2013-11-10 19:13:35 UTC
Robert Paxton is emeritus professor of history at Columbia University.
His latest book is Anatomy of Fascism (Vintage, 2005). He is well
educated and therefor unworthy of being a Republican.
Jonah Goldberg tells us he wrote this book to get even. The liberals
started it by “insist[ing] that conservatism has connections with
fascism” (p. 22). Conservatives “sit dumbfounded by the nastiness of
the slander” (p. 1). “The left wields the term fascism like a
cudgel” (p. 3). So Jonah Goldberg has decided it is time to turn the
tables and show that “the liberal closet has its own skeletons” (p.
22). After years of being “called a fascist and a Nazi by smug,
liberal know-nothings” he decides that “responding to this slander is a
point of personal privilege” (p. 392).
Feeling oneself a victim is wonderfully liberating. Anything goes. So
Jonah Goldberg pulls out all the stops to show that fascism “is not a
phenomenon of the right at all. It is, and always has been, a
phenomenon of the left” (p. 7). The reader perceives at once that
Goldberg likes to put things into rigid boxes: right and left,
conservative and liberal, fascist and non-fascist. He doesn’t leave
room for such complexities as convergences, middle grounds, or
evolution over time. Thus Father Coughlin was always a man of the
left, and so was Mussolini (Giacomo Matteotti or the Rosselli brothers,
leaders of the Italian left whom Mussolini had assassinated, would have
been scandalized by this view). The very mention of a “Third Way” puts
one instantly into the fascist box.
That’s too bad, because there really is a subject here. Fascism – a
political latecomer that adapted anti-socialism to a mass electorate,
using means that often owed nothing to conservatism – drew on both
right and left, and tried to transcend that bitter division in a
purified, invigorated, expansionist national community. A sensitive
analysis of what fascism drew from all quarters of the political
spectrum would be a valuable project. It is not Jonah Goldberg’s
The bottom line is that Goldberg wants to attach a defaming epithet to
liberals and the left, to “put the brown shirt on [your] opponents,” as
he accuses the liberals of doing (p. 392). He goes about this task
with a massive apparatus of scholarly citations and quotations. But
Goldberg’s scholarship is not an even-handed search for understanding,
following the best evidence fully and open-mindedly wherever it might
lead. He chooses his scholarly data selectively and sometimes
misleadingly in the service of his demonstration.
Jonah Goldberg knows that making the Progressives, Woodrow Wilson,
Theodore Roosevelt and FDR the creators of an American fascism – indeed
the only American fascism, for George Lincoln Rockwell and other overt
American fascist or Nazi sympathizers are totally absent from this book
– is a stretch, so he has created a new box: Liberal Fascism. The
Progressives and their heirs who wanted to use government to rectify
social and economic ills, and who, in Goldberg’s view, thereby created
an American Fascism, acted with good intentions, rarely used violence,
and had nothing to do with Auschwitz. Even so, they share an
intellectual heredity and a set of common goals with the European
fascists. So they go into the “Liberal Fascist” box.
Liberal Fascism is an oxymoron, of course. A fascism that means no
harm is a contradiction in terms. Authentic fascists intend to harm
those whom they define as the nation’s internal and external enemies.
Someone who doesn’t intend to harm his or her enemies, and who doesn’t
relish doing it violently, isn’t really fascist.
But the problems go much deeper. Pushing Liberalism and Fascism
together requires distorting both terms. It doesn’t help that these
are two of the most problematical words in the political lexicon. To
his credit, Goldberg is aware that the term “liberal” has been
corrupted in contemporary American usage. It ought to mean (and still
means in the rest of the world) a principled opposition to state
interference in the economy, from Adam Smith to Ronald Reagan.
Goldberg sometimes refers to “classical liberalism” in this sense, and
with approval. Unfortunately he has capitulated to the sloppy current
American usage by which “liberal” means, usually pejoratively nowadays,
any and all of the various components of the Left, from anarchists and
Marxists to moderate Democrats.
Goldberg stereotypes liberals to make them abstract, uniform, robotic.
The telltale phrase is “liberals say” or “liberals think” (mostly
without anyone quoted or footnoted). For example, “Liberals . . .
claim” that free-market economics is fascist (p. 22). Could we please
have a few examples of “liberals” who say this? It is a straw man, as
is the vast, ghostly “liberal mind” that sounds like a physical
reality: “fascism, shorn of the word, endures in the liberal mind” (p.
161). Does this liberal mind have a telephone number, as Henry
Kissinger said famously of the European Union?
This “liberal mind” is a very big tent. Goldberg believes that
moderate reformists are essentially involved in the same project as
radical activists. Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Al Gore, Hilary
Clinton are all devoted in one way or another to the allegedly fascist
project of taking action to make a better world.
