Review of Liberal Fascism Spies Mainstream Mussolinis
Regarding Change: Liberals Drink Deeply From Fascist Well
By Angus J.L. Menuge
When self-styled progressives denounce conservative ideas and programs, the single word fascist is a convenient way to end debate and demand action. For example, Frank Schaeffer, the apostate son of the great Francis Schaeffer, declares that in Sarah Palin, “We have seen the next Mussolini and she’s wearing a skirt,” labeling her a “lipstick fascist.”
Jonah Goldberg’s new book Liberal Fascism builds on Veith’s insight, making a strong case for the conclusion that it is progressives themselves who have drunk most deeply from the fascist well. Theirs, to be sure, is a nicer fascism, a liberal fascism, but a surprisingly large number of the core teachings of Mussolini and Hitler are still recognizable.
Why the Misused Label?
Aside from the outright historical amnesia common to contemporary culture, a major reason for the current misuse of the “fascist” label is the confusion of period propaganda with actual history. Everyone knows that the fascists of Italy and Germany were rivals of the communists, and most know that it was the favorite ploy of communists to denounce the fascists as beholden to corporate interests.
This makes it easy to conclude that fascism was a right-wing movement.
However, as the historical records of specific policies show, most of the planks of fascism were the same as the communist agenda: equal rights, guaranteed employment, worker benefits and healthcare, the nationalization of industry, improved state education. Both movements were concerned for the proletariat, the “forgotten man” (145-149), both aimed to abolish the traditional class system, and both sought to perfect society under the direction of a new class of experts.
The main contrast, however, was that Marxism promoted a world-wide revolutionary movement focused on humanity as a whole, while fascism emphasized the national socialism of a particular people or “Volk.”
Goldberg shows convincingly that fascists and communists should not be understood as the opposites they sometimes portrayed each other as being in their polemic, but as sibling rivals disagreeing on the best way of implementing leftist goals (74-75).
Goldberg further establishes the fact that fascists such as Mussolini (ch. 1) and Hitler (ch. 2) were leftists by examining the content of their programs (an appendix includes the unaltered Nazi platform of 1920, much of which agrees with the progressive ideals of the welfare state), and by documenting how progressive presidents like Woodrow Wilson (ch. 3) and Franklin Roosevelt (ch. 4) drew heavily on fascist ideas.
Some will be surprised to read primary source quotations demonstrating that leading proponents of America’s New Deal openly admired and emulated Mussolini’s political experiment.
These ideas, Goldberg argues, became so mainstream in the 1960s (chs. 5 and 6) that they now comprise a kind of “unconscious fascism” (303), manifest not only in the statist writings of Hillary Clinton (ch. 9), but also in the popular culture, for example, in the fascist themes of movies like American Beauty and V for Vendetta (ch. 10).
This makes it easy for Barack Obama to champion a new New Deal (mentioned 9 times in his book The Audacity of Hope) as the solution to our economic woes, without anyone recalling the connections between Roosevelt’s and Hitler’s “new deal” (122, 130-131) and the more sinister sides of Roosevelt’s authoritarian statism.
Coins Liberal Fascism
Those who have not read Goldberg’s book may fear that liberal fascism is a term concocted by the author to smear his political opponents. In fact, it was coined by that quintessentially progressive champion of scientific materialism and one-world government H.G. Wells.
In 1932, Wells gave an important speech at Oxford University, which called for a new kind of liberalism, a “Liberal Fascism,” with “enlightened Nazis” (134-135). Goldberg shows that many of the ideas that both then and now are considered progressive were borrowed from the fascists. Today, for example, the idea of the omnicompetent state as the exclusive object of every citizen’s allegiance is very much in vogue among liberals, yet it was Mussolini who proposed the key idea: “Everything in the State, nothing outside the State” (80).
What is more, there are a number of common themes connecting fascist thought with contemporary liberal ideology. There is a shared emphasis on pragmatism (tradition and dogma do not matter, only what works) and action (not critical deliberation), including disturbing parallels between the youth culture of the 1960s and Nazi youth culture (177-200). There is an uncritical scientism (81) which supposes that experts can shape human nature to serve the interests of the modern state by a method of experimentation and unbounded “change” (132). (Now, where have we heard that mantra, recently?)
