Roger Griffin's review of:
Jonah Goldberg, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (London: Penguin, 2007).
An Academic Book — Not!
[All page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of 2007]
Even if it purports to be (i.e. masquerades as) a thoroughly researched ‘alternative’ or ‘secret’ analysis and history of fascism, Liberal Fascism is to the trained eye a patent exercise in propaganda. Even ‘polemics’ is a euphemism here, implying a provocation to heated debate rather than the attempt to pass off an Ersatz for the real thing. An example of such propagandistic ‘substitution’ is the Nazi attempt to popularize an anti-Semitic variant of jazz to counter the appeal to young Germans of the ‘degenerate’ U.S. original, resulting in grotesque and deeply unfunny parodies which fooled no genuine jazz lover anywhere in the Reich!
Goldberg’s book perverts historical and historiographical truth with the scarcely hidden agenda (perhaps the real ‘secret’ alluded to unwittingly in the subtitle) of tarring and feathering with negative, anti-democratic, and inhumane connotations a broad current of reformist policy and social justice campaigns which has for decades been a legitimate current of liberalism within U.S. democracy (and not exclusively the Democratic sector of it). It does so with the blatant aim of making this current guilty (by association) of some of the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity. It is a work of sustained pseudo-historical calumny and defamation disguised under the (constantly slipping) carnival mask of an ‘alternative history’.
Liberal Fascism is to be seen as a mischievous exercise in party-political journalism writ large as a pseudo-academic monograph, its revisionism far removed from that of a legitimate academic exercise in rethinking a basic historical issue from a fresh angle. Rather, its revisionism directly parallels that of the Institute of Historical Review, which produces euphemistic essays in Holocaust Denial misleadingly adorned with full scholarly apparatus, an airbrushed Playboy variant of racist political pornography.
Historiographically, Liberal Fascism is, as the insidiously clever ‘Hitler smiley’ within a red cover on its cover semiotically proclaims so blatantly, from start to finish a piece of fiction. It is no more ‘true’ than the Da Vinci Code (and contains for the gullible an equivalently alluring subtext of conspiracy theory). But instead of stirring up latent anti-Christian/anti-Vatican paranoia, it aims to enlist the political passions of neo-Conservatives and Republican fundamentalists with its barely subliminal equation of Obama with Hitler ― an equation that Nazis themselves would actually have found mind-blowing, given their obsession with restoring Aryan purity and white supremacy!
The elision of the distinction between progressive or social liberalism with Nazism becomes grotesquely explicit on p. 81 when he claims that Wilson’s followers, called progressives in the U.S., were called National Socialists in Nazi Germany.
A sample of Goldberg’s academic fallacies concerning ‘fascism’
Given this situation, it is pointless to expend more than a few ergs of serious scholarly energy on refuting the legion distortions, calumnies, and lies ― both historiographical and definitional ― that pullulate in the pages of Goldberg’s book. Despite its duplicitous format and linguistic register, it is not written as an academic monograph and is hence is not to be judged by academic yard-sticks.
If we focus simply on the abuse of the term fascism, the result of the book’s tendentious purpose means that it at no point attempts to treat fascism or the scholarly debate surrounding it seriously from an academic point of view or to make a genuine contribution to comparative fascist studies (had it done so it would not have been devoured by broad swathes of the general public). Symptomatic of this is the blend of obscurantism (borne of perverse propagandistic intent blended with sheer ignorance) and tautology (expressing a deep-seated desire to deceive the reader: the con of neo-Con) surrounding the concept of fascism which is the alleged subject of the book.
Regarding the obscurantism, it speaks volumes that only one of the 32 pages referred to in the index under the heading ‘definition of fascism’ (p. 24) actually yields a definition of fascism.
When Goldberg refers to other people’s definitions in an early passage citing the work of a variety of academics (including mine), he clearly has no understanding of what I or anyone else actually has meant by the words and certainly has not made it the brief of his researchers to find out, let alone try to find out himself. He cites theories solely to ridicule their abstruseness.
In fact, the definitions are reproduced in a section whose sole purpose is to lampoon academic scholarship in a spirit consistent with the generally anti-intellectual tenor of Bushite politics. In so doing, Goldberg deliberately muddies the conceptual waters so as to convince the uninitiated that academics either 1) deny fascism has a meaning and find the term impenetrable (thereby justifying a fresh bid to redefine the term since ‘anything goes’), and 2) offer definitions so impenetrable or contested that it is reasonable for anyone to enter the debate to shed some new light on the term whatever their background and ― lack of ― qualifications to do so. Either way, Goldberg’s radical redefinition is implicitly legitimized.
