Monday, March 9, 2009

Still disagreeing with Liberal Fascism

The May 2008 issue of Quadrant included a review essay by me on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: the Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, a book which has since been nominated by Amazon as the number one history book of 2008.

Jonah Goldberg responded at some length here and briefly here.

Goldberg has a similarly mixed reaction to the Quadrant review that I expressed about his book. On the positive side, Goldberg says:
there's much interesting stuff in the review, which is on the whole serious, thoughtful and in good faith, which is rare enough to be applauded.
On the critical side, Goldberg claims that in my review I am committed to fascism and communism being opposites referring to my:
obvious frustration and confusion is that he refuses to let go of the idea that fascism and communism are opposites.
This is clearly not true: my review analyses fascism as a "crossover" phenomenon that partakes of both Left and Right aspects. I do, however, insist that fascism and Leninism are different things even if I agree with Goldberg that they are both manifestations of the politics of secular salvation. Indeed, I discuss at some length just how much Mussolini and Hitler owed to Lenin’s example. As Victor Serge said of the former:
…this new variety of counter-revolution had taken the Russian Revolution as its schoolmaster in matters of repression and mass-manipulation through propaganda; further, it had succeeded in recruiting a host of disillusioned, power-hungry, ex-revolutionaries; consequently, its rule would last for years.
Leninism and fascism being significantly different from each other (let alone from modern American liberalism) is all that is required for it to be, as I suggested, “transparently silly” to make both fascist and communist parallels with US liberals.

It is Goldberg’s commitment to a political taxonomy of Right and Left as mutually exclusive opposites covering the entire political universe that I disagree with. Both because there is on the Right far more diversity in animating values than there is on the Left—a central reason why it makes rather more sense to talk of “the Left” than it does of “the Right” —and because it is central to my analysis of fascism that it partakes of both Left and Right features. Fascism’s own characterisation of itself as the “third way” was not empty.
Goldberg wants to rescue the label “fascism” from being any more pejorative than socialism, for I apparently:
cannot let go of the word "fascist" as strictly pejorative. Obviously, the term can be pejorative. But I think it can be descriptive, too — and not just descriptive of "bad people." Yet, for so many of my reviewers, it can never, ever, ever, be descriptive about any good person. I anticipated this problem when writing the book (hence the blows for "political civility" Warby refers to), but I clearly failed to deal with it sufficiently, because even good faith readers of my book often can't let go of fascism-as-anathema.
In a democratic polity, fascism is always going to be more pejorative than socialism since there is no such thing as democratic fascism: open rejection of democracy is rather fundamental to fascism. It is one of the several ways it is simply not reasonable to tag the progressivist Left as "fascist".

Citing the MSI or Le Pen engaging in electoral politics would not be any more persuasive in defending a notion of "democratic" fascism than citing the PCF, KPD or, indeed NSDAP for democratic credentials. Moreover, the MSI and Le Pen’s National Front have personnel, institutional and ideological continuations which are so conspicuously absent from liberal Democrats.

But Goldberg is being deeply disingenuous here. Why bother labouring to apply the fascist label to those who would reject it? Consider the clever logo on the front of Goldberg’s book: the smiley face with the Hitler moustache. It is the moustache that creates the impact, subverting the smiley face, for reasons that are obvious and absolutely rely on the association with tyranny and mass murder. World War II is, after all, even to the Left, the Good War. The entire dramatic effect rests on the pejorative connation.

Goldberg also gets into a muddle over my review’s argument that to be Left is to be committed to change based on rejecting the past. Apparently, I did not express myself clearly enough. It is the rejecting the past that matters, not mere change. One can want lots of change yet not reject the past–precisely because, in some sense, you want to go back to it or because change is the only way you believe you can preserve the best bits. Which is pretty close to what Goldberg has to say in his second response post:
I do agree that the Left has serious problems with the importance and relevance of history, but history and "the past" are different things. The Left does not reject the past per se, it rejects the reigning tradition which they often treat as merely a creature of the past, an oppressive vestige of a "wrong turn" in human development etc.
To be Left is to be directed to the imagined future which is all the more glorious because it is not tainted by the sins of the past. That Mussolini and Hitler both saw themselves as being "revolutionaries" does not make them Left. For it depends on the nature of their intended revolution, as there are other dimensions on which one assesses political movements. George Watson’s point that revolutions can be conservative reminds us that being a revolutionary does not, in fact, make one “left wing”. After all, do we really want to claim that the Glorious Revolution, the American Revolution, 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the 1989 anti-Soviet Revolutions are entirely the domain of the Left?

