Politics & Policy

Clumsy Critique

Responding to Michael Tomasky's critique of Liberal Fascism

Michael Tomasky, reviewing my book, Liberal Fascism, in The New Republic, has performed a useful service. He combines every strategy the book’s critics have used to dismiss it. He runs down the supermarket aisles of the Left-wing blogosphere plucking every container of prepackaged piffle and throws them in his cart.

He concedes essential parts of the book’s argument while insisting that they are trivial, offers trivial objections as if they were essential, and throws in a few non-sequiturs, insults, and rank distortions to pad the piece. His one innovation is to extend his insults from me to my readers (who are said to have too much time on their hands), and then to conservatives generally. His review, though long, is a time-saver: Anyone who wants to know what the book’s liberal detractors are saying can consider it one-stop shopping.

Putting the Hack in Hackneyed

The insults are not especially entertaining. Tomasky leadenly says that the book “bored him out of [his] skull” and that it is “one of the most tedious and inane — and ultimately self-negating — books” he has ever read. Tastes differ, I suppose. I can take heart in the fact that Tom Wolfe, Thomas Sowell, Christopher Buckley, Paul Johnson, Richard Bernstein, and many other people whose judgment in these matters I respect, have found the book important, insightful, engaging, or at least enjoyable. Even David Oshinsky, a liberal historian who came to bury, not to praise, Liberal Fascism in the New York Times, nonetheless applauded the “witty intelligence” of its prose and called its final chapters “deliciously amusing.”

Concession Stand

After the insults come the concessions. “There is, to be sure, a little something to it,” he says and makes similar gestures elsewhere. Then follows the “we already knew this” argument that has appeared so often in the liberal reaction to the book. For instance, Tomasky writes that “we all understand that Mussolini showed little to no interest in oppressing Jews until quite late in his career.” Really? We all understand this? I’ve talked to scores of audiences about this book by now and had hundreds of conversations about this very issue (including with people who work for The New Republic), and in almost every instance people are surprised by how different the facts are from the conventional wisdom.

Tomasky continues:

Goldberg clearly means to shock us with these truffles that he has dug out of the woeful soil of the twentieth century. But very little of the story he tells is news to students of history. We had already heard that Steffens said of the Soviet Union, “I have been over into the future, and it works,” so it is not exactly a shock to read that he had kind words for a similarly regimented society. We similarly understand that the Wilson administration did indeed shut down The Masses and fan racism and xenophobia and round up radicals, and no liberal today thinks of these moves as things to be proud of or to duplicate. We are also acutely aware that some New Dealers were fans of the totalitarian Soviet Union. Roosevelt’s second vice president was one such, and he kicked Henry Wallace off the ticket in 1944 for just that reason. Since Roosevelt did not manage to keep Wallace’s expulsion out of the papers, it is not exactly a secret.

We have also recognized, since at least the 1950s and in some prescient instances even earlier, that certain consanguinities between the far left and the far right did exist in those days, and that the Nazi program was in some respects a left-wing program, appealing on a class basis — and, always, a racial basis — to German workers and the petit bourgeoisie. It was not called National Socialism for nothing. Goldberg goes into great detail on all this in his chapter titled — are you sitting down? – “Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left.”

It is true that most people are aware that there are similarities between fascism and Communism, in that they are both totalitarian. But the extent, origins, and significance of those similarities are not widely understood. Indeed, a central argument of my book is that the conventional understanding that fascism and Communism are opposites — fascism being a “Right-wing” totalitarianism and Communism being a “Left-wing” totalitarianism — is completely wrong. This indispensable point seems to have bounced off Tomasky’s forehead entirely, failing to penetrate his boredom-engorged skull.

Meanwhile, it is not true that most people are aware of American progressives’ fondness for Fascist Italy. Tomasky’s sleight-of-hand on this point merits illumination.

Yes, many know of Steffens’s fondness for the Soviet Union. But Tomasky says it’s “not exactly a shock” that Steffens was enamored with “similarly regimented” Fascist Italy (“similarly regimented” being a soft-edged and exceedingly convenient euphemism for totalitarian dictatorships). Here Tomasky is not only unpersuasive, he’s obtuse in his refusal to glean the significance or relevance of the point. First, there’s the word “similarly” which concedes that for the informed observer (Steffens was an investigative journalist after all) the differences between these supposedly opposite systems were in reality trivial, while the similarities were in fact fundamental. Indeed, this is why Steffens spoke of the “Russian-Italian” method, seeing both Bolshevism and Fascism as kindred “experiments,” doing the same important work that needed to be done in America.

