Politics & Policy

Obama’s Playbook, in Paperback

Liberal Fascism and its critics

‘In the greatest hoax of modern history, Russia’s ruling ‘socialist workers party,’ the Communists, established them selves as the polar opposites of their two socialist clones, the National Socialist German Workers Party (quicknamed ‘the Nazis’) and Italy’s Marxist-inspired Fascisti, by branding both as ‘the fascists,’” writes Tom Wolfe. “This spin of all spins,” he says, has played “havoc” upon Western political discourse ever since. I’m fond of that insight not only because I agree with it, or because it is from a blurb for my book Liberal Fascism, which has just come out in paperback (with a new afterword on Barack Obama, who fits so seamlessly into my thesis that he reminds me of the replacement shark in Jaws II). I repeat Wolfe’s pithy summation of the knot I tried to cut because it helps explain the liberal response to the book. The initial reaction—or pre-reaction, since Liberal Fascism was attacked several years before it came out—was simply to declare its thesis so absurd that no serious person should bother to crack its spine. The “spin of all spins” had solidified into conventional wisdom among mainstream liberals, and questioning it amounted to secular heresy.

Some liberals tried to debunk the book more systematically, but for the most part they just confirmed that the “spin of all spins” was exactly that. Consider University of Texas historian David Oshinsky’s review for the New York Times. He began by quickly summarizing the main points of my argument: The Left uses the term “fascist” to demonize its enemies; fascism was a left-wing phenomenon; Mussolini was a socialist; American Progressivism was disturbingly fascistic, and FDR’s New Deal had fascistic elements as well. Only when he reached this last point did Oshinsky offer a clear dissent, writing, “Goldberg is less convincing here because he can’t get a handle on Roosevelt’s admittedly elusive personality.” Well, okay. But I don’t get to Roosevelt for more than 130 pages, at which point I’ve already overturned the liberal applecart. It was a remarkable concession.

A more thorough effort—and an omnibus of left-wing desperation—appeared in The New Republic, from journalist Michael Tomasky. He too assured readers that they didn’t need to bother with “one of the most tedious and inane—and ultimately self-negating—books” he’d ever read. But then he picked up a new argument, which subsequently became popular with critics on the left: We knew all this before. Tomasky insisted, for instance, that “we all understand that Mussolini showed little to no interest in oppressing Jews until quite late in his career.” Everyone was already well aware, Tomasky wrote, that Wilson was a would-be fascist and that “the Nazi program was in some respects a left-wing program. . . . It was not called National Socialism for nothing.” Liberals should be congratulated for keeping all of this so tightly under wraps for so long.

Tomasky also compared apples to apples to prove that one of them was an orange. Guffawing at my argument that Hitler was a “Man of the Left,” he observed that one of the first things Hitler did was crack down on independent labor unions. True enough, the Nazis rolled them up into the German Labor Front (DAF—from its German name, “Deutsche Arbeitsfront”). The Nazis defended the DAF by arguing that it gave labor a seat at the table of government (a frequent demand from progressives to this day, and one satisfied, in part, by an outcome not all that dissimilar to the DAF: the UAW’s joint ownership, with the U.S. government, of GM). Whether that defense was true is a worthy debate topic, but either way Tomasky’s example does not serve his critique. After all, how did independent labor unions fare under Stalin? Mao? Castro? Are these men also not of the Left? Sociologist Michael Mann, reviewing Liberal Fascism in the Washington Post, wrote, “What really distinguished fascists from other mainstream movements of the time were proud, ‘principled’—as they saw it—violence and authoritarianism.” If you say so. But again: How opposed to vio­lence and authoritarianism were Messrs. Stalin, Mao, and Castro? Time and again liberals take an aspect of Nazism and say, “This proves Nazism was right-wing.” On al­most every count—genocide, racism, discrimination, suppression of free speech, militarism—the most famously left-wing regimes in history have acted in identical fashion. But the actions of those regimes are deemed irrelevant, whereas the actions of Nazis are taken as proof of the right-wing nature of Nazism.

Which invites the most basic question: Since when is violence, or racism, or authoritarianism, inherently right-wing—particularly in the sense of the Anglo-American Right? Tomas­ky, Mann, and the rest prove the continuing truth of George Orwell’s observation in 1946 that fascism had come to mean “anything not desirable.”

Other critics argued that, while it’s true there were progressive aspects of fascism, there are no fascistic aspects of progressivism. Here is Mann again: “[Goldberg] is right to note that fascist party programs contained active social welfare policies to be implemented through a corporatist state, so there were indeed overlaps with Progressives and with New Dealers. But so, too, were there overlaps with the world’s Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, as well as with the British Conservative Party from Harold Macmillan in the 1930s to Prime Minister Ted Heath in the 1970s, and even with the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. Are they all to earn the f-word?”

