YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 10, 2010

Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism

Fuseli’s precursor to Captain Ahab

Jonah Goldberg, editor-at-large for the conservative-libertarian National Review Online, wrote a popular intellectual history intended to remedy the common practice on the Left of characterizing Italian Fascism and Nazism as movements primarily of the Right. He tells me that he started formulating a book proposal in 2002, partly in response to his father’s ongoing concerns, partly in response to a talk by Michael Ledeen in the 1990s. It was published with endnotes in 2008 and became a runaway best-seller, a remarkable performance in itself. Perhaps reacting to the growth of the so-called “Tea-Party” movement in 2009, in late January of this year, some professional historians and journalists strongly objected to Goldberg’s thesis that Nazism and Fascism were entirely movements of the Left.

This and subsequent blogs will try to tease out the underlying narrative in JG’s book, one that was not spotted in the symposium mounted by History News Network on January 25, 2010 (with JG’s response January 28): briefly, Liberal Fascism is not only a crusade, a critique of “progressivism” as the eugenics-inspired spur to European“ fascism” and mass death in the twentieth century, but more deeply, LF is an attack on the science and “secularism” that have invaded the cultural space previously furnished with “traditionalism” by which JG means religion and undisputed paternal authority in the family: the consequence in JG’s text is an intrusive nanny-statism TODAY that is fascistically totalitarian and seeks to impose draconian rules on all aspects of everyday life, but most awesomely, will destroy “liberty” with the same resolve as the Jacobin mob and their spawn: Blackshirts, Brownshirts, and Bolshies. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/, for one possible source for the linkage between the French Revolution and the Soviet Union, particularly the first volume of Hobsbawm’s tetralogy, in which EH draws a straight line between the French Revolution and Leninism. In this he agrees with liberal Jacob Talmon or the conservative Catholic Francois Furet: see https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/.)

    After reading the book twice, I maintain that the actual social structures and practices of the Third Reich and Italy under Mussolini (partly taken up by Robert Paxton in the HNN symposium) are of less concern to the author than “the smothering love” and feminized “niceness” of any American political faction that considers the national government to be a prospective locus for ameliorative reform and regulation. Like the most reactive Christians in history, but especially those who emerged after the Reign of Terror, JG seems to see “liberty” as the freedom for Everyman to suffer in this world, owing to (sinful) “human nature,” though I doubt that he has consciously taken his argument for “liberty” or the frictionless “pursuit of happiness” to its logical conclusion; he may simply be refuting the social engineering conception that man is infinitely malleable and that proper social organization will eliminate aggression and the will to power. That he blames Rousseau and the Jacobins for “totalitarianism” is everywhere apparent in his book. The Committee Of Public Safety has morphed into the Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA—and that specter and reality is where he has put his authorial energy. He would have stood on firmer ground had he blamed the social theorists of the eighteenth and nineteeth centuries, described so well in Frank E. Manuel’s The Prophets of Paris: Turgot, Condorcet, Saint-Simon and others who had no connection to the likes of Robespierre.* (For a related blog see https://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.)

[Added 4-4-10 and 4-6-10: Though I agree with much of what is in Liberal Fascism, it is not a work of history, for he does not reconstruct the historical context in which the various “fascisms” appeared. Ideas (e.g. “Jacobinism”) do not give birth to other ideas. JG could have, but did not, specify the class coalition with conservative nationalists that brought Hitler to power. By sticking with a left-wing genealogy for Hitler, he erases traditional right-wing support (support that was present during the Weimar Republic). Moreover, I have written extensively about “the progressives” and their role in formulating what we take to be mental health. What I found over a period of forty years is as alarming as anything in JG’s book. For instance “progressives” (who were really organic conservatives –“corporatist liberals”–adjusting to the growth of mass literacy and an industrial working class), because of their simultaneous support of “liberty” (e.g. dissent) and “community,”  could immobilize persons who sought to make an original contribution to society. Some of that research is elsewhere on this website,  but much of it can be found in my book Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival, where I show how Melville identified the double bind in his own family, and how he was labeled insane by some in his family and in the writing of his academic revivers.  (By double bind, I do not concur with Gregory Bateson’s definition that rests on the presence of a rejecting Janus-faced mother: rather the incompatible demands to be original in one’s discoveries, but not to disturb traditional institutional arrangements; to be both loyal to one’s country of origin and a member of an international “community”, and more.) 

