Liberal Fascism

Tyler Cowen on LF

An intriguing mixed response from Tyler Cowen. There are many fair complaints, I thought. But I found this to be his weakest criticism:

2. The false claims: Contrary to what Goldberg argues, it simply isn’t true that Hitler and Nazism were essentially left-wing phenomena. Not all right-wing ideas are Burkean, and the mere fact that the Nazis were “revolutionary” does not make them left-wing. Furthermore the Nazis busted labor unions and used right-wing emotive tricks for their racism and authoritarianism. When all those old Nazis popped up in South America, where did they all find themselves on the political spectrum? Overall fascism has much stronger roots in the Right than Goldberg is willing to emphasize.

I also would have put more weight on the aestheticization of politics than did Goldberg. That would help us see why supporters of the War on Drugs, while they favor very violent and possibly unjust means, should not be regarded as fascists.

This strikes me as a lot of question-begging and blanket assertion from a writer who normally doesn’t do such things. Simply asserting that some right-wing ideas aren’t Burkean does not take us very far toward understanding what Cowen thinks right-wing means, in either a European or an American context. He may be right that Nazism has “stronger” roots on the right than I’m willing to emphasize, but that doesn’t make the case that those roots are in fact strong. Meanwhile I think I do a pretty good job demonstrating that the Nazis were opposed to both traditionalism (Orthodox Christianity, Monarchy etc) as well as to Classical Liberalism. Since these two things comprise the bulk of what define modern Anglo-American conservatism, I think anatomically my argument is very strong.

The one area where the Nazis were closer to contemporary American conservatives than they are to contemporary American liberals is in the area of nationalism. One can fairly argue that the American right is decidedly more nationalistic than the American left (though I think Michael Ledeen’s point that Americans aren’t nationalistic so much as patriotic, has merit). Nonetheless, I concede the nationalism point (and I criticize “national greatness conservatism” in the book and elsewhere), but I just don’t think it takes you nearly as far as some claim. After all, a little nationalism is different than hyper-nationalism. Moreover classical liberalism is a dogmatic check on letting nationalism get out of control in the area of public policy.

Liberalism has its own dogmatic check in its love of multiculturalism. But all that does is lead Democrats to argue for all-inclusive nationalistic or socialistic policies which don’t demonize ethnic minorities (religious and class minorities are a slightly different issue). This points to one reason why I say contemporary liberalism, to the extent it can be called a relative of classical fascism, is a nice form of fascism.

But it’s worth noting that the history of American liberalism is largely the history of American nationalism, at least until very recently. JFK was a nationalist. The New Dealers were economic nationalists. The progressives were imperialists and nationalists. The pantheon of liberal heroes is mostly a long line of committed nationalists. That’s not a trivial point. And economically, even today, liberals are more nationalistic than conservatives. Though, sadly, some Republicans would like to change that.   

Anyway, back to Cowen. Pointing out that a bunch of exiled Nazis were able to bribe their way into comfortable lives in authoritarian South American countries isn’t a boffo way to prove that Nazis were right-wing, either at all or in particular in the American context.

Cowen notes that the Nazis busted labor unions. True enough! How did labor unions fare in the Soviet Union? In Eastern Europe? In Communist China? Cambodia, Cuba, Vietnam? How exactly is smashing or co-opting labor unions definitively rightwing? He also diminishes or ignores the very, very, important role labor played in Nazi ideology, propaganda, and policy.

Did Mao, Stalin et al not use emotive tricks? Stalin cast World War II as the “great patriotic war for Mother Russia.” Why is such nationalism not also right-wing?

“Whoever cries out against Jewish capitalists is already a class warrior, even when he does not know it . . . Kick down the Jewish capitalists, hang them from the lampposts, and stamp upon them.”

That wasn’t Nazi rhetoric. That was Ruth Fischer, a German Communist, competing with the Nazis for the same supporters.

When I say that Nazism was essentially left-wing, I at least go to great lengths to define my terms and set the context. Certainly in the American context, revolutionary socialism is a leftwing orientation. Or at the lest, it’s hardly absurd to contend as much.

And about the word “revolutionary.” I highly recommend the discussion in John Lukacs’ brilliant The Hitler of History on this score. The Marxist left refused to describe Nazism as “revolutionary” precisely because the Left has long held that revolutions are by definition positive things. This is what got Renzo de Felice in so much hot water for describing Fascism as part of the “revolutionary tradition.” If Tyler Cowen wishes to claim that Nazism is in within the revolutionary tradition but also not left-wing, that’s fine. But he’s picking a fight with a lot of people on the left, too.

I also liked this bit:

The true but possibly misleading claims. Goldberg writes for instance that Hillary Clinton is not a fascist. OK, but simply to write that she isn’t a fascist is reframing the terms of the debate, and not in a way I am fully comfortable with. I’m sure it bothers many Clinton supporters more than it bothers me.

Though I’m not sure what to make of it.

Lastly, if he’s going to link to all of the discussion of my book, he might at least nod to the fact that some people actually liked it.

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