Interviewing Jonah Goldberg About His New Book, Liberal Fascism
Yesterday, I interviewed Jonah Goldberg about his new book, Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning.
What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.
Before we really get started, give us the Jonah Goldberg definition of fascism.
A short definition would simply be — there’s a longer definition in the book — it’s one word we give for a totalitarian, religious impulse, where everything has to go together, where the state has to govern every aspect of society or at least direct every aspect of society towards some Utopian end. Something like that. It’s a hard thing to (define) which is why it’s important to define it better on paper, which I do in the book.
I think one of the things we get caught up with, when we talk about fascism, is that we think it is this incredibly unique thing and really, it’s just another name for a kind of socialism. Fascism is socialism, Mussolini was a socialist, the National Socialists — duh — were socialists.
Instead, what we’ve done is turn fascism into this shorthand for evil. Nazism was obviously evil and Italian fascism was really, really bad, but fascism meant something else as well.
…Take the word socialism. More people were rounded up, put in camps, and murdered in the name of socialism than were ever killed in the name of Nazism or fascism and that’s not even counting the National Socialists of Germany. Mao killed 65 million people in the name of socialism. Stalin killed, minimum, 20 million people in the name of socialism. But, if I call you a socialist, that’s like I’m saying you’re misguided, Utopian, idealistic, or goofy, but it doesn’t mean I am calling you a genocidal murderer. But, we do that with fascism, where we just say it’s sort of a codeword for evil. So, part of the book explains that fascism isn’t as exotic as you think it is, it’s really just a flowering of a different kind of socialism.
One of the common arguments you see on the net between conservatives and liberals is whether the Nazis were creatures of the Left or Right. What do you say?
I say, they were indisputably a phenomenon of the Left. Now, that said, they certainly talked about themselves in ways, that to the ear of a person living in 2008, sounds confusing.
Mussolini referred to himself as being on the Right…but what he meant by Right, was a right-wing socialist. You have to remember, Stalin was calling Trotsky a right-winger back in those days. Bukharin was put in one of Stalin’s show trials for being a Right-Wing deviationist. He was a hard core left-wing socialist.
Beyond that, if you were a Martian and you came to planet Earth with a clipboard and you observed politics and history, and you defined the Left as statism, collectivism, hostility to classical liberalism, hostility to traditional Christianity and tradition generally and you defined the Right, at least in the Anglo-American sense, as both traditionalism and limited government — right? I mean to me, that seems to be a pretty good anatomical description of Left and Right.
I have never, ever, ever heard anybody make a credible argument that by those standards, Nazism wasn’t on the Left. It’s obviously so. I think we get too caught up in intellectual labels and buzzwords when it’s obvious, if you step back from the painting far enough, where on the canvas the Nazis belong.Well, if someone said to you, “Jonah, I’m not sure I buy that, so give me some of the most striking similarities between modern liberals and Fascists like Hitler and Mussolini,” what would you tell them?
Well, I want to be careful and say up front…
I understand they’re not Hitler…we’re not comparing Hillary to Goering…
Right. I am not playing the game that the Left does.
That said, where to start…putting aside the stuff like, they’re socialists, Hitler is lured into the German Worker’s Party by a speech called, “By What Means Shall Capitalism Be Destroyed,” putting aside the Nazi Party platform of 1920, which Adolph Hitler co-writes, which includes socialized medicine, universal health care, universal education, guaranteed wages, appropriation of the wealth of the rich, an “Anti- Wal Mart” plank essentially, where they go after big department stores, putting aside all of the obvious economic similarities, there is also the populism. The Nazis insisted on speaking out for the little guy, what FDR called the “forgotten man.” At any rally, if there was ever going to be an aristocrat or a wealthy person on the stage or anywhere near it, they insisted on having at least one peasant farmer or factory hand on the stage, too. They were deeply populist, plus there are philosophical similarities which we still have.
One of the central points of fascism is the cult of unity. This idea that — and this is what I was getting at in the beginning with my definition of fascism — that if everybody gets together, if everybody holds hands and agrees to the national program, to the progressive cause, to what the movement dictates is right and good, then we will be able to be delivered from history, we will be delivered to a promised land, a Thousand Year Reich, a Communist world, a perfect society, a utopia, the kingdom of heaven on earth — that notion still runs straight through the heart of contemporary liberalism today.
