A review of Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg

When she was asked in one of last fall's presidential debates whether she still considered herself a liberal, Hillary Clinton sidestepped the question. She called herself, instead, a "proud, modern, American progressive," and boasted that her "progressive vision" for the country had roots going all the way back to "the Progressive Era, at the beginning of the twentieth century."

Modern, big-government liberalism has come home. The Progressives were the first generation of Americans to criticize the United States Constitution, especially for its limits on government's scope and ambition. They rejected the American Founders' classical or natural rights liberalism, offering instead a vision of the modern state as a kind of god with almost limitless power to achieve "social justice." When modern liberals like Senator Clinton call themselves progressives, therefore, they are telling the truth, even if their audiences don't fully understand the implications.

How gratifying it is then to have Jonah Goldberg's new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, to pursue these half-forgotten, if not exactly secret, implications. Although liberals throw around the term "fascist" to abuse conservatives (just as they do "racist"), Goldberg, the editor-at-large for National Review Online, persuasively shows that today's progressives are fascism's true descendents, embracing the statism at the heart of the 20th-century's most notorious outlaw regimes. What's more, for all the past century's liberal hand-wringing over the supposedly impending right-wing takeover of America, Goldberg maintains that the country has already suffered a quasi-dictator or two, but historians have looked the other way because these strongmen—Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt—are certified heroes of the Left.

No wonder that liberals often have such a blinkered interest in their own intellectual heritage. Reviewing this book, for example, Michael Mann in the Washington Post, Michael Tomasky in the New Republic, and David Neiwert in the American Prospect so badly confuse classical liberalism and modern liberalism (by equating them!) that they can make little sense of Goldberg's account, dismissing it as "Bizarro history," "ignorant nonsense," and an attempt to shock readers and sell books. Neiwert even writes, missing the irony, that it is "the consensus of historical understanding that anti-intellectualism is an essential trait of fascism."

But Goldberg's charge is no mere exercise in name-calling. He takes his title from H.G. Wells, the eminent liberal essayist and science fiction writer who coined the term "liberal fascism," or as he also called it, "enlightened Nazism." It was common at the time for progressive intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic to see Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler as kindred reforming spirits, struggling to find a third way forward between the extremes of capitalist individualism and Communist collectivism. Mann believes this connection merely proves that "fascism contained elements that were in the mainstream of 20th-century politics," as much for Democrats and Republicans at home as for fascists and social democrats abroad. But Goldberg is getting at something deeper: he is trying to trace the quiet revolution that took place throughout modern thought when politicians of all stripes, led by the Progressives, were wooed by the power of a limitless State. To his credit, he stresses right from the start that he is not accusing American progressives, past or present, of being the kind of moral monsters associated with European fascism. Still, at some level the family resemblance asserts itself. As Goldberg aptly puts it, Progressivism "may have replaced the fist with the hug, but an unwanted embrace from which you cannot escape is just a nicer form of tyranny." (Hence the book's stark cover featuring a smiley face with the Hitler mustache.)

In his account of fascism, Goldberg even shows how some fairly prominent American liberals expressed real admiration for Mussolini, whom they saw in the 1920s as a kind of hero sticking up for "the little guy." Indeed, the Italian fascist movement, far from being a mere appendage to German Nazism, actually predated it and had a serious course of development all its own. Goldberg does well to set the record straight on this score, contending that fascism grew out of il Duce's left-wing statism. The first World War seems to have been decisive in this respect, teaching him that his radical socialist inclinations could profitably tap into both populism and nationalism as a means of becoming a major force in Italy. Goldberg moves from his account of European fascism to the origins of modern liberalism in America, and suggests that the two movements, for a time at least, tracked one another in their development.

* * *

In America, the origins of modern liberalism lie at the end of the 19th century, when Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, John Dewey, Herbert Croly, and a host of others argued that the Constitution was outdated, that it was incompetent to deal with contemporary economic and social ills, and that, if applied at all, it ought to be applied as a "living" document. This notion of a "living" constitution—a pillar of modern liberalism—comes out of the doctrine of progress and, as the more honest Progressives admitted, the historicism of German political philosophy. Almost all of the leading Progressive intellectuals had been educated in Germany or had teachers who were. A sea change had taken place in American higher education in the second half of the 19th century. Most Americans at that time who wanted an advanced degree went to Europe for it, and by 1900 the faculties of America's colleges and universities were teeming with European Ph.D.s. Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876, was established for the express purpose of bringing German education to the United States, and produced several prominent Progressives, including Wilson, Dewey, and Frederick Jackson Turner.

Like their European counterparts, American Progressives championed der Staat over the individual, seeking to redistribute wealth and use the national government to superintend the economy and society. This agenda was at odds with the founders' natural rights principles and the Constitution's limited government, but as Teddy Roosevelt is said to have quipped when challenged about his intrusion on private property rights during the 1902 coal strike: "To hell with the Constitution when the people want coal!" Even if the remark is apocryphal, it captures Roosevelt's animus.

The best example may be his 1910 speech on the New Nationalism, which subsequently became the foundation for his insurgent run for the presidency. Private property rights, which had been serving as a brake on the more aggressive Progressive policy proposals, were to be respected, T.R. argued, only insofar as the government approved of the property's social utility:

We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it is honorably obtained and well used. It is not even enough that it should have been gained without doing damage to the community. We should permit it to be gained only so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community. This, I know, implies a policy of a far more active governmental interference with social and economic conditions in this country than we have yet had, but I think we have got to face the fact that such an increase in governmental control is now necessary.

