Politics & Policy

Debating Liberal Fascism

Reviewing a review.

On Thursday, I said that David Neiwert’s review of my book, Liberal Fascism, in The American Prospect was the sort of “shallow, cliché ridden, attack-the-messenger stuff that I would expect Ezra to find so persuasive.” But it turned out I’d misquoted Neiwert, for which I apologized. I also said I was bleary from the slog of promoting the book and maybe I was too harsh. Well, now — as they used to say of Nixon — I’m tanned, rested and ready (minus the tan). So with fresh eyes let me say that Neiwert’s review is the sort of shallow, cliché ridden, attack-the-messenger stuff that I would expect Ezra to find so persuasive.

First, there’s the opening where he tries ever so slightly to tag me as a member of the David Irving Holocaust-denier camp. Then, he whines that I don’t have any credentials and I have no qualifications other than “right-wing nepotism” (You can expect this bleat to get ever louder, by the way, if the book becomes a bestseller). I like that, because it seems it’s only right-wing nepotism that bothers the party poised to nominate the wife of the last Democratic president, a party which remains a cargo cult to the Kennedys — every member of whom (save for pro-Nazi papa Joe) got where they are from nepotism (as for the charge I’m the product of nepotism: Yawn).

Okay, on to the substance.

The intellectual dishonesty of Neiwert’s first grown-up paragraph is glorious in its majesty. He writes: “The title alone is enough to indicate its thoroughgoing incoherence: Of all the things we know about fascism and the traits that comprise it, one of the few things that historians will readily agree upon is its overwhelming anti-liberalism. One might as well write about anti-Semitic neoconservatism, or Ptolemaic quantum theory, or strength in ignorance. Goldberg isn’t content to simply create an oxymoron; this entire enterprise, in fact, is classic Newspeak.”

Judging from this, you’d think I just made-up the phrase from whole cloth. Nowhere does Neiwert mention that I get the phrase from H. G. Wells, quite possibly the most influential English-speaking public intellectual during the first third of the 20th century. It was H. G. Wells who sought to rechristen liberalism as “Liberal Fascism” or — again, his words — “Enlightened Nazism.”

Then there’s the omnipresent canard that I must be wrong because of fascism’s “overwhelming anti-liberalism.” Neiwert is again displaying either his ignorance or his dishonesty. It is absolutely true that a great many academic definitions — Ernst Nolte’s “fascist negations” for example — cite fascism’s anti-liberalism. And it is true that Mussolini and Hitler spoke of their disdain for liberalism many times, and there are many quotes to that effect. But guess what? These two European statesmen were speaking in — wait for it! — a European context where liberalism generally means limited government: classical or “Manchester” liberalism. They were most emphatically not talking about progressivism or socialism, which are the correct label for American liberalism and/or the American left (as I demonstrate at length in my book).

Secondly, the same sources Neiwert and others cite to cough up this anti-liberalism hairball also usually include another attribute of fascism: It was “anti-conservative” (also on Nolte’s, and many others’, lists). But here’s the fun part: American conservatism is a blend of European conservatism and European liberalism. In other words, the two halves of American conservatism — traditionalism plus classical liberalism — are both considered decidedly un-fascist by most academics who study the topic, as well as by the original fascists themselves.

Let’s move on.

After tendentiously over-reading my discussion of Orwell he writes: “Goldberg proceeds to define everything that he himself considers undesirable as ‘fascist.’” I hear this a lot, and it’s flatly untrue. There were things about the New Deal I find both fascistic and defensible. I think Kennedy had a great many positive attributes. I say that there are many progressive reforms that I thought were worthwhile. And, for all of the deliberate misreading of my “We’re All Fascists Now” chapter, and the deliberate ignoring of my “The Tempting of Conservatism” essay, you’d still think it would occur to these people that maybe I’m not simply using the word fascist the way the Left does. Indeed, I state quite openly that I shop at Whole Foods all the time.

Then there’s some throat clearing about how I misstate the state of the academic consensus on fascism. That’s too weedy to get into here, but I don’t believe I do and I think fair-minded readers will see this simply by reading the introduction.

As a nice break for the reader, he then writes something interesting and intelligent, albeit predictably tendentious. If only he’d started the review here:

So when Goldberg proclaims early on: “This is the monumental fact of the Nazi rise to power that has been slowly airbrushed from our collective memories: the Nazis campaigned as socialists,” more thorough observers of history might instead just shake their heads. After all, the facts of Mussolini’s utopian/socialist origins and the Nazis’ similar appeals to socialism by incorporating the name are already quite well known to the same historians who consistently describe fascism as a right-wing enterprise.

What these historians record — but Goldberg variously ignores or minimizes — is that the “socialism” of “National Socialism” was in fact purely a kind of ethnic economic nationalism, which offered “socialist” support to purely “Aryan” German business entities, and that the larger Nazi cultural appeal was built directly around an open antipathy to all things liberal or leftist. Indeed, whole chapters of Mein Kampf are devoted to vicious smears and declarations of war against “the Left,” and not merely the Marxism that Goldberg acknowledges was a major focus of Hitler’s animus.

Yes, it’s true. Many historians call Nazism a right-wing enterprise. One of the arguments of my book is to demonstrate that these historians are wrong to do so. If that enrages the trade guild controlling most of academia, them’s the breaks. But simply saying that people say my view is wrong doesn’t make it wrong. I marshal hundreds of pages of evidence to back up my points. Neiwert thumbs through the indexes of a few books to make his. Moreover, I am hardly alone in this point of view. Friedrich Hayek, Paul Johnson, Richard Pipes, Milton Friedman, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, John Lukacs, Joshua Muravchik, A. James Gregor, Michael Ledeen, Ayn Rand, and — as I show in my book — countless contemporary observers of classical fascism agree with my view in whole or in part.

