[This book review is scheduled for publication in the Winter 2009 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies.]

Book Review 


Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Change

Jonah Goldberg

Broadway Books, 2007, 2009 


        In one of the testimonials cited before the title page of this book, libertarian scholar Charles Murray  writes that his first impression was that this book would be an exercise in partisan hyperbole.  That was this reviewer’s expectation, too, in light of the title.  I fully anticipated that my eventual review would have value, especially because I have been a lifelong “American conservative,” as an examination of the sort of intellectual pathology that has come to inhabit so much of the contemporary American right.

        Murray says he found his first impression wrong.  For him, the book provides a valuable new “prism” through which to see twentieth-century political history.  In much the same way, I was quickly disabused of my own initial expectation.  I found that the book is much more than partisan hyperbole.  It reflects, throughout, an encyclopedic knowledge of thinkers, ideas and political movements.  Readers will find it instructive in a great many things about political and social thought during the past century that they have either never known or have forgotten.

        Examples of Goldberg’s intellectual fecundity abound, and continue throughout the book.  By way of illustration, it is enough to refer to his chapter on Woodrow Wilson, where he describes in detail not only the history of the man and his thought, but also the rich tapestry of Wilson’s era; or to his chapter on Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, which without any ostentation of learning does the same thing for FDR and his time.  His chapter on the 1960s discusses the likes of Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Frantz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse, Tom Hayden, Mark Rudd – all placed in their broad intellectual context that goes back, say, to such a thing as the German Neue Schar of 1919, who “were the original hippies.”  (By no means do I agree with everything in his history, of course; to say, for example, that the Neue Schar were the “original” hippies is too facile, overlooking quite an extensive prior history of declasse youth movements, such as the German Wandervogel before World War I.  But that’s not the point.)   

        My observation that the book is “much more than partisan hyperbole” does not mean, however, that it is innocent of such exaggeration.  Goldberg includes within “fascism” just about everything that lies outside his own philosophy, which, as best as I can determine, is woven from several threads that are found together somewhat incongruously in what passes as the American right today.  These are classical liberalism, libertarianism, neo-conservatism with its global interventionism, splashes of conventionality, and a worldview that is in line with the religious right in opposing what many would denounce as “secular humanism” (although Goldberg doesn’t discuss religion directly and never uses that term).

        Twentieth century American “liberalism” has comprised an alliance of disparate factions (at one time called “the Roosevelt coalition”).  One of those has been the intelligentsia (from which, of course, many intellectuals have been exceptions, but who have nevertheless been a minority).  It would be accurate to say that that intellectual subculture has been socialist (at least within its in-house literature) and that it had a thirty-year love affair with the “Soviet experiment” from 1917 through 1946.  It would also be accurate to say that it has expressed a deep alienation against not just the “bourgeoisie” of the American middle class, but against almost all elements of the American population.  But to say that it has been “fascist”?  That’s a stretch, particularly when placed within the horrendous connotations that the word “fascism” has for almost everybody.

        Much that is instructive about Goldberg’s discussion is that he points out the many ways that German national socialism (“Nazism”) and Italian fascism under Mussolini featured the same ideas and policies that have been common within a broad swath of social and political movements since, say, the French Revolution.  How many of us have realized, for example, that Hitler and his followers were strong on the same things that now inspire New Age-type thinking: vegetarianism, organic foods, animal rights, nutrition, opposition to smoking, fighting air pollution, creating nature preserves, and seeking a “sustainable forestry”? Or that there was a striking similarity between Hitler’s youth work corps (whose members were pictured in Triumph of the Will in uniform with spades over their shoulders in place of rifles) and Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), about which Goldberg tells us that “CCCers mostly worked as a ‘forestry army’… Enlistees met at army recruiting stations; wore World War I uniforms; were transported around the country in troop trains; …were required to stand at attention, march in formation; …went to bed in army tents listening to taps; and woke to reveille.”  And who today recalls “the President’s NRA Day Parade” in which “nearly a quarter-million men and women marched for ten hours past an audience of well over a million people, with forty-nine military planes flying overhead”?

        It is only a deeply rooted naivete that thinks of Hitler and Mussolini as “things apart,” having little in common with much that is usually taken for granted.  But there is a serious  fallacy of misclassification in saying that because two things share many features, they are to be lumped together despite crucial differences between them.  (It is said that chimpanzees have almost the same genetic structure as homo sapiens.  But the few differences are profound.)