Any unwary or complicit reader duped by/compliant with this line of argument is thus liable to assume it is acceptable and even desirable for a maverick journalistic with no academic credentials (but actually with well-documented anti-Democrat, anti-Clinton, and pro-Bush credentials) to storm into this area with barrels blazing to pepper ‘conventional’ historians with ill-aimed pellets and then force a shot-gun marriage on two political concepts conventionally (at least among ‘progressives’) considered antithetical: liberalism and fascism.
Neo-Cons have previously arranged a similarly grotesque marriage between Islam and fascism to beget the abortive concept Islamo-fascism, another attempt to wrest cultural hegemony in a right-wing Gramscian spirit away from a demonized Left and conquer the citadel of ideas for neo-Con fundamentalism.
Typical of the misleading, ahistorical analysis that permeates this book is that it presents the debate about fascism as still being hopelessly confused. There was a time, namely between the 1960s and early 1990s, when many academics outside the Marxist camp expressed despair at the prospects of ever finding a broadly consensual definition but this is no longer true and has not been for well over a decade.
Symptomatic of this willful distortion of facts is the way he cites my assertion about the ‘welter of divergent opinion’ concerning the definition of fascism without mentioning (there is no endnote) the awkward point that this was written in 1990 (published in 1991) and that it is a statement now radically superseded by the growth of a general acceptance of fascism’s futural thrust towards a reborn national or ethnic order beyond conservative communism, and above all liberalism (in the economic, political and ethical sense).
To repeat (since Goldberg perversely writes as if it is not the case): the core of the partial new consensus that has emerged since 1991 (partly, but only partly, as a result of my work in this field) is not that fascism was mainly right wing or left wing, but that it was and remains a revolutionary form of racism/nationalism, one whose sworn enemies include Soviet communism, pluralist liberal democracy and the multi-cultural, multi-faith society celebrated by ‘progressive liberals’.
In fact many scholars would today accept Zeev Sternhell’s basic thesis (expounded in his in Neither Right nor Left) that fascism produced various syntheses (including Nazism, though Sternhell denies this) of elements taken from left and right welded into a revolutionary assault on conservative or liberal or democratic society.
However, no serious scholar has ever suggested that fascism a) drew exclusively on left wing traditions of state intervention in laissez-faire social and economic politics b) that it did not want to overthrow and replace liberal democracy.
After much misleading rumination aimed at producing a smoke-screen of doubt about the meaning of the term (a bit like a detective story writer laying false clues and offering red-herrings), Goldberg finally offers, Poirot-like, his solution to the mystery. (p. 23) Et voilà: “Fascism is a religion of the state. It assumes the organic unity of the body politic and longs for a national leader attuned to the will of the people. It is totalitarian in that it views everything as political and holds that any action by the state is justified to achieve that common good. It takes responsibility for all aspects of life, including our health and well-being, and seeks to impose uniformity of thought and action, whether by force or through regulation and social pressure. Everything, including the economy and religion, must be aligned with its objectives. Any rival identity is part of the "problem" and therefore defined as the enemy.”
He then adds “I will argue that contemporary American liberalism embodies all these aspects of fascism.” [The original in my edition reads “liberalsim”, which perhaps alludes to some secret mobile phone network through which political elites communicate!].
This last, almost throwaway, phrase is the clue that Goldberg has unwittingly left for anyone who wants to get to the bottom of the motivation for the various crimes and misdemeanors against historical truth and scholarly precision he has committed with intent in this book. He has succeeded in dramatically pulling a definition out of the hat that seems to fit his misrepresentation of social liberalism because he deliberately cropped the definition to fit his target, butchering it down crudely to a size where it can be tethered to the Procrustean bed he has already prepared for it in his mind at the outset of the project: an approach methodologically flawed in inverse proportion to its rhetorical and propagandistic effectiveness.
The key fallacies of this definition, judged by the broadly prevailing scholarly consensus in comparative fascist studies, are:
1. There is now wide scholarly agreement that fascism exists a) as an ideology of total national rebirth and renewal in anew order, b) as a revolutionary movement bent on overthrowing liberal democratic, communist, absolutist, or conservative authoritarian regimes, or c) as a regime which attempts to inaugurate a new order based on a utopia vision of the reborn national or racial community;
2. The ‘organic unity’ Goldberg alludes to is thus completely at variance with the pluralistic, non-homogenous society which social liberals conceive of as constituting the nation, the ‘unum’ never being welded ‘ex pluribus’ through mass coercion or imposed on it through the abolition of representative institutions or the separation of powers or the state monopoly of the organs and institutions of commercial activity culture, or thought;
3. The ‘national leader’ of fascism is a charismatic one whose authority and legitimacy resides in his person as the spontaneous embodiment of organically conceived nation, national will, and national destiny and is thus utterly incompatible with the U.S. presidential system even at its most corrupt and dynastic: the election of such a leader to power (which only happened in the case of Hitler) is the prelude for the wholesale destruction of the democratic state not just in ethos but in a series of systemic constitutional and institutional changes;
4. Such fascist ‘totalitarianism’ is rooted in a bid to create a social and anthropological revolution anathema to social or progressive liberalism since it means the suppression or destruction of autonomous liberal political and social institutions and the eradication of effective liberal humanist values and the civil society on which their survival and health depends. These are then replaced by a highly centralized state with no countervailing forces, a process promoted and theorized by all fascist ideologues and movements and extensively actualized in very different ways by Fascism, Nazism and the Ustasha State, the last two with genocidal consequences for the enemy.
