The Scholarly Flaws of "Liberal Fascism"


Robert Paxton is emeritus professor of history at Columbia University. His latest book is Anatomy of Fascism (Vintage, 2005).

Jonah Goldberg tells us he wrote this book to get even.  The liberals started it by “insist[ing] that conservatism has connections with fascism” (p.  22).  Conservatives “sit dumbfounded by the nastiness of the slander” (p.  1).   “The left wields the term fascism like a cudgel” (p.  3).   So Jonah Goldberg has decided it is time to turn the tables and show that “the liberal closet has its own skeletons” (p.  22).   After years of being “called a fascist and a Nazi by smug, liberal know-nothings” he decides that “responding to this slander is a point of personal privilege” (p.  392). 

Feeling oneself a victim is wonderfully liberating.  Anything goes.  So Jonah Goldberg pulls out all the stops to show that fascism “is not a phenomenon of the right at all.  It is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left” (p.  7).  The reader perceives at once that Goldberg likes to put things into rigid boxes: right and left, conservative and liberal, fascist and non-fascist.  He doesn’t leave room for such complexities as convergences, middle grounds, or evolution over time.  Thus Father Coughlin was always a man of the left, and so was Mussolini (Giacomo Matteotti or the Rosselli brothers, leaders of the Italian left whom Mussolini had assassinated, would have been scandalized by this view).  The very mention of a “Third Way” puts one instantly into the fascist box.

That’s too bad, because there really is a subject here.  Fascism – a political latecomer that adapted anti-socialism to a mass electorate, using means that often owed nothing to conservatism – drew on both right and left, and tried to transcend that bitter division in a purified, invigorated, expansionist national community.  A sensitive analysis of what fascism drew from all quarters of the political spectrum would be a valuable project.  It is not Jonah Goldberg’s project.

The bottom line is that Goldberg wants to attach a defaming epithet to liberals and the left, to “put the brown shirt on [your] opponents,” as he accuses the liberals of doing (p.  392).  He goes about this task with a massive apparatus of scholarly citations and quotations.  But Goldberg’s scholarship is not an even-handed search for understanding, following the best evidence fully and open-mindedly wherever it might lead.  He chooses his scholarly data selectively and sometimes misleadingly in the service of his demonstration. 

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.

Liberal Fascism is an oxymoron, of course.  A fascism that means no harm is a contradiction in terms.  Authentic fascists intend to harm those whom they define as the nation’s internal and external enemies.  Someone who doesn’t intend to harm his or her enemies, and who doesn’t relish doing it violently, isn’t really fascist. 

But the problems go much deeper.  Pushing Liberalism and Fascism together requires distorting both terms.  It doesn’t help that these are two of the most problematical words in the political lexicon.  To his credit, Goldberg is aware that the term “liberal” has been corrupted in contemporary American usage.  It ought to mean (and still means in the rest of the world) a principled opposition to state interference in the economy, from Adam Smith to Ronald Reagan.  Goldberg sometimes refers to “classical liberalism” in this sense, and with approval.  Unfortunately he has capitulated to the sloppy current American usage by which “liberal” means, usually pejoratively nowadays, any and all of the various components of the Left, from anarchists and Marxists to moderate Democrats. 

Goldberg stereotypes liberals to make them abstract, uniform, robotic.   The telltale phrase is “liberals say” or “liberals think” (mostly without anyone quoted or footnoted).   For example, “Liberals .  .  .  claim” that free-market economics is fascist (p.  22).  Could we please have a few examples of “liberals” who say this? It is a straw man, as is the vast, ghostly “liberal mind” that sounds like a physical reality: “fascism, shorn of the word, endures in the liberal mind” (p.  161).  Does this liberal mind have a telephone number, as Henry Kissinger said famously of the European Union?

This “liberal mind” is a very big tent.  Goldberg believes that moderate reformists are essentially involved in the same project as radical activists.  Bernardine Dohrn, Mark Rudd, Al Gore, Hilary Clinton are all devoted in one way or another to the allegedly fascist project of taking action to make a better world.   

Goldberg makes sure we understand that force and violence are integral to this “liberal” project of state action to improve society.  Robespierre’s terror begins “liberalism” in this sense, and Goldberg attributes  to it a fanciful fifty thousand deaths (the scholarly consensus is 12,000, which is bad enough).  Later he spends a lot of time on the worst excesses of 1960s radicalism, as if the Weathermen and Hilary Clinton belong together as seekers of a new community. 

