Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Liberal Fascism: A preview

-- by Dave

As I've mentioned, I'm still awaiting my copy of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, though the good folks at Sadly, No! have been kind enough to provide us with excerpts that are, em, enlightening, so to speak.

So far, it's clear that my early surmise of its contents are proving accurate. Take, for example, the book description from its Amazon page, presumably written by either Goldberg or his editor:
Contrary to what most people think, the Nazis were ardent socialists (hence the term “National socialism”). They believed in free health care and guaranteed jobs. They confiscated inherited wealth and spent vast sums on public education. They purged the church from public policy, promoted a new form of pagan spirituality, and inserted the authority of the state into every nook and cranny of daily life. The Nazis declared war on smoking, supported abortion, euthanasia, and gun control. They loathed the free market, provided generous pensions for the elderly, and maintained a strict racial quota system in their universities—where campus speech codes were all the rage. The Nazis led the world in organic farming and alternative medicine. Hitler was a strict vegetarian, and Himmler was an animal rights activist.

Oh, really? They were ardent socialists?

Gosh, I guess that would explain why the first prisoners rounded up and sent to Dachau -- the first Nazi death camp -- were socialists and communists:
Dachau is one of the first concentration camps the Nazis establish. The first prisoners arrive two days later. They are mainly Communists and Socialists and other political opponents of the Nazi party. Dachau is the only camp to remain in operation from 1933 until 1945.

And they were treated so well there, too:
Officials of the Socialist and Communist parties are usually beaten on arrival, without having committed any specific offence. Prisoners are sentenced to corporal punishment for very small offences, such as uttering Communist slogans like "Rot Front" ("Red Front"). On August 18 twenty-five men who had arrived on the previous day received twenty-five and seventy-five blows each on their bared bodies for no apparent reason, while their Nazi guards amused themselves with a radio set.

Indeed, it was probably as dangerous to be a socialist in Nazi Germany as it was to be a Jew. Certainly, the liquidation of the Left in Germany served as an important predecessor to the Holocaust.

Actually, all Goldberg is doing here is dressing up in fancy new clothes and a spiffy cover one of the right's oldest, hoariest, and most clearly false canards -- namely, that fascists were socialists. I've discussed this in detail previously:
The other recurring myth is actually a great deal more popular -- namely, that because Mussolini was at one time an ardent socialist, and because Hitler's party called itself the National Socialists, then fascism itself was a form of socialism, and thus a left-wing phenomenon.

The reasons for its popularity are obvious: It's a convenient way of smearing the left for conservatives, as well as shedding their own well-established baggage from the far right. Rush Limbaugh repeats this claim regularly, as do a number of other right-wing commentators. You can find it expressed throughout a number of right-wing Web sites, notably Free Republic. It even popped up in my comments here recently.

So, let's do a reality check: Both Hitler and Mussolini pretended to have socialist aspirations as part of their propaganda efforts during their rise to power, largely as a way of encouraging working-class support. But they were unquestionably right wing politically by the time they obtained power, and in fact were viciously anti-left-wing as well.

Those who repeat the "Nazis were socialists" claim are, in fact, falling for (and repeating) Nazi propaganda from the 1920s.

Mussolini was indeed an active socialist at the beginning of his political career. But he was remarkable for shifting his alliances and adjusting his ideology accordingly as he climbed the ladder of power; and by the time he had completed his climb, he was an outspoken and lethal anti-socialist.

Hitler's fascists, somewhat in contrast, only adopted a limited socialist rhetoric as a sop to its efforts to recruit from the working class. Hitler quickly jettisoned these aspects of the party as he obtained power, particularly in forming a ruling coalition with conservative corporatists. There was little doubt that Hitler and the Nazis were devoutly anti-leftist: their Brownshirts made a career of physically attacking socialists and communists wherever they gathered, and the first people sent to the concentration camp at Dachau in 1933-34 were socialist and communist political leaders.

This site does a reasonably good job of laying it all out:

Prior to the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, worker protests had spread all across Germany in response to the Great Depression. During his drive to power, Hitler exploited this social unrest by promising workers to strengthen their labor unions and increase their standard of living. But these were empty promises; privately, he was reassuring wealthy German businessmen that he would crack down on labor once he achieved power. Historian William Shirer describes the Nazi's dual strategy:

"The party had to play both sides of the tracks. It had to allow [Nazi officials] Strasser, Goebbels and the crank Feder to beguile the masses with the cry that the National Socialists were truly 'socialists' and against the money barons. On the other hand, money to keep the party going had to be wheedled out of those who had an ample supply of it."

