Liberal Fascism

Quadrant On LF

The Australian journal Quadrant — edited by Keith Windschuttle, of whom I am a fan — has reviewed LF. Michael Warby’s review is a decidedly mixed bag (and this is a fast, but long, response). He writes:

Goldberg’s thesis is clearly cathartic for many folk. But, a small voice asks, is it true? Is fascism really a “left-wing” movement? Are modern US liberals “nice” fascists, as Goldberg alleges? No, no and no.

Goldberg’s book is a curious running together of two books, one sensible and useful, one silly and distracting. The sensible and useful book shows how much fascism (including Nazism) had Left roots and how much more overlap modern progressivism (such as contemporary US liberalism) has with fascism than fascism has with Anglo-American conservatism. Goldberg’s book explicates and adds to the tradition of defending Anglosphere decency against various Continental corruptions.

The sensible and useful book includes many perceptive comments. Goldberg understands the difference between nationalism—that ancestry should determine political allegiance—and patriotism—a more inclusive notion of loyalty to one’s area or polity regardless of the details of ancestry. He notes that Bismarckian welfarism encouraged much of the German middle class to see enlightened government as an alternative to, rather than a product of, democracy. His discussion of how government activism drives corporate lobbying is well worth reading, as is his explication of Anglosphere conservatism. He understands the unlimited nature of politics conceived as “doing good”. He is also very good at exposing how the Left has airbrushed and reframed history to its own convenience, dropping past inconveniences (such as thoroughly left-wing racism, eugenics, imperialism, militarism and McCarthyism-before-McCarthy) down the memory hole.

The silly and distracting book is the one trying to show US liberalism as largely of the same broad political movement as the various fascisms and therefore a form of fascism and the heir of fascism. (In a sense, claiming that they are all broadly the same Continental corruption.) It is the silly book that portrays President Woodrow Wilson’s wartime administration as the prototype fascist dictatorship, the New Deal as fascist, the Kennedy administration, Johnson’s Great Society and the student radicalism of the 1960s as fascist.

I think his comments about the silly and distracting parts of my book are actually fairly silly and distracting at times themselves. He writes:

Goldberg establishes the commonality by showing that the policies, rhetoric and intellectual origins of fascism and progressivism were similar or have large overlaps, and that these are distinctively different from those of Anglo-American liberal-conservatism. Goldberg is clearly correct that American conservative intellectuals lack common intellectual roots with fascism. Which is not true of Left intellectuals—Heidegger being the obvious example. And it is not hard for Goldberg to assemble a range of rhetorical and policy overlaps. But many of Goldberg’s Nazi parallels could also be Leninist parallels. Claiming that contemporary US liberals were both fascistic and communistic would, however, be too transparently silly.

Goldberg constantly conflates similar and same. Worse, he typically acknowledges that, in any particular example, the most morally repellent element in fascism does not apply to US liberals (striking a blow for political civility) but then argues that they are so similar they are really fascist (thus reverting to incivility by smuggling the moral pejoration back in).

The emphasis is mine.

I think Warby’s obvious frustration and confusion is that he refuses to let go of the idea that fascism and communism are opposites. When he says “many of Goldberg’s Nazi parallels could also be Leninist parallels” I say: Exactly so! That’s because Nazism and Leninism have remarkable similarities — being different, but related, forms of revolutionary socialism — and they are both extremist phenomena of the left (oddly Warby concedes some of these points himself). It’s only silly, never mind “too transparently silly,” to make such comparisons if you believe that fascism and communism were opposites. I don’t think they were or are.

The second paragraph above is also revealing. Like Fred Siegel and many others, Warby’s the one with a problem. He cannot let go of the word “fascist” as strictly pejorative. Obviously, the term can be pejorative. But I think it can be descriptive, too — and not just descriptive of “bad people.”  Yet, for so many of my reviewers, it can never, ever, ever, be descriptive about any good person. I anticipated this problem when writing the book (hence the blows for “political civility” Warby refers to), but I clearly failed to deal with it sufficiently, because even good faith readers of my book often can’t let go of fascism-as- anathema.

I know I’ve made this point a million times now, but why should it be irredeemably pejorative to call someone a fascist but not irredeemably pejorative to call them a socialist? More people were murdered in the name of socialism than fascism — by far! — but some people cannot shake their emotional and psychological baggage when it comes to the word fascism. I understand it. I can even sympathize. But it will not take you far in a serious intellectual discussion of my book if you keep falling back on the “argument” that fascism is just a mean word and therefore I can’t use it to help illuminate the contemporary left.

What I like — even though I disagree with it — about Warby’s review is that he actually attempts to define his terms. I define my terms in my book, while many reviewers simply sit on their thumbs and mope about how wrong it is I challenge their received ideological categories.

For example, here’s another long excerpt (in part because I like his phrasing about the Left and its relationship to the past):

How do we define the Left? Being Left involves a commitment to change—that is, a rejection of the past: the more complete the rejection, the more Left you are. It involves a commitment that this change be delivered politically: the more encompassing the use of political mechanisms (and the political mechanisms one is willing to use) the more Left you are. It also involves a commitment to equality: the more complete the commitment to equality, the more Left you are. So a revolutionary socialist engages in a near total rejection of the past, is willing to use any political mechanism, if judged to be effective, to politicise all aspects of society, and is committed to as complete equality as is practicable.

