Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (New York: Doubleday, 2007).
Reviewed by Paul Edward Gottfried
Reading Jonah Goldberg’s sprawling text is for someone of my years a rude encounter with a younger generation, one that knows very little about the history of civilization but which has gained a certain media respectability. Lately I’ve been noticing how such types make factual errors that even the young women confined to secretarial programs in my high school would have blushed had they been discovered committing. Although Jonah may know (unlike my students) in which languages the Bible was composed, his deficient humanistic learning is sometimes as woefully apparent as that of many of my students.
But perhaps I’m being overly harsh. Perhaps in this case we are dealing with a heavy-weight thinker, at least from the standpoint of Jonah’s publishers. Why else would Doubleday encourage him to write this work, a signal honor reserved for a select elite? There are also blurbs on the dustcover from such august personages as Charles Murray, Tom Wolfe, David-Pryce Jones, and Newt Gingrich. If these people consider Jonah to be a serious intellectual historian, who am I to say that he is not? It is likewise to his credit that the “liberal” publishing industry has allowed him to write this book. This must have happened, or so we are led to believe particularly by FOXNews and Heritage, because Jonah’s insights are so deep that even his opponents are forced to recognize them. Of course there are other more palpable explanations for his media success; but without trying to air them, I’ll turn at once to Jonah’s newest scholarly venture.
In Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning gets at least one point right. Although my own work After Liberalism and an early study of John P. Diggings dwells on this point at greater length, Jonah is to be commended for communicating one incontestably true fact: namely that Italian Fascism, until Mussolini unwisely threw in his lot with Hitler in 1936, enjoyed immense support among socialists in the U.S. and Western Europe. For many foreign partisans of Mussolini’s corporatist experiment, fascism looked very much like socialism. And since fascists talked about “national revolutions” and condemned market capitalism, they seemed to the editors of The New Republic, and many others, much like those standing on the left side of History. Well into FDR’s first term, he and his Brain Trusters looked to the Italian model as a usable blue print for “mobilizing” the American people in the face of the Depression. Massive subsidies to reactivate the work force and to carry out public works programs of all kinds were aspects of the New Deal that had already been tried out by the Italian Fascist state. And unlike the Nazi regime, which came to power in 1933 just before FDR’s inauguration, Mussolini did not oppress Jews or impose anything resembling Nazi race laws until after his shift into Hitler’s orbit. As late as 1935, he was the most outspoken and vigorous enemy of Hitler on the European continent.
Having noted what Jonah also notes, the onetime popularity of Fascism among progressive Western journalists and politicians, one should also stress that Fascism was never really a leftist movement. It appealed to authority figures and the Roman past and was unmistakably patriarchal in its understanding of the family and other social relations. And as Renzo DeFelice demonstrates in his multivolume study of Mussolini’s career and administration—an invaluable source that Goldberg didn’t bother to consult even in translation—Fascist government did nothing of significance to change productive forces or to redistribute wealth. It made owners, managers, and workers into contributors to an overarching Fascist order; and it required industrial leaders to consult with Fascist mediators before “releasing workers from their duties.” Workers were then given unemployment compensation or in some cases (in proper Latin style) the owners were bribed into continuing to employ unneeded workers.
Even more important, there is nothing substantive linking Fascism to the “liberal” academics Goldberg goes after in his book. Indeed I would have trouble finding any link between these subjects, save for the fact that “fascism” is now a hated abstraction among leftists and neocons; and so Goldberg can make Democrats angry by calling them “fascists” and by associating them by extension with Hitler’s Third Reich. This may impress the editors at Doubleday or the national media; but as a European intellectual historian, I find that Goldberg’s comparisons are mostly not worth making. The “liberal” faculty whom he ridicules may be uttering nonsense in order to accommodate pet victim groups; they may also be driven by sentiments that neither Jonah nor I would applaud, including a pathological hatred for the extraordinary accomplishments of Western civilization. But such gestures and attitudes have little to do with interwar fascism—and even less to do with the most diabolical and aberrant form taken by that movement in Nazi Germany.
A few examples of Jonah’s random associations Jonah should prove my point. After telling us that Jewish leftist thinker and Hillary advisor Michael Lerner believes that “his new politics of meaning must saturate every cranny and nook of our lives by smashing the compartmentalism of American life” and that “morality, politics, economics and ethics, none of these things can be separated from anything else,” we then learn that “Lerner’s preferred agenda would of course echo many of the guarantees of the Nazi platform of 1920.” Lerner’s ideas are also apparently related to the German Labor Front created by Hitler’s minister Robert Ley, and they are said to bear an ominous resemblance to the “Hegelian idea that freedom could only be realized by living in harmony with the state.” Vegetarianism and ecology are naturally placed at the door of the fascist or Hitlerian state, together with various public works programs that have been advocated by Western liberals and social democrats. Jonah also provides the following string of questionable assertions that may need unpacking: that “many on the left talk about destroying ‘whiteness’ in a way that is more than superficially reminiscent of the National socialist effort to ‘de-Judaize’ German society. Indeed it is telling that a man who oversaw the legal front of this project, Carl Schmitt, is hugely popular among leftist intellectuals.”
If Jonah had bothered to read my relevant monograph or Joseph Bendersky’s English-language biography of Schmitt, he might have learned that Schmitt was never put in charge of ridding the German legal profession of its Jewish members. He merely led a conference in 1934, which Nazi leaders had strongly urged on him, about Jewish overrepresentation among German attorneys. And most, albeit not all, of Schmitt’s exponents have been on the European Right and/or conservative Catholics. It is also doubtful that white Americans who support black temper tantrums and Black Nationalist posturing can be reasonably compared to those European fascists who asserted their claims to national identities. European fascists revered their own national antiquities, whereas liberal supporters of Black Nationalism are driven by masochism and a desire to destroy what they themselves are. As for the association of Hegel and Robert Ley with Michael Lerner, I am totally at a loss to see how any one of these three figures relates in a more than superficial way to the other two. Jonah might just as easily have picked Aristotle and Burke as figures who illustrated the belief in the unity of politics and metaphysics. That belief, by the way, was characteristic of Western thought until the Renaissance, and even afterwards it lingered on among traditionalist thinkers.
Jonah does raise, however naively and on the basis of extremely limited reading, a number of valid points, e.g., about the celebration of the administrative state that formed a conceptual bridge in the interwar period between Left and Right, the dissimilarities between Latin fascism and its gruesome Teutonic imitator, and the overlapping visions of imperialist nationalism cum centralized government shared by Wilsonians and interwar fascists. But such overlaps should not blind us to the differences between fascism and the Big Government Left and (dare I to say) the neoconservatives. Fascism was a movement of the anti-libertarian Right. What made it a force of the Right, to repeat my point one last time, was its emphatic rejection of the principle of equality and its search for social models in antiquity—as opposed to the Left’s vision of an ideal future that might be extended to the entire human race. Jonah might have been able to draw such critical distinctions if he had studied a bit harder. Instead he has aimed at the less exacting goal of becoming a “movement-conservative scholar.”
Paul Gottfried is a professor of the humanities at Elizabethtown College. He is the author of After LIberalism, The Strange Death of Marxism, and, most recently, Conservatism in America.
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