        Goldberg defines “fascism,” but ignores an essential part of his own definition when he puts American “liberalism” within it.  He says a “working definition” of fascism would be that “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” (emphasis added).    

        It is arguable how much American “liberalism” fits into the first parts of this definition.  But it clearly has not fallen within the part we just italicized.  I spent 36 years as a faculty member at a mid-western American university, and often commented on how “as a conservative, I’m certainly not among those who receive preferred treatment; but at least I’m not put up against a wall (or taken down into a cellar) and shot.”  I appreciated the very tangible difference between the intolerant environment in which I worked and the police-state environment of a point of view that would say that “any action is justified.”  The American left does indeed have a statist preference and was unbelievably accepting of the murder of many millions elsewhere under Communism, but in its domestic ideology it has clearly fallen short of Goldberg’s “working definition.”  It was because of this that I felt uncomfortable throughout my reading of the book, sensing that, despite its virtues,  its basic thrust is indeed partisan hyperbole.  This is not to say that “eternal vigilance” won’t be needed to keep things within bounds.  America needs, say, simply to embrace the European fashion of passing “hate speech” laws to criminalize much well-intentioned and serious scholarship.  It would certainly not be out of character for U.S. “liberalism” to satisfy itself of the validity of doing that.

        An attempt to classify American “liberalism” as fascist is not all there is to Goldberg’s book, however.  Saying “here are the main points I would like readers to take away from the book,” he lists the following: 

        1.  That “original or ‘classic’ fascism was not right-wing as we understand the term in the Anglo-American tradition.”

        2.  That “contemporary conservatism has neither roots in, nor affinity for, classical fascism.”

        3.  That “contemporary liberalism, in part thanks to its own dogmatic intellectual amnesia, retains an affinity for fascistic ideas through its profound indebtedness to progressivism.”

        4.  That “the Left’s redefinition of fascism as merely anything undesirable has led America to look for fascism in the wrong places.”

          Goldberg makes a good point, but one that is only partly right, when he says that “classic fascism” was not really “right wing” in the sense understood “in the Anglo-American tradition.”  He is correct in stressing that Hitler and Mussolini’s respective ideologies and programs, being socialist, were hardly “right-wing” to those who identify socialism with the Left.  Hitler’s “national socialism” and Mussolini’s “corporatism” although rationalized as being a “Third Way,” were far closer to socialism than to free-market individualism.   Where Goldberg’s first point goes wrong, however, is in failing to see that the Anglo-American tradition has at the very same time seen anything that is strongly nationalistic as being “right-wing.”  If this is taken into account, “classic fascism” was both “left-wing” (as socialist) and “right-wing” (as nationalist).

        We might mention that the “right-wing” designation has, in addition to the “nationalist” aspect, arisen historically out of two other sources: the proclivity of Marxists (from early-on, but with Stalin eventually as one of them) to call anything outside their own version of socialist thought “rightist” or “fascist”; and the delineation in the nineteenth century between “left-wing Hegelianism” (which championed class-struggle theory) and “right-wing Hegelianism” (which promoted race-struggle theory).  Totalitarian systems arose out of each form of “struggle,” and this has led perceptive commentators to note that the continuum between “left” and “right” is better visualized as a horseshoe than as a straight horizontal line.  With the horseshoe image, the left and right are seen, as they should be, as awfully close together.   

        It is also sensible to stress, as Goldberg does in his second point, that “conservatism” as understood in the American context “has neither roots in, nor affinity for, classical fascism.”  This is true even though the word “conservatism” has taken on a confused jumble of meanings in the United States in recent years.  None of its constituent elements has a statist tendency, except perhaps neo-conservatism, with its Trotskyist origins and imperial championing of world-wide hegemony.  But neo-conservatism is more a usurper of the label, an interloper of recent vintage, than an example of American conservatism with its stress on limited government and a mind-our-own-business foreign policy.  (The support for worldwide U.S. action to oppose Communist expansionism during the long years of the Cold War may seem inconsistent with this restrained foreign policy, but was actually compatible with it if understood as a special case born out of necessity.)

        Goldberg says that one purpose of his book is to “take the ‘fascist’ cudgel away from the Left.”  He has had enough of the Left’s indiscriminate use of “fascist.”  (It used to be that to call someone a “Communist” was an unforgiveable slander, whereas to call someone else a “fascist” was simply robust speech.  Goldberg would, in effect, repeal this double standard of long standing.  We doubt that his book will more than bounce off that ideological bastion, but we can applaud him for the effort.) 