Goldberg makes sure we understand that force and violence are integral
to this “liberal” project of state action to improve society.
Robespierre’s terror begins “liberalism” in this sense, and Goldberg
attributes to it a fanciful fifty thousand deaths (the scholarly
consensus is 12,000, which is bad enough). Later he spends a lot of
time on the worst excesses of 1960s radicalism, as if the Weathermen
and Hilary Clinton belong together as seekers of a new community.
Fascism is given an equally broad definition: it is any use of state
power to make the world better and to create a community. This is not
only too vague to mean much, it is simply wrong. Authentic fascists
have never wanted to make the whole world better. As uncompromising
nationalists, they want to make their own group stronger, purer, and
more unified, and establish its domination over inferior groups, by
force if necessary. Goldberg’s real target is state activism, and
matters would be much clearer if he had just left it at that.
Having headlined the violent history of “liberalism,” Goldberg
soft-pedals that of fascists, especially Mussolini. There are the
ritual references to Auschwitz, but he denies that racial extermination
is integral to Nazism by noting how many Progressive reformers fell for
Eugenics in the early twentieth century. His Mussolini – that lifelong
“man of the left – is seen largely through the eyes of his many foolish
American admirers. Che Guevara killed more people than Mussolini, he
asserts (p. 194). This is possible only if one leaves out of the
picture the murder of over a thousand Italian citizens by the
squadristi who brought Mussolini to the brink of power in 1922, or of
the Italians’ use of poison gas, forced displacement into camps, and
aerial strafing against the populations of Libya and Ethiopia.
Goldberg simply omits those parts of fascist history that fit badly
with his demonstration. His method is to examine fascist rhetoric, but
to ignore how fascist movements functioned in practice. Since the
Nazis recruited their first mass following among the economic and
social losers of Weimar Germany, they could sound anti-capitalist at
the beginning. Goldberg makes a big thing of the early programs of the
Nazi and Italian Fascist Parties, and publishes the Nazi Twenty-five
Points as an appendix. A closer look would show that the Nazis’
anti-capitalism was a selective affair, opposed to international
capital and finance capital, department stores and Jewish businesses,
but nowhere opposed to private property per se or favorable to a
transfer of all the means of production to public ownership.
A still closer look at how the fascist parties obtained power and then
exercised power would show how little these early programs corresponded
to fascist practice. Mussolini acquired powerful backing by hiring his
black-shirted squadristi out to property owners for the destruction of
socialist and Communist unions and parties. They destroyed the farm
workers’ organizations in the Po Valley in 1921-1922 by violent nightly
raids that made them the de facto government of northeastern Italy.
Hitler’s brownshirts fought Communists for control of the streets of
Berlin, and claimed to be Germany’s best bulwark against the
revolutionary threat that still appeared to be growing in 1932.
Goldberg prefers the abstractions of rhetoric to all this history,
noting only that fascism and Communism were “rivals.” So his readers
will not learn anything about how the Nazis and Italian Fascists got
into power or exercised it.
The two fascist chiefs obtained power not by election nor by coup but
by invitation from German President Hindenberg and his advisors, and
Italian King Victor Emanuel III and his advisors (not a leftist among
them). The two heads of state wanted to harness the fascists’ numbers
and energy to their own project of blocking the Marxists, if possible
with broad popular support. This does not mean that fascism and
conservatism are identical (they are not), but they have historically
found essential interests in common.
Once in power, the two fascist chieftains worked out a fruitful if
sometimes contentious relationship with business. German business had
been, as Goldberg correctly notes, distrustful of the early Hitler’s
populist rhetoric. Hitler was certainly not their first choice as head
of state, and many of them preferred a trading economy to an autarkic
one. Given their real-life options in 1933, however, the Nazi
regulated economy seemed a lesser evil than the economic depression and
worker intransigence they had known under Weimar. They were delighted
with Hitler’s abolition of independent labor unions and the right to
strike (unmentioned by Goldberg), and profited greatly from his
rearmament drive. All of them would have found ludicrous the notion
that the Nazis, once in power, were on the left. So would the
socialist and communist leaders who were the first inhabitants of the
Nazi concentration camps (unmentioned by Goldberg).
In the Italian case, Goldberg somehow imagines that Mussolini’s
much-vaunted corporatism was a device to subject businessmen to total
state control. Scholars who have looked at the way corporatism
actually worked have generally concluded that Italian businessmen
simply ran the economy through the corporatist agencies that they
easily dominated. Corporatism – the management of an economy by joint
committees of businessmen, labor representatives and government
officials who organize the economy sector by sector, to emphasize
common interests over class differences – functions quite differently,
of course, under different regimes. In the Italian Fascist case, quite
unlike the New Deal, labor representatives were, in the end, excluded
from any meaningful role.
