Reviewed by Michael Mann
Sunday, February 3, 2008
The Secret History of the American Left From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
By Jonah Goldberg
Doubleday. 487 pp. $27.95
National Review editor Jonah Goldberg says he is fed up with liberals calling him a fascist. Who can blame him? Hurling the calumny "fascist!" at American conservatives is not fair. But Goldberg's response is no better. He lobs the f-word back at liberals, though after each of his many attacks he is at pains to say that they are not "evil" fascists, they just share a family resemblance. It's family because American liberals are descendants of the early 20th-century Progressives, who in turn shared intellectual roots with fascists. He adds that both fascists and liberals seek to use the state to solve the problems of modern society.
Scholars would support Goldberg in certain respects. He is correct that many fascists, including Mussolini (but not Hitler) started as socialists -- though almost none started as liberals, who stood for representative government and mild reformism. Moreover, fascism's combination of nationalism, statism, discipline and a promise to "transcend" class conflict was initially popular in many countries. Though fascism was always less popular in democracies such as the United States, some American intellectuals did flirt with its ideas. Goldberg quotes progressives and liberals who did, but he does not quote the conservatives who also did. He is right to note that fascist party programs contained active social welfare policies to be implemented through a corporatist state, so there were indeed overlaps with Progressives and with New Dealers. But so, too, were there overlaps with the world's Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, as well as with the British Conservative Party from Harold Macmillan in the 1930s to Prime Minister Ted Heath in the 1970s, and even with the Eisenhower and Nixon administrations. Are they all to earn the f-word?
The only thing these links prove is that fascism contained elements that were in the mainstream of 20th-century politics. Following Goldberg's logic, I could rewrite this book and berate American liberals not for being closet fascists but for being closet conservatives or closet Christian Democrats. But that would puzzle Americans, not shock them. Shock, it seems, sells books.
What really distinguished fascists from other mainstream movements of the time were proud, "principled" -- as they saw it -- violence and authoritarianism. Fascists took their model of governance from their experience as soldiers and officers in World War I. They believed that disciplined violence, military comradeship and obedience to leaders could solve society's problems. Goldberg finds similarities between fascism's so-called "third way" -- neither capitalism nor socialism -- and liberals who use the same phrase today to signify an attempt to compromise between business and labor. But there is a fundamental difference. The fascist solution was not brokered compromise but forcibly knocking heads together. Italian fascists formed a paramilitary, not a political, party. The Nazis did have a separate party, but alongside two paramilitaries, the SA and the SS, whose first mission was to attack and, if necessary, to kill socialists, communists and liberals. In reality, the fascists knocked labor's head, not capital's. The Nazis practiced on the left for their later killing of Jews, gypsies and others. And all fascists proudly proclaimed the "leadership principle," hailing dictatorship and totalitarianism.
It is hard to find American counterparts, especially among liberals. Father Coughlin and Huey Long (discussed by Goldberg) were tempted by a proto-fascist authoritarian populism in the 1930s. Some white Southerners (not discussed) embraced violence and authoritarianism, as did the Weathermen and the Black Panthers (discussed) and rightist militias (not discussed). Neocons (not discussed) today endorse militarism. Liberals have rarely supported violence, militarism or authoritarianism, because they are doves and wimps -- or at least that is what both conservatives and socialists usually say. To assert that the Social Security Act or Medicare shows a leaning toward totalitarianism is ridiculous. The United States, along with the rest of the Anglo-Saxon and Northwestern European world, has been protected from significant fascist influences by the shared commitment of liberals, conservatives and social democrats to democracy. Fascism is not an American, British, Dutch, Scandinavian, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand vice. It only spread significantly in one-half of Europe, with some lesser influence in China, Japan, South America and South Africa. Today it is alive in very few places.
A few of Goldberg's assaults make some minimal sense; others are baffling. He culminates with an attack on Hillary Clinton. He quotes from a 1993 college commencement address of hers: "We need a new politics of meaning. We need a new ethos of individual responsibility and caring. We need a new definition of civil society which answers the unanswerable questions posed by both the market forces and the governmental ones, as to how we can have a society that fills us up again and makes us feel that we are part of something bigger than ourselves." Such vacuous politician-speak could come from any centrist, whether Republican or Democrat. But Goldberg bizarrely says it embodies "the most thoroughly totalitarian conception of politics offered by a leading American political figure in the last half century." Is he serious? He then quotes briefly from her book It Takes A Village. "The village," she wrote, "can no longer be defined as a place on the map, or a list of people or organizations, but its essence remains the same: it is the network of values and relationships that support and affect our lives." One may question whether that is a profound definition or a banal one, but does it deserve Goldberg's comment that here "the concept of civil society is grotesquely deformed"? Whatever Sen. Clinton's weaknesses, she is neither a totalitarian nor an enemy of civil society.
In an apparent attempt at balance, Goldberg indulges in very mild and brief criticism of conservatives who are tempted by compassionate (i.e., social) conservatism, though here he uniquely refrains from using the f-word. In the book's final pages, he reveals his neo-liberalism (though he does not use the term). Since neo-liberalism, with its insistence on unfettered global trade and minimal government regulation of economic and social life, merely restates 19th-century laissez-faire, it is in fact the only contemporary political philosophy that significantly pre-dates both socialism and fascism. Unlike modern liberalism or modern conservatism, it shares not even a remote family resemblance with them. That is the only sense I can make of his overall argument.
But a final word of advice. If you want to denigrate the Democrats' health care plans or Al Gore's environmental activism, try the word "socialism." That is tried and tested American abuse. "Fascism" will merely baffle Americans -- and rightly so. *
Michael Mann is professor of sociology at UCLA and author of "Fascists."