Sunday book review: Liberal Fascism

liberal fascism

I started these reviews long ago with the best of intentions, but we all know what happens all to often to those. I don't have the time to do a lengthy review, but I do want to post some thoughts on a book I recently finished:

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Change represents an attempt at a serious revision of 20th century American political/intellectual history, arguing that US liberalism, a descendant of Progressivism, shares ideological roots in the American Pragmatist movement and Bismarck's social welfare state with Italian fascism, German Nazism, and other totalitarian movements. The author, Jonah Goldberg, even traces fascism back to the French Revolution and its attempt under Robespierre to create an all-encompassing state and replace Christianity with a Cult of Reason. Goldberg challenges the history of the 20th century as we are taught it in high school and college. Particularly striking are his discussions of the liberal fascist tendencies of the administrations of Wilson (the crackdown on dissent, for one) and FDR (the first head of the NRA, for example, was a great admirer of Mussolini), and the close ties between progressivism/liberalism and the eugenics movement, something that echoes to this day.

Goldberg also asserts that our common definition of Right and Left in politics (fascism on the Far Right, communism on the Far Left) is wrong. To the author, both fascism and communism are of the Left, because both reject classical liberalism with its emphasis on free markets, limited government, and individual liberty; the real difference between fascism and communism being that the former emphasized national (and, in Germany, racial) identity, while the latter was internationalist and stressed class identity.

On the other hand, Goldberg argues that the Right in the United States, what we call "conservatism," is really classical liberalism, which stands opposed to both totalitarianisms on the Left — and to those tendencies in modern American liberalism that would take us in that direction. This distinction, which I think is correct, is important to bear in mind when reading Liberal Fascism.

Having defined both fascism and American conservatism for the reader, Goldberg sometimes overstates his case and applies the fascist label too broadly, but, in reaching too far, he forces us to rethink "common knowledge" and admit there is some reason and justification for what he says about modern liberalism: its elevation of the collective above the individual; the role of the State as speaking for a romanticized "People;" and the emphasis on unity and feelings over reason and reasoned dissent. Cognizant of the controversial, even inflammatory nature of his thesis, Goldberg is careful to point out repeatedly that he is not calling modern liberals "fascists," but that he is taking an honest look at the intellectual heritage American liberalism shares with European fascism. Regardless of whether one agrees with his arguments, it's easy to check the author's sources, for the book is copiously footnoted.

Liberal Fascism is not an easy read, forcing one to remember long forgotten lessons in political theory (or to learn them for the first time), but it is fascinating, challenging, and eye-opening.

Highly recommended.

RELATED: A favorable review by Rich Lowry, a National Review colleague of the author. A more critical review by Michael Ledeen at Pajamas Media. The author has a blog here.

One Response to Sunday book review: Liberal Fascism

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