Fascism is given an equally broad definition:  it is any use of state power to make the world better and to create a community.  This is not only too vague to mean much, it is simply wrong.  Authentic fascists have never wanted to make the whole world better.  As uncompromising nationalists, they want to make their own group stronger, purer, and more unified, and establish its domination over inferior groups, by force if necessary.  Goldberg’s real target is state activism, and matters would be much clearer if he had just left it at that. 

Having headlined the violent history of “liberalism,” Goldberg soft-pedals that of fascists, especially Mussolini.  There are the ritual references to Auschwitz, but he denies that racial extermination is integral to Nazism by noting how many Progressive reformers fell for Eugenics in the early twentieth century.  His Mussolini – that lifelong “man of the left – is seen largely through the eyes of his many foolish American admirers.  Che Guevara killed more people than Mussolini, he asserts (p.  194).  This is possible only if one leaves out of the picture the murder of over a thousand Italian citizens by the squadristi who brought Mussolini to the brink of power in 1922, or of the Italians’ use of poison gas, forced displacement into camps, and aerial strafing against the populations of Libya and Ethiopia.

Goldberg simply omits those parts of fascist history that fit badly with his demonstration.  His method is to examine fascist rhetoric, but to ignore how fascist movements functioned in practice.  Since the Nazis recruited their first mass following among the economic and social losers of Weimar Germany, they could sound anti-capitalist at the beginning.  Goldberg makes a big thing of the early programs of the Nazi and Italian Fascist Parties, and publishes the Nazi Twenty-five Points as an appendix.  A closer look would show that the Nazis’ anti-capitalism was a selective affair, opposed to international capital and finance capital, department stores and Jewish businesses, but nowhere opposed to private property per se or favorable to a transfer of all the means of production to public ownership.

A still closer look at how the fascist parties obtained power and then exercised power would show how little these early programs corresponded to fascist practice.  Mussolini acquired powerful backing by hiring his black-shirted squadristi out to property owners for the destruction of socialist and Communist unions and parties.  They destroyed the farm workers’ organizations in the Po Valley in 1921-1922 by violent nightly raids that made them the de facto government of northeastern Italy.  Hitler’s brownshirts fought Communists for control of the streets of Berlin, and claimed to be Germany’s best bulwark against the revolutionary threat that still appeared to be growing in 1932.  Goldberg prefers the abstractions of rhetoric to all this history, noting only that fascism and Communism were “rivals.” So his readers will not learn anything about how the Nazis and Italian Fascists got into power or exercised it. 

The two fascist chiefs obtained power not by election nor by coup but by invitation from German President Hindenberg and his advisors, and Italian King Victor Emanuel III and his advisors (not a leftist among them).  The two heads of state wanted to harness the fascists’ numbers and energy to their own project of blocking the Marxists, if possible with broad popular support.  This does not mean that fascism and conservatism are identical (they are not), but they have historically found essential interests in common.

Once in power, the two fascist chieftains worked out a fruitful if sometimes contentious relationship with business.  German business had been, as Goldberg correctly notes, distrustful of the early Hitler’s populist rhetoric.  Hitler was certainly not their first choice as head of state, and many of them preferred a trading economy to an autarkic one.  Given their real-life options in 1933, however, the Nazi regulated economy seemed a lesser evil than the economic depression and worker intransigence they had known under Weimar.  They were delighted with Hitler’s abolition of independent labor unions and the right to strike (unmentioned by Goldberg), and profited greatly from his rearmament drive.  All of them would have found ludicrous the notion that the Nazis, once in power, were on the left.  So would the socialist and communist leaders who were the first inhabitants of the Nazi concentration camps (unmentioned by Goldberg). 

In the Italian case, Goldberg somehow imagines that Mussolini’s much-vaunted corporatism was a device to subject businessmen to total state control.  Scholars who have looked at the way corporatism actually worked have generally concluded that Italian businessmen simply ran the economy through the corporatist agencies that they easily dominated.  Corporatism – the management of an economy by joint committees of businessmen, labor representatives and government officials who organize the economy sector by sector, to emphasize common interests over class differences – functions quite differently, of course, under different regimes.  In the Italian Fascist case, quite unlike the New Deal, labor representatives were, in the end, excluded from any meaningful role. 

