YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

October 8, 2014

Index to blogs on “totalitarianism”

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girltotalitarianReflecting on why this word is so popular, while rejected by many serious scholars: Who historically has been deemed to be after total control of the world? Both “the Jews” a.k.a. “the money power” bent on world domination and 19th century mothers, “expanding their empire over the family.” Is Woman the Jew of the Home?


https://clarespark.com/2013/01/20/an-awesome-inauguration/  [Talmon on nationalism and pageantry]

https://clarespark.com/2013/02/02/totalitarianism-polarization-and-single-issue-politics/  [Especially good for its quote from Jacob Talmon]







October 28, 2013

Hobsbawm, Israel, the totalitarian idea

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EH workers caphttps://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/





And related blogs on totalitarianism





February 2, 2013

“Totalitarianism,” polarization, and single-issue politics

Leninism-picturePolarization. Pundits and politicians today often complain about “polarization” as an obstacle to “compromise,” without acknowledging that there may be irreconcilable conflicts that cannot be mediated, no matter how skillful or flexible the warring parties. However, it is acknowledged that the two major political parties are at odds over the best way to achieve economic growth: Democrats  want Keynesian demand-stimulus and government spending, while conservative Republicans and libertarians want free markets and limited government as the road to prosperity, for it is the private sector that holds their attention, though some of their admired forbears advocated a government safety net (the Friedmans, Hayek). Perhaps we should calm down a bit: there are two capitalist parties, and no one is ideologically inclined to eliminate the other Party, at least not yet.

Single-issue politics. Social movements of the 1960s that piggy-backed off the civil rights movement  (antiwar, feminism, gay rights, animal rights, environmentalism, now Latino/Hispanic rights) are generally supported by liberals, but tend to dismay conservatives, who see such issues as feminism and gay rights as destructive to the family and even causes of cultural decline and coarsening): hence the “culture wars.” And no one is giving an inch, so that single-issue politics tend to polarize us even further, with each side in the various struggles accusing their opponents of authoritarianism, narrow-mindedness or even “totalitarian” tendencies.

Leftists would have to view single-issue politics as mostly disruptive and even a bourgeois distraction to the class struggle, which will, after the revolution, remove all obstacles to the development of the human personality under the new dispensation. Whereas I see these various movements as incommensurate, that is, they should be treated as separate entities with different histories and implications for how we manage the economy. They should not be jumbled together or even compared to the struggle of black Americans to achieve equality of opportunity.

Totalitarianism. I asked some of my Facebook friends to explain what they meant by “totalitarianism.” They agreed that it signified a kind of statism that would go beyond anything we have now in the West, eliminating all civil liberties, freedom of speech, etc. Nearly all read Orwell, and already feel the heat of Big Brother in some tendencies of the Obama administration, or even in the social movements mentioned above insofar as they impose PC or are alarmingly “secular.” Orwell was unenthused over “secularism” too: see https://clarespark.com/2015/01/22/orwells-wartime-essays-some-surprises/. Meanwhile, pundits of the Right and even the middle, tend to use “totalitarianism” in a manner that equates Soviet Communism and Nazi Germany as functional equivalents, which Orwell did not, hoping for an English “Socialism.” (Orwell did see Socialism as an ongoing theme in Nazi Germany, but he was mistaken. (See https://clarespark.com/2014/12/10/were-nazis-socialists/.) For other writers, the Holocaust is viewed as terrible, but a distraction from the millions of victims under the Soviet Union and Communist China.

In his conclusions to The Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution: Ideological Polarization in the Twentieth Century (UC Press, 1981, Transaction Press paperback ed., 1991) Jacob Talmon does not equate the terror states of Nazis and the Soviets, reducing each to a kind of ultra–statism, though both regimes had to resort to terror in order to discipline their constituencies. They had different historical trajectories as I have constantly argued here before. Nazis regressed to the brutalities of the archaic and to feudal social relations, while Reds believed they were emancipating the lower orders from the modern world as directed by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Reds would complete the unfulfilled bourgeois project, while Nazism was a counter-revolution. (Irving Louis Horowitz appropriates Talmon to paper over the polarities that Talmon emphasizes between Nazis and Soviets, in my view, because Horowitz is allied with such as Hannah Arendt. Page numbers below are from the Transaction Press version.)