Second, and more importantly, Steffens was hardly alone. Many of the smartest and most influential founders of modern liberalism — including the founder of The New Republic and several of its stars, as well as leading New Dealers — likewise saw Fascism and Bolshevism as fundamentally the same.

Third, this fact should tell us not only that Fascism and Communism were not opposites, but that there was indeed something deep and real within the architects of American liberalism that found something admirable — and hopefully transferable — in various undemocratic and totalitarian systems (whatever that something is seems to endure as many on the left continue to apologize for Mussolinian dictators like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro). Tomasky attempts to swat away these immensely significant points by claiming “we already knew that.” But it seems clear that “we” — i.e. Tomasky and his fellow “students of history” — either don’t know this or are entirely uninterested in exploring these points honestly in public.

Tomasky makes yet another concession that means more than he realizes: He says that when liberals employ ad Hitlerum arguments against conservatives they are — his word — “dopey.” Off the top of my head, that means Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Jesse Jackson, Charles Rangel, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Daniel Schorr, Alan Wolfe, Naomi Wolf (indeed most prominent feminists), countless stars of the New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, the Guardian, and pretty much the entire Left-Wing Blogger-Industrial Complex are, to one extent or another, dopes.

Preach on, Brother Michael.

Distortions Ahead

Having made and minimized his concessions, Tomasky goes on to argue that I have taken my thesis too far. But he can make that case only by distorting my words. He writes, “The Civilian Conservation Corps was not the Hitler Youth.” Yup. That’s why I never said the CCC was the Hitler Youth. I did, however, compare the CCC to various programs of the German Labor Front. As my footnotes suggest, I am not the first person to make the comparison.

Esteemed historians like David Schoenbaum and Wolfgang Schivelbusch have made similar observations as did many contemporary observers.

Tomasky adds that I “would have difficulty distinguishing between, say, seat-belt laws and the banning of political parties.” Watch that conditional tense: What it means is that I did not say anything to suggest that these are the same thing.

Indeed, the battlefield of Tomasky’s review is littered with similarly wounded strawmen. There are too many for me to recount them all. More importantly, I see no reason to rush to their aid.

But for the record, I have no idea why Tomasky thinks I would call the Emancipation Proclamation “fascist.” Such heights of rhetorical nonsense do not merit a response.

At another point, Tomasky misrepresents my book in a way that fairly screams bad faith:

That Hitler had the backing of many conservative financiers whose names are well-known to history but missing from this book — Fritz Thyssen, Hjalmar Schacht, and the rest — isn’t interesting to this conservative student of fascism. That Hitler and his cohort were vegetarians and health nuts, and thus similar to some left-leaning Americans today — now that is fascinating! Why, Dachau even “produced its own organic honey.” What better proof of the kinship between fascism and liberalism?

From reading this, you’d think I completely ignored the allegation of “conservative financiers” and the rise of Hitler. But people who’ve read my book know that I dedicate considerable space to this very point, relying heavily on Henry Ashby Turner’s definitive German Big Business and the Rise of Hitler. “Compared to the sustained intake of money raised by membership dues and other contributions of the Nazi rank and file,” I quote Turner saying, “the funds that reached the [party] from the side of big business assume at best a marginal significance.” (We’ll just put aside the somewhat Marxian assumption in Tomasky’s assertion that big business = “conservative” in the Anglo-American context).

As for Dachau’s organic honey, Tomasky is once again — willfully — obtuse. My point was not that Nazis are liberals and liberals are Nazis because they both like organic honey. Indeed, Tomasky explicitly concedes that I constantly insist that that is not my point. So what is my point? Simply this: Many of the progressive and holistic ideas that lie at the heart of today’s lifestyle Left, the environmental Left, and the New Age movement share numerous unquestioned philosophical, emotional, and practical similarities with the intellectual and cultural currents that fed into and sustained Nazism. I think that’s interesting and worth pointing out — particularly in a political culture where American conservatives are routinely dubbed “fascists” for their quintessentially un-fascistic support of traditional religion, free markets, and property rights.

