Jim Ryan of Philosoblog writes in:
As time goes by I think in the end the main objection to your book which you should ruminate on for the paperback is this:
You can’t take the brutal oppression out of fascism and have it still be “fascism”; it just twists the colloquial sense of the term. Therefore, the book’s thesis that there is something called “liberal fascism” is impossible to maintain.
I don’t buy this argument (I made it and replied to it over at Philosoblog last winter.) But I feel its force far more than any other, now that it has been many months since I’ve read the book. I think the brutality of Hitler and Stalin was accidental, not essential, to their status as fascists (for reasons which make Stalin count as a fascist, btw.) But there is some force to the objection that the man on the street just means something brutal or violent when he uses the term “fascism.” I don’t think I buy it, but it’s no slouch of an argument.
I agree entirely with Jim that this is a problem. I disagree entirely that it’s much of an argument. I’ve encountered this objection all over the place. People say fascism means brutality, therefore liberalism isn’t remotely fascist. It works as a debater’s trick, and it’s certainly a source of real opposition to some of my arguments, but it doesn’t work as an actual argument in the true sense of the word.
One can use the same “argument” about Communism. “Communism is about brutality. Liberals aren’t brutal. Therefore liberalism has nothing to do with Communism.” The only difference here is that for reasons discussed at length in this space and in my book, the man in the street doesn’t equate Communism with brutality to the same extent he equates fascism with brutality, even though Communism is just as brutal as Fascism. I think that’s a problem that needs to be combated rather than surrendered to.
I simply don’t think the woeful state of popular ignorance should be considered a powerful argument against the accuracy of historical truth.
For instance, the popular conception is that the Tuskegee experiments were some sort of rightwing racist effort to infect black men with syphilis. That’s not the case. But according to this thinking, I should cave to the popular misconception simply because it’s popular.
In other words, simply defining away your ignorance so that it’s no longer ignorant shouldn’t be considered “no slouch of an argument.”
That said, this really is a problem, one that I didn’t fully anticipate, even though I knew better than most folks how entrenched the misunderstanding of fascism has become.
One, very partial, answer to some criticisms along these lines (how’s that for hedging?) would be this: Simply forget liberalism and focus on fascism — i.e. put aside the question of what fascism’s true nature says about liberalism and instead ask what contemporary liberalism’s true nature says about fascism. Liberal critics can’t get passed the idea that I think the fascist fetishization of the organic might say something important about contemporary liberalism. Fine. Well, maybe they can take baby steps by grappling with what it says about fascism that fascists sound so liberal? If they could deal with that with an open mind, ignoring the political reverberations, we could at least move the debate beyond this “fascism means thuggery and nothing more” nonsense.
Much of the difficulty Jim points to stems from the fact that the book makes — at least — two distinct but related arguments. Argument One is an effort to clarify the nature of fascism as a form of Leftism (or Rousseauianism). The other is to illuminate the hidden assumptions within liberalism (and contemporary society generally) that draw directly from this Leftist tradition, even though they are sold as something completely different. For instance, we’re told that nationalized medicine is the opposite of fascism — because fascism was capitalistic — when in fact nationalized medicine is fully in the wheelhouse of fascism. The net effect is that the liberal argument for ever-expanding statism is that it will move us away from fascism when in fact it will do the opposite. That’s why I see the two arguments as dependent on each other.
Yet, it’s fascinating (to me!) that most liberal critics had very little to offer by way of rebuttal to Argument 1. The New York Times, for example, skipped the introduction without substantive objection, as well as the chapters on Mussolini, Hitler and for the most part Wilson. But when the book turned to contemporary liberalism, these critics go splenetic, dismissive or ad hominem refusing to believe that Argument 1 could in any way be enlisted to support Argument 2. No doubt some of the blame lies with the author. But I’m fairly comfortable saying most of it doesn’t.
Friendly critics (like RJ Pestritto and Fred Smith) who complain that I should have referred to “liberal statism” instead of liberal fascism generally agree with or concede Argument 1. But they are primarily concerned with Argument 2 and think, understandably, that the use of the F-word gets in the way.
I think they underestimate the importance and necessity of Argument 1. Why? Because as I tried to illustrate with my example of nationalize medicine, contemporary liberalism benefits enormously from the popular misconception of fascism as the natural culmination of rightwing will-to-power. Discussing statism instead of fascism might have made Argument 2 more persuasive to some, but it would have defenestrated much of Argument 1. Maybe that would have been worthwhile, but not only is that not the book I wanted to write, but there are plenty of excellent books that merely expose the statist assumptions of contemporary liberalism.
Anyway, I’m rambling now. So let me offer a brief rejoinder instead: If popular misconceptions of fascism have made my job harder, so be it: My job is harder.