Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fascism is not liberal: The profound dishonesty of Jonah Goldberg

-- by Dave

I picked up the most recent copy of National Review – the one with the strange “Sotomayor as a Buddhist” cover – while I was in D.C. because I wanted to read the piece headlined across the cover: “Jonah Goldberg on His Critics”. Brian Beutler at TPM pointedly observed: “That better be a long article.”

Actually, it’s only two pages long. So, predictably, it’s pretty short on any discussion, as is the list of critics he actually addresses by name or argument. Namely: two – David Oshinsky and Michael Tomasky. And just as predictably, he completely misrepresents their arguments, setting up little strawmen and knocking them down instead.

And as if on cue, we get the point of writing the piece in the headline: “Obama’s Playbook, In Paperback.” (I’ll add the link if and when it ever becomes available online.) Yes, you see, Barack Obama is now the leading exponent of “liberal fascism.” This, of course, is Glenn Beck’s favorite thesis these days too.

Now, I happen to be one of Goldberg’s critics who, unlike his favorite caricature of liberals as having airily dismissed his book by laughing at it and urging people, “don’t read this!”, actually spent a good deal of time addressing Goldberg and his arguments in considerable detail – including a review published by The American Prospect. Certainly, my arguments are serious ones, no matter how little Goldberg chooses to admit it. Moreover, I actually have addressed Goldberg’s thesis in my new book, The Eliminationists. No less an authority than Rick Perlstein, in blurbing the book, writes:

For over a decade, David Neiwert has been America’s canary in the coal mine – our national early-warning system on the spread of corrosive, eliminationist, right-wing hatred in our midst. His latest book is a reality-based antidote to Jonah Goldberg, notable for both its clarity and moral force.

Nonetheless, having familiarized myself with how Goldberg operates, I admit I felt only slightly chagrined at not being included on the list. I’m well aware that Goldberg considers me something of an ankle-biter – he gave up completely after I’d debunked his work for a couple of rounds’ worth of online exchange, at which point he declared victory and went home (and at which point I completely unloaded on the pile of crap that is Liberal Fascism). I didn’t expect he’d even mention me – in no small part because he can’t give a good answer to my points – and of course he didn’t.

But then, anyone who’s read Liberal Fascism already knows that intellectual honesty is not Goldberg’s strong suit. Rather the contrary.

One of the more striking aspects of his dishonesty is how he manipulates his definitions in self-serving fashion that lets him move the goalposts at will, as though we were playing Calvinball. John Cole calls this “the Goldberg Principle”: "You can prove any thesis to be true if you make up your own definitions of words." For instance, as I noted, his operative definition of fascism is actually just the generic definition for totalitarianism, and it omits entirely the special characteristics that distinguish fascism from other forms of totalitarianism. One of these, for instance, is its overpowering, indeed dominant, antiliberalism – a fact that Goldberg conveniently omits from throughout his entire 400 or so pages, as well as from his most recent bit of self-aggrandization, posing as self-defense.

He does something similar in this piece, offering definitions of “Left” and “Right” that conveniently omit certain important characteristics of each: The Left, for instance, is defined as “statist, collectivist, egalitarian (within a defined group, be it based on class, race, or nationality), enamored of the Romantic spiritualization of the political, and hostile to tradition, religious orthodoxy, natural rights, and Lockean individualism.” But of course, most liberals – who Goldberg would no doubt throw into this definition – would never define themselves in such terms, particularly not the hostility to individualism. Most of us see ourselves as modern descendants of classical liberals like Locke anyway, since modern liberalism – or social liberalism, if you prefer – is in fact directly descended from the classical kind, especially in that it also involves as its actual cornerstones the primacy of the rule of law and democratic institutions, the advancement of civil liberties and civil rights, and freedom from restraint.

Note that Goldberg significantly omits these from his definitions, since his thesis that fascism – which clearly is opposed to these very principles – is a “phenomenon of the Left” would quickly run aground on the hard rock of such realities. Goldberg emphasizes “statism” as a feature of the Left – not only ignoring the fact that it is just as common on the Right, but obliterating the reality that modern liberalism, in point of fact, is largely about balancing the interests of the individual and his rights with needs of mass society and its resulting statist solutions. Again, that would not help Jonah’s thesis much, so there is no discussion of it in any of his texts.

