The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
By Jonah Goldberg
Doubleday, $27.95, 487 pp.
Review by David Forsmark
That "thwack" you hear from coast to coast is conservative book-writing pundits smacking themselves on the forehead and exclaiming, "Why didn't I think of that?"
The reason is National Review editor Jonah Goldberg's new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, as it racks up huge sales and dominates best-seller lists.
It's a natural — even obvious — idea whose time has come.
The packaging is simple but brilliant, with a provocative title and one of the all-time classic dust jackets. The book is at once "high-concept" (a subject that can be defined simply and compellingly), yet unlike much of what passes as political publishing these days, Goldberg provides enough substance and complexity to justify his book's length and price.
In fact, most readers who pick up Liberal Fascism would wonder why hasn't anyone given us this great resource before now.
Not only is the topic is ubiquitous -- it's nearly impossible to engage in any form of conservative activism, from advocating tax cuts to protesting abortion without some ignorant leftie throwing the word "fascist" in your direction — but it's also been going on for more than 60 years.
As George Orwell wrote in 1946, "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" Of course, PC institutions like the mainstream media or academe have another synonym for everything not desirable: conservative.
Those of us who have been on the receiving end of the fascist epithet generally have a stock answer depending on the topic. If the argument is economic, it's common to point out that national socialism (fascism) is hardly the polar opposite of international socialism (communism), but free markets are the opposite of both. And nearly every pro-life activist knows that Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was a rabid eugenicist who was more interested in selective breeding than "choice" -- and she provided Nazis a platform in her publications.
Goldberg covers this ground as well in a most enlightening way. How many conservatives, for example, know the stated end goal of the early 20th century Progressive movement was the engineering of a superior race by statist means?
When most people hear "fascist," they think "Nazi" or "blackshirt," and associate the phrase "right wing" with both. Goldberg dismisses that with this pithy paragraph:
"So, we are supposed to see a party in favor of universal education, guaranteed employment, increased entitlements for the aged, the expropriation of land without compensation, the nationalization of industry, the abolition of market-based lending -- a.k.a. 'interest slavery'— the expansion of health services, and the abolition of child labor as objectively right wing."
There is a political party that has two presidential candidates vying for their nomination who, to one degree or another, agrees with all these platforms of the German Nazi Party of the 1930s. Hint: It's not the Republican Party.
Much of the historical content in Liberal Fascism is far from a new take on events. Any discussion of fascism on the Frontpage message boards brings up the main points of Goldberg's theses. (On the day I started Liberal Fascism, in fact, I was called a fascist by a pacifist wingnut for writing positively about the value system US military, and several readers jumped to my defense).
There have always been excellent historical sources available for conservatives to counter the fascist slur. Charles Bracelin Floods excellent Hitler: The Path to Power, gives a detailed picture of Hitler's appropriation of Communist tactics and ideas, Thomas Fleming's popular The Illusion of Victory is a thorough expose of Woodrow Wilson's fascist tactics, which included jailing of dissidents, using propaganda, adopting openly racist policies and thirsting for war. And Amity Shlaes's recent The Forgotten Man reminds us that FDR not only declared war on big business, but his goons also tried to retroactively imprison those businesses that were contrary to the goals of the National Recovery Act.
But no matter how informative these and other resources are, no other single book I know of has been devoted to this topic in particular. Liberal Fascism is the rare tool that has the potential to change the vernacular — or at least give powerful backup to those engaged in the war of words..
Goldberg's focus is is perfectly timed. After generations of misappropriating the word "liberal" and thoroughly discrediting a word that classically applies better to George Washington than to George McGovern, the American Left has reclaimed its roots by attempting to resurrect the euphemism of "progressive" to describe itself.
This would seem a good public relations move. Everyone is for "progress," and all anyone remembers about the Progressives from high school history class is that they were for food safety standards, banning child labor, breaking up predatory monopolies and reforming slumlords.
But as Goldberg points out, America's turn-of-the-century progressives were the direct intellectual forebears of 1930s fascism, and many of those who lived that long actively supported both the Italian and German "experiments."