Several years ago, I vehemently 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 Hobsbawm’s  tetralogy on modernity that does find communism to be an outgrowth of the Enlightenment and of the bourgeois revolution that the French mounted in 1789, but certainly not Fascism or Nazism. (See https://clarespark.com/2012/11/23/historians-vs-pundits-the-eric-hobsbawm-synthesis/, https://clarespark.com/2013/01/15/golden-globes-lincoln-clinton-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/22/my-oppositional-defiant-disorder-and-eric-hobsbawm/, https://clarespark.com/2012/12/08/hobsbawm-obama-israel/) .

The redoubtable historian Jacob Talmon covered the same period as Eric Hobsbawm, but from a liberal anti-communist point of view. He faults both Leninism and the various fascisms for erasing the conception of humanity and the value of the individual, but would never agree with Jonah Goldberg that progressivism was a precursor to a kind of “liberal fascism”, i.e. to the excessive statism that alarms the Republican Party, libertarians, and some of the writers for National Review.

Jacob Talmon Stamps

Jonah Goldberg, a popular writer, was in over his head.

Here is an example of what Talmon means by “totalitarianism” in the drive toward Soviet bureaucratic centralism or “totalitarian democracy” : “Lenin experienced that sense of movement, of the eternal tug of war, of unbridgeable contradictions, of the approaching crisis, with an intensity and urgency unmatched by anyone in his circle….movement, contradiction, conflict, breakthrough, change were to him encased in an evolving totality held together by the iron-cast law of historical inevitability. The irresistible march of history could neither be affected nor could be allowed to be interfered with by human arbitrariness, caprice, preferences, feelings, sentiments, residual inhibitions.” (p.339) In Lenin’s historical imagination, the bourgeoisie (finance capital) was the oppressor standing in the way of the development of “personality.” A dictatorship of the proletariat” would destroy the bourgeoisie, thus going all the way to fulfilling the promise of Enlightenment and its liberation of thought.

For these authors, “totalitarianism” is less about total control, but rather a “breakthrough,” a “vision of revolution” that seeks to overturn the world as it exists in its totality. Totality is the essence of the world “totalitarian.”  Nazism overthrows the German Right and the Weimar social democrats, while celebrating neo-feudal social relations, with the Leader directing the organic racially purified “people’s community” (the integral Nation). By contrast, communism imagines an international working class proletarian brotherhood, who have abolished nationalism, imperialism, and capitalism. Without these evil “isms” all people would be able to develop a full individuality. But the fascisms deter anything smacking of the individual, glorifying instead the State/Party/as the embodiment of the people’s community. For Mussolini there was nothing outside the State, and the State would work its coercive magic on the sindicati (He had once been a revolutionary Syndicalist, influenced by George Sorel, and his masculinist cult of violence and war.)

(Hitler’s volkischness would be enlarged globally so that each state, under German leadership, would be its own racially pure polity, but his war aims were mostly directed to stopping the  Soviets and expanding into the Slavic areas that were bread  baskets; that would entail enslaving the inferior Slavs.)

Populism. But everyone, Populist-Progressives, anarchists, George Sorel, and all the anticapitalists in Europe, including Nazis and Leninists alike, hated the rule of money, going so far as to stigmatize “economic determinism” as a Jewish imposition. For  Lenin. insofar as he was influenced by J. A.  Hobson,  finance capital was seen as a Jewish plot to take over the world (see https://clarespark.com/2009/09/18/bad-sex-in-the-new-york-times/, and Talmon pp. 204, 439, 473-74 and passim); for Hitler, “Jewish Bolshevism” was a front for finance capital (also “Jewish”) and worse, the Jews were the “anti-race,” for they valued, from antiquity onward, humanity as one species: Talmon insists on this.

