Liberal Fascism

Johnson’s Review of LF & Lincoln V. Wilson

It’s not online yet (not sure if it will be). But here’s an email in response:


I note that Paul Johnson’s review of your book calls it “meaty with…sophisticated persiflage”. I so totally don’t know what that means, but it sounds delicious. It should clearly be the lead critic’s blurb on the paperback edition.

As to what I took to be the one substantive criticism Johnson made, that you could as easily call Lincoln a fascist as Wilson, I am surprised at Johnson’s shallowness. Even if you concede that Lincoln’s actions were comparable to Wilson’s, there is still the fact that Wilson’s war was 3000 miles away, with no risk of coming closer, and Lincoln’s war was an insurrection of one-third of our country. I wouldn’t think anyone would call fascist the taking of actions to ensure the survival of the country.

Me: I reject calling Johnson “shallow” as he’s something of hero of mine. But I agree that the Lincoln thing is unpersuasive. And I think this  points to an important distinction. Mobilizing the country for war because you are at war and need to be mobilized is not necessarily fascistic. You’ll note I don’t say that the mobilization during World War Two was fascist because I believe it was necessary. Indeed, many historians make an important point that even in Germany it becomes very difficult to distinguish mobilization under a war economy from fascism in the later years of the Nazi regime precisely because the two things appear so similar and the anatomy of total mobilization is almost indistinguishable from the logic of totalitarianism.

What is fascistic, in the classical sense,  is using the logic of total war mobilization when there is no war. Hence the early years of the New Deal, when FDR was trying to create WWI  war-socialism without a war, were in my opinion fascistic. This Jamesian desire to create the more equivalent of war without war was the hallmark of classic fascism in America, Italy and Germany. 

So, you might ask,  why was the WWI mobilization itself fascistic since there was in fact a war? Again as I try to show, the progressives wanted war as an excuse for remaking society at home. Hence  Dewey’s fondness for the  “social possibilities of war” and Croly’s cry for a new “moral tonic.” The progressives took to the war because they believed it was the best means for “social control” at home. As Randolph Bourne put it, there was a “peculiar congeniality between the war and these men.” “It is,” he sadly concluded, “as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.”

So again, the point isn’t militarism, it’s mobilization.  It’s not bellicosity, it’s social engineering. You don’t need to be militaristic to be fascist, and you aren’t necessarily a fascist if you’re militaristic. The difference between Lincoln and Wilson is that Lincoln’s often heavy-handed techniques were justified by a desire and a need to preserve the union as the last best hope of mankind. Wilson’s techniques weren’t about preservation, they were about social control, love of power, vanity and much else. It’s telling that Wilson, who lamented the North’s victory in the Civil War, nonetheless admired Lincoln as a great centralizer. In other words, Wilson disliked Lincoln’s cause but loved his methods. That gets it exactly backwards, if you ask me.


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