The Roots of Liberal Fascism: The Book


Chip Berlet, senior analyst at Political Research Associates (PRA), is co-author of Right Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. His most recent study for PRA is titled Toxic to Democracy, and his article on the Tea Party protests appears as the cover story in the February 2010 issue of the Progressive magazine.

The Tea Party Patriots and Town Hall Criers are alerting us to the coming totalitarian apocalypse provoked by liberal misfeasance, nonfeasance, malfeasance, and just plain treason.  In a nutshell, this mirrors the basic theme in Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg.  The specific looming threat, according to Goldberg and the tea-partiers, is that liberals and their closet commie/fascist friends are pushing America onto a slippery slope toward tyranny that begins with government social planning.

Other scholars in this series have explained the weakness of Goldberg’s analysis of the nature of fascism.  I will explore the roots of the idea of “liberal fascism” as emerging from right-wing ideologues at very specific historic moments.

According to Goldberg, “Today we still live under the fundamentally fascistic economic system established by Wilson and FDR.  We do live in an ‘unconscious civilization’ of fascism, albeit of a friendly sort infinitely more benign that that of Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, or FDRs America” (p.  330).

Up until the early 1900s in the United States it was widely believed that a healthy economy and, indeed, democracy itself relied on the “Invisible Hand” of the “Free Market” which stroked the members of the benevolent elites so that wealth trickled down the social ladder to their social inferiors.  The government merely played the role of a “Night Watchman,” identifying trash heaps containing criminals and political dissidents to be hauled off to jail or simply deported, as in the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids.

Just after the nation crashed into the Great Depression, the 1932 presidential campaign focused on whether or not the government should directly develop policies and programs promoting economic fairness, and social justice.  Unions and most working people backed this concept and thus the candidacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  FDR faced the incumbent President, Herbert Hoover, whose 1928 campaign speech on "Rugged Individualism" left no doubt where he stood on the question.

According to Hoover, during World War I, in order to ensure the "preservation of the State the Government became a centralized despotism."  After the war the nation was faced "with the choice of the American system 'rugged individualism' or the choice of a European system of diametrically opposed doctrines—doctrines of paternalism and state socialism.  The acceptance of these ideas meant the destruction of self-government through centralization of government."  Hoover argued that the proposals of Franklin D.  Roosevelt would "wreck our democracy" and weaken the "foundations of social and spiritual progress in America."

After his inauguration in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt slapped Laissez Faire elites in the face with a clearly visible hand when, as President, he launched a number of massive and controversial federal government programs to restore the economy.  The conservative elites and their ideologues slapped back, handing out over the next two decades millions of dollars in pamphlets, advertisements, movies, and books equating the defense of democracy and the “American Way of Life” with restoring “Free Market” government policies.  Ringleaders included the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), but they were hardly alone.  This broad propaganda campaign was recently documented in the excellent book Invisible Hands: The Businessmen's Crusade Against the New Deal by Kim Phillips-Fein. 

Conservative ideologues in both the United States and Europe began to bemoan creeping socialism, and in 1935 Austrian School economist Friedrich A. Hayek edited a volume on Collectivist Economic Planning: Critical Studies on the Possibilities of Socialism.  In the U.S., the anti-socialist crusade built to oppose the policies of FDR forged an alliance between the ideological Free Marketeers and the theologues of the Christian Right.  The latter worried that big government and big labor union “collectivism” threatened the social contract, the radical individualism of unrefined Calvinism, and the proper relationship between the Godly individual and both church and state.  Max Weber studied the roots of this tendency in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

While publicly praising civic participation, many of these same conservative & libertarian ideologues tried to curtail or crush labor unions as a form of “collectivism” just as detrimental to democracy as those “European” collectivist schemes:  socialism and national socialism aka Nazism.  Thus today President Obama is said to be both a socialist and a fascist—both Hitler and Stalin.  Back in the 1930s FDR was also tarred by conservatives for bringing socialist and fascist ideas into the political economy of the U.S.

