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Taking The Challenge

So Publisher’s Weekly has reviewed [1] Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and given it generally good marks.  It is a brief review (located all the way at the bottom of the page), and the points that it highlights mostly sound like a conventional right-liberal/conservative analysis of fascism.  I don’t say that dismissively.  I think right-liberal and conservative analyses of fascism that identify it as a leftist ideology are absolutely right, but this is also not a terribly new interpretation.  Recognising the similarities between American progressive eugenics and Nazi eugenics or between the New Deal and fascist corporatism is all well and good (as we all know, the latter derives from Old Right critiques of Roosevelt), and if these things can be popularised more that will be a real contribution.  I remain skeptical that it will make the kind of fine distinctions that such a subject needs, but then I am hardly a Goldberg fan.  Still, goodness knows that it can’t hurt to acquaint a modern audience with a somewhat more rigorous understanding of fascism in an era where such nonsense words as Islamofascism prevail.   

If the book does describe JFK’s “cult of personality” as something that “reeks of fascist political theater,” as the review claims, I think Goldberg will have a hard time making that claim stick.  The Fuehrerprinzip and a cult based around the Leader are defining elements of fascism, but what really distinguishes fascist cults of personality is the staged mass “political liturgy.”  Unless we keep that distinction in mind, there is nothing to distinguish democratic, communist or authoritarian cults of personality from the fascist version.    

From what the review tells me, it is pretty much what I expected [2].  Back in March I wrote:

Goldberg’s argument will probably end up making a certain amount of historical sense, because he will largely be echoing what other students of this question have already said. 

There may be something new in the book that makes it the “very serious, thoughtful, argument that has never been made in such detail or with such care” that Goldberg has said [3] that it is.  He has said [4] that previous writers “never carried the argument out as far as I have in the American context nor, needless to say, have they accounted for more recent American politics.”  For that reason I will gladly take up the challenge [5], even though I think my criticisms of the book–based on the description available to the public–have already been among the more informed and, for the most part, among the more generous.

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10 Comments To "Taking The Challenge"

#1 Comment By kholtsberry On November 27, 2007 @ 3:36 pm

Yes, I think the challenge – such as it was – was aimed at those who refused to even consider giving Jonah the benefit of the doubt you have already given him.

There are those with whom any connection between liberalism and fascism is outrageous and “Coulterish” no matter the historical research or analysis involved.

I look forward to your thoughts on the book once it is released.

#2 Comment By Daniel Larison On November 27, 2007 @ 7:41 pm

Thanks for your comment. I take your point about the other critics, many of whom probably couldn’t give a good working definition of fascism if their lives depended on it.

#3 Comment By p.lukasiak On November 27, 2007 @ 9:08 pm

has Publishers Weekly ever given a bad review?

“Fascism” is a purely right wing phenomenon, just as Communism is a purely left wing phemomenon. Trying to negate the authoritarian instincts of the far right by pretending they have anything in common with the authoritarian tendencies of the Communist left is simply intellectually dishonest — its on the same level as the “Hitler was a Jew” folks.

#4 Comment By Daniel Larison On November 27, 2007 @ 9:24 pm

You have to define “right-wing” pretty broadly to include a modernising, revolutionary mass nationalist ideology as a part of it. Authoritarian instincts of the far right are a different story. There are plenty of conservative and right-wing authoritarian regimes down through the years. The fascist regimes are not among them. On this, I’d recommend reading Stanley Payne and our old stand-by, Kuehnelt-Leddihn. Payne also argues that Franco’s regime was not fascist, which probably drives some people crazy, but he’s right about that as well.

#5 Comment By Ashish George On November 27, 2007 @ 11:31 pm

Two relevant points:

1. You have to have a very narrow view of the matter to interpret Germany’s experience under Nazism and Italy’s under Mussolini as “modernizing.” Both regimes abhorred the direction their countries were taking and took radical measures to arrest social trends. These include the fads in art, the more active role of women in society, and the assimilation of Jews into society. Dare I say it? Hitler and Mussolini were standing athwart history, yelling “Stop!” As for nationalism and whether contemporary liberalism or contemporary conservatism has more to answer for on that score, well, I’ll just quote your own discussion of the lessons you have learned since the Iraq War: “Yet another false belief was that most conservatives were not nationalists, when obviously the defining feature of most Americans who call themselves conservatives is that they are, in fact, nationalists.”


