Book Review: Liberal Fascism

I finally got around to finishing Jonah Goldberg’s 2007 tome, Liberal Fascism, a compelling and important read. Goldberg both attempts to make the case that fascism has always been a left-wing (or “liberal”) phenomenon, while also presenting a history of fascism in the 20th, and 21st, century. In doing the latter, he gets a bit repetitive in making his case, but nonetheless it is a worthwhile read to understand the intellectual roots of past and present ideologies.

Goldberg takes great care to note that he is not saying that all liberals are fascists, and Goldberg takes pains to separate the anti-semitism and mass murder of the Nazis, noting those were unique to the Third Reich (indeed, even Mussolini protected Jews, while he was able). Rather, Goldberg attacks the misconception that contemporary “conservatives” have much in common with fascism. At the same time, Goldberg focuses on the common roots of fascists and modern liberals or “progressives.”

Goldberg traces the roots of fascism in politics back to Woodrow Wilson – and notes the commonalities between American progressives and European fascists like Mussolini (and later Hitler). Highlighting not only the fact that American progressives and socialists of the time admired and praised European fascists, but they had the same political agendas. He says, with great sarcasm, regarding the Nazi platform and the implication that they were conservatives:

So, we are supposed to see that a party in favor of universal education, guaranteed unemployment, increased entitlements for the aged, the expropriation of land without compensation, the nationalization of industry, the abolition of market-based lending – a.k.a. “interest slavery – the expansion of health services, and the abolition of child labor as objectively and obviously right-wing.

Beyond economic policy, fascism involves government oversight of nearly every aspect of individual lives.

[T]he Nazi antismoking and public health drives foreshadowed today’s crusades against junk food, trans fats, and the like… What is fascists is the notion that in an organic national community, the individual has no right not to be healthy; and the state therefore has the obligation to force us to be health for our own good.

Much of Goldberg’s research traces the history and common ideas of Woodrow Wilson (and progressive writers like Herbert Croly), Mussolini in Italy, Hitler, and Franklin Roosevelt. Later he discusses fascists of the 1960s. The corporatism of today is also intrinsically a fascist phenomenon:

It’s find to say the incestuous relationships between corporations and governments are fascistic. The problem comes when you claims that such arrangements are inherently right-wing. If the collusion of big business and government is right wing, the FDR was a right-winger. If corporatism and propaganda militarism are fascist, then Woodrow Wilson was a fascist and so are the New Dealers. If you understand the right-wing or conservative position to be that of those who argue for free-markets, competition, property rights, and the other political values inscribed in the original intent of the American founding fathers, then big business in Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and New Deal America was not right wing; it was left-wing, and it was fascistic. What’s more, it still is.

Among today’s liberals, Goldberg spends a full chapter discussing Hillary Clinton, and how the ideas she presents in It Takes a Village are utterly fascists. Specifically, he points to Clinton’s notion that everything is within the state, that the state is the true parents of children, and that “for the children” can justify any action by the state, even circumventing traditional political processes.

Goldberg falls short of calling George W. Bush a fascist (note that Goldberg wrote before the Wall Street bailouts and the nationalization of automakers and major banks), but does criticize “compassionate’ conservatism as “a repudiation of the classical liberalism at the core of American conservatism.”

Most importantly, Goldberg describes the nature of fascism, starting with the concept of a moral equivalent of war. This term, coined by William James, refers to the unifying effect of war on citizens, and often the ease of making profound social change in times of wars. Indeed, Mussolini and Hitler, not to mention Wilson, used war and militarism to push their agenda. But absent a true war (which many contemporary progressives would opposed), what is needed is a moral equivalent of war:

From health care to gun control to global warming, liberals insist that we need to “get beyond politics” and “put ideological differences behind us” in order to “do the people’s business.” The experts and scientists know what to do, we are told; therefore the time for debate is behind us.

Goldberg writes, almost prophetically (emphasis mine):

[L]iberals have manufactured one “crisis” after another in their quest to find a new moral equivalent to war, from the war on cancer, to global warming, to countless alleged economic crises. Indeed, a brief perusal of the last hundred year of economic journalism from the left would have you believe that the most prosperous century in human history was one long, extended economic crisis.

The fascist playbook, as Goldberg identifies it, also hitting too close to home, includes:

the creation of crises, nationalistic appeals to unity, the celebration of martial values, the blurring of lines between public and private sectors, the utilization of mass media to glamorize the state and its programs, invocations of a new “post-partisan” spirit that places the most important decisions in the hands of experts and intellectual supermen, and a cult of personality for the national leader.

Liberal Fascism is a must-read for anyone interest in the recent history of political philosophy, and provides an important contribution to a political discourse that suffers from a lack of understanding of our intellectual roots.