The Progressives and fascists both admired Bismarck's welfare state, though the collapse of Christianity in Europe was replaced by a religion of the state, while the Social Gospel -- the means for perfecting the masses -- became dominant in America.
The Progressives' variety, Goldberg writes, was "nice and for your own good … a sort of Christian fascism. … But liberals often forget that the Progressives were also imperialists, at home and abroad. They were the authors of Prohibition, the Palmer Raids, eugenics, loyalty oaths, and, in its modern incarnation, what many would call 'state capitalism.'"
As Goldberg points out, both fascists like Italy's Benito Mussolini and progressives like Woodrow Wilson claimed the same intellectual forebears, and it is utterly specious to posit that modern conservatives and fascists have any intellectual roots in common. Conservatives simply draw no inspiration from Hegel, Nietzsche or Rousseau; fascists and progressives do — and Wilson and Mussolini expressly did.
One of the great ironies — and strokes of genius — of Goldberg's approach is the book's title. Media commentators who have not read the book have brushed it off as "Ann Coulter-like" merely because they are offended by the title.
But the phrase was coined by one of early Progressivism's brightest and most enduring stars -- science fiction writer and socialist H. G. Wells, who is still a literary hero of the Left. Wells coined the phrase "liberal fascism," while opining that the world had "tired of parliamentary government" and was ready for just such a phenomenon.
Lefties often admire Wells, a Fabian Socialist, for his utopian vision, but they conveniently overlook his fondness for even forcible eugenic experiments. Similarly whitewashed is Wilson, who gets "credit" for visualizing world peace through the League of Nations even though his vision cost 100,000 American lives and ended in abject failure.
But Wilson was the also epitome of a Progressive president in deed and word. Goldberg points out that Leftists are always on the guard for a future fascist dictatorship just waiting to pounce from the shadows of the conservative movement (a la Sinclair Lewis's ironically titled novel, It Can't Happen Here). But Goldberg notes Lewis was late. America had already experienced fascist dictatorship under Wilson.
Consider the following:
- Wilson lied about German atrocities to fire the nation up for war.
- Wilson used the American Legion as a domestic spying organization to suppress dissent, even in private conversation.
- Wilson's police state jailed people for expressing doubts about War Bond drives.
- Wilson appropriated vast powers over the economy during World War I — authority that the Progressives tried to keep even as peace arrived with the slogan, "It worked in wartime."
By the 1930s, it could have been proclaimed, "We are all fascists now." Goldberg, like Shlaes, points out that Herbert Hoover was hardly a free market fan, but his tinkering with the economy was nothing compared to the massive control that Franklin Roosevelt asserted during the Great Depression.
The New Deal revolutions were far too vast to be dealt with in one chapter, but Goldberg's recounting of the National Recovery Act's program and its bullying tactics -- combined with a suspiciously Germanic "Blue Eagle" trademark -- makes one wonder what modern liberals flyspecking for the slightest whiff of fascist tendencies in conservatism would make of it — if they had any real historical memory.
But while pointing out these similarities and following the intellectual and political threads through Democratic politics to the present day, Goldberg effectively turns "Bush is a Nazi" rhetoric on its head-- but repeatedly says, "liberals are not Nazis."
Goldberg makes the point that American fascism is warm and fuzzy fascism of the we-will-take-care-of-you variety — or, as George Carlin put it (though he undoubtedly meant something else), "smiley face fascism."
But even smiley fascists need an enemy for motivation, a rallying point for their anger. Though modern liberal fascists may not be genocidal, they do have a target. "The white male," Goldberg writes, "is the Jew of liberal fascism."
The first two-thirds of Liberal Fascism is the most valuable. It exposes the attitudes, philosophies and actions of the early heroes of the leftist pantheon as being firmly and unapologetically in the fascist camp. Goldberg kills the argument that liberty-based conservatism has fascist ancestry, then drags the corpse around the block and stomps on it several times for good measure.
Among the common threads of Progressivism, fascism and modern liberalism that Goldberg explores are:
- Calls for an "industrial policy" with various degrees of state economic control.
- Eugenics, from selective breeding in the 1930s, abortion politics and cloning today.
- Rhetorical calls for change for its own sake.
- Separating children from parental authority.
