Jonah Goldberg
Liberal Fascism: the secret history of the American left, from Mussolini to the politics of change
Broadway Books, 2009
ISBN 978-0-7679-1718-6
Reviewed by Gary McGath

People of a so-called "liberal" or "progressive" bent often love to use the word "fascist" against their opponents; but whenever their faction is in power, it shows itself to be well deserving of that term. Liberal Fascism explores the history of the twentieth century to show the affinities of the American left to the doctrines of Mussolini and his allies.

Goldberg shows broad knowledge of facts of history which aren't often mentioned, and the book is worth it for that alone. It took me a long time to get through because it kept sending me off on tangents to check his facts or find out more information. Along the way, I delved into Arturo Toscanini's letters (he did indeed run as a Fascist candidate in 1919, though this was an aberration from a mostly apolitical life). Into the prefaces to Shaw's plays (Shaw said that people "who give more trouble than they are worth should be placed in the "lethal chamber" literally like dogs, but Goldberg's tying this to eugenic killing isn't supported by the text). Into a very disturbing William Randolph Hearst movie called Gabriel Over the White House (which presents a president's assumption of dictatorial powers as a literal divine mission). Into websites giving information about the American Protective League (which can't quite be called Wilson's Sturmabteilung, but came close). Into obscure works of H. G. Wells. This is a book to dig deep into, to wrestle with.

The chapter on Woodrow Wilson supplements works like Jim Powell's Wilson's War in showing what sort of monster Wilson was, destroying civil liberties on a scale Bush could scarcely have dreamed of. In a time when Wilsonianism is growing on the left, and its politicians are dropping the word "liberal" (which they were never entitled to) for "progressive" (which, in the Wilsonian sense, is ominously fitting), knowledge of the real nature of the Progressives is vitally important. That chapter and the one on the New Deal are two of the strongest in the book.

Goldberg sets out "to show [that] many of the ideas and impulses that inform what we call liberalism come to us through an intellectual tradition that led directly to fascism." Unfortunately, he fails to give a satisfactory definition of fascism. The best he comes up with is to say that "since we must have a working definition of fascism, here is mine: Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people."

Goldberg sees the French Revolution as "the first fascist revolution." But what was it that made the Reign of Terror fascist and, say, the Spanish Inquisition not? There have been totalitarian governments from early history, even if the term is a modern invention.

On page 297 in the paperback he offers a better characterization:

Fascism is the cult of unity, within all spheres and between all spheres. Fascists are desperate to erode the 'artificial,' legal, or cultural boundaries between family and state, public and private, business and the 'public good.' Unlike communist Jacobinism (or Jacobin communism, if you prefer), which expropriated property and uprooted institutions in order to remake society from the ground up, fascism pragmatically sought to preserve what was good and authentic about society while bending it to the common good.

This isn't in the proper form for a definition, but it distinguishes fascism both from older forms of absolute power and from communism. The word "pragmatic" there is precise. He shows not only the historical support of progressives for outrageous ideas but their philosophical roots in Pragmatism.

But his use of the term "religion of the state" introduces a flaw which runs through the book. He repeatedly uses the word "religion" in a pejorative, metaphorical sense, without acknowledging that it is metaphorical. His use of the term is always negative -- except when he is talking about Judaism or Christianity.

Modern Americans typically equate fascism with Nazism, but in the narrow sense it refers to Mussolini's ruling party in Italy. This was never as brutal as Germany's Nazis, and for a while it had significant support in the United States, a fact which gets swept under the historical rug. One version of Cole Porter's popular song "You're the Top," Goldberg notes, included the line "You're Mussolini." (He mentions in an endnote that his line was most likely written by Wodehouse, not Porter; regrettably, he leaves the impression in the main body of the text that it was Porter's line.)

Goldberg repeatedly makes it clear that modern American liberalism isn't the same as the violent ways of Hitler's or even Mussolini's government. It's a friendly, well-meaning program of assimilating everything under the governmental banner. He bends over backwards to make this point, ignoring the evident power-lust of many politicians on the left, most notably Hillary Clinton. It's Brave New World, not 1984.

Not that it's always been that way. In discussing the revolutionary movements of the sixties, the book recalled some of my personal memories. Being punched by an SDS goon hard enough to cause significant bleeding. Having my sweater catch fire in Holyoke Center when I was in a rally carrying a 13-star US flag, and a thug attacked it with an incendiary device. Speaking against rent control at Cambridge City Hall, as a group calling itself "Youth Against War and Fascism" handed out flyers declaring that "Fascists have no right to speak!" By "fascists" they meant opponents of rent control, or more broadly anyone who had an opinion they didn't like. Goldberg's picture of the New Left is quite accurate.

But in other places his brush is a broad one, sometimes too broad. At times he draws comparisons not from his "working definition," but from affinities of style, leading to unsupportable conclusions. Among the variety of movies which he says exhibit fascist tendencies, he includes The Matrix, because of stylistic points such as the name "Neo." Yet it's surely the villains of that movie who are fascistic in the most precise sense, harnessing all human activity to a common, totalitarian goal, and the movie is about their overthrow. (The serious problems of the movie as science fiction are a separate matter.)

In trying to show the New Age affinities of the Nazis, Goldberg is particularly weak, applying facts selectively. He stresses the pagan aspects of Nazism but says little about its broad support from Protestant and Catholic churches. He ties anti-Semitism to the eugenic movement, which is certainly valid, but doesn't mention that the earlier roots of German hatred of Jews are purebred Christian. He downplays the Nazi persecution of homosexuals (somewhere between 5,000 and 15,000 were sent to concentration camps and most died) to stress the presence of openly gay elements in the early Nazi movement, though he notes that this ended with the Night of the Long Knives in 1934.

Goldberg tries to argue that fascism is a phenomenon of the left rather than the right. But it's far more tenable to recognize the fallacy of the left-right paradigm and not try to make fascism the exclusive sphere of either side of that spectrum. The comparison of "war on drugs," for instance, with the Progressives' successful and ultimately disastrous campaign to ban liquor from America should be an obvious one. His conservatism gives him major blind spots.

The paperback version has an additional chapter on Barack Obama, written after the hardcover edition.

Liberal Fascism towers above the typical conservative fare of today. It's a book to take your time with, to think about, and to learn from even where you might disagree with it.

This review last revised on November 14, 2009

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