The best way to justify increased state control is war, or failing that, some national crisis that justifies a metaphorical war. Not only Hitler but also Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt saw war as “the midwife of progress” (99).
It is a shocking truth that in the 1920s and 30s, American progressives were the real social Darwinists. They believed in eugenics. They were imperialists. They were convinced that the state could, through planning and pressure, create a pure race, a society of new men. They were openly and proudly hostile to individualism. Religion was a political tool, while politics was the true religion (81).
If allegiance to the modern state is the highest obligation, it is not surprising that fascists and progressives alike have attacked the family. While he was president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson declared that “Our problem is . . . to make [students] as unlike their fathers as we can” (88).
While being pro-family often elicits the “fascist” label today, the Nazis were opposed to the family –- and not merely because unregulated unions led to unfit offspring. The larger issue was that the “traditional family is the enemy of all political totalitarianisms because it is a bastion of loyalties separate from and prior to the state,” the same reason statist progressives like Hillary Clinton “are constantly trying to crack its outer shell” (377).
While today’s progressives are frequently pacifist, they continue the tradition of “crises,” such as Al Gore’s global warming or European disdain for American foreign policies, which cannot be debated because the time for government action is now.
They might not describe themselves as eugenicists, but they continue to see abortion as a social good, and virtually any manipulation of the human genome as justified. Like the Nazis, they also tend to worship a romanticized nature and to be obsessed with the purity of food. Also like the Nazis, progressives advocate a “politics of meaning” (328-338), which assumes that individuals are incapable of flourishing outside of collectivist projects.
Both fascists and progressives find it expedient to be disingenuous in the propagation of their ideas. There is an outer core of ideas for popular consumption, surrounding an inner core circulated among the elect.
For example, fascists and progressives encounter resistance when they express their true contempt for revealed religion. So the attempt is made to accommodate broadly religious themes to the agenda of the state (216-217), emasculating any specific teachings of the religion (e.g., on the sanctity of human life) that are inconvenient. This creates the external impression that progressive ideas are the outworking of faith, while in reality, religion is being co-opted by a divinized state (219).
Another example is the economy-culture two-step dance used to wrong-foot conservative critics: “When conservatives have the upper hand on a cultural issue, liberalism is all about . . . paychecks and healthcare [economic justice]. But on offense, it’s about racial quotas, mainstreaming gay culture, scrubbing the public square of Christianity, and a host of explicitly cultural ambitions” (359).
When one traces the history of progressive thought, the inevitable conclusion is that many of today’s progressives have been deceived by the propaganda of their ideological forbears. Rhetoric designed to deceive those on the outside of the movement is now widely believed by its proudest members.
This makes it possible for contemporary progressives to advance the welfare state (262-270), abortion (270-277), and identity politics (277-282) as enlightened liberal causes –- and to criticize any one of which is deemed to be a fascist, even though all three causes have disturbing connections to fascism. Yet, as Goldberg admits in his afterword, many self-styled conservatives have also boarded the statist juggernaut, promoting an ever larger role for government as a surrogate parent.
Goldberg has done a tremendous service to contemporary political discussions by providing the hard evidence (including such primary sources as period speeches and letters) showing the clear historical connections between specific fascist objectives and contemporary liberalism.
Unsurprisingly, some argue that the book is unfair. For example, Michael Mann, a professor of sociology at UCLA, suggests that the essence of fascism is “violence and authoritarianism,” something not evident in liberals today.
But this misses Goldberg’s point. Goldberg frequently insists that today’s progressives do not endorse the ugly behaviors of earlier fascists. His point, like Veith’s, is that fascism is an identifiable philosophy, most of whose principles are supported in some form by progressives today.
And those principles are as socially destructive as ever.
Angus Menuge is Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Wisconsin, the author of Agents Under Fire: Materialism and the Rationality of Science (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004) and editor of Christ and Culture in Dialogue (Concordia Academic Press, 1999) and Reading God’s World: The Scientific Vocation (Concordia Publishing House, 2004). Article published Nov. 17, 2008.