's sleight of hand – rather than one end of a democratic spectrum.  And you certainly wouldn't know that fascists and communists fought it out on the streets and battlefields for very different ideological doctrines.  Instead, reading Liberal Fascism, you might think they rather liked one another.

Then again, this book is selective of facts and irresponsible of interpretation to the point historical obfuscation.  This is in order to serve the underlying thesis, such as it is:  "many of the ideas and impulses that inform what we call liberalism come to us through an intellectual tradition that led directly to fascism." (9)  From this utterly fanciful suggestion follows, astonishingly, that "Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century's first fascist dictator….  In Italy they were called Fascists.  In Germany they were called National Socialists.  In America we called them progressives." (80-1)  Never mind that Mussolini founded the first fascist movement in 1919, just as Wilson was being outflanked by Congress on the Treaty of Versailles.  And never mind that Mussolini was totalitarian precisely because he sought to abolish a constitutional order with checks and balances for an explicitly proclaimed revolution against liberal decadence.  In fact, never mind that "he made up the word," (52) but that, in actuality, the term "totalitarianism" was coined earlier by an Italian anti-fascist liberal named Giovanni Amendola (and it is worth noting, killed for his opinions by Fascist Italy).  And again, never mind that Gregor Strasser's quote advocating socialism was made in the mid-1920s (71) – a time when Nazism sought working-class support from Northern Germany via regional leaders like the Strasser brothers and Joseph Goebbels – a few years before just such "left-wing" views helped cost him all Nazi Party posts in late 1932, finally resulting in his murder during the "Night of the Long Knives."

It is the latter tactic Liberal Fascism deploys most frequently throughout:  selectivity.  For Gregor Strasser's story is that of the crushing of leftism by the NSDAP (even before abolishing the German trade unions on 2 May 1933), not proof of the Nazis' embrace of socialism, let alone liberalism.  Yet reading Goldberg’s account, you might forget that Wilson's famed "Fourteen Points" were democratic blueprints for a peaceful future in Chapter 3; or even, in Chapter 4, you may think that FDR actually fought alongside Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy rather than first acting as the "arsenal of democracy" and then joining the Allies in World War II.  Similarly in Chapter 5, Nazi scapegoating of Jews during the 1930s betrayed "an identical spirit" (178) later shown by "black fascists" (174) on 1960s American college campuses – but only if you forget that both were historically persecuted groups, and the latter were not acting in the context of an ethnocentric dictatorship.  The same interpretative shenanigans is at work everywhere in Liberal Fascism:  from JFK's "fascist aesthetics" in Chapter 6 (209) to America's "fundamentally fascistic economic system" decried in Chapter 8 (303); from Hillary Clinton's "politics of meaning" as "thoroughly totalitarian" (330) in Chapter 9 to the rant against American popular culture in Chapter 10 [e.g. "Hip-hop culture has incorporated a shocking number of fascist themes," or, "in terms of what we like on both big screens and small, we are all fascists now" (368, 374)]:  all these things are only true if you treat fascist ideology so elastically as to make it mean whatever you want.

Despite superficial references to scholars of fascism on pages 2 and 3 (and conservatively scattered throughout the rest of the book), there is virtually no engagement with the term beyond, ironically, precisely that which Goldberg accuses his liberal straw-men of throughout:  employment of "fascism" as a simple term of abuse.  The only difference here is that this bestselling book uses fascism as a complex term of abuse over nearly 500 pages (including outdated references and a detailed index).  Needless to say, Goldberg's use of scholarship on fascism, like his use of the term itself, is haphazardly employed throughout.  Despite Liberal Fascism’s attempt to muddy the conceptual waters, fascism remains a coherent ideology defining itself against liberalism and socialism (hence "Third Way" in a decisively non-democratic sense) by way of revolutionary change, one aimed at comprehensively purifying and homogenizing all aspects of society – political, cultural, and economic.  This was to be a national regeneration, or more specifically and explicitly during fascism's heyday in the 1930s, a revolution from the right.

For a decade or more, an impressive array of scholars has subscribed to this "new consensus" on generic fascism.  For instance, it has long been recognized, as Mussolini notes in the quotation above, that fascist ideology was "syncretic"; that is, it was a notorious ideological "scavenger" – it appropriated ideas from both left and right, conservative and radical, foreign and domestic, in its formation between the wars.  Because fascist ideology was the "latecomer" vis-à-vis liberalism and socialism, radical nationalists needed to play the hand they were dealt.  But Goldberg studiously ignores such consistency of interpretation in favor of merely selecting characteristics frequently visible from interwar fascist movements, like youth activism or racism, and then haphazardly applies them to a risible rewriting of twentieth century American history.  Thus when Goldberg compares, say, Hillary Clinton's child welfare programs to a Hitler Youth manual asserting "'you have the duty to be healthy!'" (388), it may sound credible at first – but only until it is remembered that young male membership was mandatory for the Hitler Youth, whose motto was "We were born to die for Germany."  There is nothing remotely resembling a eugenic cult of a single racial type like this in the annals of liberal democracy, of course.  How about Goldberg's asides such as "Or as the Nazis said more pithily, 'Work makes you free'" (334; actually used over the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau); or again, "This is the Volksgemeinschaft reborn as a Social Gospel day-care center" (339):  no it isn’t, not nearly.  In fact, it is irresponsible to make the comparison.

In sum, Liberal Fascism is less a work of neutral scholarship or unbiased journalism than thinly veiled historical revisionism.  It is this latter point that bears underscoring in conclusion:  irresponsibility.  For in so one-sidedly, so superficially, so wrongly applying fascist ideology to American history, Goldberg does not just confuse understandings of generic fascism – proper scholarship will be untroubled by this nonsense, although popular views of the term may be set back a generation.  Worse still, he gives aid and succor to enemies of liberal democracy, enemies who wish to see fascism rehabilitated, normalized, and recognized as beneficial.  To name but one:  actual fascist ideologues like Lyndon LaRouche gain tremendously from calling liberal democrats "fascists," and Goldberg's handful of caveats will do little to dispel his catchy semantic elision "liberal fascists."  In fact, it has been part of LaRouche’s shtick for years – calling his enemies "fascists", seeking to invert the term for his own prejudices and political purposes – despite running for president on the Democratic ticket (!) no less than nine times.  The political cult’s campaign against "Green fascism" (381ff) is but one longstanding example amongst many.  Unlikely bedfellows, perhaps.  But no less an ideological conflation and historical caricature than Goldberg’s wholly unrecognizable portrait of what is, and must remain, an oxymoron for the perverse formulation "liberal fascism."