Faster, Please!

Fascism, Liberal and Otherwise

Jonah Goldberg, my buddy and boss at NRO, has written a fun book called “Liberal Fascism” that has a lot of people talking, and maybe even thinking. It’s a careful book, maybe even too careful. Jonah keeps on telling us that he’s not trying to make any sweeping generalizations. Despite the provocative title, he’s not saying that liberalism is the same as fascism, or that fascists were really liberals, or any such thing. What he does say–and while it’s obviously news to most of the reviewers, it’s very old hat to anyone who had studied the history of fascism (that is, all eleven or so of us here in the United States)–is that many of the iconic figures in American liberalism (and among the British left as well) greatly admired Mussolini. As well they might, he says, since he was really one of them in many ways.

Some of his fans have praised Jonah for writing a work of history, but it isn’t, really. It’s a work of political theory. What’s important for Jonah is the ideas, and he points out that many of the ideas that found a home in the fascist ideology have a surprising origin: the most radical wing of the French Revolution. And from this, and from other similar historical similarities, he concludes that fascism really has a left-wing genetic code, and therefore it’s wrong to “blame” fascism on the right.

On this central claim, Jonah is at least half right. The great masterpiece that drew the blood lines from Robespierre to modern mass movements and regimes, is Jacob Talmon’s “The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy,” now nearly half a century old. There’s no evidence that Jonah has read it. But Talmon was not just talking about fascism, he wrote about all three of the twentieth century’s terrible totalitarian movements: fascism, Nazism, and communism. In other words, the Jacobins, above all at the height of the Terror, laid down the guidelines for the totalitarian ideologies and regimes of modern times. With specific regard to Italian fascism, the first time this thesis was advanced was in a book I coauthored in the early 1970s, in a book-length interview with Renzo De Felice, the great biographer of Mussolini. When De Felice pointed out that the fascist movement drew in part on the ideology of the French Revolution (although he stressed that the intellectual lineage was somewhat spurious), there was a firestorm of criticism from the Italian left, whose leading lights had always argued that fascism was a purely reactionary phenomenon, and that only left-wing movements could legitimately be called “revolutionary.”

It doesn’t seem that Jonah is aware of this literature. But he’s got the concept right. Up to a certain point. He’s got it right when he suggests–although this could have been much more explicit–that fascism was a revolutionary movement. But then he shies away from the consequences of that insight, because many of the people he wants to call “liberal fascists” are boring reformers, certainly not revolutionaries. And he shies away from the revolutionary nature of fascism for another reason, too: because it shows that revolution is not just a leftist political phenomenon. Jonah wants to have us believe that fascism was ‘of the left.’

While certain French revolutionary ideas played into the creation of the fascist movement, and while Mussolini started life as a Socialist, and while various radical anarcho-syndicalists supported Mussolini from the very beginning (and some remained to the end), it is still a real stretch to say that fascism was somehow leftist. Mussolini came to power because his thugs won the street battles with the Socialist thugs, not because he won the support of left-wing voters, which is what Jonah seems to believe. The most I think it’s fair to say is that Mussolini put together a very broadly based movement that enabled him to seize power in 1922, win public support, and over the next twenty years he sorted out fascist doctrine and practice.

Something else also needs to be said about the left and fascism, and that is that many fascists continued to believe in a revolution, a spiritual revolution, and as the years passed they could not avoid the realization that Mussolini was not leading that revolution. In De Felice’s famous terms, there was an abyss between fascism-movement (which embraced the revolutionary ideal) and fascism-regime (which created the reactionary state). The smart Communists in Italy knew that such fascists could be recruited to the Communist Party, which was accomplished at the end of the war, and immediately thereafter. So yes, there were fascists with leftist tendencies, but they were alienated from the regime, embittered by its reactionary nature, and eventually went elsewhere. If anything, their stories show how little ‘leftism’ survived the twenty years of fascist rule.

What is missing from Jonah’s book–he mentions it in passing a few times, but never gives it the weight it deserves–is the specific historical context from which fascism was born: the First World War. Fascism was created in the trenches of that war, it was a war ideology from beginning to end, and the central core of fascism was composed of two basic concepts: first the conviction that the only people worthy of political power were those who had been tested and proven in combat (for the most part, the brownshirts were veterans, and the Socialists they attacked had been pacifists or neutralists or isolationists). And second, that the essence of Western civilization was under siege from the left, that is, from Communists and Socialists.

Jonah, instead, says (pg. 80) “Fascism, at its core, is the view that every nook and cranny of society should work together in spiritual union toward the same goals overseen by the state.” That is not fascism; it’s absolute monarchy, it’s the Sun King in France, it’s the great enlightened despots like Frederick the Great. But it’s not Mussolini or his imitators, and certainly not Hitler, whose vision was global, not just national. The issue is “the same goals,” not just the methods of rule, and here’s where Jonah’s eccentric thesis, for all its provocative value, leaves history behind and strides into…vision, I suppose. Just a few lines later, he claims that “Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century’s first fascist dictator,” and that’s just silly. I am second to no one in my antipathy for Wilson–I once wrote a book that lambasted him for his stupid politics after the War–but he wasn’t a single-party dictator, which fascism always was.

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.

One final concern has to do with Jonah’s tendency to equate European and American politics, when the differences are enormously important. There has never been a successful worker’s party or worker’s movement in the United States, as Seymour Martin Lipset has explained. And there is no American nationalism of the sort that exists in Europe, either. They’re nationalists, we’re patriots, and the two are quite different. Jonah often seems to think that the same words mean the same thing on both sides of the Atlantic, but it is not so.

He is, however, entirely right to stress the enormous sympathy for Mussolini among “progressive” American intellectuals and politicians. To be sure, it had been said before, but Jonah says it well, he expands the argument with wisdom and good humor, and he has done a real service in battering down the intellectual boundaries that were painstakingly erected after the Second World War. And he is right, in my view, that many of these boundaries were created to protect the left from the sort of critical examination it deserved. Now, in no small part because of the debate over “Liberal Fascism,” that examination may begin.