Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg. Doubleday, 2007. (487 pages, $27.95, Hardcover)
“History is written by the winners.” So goes the discipline-denigrating cliché. A more accurate observation, as Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Liberal Fascism, suggests, is that history is written by historians—and especially, in recent decades, by academics whose biases predispose them to serve as useful idiots for Joseph Stalin’s defunct propaganda ministry. Though Goldberg’s well-researched book doesn’t focus minute attention on the culpability of leftist historians, it does provide convenient targets (Richard Hofstadter and William Shirer) who might be blamed for abetting the greatest intellectual ruse of the twentieth century—the absurd designation of fascism as an ideology of the political right.
Anyone looking for Coulteresque theater in Goldberg’s work (the product of four years’ labor) will be disappointed. The book isn’t meant to toss “f-bombs” at liberals the way liberals regularly toss that seven-letter epithet at conservatives. Indeed, Goldberg reiterates again and again that he doesn’t employ the word “fascism” as a synonym for Nazism, racism, or “evil.” Rather, he uses the term to label a method of governing that expressed itself differently in different countries. Given that caveat, anyone who chooses to read this engrossing analysis of the origins of fascism will likely be rewarded with a paradigm-shifting experience that puts the history of the twentieth century in a new light—a history that places Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt in the same political neighborhood as Benito Mussolini.
The story of fascism, Goldberg notes, begins with the “holistic” philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau and his revolutionary progeny—men whose boundless conception of national communion (via a general will) led to the odd idea that dissidents would be “forced to be free”—a fate more benign than the guillotine that “freed” enemies of the state from error during the French Reign of Terror. Hegel’s philosophy, where the state incarnates God’s work in history, provides another piece of the ancestral puzzle, while Nietzsche’s romantic and relativistic “will to power” adds a third leg to fascism’s Continental heritage. A fourth progenitor was Otto von Bismarck, whose comprehensive welfare package for the new German Empire provided Western intellectuals with a top-down model of social policy that they yearned to replicate.
These historical connections aren’t exceptionally novel, but the American branches of fascism’s genealogical tree are unexpected—limbs that include the pragmatic philosophers William James and John Dewey as well as political writers like Henry George (Progress and Poverty), Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward), and Herbert Croly (The Promise of American Life). Drawing on these and other sources, Goldberg not only shows that European fascism is a product of the political left, he also argues persuasively that America’s version of that system is rooted in the Progressive movement and was first given national expression in the war socialism of Woodrow Wilson.
Not surprisingly, Goldberg’s first two chapters are devoted to Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. But contrary to the impression given by pop-history, Mussolini isn’t relegated to the status of an absurd fifth wheel. Instead, Il Duce’s role as the “Father of Fascism” is clearly laid out. The portrait of his rise to power in 1922--more than a decade before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany--is the story of an intellectual whose communist sympathies were developed from infancy. (Even his given names, Benito Amilcare Andrea, conjured up leftist heroes from the past.) Those socialist sentiments remained with Mussolini to the day of his death—alongside his obsession with sexual conquest and his contempt for Christianity.
As Goldberg notes, Mussolini’s state-centered, anti-capitalist rhetoric could only be declared “right-wing” by ideologues who were fighting over the same political bone. In other words, it was the internecine struggle between fascists and communists that gave birth to the longstanding practice of separating the terms “fascist” and “socialist.” This linguistic divorce was mandated by Stalin to stigmatize the socialist heresy Mussolini promoted in light of his comrades’ nationalistic response to World War I.
Goldberg also emphasizes that fascism itself varied from nation to nation. Most significantly, the Jew-hatred that characterized Hitler’s regime wasn’t integral to Italian Fascism—a movement that included a disproportionate number of Jews. Indeed, Mussolini scoffed at the Aryan myth that animated German Nazism, preferring for his part to play the role of a latter-day Caesar who was destined to resurrect Rome’s ancient greatness.
The most unexpected part of Goldberg’s Mussolini portrait is the way the Italian leader was hailed in American Progressive circles (e.g. in issues of Herbert Croly’s New Republic) and in American pop-culture. Even as late as 1934, Cole Porter’s song, You’re the Top, exhibited this adulatory attitude toward the Italian idol. Only after Mussolini invaded Ethiopia in 1935 did this admiration begin to wane. Significantly, the American President that Mussolini praised effusively in 1919, three years before his march on Rome, was Woodrow Wilson.