We should get our history straightened out, recognizing the stunted political imagination that the careless use of political language imposes. Now that defiled brain is a species of terror. And it feels “totalitarian” to me.

January 20, 2013

An awesome Inauguration

Nation_cover_journalismHere are two paragraphs from the late Jacob L. Talmon’s final book on political messianism (Myth of the Nation and Vision of Revolution):

“The general and increasing preoccupation with the nation’s rights, needs and grievances, the brooding over its identity and its past, its fate and its manifest destiny, the reflections on its moments of glory and its failures and defeats were every case a journey into bygone ages, a reckoning with ancestors, a communing with the myth of the nation. No wonder the [19th] century produced such a flowering of the historical sciences and of a literature and art that set out to serve as a mirror to the nation’s soul and a portrait of its modes of existence. National cults grew up and spread, replete with myths, symbols, rites, liturgy, commemoration, and heroes and saint’s days, parades and displays, artistic effects and hypnotic suggestiveness. [Compare to today’s pageantry and the invocation of the Nation, https://clarespark.com/2013/01/21/citizen-obama-political-pluralism-and-the-elusive-search-for-unity/. CS, 1-21-13]

“All these tendencies fed upon and in turn promoted the far-reaching change in the image of man from that bequeathed by the Enlightenment. Far from constituting the basic element and goal of society, from being his own autonomous lawgiver and free and equal partner to the social contract, as he was seen in the eighteenth century, man was made to appear more and more a function of collective forces, past traditions, the social setting, the organizational framework, the spirit of the nation, the Zeitgeist, the milieu, group mentality, finally the race. No longer a free agent in making choices, the individual was shown to be in the grip of compulsive urges and aversions, automatically re-enacting ingrained modes of behavior and reflexes. In brief, the individual was portrayed as the plaything of the unconscious and the hereditary, a mere abstraction when pitted against the collective forces deposited in the whole to which he belonged, above all, in the nation [Talmon is not referring to Freud here, but probably to Pareto, a great favorite of some Harvard professors in the 1930s, CS]. Not man, therefore, but the nation, was the measure of all things, and the dominion of the dead was depicted as infinitely more potent than the deliberate decisions of the living. Indeed, this state of affairs was made the condition of social cohesion, political stability and the health of the nation. …Every nation was a world of its own, a unique blend. Since it fashioned countless men and determined their fate and well-being, the nation’s interests, the imperatives of its particular situation, the conditions favoring its survival, cohesion, strength and influence contained its truth, morality and justice. The latter were perspectives, not objective data.” (my emphasis, pp. 544-545)

Talmon associates these counter-Enlightenment tendencies as culminating in “integral nationalism” a characteristic of both Fascism and Nazism. If Talmon’s analysis is correct, then multiculturalism and perspectivism, inventions of the rooted cosmopolitans of Germany (Herder  and his followers) who greatly influenced 20th century pedagogy in America, should be seen in the strategy of the “moderate” Right, not to either classical liberalism or to  libertarianism in either major political party, or in the scholarly search for truth.


How then should we see Fox News Channel’s coverage of the second Obama inauguration?  Is this supposed vindication of the eighteenth century Constitution awesome, as in remarkable and admirable, or should we return to the words original meaning: awe-inspiring as terrifying. As Charles Sumner awesomely asked in the nineteenth century “Are We A Nation?” And how do we know (e.g. this weekend) when we are not fascists?  See (https://clarespark.com/2012/01/28/popular-sovereignty-on-the-ropes/)