Again, as I try to show in my book, the reason we call fascism and National Socialism “right wing” is because these were forms of “right-wing socialism,” or, as both the Marxist theoretician Karl Radek and Leon Trotsky argued, “middle class socialism.” And while the academic literature is on my side of the argument that the Nazis appealed to the lower classes just as much as the Communists did (if not more so), I have no problem conceding that the nature of Nazi socialism was in some significant respects different from Soviet socialism. So call it right-wing socialism if you like. But don’t saw off the right-wing part and then bludgeon American conservatives with it.

The point here is that these were all different kinds of socialism. And in the Anglo-American tradition, socialism is a phenomenon of the Left. Period. And many, many more historians who would no doubt take issue with my book — Michael Mann and the Germans Götz Aly and Wolfgang Schivelbusch come to mind — nonetheless have written at length about the fundamental and indisputable antipathy the National Socialists had for capitalism.

This point about race that Neiwert brings up is an important one — and one that I anticipate and discuss in my book. Because he believes that racism is inherently right-wing, the fact that the Nazis were racists means they had to be right-wingers. I concede, and talk at length, about the fact that the Nazis were racists. But racism, I’m sorry to say, is not definitively right-wing in my book (literally and figuratively). Stalin’s Russia was replete with anti-Semitism. The American Progressives were astoundingly racist (as I show). The Communists in Germany competed with the National Socialists by trying to out-Jew-bait them. Are the American Progressives, Stalin, or the German Reds now all right-wingers? Moreover, are American conservatives somehow racists because a bunch of socialists in Europe were racists? These dots do not connect.

One last point on this. The issue isn’t racism-as-bigotry. The point is racial essentialism, the idea that race matters (the title of a book by Cornel West, if memory serves). In America, conservatives argue for colorblindness; the Left does not. The Left believes in the iron cage of racial identity, the Right does not. The Left believes in a racial spoils system, the Right does not. And yet, we conservatives are kith and kin of the most intense racial essentialists of the 20th century? These dots, too, do not connect. (Note: As I say countless times in my book, today’s liberals are not Nazi-like bigots, but they are racial essentialists).

Okay, this is running very long and I have other things to do. So I will try to be more succinct. He then writes:

But it was present all along; “the Left” were the people who were beaten and murdered in the 1920s by the squadristi and the Brownshirts; and the first Germans sent off to Nazi concentration camps like Dachau were not Jews but socialists, communists, and other left-wing political prisoners, including “liberal” priests and clerics.

Very quickly: As I write in my book, the Nazis were determined to destroy their competition. That is why they hated the Communists. The propaganda that says the Nazis were the opposites of the Communists because they hated each other is idiotic. Hamas and Fatah hate each other deeply, Trotsky and Stalin battled for power, and left-wing academics get their panties in a bunch over where some fellow left-winger puts a comma in a sentence. In none of these cases does mutual hatred translate to ideological divergence. Please: Stalin was a genocidal dictator. Hitler was a genocidal dictator. They both ran totalitarian, militarized regimes of total war. But yes, Nazism and Communism are opposites. Riiiight.

Much of the rest of his review hinges on the same game of desperately trying to re-affix the labels I’m trying to peel off and return to their rightful place. Yes, populism has been called “right wing” by lots of people. And there are variants of what could rightly be called “right-wing populism.” But this is a variation on the same theme. These are right-wing populisms in the same sense that fascism was right-wing socialism. I’m willing to concede the point because, well, it’s my point!

Then there’s a lot of stuff about how I don’t address the “anti-intellectualism” of fascism. This is just wrong if you read my book with care. I go on at length about the influence of pragmatism — both the Nietzschean pragmatism lamented by Julien Benda and the Pragmatism of William James and later John Dewey. Pragmatism was an intellectual enterprise, to be sure, but it was aimed at intellectualism itself. The cult of the deed, the need for action, the disdain for books and history: I show at great length how these themes informed both fascism and progressivism. Mussolini, recall, hailed James as one of his greatest influences. The pragmatic progressives lived in a universe with “the lid off,” as James put it, and the dull past no longer had relevance. History itself had become “bunk.” “I speak in dispraise of dusty learning, and in disparagement of the historical technique,” boasted Stuart Chase, the man widely credited with inventing the phrase “the new deal.” “Are our plans wrong? Who knows? Can we tell from reading history? Hardly.”

I’ve also written at great length how this spirit defines much of our age today as well. See here, here or here for starters.

Now I admit that I didn’t want to get into the weeds on a lot of political theory. Actually, I did. But my editor wanted to keep this accessible for a general audience, so I opted to show, not tell, on this point. But I show it — a lot. In fact, Neiwert quotes my book in an attempt to prove that I don’t understand the point I was in fact making. Smooth:

Probably the essential fascist statement is one that Goldberg in fact cites unreflectingly — Mussolini’s famous reply to those who wanted policy specifics from him: “The democrats of Il Mondo want to know our program? It is to break the bones of the democrats of Il Mondo. And the sooner the better.” This remark’s noteworthy anti-liberalism also seems to elude Goldberg. And the notion that liberal humanism — with its long history of rationalism and reliance on logic and science — has anything whatsoever to do with the fascist approach is, once again, an almost comical upending of reality.

No, what’s comical is Neiwert’s attempt to cling to the myths upon which he relies for his daily bread. And that brings us to the close of his review which is really just a recitation of the same usual talking-points about how if you scratch an American conservative you find a Nazi underneath. And since one of the primary goals of my book is put that slander to rest, it’s no wonder he wants to protect his gravy train by attacking it so shabbily.

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