Indeed, Tomasky repeatedly suggests I am in “methodological hell” because I commit the fallacy of the excluded middle. For example, he says that my argument amounts to saying that people who like the White Album are serial killers because Charles Manson liked the White Album. This is more sand-pounding nonsense. Leading liberal writers and intellectuals scrub conservative DNA for the slightest hint of fascist chromosomes, but my pointing out that some of the core fashions of the liberal left have roots in fascistic thought is an exercise in futility?

Does anyone think that if conservatives had shoved such buzzwords as “logocentrism” or “deconstructionism” on millions of college students, that liberals would not find some relevance in the fact that these terms are of distinctly Nazi provenance? And, no I am not saying that people who use such phrases are Nazis. But I am not saying it’s a trivial waste of time to ponder the implications of this fact either. Tomasky is. And yet he’s the one striking the pose of the intellectual interested in history.

Hitler’s Leftism

Tomasky’s biggest non sequitur denies that Hitler was a “man of the Left” because 1) one of Hitler’s first acts upon taking power was to ban trade unions and 2) he denounced “liberalism” and Communism. About the first point all that need be said is that if Hitler’s ban on independent trade unions disqualifies him as a leftist, then Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were not leftists either.

One might also note that socialists’ lethal hatred for rival socialists is hardly confined to the National Socialists of Germany. Lenin and Stalin, after all, had plenty of rival socialists killed. Tellingly, when Stalin decided that such adversaries needed to die, he called them “fascists.” Hence, Trotsky & Co. were executed for plotting a “fascist coup” against Soviet socialism.

And for those interested, the Nazis believed that the right to strike was no longer necessary because labor finally had a full seat at the table, as dictated by corporatist ideology. Obviously, the Nazis were wrong. But so were the Communists who did pretty much the exact same thing. This thinking was summarized by a Nazi-party newspaper: ‘‘We have a working people’s state here, and who would ever dream of striking against himself?”

Oh. Sorry. That was actually Pravda in 1989. (By the way strike-breaking under the corporatist New Deal was sufficiently severe that Eric Sevareid dubbed it fascist. See pages 121-122).

The “liberalism” that Hitler denounced, meanwhile, was the classical variety — my liberalism, in other words — and not that of Tomasky. One of the major points of my book is that contemporary liberalism is descended more from Progressivism than the classical liberalism of Locke, which it explicitly sought to overturn (hence Woodrow Wilson’s contempt for the constitution, Dewey’s dismissal of “natural” or “negative” rights, Croly’s rejection of “liberal principles”). Indeed, by 1912, classical liberalism had come to be dubbed “conservatism” by many Progressives. Tomasky does not refute this contention so much as he works around it, pretending not only that there is an unbroken philosophical line from Locke to Cass Sunstein (stop laughing), but that no reasonable person would object to the suggestion.

(As for why this assertion is so funny see, for example, Tom Palmer’s review of Sunstein’s “Second Bill of Rights.”). It is also around here that Tomasky says:

However much or little Goldberg knows about fascism, he knows next to nothing about liberalism. Anybody familiar with Liberalism 101 grasps that there is something deep within liberalism, from its earliest beginnings, that prevents it from degenerating into fascism, and that is its explicit recognition that the state must serve both common purposes and individual liberty.

And, he continues a bit further on, when the pursuit of common purposes “crosses the line into coercion, well, that is where liberals — I mean liberals who know something about liberalism — get off the train, and do their noncoercive best to derail it.”

What is this magical, wonderful “something” that lurks in “real” liberals? What is the secret gnosis that empowers these people to know instinctively when they’ve gone too far? Tomasky never says, he just knows on faith that this is true. It sure sounds like Tomasky is a votary to the political religion I argue liberalism has become.

Indeed, Tomasky perfectly illustrates another important argument in Liberal Fascism. According to liberals, liberalism is never wrong. When liberals do good things it is proof that liberalism is always right. When liberals deliberately do evil or bad things (albeit with “good” intentions), these errors are chalked up to the sins of America writ large or to “conservative” elements within progressivism. FDR’s rounding-up of the Japanese, Wilson’s racism, Dewey’s totalitarianism, Croly’s myriad Gnostic oddities, the University of Wisconsin’s devotion to eugenics: None of these things are laid at the feet of progressives or liberals, even though they were central to their respective projects.