        It is conceivable that something “right-wing” in the “racial struggle” sense could arise if the white majority in the United States becomes militantly assertive of a right to predominate, or even to continue to exist; but there seems little chance that what has for so long been a confused and preoccupied “silent majority” will do other than continue in its torpor until it is far too late for such a self-assertion.   If the militancy were pursued through civil conflict rather than through ideas and politics, the horrendous results of the conflict would predictably mark the end of “conservatism” in the traditional American individualist sense.

        Goldberg’s third point, that American “liberalism” and the “progressivism” that preceded it, have “an affinity for fascistic ideas” raises again the issue we discussed earlier about hyperbole.  “Affinity” is very much an inexact term; and the sharing of many common elements does not, as mentioned above, necessarily justify classifying two things together. 

        Just the same, it is instructive to note the “affinities” that Goldberg points out.  He says that “American liberalism… sees no realm of human life that is beyond political significance.”  For the most part, that is true, although people who are “pro-choice” on the abortion issue would say that they want the state to stay out of what, in that case at least, they prefer to see as a purely private decision.  The assertion of a private domain on the abortion issue flies in the face, however, of the great propensity of American “liberal” thought, which is to transfer the great corpus of life into the public domain. 

        Goldberg cites chapter and verse on many aspects of this, but we think of important additional points about it.  One is that the introduction of statistics into social science by the German thinkers of the late nineteenth century necessarily turned everything, no matter how isolated, into a social aggregate, and hence a potential public issue.  You might think that if you sneeze when home alone, that is a purely local, private matter.  But if a statistician compiles data that, say, on any given day 37 million people sneeze, the aggregate number is then seen as significant, having an impact on the flow of pharmaceuticals, work-days lost, etc. 

        This is precisely what became persuasive in one of the more important U.S. Supreme Court decisions in American history, Wickard v. Filburn (317 U.S. 111) in 1942.  There, the Court ruled that if a farmer planted wheat and fed it to his own cattle (without any interstate boundary being involved), his act fell within the Constitutional jurisdiction of the national government over “interstate commerce” precisely because if many thousands of farmers did the same thing, the aggregate effect would impact on the volume of commerce over state lines.  The decision effected a Constitutional revolution, so to speak, by shifting enormous areas of economic activity into the purview of the federal government.  Before that decision, the various productive pursuits such as agriculture, manufacturing, mining and horticulture had been considered exclusively within the jurisdiction of the states, falling under national jurisdiction only while products were in their “original package” for shipment from one state to another.

        Goldberg’s fourth point, that the left’s redefinition of “fascism” as “anything undesirable” has caused people to look for fascism “in all the wrong places,” follows from his first three points, and is certainly correct, except that Goldberg is himself guilty of doing the same thing.  This again illustrates how the book is a mixture of instructive facts and insights on the one hand, and misleading hyperbole on the other.

        Before we conclude, here are additional observations worth making (among the many that are possible):

        1.  Goldberg says “the elevation of unity as the highest social value is a core tenet of fascism and all leftist ideologies” and that the “idea that unity in and of itself has curative, redemptive powers is quintessentially fascistic.”  He doesn’t realize that this makes a case that contemporary American “liberalism” is in fact not fascistic.  If “unity” were its highest value, it could hardly champion a multiculturalist non-assimilation preference regarding America’s rising tide of ethnic minorities. It would prefer homogeneity over diversity.

        Nor does Goldberg seem to appreciate the extent to which the classical liberalism that has underlain traditional American attitudes has valued patriotism, commitment to community and family, political involvement – and indeed the entire complex of attributes that molds otherwise autonomous individuals into a nation and a body politic.  Whether “unity” is “in and of itself… redemptive” for classical liberalism raises a question of degree; suffice it to say that when historically Americans have spoken of “the American people,” they have not been going contrary to their classical liberal foundation.          To point this out is no mere quibble; it relates to a missing dimension in the understanding that many people of “libertarian” propensity have of what it takes to have an adequate “philosophy of a free society.”  The strong propensity of many such people, including perhaps the great majority of ordinary Americans who call themselves “conservatives,” is to think that the main, perhaps the only, concern is to “fight the continuing expansion of government.”  I am often surprised by the extent to which their thinking in that regard today is the same as it was in, say, the 1950s, so that little new is apparent in their thought.  This is a form of reductionism, in that they fail to build into their thinking an understanding that a classical liberal society would require all of the attributes of an advanced civilization (including “unity”): a culture, a morality, strong individuals and families, an educated population, an appropriate jurisprudence – and many others.  Delimiting government is only one of its desiderata.

