The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
Paperback : 29 Jan 2009
Today the word 'fascist' is usually an insult aimed at those on the right, from neocons to big business. But what does it really mean? What if the true heirs to fascism were actually those who thought of themselves as being terribly nice and progressive - the liberals?
Jonah Goldberg's excoriating, opinion-driving, US bestseller explains why. Here he destroys long-held myths to reveal why the most insidious attemps to control our lives originate from the left, whether it's smoking bans or security cameras. Journeying through history and across culture, he uses surprising examples ranging from Woodrow Wilson's police state to the Clinton personality cult, the military chic of 60s' student radicals to Hollywood's totalitarian aesthetics, to show that it is modern progressivism - and not conservatism - that shares the same intellectual roots as fascism.
This angry, funny, smart and contentious book looks behind the friendly face of the well-meaning liberal, and turns our preconceptions inside out.
Liberal Fascism has been a massive bestseller in the US. Were you surprised by the response it got?
Yes, and no. I was certainly surprised – and pleased! -- it has been such a success, but I always thought it would be successful to some extent, in part because I think it's an argument whose time has not only come but is long overdue.
One American writer opened his review with a joke: "That 'thwack' you hear from coast to coast is conservative book-writing pundits smacking themselves on the forehead and exclaiming, 'Why didn't I think of that?'"
I think he was on to something.
For millions of people of a conservative or libertarian bent, being called a "fascist" or the heir to a fascistic political tradition is not only offensive and even slanderous, but it's also bewildering. And for good reason. After all, conservatives and libertarians stand athwart to totalitarianism, socialism and every kind of collectivism, but for some reason we're supposed to be the fascists? It just feels like a big lie to a lot of people.
There have been some good books covering similar ground, but nobody had tackled the slander and mythology head-on until I did. I think I did a good job, but I also think I was lucky that no one had beaten me to it. I can't count how many people have told me or emailed me to say something like "this is the book I always wanted to write." That's a good sign that there was a built-in audience just waiting for Liberal Fascism to come out.
Don't get me wrong, I think there are lots of reasons why many on the left would enjoy the book, but I think one of the reasons so many conservatives took to it so eagerly is that they'd been waiting a long time for a book like this.
Where does the term Liberal Fascism come from and what does it mean?
Well, HG Wells is the man who coined the phrase "Liberal Fascism." I assume Wells is better remembered in the UK than he is in America, where he's mostly thought of as an early science fiction writer. But even here, I suspect most people don't remember how monumentally influential he was during the first third of the 20th century. He was arguably the most important intellectual in the English speaking world for a time. He had a huge impact on the American Progressives and the Social Gospel movement. His meetings with Franklin Roosevelt in the Oval Office were treated like a papal visit. Anyway, in 1932, Wells was invited by the Young Liberals to speak at their summer school in Oxford. His lecture was intended not only to point toward the "Phoenix rebirth of liberalism" and a far more radical form of socialism than his fellow Fabians advocated, but also to summarize his entire lifelong philosophy. The label he came up with for his vision? "Liberal Fascism." Although he also called for "enlightened Nazism."
So part of the meaning of the title is ironic. Liberals get furious at it because they think it's an oxymoron. People have been taught for generations that fascism and communism are opposites and, more recently, that liberalism and fascism are opposites. But they aren't. Fascism and communism were both heresies of socialism. And liberalism – in the way the term is used in America today – is an offshoot of the socialist tradition.
More directly, I use the phrase "liberal fascism" to describe the tenets and tactics of what we today call liberalism or progressivism that bare the closest family resemblance to "classical fascism" in areas like economics, environmental policy and eugenics.
What made you want to write this book?
Well partly because I've always been one of those bewildered conservatives who didn't understand why I was getting called a Nazi, when everything I believe runs counter to Nazi thought (Never mind the fact that even a cursory review of the literature shows there weren't a whole lot of Nazi Goldbergs). Another reason is that I like good arguments and this is one that needs to be made.
But a more important motivation is simply that I think history matters. Specifically, if the one enduring lesson of the Nazi period is "never again" then we might as well understand the reality of that period. I'm not saying -- and do not say anywhere in the book -- that "all liberals are Nazis" or that all "progressives are fascists" or that anything like the Holocaust lurks in their hearts' desires. What I do say is that we've been trained to look for fascism in all the wrong places. Particularly since the 1960s, we've been taught to shout "fascist!" at anyone in a uniform. That's nonsense. Wearing a police or army uniform no more makes you a fascist than wearing a bowtie makes you a college professor. Indeed, in our countries, uniformed soldiers take an oath to defend our rights and liberties against the claims of the mob. Fascism is better understood as the ideology of the mob.
More to the point, what people need to understand is that fascism was popular. Totalitarianism crept on cat's paws as the wave of the future. Pointing to things you don't like and yelling "fascist" takes no courage and isn't particularly helpful. Unless all you care about is bullying people into accepting your program. But if you really believe in the "never again" part, you need to look at what's popular, what's fashionable, and ask "Where will this lead?" Few people do that today.
If everything we know about fascism is wrong, as you state in the book, how do you go about unteaching people what they think they know?
That's a tough question. When you look at the hostility of leftwing reviewers in the U.S., it's easy to understand how this is going to take a while. The left thought it won these arguments a long time ago. It likes the way language itself reflects their political biases and agenda. Re-opening these questions and doing violence to their cherished categories has resulted in a lot of shrieking. But as they say in the air force, if you're catching a lot of flak, you must be over the target.
One of the criticisms I get from a lot of fans of the book is that I go into so much footnoted detail to make my points. But this was entirely deliberate and, I think, necessary. I had to show readers, not tell them. And I think that's the way you unteach these things. People are fascinated with fascism in a way they aren't in communism. They think they know what fascism was because they've been taught that all bad things are fascist. So, if you patiently lay out the inconvenient facts, you start demolishing the big lies, unspinning the spin. It will take a long time, but I'm proud to say I made a good start.
If there was one thing you would like readers of Liberal Fascism to have permanently lodged in their heads, what would that be?
"I should have bought more copies."
Size : 129 x 198mm
Pages : 496
Published : 29 Jan 2009
Publisher : Penguin
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The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning
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