Hitler and Mussolini were fascists. Usually, you're told that fascism is a movement of the "far right", while communism was a movement of the "far left". This has never made any sense to me. What is "right wing" or conservative about what Mussolini and Hitler did? They didn't seek to conserve any existing political system; they sought a new, statist political theory. Neither valued individual rights, free markets, personal liberty or any other trappings of conservatism. Both of them were prone to nationalizing any industry that didn't go along with the desires of the state, something no conservative would do. "Nazi" is an abbreviation for "national socialist" in German, how is socialism part of the "far right"?
So, what's the deal? Well Jonah Goldberg is glad you asked! Liberal Fascism is an exploration of the history of fascism over the last couple of centuries. The book is studiously researched, tightly reasoned and it absolutely explodes many concepts of twentieth century politics.
Goldberg defines fascism as "the religion of the state." He shows that all totalitarian movements are basically the same. They intend to replace religion in the lives of the citizens with the state and they are led by a Great Leader who has god-like power. The only differences are the method of cohesion they use. Stalin and Lenin used "class"; Mussolini used "nationalism"; Hitler used "race"; Islamic fascists use "religion" – but the urge for total control is always the same.
By the way, here is an audio file (mp3) from near the end of World War II where a BBC correspondent finds a Nazi headquarters in a small town that is deliberately designed to resemble a church. Goldberg isn't just making this stuff up: the Nazis consciously reinforced the idea the Nazism was the religion of the state.
Patiently and with mountains of evidence, he shows that both Mussolini and Hitler were men of the left. Both started out in left-wing socialist movements, but both became impatient with them. Mussolini didn't think that "class" was strong enough to trump nationalist feelings, so he went into competition with communism using his own hook, nationalism. Hitler was obsessed with race and noticed that many of his countrymen felt the same way, so he took over a socialist party and began to fuel it with racial fear and hatred.
In both cases, the communists fought back and they did so with the worst insult they could imagine. They branded Hitler and Mussolini with the charge that they were "right wing". This, plus a hundred years of dubious historical revisionism, is the reason that fascism is considered "far right" today, even though both Hitler and Mussolini were about as far as possible from right-wing principles like individual liberty, free-market capitalism, family values and limited government.
The real surprises in the book come when Goldberg talks about American tendencies toward fascism.
Woodrow Wilson was a religious Progressive who believed that government had to intervene in the lives of its citizens, because they were too weak to take care of themselves. Toward this end he engineered a positively fascist government in the United States. Among other things, Wilson formed the Committee on Public Information, a ministry of propaganda. Its purpose was to influence US opinion in favor of intervention in World War I. Toward this end, its volunteer service organization recruited 75,000 four minute men, who were trained to fan out around the country and deliver four-minute speeches favorable towards US intervention. They gave hundreds of thousands of these speeches in impromptu settings like diners, rail platforms and bus stops.
Wilson's Justice Department started its own secret police force in the American Protective League. Members of the APL (some 250,000 of them) spied on their fellow citizens, looking for anti-war, anti-government or "subversive" sentiment. Working with the Justice Department, they arrested as many as 175,000 Americans for these sentiments. Many who were arrested ended up in jail.
As Wilson put it, the essence of Progressivism was that the individual "marry his interests to the state."
Think about that the next time you hear George Bush called "fascist".
But, it doesn't end there. FDR had similar ideas. His National Recovery Administration was so crazy it could only have passed during the confusion of the Great Depression (and see Amity Shlaes excellent book on the subject, The Forgotten Man for a lot more on this). The idea of the NRA was to bring business into tight coordination with the government, just as Hitler and Mussolini were doing in Europe. In theory, the NRA was to help the US recover from the depression by fixing wages and prices, standardizing business practices, forbidding child labor and forcing companies to maintain employment levels. As is universally the case with "planned economies", the result was that US industrial production dropped twenty five percent in six months. The logo for the fascist NRA is positively chilling in its similarity to Nazi symbols.
Thurman Arnold, one of the New Deal's most influential intellectuals, proposed that Americans be taught a new "religion of government," which would finally liberate the public from its superstitions about individualism and free markets.
FDR attempted to "pack the court" by raising the number of justices on the Supreme Court so that he could appoint some new justices favorable to the NRA, but the transparent ruse failed. The NRA was eventually found to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court, but not before thousands of people were arrested for violations of the code. One man, Jack Magid, was put in jail for charging 35 cents to press a suit, rather than the blue eagle NRA price of 40 cents. When the NRA finally came down, no less than Huey Long said, "I raise my hand in reverence to the Surpreme Court that saved this nation from fascism."
Goldberg makes a few clever points about this. This first is this: why did all of the businesses go along with all of this regulation? After all, nearly every major national industry had fallen into line with the NRA within a few months of its institution. The answer is simple and inevitable. The NRA was perfect for locking out smaller, more agile competition. Most of the NRA's regulations, after all, were merely the codification of existing trade association rules. The offense that Jack Magid committed wasn't so much to take a nickel out of circulation in the economy as to rob the big, established tailor down the block of a 40-cent transaction. Big business was climbing into bed with the government in order to lock small business competition out of the market. The cost of compliance (estimated by some as forty percent of the overhead of a business) was so high that only large, established companies could afford it and the rules that came with it. FDR's vision was to join government and industry entity using the glue of the blue eagle – all in the name of the supposed efficiency of central planning. Of course, this is exactly what Hitler and Mussolini were trying to do – and Stalin as well.
