Liberal Fascism

Megan McArdle & Liberal Fascism

She hasn’t read it and admits she probably won’t, so accusing me of bad faith based on a conversation with Will Wilkinson isn’t all that powerful an indictment. Still, I’m a big fan of what I’ve seen of McCardle’s work generally and I think she’s trying to be fair. So let me respond to this passage which seems to be the heart of her objections — and those of many others. The rest of her post largely amounts to her reacting to hypotheticals and straw men of her own design. In the meaty part, she writes:

But his definition of fascism is not ultimately much more satisfying than “Right wing governments I don’t like.” In my limited reading on the subject, it seems clear that the intellectual heritage of fascism is at least 50% from the left–but Goldberg has erased the right wing elements of its paternity, such as nationalism and militarism. While it is true that the attributes commonly used to define fascism–the nationalism, the racism, the collective Will of the People embodied in a great leader–can make it hard to exclude Josef Stalin, that doesn’t mean one can’t distinguish Communist Russia from Nazi Germany. It is possible to develop meaningful criteria that fit Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, but not Mao’s China or Stalin’s Russia, and two of the main ones were an explicitly central obsession with ethnic purity, and a co-opting of traditional, generally conservative social institutions. Goldberg has largely defined those elements out of fascism in order to disguise its right wing heritage.

The fascist ideal, which I’d liken to the dream of making every citizen behave like a cell within a mighty body, driven by a Great Leader functioning as the brain, was in many ways a new and pernicious vision. But the constituent parts, such as ferocious group loyalty, xenophobia, an antipathy to individualism, and the hunger for a charismatic strongman, were certainly not. Chopping off the bits that you think aren’t so bad in order to use what remains to label your political opponents is bad faith.

Okay, here are some rapid-fire responses.

First of all, it’s not true that Mussolini’s Italy was obsessed with ethnic purity. It simply wasn’t.

Second, it’s entirely true that the Nazis were more interested in ethnic purity than the Soviets and the Maoists (and pretty much everyone else), but the Soviets were arguably more interested in it than the Italian Fascists were. In the Soviet Union they often gave “Hero of the Motherland” (or some such) medals and stipends to ethnic Russian women — but not ethnic Tajiks, Mongols et al — who had large numbers of children. Stalin played horrific games with specific populations and he was certainly tougher on the Jews than the Italian Fascists were.

Third, you know who was obsessed with ethnic purity? American progressives and liberals. Just a few quick examples:

Oliver Wendell Holmes believed that the “starting point for an ideal for the law” would be the “co-ordinated human effort. . . to build a race.”

Charles Van Hise, advisor to T.R., father of American conservationism and president of the University of Wisconsin during it’s progressive golden age believed that , “He who thinks not of himself primarily, but of his race, and of its future, is the new patriot.”

E.A. Ross one of the central progressive intellectuals of his day and arguably the man most responsible for academic freedom policies today, was the father of the “race suicide” thesis. He defended the minimum wage on the grounds that “The Coolie cannot outdo the American, but he can underlive him.” So, if you forced employers to pay a white man’s wage, the inferior races would be locked out of the market and — hopefully — die-off.

John R. Commons, the father of labor economics and the “American Sidney Webb” felt slavery was justified because blacks were inherently inferior. He also believed at least 2% of the white population would have to be segregated because they were irredeemable degenerates.

Fourth, I agree entirely that the Nazis co-opted traditional conservative institutions and I very much like and, for the most part agree with (at least when it comes to the Nazis), her description of fascists yearning to transform society into an organism with the leader as the brain. This is almost exactly how Wilson conceived good — i.e. “Hegelian” and “Darwinian” — leadership, by the way.

But I don’t understand when she says that I’ve defined the right-wing elements out of fascism. She says they are:

“ferocious group loyalty”

Cultural Revolution anyone? Khmer Rouge? Show Trials?


Mao’s “Chinese way,” Pol Pot’s murderous campaign to cleanse foreign elements from society, North Korea right now?

