Review: Rethinking Orwell’s Definition of Fascism

Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning by Jonah Goldberg (New York: Doubleday, 2007)

Sunday 15 February 2009, by Emrah Sahin

Fascism is a contested word. The
average American associates it
with everything from dictatorship,
genocide, anti-Semitism, racism,
eugenics, social Darwinism, and
state capitalism to militarism and
extreme nationalism. Scholars in the
field do not reach a consensus either;
they have agreed to use the word
without agreeing on how to define
it. Goldberg wryly observes that the
more closely we study fascism, the
less clear it becomes.

In Politics and the English Language,
George Orwell admitted that fascism
has no explicit meaning—it merely
signifies something undesirable.

Goldberg, however, is unsatisfied with
such glibness. In his view, fascism is
a religion of state which assumes the
organic unity of the body politic under
a leadership attuned to the general
will. Specifically, American fascism is
totalitarian and justifies any government
action for the sake of the common
good; starting from the early twentieth
century, we are told, the American
government took responsibility for all
aspects of its citizens’ lives, including
their health and wellbeing. Those who
have held power—Goldberg labels
them liberal fascists—have sought
to impose uniformity of thought and
action by force, regulations, and social

Goldberg builds his main criticism
upon the pillar of progressivism, a
once profound political and social
movement represented by William
Jennings Bryan, Theodore Roosevelt,
and Woodrow Wilson. Here
Goldberg paints with a somewhat
narrow brush; he fails to take into
account the broader panorama of
the progressive movement, which
was in no way monolithic and, as
convincingly shown by Arthur S.
Ling and Richard L. McCormick in
Progressivism, cannot be reduced to
a single ideology.

Goldberg moves on to reinterpreting
American political discourse.
Looking into the imperialist claims
of the United States—read America’s
Monroe Doctrine and Big Stick
diplomacy from South America to
the Pacific Islands and the Far East—
convinces Goldberg that America
was a veritable Christian-Fascist
nation abroad. Second, looking
into the government’s intrusive
and sometimes abusive domestic
regulations—see Prohibition, the
Palmer Raids, eugenics, loyalty oaths,
and state-led capitalism—encourages
him to argue that America was an
authentic fascist nation at home as
well. Today, he laments that liberals
use a secularized vocabulary of hope,
their “golden word”, and construct
explicitly spiritual philosophies,
thereby ensuring American liberal
fascism endures with a smiley-face.

Goldberg asserts that the French
Revolution was the first fascist
movement; the paranoid Jacobin
mentality drove the revolutionaries
to subsume everything under the
state. Later, during the Wilson Era,
Goldberg goes further to argue
that the first appearance of modern
Western totalitarianism was in the
United States for the sake of “ending
all wars.” Right before the Second
World War, American progressives
in the footsteps of Wilson supported
Mussolini and sympathized with
Hitler but had to distance themselves
from the horrors of Nazism.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal
takes a good share of Goldberg’s
criticism. Roosevelt’s brain trust,
including Rexford Guy Tugwell,
vindicated Italian fascism as the
cleanest, neatest, most efficiently
operating piece of social machinery
they had ever seen.

Hysterically harsh criticisms against
liberals and the left, and superficial
attempts to vindicate conservatives
and the right notwithstanding,
Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism promises
a debate-inspiring and interesting
read of American historical discourse
painted on a fascist canvas.
What Goldberg offers in Liberal
Fascism is an alternative history of
American liberalism, which he thinks
was interwoven with fascism and its
variants. Goldberg labels many socalled
liberals of the past and today
as “friendly fascists,” but this is no
wonder in Goldberg’s book, when
even the usually irreproachable W.E.B.
DuBois opines that the formation of
a dictatorship might be absolutely
necessary to get the state in order!

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