Liberal Fascism?

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning. By Jonah Goldberg. Doubleday, 2007. 487 pages.

Jonah Goldberg has ruined what could have been a valuable book. Goldberg has in the past treated libertarians with disdain, but here he offers an analysis of fascism that libertarians will find familiar. Goldberg has been influenced by John T. Flynn’s comparison of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal with Italian fascism; and he cites Friedrich Hayek with respect. He has learned from Murray Rothbard on the progressives as well. (He at one point remarks, “if libertarianism could account for children and foreign policy, it would be the ideal political philosophy” [p. 344].)

Fascism is usually counted a movement of the Right; but, as Goldberg notes, many leftists viewed Mussolini with sympathy. (Here Goldberg follows the important work of John Patrick Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America.) H.G. Wells in a speech at Oxford in 1932 called for a “Liberal Fascism”; and Rexford Tugwell, a leading member of Roosevelt’s Brain Trust, said in 1934, “I find Italy doing many of the things which seem to me necessary…. Mussolini certainly has the same people opposed to him as FDR has. But he has the press controlled so that they cannot scream lies at him daily” (p. 156).

How is this possible? Leftists wish to reconstruct society along socialistic lines; fascists glorify the nation and militarism. How can leftists favor fascism? Goldberg readily resolves the difficulty. Precisely by importing the war spirit into domestic affairs, leftists hope to reconstruct society. In war, people unite to achieve victory; in doing so, they sacrifice their personal ends to achieve the common goal. The fascists took exactly the same view, and many leftists accordingly recognized the affinity.

The progressives were well aware that war would enable them to advance their ambitious social plans, and they advocated American entry into the First World War for this reason. Herbert Croly, author of the vastly influential The Promise of American Life, “looked forward to many more wars because war was the midwife of progress … Croly’s New Republic was relentless in its push for war” (pp. 99, 107).[1]

The wartime regime of Woodrow Wilson fulfilled the hopes of the progressives.

War socialism under Wilson was an entirely progressive project, and long after the war it remained the liberal ideal…. If we are to believe that “classic” fascism is first and foremost the elevation of martial values and the militarization of government and society under the banner of nationalism, it is very difficult to understand why the Progressive Era was not also the Fascist Era. (p. 119)

Goldberg appropriately calls attention to “the brilliant, bizarre, disfigured genius Randolph Bourne [who] seemed to understand precisely what was going on” (p. 108).

Given the Wilsonian precedent, the affinity of the New Deal with fascism is hardly surprising. Just as the progressives had done under Wilson, the New Dealers demanded collective action by the government to cope with the economic emergency. Indeed, many of the measures they supported reinstituted programs of Wilson’s wartime government. In his discussion of the New Deal, Goldberg draws attention especially to the close parallel between the National Recovery Administration and Mussolini’s corporatism, a fact that was not lost on either the fascists or the New Dealers.[2]

If Goldberg has elaborated and extended the standard libertarian view of fascism, does he not deserve praise? Why then do I claim that he has ruined his book? The fault, as I see it, lies not in various less defensible contentions about fascism that he advances. He seems to me too ready to call any resort to “identity politics” fascist; and while he criticizes the “compassionate conservatism” of George Bush, he turns a blind eye to the effects of Bush’s bellicose foreign policy on the domestic scene. Goldberg himself supports the Iraq war; when one is faced with a “good” war, apparently, the link between war and fascism no longer need be of concern.

However dubious Goldberg’s views on these issues, they are at least matters of opinion. By contrast, he makes a large number of outright errors on historical matters.

He traces fascism to the philosophy of Rousseau, “who properly deserves to be called the father of modern fascism” (p. 38). To see Rousseau as a precursor of totalitarianism is certainly a defensible position; Jacob Talmon classically argued for this view in The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy. But in his account of Rousseau, Goldberg makes an astonishing claim: “It followed, moreover, that if the people were the new God, there was no room for God Himself…. Loyalty to the state and loyalty to the divine must be seen as the same thing” (p. 39).

Has Goldberg ever examined the “civil religion” of Rousseau, which he claims is enforced “by the all-powerful God-state” (p. 40)? Rousseau gives the dogmas of the civil religion in Book IV of The Social Contract. The first of these is the “existence of a mighty, intelligent, and beneficent Divinity, possessed of foresight and providence.” Goldberg might also consult with profit the Profession of Faith of the Savoyard Vicar in the fourth book of Emile. This defends the view that God can be known from the natural order; it does not identify God and the state.

Goldberg does no better when he turns to the great classical liberal Lord Acton. He tells us,

Lord Acton’s famous observation that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” has long been misunderstood. Acton was not arguing that power causes powerful leaders to become corrupt (though he probably believed that, too). Rather, he was noting that historians tend to forgive the powerful for transgressions they would never condone by the weak. (p. 84)

Acton’s comments come in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in April 1887:

I cannot accept your canon that we are to judge Pope and King unlike other men, with a favorable presumption that they did no wrong. If there is any presumption it is the other way against holders of power, increasing as the power increases…. Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Acton, it is apparent, is saying what Goldberg says that he isn’t: he is contending that the possession of power tends to cause leaders to be corrupt. In a column on National Review Online for October 23, 2002, “Might vs. Right,” Goldberg himself quotes this passage and defends his odd interpretation of it[3]. Goldberg cannot understand a few simple sentences. Are we to take Acton as saying that the spectacle of absolute power absolutely corrupts the historian who writes about it?