In 1944 Hayek warned about the dangers to freedom inherent in social planning in his classic book, The Road to Serfdom.  Hayek argued that the practical needs of coordination and efficiency inherent in government central planning tended to create totalitarian systems of social control.  In his foreword, Hayek claimed that “economic planning” in Britain under a Labour government was “despotism exercised by a thoroughly conscientious and honest bureaucracy for what they sincerely believe is the good of the country.”  Hayek penned chapters on “The Socialist Roots of Nazism,” and “The Totalitarians in our Midst.”

No serious scholar of fascism disputes the fact that Italian Fascism and German Nazism borrowed themes and personnel from existing socialist movements.  Writing in 1944, Hayek had three disadvantages.  First, the analytical work of Hannah Arendt on the nature of totalitarianism did not appear until the early 1950s.  Second, the serious scholarly study of fascism was still in its early stages.  Third, the book Road to Serfdom was written as a polemic and was not (and never intended to be) a serious study of fascism reflecting the academic disciplines of economics, political science, or history.

Fascism, Nazism, Communism, the Roosevelt administration, and the modern Welfare State share degrees of government intervention in the economy.  They are not equivalent, and there is no evidence that government planning leads to totalitarianism any more than drinking tea leads to opium addiction.  This is a classic logical error.  Arendt detailed how it was the totalitarianism shared by Hitler and Stalin that created similarities in terms of ruthless government repression.

There is a problem, then, for Goldberg to adopt outdated and repudiated ideas from the 1930s and 1940s—skip over 50 years of scholarship—and then helicopter in to claim we in the now live under a regime of “liberal fascism.”  Goldberg is not alone in his beliefs, however, as the Tea Party and town hall movement rhetoric demonstrates.

Back in 1944, two other right-wing books were published on related themes:  John Flynn’s As We Go Marching, and Ludwig von Mises’ Omnipotent Government, the Rise of the Total State and Total War.  The books of Hayek, Flynn, and von Mises became sacred texts to generations of right-wing libertarians… often shelved next to the idiosyncratic Gnostic gospels of Ayn Rand and Albert Jay Nock.

Staring in the mid 1940s, von Mises was the main torch bearer for anti-collectivism.  He worked for the libertarian Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) and was appointed to a NAM commission on economics.  In addition to writing for the FEE journal The Freeman, von Mises also wrote for Christian Economics published by the right-wing Christian Freedom Foundation;  National Review captained by conservative icon William F.  Buckley, Jr.  (his father gave him books by Nock);  The Intercollegiate Review from the ultraconservative Intercollegiate Studies Institute;  Faith and Freedom, published by the Christian Right group Spiritual Mobilization;  and American Opinion, published by the John Birch Society.  This is the same Birch Society that Buckley once urged serious conservatives to shun as too kooky.

In our book Right-Wing Populism in America, Matthew N.  Lyons and I traced how these anti-statist, anti-collectivist ideas were brought into the Republican Party by members and allies of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society, many of whom had worked on the failed 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater.  Many other authors have noted the influence of the JBS on the contemporary Republican Party, including Michelle Goldberg in Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, which highlights the JBS as a player in Christian Right circles. 

It is worth noting that the founder of the Society, Robert Welch, worked as a researcher for the anti-collectivist NAM before setting up the JBS.  In 1964 the masthead of the JBS magazine American Opinion read like a Who’s Who of ultraconservatism:  Editorial Advisory Committee, Clarence Manion, Ludwig Von Mises, J. Howard Pew, and Robert W. Stoddard;  Associate Editors Revilo P. Oliver and E. Merrill Root; Contributing Editors Medford Evans and Hans Sennholz. 

Anti-collectivism then went mainstream.  While working on an investigative article in the early 1980s, a harried Reagan White House switchboard operator mistook who I was and plugged me into the office of presidential adviser and ultra-conservative guru Morton Blackwell.  We had a marvelous discussion about how important the John Birch Society literature was for training young conservatives;  how he had shelves full of JBS material in his office;  how he shared the JBS books with the White House Staff;  and how he was trying to see if JBS and similar literature could be sent to U.S. embassy libraries around the world.  Marginal ideas?  Not.