Yes and no. One of the book’s main points, stated again and again, is that fascism was not some obscure outlier among ideologies. It was mainstream, and part of the general fad for collectivism and statism. That a bipartisan political class looked favorably on fascism in the 1920s, and that from the 1930s onward the establishment advocated statist and corporatist policies that resembled fascist ones in significant ways, are hardly claims I dispute. These and similar claims are precisely what I try to demonstrate (which is why I included a chapter called “We’re All Fascists Now,” and offered a lengthy critique of George W. Bush and compassionate conservatism). My purpose was not to make an ad hominem, “f-word” attack (although one might excuse liberals for thinking that’s what I was up to, so accustomed are they to using the word “fascism” as a cudgel). The point is rather that we’ve been taught to be ever vigilant about fascism, yet we’ve defined the word in a way that makes us expect the threat from the wrong direction. That’s why I didn’t write a book about “statism,” as some libertarian critics have claimed: Debunking the bogeyman of “right-wing fascism” is the book’s central idea. And it’s rather startling that the Left, which has argued for so long that economics is the fons et origo of all political morality, simply does not care that fascist economics and progressive economics overlap considerably, while fascism and the free market are at opposite ends of the political spectrum.

This myopia stems, I believe, from the “team” nature of leftism. For too many on the left, intellectual history is a story not of ideas, but of allegiances and coalitions. That’s why the Left has come to believe that Communism and Nazism were opposites when in fact they were rivals. Ever since Stalin issued his “theory of social fascism,” “fascism” has meant “traitor to the cause” or “heretic” more than it has been a substantive description of anyone’s ideology. Trotsky became a “fascist” not because he changed his mind about Bolshevism but because he was deemed disloyal to Stalin. Father Coughlin was, in the words of the liberal Catholic intellectual Fr. John Ryan, “on the side of the angels” when he supported the New Deal as “Christ’s Deal.” He was anathematized as a fascist and right-winger only after he broke with FDR—despite the fact that he attacked FDR from the left. Those who actually subscribed to modern conservative ideas during this period did not admire or support fascism. For instance, Albert Jay Nock, the John the Baptist of modern conservatism, was consistently opposed to all variants of statism, whatever their “trade names.”

If you see intellectual history as a history of ideas, things are much clearer. Suppose one had to give a Martian a field guide to 20th-century Earthling ideology. I would broadly define “left-wing” as statist, collectivist, egalitarian (within a defined group, be it based on class, race, or nationality), enamored of the Romantic spiritualization of the political, and hostile to tradition, religious orthodoxy, natural rights, and Lockean individualism. I would define “right-wing,” particularly within the Anglo-American tradition, as pro-market, favoring limited government, respectful of religion and tradition, and protective of the individual and his rights. By any remotely similar definition, fascism belongs on the left—and, to date, not a single critic of the book has even come close to rebutting this basic point.

Tomasky, besotted with the team mentality, simply equated liberalism with the good guys. It is thus axiomatic that liberals cannot have anything to do with fascism, because “fascist” is the team name for the bad guys. He wrote: “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.” He added that whenever 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.” Never mind that contemporary liberalism is shot through with coercion; this abracadabra definition exonerates it of every coercive thing government has ever done. Diehard fans of left-wing ideology might like this stuff, but it is not for intellectuals who presumably have graduated from Liberalism 101. It does, however, reveal one reason liberals are blind to their mistakes, as well as to their tendency to airily dismiss concerns about the expansion of government power when they are in charge.

Which brings us to today. Barack Obama, benefiting from a cult of personality and a sacralized conception of his movement and of politics generally (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for”), is expanding the role of the state at breakneck pace. During the campaign, he pledged his indebtedness to the very Progressives who are in the crosshairs of my book, and his wife insisted that her husband would fix our broken souls and make us work. His administration boasted that it would exploit the financial crisis as best it could.

And it has. In little more than 100 days, Obama has nationalized banks and the auto industry (admittedly with some help from George W. Bush) and abrogated contracts, and he is now pursuing nationalized health care and a takeover of the student-loan business (the better to force young people to “volunteer”). Nancy Pelosi, meanwhile, insists that global warming de­mands that “every aspect of our lives must be subjected to an inventory.” None of this amounts to jackboots smashing a face, but neither does it fall entirely short of coercion. And so far, liberals show no interest in derailing the Obama train. They’re too busy stoking its furnace.


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