5. The possibility of ‘imposition’ and ‘alignment’ brought about by any administration which retains democratic institutions and the demonization of ‘enemy’ opposition parties or policies possible in a liberal democratic society, no matter how corrupt, can never be as radical in the measures taken to crush freedom or silence remove perceived enemies as in a fascist regime. To take the three historical examples of such a regime, forced ‘alignment’ involved in the case of Fascism internal exile, prison, internment, assassination and the suppression of opposition parties and freedom of speech. In the case of Nazism and the Ustasha state it involved beyond this not just mass internment, forced labor, and torture in concentration camps, but mass murder and genocide in extermination camps.
6. The ‘political religion’ of fascism alluded to by Goldberg in the first sentence is thus integral to the destruction of liberalism and the inauguration of a national, political, social, and temporal revolution which is incomparably more radical and permanent than in any democratic system with its imposed limited terms of administration and presidency and guaranteed separation of powers and party-political pluralism.
Despite not being an academically trained historian, Goldberg is too astute and educated (in a general knowledge sense) not to know or sense all these points. His decision to create a definition which omits any reference to the REVOLUTIONARY dimension of fascist politics so that it can be insidiously stretched to accommodate a caricature of progressive liberalism and Democrat politics thus smacks of Machiavelli and Joseph Goebbels rather than of Thomas Jefferson or J. S. Mill.
There are other symptoms of pseudo-scholarship later in the book where ‘facts’ have been deliberately and cynically distorted to serve a revisionist thesis in a spirit worthy of the Holocaust Denier David Irving rather than any genuine academic historian (I will leave comment on Goldberg’s hatchet job on the French Revolution to others):
1. The verbal sleight-of-style which turns Woodrow Wilson into a fascist on p. 80: ‘Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union towards the same goals overseen by the state... (Within Mussolini’s concept of totalitarianism) (t)he militarization of society and politics was considered simply the best available means toward this end. Call it what you like ― progressivism, fascism, communism, or totalitarianism ― the first true enterprise of this kind was established not in Russia or Italy or Germany but in the United States, and Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator.’ Goldberg is actually calling ‘it’ what he likes in a crudely manipulative way.
2. The way (p. 148) he cites Mussolini as independent testimony for the assertion that Franklin Roosevelt was imposing a fascist state on the U.S. (e.g. in the New Deal), implying that they ‘recognized their own’. It would be equally revealing if a critic of Goldberg’s characterization of social liberalism as itself ‘fascist’ cited Stalin or Trotsky as corroboration of his accusation.
3. The elision of fascism of totalitarianism with any movement towards government intervention in society or the economy within a democracy. This lies at the nub of the book’s wilful perversion of historical truth and political scientific theory evident in such passages. Significantly it occurs again without the word being used explicitly in the slightly modified short definition Goldberg gives in his interview for California Literary Review (http://calitreview.com/303): “an instinctual religious impulse – usually gussied-up [sic] 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.”
Note the way that this definition is, even more obviously than the original one, not of fascism at all, but actually of totalitarianism, which is now stretched even to embrace the ‘PC’ culture of modern liberal democracy. Goldberg thus abandons any notion that totalitarianism involves state monopolizing or harnessing of political, economic, and cultural power to create a new order in which individual human rights, pluralism and diversity are severely compromised.
The idea that the U.S. under FDR was a totalitarian society in this sense is another example of the distortion of language and history that permeates this book (Marcuse accused liberal society of being totalitarian but at least this was based on a consistent Marxist critique of capitalism).
The illegitimate stretching of fascism and totalitarianism to embrace progressive liberalism is the hallmark of the illiberalism at the cold heart of Goldberg’s thesis and its bid to demonize democratic and Democratic opposition to the neo-Con travesty of U.S. politics.
In the same interview Goldberg states: "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." Note: a) his disingenuous claim that the book sets out to correct misunderstandings about fascism (rather than admitting that it hijacks the term fascism and attaches it to social or democratic liberalism for strictly propagandistic ends; b) his candid admission that he is seeking to establish continuities between fascism and progressive liberalism, in other words that it is tendentious and propagandistic in its very conception.
