CLR INTERVIEW: Jonah Goldberg is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and contributing editor to National Review. He argues in his new book, Liberal Fascism, that fascism is primarily a phenomenon of the political left. Below is his interview with the California Literary Review.
- Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
- Doubleday, 496 pp.
“Fascism” is such an overused word that it has almost become meaningless. How are you defining it in this book?
Definitions vary wildly among academics. I would argue that’s because they can’t bring themselves to place it squarely on the left side of the ideological spectrum and part of the “revolutionary tradition” starting with the French Revolution. So they come up with these sometimes goofy or unwieldy definitions. Some define it by what it isn’t. Other are simply descriptive, focusing on the “anatomy” of one fascist regime or regimes. One problem with that approach is that it is almost impossible to come up with a description of fascism that would exclude, say, Fidel Castro’s Cuba or Joseph Stalin’s Russia. That’s a dilemma when fascism is supposed to the diametrical opposite of Communism. Many simply ignore the problem and keep moving. Gilbert Allardyce, a prominent scholar of fascism, put it well when he said “Put simply, we have agreed to use the word without agreeing how to define it.”
I’ve got a long definition in the book, but a short one would be an instinctual religious impulse – usually gussied-up as a secular or modern ideology – that seeks to impose uniformity in thought and action throughout the entire society. All oars in a fascistic society must pull together. The personal is political because everything goes together. Political correctness is one name we give to such efforts in civil society.
What is the overall theme of Liberal Fascism?
If I had to pick a single overall theme in the book, I would say it’s to rectify the misunderstanding of what fascism is and to highlight the deep historical, ideological and emotional ties between progressivism (now called liberalism) and fascism.
You state that “Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.” Would you talk a little about that and the assault on civil liberties that occurred in this country during World War I.
The late sociologist Robert Nisbet once wrote, that the “West’s first real experience with totalitarianism – political absolutism extended into every possible area of culture and society, education, religion, industry, the arts, local community and family included, with a kind of terror always waiting in the wings – came with the American war state under Wilson.” Nisbet was right. Under Wilson, American newspapers and magazines were censored, threatened, harassed and intimidated. The Committee on Public Information, the first modern propaganda ministry, sent propaganda agents across the country – “four minute men” to whip-up war fever. The CPI released a string of propaganda films with such titles as The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin, and The Prussian Cur. The Justice Department established the American Protective League, literally an army of goons a quarter-million strong at their zenith, who beat up “slackers” and other dissidents, spied on people and performed unconstitutional background checks. In 1920 a salesman at a clothing store in Waterbury, Connecticut, received a six-month prison sentence for referring to Lenin as “one of the brainiest” leaders in the world. Mrs. Rose Pastor Stokes was arrested, tried, and convicted for telling a women’s group, “I am for the people, and the government is for the profiteers.” These are just a few examples of what I’m talking about.
One could probably link the liberal impulse to everything from religion to feudalism to sociobiology. What is the point and what is the importance of linking liberalism to fascism?
Well, for starters, it’s worthwhile to set the record straight. American Conservatism, with its limited ambitions for government, its belief in the imperfectability of mankind, its reverence for tradition and the US constitution and its innate opposition to radicalism are nearly the opposite of fascism. So calling conservatives fascists is not only a slander, but it prevents us from understanding our own political ideals and principles. Second, totalitarianism will never come on a white horse in this country. If it does come it will come with a friendly face. It will fancy itself a form of “progress” and do-goodery. If you use “fascism” as simply a stand-in for “evil” you will never recognize real fascism when it arrives.
The nastiest forms of fascism seem to arise when people are angry and frightened, such as the Weimar Republic. Isn’t fascism a more likely possibility in rust belt America where people are without health care and unable to support their families, than say a socialist European country?
I think you make a fine point. Politically, fascism is indeed a form of populism. It was in Italy and it was in Germany. Huey Long and Father Coughlin were both populists and came fairly close to creating an American brand of fascism (particularly Coughlin). The sort of mass-movement we usually associate with classical fascism usually reaches out to “forgotten men” who feel left-out or run-over by rapid economic and social trends. Richard Hofstadter painted a picture of progressivism as quasi-fascistic and attributed it to “status anxiety” of the middle class. I think we are experiencing a frighteningly populist moment in American politics. The worst practitioner is John Edwards. His “two Americas” rhetoric strikes deeply fascistic chords. Mike Huckabee is another guy who plays this us-versus-them card deftly. Lou Dobbs is another.