Goldberg uses similarly dishonest tactics in defining the Right: “I would define ‘right-wing,’ particularly within the Anglo-American tradition, favoring limited government, respectful of religion and tradition, and protective of the individual and his rights.” The latter is particularly dubious, given the American Right’s frequent and historical subordination of individual rights to the patriotic national needs of the moment, something most of us experienced up close and personal during the long-running campaign during the Iraq War accusing liberals of insufficient patriotism – we were told more than a few times to “shut up” and “watch what we say” lest we be deemed treasonous (a charge that came anyway); and historically, it was the Right that was opposed to the individual rights that were carved out during the Civil rights era as well, and it has been the Right that has consistently been the enemy of individual-rights organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union.

Notably missing from Goldberg’s definition, meanwhile, but clearly within the historical frame of what we call the Right, are its ardent militarism; its love of claiming the superiority of a leader’s instincts over the mewling of weak-kneed liberals (remember, e.g., Bush v. Kerry and Bush v. Gore); its dread of the corrosive effects of liberalism; its oft-expressed contempt for the weak and its embrace of the ethics of social Darwinism; and above all, its militant nationalism. Again, these are traits that Goldberg conveniently omits from his definition – because, as we shall see, they too directly undermine his claim that fascism is not a creature of the Right.

So I pretty much had to choke down the coffee I was drinking when, after offering these Calvinesque definitions, I read this line:

By any remotely similar definition, fascism belongs on the left – and to date, not a single critic of the book has even come close to rebutting this basic point.

Of course, demonstrating the utter, risible falsity of that “basic point” was largely the entire thrust of my critique of Liberal Fascism. But I was hardly alone in this. Indeed, Tomasky devoted a sizable portion of his argument to debunking it as well:

We have also recognized, since at least the 1950s and in some prescient instances even earlier, that certain consanguinities between the far left and the far right did exist in those days, and that the Nazi program was in some respects a left-wing program, appealing on a class basis--and, always, a racial basis--to German workers and the petit bourgeoisie. It was not called National Socialism for nothing. Goldberg goes into great detail on all this in his chapter titled--are you sitting down?--"Adolf Hitler: Man of the Left."

Now that is revisionism. But for all his chapter and verse on the proletarian rhetoric that Nazis employed, Goldberg somehow forgets to mention certain other salient matters, like the fact that within three months of taking power Hitler banned trade unions--and on the day after May Day, 1933. Their money was confiscated and their leaders imprisoned. And the trade unions were replaced with the Nazi "union" called the German Labor Front, which took away the right to strike. Hitler did many worse things, of course. I single out this act because it would hardly seem to be the edict of a "man of the left." And there exist about a million nearly epileptic quotes from Hitler and Goebbels and other Nazis expressing their luminous hatreds of liberalism and of communism, none of which seem to have found their way into the pages of Liberal Fascism.

Goldberg petulantly replied by arguing that Tomasky had thrown a “tantrum” and tossed off the point about fascism’s long history of activism within a right-wing frame of behavior – particularly its ardent opposition to the labor movement -- by arguing that the fascists were just foreclosing on their competition:

Tomasky’s biggest non sequitur denies that Hitler was a “man of the Left” because 1) one of Hitler’s first acts upon taking power was to ban trade unions and 2) he denounced “liberalism” and Communism. About the first point all that need be said is that if Hitler’s ban on independent trade unions disqualifies him as a leftist, then Lenin, Stalin, and Mao were not leftists either.

One might also note that socialists’ lethal hatred for rival socialists is hardly confined to the National Socialists of Germany. Lenin and Stalin, after all, had plenty of rival socialists killed. Tellingly, when Stalin decided that such adversaries needed to die, he called them “fascists.” Hence, Trotsky & Co. were executed for plotting a “fascist coup” against Soviet socialism.

