Book Review: "Liberal Fascism" by Jonah Goldberg

Written by: 
Starchild

The full title of this book is Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. It’s an inflammatory title, not helped by the lurid red book jacket highlighting a bright yellow smiley face with a Hitler mustache drawn on it.

If an Internet troll who decided to take his habit of posting annoying memes on social media sites were to take his efforts to the next level by writing and publishing a book, it might well look something like this!

But the old saying about not judging a book by its cover applies here, as I discovered when curiosity led me to begin reading it. This is not the literary clickbait it might appear to be at first glance, but actually a well-researched work that contains a lot of interesting information and provides an insightful and I think for the most part accurate synthesis of that information.

This is not to say there’s nothing partisan about Liberal Fascism. The author’s sympathies are clearly with the right wing of American politics, and he candidly admits as much. While Goldberg doesn’t spare those on the right when their worldview or actions stray into fascist territory, and near the end of the book admits that “we are all fascists now” (a provocative statement that may not make much sense unless you read through to that point), his explicit aim is to expose the historical roots of fascism on the left, and show how echoes of those roots remain with us in the politics and methods of liberal leaders in the present and recent past.

Hillary Clinton – although she deserves plenty – comes in for a perhaps somewhat disproportionate share of that criticism. This is unsurprising considering the book’s publication date of 2007, when it was widely assumed that she would be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee the following year. Along with the book’s title and cover, the degree of focus on Clinton may well have been the work of editors or publishers with driving up sales among a presumed right-wing readership on their minds.

But the more interesting material, partly because it will be less familiar to most readers, is Goldberg’s discussion of the historical roots of fascism in Europe, and the parallels with what were going on in the United States at the time.

This history, more than the contemporary politics discussed in the book, deserves to be read by people on all sides of the political spectrum, especially those who believe that liberals don’t need to worry about their policy agenda giving rise to anything like fascism because “everyone knows” fascism is and always has been a right-wing phenomenon.

As Goldberg ably documents, this is very far from the truth, but to the author’s credit, he repeatedly goes out of his way to assert that he is not saying contemporary American leftists, or even their more racist and war-mongering forbearers of the early 20th century who called themselves progressives, are or were on the level of the genocidal Third Reich.

Goldberg also gives libertarians our due, most notably on page 344, where he writes that “if libertarianism could account for children and foreign policy, it would be the ideal political philosophy”, but also on page 403 where he implicitly credits libertarians with being among the most steadfast opponents of fascism when he laments that “even more disturbingly, some libertarians are abandoning their historic dedication to… preventing the state from encroaching on our freedoms” by embracing an approach in which “the state does everything it can to help us reach our full potential”.

If that phrasing sounds a bit New-Agey, this is no accident – Goldberg also takes that movement to task for its fascist elements. He seems sincere in desiring readers of all political stripes to recognize and call out fascist tendencies when they see them among their ideological fellow travelers:

“The marriage of statism and eugenic racism motivated Progressive Era thinkers like Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, E.A. Ross, and Richard Ely. Conservaties should ask themselves how such sentiments are any different coming from (Pat) Buchanan. Meanwhile, liberals who think such ideas earn Buchananites the fascist label need to explain why progressives are absolved from that charge when they believed precisely the same things.” (p. 399)

But what is fascism? This is a fascinating (pardon the pun) question to which Goldberg devotes many pages.

Crucial to understanding the history of fascism is to understand that when it arose, it didn’t have the bad reputation it does today, but was a respectable movement among opponents of capitalism and the liberal democracy that allowed economic freedom to flourish.

Benito Mussolini did not invent fascism, but he brought it to the world stage and has been called the “Father of Fascism”. Yet before Mussolini became “Il Duce” (the Italian version of Der Fuhrer in German, or The Leader in English), dictator of Italy and Hitler’s ally in World War II, he was a prominent socialist leader and admired leftist intellectual.

“Many if not most American liberals either admired Mussolini and his project or simply didn’t care much about it one way or the other,” Goldberg informs us (p. 30) He was a complex figure, “one of the first modern sex symbols,” who “pav(ed the way” for the “sexual deification” of Che Guevara, and despised the Catholic Church. Yet Mussolini also said, “It is faith that moves mountains, not reason. Reason is a tool, but it can never be the motive force of the crowd” (pp. 36-37).

