Ronald Radosh: America's 'Fascist Moment'

Roundup: Talking About History

[Ronald Radosh is an adjunct senior fellow at the Hudson Institute; Prof. Emeritus of History at the City University of New York, and the author of many books, including "The Rosenberg File;" "Divided They Fell: The Demise of the Democratic Party, 1964-1996," and most recently, "Commies: A Journey Through the Old Left, the New Left and the Leftover Left."]

For decades, the left has used the term "fascist" to attack just about anyone they disagree with. That behavior continues: The feminist author Naomi Wolf has recently come out with a book condemning what she calls the "fascist shift" in America, in which she describes the 10 steps she thinks America is taking that lead to fascism. (Of course, to Ms. Wolf the no. 1 fascist is President Bush.) Before her, the liberal journalist Joe Conason wrote a book titled "It Can Happen Here" — what could happen, of course, was American fascism emanating from the Bush administration. And the journalist Chris Hedges argued that the Christian right was composed of nothing but "American Fascists" — indeed the very title of his book on the subject.

Now, from the conservative side, Jonah Goldberg — who is rightfully fed up with the left's regularly and somewhat indiscriminately calling conservatives fascist — turns the tide by addressing the issue head on, in "Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning" (Doubleday, 467 pages, $27.95). Not only is it a slander to yell fascist at the right; Mr. Goldberg presents a strong and compelling case that the very idea of fascism emanated from the ranks of liberalism. As he argues, contemporary liberalism descended from the ranks of 20th-century progressivism, and "shares intellectual roots with European fascism."

When Mr. Goldberg uses the term "liberal fascism," he is not offering a right-wing version of the left's smears. He knows it is a loaded term. What he is talking about is the historical idea of fascism: a corporatist and statist social structure that creates a deep reliance of its subjects on the government and engenders a sense of community and purpose. In American politics, this tendency toward statism has always been much more at home on the left than on the right.

It is impossible in a short review to do justice to the rich intellectual history of American liberalism that Mr. Goldberg offers to his readers. He has read widely and thoroughly, not only in the primary sources of fascism, but in the political and intellectual history written by the major historians of the subject.

Readers will learn that the very term "liberal fascism" came from the pen of H.G. Wells, the famed socialist author who delivered a speech at Oxford University in 1932 that included hosannas to both Stalin's Russia and Hitler's Germany. "I am asking," Wells told the students, "for a Liberal Fascisti, for enlightened Nazis." Democracy, he argued, had to be replaced with new forms of government that would save mankind, producing a "'Phoenix Rebirth' of liberalism" that would be called "Liberal Fascism." Like the activism, experimentation, and discipline that made the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany new dynamic societies, the West too could reach such a plateau by adopting the new soft fascism that suited it best.

Wells was not unique in offering this call to liberals. In giving us a true alternative history of modern liberalism, Mr. Goldberg shows how the ideological roots of fascism were liberal and left-wing, as were some of fascism's early proponents, especially in the Italy of Benito Mussolini. Most of us today forget that Mussolini, to his dying day, considered himself a man of the left and a socialist, who through nationalism and the corporatist reorganization of the polity sought to modernize a dying, 19th-century liberalism. Many will nevertheless be surprised to find that Mussolini's large band of admirers included the journalist Herbert Matthews, the comic Will Rogers, the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, the historian Charles Beard, and the muckraker Lincoln Steffens. It only strengthens his case to find that one person Mr. Goldberg leaves out, the founding father of American trade unionism, Samuel Gompers, praised Mussolini's creation of a new corporate state as a guide for American labor, and as a model for American society as a whole.

Indeed, America, as Mr. Goldberg writes, certainly had a "Fascist moment." It was not, however, during the current presidency, but one that extended from progressivism through the New Deal. Mr. Goldberg traces the American roots of liberal fascism to the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, who saw increased state power as an organic and natural development. His administration's War Industries Board laid the basis for future government-industry regulatory agencies that tied business to the new corporate state. Later on Mr. Goldberg reveals how Herbert Croly, who founded the New Republic as the preeminent journal of the new liberalism, presented classic fascist themes as the prescription for saving the country in his influential book, "The Promise of American Life."