Not an incidental feature or a peripheral feature, but a defining one.

2. If the standard of proof in such arguments is going to sink to the level of two-dimensional comparison between fascist economic programs, then there are other cases that can be made just as strongly. Catholic teachings, for instance, played a role in the development of the attitude behind the New Deal.

“Catholic social teaching had revolutionized the moral landscape of capitalism, not only by reinforcing the progressive critique of laissez-faire constitutionalism but, more importantly, by stealing the thunder of higher-law reasoning and restoring its communal roots. It was a turning point that made the welfare state morally necessary and, because of that, politically possible.”


Nor would it seem the contemporary Catholic Church is markedly less interested in social justice:


I point this out not to claim that Catholic teaching is only compatible with liberal policies and political philosophy, but simply to highlight the fact that this kind of historical cherrypicking Goldberg and company take part in–which, more often than not, consists largely of making sure your side gets the good guys and the other side the bad guys–can support quite a few different taxonomies.

#6 Comment By Daniel Larison On November 28, 2007 @ 4:26 am

One of the reasons I criticise modernising movements is that so many of them have been destructive and brutal. The idea that a modernising regime must be inclusive or meet present-day expectations of inclusivity is strange. Nationalists almost everywhere have been modernisers of institutions and social habits, which does not usually entail a generous attitude towards ethnic and religious minorities (see Kemalist Turkey, for example). Fascists and Nazis embraced modernism in art and architecture, as did many interwar authoritarians, and so did the Soviets. That doesn’t mean that they weren’t also willing to employ some elements of traditional morality and gender roles to bolster their authority, but it is a huge mistake to see them as simply reactionary or as a “purely right-wing phenomenon.” Fascism and Nazism came out of the stew of fin-de-siecle and post-WWI socialism and radical nationalism.

The recognition that I have had that most putative conservatives here are nationalists first and foremost is an acknowledgment that they are not terribly good conservatives. Lukacs’ point in criticising American conservatism as being beholden to nationalism was to show how un-conservative it is. In its origins and its ideological frame of mind, nationalism is antithetical to conservatism. It is possible to have right-wing nationalism, and it is inescapable that many of the collaborationist regimes under Nazi rule were right-wing authoritarian nationalist in nature, but it does not follow that you can fairly describe fascism as right-wing *except* in its relation to even more leftist ideologies. If I wanted to “cherry-pick” the evidence and associate “my side” with only the “goood guys,” I would try to explain away conservative authoritarian collaborators. That would be equally mistaken. The glue that held radical rightists, conservative authoritarians and fascists together during the war, besides opportunism, was anticommunism. This was an umbrella ideology that could stretch across the spectrum, as it has done in every country where it has been found.

In fact, some collaborators, including the Vichy regime, embraced Catholic corporatist economics, and fascists borrrowed from conservative and Catholic corporatist theory as part of their “third way” between socialism and capitalism. Of course you can find similarities with Catholic corporatism in both the New Deal and fascist economic policy, since all of them are making similar critiques of capitalism, but the implementation of policy seems much closer between the New Deal and fascist corporatism. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t insist on seeing a sharp break between the economic policies of Catholic corporatists and fascist corporatists. I would note the difference between Catholic corporatist ideas of organic social unity, of which the state was only one institutional element, and the theories of someone like Gentile, who saw the state as the summit and embodiment of society. The state has a much more prominent role for fascists than it does for Catholic corporatist theorists.

As I see it, this is a question of precision in definitions and terminology. The purpose should be to understand the affinities and connections between different ideologies, and not be an exercise in saying, “You’re like the fascists, therefore we win.” For instance, it tells you nothing about the merits of conservationist policies to say that fascists were also interested in conservation. Conservation remains a good idea even if fascists also endorsed it. In the American context, the primary reason to oppose the New Deal should have been, first of all, the unconstitutionality of its legislation, and not because it bears a strong resemblance to something that Mussolini was doing. Additionally, I suspect that most liberals and progressives today do not see fascist social welfare policy as a particularly pernicious part of the fascist legacy. Their response to comparisons with the New Deal could very easily be, “So what?”

#7 Comment By p.lukasiak On November 28, 2007 @ 6:32 am

You have to define “right-wing” pretty broadly to include a modernising, revolutionary mass nationalist ideology as a part of it.