October 15, 2012

Orwell, Power, and the ‘Totalitarian’ State

[Updated 6-4-13:] This blog has three purposes: 1. To demonstrate that there is no such thing as “power” as an end in itself, and in Orwell’s most famous book, his villain O’Brien explicitly makes mind-control the chief end of the Inner Party. But in doing that he separates mind from body, suggesting that Orwell was never a materialist, in contrast to Freud and his materialist followers. In prior research, I noted that the formulation of “the will to power” (as an end in itself) was asserted by aristocrats, like Nietzsche, critical of the rising middle class, of rising women, and of the “jewified” bourgeoisie in general. 2. To suggest that social democrats fastened onto the term “totalitarian” (invented by Italian Fascists) in order to distinguish themselves from rival statists, whether these be fascists or communists. It is my contention (and here I find both Eric Hobsbawm and Jacob Talmon very helpful) that fascists and communists had antithetical orientations to the Enlightenment, notwithstanding their terroristic methods and lack of regard for dissent. But communists acquired adherents among artists, for instance, because they promised emancipation from the philistine bourgeoisie and the commodification imposed by “capitalism.” That Bolsheviks (including Trotsky) did not deliver on this promise is often forgotten by today’s New Left and the counter-culture with which it is in alliance. 3. To suggest that George Orwell was taken up by British social democrats, even though he was obviously concerned about the direction of the (anticommunist) British Labour Party as he wrote his last book. The companion piece to this blog is https://clarespark.com/2013/04/21/fascism-what-it-is-what-it-is-not/.]

One of the chief claims of Orwell’s 1984 is that, for the Inner Party (the state terrorists who destroy the autonomy of Winston Smith–one of the Outer Party intellectuals who writes history according to the ideological needs of Big Brother, but who struggles to maintain his inner freedom– the aim of O’Brien and his cohort is to maintain power for its own sake. Such an attachment to total control as an end in itself is a symptom of the ‘totalitarian state’, i.e. Nazi Germany and its supposed twin, the Soviet Union. “O’Brien” makes this explicit as he tortures Winston Smith:

[Part 3, Chapter 2:] “The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just round the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means, it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?’ [O’Brien]

…’We are the priests of power,’ he said. ‘God is power. But at present power is only a word so far as you are concerned. It is time for you to gather some idea of what power means. The first thing you must realize is that power is collective. The individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual. You know the Party slogan: “Freedom is Slavery”. Has it ever occurred to you that it is reversible? Slavery is freedom. Alone — free — the human being is always defeated. It must be so, because every human being is doomed to die, which is the greatest of all failures. But if he can make complete, utter submission, if he can escape from his identity, if he can merge himself in the Party so that he is the Party, then he is all-powerful and immortal. The second thing for you to realize is that power is power over human beings. Over the body but, above all, over the mind. Power over matter — external reality, as you would call it — is not important. Already our control over matter is absolute.’” [End, excerpt from 1984, my emph.]

However, the fact that both loathsome dictatorships murdered millions of their own and warred with rival peoples, does not justify lumping them together as if each had exactly the same historical trajectory; as if each and every member of the Third Reich or the Soviet Union was successfully inveigled to love Big Brother. Indeed, Orwell may have been criticizing capitalism, not some variant of socialism, so as not to become commodified in a world where every human relationship is on the market, measured by “the [Jewish] money power,” as the broken Winston recites ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree /I sold you and you sold me –‘.

It is my suggestion that “totalitarianism” as a conception (from Italian Fascism, coined by Giovanni Gentile) was adopted by social democrats in order to remove the stain of proto-fascism from themselves. Hence, in opposition to these admittedly violent dictatorships, they could grab the flag of freedom, while conflating Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union as structurally equivalent tyrannies, and as predictable outcomes of the Enlightenment. Such a strategy was brilliant, for it constructed statist New Dealers in America as the polar opposites of the hated dictators, notwithstanding the New Deal’s social policy rejection of the Enlightenment conception of the autonomous individual in favor of collectivist political identities and rule by Platonic guardians. (For more on the “integral nation” see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/20/an-awesome-inauguration/.) Indeed, many of Roosevelt’s social psychologists and sociologists were busy looting Hitler’s remarkable sykewar arsenal, admiring Hitler’s management of “the little man” whom they held responsible for his popular appeal. (For examples, see https://clarespark.com/2012/09/05/proto-fascism-and-the-democrat-peoples-community/, https://clarespark.com/2009/12/13/klara-hitlers-son-and-jewish-blood/, https://clarespark.com/2010/04/18/links-to-nazi-sykewar-american-style/.)

