Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning Jonah Goldberg Penguin £9.99, pp496 Nick Cohen finds much to admire in a blistering attack on liberalism
It is undeniable that the best way to have avoided complicity in the horrors of the last century would have been to have adopted the politics of Jonah Goldberg. Much can be said against moderate conservatives, but it has to be admitted that their wariness of grand designs and their willingness to place limits on the over-mighty state give them a clean record others cannot share. Few of Goldberg’s contemporaries will grant him the same courtesy. He lives in a western culture where “smug, liberal know-nothings, sublimely confident in the truth of their ill-informed opinions” accuse him of being “a fascist and a Nazi” simply because he is a conservative. Meanwhile, the heart-throb-savant George Clooney can assert that “the liberal movement morally has stood on the right side”.
Behind the insults and the self-righteousness is the assumption that politics runs on a continuum from far left to far right; that if David Cameron were to keep moving rightwards, he would end up a Nazi. Goldberg sets out to knock down this false paradigm and show that much of what Americans call liberalism, and we call leftism, has its origins in fascism.
I say “knock down”, but that is too mild a phrase.
Liberal Fascism is not a clean blow to the jaw, but a multiple rocket launcher of a book that targets just about every liberal American hero and ideal. The title comes from HG Wells, the most strenuous intellectual advocate of totalitarianism on the early-20th-century British left. “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti,” he told the Oxford Union in 1932, “for enlightened Nazis. The world is sick of parliamentary democracy. The Fascist party is Italy. The Communist is Russia. The Fascists of liberalism must carry out a parallel ambition of a far grander scale.”
Wells saw no difference between communism and fascism and Goldberg puts a compelling case that neither should we. Mussolini began as a socialist agitator. The Nazis were a national socialist party which despised bourgeois democracy and offered a comprehensive welfare state.
I agree that all totalitarianisms are essentially the same, and that far leftists combined with far rightists in the 1920s and 1930s and are doing so again now. But I had difficulties with Goldberg’s concept of totalitarian unity. Communists killed different people to fascists. If you were a peasant farmer in Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, they allowed you to live – as long as you did not cross them. Marxism was the greatest disaster the 20th-century peasantry endured. Death by execution or in a manmade famine could await, regardless of whether you kept your nose out of politics. While Goldberg’s definition of fascism as the “right wing of the socialist movement” is true in as far as it goes, it does not explain the selectiveness of the rival terrors.
In America, flustered liberal critics have had far greater difficulty with the notion that they and their predecessors are the inheritors of ideas that began in the fascist movement. Goldberg certainly leaves them little left to be proud of as he provides an alternative history of an America that Simon Schama lacks the intellectual courage to confront.
He begins with Woodrow Wilson and shows that before Mussolini came to power, a Democratic president imposed a militarised state. When America entered the First World War, the progressives of the day used the conflict as an excuse to arrest dissidents, close newspapers and recruit tens of thousands of neighbourhood spies.
Wilson began the overlap between progressive and fascistic politics, which continued for the rest of the 20th century. Avant-garde Nazi philosophers – Heidegger, Paul de Man, Carl Schmitt – are venerated by nominal leftists in the postmodern universities, who love their contempt for traditional morality and standards of truth. Nazism was the first example of modern identity politics. All that mattered was whether you were German, Slav or Jew.
Beginning with the Black Panthers, multiculturalism has also placed racial and religious identity above all else and beyond the reach of rational argument. Fascism was a pagan movement, whose mystic tropes are repeated by new age healers, vegetarians and greens.
I could go on and Goldberg does go on. By the end, I began to weary not of his argument, but of his habit of protesting too much. Repeatedly he insists that he does not want to allege that, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s admittedly sinister desire for the state to take the place of the family makes her a totalitarian, merely that her ideas come from the totalitarian movement.
But he clearly does want to be able to accuse the Clintons of fascism and his disavowals lack conviction. Like the leftists who abuse him, he is in danger of shouting “fascist” so often that he will miss the real thing when it appears. And miss, too, the better side of his enemies. I dug out George Clooney’s full quote – which Goldberg doesn’t give – and discovered that the reason he thought that liberals had been on “the right side” was that they had “thought that blacks should be allowed to sit at the front of the bus and women should be able to vote, McCarthy was wrong, Vietnam was a mistake”. For all the undoubted crimes of the left, is that not at least a plea of mitigation?
Liberal Fascism is a bracing and stylish examination of political history. That it is being published at a time when Goldberg’s free market has failed and big government and charismatic presidents are on their way back in no way invalidates his work. Hard times test intellectuals and, for all its occasional false notes, Goldberg’s case survives.