Barack Obama says on the stump that we can create a kingdom of heaven on earth. Hillary Clinton talks about how, if we can just create this idealized village of hers, that everyone will feel like they belong, everything will be in the village, nothing outside of the village. When Barack Obama is on the stump, his whole point is that if we can just be unified, public policy issues don’t really matter, what really matters is unity — that sort of thing.
There’s also a sort of contempt for Democratic values that also comes out of this unity thing. One of the most fascistic things that kids on college campuses say is that, “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” In other words, there is no safe harbor. Either you agree with where the movement wants to go or you are a problem and problems need to be solved by definition.
You hear Al Gore say the time for discussion is over. You hear Hillary Clinton say constantly, we need to move beyond our ideological disagreements, beyond our partisan disagreements, beyond political labels — and the thing is, in 15 years in conservative punditry I have never heard someone say, “I don’t believe in labels, I think we need to move beyond our ideological differences, and therefore I am going to abandon everything I believe and agree with you, for the sake of unity.” People only say we need to move beyond ideology, we need to put partisanship aside, or the time for discussion is over, when they want to tell you to shut up and get with their program. That is a fundamentally undemocratic, quasi-fascistic way of talking about politics.
…A lot of people get confused about how fascism was supposed to be militarism and militaristic, well, there’s a lot of truth to that obviously, but I think they misunderstand the point of militarism to a certain extent. What fascinated progressives and fascists alike about militarism was that it provided a means of mobilizing society. One of the central aspects of fascism is the need to create crisis, so that everyone drops their opposition to any program and rallies around the state in unity. That’s what militarism was useful for. Now, I flatly concede that today’s liberals are not militaristic in the slightest, but they are still calling for moral equivalents of war…they want to call for a war on poverty, a war on inequality, the war on cancer…
Well Jonah, you say they’re not militaristic at all, but Bill Clinton went on a lot of “peacekeeping missions”…and liberals seem much more generally willing than conservatives to use our troops for (missions of that sort)…
I think that’s right. There is this notion that you get from liberal foreign policy — that comes straight out of Wilsonianism — that foreign adventure is only worthwhile when it’s not in our natural interest. That’s why Haiti was important. That’s why Somalia was important.
But, the second something is in our national interest, it’s because Halliburton wants us to do it. It’s a weird mixture of idealism and cynicism. Because we’re the bad guys and it’s a blame-America-first mentality, whenever we do things that we need to do as a matter of Realpolitik, the Left seems to have huge problems with it, but whenever we do things that are purely altruistic, it’s our moral imperative to do it.
I’m sympathetic to the moral imperative stuff, more than most people, but I’m more sympathetic to doing it if it’s in our national interest. That comes first. I’m all in favor of helping little old ladies who are being mugged by gangs. But, I think it’s even more imperative, if the gang is mugging the little old lady and me, that my first priority has to be to protect myself before I can do anything for anybody else. It’s there where I think a lot of liberals fall down and think we shouldn’t be doing anything in our national interest.
Now conservatives, rather famously, have a deep and abiding dislike and mistrust of the federal government and believe that private industry does almost everything better than the government does. Is a belief like that ultimately compatible with fascism?
No, the whole point of fascism is centralizing. That’s why they were socialists. All these idiots who go around Googling stuff on the web, they find Mussolini saying, fascism is anti-liberalism and anti-Liberal.
Well, the liberalism that Mussolini was talking about was Manchester liberalism, classical liberalism, free market, capitalistic, individual rights liberalism. That is what the fascists stood against. It’s a totalitarian society, inherently hostile to private property. They believe the state was by far the best means of governing and running society.
One of the things that prompted me to write the book was this fundamental misunderstanding of what conservatism is in America and this slander, this projection, where liberals see in themselves similarities to fascism and project those things on to us.
