Jonah Goldberg. 2009. Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change. New York: Random House.
Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra
One of the challenges of living and working in Washington DC is that you learn to read the political tea-leaves. When you are young, this prospect sounds intriguing and the temptation is to become a news-aholic. As one grows older, understanding politics leads to cynicism and a realization that when something is broken, it is not an accident—lack of information seldom explains bad policy. Ultimately, one begins to suspect that political awareness taints one’s soul—a form of original sin. Still, as voters and functional adults we have an obligation to be informed about the tradeoffs—politics is a necessary evil.
In his book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change Jonah Goldberg writes an historical account of the progressive movement in the United States. He compares and contrasts the progressive movement with fascism in Europe and communism in the former Soviet Union. He writes:
“Fascism is a religion 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.”(23)
What makes this task of defining progressivism so slippery is that prior to the Second World War, progressives in the United States, such as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, provided the template for fascists in Europe.
What changed with the war was that Hitler’s anti-Semitism made it difficult for Americans to see anything good in fascism, in spite of the made-in-USA origin of many of Hitler’s ideas (9). Progressives (or liberals) then began describing anything bad (or anything unprogressive) as fascist, making it hard to define fascism with analytical clarity. The book’s title, Liberal Fascism, was coined by H.G. Wells, a noted progressive, in 1932 (21).
The Third Way
Defining progressivism is understandably difficult because it evolved from the Social Gospel movement and the application of the scientific method to social science in the nineteenth century. The Social Gospel movement of the early nineteenth century strove to prepare the world for the coming of Christ (premillennialism) with campaigns for equal rights for women, abolition of slavery, and abstinence from alcohol. The scientific revolution inspired a pragmatic attitude in social policy focused on results and experimentation, not ideology. Progressive leaders therefore eschewed leftist or rightest policies to craft a third way, which was decidedly non-ideological, and led by experts.
This third-way mantra unified American progressives—Wilson, The Roosevelts, Kennedy, Clinton, and Obama—with European fascists (Mussolini and Hitler) and communists (Lenin and Stalin). This non-ideological stance has proven intensely popular over time and has had a lasting impact on American policies, such as the New Deal and the Great Society. The dark side of this experimentation in public policy arises, not from unpopular ideas being imposed by “crazed” leaders, but by the prejudices that societies insist on acting on from time to time.
Background and Organization
Jonah Goldberg (1969+) is a conservative columnist, born and raised Jewish in Manhattan, New York. He attended Goucher College in Towson, Maryland. He writes in ten chapters:
- Mussolini: The Father of Fascism
- Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left
- Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of Liberal Fascism
- Franklin Roosevelt’s Fascist New Deal
- The 1960s: Fascism Takes to the Streets
- From Kennedy’s Myth to Johnson’s Dream: Liberal Fascism and the Cult of the State
- Liberal Racism: The Eugenic Ghost in the Fascist Machine
- Liberal Fascist Economics
- Brave New Village: Hillary Clinton and the Meaning of Liberal Fascism
- The New Age: We’re All Fascists Now
These chapters follow an introduction and are followed by two “afterwords”, acknowledgments, appendices, notes, and an index.
In part 1 of this review, I provide an overview of the Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism, while in part 2 I examine his argument in more detail.
Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism offers a conservative reading of the last century of progressive politics both in the U.S. and Europe written in journalistic style. The title of the book, Liberal Fascism, is a progressive self-description coined by H.G. Wells in 1932. The cover art depicting a mustached smiley face captures the tension between strong leadership focused on people’s perceived needs and traditional American skepticism of power unchecked by constitutional restraint.
Goldberg’s history of progressivism documents the genealogy of many of today’s most bitterly debated issues. Did you know that the term, culture war (kulturkampf), dates back to the Bismarck period (late nineteenth century) in Germany? I learned a great deal reading Goldberg. Perhaps, you will too.
 The revulsion of U.S. progressives with Hitler’s anti-Semitism could be seen as conveniently hypocritical because German National Socialists crafted their Jewish legislation after American sterilization (Indiana 1907) and other racially-motivated laws, such as the Davis-Bacon Act (1931; 263-266).
Goldberg Chronicles Progressivis
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.