   JG is on sounder ground when he critiques multiculturalism as derived from Herder. In my own work I trace Herder’s impact on German Romanticism and then nazism. JG should have said something about the dubious Herder-derived notions of national character and zeitgeist. He should have contrasted Herder’s rooted cosmopolitan and the rootless cosmopolitan of science and urbanity. But the possibly worst part of Liberal Fascism is the notion that some readers may absorb: that the entire Democratic Party is already entirely totalitarian, instead of incoherent, given the clashing elements inside the Democratic coalition. The Dems may be heading in that direction, but as a tactic to mobilize libertarian opposition, JG’s bleakness may create more apathy than informed resistance to illegitimate authority. And by constantly combining the word “liberal” with “fascism,” all statist activity is stigmatized, which would have amazed Hamilton, Hayek, and the Friedmans. ]

[Added 4-18-2010:] I am reading George E. Mowry’s excellent political and intellectual history of the period 1900-1912: The Era of Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of Modern America (originally published in 1958). The variability in what was considered to be “progressive” is laid out clearly. By contrast, the polemical and narrow focus of JG’s book becomes apparent. Given that Mowry and the other historians in the series of readers that Harper and Row published are writing within the progressive tradition, he (and probably they) are remarkably objective. Mowry brings the look of the period to life, and you will never read Edith Wharton again without seeing what a fatalist and traditional conservative she was.

[Added 4-23-10:] Mowry’s highly regarded account of the Republican Party contribution to progressivism certainly sees Theodore Roosevelt as a radical statist, but Mowry remains grounded in the period under study, and never calls T.R. style progressivism protofascist. I wish that journalists who write about politics today would be as attentive to detail and primary sources (and as broad in their interests) as did Mowry. This is a great book.

*Earlier critics than JG must have been comparing the welfare state to the various fascisms because Frank Manuel complained about the comparison in his The Prophets of Paris (1962): ” The specter of emotional and moral as well as scientific and industrial control hovers over the Saint-Simonian system, and Rousseau’s censor rears his ugly head. Nevertheless it seems farfetched to relate the Saint-Simonians on these grounds to the monster states of Hitler and Stalin. True, the Saint-Simonian political formulae emphasized emotion rather than reason, plus the hierarchy, an elite, the organic, and in this respect their theories bear superficial resemblance to the lucubrations of twentieth-century fascism. The ecclesiastical nonsense of the cult, however, should not obscure the fact that their image of society was founded first and foremost upon the expectation that there would be an upsurge of Eros in the world, that men would become more loving–a rather dubious assumption, though one that is not to be laughed out of court by the true skeptic. The Saint-Simonian society was founded upon relations of love among members of a hierarchy. This may be ridiculous, unfeasible, nonrational humbug, but it is totalitarian only in the sense that love may be. The Saint-Simonians were committed to the winning of converts solely through preaching and persuasion. To relate all the images of “authoritarianism” and “totalitarianism” to these tender failures of the 1830s entails driving their ideas to conclusions they never entertained. Saint-Simonians talked and quarreled far more about love, all sorts of love, than they did about authority. They never spilled a drop of blood in their lives and in middle age became respectable bourgeois. There was something unique about the German experience under the Third Reich. Remembrance of it should not be diluted by the discovery of antecedents that are of a qualitatively different character. The Saint-Simonians may be cast into liberal hell, but there they will probably encounter as many lovers and passionately fixated men as Dante did in the Christian hell.” (p.184)

[Added 4-30-2010: JG has an article on Obama’s “neosocialism” in the May issue of Commentary. The phrase “liberal fascism” does not appear there. But he still does not know about the contribution of the organic thinkers of nineteenth-century France (some of whom were reconstructing a more secular Catholicism) to Marxism and twentieth-century political thought, including the creators of the welfare state. These are Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Comte. Manuel distinguishes their organicism from that of their predecessors Turgot and Condorcet, though the latter were strong advocates of a science-driven progressive future.]