Having set up distorted stereotypes of “liberalism” and “fascism” Goldberg finds them united by a host of similar projects such as campaigns against smoking (it was Nazi doctors who first established the link between smoking and cancer, and Hitler was a fanatical anti-smoker).  These similarities concern peripheral matters.  The foundational qualities that separate liberalism from fascism simply vanish from the analysis: political pluralism vs. single party; universal values vs. the supremacy of a master race; elections vs. charismatic leadership; fascism’s exaltation of feelings over reason. 

Goldberg has indeed unearthed plenty of skeletons in the liberal closet, such as the Eugenics fad.  Some liberal violations of human rights were temporary, as in war government.  Others were the work of radicals of the left who made war on liberals, hated them, and have no place in an analysis of liberalism properly understood.   

This book is stuffed with references to scholarly work that make it look authoritative.  But when something really surprising comes along, we look in vain for a footnote.  Did Hitler really write a fan letter to that Jew-loving plutocrat FDR in 1935? No footnote.  How do we know that the New Dealer Hugh Johnson read Fascist tracts, and for what purpose (p.  156)?  And that FDR put a hundred thousand American citizens into camps (p.  160)?  Does he mean that C.C.C.? In what sense was “deconstruction” a Nazi coinage (p.  173)?  Goldberg probably means Heidegger, but he wants us to think Goebbels.  Just which proponents of affirmative action claimed that their opponents were on a slippery slope to Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and in what words (p.  243)?  Exactly where and when did Al Gore say that global warming is the equivalent of the Holocaust, and what were his actual words (p.  314)?  The list of bombshell remarks smuggled into this text without any reference to a credible source could go on and on. 

Goldberg hijacks scholarly work and applies it in misleading ways for his own purposes.  Henry Ashby Turner, Jr., showed conclusively that German businessmen were often skeptical of Hitler in the early days.  Since they gave money to all non-Socialist parties, the small amounts they gave the Nazis prove nothing.  But Turner’s book stops in January 1933.  Goldberg extends Turner’s conclusions misleadingly into the later period, ignoring the way German businessmen adjusted to the new situation.  David Schoenbaum meant his title Hitler’s Social Revolution ironically: Hitler recruited all the losers in Germany’s 1920s crises, and then betrayed them by following policies favorable to big business and big agriculture after January 1933.  Goldberg appropriates this book’s first half misleadingly to support his fantastical conclusion that Hitler was always “a man of the left.”

Jonah Goldberg sometimes sounds sweetly reasonable.  Liberals mean well, they aren’t taking us toward Auschwitz.  The filiation is intellectual, not a matter of exact identity.  Fascism takes a different form in each national setting (very true), and it takes a “softer form” (p.  391) in the United States.   Then he drops the mask and goes on a rant.  In the chapter headings and subheadings – the parts that casual readers will remember -- liberals are fascists pure and simple.   For example: “Franklin Roosevelt’s Fascist New Deal” (p.  121);  “The Great Society: LBJ’s Fascist Utopia” (p.  329), and so on. 

While Goldberg is reasonably careful of names, dates, and quotations, his more general judgments often go badly awry.  It is not true that “the hard left had almost nothing to say about Italian Fascism for most of its first decade” (p.  30).  The Third International diagnosed it right away, clumsily, as an agent of capitalism.  The Italian elections of 1924 were not “reasonably fair” (p.  50), for according to the Acerbo Election Law passed at Fascist insistence just beforehand, the leading party would automatically receive two thirds of the parliamentary seats.  It is untrue that Germany spent relatively little on armaments in the first years; they spent as much as they were allowed under the Versailles Treaty, and then arranged secretly for further training and arms development in the Soviet Union (p.  151), a point that ought to suit Goldberg quite well.  Hitler never ever campaigned from the back of an old pickup truck (p.  289).

Jonah Goldberg does not tell us much about his own beliefs, except that he loves America.  But it is clear that he inhabits a world where the sole serious danger to individual and national wellbeing is the state.  No rogue corporations, no drunk drivers, no polluting factories, no well-funded lobbies threaten us, only the state.  Anything that enhances the power and reach of the state is bad, even George W.  Bush’s “compassionate conservatism.”

If you are looking for brickbats to throw at Democrats, reformers, environmentalists and other do-gooders, you will enjoy this book.  If you are looking for some reasoned arguments about the politics of our time, you will find both liberalism and fascism grossly distorted in this tract.


HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism

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Louis Godena - 2/2/2010

The sight of elderly, affable Professor Paxton confronting Mr Goldberg's menagerie of beer-hall putschists is straight out of Weimar. After all, the eclipse of the traditionally respectable by the new and radical (if highly unstable)was a hallmark of the years preceding 1933. It is clear to just about everyone that American liberalism's star is fading, and that arcane and cogent (and ultimately bloodless) academia is not going to save it. Professor Paxton, *et al* have already lost the argument, in fact, merely by appearing here. Of course, there is little logic (and even less common sense) in what Mr Goldberg writes, but it *sounds* true to a disillusioned majority who've had it with the orderly and the respectable. The Israeli historian Zeev Sternhell (*The Birth of Fascist Ideology*) is very suggestive on this point.

James Daniel Beall - 1/30/2010

Just a few comments in Goldberg's defense...
Robert Paxton writes, "Mussolini acquired powerful backing by hiring his black-shirted squadristi out to property owners for the destruction of socialist and Communist unions and parties." I would argue that Mussolini disposed of these groups because they threatened his power and control. This does not automatically prove they were on the other end of the political spectrum.

You also comment, "But it is clear that he inhabits a world where the sole serious danger to individual and national wellbeing is the state. No rogue corporations, no drunk drivers, no polluting factories, no well-funded lobbies threaten us, only the state." How many subjects can one book cover? Would it be correct of me to say, Robert Paxton inhabits a world where the sole serious danger to individual and national wellbeing is fascism," because that is all you write about in "The Anatomy of Fascism"? What, no drunk drivers in "The Anatomy of Fascism"?

All political language, parties, definitions have evolved throughout the ages. Is today's Republican Party the same as Lincoln's? The term "liberalism" has evolved as well. Just because you believe, "It ought to mean (and still means in the rest of the world) a principled opposition to state interference in the economy, from Adam Smith to Ronald Reagan." does not make it so. Ask any liberal in the U.S. to define what they stand for and you will NOT get anything close to that definition. To blame Goldberg for using the American consensus for the term in 2010, instead of Adam Smith's 18th century version, is absurd.

You said, "The two fascist chiefs obtained power not by election nor by coup but by invitation from German President Hindenberg and his advisors, and Italian King Victor Emanuel III and his advisors (not a leftist among them)." I read (and thoroughly enjoyed) "The Anatomy of Fascism." As I recall you portrayed King Victor Emanual III as a very weak leader whom Mussolini successfully bluffed with a show of power upon marching on Rome. You wrote that prior to the March on Rome, "Nevertheless, the prime minister began vigorous countermeasures. With the king's approval, Facta had already reinforced the Rome garrison...Now he ordered police ...to stop the Fascist trains."(p.89) Then, "At the last moment King Victor Emmanuel III balked...He refused to call Mussolini's bluff."(p.90) This was hardly an "invitation." You also wrote that Hitler had come to power through the political blunderings of Franz von Papen, the feebleness of the 86 year old Paul von Hindenburg, and by corrupt politics such as when he "assembled his two-thirds majority for the Enabling Act...aided by the arrest of communist deputies."(p107) This is a far cry from an "invitation." For you to change the essence of your own scholarship to make a point is disappointing.

Danny Beall

John Kassel - 1/26/2010

One note:
Goldberg's reference to "FDR put a hundred thousand American citizens into camps (p.160)" is undoubtedly referring to the internment of citizens whose only crime was Japanese ancestry (and some Germans).
Not the C.C.C., although JG might consider that a lesser abomination.

Javier Ramirez - 1/25/2010

This essay is perhaps the most reasonable of all the essays. I agree that a fruitful discussion of fascism should include its pedigree not just in the left but the right as well. That is why trying to find a modern political connection to fascsim is fruitless for serious reading. Each side can rightly find something to connect it to.

I found this book very embarrasing. Im not convinced that his thesis is totally discredited. It's nothing new with him and others have made a stronger case. However Goldberg blows it with his historical errors and definitional problems. His attempt to connect fascism with Kennedy, Clinton, and Rousseau is idiotic

Goldberg's juvenile errors opened himself up to the justified criticisms leveled in this essay.

Another excellent critique by someone you would think would mindlessly endorse this book is by David Gordon, scholar at the Mises Institute, in his "Fascism, Left and Right". His rigourous critique surgically tears apart Goldberg's hisorical blunders and interpretations of philosphers.