And for those interested, the Nazis believed that the right to strike was no longer necessary because labor finally had a full seat at the table, as dictated by corporatist ideology. Obviously, the Nazis were wrong. But so were the Communists who did pretty much the exact same thing. …

This is, in fact, the argument that Goldberg attempts to make in his book as well: That the fascists occupied the "political space" on the Left, and thus were simply out to compete against their fellow leftists. But this is where Goldberg most deeply portrays a lack of respect for the historical material available to him, because any careful study of the actual details of how the fascists came to power in both Italy and Germany makes abundantly clear that they were occupying the available political space on the right -- and had charged hard in that direction from early on in their drive to power.

I discussed this in some detail, citing particularly Robert O. Paxton's work in The Anatomy of Fascism. Paxton, for instance, debunks the fascists' ostensible "anticapitalism":

It turned out in practice that fascists' anticapitalism was highly selective. Even at their most radical, the socialism that the fascists wanted was a "national socialism": one that denied only foreign or enemy property rights (including that of internal enemies). They cherished national producers. Above all, it was by offering an effective remedy against socialist revolution that fascism turned out in practice to find a space. If Mussolini retained some lingering hopes in 1919 of founding an alternative socialism rather than an antisocialism, he was soon disabused of those notions by observing what worked and what didn't work in Italian politics. His dismal electoral results with a Left-nationalist program in Milan in November 1919 surely hammered that lesson home.

The pragmatic choices of Mussolini and Hitler were driven by their urge for success and power. Not all fascist leaders had such ambitions. Some of them preferred to keep their movements "pure," even at the cost of remaining marginal.

Paxton makes abundantly clear that the political space the fascists, in obtaining power, chose to occupy was clearly on the right. Goldberg, in contrast, insists that "fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all" because, he explains, fascism and communism "are closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space." He claims throughout the book and elsewhere that fascists didn't seek out their political space on the right -- rather, they were doing so on the left.

He actually addresses Paxton's characterization with what can most kindly be characterized as a lame rebuttal (p. 47):

In November the newly named explicitly left-wing Fascists ran a slate of candidates in the national elections. They got trounced at the hands of the Socialists. Most historians claim this is what taught Mussolini to move to the "right." Robert O. Paxton writes that Mussolini realized "there was no space in Italian politics for a party that was both nationalist and Left."

This, I think, distorts the picture. Mussolini did not move fascism from left to right; he moved it from socialist to populist.

Yet if Goldberg had actually bothered to read Paxton's account of how the move occurred -- or for that matter, any other historical account of these events -- he would know that the ideological shift by Mussolini had not even the remotest thing to do with populism. Rather, it all occurred in the defense of wealthy landowners and the established economic and cultural powers, and it entailed a wave of murderous violence against socialists, leftists, and any form of progressive.

From Paxton, pp. 60-64:

Above all Mussolini bested D'Annunzio by serving economic and social interests as well as nationalist sentiment. He made his Blackshirts available for action against socialists as well as against the South Slavs of Fiume and Trieste. War veterans had hated the socialists since 1915 for their "antinational" stance during the war. Big planters in the Po Valley, Tuscany, Apulia, and other regions of large estates hated and feared the socialists for their success at the end of the war in organizing the bracianti, or landless laborers, to press for higher wages and better working conditions. Squadrismo was the conjunction of these two hatreds.

Following their victory in the first postwar election (November 1919) the Italian socialists had used their new power in local government to establish de facto control over the agricultural wage-labor market. In the Po Valley in 1920, every farmer who needed workmen for planting or harvesting had to visit the socialist Labor Exchange. The Labor Exchanges made the most of their new leverage. They forced the farmers to hire workers year-round rather than only seasonally, and with better wages and working conditions. The farmers were financially squeezed. They had invested considerable sums in transforming Po Valley marshlands in cultivable farms; their cash crops earned little money in the difficult conditions of the Italian postwar economy. The socialist unions also undermined the farmers' personal status as masters of their domains.

Frightened and humiliated, the Po Valley landowners looked frantically for help. They did not find it in the Italian state. Local officials were either socialists themselves, or little inclined to do battle with them. Prime Minister Giolitti, a true practitioner of laissez-faire liberalism, declined to use national forces to break strikes. The big farmers felt abandoned by the Italian liberal state.

