Monday, January 25, 2010

Refuting Jonah Goldberg's crackpot theory about fascism

Dave Neiwert, who has written extensively about Jonah Goldberg's crackpot book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning (2007), a propaganda tract that argues the fascism and the National Socialist (Nazi) variety of it were leftwing political movements, organized an online symposium of academic experts on the topic at the History News Network that appears today.

Dave provides the Introduction, noting at the beginning that Goldberg himself declined to participate. As he explains, academic reviewers largely ignored it because in terms of its substance, it was a total crank work. But, as Dave explains:

And yet, here we are two years later, and it turns out that many people indeed have taken Goldberg’s book seriously. Not only was Liberal Fascism a national bestseller that to date reportedly has sold some sixty million copies worldwide, but its core thesis – that, "properly understood, fascism is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left” – has become widely accepted conventional wisdom among American conservatives, and has played a significant role in the national discourse. Along the way, it morphed into the claim that the agenda of Democratic liberals, and particularly President Obama, was an innately fascist attempt to impose a totalitarian state, something Goldberg himself only intimated in the book, though he later confirmed it in a National Review article. ...

Goldberg’s thesis has become the running theme for Glenn Beck’s wildly popular Fox News program, in which Beck regularly insists that Obama is secretly a radical fascist (or Marxist, or socialist, or Communist, depending on that day’s flavor), and that the progressive movement – dating back to Woodrow Wilson – not only is at the root of all the nation’s miseries, but represents a concerted effort to remake America as a totalitarian state. Beck has regularly equated fascism with progressivism, a claim central to Goldberg’s book. And indeed, Goldberg himself has appeared on Beck’s show numerous times to promote these claims.

Beck is hardly alone in this regard. At various times, such right-wing pundits as Rush Limbaugh (for whom the claim was actually old hat), Sean Hannity, and Michael Savage have promoted the “liberal fascism” thesis as well.
I generally try to avoid the term "fascism" in reference to present-day regimes and movements, just because it became a vague epithet long before Goldberg's book was published. And also because it's a difficult historical concept. Mussolini's party in Italy called itself the Fascist Party, so it's safe to say they were fascists. The Austrian "Standesstaat" regime of 1933-38, usually called "clerical-fascist" in English, was closely modeled on Mussolini's movement and governing. Franco's movement in Spain was often called fascist, though one of the leading experts in the field, Robert Paxton, didn't include it as one of the fascist regimes he describes in his main book on the subject, The Anatomy of Fascism. And Hitler's Nazi Party and government are also commonly called fascist. But among historians and political scientists, there is a dispute over whether that dictatorship was similar enough to that in Italy that it should be called fascist, or whether National Socialism/Nazism should be seen as a distinct form of dictatorship. I generally only use the term in relation to those historical movements and governments in Italy, Germany, Austria and Spain. And I usually call the Hitler regime "National Socialist"' "Nazi" is an abbreviation of "National Socialist".

Here's a sample of the analyses at HNN. Robert Paxton:

Jonah Goldberg knows that making the Progressives, Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR the creators of an American fascism – indeed the only American fascism, for George Lincoln Rockwell and other overt American fascist or Nazi sympathizers are totally absent from this book – is a stretch, so he has created a new box: Liberal Fascism. The Progressives and their heirs who wanted to use government to rectify social and economic ills, and who, in Goldberg’s view, thereby created an American Fascism, acted with good intentions, rarely used violence, and had nothing to do with Auschwitz. Even so, they share an intellectual heredity and a set of common goals with the European fascists. So they go into the “Liberal Fascist” box.
Roger Griffin focuses on analyzing the pseudohistorical methodology Goldberg uses, e.g., when Goldberg argues, "Woodrow Wilson was the twentieth century's first fascist dictator". (!!) This is important, because obsessive footnoting and citing of authorities is ironically one characteristic of a lot of anti-intellectual rightwing propaganda:

[Goldberg's book] owes its success partly to masquerading as a serious work of academic analysis, one which mendaciously claims to unmask the conventional wisdom within the political and historical sciences on the subject of fascism as politically biased and conceptually confused. Its true purpose is to uncover subterranean (and, to the non-paranoid, wholly fictitious) links between contemporary U.S. Democrats and the values of the same Axis regimes the U.S. fought so heroically on D-Day and beyond to rid the world of genuinely fascist totalitarian regimes. [my emphasis]
Of all the essays in this collection, Griffin's has the most stuffy academic tone. But he makes some very good points, including a really usefull summary of the academic consensus (such as it is) within the last decade on defining fascism.