Having set up distorted stereotypes of “liberalism” and “fascism”
Goldberg finds them united by a host of similar projects such as
campaigns against smoking (it was Nazi doctors who first established
the link between smoking and cancer, and Hitler was a fanatical
anti-smoker). These similarities concern peripheral matters. The
foundational qualities that separate liberalism from fascism simply
vanish from the analysis: political pluralism vs. single party;
universal values vs. the supremacy of a master race; elections vs.
charismatic leadership; fascism’s exaltation of feelings over reason.
Goldberg has indeed unearthed plenty of skeletons in the liberal
closet, such as the Eugenics fad. Some liberal violations of human
rights were temporary, as in war government. Others were the work of
radicals of the left who made war on liberals, hated them, and have no
place in an analysis of liberalism properly understood.
This book is stuffed with references to scholarly work that make it
look authoritative. But when something really surprising comes along,
we look in vain for a footnote. Did Hitler really write a fan letter
to that Jew-loving plutocrat FDR in 1935? No footnote. How do we know
that the New Dealer Hugh Johnson read Fascist tracts, and for what
purpose (p. 156)? And that FDR put a hundred thousand American
citizens into camps (p. 160)? Does he mean that C.C.C.? In what sense
was “deconstruction” a Nazi coinage (p. 173)? Goldberg probably means
Heidegger, but he wants us to think Goebbels. Just which proponents of
affirmative action claimed that their opponents were on a slippery
slope to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and in what words (p. 243)?
Exactly where and when did Al Gore say that global warming is the
equivalent of the Holocaust, and what were his actual words (p. 314)?
The list of bombshell remarks smuggled into this text without any
reference to a credible source could go on and on.
Goldberg hijacks scholarly work and applies it in misleading ways for
his own purposes. Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., showed conclusively that
German businessmen were often skeptical of Hitler in the early days.
Since they gave money to all non-Socialist parties, the small amounts
they gave the Nazis prove nothing. But Turner’s book stops in January
1933. Goldberg extends Turner’s conclusions misleadingly into the
later period, ignoring the way German businessmen adjusted to the new
situation. David Schoenbaum meant his title Hitler’s Social Revolution
ironically: Hitler recruited all the losers in Germany’s 1920s crises,
and then betrayed them by following policies favorable to big business
and big agriculture after January 1933. Goldberg appropriates this
book’s first half misleadingly to support his fantastical conclusion
that Hitler was always “a man of the left.”
Jonah Goldberg sometimes sounds sweetly reasonable. Liberals mean
well, they aren’t taking us toward Auschwitz. The filiation is
intellectual, not a matter of exact identity. Fascism takes a
different form in each national setting (very true), and it takes a
“softer form” (p. 391) in the United States. Then he drops the mask
and goes on a rant. In the chapter headings and subheadings – the
parts that casual readers will remember -- liberals are fascists pure
and simple. For example: “Franklin Roosevelt’s Fascist New Deal” (p.
121); “The Great Society: LBJ’s Fascist Utopia” (p. 329), and so on.
While Goldberg is reasonably careful of names, dates, and quotations,
his more general judgments often go badly awry. It is not true that
“the hard left had almost nothing to say about Italian Fascism for most
of its first decade” (p. 30). The Third International diagnosed it
right away, clumsily, as an agent of capitalism. The Italian elections
of 1924 were not “reasonably fair” (p. 50), for according to the
Acerbo Election Law passed at Fascist insistence just beforehand, the
leading party would automatically receive two thirds of the
parliamentary seats. It is untrue that Germany spent relatively little
on armaments in the first years; they spent as much as they were
allowed under the Versailles Treaty, and then arranged secretly for
further training and arms development in the Soviet Union (p. 151), a
point that ought to suit Goldberg quite well. Hitler never ever
campaigned from the back of an old pickup truck (p. 289).
Jonah Goldberg does not tell us much about his own beliefs, except that
he loves America. But it is clear that he inhabits a world where the
sole serious danger to individual and national wellbeing is the state.
No rogue corporations, no drunk drivers, no polluting factories, no
well-funded lobbies threaten us, only the state. Anything that
enhances the power and reach of the state is bad, even George W.
Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”
If you are looking for brickbats to throw at Democrats, reformers,
environmentalists and other do-gooders, you will enjoy this book. If
you are looking for some reasoned arguments about the politics of our
time, you will find both liberalism and fascism grossly distorted in
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