Liberal Fascism

Responding to the CRB

Ronald Pestritto’s review of my book is so generous and thoughtful and I am such a slobbering fan of the Claremont Review of Books (I used to call it my “favorite magazine I’ve never written for.” Now that I’ve written for it a couple times, I need a new way to describe it without offending my paymasters or giving it short shrift) I am tempted to simply say “thank you” and leave it at that. But when Pestritto’s review first came out, I said I’d have longer remarks, in particular about his few criticisms, when it was available online. It’s now been available online for a while, so herewith my longer remarks.

Pestritto offers two punches amidst the applause. The first can be found here:

In making his case, Goldberg does tend to conflate fascism and socialism. He wants to show that fascism, far from having been a “right-wing” ideology, actually was a movement of the Left (he calls Hitler a “man of the Left”) and that its main characteristics were socialist. This point—perfectly valid—helps make the case that today’s liberals are fascism’s true inheritors. Goldberg has a deep, thoughtful chapter on Mussolini and another on Hitler to bolster this argument. And he is right that both fascism and socialism are statist—they rest on what he calls “statolatry” or “state worship,” the principle that, in Wilson’s words, “all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights [should] be put out of view,” and “that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will.”

But at least two distinct forms of statism came out of the 19th century. Nazism in particular owed much to Friedrich Nietzsche’s disdain for egalitarian, mass-based movements (e.g., Progressivism) that celebrated human fraternity and dignity. Although he was a great advocate of state power and thought individual rights a joke, Nietzsche’s passion was for the rule of the strong over the weak—a love of inequality, enforced by the will to power. From Nietzsche’s point of view, both the Soviet and the Anglo-American versions of egalitarianism were abhorrent. Nietzsche’s disciple, Martin Heidegger, described the Soviets and the Americans as metaphysically the same, and Heidegger himself was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Goldberg tries to show that Nazism was a mass-based movement of the Left, and he is persuasive that it attracted the lower classes in Germany more than it did the middle class. But he underplays the extent to which Nazism fed off a desire to reassert the perceived greatness and power of a particular people or race, as over against everyone else, in a manner that, say, American liberalism never did.

Goldberg’s argument might have been clearer if he focused less on specific fascist regimes from the 1930s, and more on the roots of fascism itself (and Progressivism, and modern liberalism) in 19th-century German state theory. This is the common thread that would help Goldberg tie together fascism and socialism: both come from the historicism of philosophers like Hegel, both are antithetical to the natural rights-based liberalism of the American Founding, and both show why true constitutionalists ought to resist modern liberalism. By the 1930s, this 19th-century statism has evolved in many different directions—e.g., fascism, Nazism, several flavors of democratic socialism, the Communist International, and America’s own welfare state liberalism. Tying these together becomes a tough and unnecessarily complicated chore. Instead of highlighting liberal “fascism,” Goldberg’s case might have been stronger, or at least sharper, if he had concentrated on liberal “statism.”

These are all fair and insightful criticisms and I think I should have done better anticipating them. That said, I do have responses to some of these objections.

Pestritto: “But he underplays the extent to which Nazism fed off a desire to reassert the perceived greatness and power of a particular people or race, as over against everyone else, in a manner that, say, American liberalism never did.”

    I agree that the differences between Germany and America on this score are of such a sharp degree that they become a difference in kind. But, I wouldn’t say that American progressives didn’t buy into doctrines about “the greatness and power of a particular people or race.”

    Charles Van Hise, president of the University of Wisconsin (the place where the Progressive movement was born, according to Barack Obama and others), adviser to Teddy Roosevelt and patron to the leading lights of progressivism argued that “He who thinks not of himself primarily, but of his race, and of its future, is the new patriot.” E.A. Ross, America’s leading raceologist – and another University of Wisconsin star, for a time – certainly valued the greatness and power of particular races.

    Progressive imperialism may not have been nearly as racially obsessed as Nazism, but in other ways – cultural and theological – the progressives certainly believed they were a kind of master people, if not necessarily a master race. Senator Albert Beveridge speaking in defense of American imperialism: “The opposition tells us we ought not to rule a people without their con¬sent. I answer, the rule of liberty, that all just governments derive their authority from the consent of the governed, applies only to those who are capable of self-government.”