Once in power, Hitler showed his true colors by promptly breaking all his promises to workers. The Nazis abolished trade unions, collective bargaining and the right to strike. An organization called the "Labor Front" replaced the old trade unions, but it was an instrument of the Nazi party and did not represent workers. According to the law that created it, "Its task is to see that every individual should be able ... to perform the maximum of work." Workers would indeed greatly boost their productivity under Nazi rule. But they also became exploited. Between 1932 and 1936, workers wages fell, from 20.4 to 19.5 cents an hour for skilled labor, and from 16.1 to 13 cents an hour for unskilled labor. Yet workers did not protest. This was partly because the Nazis had restored order to the economy, but an even bigger reason was that the Nazis would have cracked down on any protest.

In other words, the Nazis did a classic bait-and-switch: They convinced working-class people to vote against their own self-interest by clever use of propaganda techniques and pretending to embody their values, but then screwed them over from one end to the other once they had obtained power.

Sound familiar?

At any rate, it's also useful to refer to Robert O. Paxton's defintive text, The Anatomy of Fascism, which describes the overt antileftism of the early fascists as well, p. 84:

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.

Paxton also describes the fascist appropriation of left-wing ideas for its own purposes, pp. 56-59:

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 foriegn 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 goes on to describe how the failed Spanish and French fascist movements are exemplary in this regard. Then he says:

Hitler and Mussolini, however, not only felt destined to rule but shared none of the purists' qualms about competing bourgeois elections. Both set out -- with impressive tactical skill and by rather different routes, which they discovered by trial and error -- to make themselves indispensable participants in the competition for political power within their nations. ...

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 political space. The antisocialism already present in the initial movement became central, and many antibourgeois idealists left or were pushed out. The radical anticapitalism 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 later puts in simple terms the political space occupied by the fascists:

... In sum, fascists offered a new recipe for governing with popular support but without any sharing of power with the Left, and without any threat to conservative social and economic privileges and political dominance. The conservatives, for their part, held the keys to the doors of power.

The more we hear mainstream conservatives today act as though liberals, their longtime partners, are no longer fit to share power, the more I fear for a repeat of history.

Indeed, by painting liberals as "the real fascists," Goldberg is pronouncing them unworthy of power and the sharing thereof.

He seems primarily intent on doing so by pointing out all of the irrelevant characteristics of the Nazi regime -- things that had nothing or little to do with their ideology, and certainly were not unique to it, such as vegetarianism.

I mean, this is just dumb, bad logic: Hitler loved his dogs, too. So by Goldberg's reasoning, dog lovers are innately fascist as well.

Yet from such a foundation, he proceeds onward:
Do these striking parallels mean that today’s liberals are genocidal maniacs, intent on conquering the world and imposing a new racial order? Not at all. Yet it is hard to deny that modern progressivism and classical fascism shared the same intellectual roots.

Actually, it is quite easy to deny this. Fascism doesn't really have "intellectual" roots, as I've explained in some detail:
What really sets fascism apart from nearly all other kinds of politics, however, is that, at its core, it is not about thought. It's all a matter of the gut.

Milton Mayer describes this in They Thought They Were Free: The Germans 1933-1945 (p. 111):

Because the mass movement of Nazism was nonintellectual in the beginning, when it was only practice, it had to be anti-intellectual before it could be theoretical. What Mussolini's official philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, said of Fascism could have been better said of Nazi theory: "We think with our blood."

In his remarkable essay on "Ur-Fascism," Umberto Eco suggests the extent of this attribute of fascism by its reappearance in most of the traits by which he describes fascism, including "action for action's sake," "the rejection of modernism" "fear of difference," and the notion that "life is permanent warfare." Swedish political scientist Harald Ofstad likewise has zeroed in on "the contempt for weakness" as the essence of the norm in a fascist society.

However, it is [Robert O.] Paxton's study [The Anatomy of Fascism] that draws out this point in the greatest detail. Indeed, he describes the centricity of emotion -- and not any intellectual forebears -- as forming the basic architecture on which the fascist argument rests (pp. 40-41):

To focus only on the educated carriers of intellect and culture in the search for fascist roots, furthermore, is to miss the most important register: subterranean passions and emotions. A nebula of attitudes was taking shape, and no one thinker ever put together a total philosophical system to support fascism. Even scholars who specialize in the quest for fascism's intellectual and cultural origins, such as George Mosse, declare that the establishment of a "mood" is more important than "the search for some individual precursors." In that sense, too, fascism is more plausibly linked to a set of "mobilizing passions" that shape fascist action than to a consistent and fully articulated philosophy. At bottom is a passionate nationalism. Allied to it is a conspiratorial and Manichean view of history as a battle between the good and evil camps, between the pure and the corrupt, in which one's own chosen community or nation has been the victim. In this Darwinian narrative, the chosen people have been weakened by political parties, social classes, unassimilable minorities, spoiled renters, and rationalist thinkers who lack the necessary sense of community.