FDR's aide Harry Hopkins told an audience of New Deal activists in New York, "that we are not afraid of exploring anything within the law, and we have a lawyer who will declare anything you want legal."
Think about this the next time you hear George Bush and the Repulicans accused of "being in bed with corparate interests."
Next, Goldberg tackles the 1960's. While Goldberg shows that the parts of the black power and anti-war movements that sought to "take back the streets" used similar rhetoric to the fascists who did the same thing, I think this part of his argument is weaker than the rest. I'm going to gloss is over because it's not very important to the big picture, either. The real story of the 1960's is the amazing machinations of Lyndon Johnson. Goldberg shows how carefully LBJ used Kennedy's death to further his own Great Society vision – and how that vision was essentially fascistic. LBJ made Kennedy into the martyred savior of the Left and used the "emergency" of his assassination to push the Great Society programs through. These programs all had lofty, liberal goals, but Goldberg shows very effectively how they aligned with similar programs under the fascists of Europe.
The programs, of course, were very effective at only one thing: bringing blacks and other poor people to vote for the Democratic Party. They did not significantly reduce poverty. In fact, black Americans – who had been gaining on white Americans in income since World War II – saw their incomes decline in relation to white Americans all during the height of the War on Poverty. The black family, impervious to the strains of slavery, was blown apart by policies that financially encouraged out-of-wedlock births. Goldberg is able to show how these programs mirror aspects of Hitler's programs and show that all of them derive from the same fascist impulse, in Mussolini's words: "Everything inside the state, nothing outside the state."
[In answer to the question, what made the Kennedy administration so effective?] On almost every front, the answers are those very elements that fit the fascist playbook: the creation of crises, nationalistic appeals to unity, the celebration of martial values, the blurring of lines between public and private sectors, the utilization of mass media to glamorize the state and its programs, invocations of a new "post partisan" spirit that places the important decisions in the hands of experts and intellectual supermen, and a cult of personality for the national leader.
Sounds more than a little bit like Obama too, doesn't it?
In both the fascist dream and the "liberal" dream of the present-day United States, the state is everything. There is no private charity, all charity comes from the state. The state provides your motivation in life, the state provides your environment for living and the state provides your daily bread, if you're poor. The state even provides your health care. "Everything inside the state, nothing outside the state."
Goldberg also shows that a stench of eugenics that emanated from the Left from the 1920's up through the 1960's. Margaret Sanger, one of the patron saints of feminism and founder of what has become Planned Parenthood, was an ardent fan of eugenics. She sought to improve the race by preventing those she found deficient (at least 10% of the population) from producing offspring. She also urged black ministers in the US to join her cause and prevent births in the black population (no less than Jesse Jackson later called government funding of the abortion of black babies, "genocide against the black race"). With painstaking research, he shows how the philosophical underpinnings of eugenics, Progressivism, fascism and modern-day liberalism (and liberalism's main branches, as well, such as feminism and identity politics) all trace back to the same ancestors. You have to figure, after all, that Hitler pretty well perfected the use of race in politics, even if his aims were completely different from modern-day liberals.
Goldberg next tackles the timely subject of Hillary Clinton:
Hillary is no führer, and her notion of the "common good" doesn't involve racial purity or concentration camps. But she indisputably draws her vision from the same eternal instinct to impose order on society, to create an all-encompassing community, to get past endless squabbles and ensconce each individual in the security blanket of the state. Hers is a political religion, and updated Social Gospel – light on the Gospel, heavy on the Social – spoken in soothing tones and conjuring a reassuring vision, and there's no room in it for those still suffering from the "stupidity of habit-bound minds," to borrow a Dewey's phrase. The village may have replaced "the state," and it in turn may have replaced the fist with the hug, but an unwanted embrace from which you cannot escape is just a nicer form of tyranny.
In the end, it's the same story, time and time again: The state is in crisis. The only solution to the important crisis is a reorganization of the state. The people must give up some of their individualism and join with the state to solve the crisis. Business interests must give up their quest for profits and also join with the state to increase the country's ability to deal with the crisis. Politics and partisanship must be set aside so that the Leader and his experts can solve the crisis. Together, we will all march forward under the banner of our new Leader, who is the only one of us up to the challenge of the crisis.
That was Mussolini's story, Hitler's story, Wilson's story, FDR's story and Kennedy's story. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would love to make it their story too. Contrast this with Reagan or Bush when dealing with their conflicts: they gave no speeches urging patriotic Americans to fall in line with their government. They never urged citizens to sacrifice in the name of the cause. They never indulged in any cult of personality. Whether it's the plight of children, health care or global warming, the fascists will go with any cause that creates a crisis that must be solved by citizens joining with the government, submitting to its tight embrace. In the words of the Nazi party platform of 1920: "common good must come before self-interest."
The problem with this is always the same, every time it's tried: just who decides what is in everyone's best interest? What is truly the "common good"? If I'm young and healthy and don't want state-mandated health care, do I still have to accept it in the name of "common good"? It simply never works to centralize these kinds of decisions. Individual people know what is good for them, and they have at least a sense of what is good overall; the government never knows that is good for you and it's dishonest for it to claim it does.
I'll leave you with one last quote:
But if there is ever a fascist takeover in America, it will come not in the form of storm troopers kicking down doors but with lawyers and social workers saying, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help."