[Added 12-10-11: If JG had written about populism, I would have agreed with him about its protofascist potential. See https://clarespark.com/2011/12/10/before-saul-alinsky-rules-for-democratic-politicians/.]



  1. […] Recall that the period following the Civil War was also a period of extensive immigration to fill the burgeoning labor demand, and that Democrats were a Party that had persisted in a period characterized by westward expansion and urbanization (while Republicans had been the voice of Big Business and agrarian nativism.) Workers were raising hell, as students of the late 19th century (e.g., Robert Wiebe’s The Search for Order) will acknowledge, and (leftist) historians will mark the Progressive movement as responding to strikes and immigration (even as some condemn these WASPs for racism. e.g., https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/). […]

    Pingback by Did Hillary fail or was it the labor policies of the Democratic Party? | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — May 4, 2017 @ 7:36 pm | Reply

  2. […] None of this should surprise us. Ben Urwand begins his acknowledgments with tributes to some of the New Left Berkeley faculty: Michael Rogin, Lawrence Levine, Leon Litwack and Martin Jay (the latter a noted critical theorist and historian of the Frankfurt School  that blamed mass media for the corruption of the working class, hence the working-class failure to stop Hitler). The novelty of COLLABORATION exists in the claim that Jewish moguls allowed Hitler and his minions to control “Hollywood” not only throughout the 1930s, but on into the war years, and worse, inured to the Pact, Hollywood continued its baleful influence by suppressing the horrors of the Holocaust until decades after it became known. Urwand’s earlier work was on aboriginal rights in Australia, and his latest work wants to present America as a capitalist, hence fascist country, in cahoots with the Third Reich, and carrying on its mission. There are even suggestions that American movies “infused” Nazi culture, an innuendo comparable to Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism. (See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) […]

    Pingback by Urwand’s COLLABORATION: HOLLYWOOD’S PACT WITH HITLER | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — September 24, 2013 @ 6:09 pm | Reply

  3. […] In this blog, I argue that it is an error to link in any way whatsoever the Progressive uplifters and more recent advocates of violence and anarchy. For uplift was an orderly process, an expression of the “moderate” strategies of the chief publicists of progressivism. It was also, at its core, defined against “revolutionary radicalism” as evidenced in the I.W.W. or anarchism in the labor movement. Here is a juicy example of their thought, taken from my book on Melville and from a previous blog. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/11/13/supermen-wanted-early-freudians-and-the-mob/, also https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) […]

    Pingback by Progressive uplift vs. “New Left” nihilism | YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 2, 2013 @ 3:15 pm | Reply

  4. […] criticized Jonah Goldberg’s best seller Liberal Fascism as misleading and wrong-headed. (See  https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/.) Since reading the Goldberg  book, one that was much admired on the Right, I have read Eric […]

    Pingback by “Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — February 2, 2013 @ 1:10 am | Reply

  5. […] liberals. Many continue to conflate these ideologies (sometimes adding fascism to the mix, see https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/). In my view, such conflations are a mistake, one that blurs distinctions between mystics and […]

    Pingback by Malkin, Dolan, and the Empire State Building « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 6, 2012 @ 2:43 am | Reply

  6. […] same line advanced by Jonah Goldberg in his Liberal Fascism. See my discussion of the latter here: https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/. Like this:LikeOne blogger likes this post. Leave a […]

    Pingback by Coulter’s demons, Melville, John Adams on the late 18th C. « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — October 5, 2011 @ 7:33 pm | Reply