A point which also applies to Goldberg's comment that I would be:
consistent if he was willing to call black nationalists, feminists and economic populists "Rightwingers" but one doesn't get the sense he wants to go there.
And further that:
Black nationalists, feminists, environmentalists et al have all sorts of weird ideas about, and uses for, the past (as I discuss in the book).
So I am:
free to hold to his criteria, but he needs to then explain why black nationalists are rightwingers, not leftwingers
thereby again ignoring the review's multi-dimensional political taxonomy. Black nationalists, feminists and economic populists clearly reject the past and have a high degree of commitment to the use of political mechanisms; both of which are antipathetic to being right-wing. But I am happy to agree that economic populists often have Right and Left elements to their politics.

Moreover, as I pointed out, nationalism can be Left or Right depending on context. Since there is no virtuous American past that black nationalists wish to defend, but they do have great confidence in political mechanisms, they are not rightwing. That their commitment to equality is dubious makes their connection to the Left tenuous. But the central point of the review is that it is possible to have crossover political movements; that the political universe is not defined by only being Right or Left. As I noted in my review, Goldberg’s characterisation of black nationalists as fascist (or at least fascistic) has much to be said for it.

It is helpful to apply William Coleman’s take on political taxonomy in his Economics and its Enemies. Coleman divides Right and Left according to two axes: Right
defined as attraction to ‘order’. Order amounts, in the first place, to calm and stability, then shades off into structure and pattern, which shades off finally into inequality and hierarchy
and Left
defined as an aversion to order; and amounts at bottom to attraction to motion, change, and turbulence, that shades into fluidity and formlessness which shades finally into indistinctiveness and therefore equality.
The second axis is liberalism to anti-liberalism:
Liberalism is defined as an attraction to the prerogatives of the individual, freedom and ‘plurality’. The anti-liberal, by contrast, is attracted to the prerogative of the collective, ‘unity’.
So we have the liberal Right attracted to order and plurality (e.g. F.A.Hayek), the anti-liberal Right attracted to order and unity (e.g. Auguste Comte), the liberal Left to turbulence and plurality (e.g. John Stuart Mill) and the anti-liberal Left to turbulence and unity (e.g. Karl Marx). That Fascism (and particularly Nazism) was for order, unity and turbulence shows it cannot be simply captured for Left or Right even in Coleman’s political taxonomy.

Conservatism and change
In the second response, a reader emailed to Goldberg and says of my review:
He compares it to the "atavism" of the Right — which includes looking back to pre-Christian times.
Which completely misconstrues my point in the review that fascism (especially Nazism)’s atavism is a large part of what marks them as different from the mainstream Right. Mainstream conservatives are not atavistic because they see the past as embodied experience. To try and massively turn back the clock is to reject the experience built up in the meantime. Indeed, there is a liberal*-conservative critique of left-collectivism as being deeply primitivist in its rejection of such social learning.

(* The modern American use of the term ‘liberal’ to mean ‘politically cross-dressing social democrat’ is endlessly irritating and does great harm to anything even vaguely resembling consistency in using the term ‘liberal’ across place and time. I mean ‘liberal’ in the sense of pro-markets, private property and civil society while being sceptical about political action.)

Though being a conservative within Western civilisation is inherently a bit odd, as Western civilisation is by far the most dynamic of all human civilisations. Indeed, there is a strain of conservatism that is thoroughly confronted by the dynamism of Western civilisation, though that is more a feature of Continental conservatism than Anglosphere conservatism. One can generally pick a rough date (often about the time someone became at least vaguely politically conscious) and conservatives tend to be in favour of changes that happened prior to that time and be against those that have been advocated, or happened, since. So they tend to in favour of change after the fact—once they are used to it and we have had the experience of it—thereby often implicitly or explicitly disagreeing with previous generations of conservatives (and agreeing with previous generations of reformers or radicals).

The common feature of conservatives being “radicals after the fact”—the putting of brakes on movement in a direction that others have chosen—is why Hayek declared himself not to be a conservative. It is also why a prudent liberal*—Edmund Burke, a lifelong Whig—is a great intellectual icon of Anglosphere conservatism, for he was a powerful advocate for processes of change that connected one to the past and against ones that abruptly broke from it. Such connected change is what a conservative defender of Western civilisation is going end up defending, or face a deeper alienation from their own civilisation.

The willingness of American conservatives to continue to attack FDR and the New Deal is somewhat unusual compared to the “let’s move on” habits of conservatives in other Western countries. But between religion and the American Revolution, American conservatives are somewhat more programmatic (and so less subject to Hayek’s critique, though he still clearly meant to distinguish himself from American conservatives) than conservatives tend to be in the rest of the developed world.