Goldberg, however, seems obdurately, deliberately oblivious to this reality, and then piles onto the misconception by insisting that many American liberal intellectual figures were also fascists:
We often forget, for example, that Mussolini and Hitler had many admirers in the United States.

Yes, indeed we do forget. People like the America First Committee (whose members actually plotted, after the outbreak of war, to set up a pro-Nazi Vichy government in the United States in the eventuality, which they saw as an inevitablity, of an Axis victory) and Prescott Bush, who helped oversee large sums of American capital being invested in the Nazi war machine of the 1930s.
W.E.B. Du Bois was inspired by Hitler's Germany, and Irving Berlin praised Mussolini in song.

Well, DuBois did in fact write an essay that seemed to admire the Nazi mass-education program, though of course that program was not exactly a defining feature of Nazi ideology. When DuBois later assessed the rise of the Nazis, he called it "a calamity almost beyond comprehension".

The claim about Irving Berlin is not just a distortion, it's canard: The song in question, "Ve Don't Like It," as several scholars have explained, is actually a foray into satire that makes fun of Mussolini:
In "Ve Don't Like It," for example, Irving Berlin presents a complaining Joseph Goebbels: "In Japan our hands are tied; Ve don't like it. Mussolini's on our side; Ve don't like it."

I guess Jonah doesn't get that whole "satire" concept. At least not when it's inconvenient.

Continuing on in the same vein ...
Many fascist tenets were espoused by American progressives like John Dewey and Woodrow Wilson, and FDR incorporated fascist policies in the New Deal.

I'll have to await the text to see how he "substantiates" these claims, but they seem dubious at best.
Fascism was an international movement that appeared in different forms in different countries, depending on the vagaries of national culture and temperament. In Germany, fascism appeared as genocidal racist nationalism. In America, it took a “friendlier,” more liberal form. The modern heirs of this “friendly fascist” tradition include the New York Times, the Democratic Party, the Ivy League professoriate, and the liberals of Hollywood. The quintessential Liberal Fascist isn't an SS storm trooper; it is a female grade school teacher with an education degree from Brown or Swarthmore.

This is where Goldberg goes most wildly astray, because with one swipe of the ideological brush, he manages to completely erase the very real presence of very real fascists in our midst, both in the past and continuing well into today. Or does Goldberg think the Aryan Nations was just a figment of our imaginations?

As I explained when this book first surfaced:
The key historical fact underlining this debate is that fascism never was just a European phenomenon. It may have originated in America (Paxton identifies the Ku Klux Klan as the first real iteration of fascism in the era of mass politics), and certainly there were fascists in America in the 1920s and '30s (see, e.g., not just the Klan but also the Silvershirts), all of whom were aligned to the right, sometimes (as in the case of the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh) with mainstream conservatives.

For that matter, of course, there are still genuine fascists and proto-fascists with us today. They go by such names as the Aryan Nations, Christian Identity, or National Socialist Movement. And they're all aligned, politically, to the far right. Their spinoffs, such as the Patriot/militia movement, were all right-leaning movements with substantial interaction with mainstream conservatism, as I've documented at length. Indeed, the militia movement's own bastard brainchild -- the Minutemen -- is now being ardently adopted by a variety of supposedly mainstream Republicans.

What's really outrageous about the book, in the end, is that it is Newspeak -- the most noxious kind, the kind that seeks to obliterate our understanding of fascism:
Jonah Goldberg's new book represents both a special problem, as well as a special opportunity, because of the Newspeak that its title -- "Liberal Fascism" -- represents. Goldberg, in the Newspeak tradition, is not just negating the meaning of both "liberal" and "fascism", but he's providing cover for a conservative movement that, evidently, is intent on adopting fascism as the essence of its agenda.

This is what makes his book the ultimate Newspeak: Newspeak is one of the earmarks of the budding fascist -- and what better way to bud further than to accuse your opponent of engaging in precisely the politics you intend to pursue?

As promised, I'll have more soon.

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