In the absence of help from the public authorities, the large landowners of the Po Valley turned to the Blackshirts for protection. Glad for an excuse to attack their old pacifist enemies, fascist squadristi invaded the city hall in Bologna, where socialist officials had hung up a red banner, on November 21, 1920. Six were killed. From there, the movement quickly spread through the rich agricultural country in the lower Po River delta. Black-shirted squadristi mounted nightly expeditions to sack and burn Labor Exchanges and local socialist offices, and beat and intimidate socialist organizers. Their favorite forms of humiliation were administering uncontainable doses of castor oil and shaving off half of a proud Latin moustache. In the first six months of 1921, the squads destroyed 17 newspapers and printing works, 59 Peoples' Houses (socialist headquarters), 119 Chambers of Labor (socialist employment offices), 107 cooperatives, 83 Peasants' Leagues, 151 socialist clubs, and 151 cultural organizations. Between January 1 and April 7, 1921, 102 people were killed: 25 fascists, 41 socialists, 20 police, and 16 others.

... Long after his regime had settled into routine, Mussolini still liked to refer to the "Fascist revolution." But he meant a revolution against socialism and flabby liberalism, a new way of uniting and motivating Italians, and a new kind of governmental authority capable of subordinating private liberties to the needs of the national community and of organizing mass assent while leaving property intact. The major point is that the Fascist movement was reshaped in the process of growing into the available space. The antisocialism already present in the initial movement became central, and many antibourgeois idealists left or were pushed out. The radical anticapitalist idealism of early Fascism was watered down, and we must not let its conspicuous presence in early texts confuse us about what Fascism later became in action.

Paxton, p. 83:

The Italian Fascist Party, having discovered that in its first identity as a Left-nationalist movement the space it coveted was already occupied by the Left, underwent the necessary transformations to become a local power in the Po Valley. The Nazi Party broadened its appeal after 1928 to court farmers desperate over going broke and losing their farms. Both Mussolini and Hitler could perceive the space available, and were willing to trim their movements to fit.

The space was partly symbolic. The Nazi Party early shaped its identity by staking a claim to the street and fought with communist gangs for control of working-class neighborhoods of Berlin. At issue was not merely a few meters of urban "turf." The Nazis sought to portray themselves as the most vigorous and effective force against the communists -- and, at the same time, to portray the liberal state as incapable of preserving public security. The communists, at the same time, were showing that the Social Democrats were unequipped to deal with an incipient revolutionary situation that needed a fighting vanguard. Polarization was in the interest of both.

Fascist violence was neither random nor indiscriminate. It carried a well-calculated set of coded messages: that communist violence was rising, that the democratic state was responding to it ineptly, and that only the fascists were tough enough to save the nation from antinational terrorists. An essential step in the fascist march to acceptance and power was to persuade law-and-order conservatives and members of the middle class to tolerate fascist violence as a harsh necessity in the face of Left provocation. It helped, of course, that many ordinary citizens never feared fascist violence against themselves, because they were reassured that it was reserved for national enemies and "terrorists" who deserved it.

The path to power for both Italian Fascists and German Nazis was essentially the same: They presented themselves as "revolutionary socialists" in their initial appeals but, finding the political space for such a movement already well occupied on the left by socialists and communists, shifted their appeals and their alliances to the right and center, particularly with business capitalists who financed them, sponsored their activities, and essentially contracted with them to engage in systematic violence against the Left. For the Nazis, Fritz Thyssen, head of the nation's largest steel producer, was only the most prominent example of business capitalists who funneled money to the Nazis both as they rose to power and once they gained it.

Now, going simply from Goldberg's own inadequate definition above -- which stipulates that the Right is "respectful of religion and tradition" (in fact, a more accurate definition would stipulate that the Right "ardently defends traditional values, mores, and institutions") -- the fascists in their rise to power clearly fit the definition of being "a phenomenon of the Right" -- and not the Left.

Of course, we can also rest assured that Goldberg will never even noddingly acknowledge that the chief leg of his argument has in fact been thoroughly knocked down. Because who knows how that might affect book sales.

Like I say: Profoundly dishonest. But he does turn a nice buck.

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