About equality
Goldberg’s discussion of various conceptions of equality is much more interesting. He writes that I say:
the less you assert the primacy of equality the more of a rightwinger you are. I don't think this is really true in the Anglo-American tradition.
Anglo-American liberal-conservatism does have a rather more serious commitment to equality than Continental conservatism. As Goldberg says:
conservatives in America and Britain (and one hopes Australia) emphasize a very different kind of equality, one which recognizes equality in the eyes of God and the law, but has few or no objections to differences based on merit, wealth, creed etc
which is a very different conception of equality than Marxian notions, for example. But, of course, it is a serious commitment to equality along with a series of other values—rather my point. The rather subordinate conservative commitment to equality can also see from the persistent tendency for conservatives to be in favour of past equalities before the law but not new ones, as same-sex couples in our time are very well aware.

National Socialism was, as a reader Goldberg quotes on his Liberal Fascism blog correctly notes, markedly more egalitarian than Italian Fascism: in large part for the two reasons I noted in my review—that Italian Fascism involved a compromise with royal structures than Nazism did not and that Nazism had much grander ambitions that Italian Fascism so required much grander modernisation. That Nazism had to struggle longer in competition with other political parties before achieving power was also a factor, as were Hitler’s proletarian sympathies.

Goldberg hits on a key issue when he writes:
Leftwingers talk a good game about equality, but I don't think it's inaccurate to say they have a very narrow and constrained vision of what they mean by equality. Equality often means "justice for my kind." Equality often means "make the bad people pay." Even the equality of economic populists like John Edwards is not real equality, it's rhetoric to sell an agenda of "social justice" for the have-nots at the expense of the haves.
For there is a great tension between the end of equality and the means needed to reach it: and the more absolute the aimed for equality, the more that is so. The question of what sort of equality becomes central when Goldberg makes the point that Leninists do not believe in the basic equality of the right to life. No, indeed they do not.

Goldberg writes:
The Nazis were very much leftwing egalitarians when it came to Germans. Hitlerism is socialism for one race. Bolshevism was socialism for one class. That may sound like a redundancy, but I don't think it is. The Bolsheviks didn't believe in the first principle of equality: the right to life of others. Please tell the nearly hundred million murdered souls that Communism values the equality of all humanity.
Indeed so, they are not in favour of equality for all humanity. For that is precisely central to the evil of the Leninist vision: it is one of equality after the “human dross” has been brutally stripped away.

The brutality of utopianism
For the practice of utopianism must always be a brutal exercise. It rests on a vision of social perfection that must be deeply alienated from not only institutions as they are, but people as they are. Since the vision is the source of legitimacy, all contradictions to it have to be done away with. Tyranny and murder, often mass murder, are the necessary tools of utopianism’s war against human nature.

We can see a petit version of this in monotheism’s longstanding war against human sexual diversity that many American conservatives are committed to continuing indefinitely. Dealing with human nature not as it is (diverse in erotic orientation), but as they insist it ought to be, or is “properly” conceived to be, (uniform in such orientation). Their denigration (or, at best, disregarding) of the rejected human “dross” is well within wider utopian patterns. (With a record of brutality behind it.)

Equalitarian movements are another denial of human diversity, though far more complete ones. In order to achieve their vision of social equality, social life must be pervasively controlled to ensure no other outcome is permitted. Which means there has to be pervasive controllers, ever alert for any deviation from the legitimating aim. Between the knowing, equalising elite and those to be equalised there must be a profound—indeed deadly—inequality. Inequality of power, of status, of deemed understanding. The tendency for equalitarian movements to end up in tyranny and mass murder is not some denial of the aim of equality of outcome, but a natural consequence of it.

Since Goldberg is also a Joss Whedon fan—a definite sign of good judgement—I can do no better than quote The Master Himself on the vision underlying his wonderful SF movie Serenity of:
We have a right to be ourselves. And that is where the utopian vision stops. For whenever you create some kind of Utopia you find something ugly working underneath it being basically what this movie is about …

Different visions
Hitler’s criticism of Marxism of being too in thrall to the false ideals of democracy and equality sounds peculiar, until one realises that what he took from Leninism was its methods, whose nature he saw more clearly than many a Western academic.

The end state of fascism, particularly Nazism, is not, however, an equalitarian vision. The Nazi end state was a master race empire with surviving subject races working for the master race. At the end of their pile of corpses there is still intended to be a profoundly unequal society: one moreover flowing out of a glorification of an imagined past. This makes both Leninism and Nazism profoundly noxious political philosophies in their shared political totalism: in the unbounded nature of their ends, their notion of the scope of politics and the means they are willing to engage in to obtain them, a totalism Hitler took from Lenin either directly or mediated through Mussolini and Stalin. It also makes them different political philosophies.