    Moving on, I’m somewhat sympathetic to Pestritto’s point about German state theory etc. But let me expand on this a bit. After long discussions with my editor, Adam Bellow, we made some painful cuts and revisions along the way (My best guess is that the unabridged book would be something closer to 800-900 pages if we ran everything I wrote). There’s a lot of philosophy and intellectual history on the cutting room floor. The reason some of these pages, some of which indeed got into 19th century German state theory, got yanked was that they didn’t flow editorially. Still, I do think I covered – perhaps not sufficiently – the Progressives’ intellectual indebtedness to Bismarck and his “top-down socialism.”

    Moreover, the first four chapters of the book are biographical for a reason. The book asks a lot of the lay reader as it is, and we made the decision that I needed to tell a story, particularly in the beginning chapters. That’s why they’re biographical. Our thinking was that the best way to cut through a lot of theoretical mumbo-jumbo and decades of propaganda and distortions was to actually look at the people — i.e. Mussolini and Hitler . While I would have enjoyed discussing some of the theoretical stuff more, I think the average reader gets more of an “ah-hah, now I get it” experience by following the central icons of fascism and Nazism.

    Where I disagree is when Pestritto writes: “Instead of highlighting liberal ‘fascism,’ Goldberg’s case might have been stronger, or at least sharper, if he had concentrated on liberal ‘statism.’”

    That I should have focused on statism instead of fascism is a not uncommon complaint (Fred Smith made a similar case in his remarks at the CEI dinner). And, believe me, I can see the potential benefits of going that route. For starters, I think a lot of liberal critics wouldn’t have gotten so hung up about the book and made fools of themselves the way Tomasky et al did.

    But doing that would have also undermined a central argument and purpose of this book. That is, to frontally assault the left’s fraudulent monopoly on the use of the F-word. The notion that fascism has more in common with Anglo-American conservatism than European socialism and American progressivism has been one of the most important and destructive Sorelian myths of the 20th century. It has allowed the left to discredit anti-fascistic policies by calling them fascistic.

    Dismantling that myth is what I set out to do in writing the book. How successful I was depends on who you ask, but if I dropped that element of the argument, it would be a very different book.

    Moreover, I don’t think the differences between socialism and fascism are as rich as Pestritto seems to. Yes, at the theoretical level there are significant distinctions between what you might call “textbook” fascism and socialism. And those theoretical distinctions do translate into concrete political differences. But how significant those differences are is open to debate. For instance, I think calling Cuba today fascist is logically just as accurate, if not more so, as calling it socialist. Venezuela, one could rightly argue, is moving ever more toward both fascism and socialism. When it gets to one, it will have also reached the other. I really do agree with Richard Pipes that fascism and Bolshevism were simply heresies of socialism.

Pestritto then writes:

Goldberg is certainly right when he says that most academics have willfully ignored modern liberalism’s progressive-fascist roots, although scholars such as James Ceaser, John Marini, and others (including me) have in fact been calling attention to the progressive origins of modern liberalism for the past 20 years. Liberal Fascism clearly draws from these works but makes surprisingly little reference to them, even in a few instances when the book’s observations sound awfully familiar. Yet if Goldberg proceeds, in some respects, down a path blazed by others, he does so with the kind of terrific writing and energy that is certain to make the connection between modern liberalism and its statist ancestors a more prominent factor in America’s political battles and debates.

    And on this score I just feel like an enormous heel. Pestritto is absolutely correct. I am deeply indebted to many of the folks he mentions, including Pestritto himself. His book on Wilson was enormously helpful to me (if a bit intellectually intimidating). And so his kind review is all the more flattering. As were a bunch of collected readings my wife held onto from her days as a publius fellow at Claremont. And The Progressive Revolution in American Politics and Political Science was quite simply a lifesaver.

    Part of the problem was that my plan from the beginning was to have a long bibliographic essay where I discussed all of the important and relevant books and articles, their place in the evolution of my argument, etc. This would have allowed me to keep the academic name-dropping and references to a minimum (again, better for the reader). But when the book deadline loomed, I discovered how stupidly unprepared I was to write such a thing at the last minute. I still haven’t come close to finishing it. The result, I fear, is that it sounds like I’m claiming all of these insights as my own. But, I give my word to anybody who thinks my word’s worth anything, that my intent was not to give short-shrift to the folks who came before me. Indeed, I think I hurt myself with some reviewers precisely because they weren’t aware how much of my book is really a synthesis of other authors’ efforts. I stand on the shoulders of many.

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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