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/.]

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