It is also a long way away from the politics of liberal Democrats. Though not so far from the politics and practice of Hamas or Hezbollah. Describing jihadis as ‘Islamofascists’ does point to genuine historical resonances. As I wrote in my review essay:
For Hamas, Hezbollah and the jihadis are the contemporary analogues of fascism—modernising revolts against modernity (seen as alien, anti-religious and Western), preaching an atavistic (and anti-traditionalist) form of Islam, promoting a cult of death and violence, engaged in brutality and murder; the rhetoric of violence backed up by deeds of violence: in Hezbollah’s case with a uniformed paramilitary, straight-armed salute and all. (Osama bin Laden even has the war veteran mystique working for him that both Mussolini and Hitler did.)
To call the jihadis “Islamoliberals” or “IslamoDemocrats” would be beyond silly.

Goldberg's claim that I:
makes exactly this error my focusing on what Communists said but on what Nazis did. If you actually compare the rhetoric to the rhetoric and the actions to the actions, you find the similarities are far more significant than the differences
is clearly wrong. Even in terms of the review itself, not only do I make the point about fascism being a crossover political phenomenon, I also make the point that both Mussolini and Hitler adopted Lenin's political approach of totalist politics (politics unconstrained in means and ends) for their own political projects. As for mass murder, I wrote:
nationalism—if conceived according to a myth of common ancestors—was as apt as class politics to extermination by category: to the identification of categories of people who should not exist (at least, not within our borders).
Goldberg’s claim that they are all manifestations of the politics of secular salvation has the advantage of being true. As I wrote in my review:
That the overlap between the modern progressivist Left and fascism has increased is true: anti-globalisation, identity politics and deep green environmentalism are all forms of anti-Enlightenment romanticism, as is much anti-commercialism. Adding to the overlap is hostility to a Jewish entity (Israel). Their self-righteous parading of morally heroic purposes has affinities with the Will glorification of Fascism. There is much of Gleichschaltung in the progressivist Left’s constant treatment of dissent against its premises as malignancy, including rednecks-have-no-speech-rights jurisprudence. Particularly in the global warming panic, with the patent desire to forge a Volksgemeinschaft from decarbonisation. That does not make modern progressivists fascists, however. Not even in their penchant for rhetorical incivility. Overlap is not identity. The true root of George Monbiot finding deliberate drowning of airline executive “climate criminals” “strangely attractive” is not fascism (not even Nazi “Versailles criminals” accusatory rhetoric), it is Robespierre or Saint Just deeming all opposition to the virtuous common will to be wicked and malignant and thus worthy of the guillotine. That the jacobin impulse of redemptive politics keeps reinventing itself does not mean its various manifestations are the same manifestation.
If Goldberg had confined himself to tracing these congruences, he would have done a singular service. It is his trying to decouple ‘fascism’ from its historical moorings that I dispute. There is power to Tom Wolfe’s bon mot
How come fascism is always dawning in America but only ever arrives in Europe?
which Goldberg falsely subverts by turning ‘fascism’ into a term of such breadth as to be emptied of its connection to what happened. I continue to insist that the term ‘fascism’ be anchored in history: not let loose as a floating generic category to be wilfully applied to people and movements who—quite rightly—would strenuously reject it.

Apart from the issue of what one means by equality, Goldberg evades rather than responds to my review's critique.


  1. It is possible that the concept of the Left-Right political spectrum is the single most unhelpful meme on the political landscape. No problem with the use of left and right as labels for identifiable groups - the NSW Labor right or the left faction in the Federal party. But it does not work with ideological space, a point that I have been labouring with singularly little effect for some time. The most obvious reason is the fact that the groups on the so-called Right are not just diverse but in many cases flat out opposed to each other. Another reason is that fascism is a form of socialism and as such has no place at all on the so-called Right.
    In the 1980s someone wrote a pamphlet about the Fabians. A copy will one day be excavated from the midden of literature in my room. The author claimed that the left-right distinction was invented by the Fabians in the 1920s with the aim of scrambling the terms of political debate for their own advantage, that is, to create a deep-seated impression that to be "right" is just plain wrong in progressive circles, even while the policies of pervasive state intervention to subvert free markets which they pursued are for practical purposes identical to the policies of the dreaded "right".
    This tactic proved to be successful due to the pervasive economic illiteracy across the political spectrum and the absence of classical liberalism as a cohesive political force for most of the 20th century. The revival of classical liberalism in the form of the so-called New Right was greeted with shock and horror by both sides of politics.

  2. I notice that Wikipedia confirms what was my impression that, the terms "Left" and "Right" date back to the French Revolution.

    But that there are problems with labelling "ideological space" in that way, I would clearly agree with you.