Monday, January 21, 2008

Liberal Fascism

I understand that Jonah Goldberg has written a new book arguing that fascism is really liberalism and vice versa. Given the dog bites man topic, I'm not surprised by the relative lack of attention given to it.

Yes, I'm kidding. I haven't read the book, but in reading much of the back and forth over the book, a couple of things strike me. First, at a very superficial level, Goldberg is right that early 20th century Progressives and fascists shared more than a few similarities. The closest thing to fascism in the U.S. history was probably the Wilson administration, with its racial segregation, suppression of dissent, trampling of civil liberties, persecution of aliens, and mania for state control of the economy during World War I. But while this was the closest thing to fascism in U.S. history, it wasn't fascism, not by a long shot. At its worst, the Wilson administration never crossed the line into real fascism by rejecting basic democratic norms like free elections, opposition parties, an independent judiciary, etc. I don't have much good to say about Woodrow Wilson, but I have no problem distinguishing between him and Adolph Hitler.

Furthermore, even if Goldberg is partially right when it comes to the early Progressives and the Wilson administration, he misses a significant transformation in liberal/progressive thinking in the 1930s and 1940s. As historians like Alan Brinkley and David Ciepley have shown, liberals looked as fascism, saw some uncomfortable similarities, and responded by reforming liberalism to remove those similarities. Liberalism became much less statist and much more concerned about individual rights. This ideological transformation tracked along the transformation of the Democratic party from a primarily Southern, agrarian party to a northern, urban party.


rootlesscosmo said...

If you reduce fascism to what the Nazis called Gleichschaltung--the "coordination" of the economy and social organization under a one-party state vested with irresponsible authority--then sure, there are resemblances with Wilson (who nationalized the railroads) and with the early New Deal, especially the NRA; in 1934 William Gropper drew a famous New Masses cover showing the blue eagle morphing into a swastika.

One important reason that quasi-fascist strain didn't develop further, I think, is that the Communist-led Left, with the Comintern and the USSR behind it, stopped calling FDR a social fascist and climbed aboard the Popular Front bandwagon, which meant a Left-influenced labor upsurge, the CIO, could ultimately be "gleichgeschaltet" via the Wagner Act and the War Labor Board, though obviously not without some pretty bitter fights along the way. Real fascism, I think (and I hope Robert Saxton would agree) is always a response to a real or perceived threat of Communist revolution; once that's neutralized, the resort to fascism seems unwarranted. In the case of the US--and maybe France--the neutralization was self-imposed.

Chris D. said...

Wow. That's the most laid back and effect rebuttal of Goldberg I've seen yet. He's following the same career arc as D'Souza and Coulter before him. Right now he's on the upslope, but he'll soon jump the shark if he doesn't watch out.

As far as fascism goes, I've always preferred Eco's description of its characteristics. It is an eternal undercurrent to our politics. It is rarely a set of formal policies, but, rather, an approach to governance. You know it when you see it.

Geoff Robinson said...

Fascism was a response to the challenge of socialism by some conservatives and right-wing liberals. They argued that the socialist critique of capitalism did raise some valid points but that socialism offered no solution. They were the 'neo-conservatives' of their era including some former left-wingers and sceptical of the free-market right. Social liberals and progressives responded to the challenge of socialism but quite differently.

jjv said...

I'm reading the book now. I disagree that in Italy fascism did not attract men of the Left, as Mr. Robinson argues. However, Prof. Klinker makes an excellant point. I think particularly in the area of Supreme Court decisions the "liberal" consensus to destroy individual economic liberties in the 30's, 40's very quickly seemed problematic after the experience of WWII and the same justices oft-times switched to an individual rights model (footnote in Carolene Products gone mad)we still suffer under (see Roe).

Also, it seems pretty clear to me the Health Liberalism we now have to endure owes a lot to various strains of totalitarianism. Every time I encounter it I see those huge fields of communists or fascists doing calisthenics.

Dave S. said...

Mr. Robinson in fact notes that the Fascists "included some former left-wingers," so there doesn't seem to be any disagreement there.

Re "Health Liberalism" (Liberal Healthism? Call your publisher!), perhaps it is more of a case of totalitarianism and [whatever JJV wishes HL to be] having similar forebears. I picture a branching more than a linear progression. Regarding JJV's vision of vast fields of exercising totalitarians, I recommend that he repair to the nearest optometrist, hopefully before it gets taken over by Leviathan and they make everyone wear those 60s two-tone frames. (Why do you think I'm getting Lasik?)

Tweedy said...

See also Brian Leiter (philosophy, Chicago) about the Goldberg book: