I’m not particularly interested in what Austin Bramwell has to say about anything, never mind yours truly. I was really hoping that The American Conservative would assign the book to, say Paul Gottfried or some other self-described paleo who knows a lot about these things. Gottfried is no fan of mine, and we’ve had our spats, but he knows a lot about a lot and I came to have a newfound respect for some of his writings as I worked on this book. As for Bramwell’s criticism, what is there to say? It seems pretty obvious — given his various agendas and idiosyncrasies — to have planned on a negative review from the outset and then looked through the book, briefly, to confirm his opinion. Indeed, quotes from the book itself are few and far between.
A few random observations of things that stuck out at me. He writes:
Progressivism, for example, did not in any meaningful sense lead to liberalism. On the contrary, in 1922, Walter Lippmann, the leading liberal intellectual of the 1920s, wrote Public Opinion, one of the most trenchant critiques of populism and democracy (and, with it, progressivism) ever penned. Lippmann went on to become Mussolini’s most unsparing American critic, precisely because Lippmann saw in fascism the same dangers that he saw in progressivism. If we must describe intellectual history in biological terms, then it would be more accurate to say that liberalism drove progressivism into extinction than that progressivism gave birth to liberalism.
Okay. I must confess I’m not entirely sure what point Bramwell thinks he’s making here. But, it’s important to note Lippmann was famously mercurial over his career, switching positions with the times. Indeed, it’s something of a cliché to note that even though Lippmann was arguably the most influential columnist of the 20th century, he ended up being wrong about almost every major issue (someone famous said this, but I can’t remember who). For example, this iconic liberal opposed FDR’s attempt to aid democracies in Europe before the war, supported anti-Jewish quotas at Harvard, etc. To his credit, Lippmann even had a famous Hayekian phase (his book The Good Society reflects that).
But none of this obviates the relevance of his role and actions during the Wilson years at the New Republic or in the administration itself (indeed, Bramwell’s whole discussion of Lippman strikes me as non-responsive). Moreover, what Lippmann may have said about Mussolini in the 1920s is likely more reflective of specific Italian foreign policies and Lippmann’s own switching allegiances rather than anything to do with the internal application of fascism in Italy itself. More relevant is the fact that even in the 1930s, Lippmann openly desired a dictatorship in America and counseled FDR to become a dictator. That’s pretty telling given Bramwell’s designation of Lippmann as “the leading liberal intellectual of the 1920s” and his contention that liberalism, as opposed to progressivism, has nothing to do with fascism (has Bramwell read even the Cliff’s Notes to Drift and Mastery?). It seems to me that when a liberal counsels a president to become a dictator it’s not crazy to suggest that he’s flirting with something that might even be called “liberal fascism.”
Much of the rest of the review is a response to a book I didn’t write. He writes as though I don’t concede that liberals are allowed to change their minds. But I say so over and over again (indeed, a central narrative of the book is about how liberal ideas have evolved — that’s a synonym for change in my thesaurus — while still retaining their progressive assumptions). He accuses me of treating ideologies as coherent wholes, when I do no such thing. Indeed, as I mentioned yesterday, I think looking for too much internal consistency in these ideologies is often a fool’s errand. When he is not making these charges, he is accusing me of qualifying my argument too much.
He spends a great deal of time making it sound as if I’ve climbed out to a branch all alone carrying an argument the limb beneath me cannot possibly support. But he doesn’t dispute the primary claim of the book: that fascism was a phenomenon of the left. He also acknowledges that not only do the folks at the Claremont Institute agree with me in important respects. And then he writes this:
To be fair, Goldberg did not come up with his ideas about liberalism on his own. He is a quintessential second-generation conservative, a man who grew up in the movement and chose to make his career within it. Nearly all the authors in the movement’s recommended reading list—Richard Weaver, Eric Voegelin, Robert Nisbett,[sic] Allan Bloom—appear in Liberal Fascism’s footnotes. Not surprisingly, the silliest and most extravagant arguments in his book are also the most conventional, at least to anyone familiar with the ideology of movement conservatism.
Aha, so Weaver, Voegelin, “Nisbett” and Bloom are also peddlers of the same silly ideas. Good to know! I’m delighted to be in that company. Still, this is a pretty hilarious bit of self-importance, even for someone as famously self-important as Bramwell. Indeed, nobody who has even a slight acquaintance with Bramwell will be surprised that he considers himself a more serious and thoughtful political philosopher than the silly and extravagant Weaver, Voegelin, Bloom, and Nisbet. Nobody even slightly familiar with his work, or theirs, will buy it.