And so it is with numerous academic studies of Orwell, written by members of the British Labour Party,  in which the word “totalitarianism” is thrown around (or, in one case, was seen as somewhat old hat, as a Cold War strategy that became passé after the 1950s, yet the word was used by this academic). Similarly, they do not question the notion of “power” as an end in itself, which of course, in their emotional identification with “the working class,” they wholeheartedly reject.

Are these Labourite authors both narcissistic and statist (as one friend suggested today)? Reading British Labourites on the Orwell problem,* I tend to agree with the view that statists are narcissistic. Like George Orwell, they imagine “the working class” as one happy, warmly attached family, lodged in its compassionate, emotionally expressive, and self-enclosed “community.” So Orwell’s greatest quality is his identification with such working-class communities, where egalitarianism reigns supreme. Perhaps this confusion of themselves with working class students whom they teach,  is a projection of their own grandiosity as advocates of the (hypermoral) planning state.

Why do I then reject the  notion of “power” as an end in itself? First, the word power is abstract and empty. It only has content with respect to “power” over something. As I read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) and then 1984 (1949), I was struck by his belaboring of the theme of dirt and smell, all the while imagining that working class folk in Spain or in a future Britain, had the gift of comradeship and a lust for life, something missing in his own family and in his schooling. He also belabored/glorified suffering along with the total control exerted by his villains: in this he reminded me of a practicing sadomasochist (Steadman Thompson) in middle management whose collages and fantasies I examined in the Sadomasochism collection at UCLA Special Collections. Like Orwell in his latter years, S.T. believed that revolutions were pointless in that masters and slaves simply changed places, with former slaves becoming as brutal as the former ruling class. Second, the only character in the history and mythology of “the West” who wants power for its own sake is the Devil. One cannot argue across religious lines.

The persistent theme in S. T.’s writing was this: once he had subjected himself to caning or whipping by a maternal dominatrix, he was restored to the lap of the good parent. (See https://clarespark.com/2009/07/13/eros-and-the-middle-manager-s-m-with-implications-for-multiculturalism/.) Of all the biographies I have read, only Jeffrey Meyers has emphasized the masochistic elements of Orwell’s personality, but even Meyers does not report the tedious quality of  the early pages of Homage to Catalonia, dwelling as they do on the repulsive aspects of trench warfare in northern Spain for page after page. However, Meyers’s biography does pick up on the suicidal tendencies of Orwell’s management of his own health.

We don’t see often enough that middle managers (college professors or high school teachers) are masochistic insofar as they submit to the bullying direction of their superiors, but sadistic in depriving their students or the workers whom they manage of the skills necessary to reject illegitimate authority. By crippling their students of the power to think, and to see the inseparability of mind and matter, they are minor league O’Briens. (It is materialists like myself who insist on the unity of mind and body.)

From the vantage point of my years, I have often seen the desire for boys and girls alike to control Mothers—mothers who may cling indefinitely, or who, conversely, may separate too crudely and quickly from their small children. It is in such twisted experiences of early childhood that we might find the appeal of “power as an end in itself” or the notion of totalitarianism itself. The abandoned child wants to control straying Mother, while the suffocated child needs to push Mother away.  But in the real world of adulthood, such maternal imagos may not have the power imagined by Orwell or by his character, “the Last Man in Europe.”  The antimodernist Orwell, who sees Nature as a maternal refuge, apparently even in the hostile, punishing Hebrides, was emotionally and politically confused. One of his critics should point this out. Stephen Ingle’s second book makes a stab at the political confusions, but is limited by his “ethical socialist” commitments. But we must not forget that Orwell was worried about central planning by the new managerial class, as warned by James Burnham. I don’t want to psychologize this structural change and thus reduce it to family relations alone.

Owell passport photo

*Orwell’s 1984 was welcomed by rightists and Cold Warriors in 1949 and afterwards as proof that Orwell, as in Animal Farm, had exposed the bogus democratic pretensions of the Soviet Union. Much of the voluminous subsequent academic scholarship was devoted to retrieving Orwell for the “socialists” in Britain, not that these authors were themselves unequivocal in the accomplishments of the British Labour Party.