  7. […] have worked over Jonah Goldberg’s awful book here: https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/. I have not written previously about Ann Coulter, but I recommend another blog  […]

    Pingback by Bad history and hypocrisy on the radical Right « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — June 11, 2011 @ 8:13 pm | Reply

  8. […] of “liberal fascism” is absurd. Please see my blog on Jonah Goldberg’s awful book here: https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/. I don’t like the sexist phrase “nanny state” either. How did paternalistic social democracy […]

    Pingback by The Nanny State « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — January 4, 2011 @ 8:19 pm | Reply

  9. […]    The suggestion that POTUS might be a “malignant narcissist” is particularly intriguing to me. And here is where one might be able to collapse all the competing narratives as to Obama’s mental states into one historical explanation.  Read the Wikipedia article on that diagnosis, and note that “malignant narcissism” is not in DSM-IV, though narcissistic personality disorder is, and narcissism is a feature of other personality disorders as the authors of DSM-IV defined them. It is conceivable to me that Obama’s family history (especially the abandonment by his father and who-knows-what-relationships with his doting mother and doting grandparents), set him up to be the perfect candidate for ambitious politicians in Chicago, who could count on the incoherent constituencies of the Democratic Party (cultural nationalist minorities, dependents of the welfare state, feminists, gays, veterans of the civil rights movement, liberal Jews, post60s academics and journalists, liberal internationalists) to be taken in by his charisma and passionate promises for a national healing that would reconcile the irreconcilable demands and interests of  his base, an equally apocalyptic change inside the Washington  Beltway, and an avowedly anti-imperialist foreign policy. It makes sense too, in explaining his obvious rage at being criticized and blocked, to suspect that his “narcissistic supplies” are threatened. As for the grandiosity that characterizes the narcissist and other would-be healers or “moderates”, such a high opinion of himself attracts others who aspire to greatness and a cohesive human community, and who therefore tend to idealize him and overlook his contradictory statements and broken promises–for he could not and can not please the diverse elements of the base that elected him and continues to support him. I recall that one analyst of pathological narcissism (Kohut? Kernberg? Klein?) mentions the coexistence of grandiosity and emptiness that exists simultaneously in the same breast.  If you read the Wikipedia article, note that the more power the malignant narcissist gets, the more dangerous he becomes, and the more paranoid. Even if you do not find this suggestion of a pathological personality disorder to be persuasive, and prefer an ideological explanation instead (“transnational progressivism,” postmodern anti-imperialism, crypto-Leninism), there is no way to please everyone in a “mixed economy” that depends on redistribution alone to stave off “disruption” or worse. One must step outside the premises of progressivism with its incoherence and double binds (see https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/). […]

    Pingback by Is POTUS Crazy? « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — April 6, 2010 @ 4:00 pm | Reply

    • A person has to be a narcissist to run for President. Obama’s not at all unique. Narcissism is (was) present in ALL the candidates for President in the postwar period. It comes with the territory. Calling a presidential candidate narcissistic says NOTHING about him (or her).

      What’s evinced in Obama’s books and in David Remnick’s book about him is that he has a strong ego and is able to ignore everyday slights. Most narcissists do not ignore slights anywhere near as well as Obama does. His behavior as president shows little of the the grandiosity of his predecessors.

      What’s frustrating, and perhaps grandiose, is that having gone to the “best schools”, he relies upon those schools far too much for his appointments. Unfortunately the best and the brightest too often have poor political skills. They often are people who have done well in school, but do not do well in work or in life.

      Comment by BigGuy — March 26, 2011 @ 1:18 am | Reply

  10. People in the US today seem ever more ready to entrust the government with more and more power and responsibility, and are either resigned, or to great extent eager, to sacrifice certain aspects of their individual rights and even our collective liberties. They can always find willing and eager advocates among the governing elites who will encourage them, all the while singing warming, soothing lullabies of the overall greater public good in doing so, and promising in the meantime openness and accountability.