A major influence on the budding fascist and his divergence from traditional socialism was leftist philosopher Georg Sorel, who wrote about the power of myth, and how it could be applied to Marxism.

After the Russian Revolution, when many socialist intellectuals were questioning Marxism on the basis that the revolution hadn’t come first in one of the most advanced countries like Germany or England as Marx had predicted, but in relatively backward Russia, Sorel’s argument that “Marxist prophecy didn’t need to be true… people just needed to think it was true” resonated. According to Sorel, Marx’s manifesto “Das Kapital made little sense if taken literally, but was effective as “an image created for the purpose of molding consciousness”, and that Marx should be seen as a prophet rather than a policy wonk, so that people would accept proletarian revolution as a religion.

Sorel took the ideas of William James, a “pragmatic” American thinker who wanted to “make room for religion in a burgeoning age of science by arguing that any religion that worked for the believer was ‘true’” and melded this “will to believe” with Nietzche’s “will to power” taking them to their logical conclusion: “Any idea that can be successfully imposed – with violence if necessary – becomes true and good.” He in essence “redesigned left-wing revolutionary politics from scientific socialism to a revolutionary religious movement that believed in the utility of the myth of scientific socialism.”(p. 37)

In the Sorelian conception, a “revolutionary elite” was needed to “impose its will upon the masses” (for their own good of course), and in this Goldberg traces the thinking of Sorel and other socialists to the French Revolution, which he calls “the first totalitarian revolution” and “the mother of totalitarianism”.

Maximilien Robespierre, the terror-master of the Revolution who sent many former allies as well as aristocrats to the guillotine until the mob turned on him and he suffered the same fate, claimed, “The people is always worth more than individuals”, who he called “expendable” (p. 38). According to Robespierre, “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue”, a means to “(keep) the masses committed to the ideals of the Revolution”.

Goldberg quotes historian Marisa Linton as writing that “For the first time in history, terror became an official government policy, with the stated aim to use violence in order to achieve a higher political goal.”

In keeping with such thinking, violence became “a core mechanism of fascism” used to “maintain a permanent sense of crisis” in order to “short-circuit debate and democratic deliberation.”

When World War I broke out, Mussolini saw that “the Socialist International was dead”. Workers in various countries, rather than banding together to oppose international capitalism, were rallying around the leaders and flags of their respective countries. “Socialism was predicated on the Marxist view… implicit in the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite!”… that class was more important than race, nationality, religion, language, culture, or any other ‘opiate’ of the masses,” writes Goldberg. But, he explains, “It had become clear to Mussolini that not only was this manifestly not so but it made little sense to pretend otherwise.”

“If Sorel had taught that Marxism was a series of useful myths rather than scientific fact, why not utilize more useful myths if they’re available?” (p. 45)

The Italian socialist soon switched, in 1914, from opposing war and colonialism, to supporting these nationalist adventures. And in his support for war, Goldberg says, Mussolini was joined by many on the left, including in the U.S. people like Woodrow Wilson, John Dewey, and Mother Jones. “In the United States the vast majority of socialists and progressives supported American intervention with a bloodlust that would embarrass their heirs today” Goldberg writes on page 43.

One can see the elements of fascism coming together: Nationalism as a driving myth, war to create a permanent sense of crisis and allow strong, action-oriented leaders capable of using those myths to drive the proletariat toward its socialist destiny. Rather than futilely butting their heads against racism and other forms of tribalism dividing the “working class”, why not harness them to further the anti-capitalist cause?

In the place of international socialism, there would be national socialism, one country at a time. In Germany, there would soon be the National Socialist German Workers Party (aka the Nazis).

All this greatly oversimplifies and in some ways may even inaccurately summarize the history outlined by Goldberg, but I hope at least gives an accurate flavor of it.

When president Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected president in the United States and began embarking on his ambitious agenda of government-run social programs, Europe’s socialists-turned-fascists took favorable note.

"The appeal to the decisiveness and masculine sobriety of the nation's youth, with which Roosevelt here calls his readers to battle, is reminiscent of the ways and means by which Fascism awakened the Italian people," Goldberg quotes Il Duce as writing in a review of FDR’s book Looking Forward  (pp. 147-148).

"Mussolini wrote that FDR understood that the economy could not 'be left to its own devices' and saw the fascistic nature of how the American president put this understanding into practice,” Goldberg tells us.

