January 28, 2008

Liberal Fascism

Carroll Andrew Morse

Jonah Goldberg's controversial new book, Liberal Fascism isn't beyond-the-pale as his most strident critics would have you believe. First, as Goldberg has repeatedly pointed out, he is not the person who invented the term Liberal Fascism. That distinction belongs to the influential early 20th century public intellectual H.G. Wells.

Beyond the provenance of the term, a key idea that Goldberg would like you to come away with is that much of what you may believe is essential to the definition of fascism is really a list of talking points created by Marxists to explain why their totalitarianism is "good" while other totalitarianisms are "bad". To distinguish themselves from other collectivists, Marxists explain that paradise on earth can only come about if all human economic and social activity is brought under the control of leaders who recognize the primacy of economic class in the unfolding of history. Any other way to organize a society is merely a scheme for dividing the members of the working class from one another, to prevent them from prevailing in the inevitable class struggle. That's why, sayeth the Marxists, you should sign up with and pay your dues to the Communist International and not the National Socialist Party.

But suppose you created a philosophy that retained the idea that paradise on earth could be built through collective struggle, but a) chose a different collective than "economic class" to organize around and b) relaxed the idea that direct state ownership of everything was necessary to the idea that government "only" needed to be strong enough to bully any other institution in society into do its bidding. Would you still be discussing Marxism or socialism or communism at this point?

This question has a number of possible answers...

  • You could say, no, this is not sufficiently different from socialism to justify its own category (and concede that fascism belongs on the left side of the political spectrum to an ever greater degree than Jonah Goldberg would).
  • You could deny that versions of totalitarianism that don't involve state ownership and economic class struggle can exist or are relevant to anything.
  • Or, you could do what Jonah Goldberg does -- posit fascism as the name of the political philosophy of government that seeks similar ends to communism, but involves different ideas of the role of "class" and the state.
Here's Goldberg's exact definition of fascism...
Fascism is a religon 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 the 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.
The point of Liberal Fascism is to try to trace the history of this form of collectivization through the 20th century.

I'll add, from my uber-important position as a yahoo-blogger, that I come into Goldberg's book with a different idea of what Fascism is than what he has laid out. I've always considered central to fascism the idea that individual fulfillment is found in robustly engaging violent struggle, where the ends aren't as important as fighting the struggle itself. Goldberg recognizes this idea as an influence on fascist thought (and writes in detail on its origins, especially of an idea called "syndicalism"), but not as central to its definition.

Still, in tracing the history of American progressivism starting from an open sympathy for fascism in the pre-World War II era, before the German Nazis obliterated the legitimacy of fascism in the popular consciousness, Goldberg raises questions that his critics are not going to be able to dismiss as easily as they'd like to.