Brunsdale,  Mitzi M. Student Companion to George Orwell. Greenwood Press, 2000.

Hitchens, Christopher. Why Orwell Matters. Basic Books, 2002.

Ingle, Stephen. George Orwell: A Political Life. Manchester UP, 1993.

__________. The Social and Political Thought of George Orwell: A reassessment. Routledge, 2006.

Meyers, Jeffrey. Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation. Norton, 2000.

Newsinger, John. Orwell’s Politics. Macmillan, 1999.

Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. Secker and Warburg, 1986.

__________. 1984. (Read online)

Rai, Alok. Orwell and the Politics of Despair. Cambridge UP, 1988. Chapter two is devoted to tracking the conception of totalitarianism, which he traces back to Giovanni Gentile, Mussolini’s confederate and a major figure in Italian Fascism.

September 5, 2012

Proto-fascism and the Democrat “people’s community”

Postcard Fiume 1921

I had already listed most of the incoherent elements in the Democratic Party base right here: https://clarespark.com/2012/04/06/diagnosing-potus/.  Historians are all aware that jamming competing interest groups into one “community” is a symptom of authoritarian control, even proto-fascist in its determination to create harmony through coercion from above. Sadly, we are not taught about fascism’s appeal in the 1920s and 1930s, extending even to the ever-more-statist New Deal in America. And even to use the term “proto-fascist” calls down obloquy on the “hothead” critic; in this case, that hothead is I.  And Christopher Hitchens, with his eagle eye for fascist ideology, is dead, while the moderate men are fearful of being labeled “extremist” in their denunciations of the obvious turn to an autocratic, illiberal regime that parades under the flag of inclusiveness—a new multicultural VOLK. (For a lucid explanation of the organic nation beloved of the far right see https://clarespark.com/2013/01/20/an-awesome-inauguration/, in which I quote Jacob Talmon’s clear explanation of that term.)

For instance, what have these occupations in common: government bureaucrats, doctors, nurses, college professors, kindergarten teachers, union bosses, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, entertainers, farmers, steel workers, single women climbing the corporate ladder, ditch diggers, domestics, and small business persons (to name a few)? Has the old antagonism between big cities and rural areas disappeared? Yet the rainbow-colored Democratic Party has absorbed them into one potentially happy family, striving together, praying together, if only we give POTUS and Mom-in-Chief the time they need to complete the Leader’s mission.

In today’s blog, I will take note of Michelle Obama’s speech, already noted by some commentators as deifying of her husband and promoting Big Government as the solution to the very survival of blacks and browns, Asians, Muslims, and single women. (I don’t include Jews because Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has been deleted from the Party platform.) Obamacare stands not only for universal health coverage, but for a caring, ever truthful watchbird State that prepares all its citizens for peace and safety and the defeat of want.

First, some history. Michelle Obama’s Princeton honors thesis was a cry for more resources devoted to  separatist black studies programs at her university, and her tiny bibliography started with a book by black nationalist leaders. She was explicitly anxious about upward mobility for blacks like herself, because her ties with [the black community] would be attenuated.

The First Lady has made a remarkable adjustment from the days when she was definitely not proud of her country and its white-dominated elite institutions. Last night was a paean to a unified polity if it would only stay on the track the Democratic Party had laid down– the first, “first family”–a new people’s community, a plumped up “middle class” devoted to the health and welfare of racial minorities, women, children, and the poor. All are indebted to The Leader, a man of the People who intuits their every need, and who takes note of every fallen sparrow, and if necessary, would be justified in ruling by decree.

She did not have to name the “one percent” as the enemy of the renewed beloved community, for thousands of ideologues had already prepared the ground for that moniker. We all know who and what the enemy is: those Randian Wall Street big liars out to get the little guy (“the middle class”) and who are pouring their ill-gotten billions into Republican coffers. Populism was Hitler’s ticket to power, and don’t forget it.

[Illustrated: poet and journalist Gabriele D’Annunzio, sometimes viewed as a precursor to Mussolini (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gabriele_d’Annunzio).]

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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