Jonah Goldberg does not list the John Birch Society as a major source, but he should have, since his book is like a compendium of JBS articles published over the last fifty years.  These ideas are now ubiquitous among right-wing populists in the Tea Party movement.  Am I suggesting that Birchers, the Christian Right, and right-wing libertarians have taken over the Republican Party?  Yes, although old-fashioned conservatives and political pragmatists are putting up a splendid fight for control of the Party.  Do I think right-wing TV, radio, and print media are awash with right-wing conspiracy theories pioneered by the Birchers?  Yes, that’s what my research shows.

A younger generation now carries the torch of anti-collectivism forward.  It was young acolytes of right-wing fanatic Lyndon H.  LaRouche, Jr. who created those Town Hall protest placard images of Obama morphed into a Hitler avatar with a little extra mustache and hair.  The irony here is that LaRouche is an actual neofascist who has spent his career calling everyone he despises a fascist.  LaRouche has more pages of content on Wikipedia than most U.S.  Presidents;  and fanatic fans spent years trying to keep the term “fascist” off of LaRouche’s main entry. 

All over Wikipedia there is an ongoing struggle to amplify and defend the ideas of arch anti-collectivist libertarians like Goldberg.  There have been repeated attempts to change the name of the Wikipedia entry “Nazism” to “National Socialism” as part of a larger effort to redefine all forms of collective effort by governments as an example of tyranny.  Some pages have become virtual shrines to the anti-collectivists, especially the pages on Ludwig von Mises, and the von Mises Institute.  I finally gave up editing on Wikipedia—I spent more time in “mediations” with abusive fanatics than editing entries.  Wikipedia still has yet to solve this type of problem, and too many of its entries remain biased because bullies of all political stripes are seldom effectively sanctioned.

Editing Wikipedia entries led me to agree with Goldberg on one point with which he opens his book:  Most liberals (and others on the Political Left) have no coherent and accurate definition of what fascism is.  The most popular idea on the Left is that fascism is when corporations run the government.  Thousands of Internet pages sport this passage attributed to Mussolini discussing his Italian Fascist movement:  “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power."  Hit the delete button! So far no scholar I know has been able to find the original source of this quote.  It’s not in the 1932 Enciclopedia Italiana as widely claimed.  (If you have a print copy of the quote from the 1930s, please let me know, otherwise please refrain from e-mails saying you found it on the internet).  The apparent hoax quote also contradicts everything else Mussolini wrote on the subject.

Right-wing libertarians and their right-wing populist cousins have a First Amendment protection to believe what they want and say what they think about fascism, socialism, collectivism, and the Obama administration.  Why worry about the bad history and worse analysis in Liberal Fascism?  I worry because in civil society, democracy is based on informed consent.  We don’t have it here.

Today, I see a growing mass base of angry people who have good reasons to be mad at the government, but who are demonizing opponents and scapegoating social and economic problems on immigrants, people of color, and Muslims.  I see people across the political spectrum picking up rhetoric about the “banksters,” “plutocrats,” “secret elites,” and “finance capitalists” without considering that antisemites and fascists have used this language for decades to scapegoat Jewish bankers for economic woes.  Just search two words, “Jew” and “bankster” on the Internet and read a few horrifying websites. 

If activists running economic justice campaigns had a better understanding of the relationship between right-wing populism and fascism, they would make it clear they renounce bigoted interpretations of their reform movements and be more careful in building coalitions with or praising the work of people carrying the baggage of prejudice or conspiracism and into the debate.

This is a time when a clear-headed understanding of the relationship between right-wing populism and fascism could play an important role in helping Democrats and Republicans to develop electoral slogans and strategies that encouraged actual debate rather than glib demonization that exacerbates the tensions in an increasingly polarized population. 

We now know that fascism is the most militant and violent form of right-wing populism.  Alas, far too many people eschew serious contemporary theories of fascism for ideas found in books like Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism—ideas being embraced by an audience that ironically could build an actual mass base for fascism.  Already we see ultra-right and neofascist ideologues in the U.S. trying to organize the right-wing populist movement of Tea Party protesters further to the Right toward aggression and violence.  It could happen here, but it probably won’t.