A Polemical Verdict on a Propagandistic Tract
Since the journalist Goldberg has appropriated an academic register to attack progressive liberalism, then it is perhaps appropriate for a genuine academic to finish his critique by appropriating a journalistic register to attack the thinly disguised political subtext of this mendaciously and perversely anti-academic and anti-liberal book.
Liberal Fascism is a Business Class airport read for those who sit smugly in Priority Lounges and, once airborne, feel a sense of superiority as they sip alcohol in front of the flimsy curtain which separates them from ‘economy class’ fellow passengers whose fate they are likely to share only in the event of a crash (in contrast to The Titanic, where passenger class determined death rates).
Its purpose is to airlift complicit readers who feel threatened by the return of a Democratic administration to the moral equivalent of the Cayman Islands. Here they can rationalize their fear and loathing of ‘socialists’ and ‘progressives’, while basking in the satisfaction of having thoroughly ‘earned’ a lifestyle from which the bulk of the world’s population is excluded because, apparently, they have NOT earned it, or, in the phraseology of the L'Oréal advert, they are NOT ‘worth it’.
In academic terms the idea of a political force termed ‘liberal fascism’ is not just oxymoronic but moronic. The accompanying ‘history’ is predictably as devoid of substance as candy floss, but one that leaves a sour taste for all those who resist the sweep of its populist diatribe against social liberalism and are not taken in by the crudely travestied and demonized simulacrum of the Democrats it fashions out of a viciously ransacked history.
In short, it thus owes its success partly to masquerading as a serious work of academic analysis, one which mendaciously claims to unmask the conventional wisdom within the political and historical sciences on the subject of fascism as politically biased and conceptually confused. Its true purpose is to uncover subterranean (and, to the non-paranoid, wholly fictitious) links between contemporary U.S. Democrats and the values of the same Axis regimes the U.S. fought so heroically on D-Day and beyond to rid the world of genuinely fascist totalitarian regimes.
If it has become the Mein Kampf of Neo-Cons in their assault on the Democratic Left, the Obama administration, and any sort of liberal radicalism (whether in the context of the welfare state, ecology, the South, or the ‘War on Terror’), it is because as a contribution to fascist studies it is not worth the paper it is printed on. Abridged to become an undergraduate essay, its neo-McCarthyite rhetoric (now curiously directed against fascists rather than commies under the bed) would condemn it to fail miserably in any academic institution (apart perhaps from those that sell degrees on the internet).
As a work of fiction, it is more akin in genus and in reasons for its publishing success to the apocalyptic fantasies of the U.S. Christian extreme right Left Behind (another airport bestseller) than The End of History.
As an elaborate piece of conspiracy theory and demonization of an alleged internal enemy, Liberal Fascism also has some affinity with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Not only does Goldberg’s tract serve to rationalize the antidemocratic resentments and anxieties of the neo-Con and Bushite electoral constituency in the U.S., it also serves to bolster the anti-liberal passions of the genuine fascist right in the U.S. If this sounds hysterical, consider the T-shirts worn in 2005, well before Goldberg’s book hit the stands, by 13-year-old twins Lynx and Lamb Gaede (a.k.a. Prussian Blue, a white supremacist music act), who ‘tour the nation performing at white nationalist rallies’. They are allegedly fans of the Prussian Blue computer game Ethnic Cleansing, made by Resistance Records.
I rest my case.
A PARTHIAN SHOT: J’accuse
On page 10, Goldberg, in a revealing passage, asserts that in the 1930s, “Stalin stumbled on a brilliant tactic of simply labelling all inconvenient ideas and movements fascist.” I accuse Goldberg of brazenly deploying the identical tactic, albeit in a totally different historical context, in order to discredit the involvement of the democratic left and Democrats in U.S. politics and social policy.
This does NOT, of course, make Goldberg a Stalinist. Nor am I alleging he is a fascist. But nor is he a liberal. Two hundred years ago he might have been considered an embodiment of classical liberalism (which was a profoundly anti-democratic force generally opposed to racial, social, and gender equality), but history moves on, such values are now a perversion of liberal democracy and his technique for diffusing them a parody of the intellectual tradition of liberal humanism. The pandemic success of his book underlines the need for liberalism always to be seen as a value system to be constantly revised and reasserted rather than taken for granted.
Contrary to what was proclaimed by Jefferson and Timothy McVeigh’s T-Shirt, the tree of liberty needs to be watered and tended constantly by the words and actions of liberals in the defence of basic human freedoms and rights, and NOT refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants (or the incitement to hatred emanating from pseudo-liberal journalists).
- Poor Scholarship, Wrong Conclusions by Matthew Feldman.
- An Open Letter to Mr. Jonah Goldberg by Matthew Feldman.
- The Scholarly Flaws of Liberal Fascism by Robert Paxton.
- The Roots of Liberal Fascism: The Book by Chip Berlet.