From a reader:
Two points of criticism of LF, and I apologize if this is all old hat–
I had to put LF aside for a while and have only now just returned.
My first point isn’t a criticism, but a question as to whether your
definition of fascism should be expanded to include a radical
rejection of what came before. From the Bolsheviks, to the NRA to
National Socialism, they all made the case that they were a new and
radical break with what came before.
I’m asking this because I recently reread some JS Mill and in “On
Liberty” Mill argued that man should not think or act on received
opinion but approach much of life as a clean slate. Toward this end,
he was a big advocate of free expression, arguing that it is only
through the debate of ideas that we can move in a more in a more
truthful direction (although Mill rejected any notion of absolute
truth). Of course there’s a lot of truth in that, even if it’s fairly
obvious and stated rather late in the game (On Liberty came out in
Some folks have argued that Mill is the intellectual grandfather of
the modern liberal’s rejection of tradition, manners, and custom.
Unlike the fascists, he was all about the individual, which would seem
to make him an enemy of most of movements you discuss in your book.
And yet he fit in well with those movements, I think, because his talk
of a “clean slate” was easily co-opted into the “clean break” that
fascism always offered. Fascism is what happens when Mill’s
philosophy is taken away from the individual and applied at the
national or international level. When the state gets in the business
of rejecting everything that came before in the name of something new,
then you might have a problem.
But the reason I ask whether or not a definition of fascism shouldn’t
include a radical rejection of what came before is that it resolves
the apparent contradiction between your support of classical
liberalism, especially free expression, and Allan Bloom’s attack in
“Closing of the American Mind.” Bloom after all, argues that the
problem of the modern academic left is this untrammeled embrace of the
clean slate and the elevation of individual and the here and now to
the point where there is a near rejection of all knowledge that came
before, thus making all his students moral relativists.
In his latest book, Theodore Dalrymple makes the point that
individualism in the extreme leads to totalitarianism because if we
don’t have a cultural, religious or moral reason for doing something,
it falls to the state to take the place of inherited tradition in this
I’m sure you’d count yourself an advocate of much of what Bloom and
Dalrymple to say, but there’s a bit of a contradiction between you and
them and it’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on how to clean it
up. If I were a lefty I’d point out that JS Mill, the great advocate
of free expression and classical liberalism, has his modern home on
the political left, not the political right where Jonah Goldberg would
say he belongs.
I’ll hold my second point for another Email; this is already running
Me: I think this is a fascinating question and I guess I need to ponder it a bit more before I say anything definitive about what I think about it.
But preliminarily, I guess I’d make three points in no particular order.
First, my definition of fascism doesn’t explicitly include a rejection of the past (probably an oversight in my case), but my discussion of fascism explicitly does. I talk several times about how the Pragmatists, the Jacobins, the Nazis, the Bolsheviks and 1960s radicals all wanted to start over at Year Zero and create New Men and New Politics. That is a recurring theme of the book.
Second, I think that for Mill (and I confess to not being as up-to-speed on Mill as I should be), the “start over” rhetoric was for the most part sincere, though I am open to correction on that. But I think most of the time when people say they want to start over from scratch they are either deceiving themselves or us. They usually have a vision of what should replace the existing order after we start over from Year Zero. This was certainly true of the French Revolutionaries, the Nazis, the Soviets and many of the radicals of the 1960s (as I discuss in my book). The “start over” canard is really just another variant of the “I don’t believe in labels” or “we need to move beyond ideology” tactic that so many progressives employ. They don’t want to move beyond their ideology, they want you to move beyond yours. The American Pragmatists believed they were anti-ideological when in fact they were deeply ideological but they just couldn’t see that there “empiricist” position was in fact an ideological stance (this gets to the heart of my old debate with Jonathan Chait in which he insisted that conservatives are dogmatists but liberals are “fact-finders” and nothing more. It also comes up in my disagreements with Andrew Sullivan’s book and his hyper-political use of Oakeshott’s anti-political philosophy). So I think that while I would agree with Dalrymple and Bloom on many of their arguments, I think the truth of the matter is that the reason the “start over” individualist ideology often leads to totalitarianism is not because individualism leads to totalitarianism but because the folks who employ a lot of that rhetoric do so to weaken opposition to their pre-existing totalitarian vision. Certainly the academics Bloom condemns don’t really believe in true individualism of the libertarian sort. Rather they champion sexual liberation and will-to-power and wrap these ideas up in individualist rhetoric. Indeed, most of the academics Bloom despised were surely enamored with identity politics and other profoundly non-individualist ideas. Radicals out-of-power always love to appeal to the egos of the mob by touting individualism, radicals in power are very quick to crush real individuals.
I think Dalrymple’s point here (as described by the reader) is on point. There’s a tendency to destroy institutions of civil society precisely so the only institution left standing is the God-State. This, too, is a big theme of my book.
Last, I’m nervous about placing Mill on left or right in this context simply because I think he is part of the unfolding Lockean revolution that I think feeds Anglo-American conservatism. Obviously he has his own positions that are at odds with other Enlightenment thinkers. But I think both American conservatives and American progressives are champions of different strains of thought that come out of the Enlightenment. The progressives are much more in the tradition of the European, specifically French, Enlightenment and conservatives much more in the tradition of the Scottish one. But the dividing lines are hardly neat and clean. So it should surprise us that both conservatives and liberals can find utility in Mills’ writing.
Anyway this is all rushed and preliminary. Will ponder more. I just wanted to respond with something since I know I often say “more later” and then never return to the subject. It’s not a deliberate dodge, I’ve just been so busy.