A major New Deal program, General Hugh Johnson's National Recovery Administration, was an American version of Mussolini's corporate state. Entering Johnson's office, visitors found a portrait of Mussolini on the wall behind his desk. Industrial codes were to be enforced by the state and to be made popular by Nuremberg-type rallies and giant parades, as thousands marched under the symbol of the blue eagle. This marked the actual birth of liberal fascism, as President Roosevelt built upon the statist and collectivist roots of agencies created during World War I. As the vice president of the American Federation of Labor, Matthew Woll, put it at the time, "Labor might well assert that the seed of Fascism had been transplanted" to America. The cartelization of industry, he noted, was "a familiar story in the early history of Fascist Italy."

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 — which was not, as some liberal intellectuals have argued, an outgrowth of conservative thought. Fans of Margaret Sanger, perhaps the single most important feminist hero of the 20th century, will never be able to think of her in the same way. Mr. Goldberg dissects her hidden views of eugenics. A socialist and birth-control martyr, she favored banning reproduction of the "unfit" and regulation of everyone else's reproduction. She wrote, "More children from the fit, less from the unfit — that is the chief issue of birth control." She opposed the birth of "ill-bred, ill-trained swarms of inferior citizens." Her words reveal her motive in advocacy of birth control. She sought to remove "inferior" people from being born to poor people, whose mothers by definition were "unfit." Sanger's partisans in Planned Parenthood, the group that stemmed from her work, will be shocked to learn that her publication endorsed the Nazi eugenics program, and that Sanger herself "proudly gave a speech to a KKK rally." That was not surprising, since she clearly viewed blacks as inferior. Hence her "Negro Project," in which she sought to urge blacks to adopt birth control.

Some will rightfully take issue with Mr. Goldberg when he describes the administrations of Presidents Kennedy, Johnson, and Clinton as fascist. On this, he strains and pushes his evidence too far to convince the reader that these paragons of liberalism can be called fascist in any sense of the term. Mr. Goldberg makes a stronger case when he accuses the New Left of classic fascist behavior, when its cadre took to the streets and through action discarded its early idealism for what Mr. Goldberg correctly calls "fascist thuggery." Even if one does not consider the liberal administrations of the recent past fascist, Mr. Goldberg is correct to see the liberalism of today to be state worship, which built upon the original statist liberalism of the Wilson administration.

Mr. Goldberg has, unlike the leftists who yell the term, made the strongest possible case that Americans today live in a soft form of fascism, a statist liberal society whose citizens are unaware of the roots of ideas they hold. Echoing Susan Sontag, who pointed out that fascist ideas "are vivid and moving to many people," Mr. Goldberg ends with a humorous look at the cult of organic foods, vegetarianism, and animal rights, all programs and policies first instituted in Nazi Germany. "We are all fascists now," he concludes. Disagree if you must, but go out and read this brilliant, insightful, and important book.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Maarja Krusten - 1/26/2008

At Spinning Clio: Where History and Politics Meet, I saw a link to Arnold Kling’s review of Mr. Goldberg’s TCSDaily
Mr. Kling notes that “Goldberg should have written his revisionist history without dropping the f-bomb. Rather than try to convict the Left of fascism, Goldberg might have borrowed from Masonomist Daniel Klein's outstanding essay The People’s Romance. The lesser charge of romanticizing the state is one for which it would be much easier to convince an impartial jury that the Left is guilty.” (Dr. Klein is a professor of economics at George Mason University.)

Retrospectively, I’m very interested in what happened with civil liberties during World War I under Wilson. Prospectively, regardless of who wins the election this November, I’m interested in how the ability to govern has been and will be affected by the computer age. That includes the rise of the blogosphere.