Most right-wing populist movements never become full blown fascist movements;  and most fascist movements fail to gain state power.  Yet both movements have historically used demonization and scapegoating woven into conspiracy theories and apocalyptic calls for action “now before it is too late.”  This creates a dynamic that is toxic to democracy, as the named scapegoats suffer the consequences and are attacked first verbally, then physically.  This is what I am hearing as I interview immigrant-rights and anti-racist organizers across the American heartland.  There are already too many victims.

HNN Special: A Symposium on Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism

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More Comments:

Eli Bishop - 2/5/2010

The case of LaRouche is, and I can't believe I'm saying this, a sign that Goldberg is not *entirely* shameless compared to some of his fans. It's not hard to find right-wingers on the Internet who, after citing Goldberg's historical fantasy, will point to LaRouche as a man of the Left because, after all, he ran as a Democrat. I don't *think* Goldberg himself has actually tried that one on... although maybe that has less to do with any qualms about truth, and more to do with his pretensions to scholarship, since "LaRouche is a Democrat because he says so" is basically equivalent to "Nazis were socialists, it's right there in their name!" and if one is willing to be that straightforward about one's b.s., then there's no need to write a whole book.

BTW, I was active on Wikipedia when you were, and witnessed some of those fights where loons tried to make you out as some kind of commie overlord. I was impressed that you stuck it out for so long, and I think your contributions were really valuable, but that can't have been fun. Like the guy said, "Forget it, Jake... it's the Internet."

Per Fagereng - 1/28/2010

You wrote that fascism "is the most militant and violent form of right-wing populism."

Is this a leaderless phenomenon? If not, how high up does the chain of leaders go?

As I said before, German and Italian fascism had heavy corporate and state involvement. You never replied to that.

Are you saying that fascism has no corporate or state involvement? If so, then we need another term -- either for your version or mine.

Chip Berlet - 1/28/2010

I find the definitions by Griffin and Paxton to be very complementary, and provide all I need for basic work. I have no need to invent my own...nor do you.

Per Fagereng - 1/28/2010

So what is your definition of fascism?
And Paxton and Griffin's if different?

Chip Berlet - 1/27/2010

Your summary of what we wrote in our essays is simply unfair. Cherry picking phrases and implying that these represnt the definitions offered by Paxton and Griffin is beyond merely misleading.

Per Fagereng - 1/27/2010

I don't consider Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul as allies, but I'd rather have them speak against our war rather than in favor. Maybe it will make some of their followers change their minds.

Whatever fascism is, it has to be more more than just a collection of local bullies. As I said before, the Mafia is more than the street-corner tough guys.

And Hitler's fascism was more than the local thugs. It included bankers and industrialists. German corporations profited from the slave labor camps.

Chip Berlet - 1/27/2010

>>maybe fascism is when an empire treats its own citizens the way it treats its subjects around the world.

Maybe that is called Imperialism? As run by a repressive government? What on earth makes it fascism by any serious definition of the term?

This is exactly my problem with conspiracists on the Left who see fascism in any repressive government--or in any post-colonial militarist or imperialist aggression by a nation.

It's what leads ostensible Leftists to think that Pat Buchanan or Ron Paul are allies.

Bad idea, just ask the Strasser brothers.

Per Fagereng - 1/27/2010

Obviously my definition of fascism is different from yours, which is not exactly false, but incomplete.

Fascism is more than angry powerless people taking it out on others. I'm thinking that maybe fascism is when an empire treats its own citizens the way it treats its subjects around the world.

Americans have long been miseducated to believe that we have the right to tromp around the world making others behave. Corporations have worked closely with the military in this enterprise, which goes back at least a century. No wonder the locals get angry and arrogant, but somebody higher up is encouraging them and will use them if the time is right.

To blame the locals is like saying the Mafia consists of a bunch of street-corner tough guys, without looking at the bosses and the structure.