Goldberg has not yet touched bottom. The book includes a section, “The Nazi Cult of the Organic” that discusses such matters as vegetarianism, public health, and animal rights. In it, this passage appears:

German historicism had pioneered the organic conception of society and state tied together. The state, wrote Johann Droysen, is “the sum, the united organism, of all the moral partnerships, their common home and harbor, and so far their end.” Nor were these ideas uniquely German. Droysen was Herbert Baxter Adams’s mentor, and Adams was Woodrow Wilson’s. Droysen’s work is cited throughout Wilson’s writings. The law that established our national park system was dubbed the “Organic Act” of 1916. (p. 385)

Does Goldberg seriously think that the organic concept of the state, i.e., the view that the state, like an organism, must be explained by how its parts function together for a common end, has anything to do with a “back to nature” movement? It is hardly surprising, by the way, that Wilson often cites Droysen. He was one of the most famous German historians of the nineteenth century.

Our author does not neglect American philosophers. He gives us a crude caricature of William James on the “will to believe”:

[James] pioneered the notion that all one needs is the “will to believe.” It was James’s benign hope to make room for religion in a burgeoning age of science, by arguing that any religion that worked for the believer was not merely valid but “true.” (p. 37)

Goldberg has either never read James’s essay, “The Will to Believe,” or read it with the same interpretive skills he displayed in his remarks about Acton. James argued that in a restricted number of cases, one has the right to believe something that goes beyond the evidence. The evidence for the view one favors must be no worse than for views that contradict it; and one must be in a situation where a choice cannot be avoided. The options that one faces must be living, momentous, and forced. Though James noted certain cases where believing something can result in its becoming true, e.g., a patient whose belief that he will recover has beneficial effects that help to cure him, he did not advocate the strange position Goldberg here attributes to him. (I do not think it worthwhile to inquire what Goldberg has in mind by the distinction between “valid” and “true.”)

We now come to my favorite passage:

In his infamous rectorial address, [Martin] Heidegger looked forward to the time — hastened by Hitler’s efforts — “when the spiritual strength of the West fails and its joints crack, when the moribund semblance of culture caves in and drags all forces into confusion and lets them suffocate in madness.” (pp. 174—75)

How can I possibly accuse Goldberg of distortion? Has he done anything more than quote a passage from the rectorial address? Well, let’s have a look. In “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” the address in question, Heidegger calls for teachers and students to will the essence of the German university: this essence is “the will to science as will to the historical spiritual mission of the German people as a people that knows itself in its state.” (I cite from the same translation that Goldberg uses, which appears in Günther Neske and Emil Kettering, eds., Martin Heidegger and National Socialism: Questions and Answers [New York: Paragon House, 1990], p. 6.)

This will to science is to be achieved in large part by rethinking the beginnings of Greek philosophy. It is up to us: “Do we, or do we not, will the essence of the German university?” (Neske, p. 13). Heidegger then says, “But no one will even ask us whether we do or do not will, when…” following which is the passage that Goldberg quotes (Neske, p. 13). Goldberg has completely reversed what Heidegger is saying. Heidegger does not look forward to the spiritual collapse of the West. Rather, he warns that we may delay too long in our mission to will the essence of the university. If our culture “caves in,” what we will is irrelevant. Further, although Heidegger criticized the philosophical notion of “values,” he did not contend that “good and evil were childish notions” (p. 174).

Goldberg does not confine his howlers to intellectual history. He refers in one place to “communist Jacobinism (or Jacobin communism, if you prefer), which expropriated property and uprooted institutions in order to remake society from the ground up” (p. 297). The Jacobins were not communists. Although they abandoned the original laissez-faire tenets of the Jacobin Club for interventionism, they remained strong defenders of private property.

It goes on. It is not true that in the notorious Tuskegee syphilis experiment, “poor black men were allegedly infected with syphilis without their knowledge” (p. 261). Rather, men who already had syphilis were deceived into thinking that they were being treated for their illness. Unity Mitford did not “have to leave the country, incensed that Britain would fight such a progressive leader as Hitler” (p. 460 n. 15). At the time war was declared, she was in Germany. She was so despondent that she shot herself in the head, but her suicide attempt failed. She was then sent back to England, where she lived out the war as an invalid. As all-too-often, Goldberg has things backwards.

I have saved the best for last. He says that Napoleon’s “victories against the Austro-Hungarian Empire prompted the captive nations of the Hapsburgs to greet him as ‘the great liberator.’ He beat back the authority of the Catholic Church, crowning himself Holy Roman Emperor…” (p. 41). No, no, Mr. Goldberg. Emperor Francis II, who had meanwhile become Emperor Francis I of Austria, dissolved the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Austro-Hungarian Empire did not come into existence until 1867, although of course the Habsburgs ruled over both Austria and Hungary throughout the nineteenth century. Goldberg does somewhat better in the index. There is a listing for “Napoleon I, Emperor of France” (p. 479); but this too is wrong. Napoleon was Emperor of the French: the title is important because Napoleon claimed his power emanated from the French people. He was not the successor to the French territorial kings, as the title Emperor of France would have suggested.

Although Liberal Fascism contains much important information, its many mistakes require that it be used with extreme caution. Jonah Goldberg should acquire a more accurate knowledge of history before he presumes to instruct others.


[1] Goldberg does not mention that Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism and high in the counsels of National Review, ardently admires Croly.

[2] See on this the important book of Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals (Metropolitan Books, 2006) and my review in The Mises Review, Fall 2006. Goldberg cites this work.

[3] Goldberg’s remarks in the column do not adequately distinguish between what Acton meant and whether what he said is true. Goldberg points out that some powerful rulers have not been corrupt; he fails to see that this observation does not refute the claim that power tends to corrupt.

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