Saturday, January 19, 2008

Liberal Fascism

If I live to be 70, which in my family is a fair chance, and I read a book a month for the rest of my life, which is about my current rate, I'll have read another 250 books before I die, not counting re-reads. There are at least that many on my shelves now that I've vowed to finish.

So it's helpful to know which books to skip. Like "Liberal Fascism." It seems you can't click a link on the political blogs these days without hitting some praise or snark about this book.

The author of this book complains people aren't taking it sufficiently seriously. But look at this interview with him:

Before we really get started, give us the Jonah Goldberg definition of fascism.

A short definition would simply be -- there's a longer definition in the book -- it's one word we give for a totalitarian, religious impulse, where everything has to go together, where the state has to govern every aspect of society or at least direct every aspect of society towards some Utopian end. Something like that. It's a hard thing to (define) which is why it's important to define it better on paper, which I do in the book.

In the lead-off question of a friendly interview -- a softball-of-softballs question, that's the best he can do? Define your key term: Uh, it has something to do with totalitarianism or something, I dunno. It's in the book somewhere.

I've written books. This book has a thesis. The thesis is based on the meaning of the word "fascism." Before you begin to even think about that book, you'd better have a good working definition of fascism in your head. You'd better know it by heart, backward and forward. You'd better have it written down and framed and nailed to the wall over the desk where you write. Because as you write this book you're going to be sieving every fact, thought, and observation through the filter of that definition. Or else you're wasting everyone's time.

But frankly the problem with notions like the one at the core of this book is not fuzzy thinking about fascism. It's the damnable stupidity of trying to fit the entire variety of human political experience into the flatland world of "left" and "right." And that's not the fault of this author. It's the defining political error of the past half century.

A simple pair of labels invented to describe the seating arrangement of the French National Assembly in 1789 (in which the nobility took the seats on the President's right and left the Third Estate to sit on the left), they may have been useful for a time in describing the rudimentary politics of the early French Republic. Their application to anything else is a farce.

What would be better? Almost anything. A spiral galaxy, for instance. There is a large, undifferentiated, blurry center. There are arms that trail out of it, getting smaller and more extreme as they are more distant from the center. Here is socialism, and beyond it, communism. Here is conservative moralism, and beyond it theocracy. And out there is a lumpy arm that starts in libertarianism and ends in anarchism. The arms sometimes come nearer each other than the center as they spin out.

Still not very good, but a lot better than left and right, if you ask me.

It seems to me that fascism principally arose as a reaction against communism. There never was a serious fascism in the world until communism became a serious threat to the social order in Western nations.

That is not a definition of fascism.* That is a description of the milieu that produced it.

As such, fascism incorporated many aspects of the old conservative orders, which were certainly of the right, and were terrified of communism. But it also included many socialists -- whom many communists historically regarded as their number one enemies. There were important paths of travel between socialism and fascism in most European nations, and men such as Goebbels took them. If people don't realize that and Goldberg's book points it out to them, so much the better for it. But that only works if it is read by people who feel they have reason to take it seriously.

Fascism usually owed its success to the assent, if not the active aid, of the churches and the capitalists. Yet these more or less despised the fascists, as the fascists despised them. Their agendas often were no part of fascism's program.

Socialism is on the left. Communism is lefter than socialism. In a two-dimensional political world, an anti-communist political movement thus must be on the extreme right. Which is how we ended up regarding fascism as exclusively a right-wing thing. That this description obviously is incomplete doesn't mean you ought to rush to the opposite conclusion, that fascism is principally left wing. That's an even worse answer. It leads you down the same mistaken path the modern left takes when it labels anything that is in opposition to itself as "fascism."

The alternate terms we sometimes use in America, "liberal" and "conservative" are of no better use here. Is fascism "conservative?" It reveres a mythical national past, not the past as a record of proven virtues and values. Instead, fascism is dynamic and seeks to overhaul society as it finds it, not in the name of a real past so much as for the sake of an ideal future.

When the British and Americans firebombed Germany's old cities in World War II, Hitler only shrugged. He said it was a good thing ultimately, since it cleared the ground for the Reich to build new monuments and architectural wonders. Hardly a conservative view.

But was that a fascist view? Hitler, after all, was a wanna-be architect and monumental city planner. Was this fascism or Hitlerism? In a totalitarian system, the personality of the leader gets wrapped up in the ideology of the government. As Michael Ledeen points out.

The weakest part of the book has to do with the Nazis. All of us who have worked on fascism have had to try to figure out to what extent Hitler belongs inside the definition. As Jonah says, Hitler worshiped Mussolini (a love that was not reciprocated), but the Fuhrer was driven by racism and antisemitism, not by the sort of nationalism the Italians embraced. It is very hard to find a political box big enough to accommodate the two, and, like the rest of us, Jonah huffs and puffs trying to make one. Predictably, he has to downplay Hitler’s ideology. He calls Hitler a “pragmatist,” and then adds “saying that Hitler had a pragmatic view of ideology is not to say that he didn’t use ideology. Hitler had many ideologies. Indeed he was an ideology peddler.”

Whew! So much for the view—the fact—that Hitler was driven, from an early age, by an antisemitism so virulent that he would not rest until he had set in motion the Holocaust. Indeed, in one of “Liberal Fascism“‘s most unfortunate phrases, Jonah trivializes Nazi racism, equating it with some American political rhetoric:

“What distinguished Nazism from other brands of socialism and communism was not so much that it included more aspects from the political right (though there were some). What distinguished Nazism was that it forthrightly included a worldview we now associate almost completely with the political left: identity politics.” And in case you thought he was kidding, he repeats it a few pages later: “What mattered to (Hitler) was German identity politics.”

The best that can be said about this is that it’s imaginative. But it’s what happens when you are bound and determined to put liberals, Socialists, Communists, fascists and Nazis into a common political home. I don’t have a final answer to this question, but it is likely that the differences between Italian fascism and German Nazism are greater than their similarities.

And Spanish fascism. And Croatian fascism.

And what was American fascism? It was the alternative presented especially in the 1920s and '30s when the old liberal democracy and free markets seemed doomed to ruin and communism looked like the only alternative. What was the commonality between the KKK, Huey Long, George Lincoln Rockwell, Gerald L.K. Smith, and the German-American and Italian-Americans who supported the nationalist movements in their homelands? Sort that out if you like. Call them all liberals or all conservatives. You're stuck in the Procrustean bed fallacy.


*The best definition I've found is in Robert O. Paxton's book "The Anatomy of Fascism" [published in 2004]:

A form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.

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