History is full not only of examples of liberals failing to derail the locomotive’s rush to coercion, but of liberals actually shoveling as much coal into the engine’s furnace as possible. That is a big part of the “secret history” referred to in the subtitle of my book.

Tomasky proves that sweeping moral arrogance and philosophical hubris remain a standard anatomical feature of progressivism. And it should go without saying that such hubris is a fairly unreliable check on going too far in the name of progress. This is the whole point of the smiley face with the Hitler mustache on the cover; fascism was popular, fascism is popular. It seems like the good and progressive thing to do. Liberals can congratulate themselves all day long for standing up to things they don’t like (and hence define as fascist), but it takes real intellectual courage to stand up to things you favor, things that are popular because you recognize that if you don’t derail the train now, it might be too late later.

As William Voegeli notes here, Tomasky simply believes that there really is no serious slippery slope from liberalism to totalitarianism because, again, liberalism possesses that magical, ineffable, miraculous quality that compels real liberals to “get off the train” and derail it. But this doesn’t happen very often, does it? In 1964, Hubert Humphrey — “Mr. Liberal” — swore up and down in the well of the Senate that the Civil Rights Act could in no way ever lead to quotas and if anyone could prove otherwise, “I will start eating the pages, one after the other, because it’s not in there.” Humphrey never, to my knowledge, turned against quotas nor did he partake of such a diet. And, those good liberals who did turn against racial quotas are now almost entirely called “conservatives” or “neoconservatives” now, and one can surely agree that liberals like Tomasky do not salute their efforts.

Of course, the history of liberalism isn’t one long story of ever-ratcheting-up of coercion. But there are plenty of examples where liberals eagerly take the path of least resistance, go along with the flow, and define coercion down.

If You Ain’t Hitler, You’re A-OkAY?

One last point that I think is relevant to Tomasky’s objection and to others who offered similar complaints: Tomasky says the whole book is “inane” and “self-negating” because I’m not calling Hillary Clinton a genocidal Hitlerite.

In other words, if I’m not saying liberals really are, literally, Nazis — something many of Tomasky’s “dopey” peers do, in fact, say about conservatives — then why bother even pointing out that modern liberalism shares so much with fascism?

Two responses come to mind. The first is simply this: I could have sworn that Nazism was the worst kind of politics possible. The upshot of Tomasky’s complaint is that if I’m not willing to call liberals genocidal racists and warmongers then I’m just wasting my time and his — and yours. As if he’d have responded more favorably if that were my argument!

But where I come from you can come up pretty far short of Hitlerism and still be bad. Nazism used to define the very worst political system imaginable. But by Tomasky’s loopy standard, criticism of liberalism that doesn’t rise to the level of “they’re Nazis!” isn’t very interesting or relevant. Perhaps if he’d been better rested when he read my discussion of how American liberalism is in danger of following Huxley, not Orwell, he might not have offered such a juvenile complaint.

Second, (though this is not a point I make explicitly in the book) I think it’s legitimate to worry that a liberalism that redefines all rights and liberties as gifts from the state (remember Hillary’s Christmas ad?), endeavors to blur the distinction between children and citizens and distrusts competing spheres of authority and sovereignty might not foster a society well-equipped to grapple with a hard fascism should it ever arrive. Breeding men without chests always leaves a society vulnerable to unforeseen sirens.

To sum up: Tomasky affirmatively concedes vast chunks of my argument and passively concedes even more. His strongest critiques are with arguments and assertions that cannot actually be found in my book. All the while he argues both that I don’t know what I am talking about and that students of history knew all of this stuff before. In other words, I’m both ignorant and I’m not telling him anything he didn’t know.

But, yes, by all means: I’m the one guilty of being inane and self-negating.

I cannot be certain whether Tomasky’s myopic reading and thumbless grasp of my book is genuine or merely a grand show put on for more effective ideological spadework. But I am certain that it would be unwise to rely on liberals like him to tell us when progressivism has gone too far.

– Jonah Goldberg is the author of Liberal Fascism.

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