Arthur Schlesinger wrote in The Imperial Presidency that a strong President "is not the one who relies on his power to command but the one who recognizes his responsibility, and opportunity, to enlighten and persuade.” A few years ago, a questioner in an online Washington Post forum asked John Yoo, a former Justice Department official, about the long term effect of dirty tricks used during Presidential campaigns: “Do a President's appointees understand the degree to which their efforts in governance are hurt by the earlier use of these tactics during a campaign? . . . do you understand the extent to which your ability to stand up and argue ‘trust us, there is a legal and Constitutional basis for what we're doing and we would never do anything to hurt Americans’ is harmed by the baggage an administration drags behind it politically?” He responded, “That is a very good question. It may be the case that the political environment created by campaigns makes it more difficult to govern, particularly in the foreign affairs area.”

These days, pundits and bloggers play a large role within the political environment. What is the longterm impact of calling Republicans or Democrats fascists or other inflammatory names? Just this morning, I read the article in the online Washington Post which explained that “President Bush signed a directive this month that expands the intelligence community's role in monitoring Internet traffic to protect against a rising number of attacks on federal agencies' computer systems.” The comment section drew responses from several anonymous posters, one of whom argued that intelligence agencies, as also the DOJ, act on behalf of the RNC (!!!). Others felt the directive meant that their home computers were not safe. The fact that the directive focuses on computer networks at *federal agencies* does not stop some posters from arguing the issues this way. Where does that come from?

Perhaps some day someone will examine political message boards, who is drawn to them, their effect on public discourse, and the longterm effect of demagoguery, name calling and demonization of the opposition on the ability of officials of both parties to govern. Something else for future historians to ponder. Actually, such an examination requires a multi-disciplinary approach which considers not just what government officials did, before and after they attained office, but also the ability to think about how and why people disagree and how they interact when they disagree.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/24/2008

Yes. So? Are you capable of understanding that I haven't endorsed Goldberg's book?

omar ibrahim baker - 1/24/2008

IF, as universally perceived,
the wanton use of force, the unprovoked destruction of others, the suppression of basic human rights , the willful destruction of cultural institutions, the total disregard of the principles of legality and decency , the bare faced imposition of one's will, the predominance of material interests over morality and legality ….

If, as universally perceived, these are the attributes of a fascist state then the USA , under President Bush qualifies eminently for its Iraqi adventure.

Nevertheless and contrary to the recent classical historical cases of fascist states, of the popularly chosen” elected” fascist regimes, the American people who NEVER knowingly opted for a Fascist state BUT, out of ignorance, disinformation (some 900 FALSE statements ) but mainly out of indifference, still tolerates the dominant fascist state that rules over it, and over most of the world, under the different guises, and appellations, it managed to give itself ; that is the paradox, and tragedy, of the whole situation..

Louis Nelson Proyect - 1/24/2008

Mr. Stepp, I wouldn't waste my time reading Goldberg's book even if he hadn't committed the howler of making an amalgam between Sanger and fascism. Let me try to explain this a little further. Hitler was quoted as saying that his concentration camps were modeled on the American Indian reservations. As much as I hate both concentration camps in Germany and the U.S., I can distinguish between the social systems that carried out such genocidal behavior. The American system was based on an expansionist capitalist system developing an internal colony, while fascism rested on the exhaustion of capitalism and the need to find scapegoats. When you write about history, you need to understand the social and economic dynamics of the systems you are writing about. Goldberg appears to be a cheap propagandist scoring points off liberals by making foolish amalgams. Liberalism has its problems, but "fascism" is not one of them.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/24/2008

I'm sorry, Ralph, did you read the review you linked to?

Tim Matthewson - 1/24/2008

The Nazis and fascists of the 20s to the 40s hated the liberals most of all, seeing them as the enemies of all right thinking people. They felt that they could work with the conservatives and indeed did so whenever possible, which was often. In Germany, the conservatives such as Hindenberg thought that he and the conservatives could control Hitler and his allies and turn them into supporters of the Old Regime in Germany. In this assumption, they were fooling themselves.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/24/2008

Excuse me for saying so, Jon, but that's ridiculous. Authors are capable of extending an argument lineally beyond legitimate claims. You simply refuse to confront, for example, the Wilson administration's abandonment of civil liberties after 1916 (if liberalism isn't *about* civil liberties, I'm not sure what it *is* about) and, for example, the multiple examples of progressives' admiration of Mussolini in the 1920s.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/23/2008

I'll point you to, as a great starting place, the work of Dave Neiwert and Sara Robinson at Orcinus on pseudo-fascism, Jonah Goldberg and the Right's tendency to project its proclivities in its complaints about the Left.