“Antipathy to individualism”

Huh? I’m sorry, but it is flatly impossible to claim antipathy to individualism as exclusively rightwing in any context but most of all in the Anglo-American context. If Megan read my book she find that crushing the spirit of individualism was among the central ambitions of American progressives. And even today, liberals define traditional notions of individualism as simply greedy and selfish.

“the hunger for a charismatic strongman”

Right. Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Stalin — (which means “made of steel”), Mao: none of these guys count as charismatic strongmen. FDR’s appeal had everything to do with his charisma and his promise to be a “man of action.” The aesthetics of JFK, likewise, were all of action and strength — or as he put it “vigah.”

What bits did I chop off?

Well, she also mentions the rightwing paternity of nationalism and militarism. Okay, but militarism predates fascism by millennia. And even so, the progressives were decidedly militaristic in many ways, as I explain at length in the book. The early New Deal was in many respects more militaristic than Hitler’s Germany in the early 1930s.

As for nationalism, I am still flummoxed as to why so many smart people simply repeat by rote the idea that nationalism is “right-wing,” particularly by American standards. Nationalism arose as a liberal movement in Europe. Various peoples living under the yokes of one empire or another sought “self-determination” — a favored phrase of Mr. Wilson’s, by the way. Indeed, Napoleon — quite the charismatic strongman — was greeted as a “great liberator” by many of these peoples and a great reformer by the French themselves. And let’s not forget that the nationalistic populism of the French Revolution was one of the things that lent it so much of its left-wing flavor.

Plus McArdle is just wrong when she says how indisputably new all of these ideas were. Yes, the Nazis had some “new and pernicious” takes on things. But the organicism and leadership cult stuff has deep roots in German romanticism and 18th and 19th century European nationalism generally. And I’m hardly alone in making that argument.

Even today, “nationalist” and “socialist” are pretty much interchangeable terms. Nationalize an industry and you socialize it — and vice versa. If I call you an “economic conservative” it means I’m calling you a libertarian or free trader. If I call you an economic nationalist, I’m calling you a protectionist of the John Edwards variety. When Republicans — like Pat Buchanan or Mike Huckabee — advocate protectionism, it’s the economic conservatives who protest the loudest.

Ultimately, the claim that nationalism is indisputably and inherently rightwing is very hard to defend — except when offered within specific, constrained, contexts. For example, nationalism was right-wing according to early Bolsheviks because they championed internationalism and saw nation-states as atavistic vestigial organs of a bygone era. So, as I’ve said countless times, I’m fine with calling national-socialism “right-wing socialism.” But it’s still socialism, which in my book is quite incandescently a phenomenon of the left. (Another context would be among the transnational elites of the Davos set who see any objection to cosmopolitanism as bad and therefore nationalistic.)

Oh, and even Stalin ultimately abandoned international socialism for “socialism in one state.” Did he suddenly become a rightwinger?

But again, what cannot be disputed is that the progressives were nationalists. FDR was a nationalist. JFK was a nationalist. Wilson was a nationalist. TR was a nationalist. Were they all right-wingers?

Lastly (I’ve lost count what number point I’m making), co-opting conservative institutions and making them un-conservative is exactly what the Nazis did, as I conceded above. But so what? Isn’t this precisely what the New Left did, by following Gramsci’s advice to launch a “long march through the institutions”? Isn’t that what the left did in this country, transforming one conservative foundation and institution after another into left-wing or liberal institutions? Most private colleges and universities in this country started out as conservative institutions. Now look at the Ivy League, look at Georgetown, look at the Ford foundation, public libraries, English departments, the mainstream media, museums, main line churches, the AMA, ABA and about a million other three letter acronymned organizations. These were all co-opted by the left to one extent or another and now they are part of a liberal gleichschaltung where political correctness rules and deviation from “progressive” ideas is increasingly treated as a thought-crime. Co-opting conservative institutions for political ends is decidedly un-conservative in my book, literally and figuratively. That’s what radicals did in 1930s Germany and that’s what radicals started doing in 1960s America. That doesn’t make them identical radicals. But it by no means makes them opposites either.

Anyway, I’m sorry this ran on so long. I’m still not sure it’s worth trying to respond to all this stuff. But once I get started, it’s hard to stop.


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