From the January 4, 2008 New York Sun
January 7, 2008
by Ronald Radosh
For decades, the left has used the term "fascist" to attack just about anyone they disagree with. That behavior continues: The feminist author Naomi Wolf has recently come out with a book condemning what she calls the "fascist shift" in America, in which she describes the 10 steps she thinks America is taking that lead to fascism. (Of course, to Ms. Wolf the no. 1 fascist is President Bush.) Before her, the liberal journalist Joe Conason wrote a book titled "It Can Happen Here" — what could happen, of course, was American fascism emanating from the Bush administration. And the journalist Chris Hedges argued that the Christian right was composed of nothing but "American Fascists" — indeed the very title of his book on the subject.
Now, from the conservative side, Jonah Goldberg — who is rightfully fed up with the left's regularly and somewhat indiscriminately calling conservatives fascist — turns the tide by addressing the issue head on, in "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning" (Doubleday, 467 pages, $27.95). Not only is it a slander to yell fascist at the right; Mr. Goldberg presents a strong and compelling case that the very idea of fascism emanated from the ranks of liberalism. As he argues, contemporary liberalism descended from the ranks of 20th-century progressivism, and "shares intellectual roots with European fascism."
When Mr. Goldberg uses the term "liberal fascism," he is not offering a right-wing version of the left's smears. He knows it is a loaded term. What he is talking about is the historical idea of fascism: a corporatist and statist social structure that creates a deep reliance of its subjects on the government and engenders a sense of community and purpose. In American politics, this tendency toward statism has always been much more at home on the left than on the right.
It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the rich intellectual history of American liberalism that Mr. Goldberg offers to his readers. He has read widely and thoroughly, not only in the primary sources of fascism, but in the political and intellectual history written by the major historians of the subject.
Readers will learn that the very term "liberal fascism" came from the pen of H.G. Wells, the famed socialist author who delivered a speech at Oxford University in 1932 that included hosannas to both Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. "I am asking," Wells told the students, "for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis." Democracy, he argued, had to be replaced with new forms of government that would save mankind, producing a "'Phoenix Rebirth' of liberalism" that would be called "Liberal Fascism." Like the activism, experimentation, and discipline that made the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany new dynamic societies, the West too could reach such a plateau by adopting the new soft fascism that suited it best.
Wells was not unique in offering this call to liberals. In giving us a true alternative history of modern liberalism, Mr. Goldberg shows how the ideological roots of fascism were liberal and left-wing, as were some of fascism's early proponents, especially in the Italy of Benito Mussolini. Most of us today forget that Mussolini, to his dying day, considered himself a man of the left and a socialist, who through nationalism and the corporatist reorganization of the polity sought to modernize a dying, 19th-century liberalism. Many will nevertheless be surprised to find that Mussolini's large band of admirers included the journalist Herbert Matthews, the comic Will Rogers, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the historian Charles Beard, and the muckraker Lincoln Steffens. It only strengthens his case to find that one person Mr. Goldberg leaves out, the founding father of American trade unionism, Samuel Gompers, praised Mussolini's creation of a new corporate state as a guide for American labor, and as a model for American society as a whole.
Indeed, America, as Mr. Goldberg writes, certainly had a "Fascist moment." It was not, however, during the current presidency, but one that extended from progressivism through the New Deal. Mr. Goldberg traces the American roots of liberal fascism to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who saw increased state power as an organic and natural development. His administration's War Industries Board laid the basis for future government-industry regulatory agencies that tied business to the new corporate state. Later on Mr. Goldberg reveals how Herbert Croly, who founded the New Republic as the preeminent journal of the new liberalism, presented classic fascist themes as the prescription for saving the country in his influential book, "The Promise of American Life."
A major New Deal program, General Hugh Johnson's National Recovery Administration, was an American version of Mussolini's corporate state. Entering Johnson's office, visitors found a portrait of Mussolini on the wall behind his desk. Industrial codes were to be enforced by the state and to be made popular by Nuremberg-type rallies and giant parades, as thousands marched under the symbol of the blue eagle. This marked the actual birth of liberal fascism, as President Roosevelt built upon the statist and collectivist roots of agencies created during World War I. As the vice president of the American Federation of Labor, Matthew Woll, put it at the time, "Labor might well assert that the seed of Fascism had been transplanted" to America. The cartelization of industry, he noted, was "a familiar story in the early history of Fascist Italy."
Turning to what he calls liberal racism, Mr. Goldberg offers readers his finest chapter. It is a devastating picture of how liberals adopted eugenics — a basic part of Nazi doctrine — which was not, as some liberal intellectuals have argued, an outgrowth of conservative thought. Fans of Margaret Sanger, perhaps the single most important feminist hero of the 20th century, will never be able to think of her in the same way. Mr. Goldberg dissects her hidden views of eugenics. A socialist and birth-control martyr, she favored banning reproduction of the "unfit" and regulation of everyone else's reproduction. She wrote, "More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control." She opposed the birth of "ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens." Her words reveal her motive in advocacy of birth control. She sought to remove "inferior" people from being born to poor people, whose mothers by definition were "unfit." Sanger's partisans in Planned Parenthood, the group that stemmed from her work, will be shocked to learn that her publication endorsed the Nazi eugenics program, and that Sanger herself "proudly gave a speech to a KKK rally." That was not surprising, since she clearly viewed blacks as inferior. Hence her "Negro Project," in which she sought to urge blacks to adopt birth control.
Some will rightfully take issue with Mr. Goldberg when he describes the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton as fascist. On this, he strains and pushes his evidence too far to convince the reader that these paragons of liberalism can be called fascist in any sense of the term. Mr. Goldberg makes a stronger case when he accuses the New Left of classic fascist behavior, when its cadre took to the streets and through action discarded its early idealism for what Mr. Goldberg correctly calls "fascist thuggery." Even if one does not consider the liberal administrations of the recent past fascist, Mr. Goldberg is correct to see the liberalism of today to be state worship, which built upon the original statist liberalism of the Wilson administration.
Mr. Goldberg has, unlike the leftists who yell the term, made the strongest possible case that Americans today live in a soft form of fascism, a statist liberal society whose citizens are unaware of the roots of ideas they hold. Echoing Susan Sontag, who pointed out that fascist ideas "are vivid and moving to many people," Mr. Goldberg ends with a humorous look at the cult of organic foods, vegetarianism, and animal rights, all programs and policies first instituted in Nazi Germany. "We are all fascists now," he concludes. Disagree if you must, but go out and read this brilliant, insightful, and important book.
Ronald Radosh is an adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."
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