Mail Bag: The Klan and Liberalism


From a reader:

Hello, Mr. Goldberg, this is loyal (but new, I’m only 18) reader of National Review who’s just finished with your book Liberal Fascism. A good book overall; I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, but it offers a lot of cool new info that has helped me learn a lot about fascism and its roots. Anyway, I have a question that hopefully won’t take too much of your time. I have a friend who is blasting the book and especially taking issue with two matters that I can’t fully get from the book. If you’re willing to take just a bit of time from your busy schedule, I’d like some help.

1. He asserts that you are “whitewashing” the KKK by saying they were less racist than we often see them as and that you “handwave” away any potential fascism by saying they hated Mussolini. So, do you consider the KKK to actually be fascist, and to what degree?

2. He says that you cherry-pick classical liberalism in this way:

“While it involves ‘limited government and laissez-faire economics,’ it also involved just as importantly, the primacy of the rule of law and democratic institutions, the advancement of civil liberties and civil rights, and freedom from restraint — things all very much part of the ideology of modern liberalism, which is also descended from social liberalism.” He claims you simply ignore these matters to focus on just a few factors. Any comment?

Thanks for any response at all you may give.

Me: I think both questions are basically unfair and baldly inaccurate readings of the book.

Re question 1: I think the KKK was certainly fascistic and most certainly racist. In my brief discussion of the Klan, the point isn’t to say they weren’t either of these things. It is to note that the Klan — specifically, the second Klan of the 1920s — wasn’t the rightwing phenomenon we’ve been spoonfed in history books. There were major Progressive elements in the KKK and their passions weren’t solely the cartoonishly evil racism we’ve come to associate with them. But, sure, they were cartoonishly evil nonetheless. Why would I want to whitewash the Klan? I want to disavow the Klan and place them more properly outside of  the conservative tradition.  Now, what you will hear from liberals is that the Klan was rightwing because they were racist and racism is rightwing, blah blah blah. But  a huge point of my book is that such insipid tautologies are at the heart of the misunderstanding of fascism. The Progressives were racists, collectively speaking. Does that make them rightwing? If so, then we’re back to the idiotic formulation that fascist, rightwing, conservative etc are really just leftwing codewords for “bad.”

Re Question 2: I’m not quite sure I grasp the intended intellectual effulgence of the question. But if I get the basic sense of it, I agree entirely that the rule of law and civil liberties are part of classical liberalism and I would never deny otherwise. “Freedom from restraint” is a stickier one because it begs the question, what do we mean by restraint? Government restraint? Surely. Social restraint, it depends. Economic restraint…self restraint? The freedom from restraint thing gets us into the realm of positive versus negative liberty. I would argue that classical liberalism is about negative liberty. Today’s progressives/liberals follow Dewey and say that modern liberalism is about positive liberty — what the government can give the individual to “empower” him. That’s a huge difference.

I don’t understand the phrase “descended from social liberalism” But let me say that of course modern liberalism is partially descended from classical liberalism. Of course it cares about freedom and civil rights and all the rest. American liberals are, after all, Americans. But I would — and did — argue  that modern liberalism has come to define things like liberty and civil rights in ways that do not fit very well within the tradition of classical liberalism.


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