In Mussolini’s own words, “Without question, the mood accompanying this sea change resembles that of Fascism.” The dictator later reviewed a book by another American, Henry Wallace, and asked, “Where is America headed? This book leaves no doubt that it is on the road to corporatism, the economic system of the current century." (p. 148)

Another quote of Mussolini's which I found elsewhere and does not appear in Goldberg’s book, puts his reference to "corporatism" into context:

"Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power."

That merger seems like a fair description of reality in the United States today, and Goldberg ably encapsulates the economics of it:

"Debates about economics these days generally enjoy a climate of bipartisan asininity. Democrats claim to want to ‘rein in’ corporations, while Republicans claim to be ‘pro-business’. The problem is that being ‘pro-business’ is hardly the same thing as being pro-free market, while ‘reining in’ corporations breeds precisely the climate liberals decry as fascistic.

“The fascist bargain goes something like this. The state says to the industrialist, ‘You may stay in business and own your factories. In the spirit of cooperation and unity, we will even guarantee you profits and a lack of serious competition. In exchange, we expect you to agree with – and help implement – our political agenda." (p. 290)

On page 293, Liberal Fascism gets into how this "corporatism" (i.e. fascism) was put into practice under FDR, employing in peacetime for the first time in America, methods that his proto-fascist predecessor Woodrow Wilson had originally introduced during World War I:

"The propaganda of the New Deal – ‘malefactors of great wealth’ and all that – to the contrary, FDR simply endeavored to re-create the corporatism of the last war. The New Dealers invited one industry after another to write the codes under which they would be regulated (as they had been begging to do in many cases). The National Recovery Administration, or NRA, was even more aggressive in forcing industries to fix prices and in other ways collude with one another. The NRA approved 557 basic and 189 supplementary codes, covering roughly 95 percent of all industrial workers.

“It was not only inevitable but intended for big business to get bigger and the little guy to get screwed. For example, the owners of the big chain movie houses wrote the codes in such a way that independents were nearly run out of business, even though 13,571 of 18,321 movie theaters in America were independently owned. In business after business, the little guy was crushed or at least severely disadvantaged in the name of ‘efficiency’ and ‘progress’.”

On page 301, Goldberg qualifies his comments (as he does periodically throughout the book) by reminding readers that fascism in America did not approach the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis in Germany against Jews and others:

"Nothing so horrific happened in the United States, and it's unlikely that it would have, even if (National Recovery Administration chief) Hugh Johnson's darkest fantasies had been realized. But the practices of the Nazis and Johnson's NRA were more similar than different. Johnson's thugs broke down doors and threw people in jail for not participating with the Blue Eagle."

The "Blue Eagle", as Goldberg explained previously (p. 153) "was the patriotic symbol of compliance that all companies were expected to hang from their doors, along with the motto, 'We do our part,' a phrase used by the administration the way the Germans used 'Gemeinnutz geht vor Eigennutz' [The Community Over Self-Interest]. Now largely airbrushed from popular awareness, the stylized Indian eagle clutching a band of lightning bolts in one claw and an industrial cogwheel in the other was often compared to the swastika or the German Reich eagle in both American and German newspapers. Johnson demanded that compliance with the Blue Eagle program be monitored by an army of quasi-official informants, from union members to Boy Scouts. His totalitarian approach was unmistakable."

Hugh "Iron Pants" Johnson himself is described by the author as "a pugnacious brawler who threatened that Americans who didn't cooperate with the New Deal would get a 'sock in the nose'".

Sounds like the kind of thing Donald Trump might say, doesn't it? But even Trump has to my knowledge not (yet?) gone quite that far in explicitly threatening Americans in general with physical violence if they don’t support his policy agenda.

This review has gotten quite long, and I’ve barely even touched on some of the most interesting material, about what happened in the U.S. during World War I, when conditions in the country were arguably more fascist than at any time since.

However, I’ll let you discover that on your own if you read Liberal Fascism, and close here with a telling and chilling quote that Goldberg includes on page 295 from America's self-proclaimed "newspaper of record" the New York Times, published in July 1933:

"There is at least one official voice in Europe that expresses understanding of the methods and motives of President Roosevelt. This voice is that of Germany, as represented by Chancellor Adolf Hitler."

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