I often like to ask college kids, except for the murder, bigotry, and genocide, what is it exactly about Nazism that you don’t like? And they can’t name anything. But, conservatives can come up with all sorts of stuff. They were socialists. They wanted free health care. They hated Christianity. They hated tradition. They were statists at the end of the day. All of those things are inherent to fascism and what was anathema to fascism was the idea that you can have, what the scholars of totalitarian theory call “islands of separateness” — that churches can go their own way, that corporations can operate without coordinating with the state, that individuals can have free consciences, that there can be free debate, free and open discussion.
What the Nazis implemented was something called the Gleichschaltung, which is a German word for coordination…and the idea was that the entire society needed to work like a giant machine, where all the cogs were linked together and everyone pushed in the same direction.
Here’s a fascinating quote from your book that I’d like you to expound on a bit, “What distinguished Nazism from other brands of socialism and communism was not so much that it included more aspects from the political right (though there were some). What distinguished Nazism was that it forthrightly included a world view we now associate almost completely with the political left: identity politics.”
That’s right. The Nazis, unlike the Italian fascists — and this is one of the key points people keep not wanting to hear — Italian fascism was not racist, it was not anti-Semitic. It only became anti-Semitic when the Nazis grew so powerful and the Italians grew so weak that they had to cave in to Nazi demands. They fought Nazi demands, tooth and nail, about cooperating with the Holocaust.
The Nazis believed in racial essentialism — that the Aryan race was unique, was pure, was special, that there was no such thing as universal humanity. You know, Hitler had this long section in Mein Kampf where he concludes that Jews aren’t human beings, that they’re a different species.
They talked constantly, in the same way that we hear academics today talk about “dead, white European males,” “white logic,” Eurocentrism, logocentrism, and all these sorts of things. These ideas come straight out of the intellectual tradition that led to Nazism, that flourished under Nazism, and indeed, the words deconstruction and logocentrism, these all come out of the Nazi intellectual project. What they believed fundamentally was that human beings could be categorized in little boxes and they could never escape from them. It was an iron cage of identity.
Today on the Left, we have people, like Richard Delgado at the University of Colorado, who says that blacks and Hispanics should flee the enlightenment as fast as they can because there is no way that the regime of white privilege could ever assimilate people who are born black or Hispanic, because you can never transcend your identity or your gender. It’s where the whole logic of quotas come from, it’s where the whole logic of Affirmative Action comes from. It’s the idea that black people think like black people and white people think like white people and therefore, the only kind of diversity you can have is diversity by skin color, gender, and sexual orientation.
The key distinction here though is that Nazi philosophy was rankly evil in applying this. Their quotas, their approach to this sort of thing was flatly evil and exterminationist. That is not what the Left wants to do today. They’re much more benign. There’s not a lot of love for Jews on the hard Left, but their thinking is that they’re trying to help the victims of discrimination, they’re trying to improve the lives of others. It’s a nice sort of approach. It’s a well intentioned approach.
But, it doesn’t have nice consequences. I think it’s bad for social harmony. It’s bad for the people it’s designed to help. Moreover, that sort of categorical thinking is very similar to the thinking we saw under the Nazis.
In Ron Radosh’s review of your book, he says, “Turning to what he calls liberal racism, Mr. Goldberg offers readers his finest chapter. It is a devastating picture of how liberals adopted eugenics – a basic part of Nazi doctrine..” Talk about that a bit.
Sure. You often hear, especially from the fringe feminist Left, that pro-lifers are like Nazis or fascistic because they want to “oppress women.” I’m perfectly willing to have an argument about pro-life, pro-choice, all that sort of thing and even though I might disagree with the pro-choicers on most of their arguments, I don’t think it’s inherently disqualifying to make a pro-choice argument. But, what is simply factually not the case, is that the pro-life position has anything to do with Nazism.
You would think that a half-century after the Holocaust, it wouldn’t be necessary to remind people that Nazis weren’t pro-life. Long before they started the campaign against the Jews, they started a massive euthanasia campaign, killing what they called the useless bread gobblers….What I think a lot of people don’t appreciate and what has been pretty well established now in the historical literature is that the Nazis were in many ways picking up on ideas that first flourished in the United States under the progressives.
