The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Six Degrees of Adolf Hitler

October 20, 2005

Robert Farley puzzles over Jonah Goldberg’s new book, Liberal Fascism : The Totalitarian Temptation from Mussolini to Hillary Clinton. I haven’t read it, but that’s never stopped me from making ill-informed comments before. Here’s the editorial summary:

Since the rise and fall of the Nazis in the midtwentieth century, fascism has been seen as an extreme right-wing phenomenon. Liberals have kept that assumption alive, hurling accusations of fascism at their conservative opponents. LIBERAL FASCISM offers a startling new perspective on the theories and practices that define fascist politics. Replacing conveniently manufactured myths with surprising and enlightening research, Jonah Goldberg shows that the original fascists were really on the Left and that liberals, from Woodrow Wilson to FDR to Hillary Clinton, have advocated policies and principles remarkably similar to those of Hitler’s National Socialism.

Goldberg draws striking parallels between historic fascism and contemporary liberal doctrines. He argues that “political correctness” on campuses and calls for campaign finance reform echo the Nazis’ suppression of free speech; and that liberals, like their fascist forebears, dismiss the democratic process when it yields results they dislike, insist on the centralization of economic decision-making, and seek to insert the authority of the state in our private lives–from bans on smoking to gun control. Covering such hot issues as morality, anti-Semitism, science versus religion, health care, and cultural values, he boldly illustrates the resemblances between the opinions advanced by Hitler and Mussolini and the current views of the Left.

Impeccably researched and persuasively argued, LIBERAL FASCISM will elicit howls of indignation from the liberal establishment–and rousing cheers from the Right.

There were, of course, ideological and personal continuities between socialism, the social democratic movement, and fascism. This is very old news to scholars of twentieth-century political and intellectual history. It looks like Goldberg’s taken that, and extended it into a poorly-reasoned set of analogies between an ill-defined list of “leftist” policies and fascism. I’m sure that know-nothing conservatives and liberals alike will get all worked up over the book but, based on the description, it doesn’t look like there’s anything here worth either liberals’ or conservatives’ time.

From my perspective, this kind of stuff works itself out quite well, and much more usefully, if you set F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom against Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation. If you agree with Hayek’s diagnosis of “what went wrong” in the inter-war period, you’ll opt for a kind of “conservative libertarianism” (in American ideological terms). If you agree with Polanyi’s account of the rise of fascism and bolshevism, you’ll find yourself sympathizing with New Deal liberalism. I don’t agree with many of Polanyi’s arguments – or his policy prescriptions – but I do think he basically wins the debate: importing some degree of social-democratic principles into liberalism is the only way to save it from itself.

Let’s also not forget that liberals were the first to denounce campus “political correctness.” They were right to do so. Anyone on the left who has any doubts about this should take a long, hard look at the way conservatives have imported the same modes of thought in some very poisonous ways: from the “Academic Bill of Rights” movement, to the “Intelligent Design” movement, to the meanderings of the Corner, we see the extension of multicultural frameworks to include “conservativism” and “Christian fundamentalism” as essentialist “standpoints” that deserve to be coddled and affirmed by our educational system.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.