One of the scariest moments in recent years, for me, was the controversy over the Dubai Ports deal. We saw, if you will, nationalists on the right and socialists on the left uniting to out demagogue each other over the evils of this supposed foreign peril. Nationalism + Socialism = “Not good stuff.” Again, fascism will come during a moment of broad cross-class agreement, not disagreement. That’s why I am so skeptical with all of this yearning for unity and post-partisanship. Democracy is about disagreements. Tyranny is about enforced agreement. Everyone puts down their partisan differences in North Korea, that’s one reason I don’t want to live there.
Where do you specifically draw the line between an appropriate government program and fascism? Is the forty-hour work week fascist? Social Security? Medicare?
Well, first where do you draw the line between government programs and socialism? Or between government programs and corporatism? I think you can have an empirical debate about policies and draw the lines wherever you like. I’m not trying to use “fascist” the way the left does and simply declare any program I don’t like “fascist” and therefore illegitimate.
There’s nothing in conservatism that says the government can’t be in the business of problem-solving. We might draw the line more narrowly than others about what problems government can or should solve, but I don’t know any conservative who doesn’t think government has important responsibilities to, say, fight crime, insure food safety and the like. Whether I, or someone else, calls those policies “fascistic” has no bearing on whether they’re good, right or legitimate.
But at the philosophical level, I think you can tell when a program or initiative is fascist by the motivating spirit behind it. If there’s a utopian impulse, if a “new age” or “new politics” are being promised, if the government is promising to create a kingdom of heaven on earth or “end” some basic feature of the human condition, then that policy is leaping out of the realm of problem-solving and into the realm of religion.
The United States now has a military presence in 130 countries. Isn’t this effort—to police the world, to mold it to our objectives, to define those who don’t share our views as the enemy—fascist by your definition? Why is this policy—outside of Ron Paul and a few paleoconservatives—embraced by the right?
I really don’t see it that way at all. The British empire performed the task of policing the world. It wasn’t fascist. We are not imposing our vision on 130 countries, we’re helping secure the peace and stability of those countries and maintain trade and economic growth. In Iraq, yes, sure we’re imposing our vision to a certain extent. But that’s hardly a fascistic vision, now is it? Democracy and liberalism are not fascistic. We did not impose fascism on Germany and Japan after WWII, we helped cleanse them of fascism. As for declaring people who don’t share our views our enemies, I think that’s more than a small overstatement, one you hear from smart people all of the time. We haven’t declared France, Russia, Saudia Arabia etc our “enemies.” Though they each, in some respect, don’t share our views. We declared, via the President, after 9/11 that those who help terrorists who attack us will be treated like terrorists themselves. Personally, I have no fundamental problem with that. Maybe it ratcheted-up the rhetoric too high or created problems. But I see nothing fundamentally wrong or fascistic about saying countries who harbor terrorist groups that attack us should watch out. I just wish we were better at implementing that policy.
What is the danger you foresee if this country pursues what you believe is liberal fascism? What is your nightmare scenario?
Well, I should say that I’m not trying to scare anybody. I don’t think the nightmare scenario is likely, only more likely than I am comfortable with.
The twentieth century gave us two visions of a dystopian future, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. For a long time it was assumed that 1984 was the more prophetic tale. That made sense. The totalitarianism of 1984 was a product of the age of Stalin, Lenin, Hitler, and Mussolini, the dictators of a continent with a grand tradition of political and religious absolutism. Now Brave New World seems like the more plausible threat. It was a dystopia based on an American future, where the cult of youth defines society. Everything is easy under Huxley’s World State. Everyone is happy. Huxley’s totalitarianism isn’t a “boot stamping on a human face forever,” as in 1984. It’s one of smiling, happy, bioengineered people chewing hormonal gum and blithely doing what they’re told. Democracy is a forgotten fad because things are so much easier when the state makes all your decisions. In fact, the great dilemma for the reader of Brave New World is to answer the question, What’s wrong with it?
I think we see all sorts of developments on the horizon, and much closer to us, that point in that direction. The old 1984 model rationalized dictators who fed the poor (much like Hugo Chavez). In the Huxlean world we’re heading toward, the biggest problem with our poor people isn’t hunger but morbid obesity. We have scientists at major research universities trying to figure out why conservatives are, in effect, so sick in the head. Bloombergism, with its “for your own good” sensibility is a much bigger threat than any kind of Wilson-like crack down on civil liberties or incipient Orwellian fascism. We’re going to nicey-nice ourselves into oblivion, enjoying it all of the way down. That’s my nightmare scenario.