Chip Berlet - 1/26/2010

I disagree. The book is a favorite of conspiracy theorists who argue that U.S. corporate power is a form of fascism, which is false.

Per Fagereng - 1/26/2010

Chip Berlet lists a bunch of books that support his view. Here's book that presents a different view: Friendly Fascism by Bertram Gross.

Gross is not a right-wing ideologue. He looks at the confluence of Big Business and Big Government from the left.

Read this book and you might look at Obama's flirtation with Wall Street and his support for imperial war in a new light.

Chip Berlet - 1/25/2010

Ernie Lazar always finds the most amazing nuggets in archives. Once again he mines history for documents that illuminate the present. Check out his collection online.

Ernie, tell the readers where they can find your collection!

Ernie Lazar - 1/25/2010

In further amplification of what Chip Berlet has written, check out comments by Tennessee Congressman B. Carroll Reece which appear in the 8/20/54 Congressional Record. Reece explains how he became interested in investigating the subject of tax exempt foundations.

He starts by referring to 3 categories of information he discovered during his service on a previous committee [the Cox committee] which investigated tax-exempt foundations.

Quoting Reece:

"The first pointed to Communist or Communist sympathizer infiltration into the foundations; the second pointed to a much broader condition, namely, foundation support of Fabian socialism in America; and the third pointed to the financial aspect of the foundations."

Reece then explained his concerns about, and objections to, what he considered, "Fabian socialism".

Quoting from Reece's speech:

"Fabian socialism is not communism: it is a technique of nonviolent revolution by the consent of a duped propagandized population. It is the technique that brought socialism to Great Britain. In the United States, Fabian socialism has taken the name 'New Deal' and 'Fair Deal'. Of this there can be no doubt... Parenthetically, I want to say a brief word to those Americans who approve of the New Deal-Fair Deal-Fabian revolution, and therefore might call this investigation a tempest in a teapot. It is their privilege to do so, but it is my privilege to oppose this overt subversion of traditional American ideals...Although the Cox committee was not looking for Fabian socialism, the evidence presented before it disclosed to me what might be an important clue to the location of the nerve center of subversion in America--the left wing intellectuals whose prestige and influence seemed to be the product of the tax-exempt foundation grants. I therefore suggested to the Congress that the investigation be extended."

So, now, we can see what truly underlied the Reece Committee "investigation" and subsequent report conclusions.

Contemporary news reports and editorials about the Reece Committee refer to it as an attack upon the Eisenhower Administration by 1950's disgruntled conservatives who were furious with Eisenhower because they had expected him to dismantle the FDR-New Deal and Truman-Fair Deal brick-by-brick and, thus, erase that entire era of Democratic activism and dominance from our country's history.

Reece's comments above reveal how elastic his definition of "subversion" was. We also can see the political agenda he was pursuing. We also see his thinly-veiled contempt for intellectuals and their supposed association with "subversion" (a common theme in conspiracy arguments).

Today, this all probably seems quite bizarre to most Americans because very few of us want to repeal Social Security, unemployment insurance, workmen's compensation, or a host of other FDR-Truman programs and even fewer of us would accept the notion that such ideas or programs amount to "Fabian socialism" subverting our "traditional American ideals".

So one must have knowledge of historical context and human motivations before elevating congressional "investigations" and resulting documents to the level of "factual" knowledge about controversial subject matters---or, at a minimum, before one assigns the appropriate value to such data.

Reece was a career politician. For most of his 35-year political career he was a member of the minority party in Congress. And Reece watched, year-after-year while ideas, values, and policies that he rejected as "subversion" and "fabian socialism" were nevertheless adopted and approved by his countrymen and while the proponents of those ideas, values, and policies were elected, re-elected, and idolized by a "duped" American citizenry.

Incidentally, most conspiracy theories require a belief that the majority of Americans are dullards who have no capacity to understand what is in the best interests of themselves, their families, and their country---which is why they are so easily "duped" "brainashed" and "manipulated" by cunning, sinister "subversives".