Griffin does use the silly Republican grammar of "Democrat politics" at one point in his essay. But he makes an interesting side remark about the Frankfurt School philosopher Herbert Marcuse:

The idea that the U.S. under FDR was a totalitarian society in this sense is another example of the distortion of language and history that permeates this book (Marcuse accused liberal society of being totalitarian but at least this was based on a consistent Marxist critique of capitalism).
Actually, Marcuse's analysis was also based on a Freudian psychoanalytic understanding of the increasing role of guilt and internal psychological repression that Freud observed in advanced 20th century societies.

Marcuse's essay collection Negations: Essays in Critical Theory (1973) includes a philosophical essay on the rejection of liberalism by the National Socialists, "The Struggle Against Liberalism in The Totalitarian View of The State". It originally appeared in German in 1934 as "Der Kampf gegen den Liberalismus in der totalitären Staatsauffassung" in the main Frankfurt School journal, the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung.

Matthew Feldman also describes the pseudohistorical nature of Goldberg's propaganda tract. He gives this description of the conceptual hash with which Goldberg and his like-minded admirers operate:

Yet even [Mussolini's book] The Doctrine of Fascism would not be fascism in Goldberg's hands. For fascism is not fascism here. It is anything Goldberg wishes it to be; notably trends in modern American politics and culture that he clearly dislikes. ... this is certainly not a book for anyone attempting a better understanding of fascist ideology, although it may be a useful barometer of the so-called "culture wars" in the contemporary United States. At points, Liberal Fascism even admits as much; for example, "one of the main reasons I've written the book [is] to puncture the smug self-confidence that simply by virtue of being liberal one is also virtuous" (317-8). Indeed, the book's first paragraph already sets out the real antagonists in Goldberg's account, namely "[a]ngry liberals" and "besieged conservatives." Regrettably, his hostility better characterizes the rhetoric of ideological rivals like fascism and communism – radical right-wing and radical left-wing, respectively, despite Goldberg's sleight of hand – rather than one end of a democratic spectrum. And you certainly wouldn't know that fascists and communists fought it out on the streets and battlefields for very different ideological doctrines. Instead, reading Liberal Fascism, you might think they rather liked one another.
I would add that in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, the Social Democrats also fought it out physically with the Nazis and other far-right groups allied with the Nazis, even though the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Communists never managed to cooperate actively in support of the Weimar Republic. The Catholic Center Party, on the other hand, which along with the SPD was one of the two core parties of the Weimar Republic, was severely handicapped in the early 1930s as street violence escalated because they didn't have their own party militia/fighting group/goon squad.

Chip Berlet:

Fascism, Nazism, Communism, the [Franklin] Roosevelt administration, and the modern Welfare State share degrees of government intervention in the economy. They are not equivalent, and there is no evidence that government planning leads to totalitarianism any more than drinking tea leads to opium addiction. This is a classic logical error.
Berlet also comments on the often under-estimated influence of the John Birch Society (JBS) on present-day Republican politics. The JBS is a virtual mother ship of bad ideas:

While working on an investigative article in the early 1980s, a harried Reagan White House switchboard operator mistook who I was and plugged me into the office of presidential adviser and ultra-conservative guru Morton Blackwell. We had a marvelous discussion about how important the John Birch Society literature was for training young conservatives; how he had shelves full of JBS material in his office; how he shared the JBS books with the White House Staff; and how he was trying to see if JBS and similar literature could be sent to U.S. embassy libraries around the world. Marginal ideas? Not.

Jonah Goldberg does not list the John Birch Society as a major source, but he should have, since his book is like a compendium of JBS articles published over the last fifty years. These ideas are now ubiquitous among right-wing populists in the Tea Party movement. Am I suggesting that Birchers, the Christian Right, and right-wing libertarians have taken over the Republican Party? Yes, although old-fashioned conservatives and political pragmatists are putting up a splendid fight for control of the Party. Do I think right-wing TV, radio, and print media are awash with right-wing conspiracy theories pioneered by the Birchers? Yes, that’s what my research shows. [my emphasis]
Berlet also adds an important cautions to liberals and progressives about assuming that anyone who attacks bankers or finance capital is a potential ally for progressive causes. Some of them are just anti-Semitic rightwingers.

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