Liberal Fascism

Hayward Reviews LF

Over at The Weekly Standard. It’s eminently fair and gracious and typically thoughtful. It’s behind a firewall so here are some long excerpts:

With the arrival of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, neither the media nor self-satisfied liberals will be able to retreat any longer behind such a veil of ignorance. Goldberg has set out to rescue the idea of fascism from the dustbin of cartoonish epithets and restore it as a meaningful category of political thought; and, moreover, to demonstrate that contemporary American liberalism owes its origin and character to some of the same core ideas and principles that gave rise to European fascism in the first half of the 20th century.

His thesis will raise hackles, when it isn’t deliberately ignored, for the reason Goldberg rightly identifies: Contemporary liberals are strangely uninterested in the pedigree of their own ideas. (When was the last time you heard a liberal discussing Herbert Croly, or even John Dewey, as a relevant source for contemporary understanding?) Instead, the left will go on deploying “fascism” as a conversation-stopper against conservatives, even though the term ought to be associated overwhelmingly with liberalism.

“In reality,” Goldberg argues at the outset, “international fascism drew from the same intellectual wellsprings as American Progressivism,” which was the precursor to contemporary American liberalism. And conservatism cannot be understood seriously as an offshoot or cousin of fascism.

Goldberg’s analysis comes in two parts. The first task is to clear away the tangled overgrowth of misconceptions about the meaning of fascism itself. The term has long been controversial or vague among political thinkers, and its popular conception understandably colored by its Nazi incarnation. Fascism should be understood as a supercharged nationalistic statism, finding its theoretical wellsprings in Hegelian historicism, Rousseau’s protean “general will,” Nietzschean will-to-power, Darwinian evolution, and a smattering of the Social Gospel thrown in for good measure–all of which overturned the older liberalism of Locke, the Enlightenment, and the American Founders.


“The edifice of contemporary liberalism,” Goldberg argues, “stands on a foundation of assumptions and ideas integral to the larger fascist moment. Contemporary liberals, who may be the kindest and most racially tolerant people in the world, nonetheless choose to live in a house of distinctly fascist architecture.”

This reference to the purported “niceness” and sincere good intent of modern liberalism raises a number of problems for which Liberal Fascism, despite all its splendid research and analysis, begs some important questions that, on the surface, the author does not appear to resolve.

Are we supposed to understand liberalism as a hateful and destructive thing, as we do fascism? While deploring fascism and its influence on liberalism, Goldberg draws back from the implications of equating liberal fascism with communism as a species of malignant revolutionary socialism. “Fascism was a human response to a rapidly unfolding series of technological, theological, and social revolutions,” he writes. “Those revolutions are still playing themselves out”–and not just on the left. Goldberg rightly scorns some of the same tendencies he sees in certain quarters on the right, such as Pat Buchanan’s nationalism and George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. We’re all fascists now, he writes in his last chapter.

Perhaps Goldberg has rehabilitated fascism a bit too much, in hopes of blunting the visceral and unreflective, but inevitable, liberal rejection of his unwelcome parallels. Goldberg goes out of his way to offer exoneration to liberals by reference to their good intentions. On the one hand, he makes clear the totalitarian temptation of liberal fascism: Hillary Clinton’s “politics of meaning” speech, for example, “is in many respects the most thoroughly totalitarian conception of politics offered by a leading American political figure in the last half century.” But he is quick to add that “Hillary is no Führer, and her notion of ‘the common good’ doesn’t involve racial purity or concentration camps. .  .  . When I say that Hillary Clinton’s ideas in general are fascist, I must again be clear that they are not evil.”

This effort at balance and reasonableness may, in part, be designed to set him and the book’s inflammatory title apart from the sensational, sales-oriented polemics of other conservative bestsellers of recent years. From the standpoint of the prose alone, it is notable that the wit and snark that enliven Goldberg’s newspaper columns and blog posts are conspicuously missing from this sober volume. But in larger measure he has tried to diminish fascism as a mindless epithet so that readers will think harder about the deep general tendencies, both historical and philosophical, that gave rise to the phenomenon in any of its forms.

Goldberg thinks that the extreme kinds of fascism that took root in Europe never caught on in America because of an antigovernment, or antistatist, strain deeply embedded in the American character. Americans don’t like to be bossed around, and would never tolerate Canadian-style health care rationing, for example. But this turns out to be the key issue of the whole book, and he unfolds it with such subtlety that casual readers will miss his treatment. Liberal fascism is not about to slam totalitarianism down on America in some Kristallnacht-style convulsion. But liberalism, “the organized pursuit of the desirable,” is committed to an ever-expanding state, without any limits in principle.

Needless to say, read the whole thing.


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