As far as Hitler’s left-wing credentials are concerned, Goldberg’s discussion of the Nazi Party Platform does a good job of demonstrating that the word “socialist” in National Socialist wasn’t mere window dressing. After summarizing that ambitious document, Goldberg offers this sarcastic conclusion:
“Ah, yes. Those anti-elitist, stock-market-abolishing, child-labor-ending, public-health-promoting, wealth-confiscating, draft-ending, secularist right-wingers!”
Analysis of the groups from which Nazism drew its support also shows that corporations weren’t (as Moscow insisted) pulling strings behind the scene. Rather, Nazism emerged as a populist movement that was so cash-strapped Hitler frequently rode to rallies “in the back of an old pickup.” As the historian Henry Ashby Turner concludes, corporate funding of the Nazi party was “at best” of “marginal significance.” Were it not for decades of leftist disinformation, that conclusion would have been a foregone conclusion, given the virulently anti-capitalist language of Mein Kampf—language Hitler still employed in 1941. In short, Goldberg provides extensive evidence that Hitler’s political program was just as “right-wing” as the politics of Leon Trotsky—whom Stalin also labeled a “fascist.”
It is one thing to assert that fascism is a product of the political left—one of the “heresies of socialism” according to Harvard Professor Richard Pipes. It is something else to argue that fascism has its own American expression that grew out of the Progressive political tradition and that “Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.” That, however, is precisely the proposition put forward in Goldberg’s third chapter: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Liberal Fascism.
To bolster this hypothesis, Goldberg highlights connections between the intellectual milieu that fostered fascism in Europe and the milieu that begat American Progressivism. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty, for example, was received enthusiastically in Europe where it helped to shape populist and socialist economic theory. Similarly, Edward Bellamy’s utopian vision in Looking Backward (where a single municipal umbrella would one day shield all Bostonians from the rain) drew inspiration from Bismarck’s top-down political example in Germany. These and other “holistic” visions of society fed into an American Progressive movement whose moral energy was derived largely from legions of Social Gospelers. As Goldberg notes, the party’s 1912 presidential convention was described in the New York Times as a “convention of fanatics” and “religious enthusiasts.” This fusion of social reform and religious fervor is central to what Goldberg calls “liberal fascism.”
On the philosophical side of the ledger, American Progressivism looked to William James, John Dewey, and Charles Darwin. The former duo provided a relativistic and pragmatic outlook that coincided nicely with bold social experimentation. Dewey, in particular, advocated an “organic” Darwinian approach to society that consigned American individualism to the dustbin of evolutionary history. Darwinism also brought to the Progressive project a focus on racist genetics that (alongside the movement’s militant imperialism) subsequent historians have been eager to forget. Furthermore, the polite moral relativism of James and Dewey echoed the unequivocal relativism expressed by Nietzsche (whose philosophy, according to H. L. Mencken, Theodore Roosevelt had swallowed whole). Finally, the attachment of elite progressives to Hegel’s political philosophy (Goldberg notes that Woodrow Wilson “even invoked Hegel in a love letter to his wife.”) reinforced the idea that society is an organic whole and that reformers are, quite literally, God’s instruments on earth.
Woodrow Wilson is the unexpected villain of Liberal Fascism. Based on a review of his academic writings, Goldberg demonstrates that Wilson was a devotee of power—power utilized according to the pragmatic lights of John Dewey. Consequently, the twenty-eighth president denigrated, with the confidence of a divinely anointed leader, those constitutional provisions that limited his ability to mold the nation into a healthy organism that worked for the good of all. This “evolutionary” vision of history provided the intellectual justification for that modern legal theory that dissolves all governmental boundaries—the living Constitution. It also paved the way for an approach to education that transferred the locus of pedagogical authority from parents to the state. In Professor Wilson’s words: “Our problem is not merely to help the students to adjust themselves to world life…[but] to make them as unlike their fathers as we can.”
World War I gave President Wilson the crisis he needed to implement the top-down vision of social coordination he had written about for decades. Government instruments employed in this massive effort (whose only near precedent was Lincoln’s response to the Civil War) included the War Industries Board, a vigorous and widespread propaganda ministry, and a justice department that, Goldberg notes, presided over the arrest and jailing of more dissidents than Mussolini incarcerated during the entire 1920s. From censorship, to price-fixing, to Palmer raids, to patriotic nursery rhymes designed for toddlers, mobilization gave Wilson’s government unprecedented access to and control over people’s lives. This whipping of individualistic Americans into collective shape was cheered by progressives like Walter Lippmann who saw in the war an opportunity to bring about a Nietzschean “transvaluation of values as radical as anything in the history of intellect.” No wonder Warren Harding won the presidency in 1920 with a campaign that promised a return to “normalcy.”
