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Ron Radosh

Just Who is Losing His Marbles? An Answer to Hendrik Hertzberg

March 5th, 2009 - 6:08 pm

The issue of fascism and its meaning is a contentious one.  At the blog website of The New Yorker, Rick Hertzberg, a senior editor and a columnist for “The Talk of The Town,” goes after me for comments I made on my last blog. He writes that his “old acquaintance has completely lost his marbles.”  What particularly upsets him is my quote from an unnamed historian, who wrote to me that Obama’s policies are leading to “a party-state regime” which amounts to “fascism American style.”

In Hertzberg’s eyes, anyone using the term fascist as a description for where the United States might be heading is spreading “garbage,” or at the least “suffering from a delusionary psychosis.” I’m afraid Hertzberg’s understanding of the term fascism shows little historical knowledge.

Hertzberg has also attacked both Michael Ledeen and Jonah Goldberg in an earlier entry for  daring to write, as Ledeen did  at PJM, that Obama’s planned economic moves fit the fascist description, since fascism is “an expansion of the state’s role, an increase in public/private joint ventures and partnerships, and much more state regulation of business.”

Hertzberg describes Ledeen as “the well-known philosopher-skulker of the shadowy right.” Ledeen is hardly shadowy, and he is not a philosopher. Hertzberg does not seem to know that Ledeen is a Ph.D. in European History whose specialty is that of a student of fascism, with a particular expertise in the Italian variety as practiced by Benito Mussolini. I would take Ledeen’s judgment any day on what is and what is not fascist.

Hertzberg continues on to make yet another point. In “certain precincts of the left,” (i.e., Communist)  he writes, social-democrats and liberals were denounced in the 1930′s as fascists, and in the 1960′s “loony lefties deployed the fascist label” against both Republicans and Democrats. He cites in particular the crazed ultra-leftists of the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army, the group that kidnapped heiress Patty Hearst. Now, he says, citing Jonah Goldberg’s best-selling book, Liberal Fascism, that “the right has picked up where the Comintern left off.”

Really?   Jonah Goldberg in his response today at “The Corner,” on the website of National Review hits Hertzberg hard, citing example after example-  many of which I think Rick is actually quite familiar with- of very influential and mainstream leftists in the 1930′s who not only said elements of FDR’s New Deal were fascist, but supported it for precisely that reason. Primary is General Hugh Johnson, head of the National Recovery Act enforcement mechanism,  which held the famous “Blue Eagle” campaign. As Goldberg notes, Johnson had a portrait of Mussolini behind his desk, gave out the Italian dictator’s writings to the President’s Cabinet, and favored an American style corporate state modeled on that proposed by Mussolini.

I have pointed out elsewhere that the head of American labor in the 1920′s, Samuel Gompers (President of The American Federation of Labor) also endorsed Mussolini’s vision and heralded American unions as part of the future mechanism of a new state modeled on that of Mussolini. And as for critics of FDR, the American Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas—who as I recall sent Hertzberg’s parents a nice note when he was born—condemned the New Deal as fascist and called for all good socialists to reject it precisely for that reason.

As for the Left of the 1960′s, I would point out one example that Hertzberg should be quite familiar with. It does not come from the ranks of the “loony left” he cites to discredit anyone who called America fascist. Nor does this individual come from those who are “marginal cranks,” unlike those figures on the right whom he says now have great influence on policy and who have “comfortable perches at conservative think tanks.”

Rather, the use of the term fascist comes from the pen of a ranking social-democrat who was involved  in the same political circles as Rick Hertzberg.  I am referring to the late Bertram Gross, the man who wrote the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, a key social-democratic piece of legislation actively supported by Michael Harrington, as well as major New Deal pieces of legislation from 1941 to 1945, including the Roosevelt Full Employment Act. He also created the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under Truman, for which he served as its Executive Secretary.

Despite all his service to Presidents from FDR to LBJ, in 1980 Gross wrote a widely discussed book, called—–Friendly Fascism, the term he used to describe what he thought the United States had become, as he saw it moving away from his beloved social democracy to something else. America, he wrote, was moving to a greater concentration of power and wealth in a new Big Business-Big Government partnership, a new form of corporatist fascism.

Gross called America a friendly form of fascism particularly to distinguish it from the classic evil fascist states he opposed, as well as the reactionary proto-fascist regimes the US supported in the Third World. In his eyes, the future America was fascist, and nothing was taking place that could prevent its development. He notes that America’s fascism would consist of an alliance of big business with government, to produce a new corporate authoritarianism that Gross thought subverted constitutional democracy.

Now Gross may have overreached, and he may have been wrong. But Hertzberg, a journalist who has consistently and one could say uncritically supported  Barack Obama- and who like many of his peers relentlessly criticized and attacked Bush-is hardly one to complain when critics today raise intelligent questions about where Obama is leading America.

In failing to note my main point-that we need a thoughtful analysis of the direction in which  Obama is taking our nation, and diverting it to an a historical one about “fascism”- Hertzberg shortchanges his readers.  He certainly has a right to defend and promote and support Obama and to believe all Americans should unite behind him; I would be surprised if he changed his position- but he should think carefully before making the charge that those who feel otherwise have lost their marbles.

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