Although the Progressives differed among themselves on the means of achieving reform, there was little disagreement on the fundamental questions of state power and the place of individual liberty. As Frank Goodnow, the American Political Science Association's founding president and one of the modern administrative state's chief architects, put it, natural rights simply could not be allowed to stand in the way of the state's attempt to remedy any perceived social ill:

The rights which he possesses are…conferred upon [the individual], not by his Creator, but rather by the society to which he belongs. What they are is to be determined by the legislative authority in view of the needs of that society. Social expediency, rather than natural right, is thus to determine the sphere of individual freedom of action.

The young Woodrow Wilson, writing in 1889, put this view of state power even more concisely: "Government does now whatever experience permits or the times demand."

It is good to see Goldberg single out Wilson for a special dose of blame in Liberal Fascism, lamenting that "[i]n America we've chosen not to discuss the madness our Republic endured at Wilson's hands." Goldberg also appreciates the important role religion played for many (although not all) Progressives, who saw in history's supposed advance the will of God at work. For the Social Gospel movement, "the state was the right arm of God and was the means by which the whole nation and world would be redeemed." In fact, "Onward, Christian Soldiers" was the unofficial anthem of the Progressive Party convention in 1912, sung until the rafters shook.

European-style statism took greater hold over the country through FDR's New Deal. Roosevelt was no intellectual but he relied on his progressive and fascist predecessors for the model of state power that animated his programs. And Goldberg observes that although today's liberals may be in love with Jack Kennedy, they govern like Lyndon Johnson, whose Great Society further expanded progressive liberalism's influence. "[I]t's telling," writes Goldberg, "that Democrats wish to preserve the substance of the Great Society while maintaining the mythology of Camelot." The Great Society provides the framework for programmatic liberalism right down to the present day.

Goldberg is certainly right when he says that most academics have willfully ignored modern liberalism's progressive-fascist roots, although scholars such as James Ceaser, John Marini, and others (including me) have in fact been calling attention to the progressive origins of modern liberalism for the past 20 years. Liberal Fascism clearly draws from these works but makes surprisingly little reference to them, even in a few instances when the book's observations sound awfully familiar. Yet if Goldberg proceeds, in some respects, down a path blazed by others, he does so with the kind of terrific writing and energy that is certain to make the connection between modern liberalism and its statist ancestors a more prominent factor in America's political battles and debates.

* * *

In making his case, Goldberg does tend to conflate fascism and socialism. He wants to show that fascism, far from having been a "right-wing" ideology, actually was a movement of the Left (he calls Hitler a "man of the Left") and that its main characteristics were socialist. This point—perfectly valid—helps make the case that today's liberals are fascism's true inheritors. Goldberg has a deep, thoughtful chapter on Mussolini and another on Hitler to bolster this argument. And he is right that both fascism and socialism are statist—they rest on what he calls "statolatry" or "state worship," the principle that, in Wilson's words, "all idea of a limitation of public authority by individual rights [should] be put out of view," and "that no line can be drawn between private and public affairs which the State may not cross at will."

But at least two distinct forms of statism came out of the 19th century. Nazism in particular owed much to Friedrich Nietzsche's disdain for egalitarian, mass-based movements (e.g., Progressivism) that celebrated human fraternity and dignity. Although he was a great advocate of state power and thought individual rights a joke, Nietzsche's passion was for the rule of the strong over the weak—a love of inequality, enforced by the will to power. From Nietzsche's point of view, both the Soviet and the Anglo-American versions of egalitarianism were abhorrent. Nietzsche's disciple, Martin Heidegger, described the Soviets and the Americans as metaphysically the same, and Heidegger himself was sympathetic to the Nazi cause. Goldberg tries to show that Nazism was a mass-based movement of the Left, and he is persuasive that it attracted the lower classes in Germany more than it did the middle class. But he underplays the extent to which Nazism fed off a desire to reassert the perceived greatness and power of a particular people or race, as over against everyone else, in a manner that, say, American liberalism never did.

Goldberg's argument might have been clearer if he focused less on specific fascist regimes from the 1930s, and more on the roots of fascism itself (and Progressivism, and modern liberalism) in 19th-century German state theory. This is the common thread that would help Goldberg tie together fascism and socialism: both come from the historicism of philosophers like Hegel, both are antithetical to the natural rights-based liberalism of the American Founding, and both show why true constitutionalists ought to resist modern liberalism. By the 1930s, this 19th-century statism has evolved in many different directions—e.g., fascism, Nazism, several flavors of democratic socialism, the Communist International, and America's own welfare state liberalism. Tying these together becomes a tough and unnecessarily complicated chore. Instead of highlighting liberal "fascism," Goldberg's case might have been stronger, or at least sharper, if he had concentrated on liberal "statism."

After all, if fascism and modern liberalism are joined together by all-powerful government as the potential solution to every human problem, aren't there many self-styled conservatives who might fall under the same indictment? Far from thinking "fascism is strictly a Democratic disease," as David Oshinsky charged in his review for the New York Times, Goldberg tackles this question head-on in a superb Afterword in which he criticizes right-wing American statism as "me-too conservatism," identifying it squarely with the Progressive movement. For example, he describes George W. Bush as "strongly sympathetic to progressive-style intrusions into civil society" and spies the "ghost of the Social Gospel" in his big-government conservatism. Goldberg bolsters his case with some choice quotations from former Bush advisor Michael Gerson, an architect of "compassionate conservatism" and as his own recent book, Heroic Conservatism, makes plain, no fan of limited, constitutional government. Goldberg's Afterword is so good, in fact, that one hopes for a book on the problem of conservative statism from this excellent writer. In order to defeat liberal fascism, American conservatives will need to awaken their own ranks from the progressive spell. With his new book, Jonah Goldberg has renewed for them, and for all friends of constitutional government, a vital argument for the political battles ahead.