Where do you get the idea that fascism is necessarily “modernising”. Mussolini didn’t think so. The closest one can get to the concept of “modernising” is the idea that fascism has evolved from less sophisticated forms of right-wing ideology.

As Mussolini wrote in The Political and Social Doctrine of Fascism “We are free to believe that this is the century of authority, a century tending to the ‘right’, a Fascist century. If the nineteenth century was the century of the individual (liberalism implies individualism) we are free to believe that this is the ‘collective’ century, and therefore the century of the State.”

When defined to its very essence, Fascism is really just another word for that most conservative of political philsophies, plutocracy. Fascism stand in utter opposition to the egalitarian essence of Communism. And Fascism by its very nature is nationalistic (and thus conservative), while Communism is internationalistic.

The impulse of conservatives to engage in revisionism and redefine Fascism as some sort of “leftist” philosophy is understandable, given the crimes against humanity perpetrated in the name of Fascism. But this attempted revision of our understanding of Fascism is ill-advised, because it renders the term itself meaningless. It is no more valid or useful an argument that the one which insists that Stalin was a conservative because of the crimes he committed in the name of Communistic authoritarianism — or the argument that Communism is the ultimate form of libertarianism, because both see individuals (as opposed to the State) as the proper source of power and authority.

#8 Comment By Daniel Larison On November 28, 2007 @ 6:56 am

Where do I get the idea? From the literature on fascism that describes fascist regimes as modernising dictatorships, and from the clear preference of fascists for Futurism and modernism, among other things. Like other left-authoritarian regimes (again Kemalist Turkey springs to mind) and like many interwar dictators, the fascists and Nazis were intent on modernisation of their economy, infrastructure, etc.

Yes, Mussolini said that, and his quote sums up nicely why fascism isn’t really right-wing. Collectivism and statism are not generally right-wing doctrines. This isn’t revisionism, or at least not revisionism of the kind you’re implying (i.e., deliberately misleading or inaccurate). It’s a question of proper definitions. If you want to call nationalism conservative and collectivism right-wing, all these terms really will have become meaningless. There is nothing conservative about nationalism, and as conservatives embrace nationalism they become less conservative and become more radical and revolutionary. Only when contrasted with even *more* leftist positions (international socialism, communism, etc.) can revolutionary hyper-nationalism/fascism be considered to be on the right. Viewed from a certain perspective, I suppose neoconservatism also appears right-wing or even “far right,” but that’s not so.

#9 Comment By p.lukasiak On November 28, 2007 @ 9:04 pm

This isn’t revisionism, or at least not revisionism of the kind you’re implying (i.e., deliberately misleading or inaccurate). It’s a question of proper definitions. If you want to call nationalism conservative and collectivism right-wing, all these terms really will have become meaningless

I think that there is a big difference between “collectivism” as defined within Communism is separate and distinct from “statism”. And I also have to disagree with you that “nationalism” is not a key component of conservatism (as opposed to libertarianism.)

#10 Comment By Daniel Larison On November 28, 2007 @ 9:36 pm

There is a big difference between collectivism and statism, but it is not the difference between left and right. The original etatisme was a coordination of state and industry that anticipated the later condominium arrangements of state capitalism, and it came to the fore during the Third Republic, hardly a bastion of right-wingery by the standards of its day. Conservatives have allied with nationalists in the 20th century, and again in the 21st, in their mutual opposition to other forces; in the 20th century, it was usually a united front against social democracy or communism. You can find conservatives in the 19th century (e.g., Nicholas I) who try to cultivate nationalism that does not partake of nationalism’s original liberal and revolutionary character, but most conservatives, properly speaking, eschewed or opposed nationalists. In Germany and Austria, their 20th century nationalists came heavily from the defunct liberals and more obviously from the Liberal Nationalists themselves. Obviously you do have authoritarian and monarchist forces in early 20th century France who adopt the language of nationalism, but then this is France we’re talking about–one legacy of the Revolution was that all political forces, particularly after the Second Empire, started embracing elements of the political principles of 1789.

Nationalism is historically speaking a product of the political left and the French Revolution, and it represents a departure from the political conservatism that came before it. That doesn’t strike me as a controversial or strange claim to make. Neither Burke nor Metternich, both sources of major politically conservative traditions, can reasonably be called a nationalist, and Metternich was positively repelled by nationalism.