    Well, they have to do that. After all, America of the present day is not Germany of the 1920’s and 30’s. Those Germans, while they might have had a tradition of self-determination and responsibility for their everyday individual lives, and insisted on certain basic rights and freedoms, never had a tradition of constitutional guarantees of liberty and recognition of the rights of man, certainly at least nothing with any such specificity as the Bill of Rights.

    Their industriousness was a boon to the state and was encouraged, but they themselves were inculcated from an early age with appeals to patriotism and nationalism and these aspects of their existence overrode any concerns as to any potential loss of individual freedoms or collective liberties. Add to this the abject humiliation visited upon them in the aftermath of WWI, and you had a festering sore in the public psyche that was bound to erupt sooner or later.

    In the US, today, it is considerably different. The appeal is more candy-coated, yet reinforced by varying degrees of hardships visited upon us by some events, many of which should have been foreseeable.

    We have over the years grown fat, indolent, and lazy. We want our bread and circuses, and any appeal to conservative values has to reckon with that. Whereas any appeal to “liberal” (progressive) values is best represented, in a sense, as a promise of the maintenance of the status quo wrapped in the promise of “hope and change”. All of the other dangling little baubles are mere distractions, or in some cases, like in the call for social justice, weapons.

    Liberty becomes a collectivist call for liberation from the forces of reaction, while individual rights are seen as something to be sublimated for the public good-especially for “the good of future generations”. And the state, we are promised, will be the guardian of our prosperity and our future posterity. To that end, we have myriads of regulatory agencies dedicated to the public good, to ensuring the welfare of “the little guy”, or “the common person”, though it always seems to be the proponents of group identity politics who seem to benefit the most from these schemes. In the meantime, such calls to “public service” and self-discipline and hard-work are couched as appeals to patriotism, much like the Germans were presented prior to WWII.

    We haven’t crashed nearly as fast or as hard as the Germans after WWI, so the dialogue isn’t as harsh, but it gets increasingly more so with each passing decade it seems, and we give up a little bit more as a consequence, and are still asked and expected to sacrifice.

    The problem is-and I’m afraid eventually we are going to find this out the hard way-once you have willingly given up your freedom, you can’t just ask for it back.

    Comment by PatrickKelley — March 13, 2010 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  11. […] I first defended Walter Lippmann’s chief ideas from the 1920s and 1930s on a KPFK radio program, then worked up this longer analysis for a discussion group on Humanities Net (the History of Diplomacy). It is archived there, but the material remains timely, as science is always on the defensive. For instance, as I showed in my book, Hunting Captain Ahab: Psychological Warfare and the Melville Revival,  Melville’s character Captain Ahab was appropriated by ”moderately” conservative psychoanalysts and sociologists calling for government psychological warfare during and after World War II, and blaming fascism on Byronic/Ahab-ish puritanism and romanticism, at times recommending the adoption of (Byronic, Ahab-ish, Jewish) Hitler’s astute and effective techniques of mind-management in order to evacuate the Radical Enlightenment (i.e., civil liberties, rational-secular education, the accountability of “experts” directly to the people). One of these, the political scientist Harold Lasswell (featured in my book), is now paired in his Wikipedia entry with Walter Lippmann as a proponent of propaganda designed to make us dependent upon experts, who may not be interrogated by non-experts. Anyone who has read Lippmann’s Liberty and the News, would have to be outraged by this comparison. Meanwhile, Chomsky still draws crowds among the Left and the social psychologists whose antidemocratic policies I have addressed remain unexposed. [Added 3-11-10: Jonah  Goldberg's Liberal Fascism (p.109) similarly misreads Lippmann. He footnotes an apparently damning quote from Public Opinion, but then gives no page number. See https://clarespark.com/2010/03/10/jonah-goldbergs-liberal-fascism-part-one/%5D  […]

    Pingback by Noam Chomsky’s misrepresentation of Walter Lippmann’s chief ideas on manufacturing consent « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 11, 2010 @ 10:33 pm | Reply

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