About This Website

Almost by definition, popular ideas are boring. If we want something new and better, we must start with what’s currently out of fashion.  Here you will find essays and editorials on society, science and software technology, often with a libertarian perspective. More…

This form does not yet contain any fields.
    « The Calorie Fallacy | Main | The Liberal Impulse »

    Fascism versus Liberty

    I am reading Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg, which argues very convincingly that modern liberalism is the direct heir of fascism. This was a theory I mentioned in another article, so I searched Amazon for supporting evidence, which Goldberg supplies in abundance and which I will outline here along with my own take on why this matters.

    Why this article probably does not matter is spreading the word about Goldberg’s excellent book, since approximately no one visits this site. If you are reading this, you pretty much do not exist. My readership is confined to 1) my wife, 2) people searching for images, and 3) a very few people who Google has failed to persuade to read elsewhere. Google’s page rank for Unpopular Ideas (an automated judge of site “quality”) is just 2 out of 10, probably because virtually no one links here. It’s as if most readers assume “unpopular” means “untouchable”, or at least “unlinkable”. If you disagree and have some kind of relevant web presence, please promote Unpopular Ideas with link. Thanks!

    In any case, read on to find out why “unpopular” and “fascist” are pretty much opposites and why left-wing popular opinion owes a lot to supposedly right-wing fascism. I’ll also explain why the continuing existence of hidden fascism today argues for my own radical conception: a constitutional government without laws.

    The Right Wing of the Communist Party

    The popular modern conception is that fascism is a conservative right-wing ideology, possibly the extreme furthest to the political right. People often use “fascist” or “Nazi” pejoratively to describe conservatives. Liberal Fascism argues such popular opinion is almost entirely wrong by demonstrating that historically fascism was always a child of the socialist left. Fascism is indeed right-wing, but only in that it is effectively the right wing of the Communist party.

    As conceived by Mussolini, Hitler and all other sympathizers in the early twentieth century, fascism was a blend of socialism and nationalism. It was usually a form of Marxism, or at least socialism, with concepts of a stateless international brotherhood expunged and replaced with a strong national identity. All fascists were socialists first. They were all of the political left and strongly championed what most of the modern left still cherishes.

    Goldberg argues that Fascists and Bolsheviks were both branches or heresies of Marxism. Communists usually saw fascism as a more dangerous heresy than capitalism, much as the medieval Catholic Church was often more interested in stamping out Christian heresy than other religions. In the aftermath of World War II, the liberal left suffered collective amnesia because Hitler’s atrocities made any association between fascism and socialism unthinkable. Nevertheless, fascism was originally the right wing of the socialist left. Virtually all socialists, progressives and Democrats of the early twentieth century espoused fascist ideas and looked favorably on fascist experiments in Italy and Germany, as Goldberg carefully documents with numerous quotes and references.

    He also argues that after the second world war, “progressives” renamed themselves “liberals” even though libertarian conservatives might have been called “liberals” in the nineteenth century. And modern liberals maintain much of the former “progressive” political agenda, including many fascist traits. Surely both modern liberalism and classic fascism value state goals over individual freedoms, but the similarities go much deeper. For example, the Nazis heavily promoted “social justice”, “animal rights” and vegetarian health foods, causes of continued popularity with many liberals. If classic fascists governed through fear and worked for social conformity, then surely modern “political correctness” walks the same fear drenched road in more fashionable shoes. We even see modern echoes of Nazi racism, since identity politics still preaches racial preferences (though of course it’s now called affirmative action). And if you count anti-Zionism as a modern form of anti-Semitism, then that darkest of Nazi evils is still more often found on the far left.

    Fascism and Militarism

    In one important respect, early fascism differed significantly from contemporary liberal ideology, since fascists were usually militarists. It was not so much that they wanted war, but they valued war’s ability to mobilize a nation around common goals and strong leaders. A century ago, Progressives believed that society and government must advance through experimentation under the guidance of an intellectual elite, much as science and engineering do. They often did not see the common man as capable of understanding or rational choice. Instead many looked to “benevolent” leaders to show the way. Many valued crises because they allowed strong but benevolent leaders to mold society toward a better future.

    Does this sound vaguely familiar? Something very similar is still going on today as Democrats try to use the current financial crisis to grab policy reigns and steer toward long-term liberal goals. What has changed is our fear of war. A century ago, far more people idolized war. Sure there were inevitably a few bashed heads, but war allowed a nation to move forward with a common purpose. It took two world wars to convince us that modern warfare might not be such a good thing after all. But we forget that even the left tended to be war mongers before they experienced the atrocities of the twentieth century. In fact, it was especially the left.

    Anyway, both fascists and communists valued political unity over personal freedom. They both demanded that everyone believe in the common ideals of the state. They both used crises and propaganda to mold public thought. They both attacked capitalism and redistributed wealth. They both nationalized industry. They both harbored dictators. And they were both the antithesis of individual liberty, which Goldberg calls the “classic liberalism” of the nineteen century. In other words, they were both anything but the libertarians or even the conservatives of today.

    The only real differences were that fascists started with dictators by design rather than just allowing them to happen, and fascists were more likely than communists to glorify war. But remember that in those days virtually everyone seemed to glorify war more than even the hawks of today. As Goldberg points out, modern progressive liberals still use pseudo militarism in a similarly sneaky way to mobilize the masses. They have just substituted other less deadly kinds of conflict, such as class war and global warming (my examples, not Goldberg’s).