With the advent of the Great Depression, Progressives were given an opportunity to reprise the coordination achieved under Wilson’s war socialism. The British journalist Alistair Cooke doubtless turned many heads when, in the 1970s, he announced on his popular PBS history series that America under FDR “flirted with National Socialism.” Goldberg argues that the amorous relationship was a good deal more intimate—a relationship fanned by the populist hot air that emanated from Father Coughlin and Senator Huey Long and consummated by many of the individuals that ran Wilson’s war agencies. A prime example of these fascist retreads was Hugh “Iron Pants” Johnson, whose “sock in the nose” style at the National Recovery Administration doubtless drew positive reviews from one of FDR’s early admirers, Benito Mussolini. Even Germany’s new Fuhrer had words of praise for the government-business partnerships that typified Roosevelt’s New Deal.
The expansion of government under Franklin Roosevelt is well known. What isn’t acknowledged in polite historical circles, as Goldberg notes, is how “the fascist flavor of the New Deal was not only regularly discussed” but even “cited in Roosevelt’s favor.” Why this inconvenient fact was dropped down the historical memory hole is clear. Leftist historians had no desire to link the paragon of modern “liberalism” with “right-wing” fascism. Stated more honestly, they didn’t want to acknowledge that fascism was a left-wing philosophy and expose the ongoing historical ruse that kept conservatives (i.e. classical liberals) off balance.
The remainder of Goldberg’s book (more than half) discusses progressivism’s third wave of influence on American life in the 1960s and explains how its fascist traits have been incorporated into modern “liberalism.” While not as narrowly focused as his first four chapters, these materials do give further definition to the concept of “liberal fascism”—a phrase coined in 1932 by H. G. Wells to promote an ambitious “liberal” variant of Europe’s burgeoning political system.
Among the concepts that Goldberg identifies as integral to sixties radicalism are these: the romantic embrace of youthful impulsiveness and sexuality, the denigration of reason and tradition, the extension of politics into all areas of life, the exaltation of identity politics (initially in terms of race and gender), and the justification of violence committed by revolutionaries intent on creating a mythical heaven on earth (e.g. the Black Panthers). All these themes, Goldberg notes, have significant corollaries in the fascist regimes of Italy and Germany.
What separates these 60s street radicals from Great Society and contemporary progressives, however, is the smothering maternalism that characterizes the latter groups. Today’s “liberal fascists,” unlike their European and turn-of-the-century American forebears, promote a religion of the state that is non-militaristic. As such, it resembles Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, not George Orwell’s 1984. No better example of this smothering maternalism exists than Hillary Clinton’s magnum opus, It Takes A Village—a mythical world where helpful government programs cover the social landscape and where repetitive video messages inculcate useful parenting tips “any place where people gather and have to wait.”
Another Goldberg chapter, Liberal Racism: The Eugenic Ghost in the Fascist Machine, shows how “eugenics lay at the heart of the progressive enterprise”—an assertion backed by historian Edwin Black, who noted that the eugenic crusade was “created in the publications and academic research rooms of the Carnegie Institution, verified by the research grants of the Rockefeller Foundation, validated by leading scholars from the best Ivy League universities, and financed by the special efforts of the Harriman railroad fortune.” This embarrassing skeleton in the Progressive closet is compared with the implicit pro-abortion subtext in the best-selling book, Freakonomics—namely, “fewer blacks, less crime.”
Regrettably, Goldberg’s final chapter, The New Age: We’re All Fascists Now, begins to treat fascist traits so eclectically that the precision and focus of earlier chapters is lost. Looking for fascist themes in Dirty Harry and Whole Foods Market is a bit like searching for grandmother’s features in little Ricky’s newborn mug. One is bound to find something, but isolated traits don’t amount to a close likeness. A similar critique applies to Goldberg’s afterword, The Tempting of Conservatism, where playing (perhaps badly) at the only governmental game in town seems to be confused with religious devotion to the political Weltanschauung exhibited in It Takes A Village.
Despite these end-of-book drawbacks, Goldberg has produced a popular book of rare historical depth and quality—a book that promises to scrap those ridiculous history-class charts that put democracy midway between “socialism” on the left and “fascism” on the right, then justify their totalitarian extremes by bending the linear ends into a globe where left and right magically “meet.”
An old Soviet joke asserted that loyal comrades know the future; it’s only the past that keeps changing. With Goldberg’s assistance, Americans can begin to rewrite their own political history, this time putting the “fascist” label where it belongs. That single alteration would be a momentous accomplishment—one that would make the architects of democracy’s future more sure-handed.