There are, of course, many objections that might made against this program—such as that the concentration of power needed to transform society must result in profound inequalities of power. Or that it must become ever more ungrounded in reality the more successful the society defined as desperately needing change is: the Left’s habit of defining virtue against success has led to it embracing a lot of failure. But said program’s extreme left-wing character can hardly be denied.

Since being Left is based on rejection of the past, it is also free to reject its own past. Which it does, when convenient. Evading responsibility for past failures, the glorious imagined future provides moral trumps through its own perfection, unsullied by responsibility for anything real. (Conversely, those who fail to reject the past are deemed to be burdened with all its sins.)

It is also to be noted that collectivism falls out of the program. Things have to be structured collectively to get the stated goals. Individualism just will not get you there. Just as individualism will not get you to politics-as-secular-salvation.

So, can we envisage a collectivism that is not Left? Easily. One that is not based on rejection of the past and does not have equality as its prime public value. That would be fascism, then. So is fascism clearly “right-wing”?

If “Right” is the political opposite of “Left” then to be Right is to have no particular commitment to change—that is, not reject the past: the less you reject the past, the more Right you are. It involves some level of scepticism, or even hostility to political mechanisms: the more sceptical, the more Right you are. It involves rejecting the primacy of equality: the more you reject the primacy of equality, the more Right you are.

So an extreme right-winger wants as little change as possible, is highly sceptical about political mechanisms and is committed to something other than the primacy of equality. The last being the problem with talking about “the Right” since a range of values can be held to be not trumped by equality—such as liberty, authority, order, religion—and in almost any arrangement (such as including serious commitment to equality).

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were proponents of change, but proponents who wished to decrease, rather than increase, reliance on political mechanisms in support of a strong commitment to freedom. Merely advocating change does not place you on the Left.

Still, not wanting things to be politicised, and putting a high value on liberty, does not sound very fascist. Particularly as scepticism about politicisation combined with valuing freedom is naturally individualist—especially in the Anglosphere, with its highly individualist cultural roots.

The important assertions — and they are assertions, which is fine — is that Warby defines the Left with change and equality. He struggles later in the review to make the case that the Nazis weren’t all that committed to change and gets pretty windy about listing the things he says I don’t know. I find none of it particularly persuasive and I think my discussion of both Mussolini and Hitler in the book are more than persuasive and accurate when it comes to illuminating their self-image and agendas as revolutionaries. I don’t think one can seriously argue that the Fascists and the Nazis were opposed to change. And at the end of the day Warby doesn’t really seem to have the heart to try.

But what of equality? Warby says the less you assert the primacy of equality the more of a rightwinger you are. I don’t think this is really true in the Anglo-American tradition, but let’s work with his terms not mine.

I certainly think you could make the case that the Left talks about equality more. But does it really emphasize it all that much? Or, more importantly, does rejection of equality pull you away from the Left and toward the Right? I don’t think those propositions apply all that well to, say, Jeremiah Wright. Or the Black Panthers. Or to various flavors of feminism.

Leftwingers talk a good game about equality, but I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say they have a very narrow and constrained vision of what they mean by equality. Equality often means “justice for my kind.” Equality often means “make the bad people pay.” Even the equality of economic populists like John Edwards is not real equality, it’s rhetoric to sell an agenda of “social justice” for the have-nots at the expense of the haves. 

Now, Warby would be consistent if he was willing to call black nationalists, feminists and economic populists “Rightwingers” but one doesn’t get the sense he wants to go there.

Meanwhile, conservatives in America and Britain (and one hopes Australia) emphasize a very different kind of equality, one which recognizes equality in the eyes of God and the law, but has few or no objections to differences based on merit, wealth, creed etc. (Barack Obama explicitly overturns the notion of equality before the law by arguing that judges must have sympathy for, and take care of, the little guy. Simply because he invokes equality, doesn’t make him more of an egalitarian than your typical federalist society lawyer. Indeed, I would argue it makes him less of one).

So it’s worth noting that the National Socialists explicitly rejected the classically liberal understanding of equality but wholeheartedly embraced the same equality of the economic populists and the race-theorists of today. Hitler’s Social Revolution is exhaustive on this point, at least when it comes to the economic populism of the Nazis. The Nazis were very  much leftwing egalitarians when it came to Germans. Hitlerism is socialism for one race. Bolshevism was socialism for one class. That may sound like a redundancy, but I don’t think it is. The Bolsheviks didn’t believe in the first principle of equality: the right to life of others. Please tell the nearly hundred million murdered souls that Communism values the equality of all humanity.

So many critics say that I place too much emphasis on what fascists said rather than what they did. I’m not sure this is true, as I was often trying to illuminate the appeal of fascism by showing how fascists marketed themselves (i.e. much the same way socialists did) and how they saw themselves (again: much the same way socialists did). But I think, like many,  Warby makes exactly this error my focusing on what Communists said but on what Nazis did. If  you actually compare the rhetoric to the rhetoric and the actions to the actions, you find the similarities are far more significant than the differences. 

Anyway, I have quite a few more disagreements but there’s much interesting stuff in the review, which is on the whole serious, thoughtful and in good faith, which is rare enough to be applauded. 

Obviously, the only way forward is for some deep-pocketed Australian think tank or foundation to fly me and my family to Australia for an extended visit so we can work these disagreements out more fully.

Jonah Goldberg — Jonah Goldberg holds the Asness Chair in Applied Liberty at the American Enterprise Institute and is a senior editor of National Review. His new book, The Suicide of The West, is on sale now.

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