Naturally, the first priority of Goldberg’s narrative is to identify what fascism is–hardly a trivial task. As early as the 1940s, writer George Orwell recognized that the word had become a vague term of denunciation. In Liberal Fascism, Goldberg earnestly attempts to treat fascism as an intellectual and political movement that had particular origins, doctrines, and champions. Although at times he seems to lean on an “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” approach, he does an admirable job of exploring the foundations of fascism. These begin with the political philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and its interpretation by Robespierre and his colleagues. From the French Revolution came several key fascistic concepts, including the notion that true liberty is only realized through participation in the “general will” of the masses and the idea that a state that mobilizes the people against stubborn bourgeois traditions can mold a new, utopian man. Add to this base some nineteenth century concepts, including the conception of society as a Darwinian organism and the romantic celebration of will-to-power. Finally, top it off with distinct late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century political visions, such as the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. The result is a plausible charting of fascist thought, which is used to guide the Goldberg’s analysis throughout the book.
With a working understanding of fascism developed, the meat of the book is laid forth. Though it is impossible in this space to fully address Goldberg’s work, a brief discussion of America’s fascistic turn during the Great War provides a fine example of the stones that Goldberg upturns throughout the book. America’s wartime president, the progressive Woodrow Wilson, had been a scholar before entering government. Unfortunately, his philosophical and intellectual track record was somewhat dubious. This record included the belief that government came “under the theory of organic life” and was united with the populace in a spiritual gestalt. Correspondingly, Wilson held that “a lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual.” The experimentation and evolution of the state, unbounded by classically liberal constraints, was paramount.
Goldberg relates how such progressive inclinations were consummated during the First World War. Although Wilson was more reluctant than contemporaries such as Theodore Roosevelt to enter the war, progressives inside and outside the administration hailed the war, when it came, as an opportunity to mobilize society into collective action under centralized state leadership. For the progressives, prosecution of the war was very much a means as well as an end unto itself. Renowned educator John Dewey remarked happily, “We shall have to lay by our good-natured individualism and march in step.” In practice, this meant “an industrial dictatorship without parallel,” to use the words of one War Industries Board member. The Committee on Public Information, the national propaganda office, regularly used demagogy. One liberty bond poster proclaimed, “I am Public Opinion. All men fear me!” The Sedition Act of 1918 banned expression of “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the United States government or the military.” Meanwhile, the Postmaster General banned the circulation of close to a hundred periodicals. The Justice Department’s American Protective League (APL) had over 250,000 members by 1918. These APL personnel busied themselves with spying on neighbors and rounding up people who might have been draft dodgers. On the whole, the home front of the war to make “the world safe for democracy” saw a deterioration of the spirit of democracy, under the watch of the progressives.
With irreverence for the conventional wisdom of American liberalism, Goldberg runs through the subsequent history of the American left. However, the early-twentieth-century progressive movement appears to this reader as a high-water mark of liberal fascism, and moderate or liberal readers may no longer be on board by the time Goldberg discusses contemporary society. For conservatives, it is easy enough to connect the dots with Goldberg, rightly or wrongly. In the fervor for large-scale action against climate change, for example, there appears to be a sentiment among some enthusiasts that the means are as important as the ends—the cost/benefit calculus of Kyoto is not as important as the need to mobilize and collectivize society, they intimate. In the matter of abortion, the ghost of eugenics comes into focus on occasion, when it is argued that the sort of fetuses that get aborted would tend disproportionately toward lives of crime. In the case of affirmative action, there is certainly an echo of racial essentialism, or the conceptualization of organic ethnicities somehow embodied by their members. And so it goes.
Liberal readers will be more skeptical of Goldberg’s conclusions about modern liberalism. In part this skepticism ought to be mitigated by the fact that Goldberg, though ideological, is not explicitly partisan. Although he criticizes Hillary Clinton and Al Gore, he also bemoans the rise of Compassionate Conservatism and National Greatness Conservatism. He is none too delighted about a Republican president who holds that, “when somebody hurts,” government must “move.” Still, liberal readers might well ask, “So what if some strands of liberal thought can be traced back to fascism or its predecessors? What does that mean for us today?”
Part of the answer to that question is that true, full-throated fascism once appealed to an awful lot of people, so its rejection by society, though thorough at present, is not a trivial matter going forward. The developed world today sees fascism as comic-book cannon fodder for the likes of Indiana Jones, even as variants of fascism threaten to gain ground in the Middle East and elsewhere. If we are to take fascistic ideas as a serious threat, then all of us, right and left, should first acknowledge that such ideas could be related to beliefs and policies advocated by well-intentioned people.
Whether our society has already suffered substantial damage from fascism’s vestigial tentacles is a tougher question to objectively address. However, Goldberg’s laudable historical work is a good place to start.