The progressives start the forced sterilizations. It is the progressives who talk about weeding out the inferior races. Margaret Sanger, the Founder of Planned Parenthood, was all about weeding out the duskier and darker races…and all of that. The socialists of Britain, the Fabian socialists, George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, all of those guys, were soaked to the bone eugenicists who considered eugenics and socialism to be the same project. Oliver Wendell Holmes, the author of the Bell Case, where the court ruled it was OK to forcibly sterilize low income whites because they were viewed as sort of sub par genetic filth that needed to be cleaned up; Oliver Wendell Holmes said the first priority of social reform was to build a race. There were plenty of eugenicists who wanted to create a genetic Gulag Archipelago. They were going to put inferior women in, essentially, these interior colonies during their fertile years so that they could not breed.
The welfare state was in many senses a eugenic project. As one famous progressive put it, his argument for the minimum wage was, the Cooley — meaning the Chinese worker — cannot outwork the white man, but he can under-live him. The logic of that was that since these inferior races needed so little to live on, if you created a minimum wage to lock them out, they would sort of die out of their own accord, because no employer in his right mind would hire anybody but a white man if he had to pay a white man’s wage. That logic suffused the founding of the liberal welfare state.
Woodrow Wilson, when he was Governor of New Jersey, he signed a eugenics sterilization law that appointed a eugenics minister for the state of New Jersey, who ended up being a “doctor” in one of the Nazi concentration camps….
Do you think some of the things that now occur on college campuses, school papers being deliberately trashed if they say something politically incorrect, college Republicans being persecuted for simply having different views, conservative speakers being screamed over and attacked with food, is reminiscent of fascist tactics?
Of course it is. Leading the charge of the Nazi movement in the 1930s were student groups. The students far outpaced the rest of society in joining the Nazi Party. The Nazi Party was in many respects — much like the Italian Fascist Party — a youth movement. They appealed to youth, they claimed that they were the voice of the new generation, you had students attacking the conservative teachers who wanted to maintain the traditional notion of a university. The students were demanding that buzzword we hear on college campuses today, “relevance.” You know, why do we have to learn Latin and Greek and all these things? Why can’t we learn about the progressive things of today? All the protests that you saw on campuses were reminiscent of it. At the end of the day, whether you want to call it communist tactics or fascist tactics or whatever, any time you have people burning campus newspapers, shouting down speakers, mobbing the stage like you had at Columbia, those are undemocratic tactics, those are totalitarian tactics, those are mob rule tactics. The thing to remember about all of these “isms” of the Left is that they are rationalizations for mob rule.
If you were going to give people a 30 second explanation of why they should buy your book, what would you tell them?
The primary reason someone should buy my book is because it’s the first book to put all in one place the stuff that is left out of the history books and the narrative that we’ve heard for the last 70 years. It corrects the record about the slander that has been aimed at conservatives for a half century — that we are fascists, that we are Nazis. Even if you disagree with a lot of the arguments, I think most, if not all fair minded readers will concede that they learned a lot from it. I am not winging it. Every claim is backed up by facts, by footnotes. Every argument marshals evidence to support it. If you disagree with everything, even if you think liberalism is still the best thing that we have for bettering society…I think that you’ll be better armed to make your case because you’ll at least know the downside of your own intellectual history. You’ll know the darker side of progressivism. In an age where Hillary Clinton is saying that…she’s a progressive, I think it’s pretty important to understand what progressivism was and what its ultimate aims and impulses are.
Do you regularly or semi-regularly read any blogs you’d like to recommend to RWN’s readers?
I’m not reading anything right now because of the book tour, but all the obvious ones. The National Review blogs, The Corner, The Campaign Spot, that kind of thing. I obviously check out Instapundit and my mom’s site, Lucianne.
The problem is, whenever I am asked this question, I get in more trouble for the blogs that I don’t mention than the ones that I do, (laughs). So, Ross Douthat has always had some fascinating and interesting things to say. I think Mickey Kaus, even though he’s a liberal, is the best guy out there at dissecting the really fine point stuff, like how the New York Times covers things. It’s useful. I think (bloggers) do great stuff…
Well Jonah, thanks a lot…
Great, I appreciate it!