    The Original Fascist State

    Probably the most amazing and controversial claim Goldberg makes is that fascism did not originate in Mussolini’s Italy, much less Hitler’s Germany. It turns out the very first modern fascist state was the United States of America under Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was a progressive Democrat probably further to the left than even FDR. Yet his administration introduced to the world the joys of 1) the first propaganda ministry with nearly 100,000 agents, 2) political prisoners spied upon and jailed for expressing opinions, 3) news censored and publications shut down for merely criticizing the government, 4) a quarter-million “goons” with legal authority to intimidate and beat dissenters, and 5) leading writers dedicated to proselytizing for the government.

    This was during World War I and individual rights have been curtailed during other wars, but probably not in quite so totalitarian a manner. Not to mention the fact that Wilson talked peace while quietly herding the nation into war, which sounds a lot like Hitler (or FDR for that matter). Wilson did not use “totalitarian”, a word coined by Mussolini to mean “everything in the State, nothing outside the State”, but Wilson certainly agreed all citizens must work toward the state-directed goals.

    Again we seem to have suffered from collective amnesia, but it really appears that Wilson’s Progressives had almost the entire fascist playbook covered, including a military agenda. Further, Wilson’s Democrats were apparently reluctant to abandon at least some of their fascist agenda after the war, because it was such a wonderful way to mobilize America toward a progressive future.

    We are very fortunate that the Republicans won in the 1920’s, leaving fascism to incubate in Europe. Though we are probably not so fortunate that Herbert Hoover, one of Wilson’s progressive appointees, decided to switch parties and so became the Republican president responsible for starting the Great Depression, which handed the government back to another of Wilson’s WWI team with fascist tendencies, Franklin Roosevelt.

    Lessons of History

    When I say “almost the entire playbook” above, I mean that American progressive “fascists” never embraced racism and anti-Semitism, at least not nearly as much as in Germany. Goldberg also points out that Mussolini was not really anti-Semitic either until forced by Germany. So admittedly the most evil product of fascism was something mostly specific to Nazi Germany. We associate fascism with evil largely because of the Holocaust, which is not really fair to the majority of history’s fascists.

    But in another way, I believe we must connect the Holocaust and Germany’s racism with fascism in general and even with modern non-militaristic “liberal fascism”. For to ignore the connection is to fail to learn a clear historical lesson. Fascism can lead to racism and other forms of hatred. In fact, it is predisposed to create such hatred, since it attempts to mobilize people with religious-style “good versus evil” campaigns and wars. I have argued elsewhere that our human “religious impulse” makes us all susceptible to unreasoned group behavior that sometimes has evil consequences. It seems to me that it is the fascists and their modern liberal successors who more often engineer such impulsive beliefs and behavior.

    Even though Hitler killed an unimaginable number of innocents, at least he did us the service of illustrating the potential peril inherent in “progressive” liberalism. So even though it is unfair that liberals now reflexively label political conservatives as “fascist”, the real danger is that we all seem to have forgotten the link between “progressive” politics and genocide.

    Government Without Laws

    Though I am sure most modern liberals would vehemently disagree, I think that Goldberg’s book has studiously proved the strong historical and ideological links between liberals today and fascism. I also think history and specifically World War II provided ample evidence of the dangers of totalitarian psychology. But people will surely continue to try to mine our “religious” impulse for the betterment of the society, if not their own gain. So what can we do?

    My admittedly radical prescription calls for the elimination of laws, but not in the anarchist sense popular a century ago. Instead, it seems to me we are usually better off without new laws. Lawmaking is the rudder of government, but it is too prone to misuse by potential fascists. I believe a non-steerable form of government would allow for much less human misery in the long run. I suggest a constitutional government with a much weakened or non-existent legislative branch, a government run on fixed principles by executive and judicial branches tightly bound to constitutional rules. Of course avoiding leaders who arbitrarily interpret or even ignore the constitution would be a challenge, since the self-righteous of all strips are prone to ignore the rules. But just having such a system might encourage us to think more carefully about change and it would certainly amplify dissent when fascist leaders arise.

    I think almost any set of fixed or semi-fixed rules would do, since we are an adaptable species and can probably learn to cope whatever the system. So within reason, you can choose the constitution if you like, though I would prefer to stick with what we already have and know. By removing our ability to tinker with the system, we might eliminate the mayhem sometimes inflicted by free dealing leaders and potential leaders, usually with the best of intentions. Not to mention all the money we would save on Congressional junkets.

    PrintView Printer Friendly Version

    EmailEmail Article to Friend

    Reader Comments (3)

    I would love to see your ideal constitution. And I bet all the money we save on junkets would go a long way to repairingthe huge deficit,

    January 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

    Communism is very bad but capitalism is not perfect. have created some of the two

    April 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentergerovital

    Sounds like you just want one political party - YOURS! If you set a system in stone it will remain - in the Stone Age. Henry Ford admired the Nazis until he got caught.

    Some U.S. Governors admire the Communist Chinese so much that they took junkets to see how they "run" things. But Herr Walker was too busy trying, but failing to create his own nation-state. This nation is the closest thing to a true democracy that there is on this earth and I know people who have died and will die keeping it free from tyrants nurtured in big business and the back alleys of the elite.

    August 15, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjehoshphat

    PostPost a New Comment

    Enter your information below to add a new comment.
    Author Email (optional):
    Author URL (optional):
    Some HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <i> <strike> <strong>