- Applying the language of war to domestic problems.
- Dependence on martyred leaders -- be it Horst Wessel orJohn F. Kennedy -- to give the movement a religious fervor.
It's when Goldberg gets to the modern day that things get a little dicey-- though no less entertaining or interesting. Even those who agree with Goldberg's thesis will find much worth arguing over in the later chapters. And they'll have a ball doing so.
While Goldberg's tracing of fascist intellectual genealogy through to its current "liberal" offspring is persuasive, his discussion of fascist style is pretty subjective.
For one thing, Goldberg tends to describe any outward trait manifested by fascists as "fascistic." But fascists were influenced by history and culture too, and are, after all, human. Not everything fascists did — even as a group — in unique to fascism.
In his section on the New Left, Goldberg recounts the radical student takeover of Cornell's administration building in 1969 and takes great delight comparing it to similar pro-fascist student uprisings in Germany in the 1930s. (And I eagerly anticipate someday being able to make use of those comparisons in a face-to-face argument.)
But Goldberg later admits the forcible methods of ideological "confessions" and students bullying professors into recanting their beliefs more directly hearkens to Mao's Cultural Revolution of a few years earlier. But, he inserts, "Who more classically fits the definition of fascist than Mao?"
While this is an interesting example that shows that Communism and fascism are nearly interchangeable on many levels, to conflate completely the two is to be terribly imprecise. If you can't call Mao a Communist, the word has no meaning.
While admitting to be a fan of the Dirty Harry films, Goldberg later writes that liberals "were not wrong" to detect "fascist themes" in the movies. Harry, in effect, was a revolutionary taking the law into his own hands as a Nietzsche-esque superman, Goldberg contends.
But he misses the point: Detective Harry Callahan was rebelling against liberal fascists in Dirty Harry by fighting to preserve the old order of justice, whose primary concern was protection of the innocent. His opponents were the revolutionaries who had rewritten the Constitution by judicial fiat. Dirty Harry was more Samuel Adams than Horst Wessell; his rebellion was in defense of liberty and, thus, was a conservative.
At times, it seems a more precise — but less cool -- title for this book would have been Democrat Fascism. President Theodore Roosevelt makes several cameo appearances s in Liberal Fascism, but he does not get the full treatment despite his post-presidential prominence in Progressive circles.
And while it took until the turn of the century for American Progressives to bloom into full-fledged fascists, the Radical Republicans of Lincoln's time should get some mention as a historical influence.
What better example of a warlike religion of the state could there be than Julia Ward Howe's Battle Hymn of the Republic and its reveling in the imagery of Confederate blood as being stomped in a divine winepress by the Union armies of God?
Goldberg sees the "fascist temptation" in "compassionate conservatism," including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's stated admiration for early progressives and a boomlet of TR admiration among the GOP intelligentsia in the late 1990s. Still, he shies away from using the f-word directly on Republicans.
Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain, however, does rate this pointed paragraph in the chapter "Liberal Fascist Economics:":
"John McCain perfectly symbolizes the Catch-22 of modern liberalism. McCain despises the corrupting effect of 'big money' in politics, but he is also a major advocate of increase government regulation of business. Apparently, he cannot see that the more government regulates business, the more business will take an interest in regulating government. Instead, he has concluded that he should try to regulate political speech, which is like decrying the size of the garbage dump and deciding the best thing to do is regulate the flies.
American politicians spend so much time extolling past American icons that we tend to treat it like background noise. Perhaps we should grant that McCain really means it when he calls Teddy Roosevelt his role model.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, however, rates a whole chapter called "Brave New Village," which is a good antidote to all the "moderate" and "pragmatic" talk around the former first lady.
"Liberal Fascism" is a rich motherlode of facts, ideas, philosophy, polemic and brilliant bull session. I've only scratched the surface with this column. This is a book that belongs on your shelf and consulted often if you regularly argue about such things with lefties.
Besides, it's a lot of fun just to carry around. Just walk into a Starbucks or a Borders café and plop it on your table. It has a similar repelling effect as crosses in one of Jonah Goldberg's favorite TV shows, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The expressions you engender alone are worth the 28 bucks. Trust me on this.