        2.  In addition to “unity,” Goldberg identifies several other things with fascism that are, in one degree or another, inherent in almost all social systems:

        He speaks of “the premise that the nation had to be ruled by an enlightened avant-garde…,” and sees that as fascistic.  If that were so, John Stuart Mill would have qualified.  He believed that a free society needs what he called a “clerisy,” a thoughtful intellectual subculture, as an essential ingredient.  And, too, the American Founding Fathers, in their support of a “republic” rather than a “democracy,” would fit the description.  Accordingly, we see that a more subtle understanding, which sees the universality of certain needs, is required.

        In like fashion, Goldberg identifies “tribalism” with fascism.  No doubt a theory of racial destiny such as the Nazi’s is “tribalistic,” but it is only today’s conventional “multiculturalism” (pressed on Americans and Europeans without regard for the fact that all other peoples embrace, as valuable, their own identity) that favors divorcing a society from its roots.  Goldberg accepts today’s conventional notion that what counts are institutions and ideas, not a people’s ancestral ties, shared historical memories and myths, sense of oneness, beloved customs, and the like.  Without using the term, he holds to the reductionist concept of a “proposition nation.”  It is difficult to see why he considers his view “conservative,” while ties of mutual affinity fall within a negative category designated as “tribal.”

        When he speaks of a “cult of personality” as fascistic, he is again over-simplifying something that is considerably more nuanced.  Totalitarian systems thrive on cults of personality, so that portraits of the likes of Mao, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh, Hitler or Mussolini are ubiquitous.  But it is better understood as a matter of degree.  It would be a strange society that would have no heroes, no figures elevated to the level of myth.  That is as true of a classically liberal “free society” as of any other.  Mount Rushmore, bearing the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, is a good example.  Surely there has for a century and a half been a “cult of personality” surrounding Lincoln, who is pictured on every penny amd is personified in the beautiful Lincoln Memorial on the Mall in Washington.

        3.  Liberal Fascism puts so much stress on “fascism” that a reader new to twentieth century ideological history would hardly know that American “liberalism” had a far greater tie to British Guild Socialism and then to Communism than it ever had to what Goldberg calls “classical fascism.”  One would hardly know, for example, that the “Red Decade” existed.  It doesn’t fully suffice that Goldberg points out that “fascism has really been part of the Left.”  The Left, per se, is almost invisible in the narrative.

        4.  An excellent chapter is devoted to Mussolini.  This gives such abundant detail that it seems almost ungracious to point out that Goldberg doesn’t seem to know of one particularly striking episode that sheds light on the relationship of American “liberalism” to both Communism and Italian fascism.  During the early New Deal, the Franklin Roosevelt administration proposed the National Recovery Administration (N.R.A.), which the editors of the New Republic, at that time the flagship journal of American “liberalism,” welcomed, saying that “conceivably, it may mark the beginning… of a collectivizaton of the economic system.”  In Italy, Mussolini was creating his “corporate state” through 22 “corporazioni” in a program that Paul H. Douglas (later a U.S. Senator) declared “roughly comparable to the code authorities under the N.R.A.”  What is worth noting is that on May 17, 1933, the New Republic editorialized that what the editors preferred over FDR’s plan was a proposal made years before by Lenin: “Lenin’s proposal went much further than Mr. Roosevelt’s does in two significant directions – control by organized labor and organization of consumers.  Unless the partnership is extended to these important functions, monopolistic capital will almost certainly attempt to sequester too large a share.”  (As it turned out, the editors fairly soon turned against the N.R.A. precisely because they saw that happening.)

        We could extend our criticism into such areas as Goldberg’s acceptance of “politically correct” myths (such as the one about the “internment” of the Japanese-Americans during World War II) or his sometimes exaggerated polemical positions and caricatures (such as that Hitler was a “lifelong underachiever”).  But there is a risk of too greatly stressing criticism of his book.  His discussions, for example, of such things as unity, elitism, tribalism, and elevation of heroes are, despite their limitations, informed by so much erudition (which detracts not one whit from his readabilty) that readers will find them almost an education in themselves.  That is why we began this review by saying that there is indeed partisan hyperbole – but also much more. 

                                                                                                                                                                                Dwight D. Murphey