Liberal Fascism: Their Friend, the State

In 1932, H.G. Wells, the British socialist, gave a speech at Oxford urging the progressives of his time to become "liberal fascists." As the phrase suggests, Wells favored, to say the least, an authoritarian solution to society's problems. Not surprisingly, he admired both Mussolini and Stalin. He was also an intellectual hero for American liberals, including Franklin Roosevelt.

Jonah Goldberg cites Wells's speech as the origin of his own book's provocative title. In "Liberal Fascists," Mr. Goldberg argues that American liberalism -- dating from the Progressive era of the early 20th century to the present -- can be best understood as a softer, smiling version of European fascism. Modern liberalism, in Mr. Goldberg's view, prefers a bullying, moralistic, oppressive statism to individual freedom.

A Dark Tradition

Mr. Goldberg rightly notes that American liberals have long been aggressively uninterested in the darker elements of their own tradition. One purpose of his book, he says, is to make them interested again. All well and good. But he confesses that he also wants to pay back all those "know nothing" liberals who have tried to smear conservatives as fascists in recent years and who have likened the Bush administration to an evil dictatorship. ("Bushitler" is one of the kinder epithets.) Alas, Mr. Goldberg's second purpose -- a kind of counter-smear -- undermines his first.

Mr. Goldberg begins his argument by noting that Mussolini -- who brought fascism to power in Italy in 1922 -- emerged from a militant socialist background. Such a background was not untypical of European fascists, who understood themselves to be nationalists rather than internationalists (of the Bolshevik variety). Though avowed enemies, Brown and Red socialism -- the national and international types -- had far more in common with each other, in their grim statism, than with liberal democratic capitalism. They were both organized around the principle that parliamentary democracy was a fraud -- that the working class, unable to grasp its own predicament, was best served by an elite that knew what was best for it.

For Mr. Goldberg, this socialist pedigree is important to understanding the kind of "liberal fascism" that made its way to America. He claims that for American progressives -- including Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson -- Bismarck's Prussia was a lodestar: It featured a welfare-state apparatus and authoritarian control over society and culture. "Progressives," Mr. Goldberg argues -- self-consciously borrowing the rhetoric of Marxists -- "did many things that we would today call objectively fascist, and fascists did many things they would today call objectively progressive."

Thus Mr. Goldberg sees in the progressive impulse a presumptive right to ensure the overall well-being of the populace -- with intrusive and potentially dangerous results. He observes that Hugh Johnson, the head of FDR's ill-fated 1934 National Recovery Administration -- which proposed a corporatist solution to the ills of the Depression -- was an ardent admirer of Mussolini and hung a looming picture of Il Duce in his NRA office. Going back to the late 1920s, Mr. Goldberg notes that Herbert Croly of The New Republic, whose book "The Promise of American Life" was a founding document of modern statist liberalism, defended Mussolini by comparing fascist violence to the (implicitly justified) martial means by which Lincoln preserved the Union.

Croly was also something of a eugenicist, saying that the state needed to "interfere on behalf of the really fittest." And indeed, American liberalism once had a strong eugenicist strain. Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, was a close ally of the white supremacist Lothrop Stoddard, the author of "The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy." Eugenics was at the time the natural expression of the Progressives' public-health movement. Mr. Goldberg does not hesitate to note that it proved to be an inspiration for the Nazi Party.

There is some truth to Mr. Goldberg's comparisons, but it is limited. By cherry-picking liberal transgressions -- or noting continuities between unappealing statist regimes and Progressive agendas -- he demonizes American liberalism unfairly and ignores a counter-history. The social safety-net reforms of David Lloyd George, during the Liberal Party governments in Britain from 1906 to 1914, mattered more to American Progressives and New Dealers, as a model, than Bismarck ever did. But Lloyd George goes unmentioned in "Liberal Fascism," as does a key political moment.

The term "liberal" came into common use following World War I, in reaction to the postwar Red Scare and to Wilson's wartime conscription and autocratic measures (e.g., jailing people for their antiwar sentiments). In his seminal book, "Liberalism in America" (1919), Harold Stearns defined the new liberal creed by its "hatred of compulsion," its "tolerance" and its "respect for the individual." It was from this anti-Progressive strain of liberalism that we get both the modern First Amendment, rightly beloved by liberals and conservatives alike, and (perhaps to Mr. Goldberg's chagrin) the American Civil Liberties Union.

In short, liberalism in America is an unstable mix of statist and libertarian tendencies. But Mr. Goldberg is eager to see everything in a simplifying, Manichean way: All that is not libertarian is at least proleptically fascist. Sizable government, even in moderate forms, is always about to roll down a slippery slope or take the road to serfdom. Thus he sees in Hillary Clinton's misguided efforts to give children rights against their parents a modern form of "fascism." But where Mr. Goldberg sees fascism liberals saw an attempt to use the state to protect vulnerable individuals -- in this case, children -- from the egregious neglect of their underclass parents.

Sarcastic Humor

Mr. Goldberg, who writes regularly for National Review and the Los Angeles Times, is known for his sarcastic sense of humor. Thus when in his late chapters he insists that the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the retailer Whole Foods are in one way or another expressions of fascism, the reader has to wonder whether he is writing with a wink. How is the DLC fascist? Well, Mr. Goldberg says, the fascists talked about themselves offering a "the third way," neither left nor right. Don't centrist Democrats use the same language? Similarly, since Hitler saw organic foods as part of a return to nature that would redeem humanity -- and Whole Foods now claims that eating naturally can save the environment -- they are kindred spirits. Let us hope that Mr. Goldberg intended some degree of irony in both cases.

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote that "the word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies 'something not desirable.' " Finishing "Liberal Fascism," the reader is likely to come to the same conclusion.

- Mr. Siegel is a professor at The Cooper Union in New York.


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