Books by Goldberg, Jonah

Goldberg, Jonah. Liberal Fascism. New York: Doubleday, 2007. ISBN 978-0-385-51184-1.
This is a book which has been sorely needed for a long, long time, and the author has done a masterful job of identifying, disentangling, and dismantling the mountain of disinformation and obfuscation which has poisoned so much of the political discourse of the last half century.

As early as 1946, George Orwell observed in his essay “Politics and the English Language” that “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’”. This situation has only worsened in the succeeding decades, and finally we have here a book which thoroughly documents the origins of fascism as a leftist, collectivist ideology, grounded in Rousseau's (typically mistaken and pernicious) notion of the “general will”, and the direct descendant of the God-state first incarnated in the French Revolution and manifested in the Terror.

I'd have structured this book somewhat differently, but then when you've spent the last fifteen years not far from the French border, you may adopt a more top-down rationalist view of things; call it “geographical hazard”. There is a great deal of discussion here about the definitions and boundaries among the categories “progressive”, “fascist”, “Nazi”, “socialist”, “communist”, “liberal”, “conservative”, “reactionary”, “social Darwinist”, and others, but it seems to me there's a top-level taxonomic divide which sorts out much of the confusion: collectivism versus individualism. Collectivists—socialists, communists, fascists—believe the individual to be subordinate to the state and subject to its will and collective goals, while individualists believe the state, to the limited extent it exists, is legitimate only as it protects the rights of the sovereign citizens who delegate to it their common defence and provision of public goods.

The whole question of what constitutes conservatism is ill-defined until we get to the Afterword where, on p. 403, there is a beautiful definition which would far better have appeared in the Introduction: that conservatism consists in conserving what is, and that consequently conservatives in different societies may have nothing whatsoever in common among what they wish to conserve. The fact that conservatives in the United States wish to conserve “private property, free markets, individual liberty, freedom of conscience, and the rights of communities to determine for themselves how they will live within these guidelines” in no way identifies them with conservatives in other societies bent on conserving monarchy, a class system, or a discredited collectivist regime.

Although this is a popular work, the historical scholarship is thorough and impressive: there are 54 pages of endnotes and an excellent index. Readers accustomed to the author's flamboyant humorous style from his writings on National Review Online will find this a much more subdued read, appropriate to the serious subject matter.

Perhaps the most important message of this book is that, while collectivists hurl imprecations of “fascist” or “Nazi” at defenders of individual liberty, it is the latter who have carefully examined the pedigree of their beliefs and renounced those tainted by racism, authoritarianism, or other nostrums accepted uncritically in the past. Meanwhile, the self-described progressives (well, yes, but progress toward what?) have yet to subject their own intellectual heritage to a similar scrutiny. If and when they do so, they'll discover that both Mussolini's Fascist and Hitler's Nazi parties were considered movements of the left by almost all of their contemporaries before Stalin deemed them “right wing”. (But then Stalin called everybody who opposed him “right wing”, even Trotsky.) Woodrow Wilson's World War I socialism was, in many ways, the prototype of fascist governance and a major inspiration of the New Deal and Great Society. Admiration for Mussolini in the United States was widespread, and H. G. Wells, the socialist's socialist and one of the most influential figures in collectivist politics in the first half of the twentieth century said in a speech at Oxford in 1932, “I am asking for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis.”

If you're interested in understanding the back-story of the words and concepts in the contemporary political discourse which are hurled back and forth without any of their historical context, this is a book you should read. Fortunately, lots of people seem to be doing so: it's been in the top ten on for the last week. My only quibble may actually be a contributor to its success: there are many references to current events, in particular the 2008 electoral campaign for the U.S. presidency; these will cause the book to be dated when the page is turned on these ephemeral events, and it shouldn't be—the historical message is essential to anybody who wishes to decode the language and subtexts of today's politics, and this book should be read by those who've long forgotten the runners-up and issues of the moment.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

January 2008 Permalink