I have other reasons: a little digging for reviews written by honest historians will reveal more than a few flaws in Goldberg's work. More than enough, I'd say, to dismiss it entirely.

William J. Stepp - 1/23/2008

What's the point you're making here?
Presumably Mussolini was influenced by ideas that predated fascism too, as anyone growing up in the West is today.
Either Goldberg has the facts about Sanger right or he doesn't. In any case at least some of the facts speak for themselves.
It would be better to recommend reading his book, even if it's disagreeable, than the back of cereal boxes. Isn't the liberal project about considering all the evidence and different views, even if they are disagreeable? Or is that another lie my teachers told me?

Louis Nelson Proyect - 1/23/2008

What a ridiculous argument. Sanger was influenced by social Darwinism, which was strongly entrenched in the Progressivist movement in the USA and predates fascism by at least 50 years. If this is the intellectual level found in Goldberg's book, you'd be better off reading the back of cereal boxes. I'd recommend Kellog's Raisin Bran in particular.

Maarja Krusten - 1/23/2008

I took a look at Mr. Goldberg’s blog,
I see he has linked to the HNN piece in an entry entitled Radosh V. The Historians, noting that Mr. Radosh catches “enormous grief” here.

I recognize that Mr. Goldberg is not an historian. That is not to say that he may not present valid arguments, especially regarding Wilson, perhaps also FDR. (I like the way Ralph Luker responded at )

Peter Kurilecz notes, “I just love reading comments from folks who write "I haven't read the book, but..." and proceed to comment on how wrong the book is.” Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t say whether it is right or wrong. My question is, should I read it? I’m not a great fan of polemical writing, as I made clear last week in the comments I posted here on Chalmers Johnson’s piece on Charlie Wilson’s War. Mr. Johnson’s references to imperialism rotting brains were a turn-off to me.

Broadbrush arguments and cartoonish characters don’t appeal to me much. As you all know, I worked on Nixon’s campaign as a high school senior, then later spent years listening to Richard Nixon’s tapes as an employee of the National Archives. I often argue here on HNN that political figures and Presidents are all too human. A binary view that divides them into “good” and “bad” doesn’t work for me. Perhaps because of my experiences as an National Archives’ employee, I tend to find reductionist presentations unpersuasive. And because I have relatives who lived under totalitarian regimes, I have a visceral dislike of intimidation as a political tool, in blogs and elsewhere.

In bookstores, I steer clear of books from the right and from the left with blaring titles which I categorize as “Screaming at Anyone Who Disagrees With You Politically.”
My question for those here who have read the book is, does it preach to the choir or is it pitched to a broader audience—to people who may enjoy reading David Brooks or George Will but perhaps not FreeRepublic's message boards? How is a political Independent (which I’ve been since around 1989 or 1990, after voting straight Republican from 1972 through 1988) likely to react to it? Is it worth reading? I mostly read history and biographies, not polemical works. Should I read Mr. Goldberg’s book – or should I wait until an objective analyst (historian or political scientist?) tackles some of the same themes?

William J. Stepp - 1/22/2008

It's very common for the Right to accuse critics of censorship, when it's really just disagreement.

That may be the case, but I'd bet dollars to donuts that it's more characteristic of the left to make this charge. Libertarians and conservatives (the former more frequently) have made the point that censorship refers to censoring by the state, which is different from an editorial policy, which is self-imposed. So you can't censor yourself, nor can you censor someone else, unless of course you're part of the state apparatus, e.g., a Roman censor or a Post Office official under the Bully Boy's regime looking for a filthy little anarchistic publication to remove from the mails. The Wilson junta banned about 250 books during the Great War for "patriotic reasons," and the Nation was censored by the Post Office.

Oddly, Paul Blanshard (The Right to Read: The Battle against Censorship) thought there was such a thing as "voluntary censorship" in the case of pictures of crime and violence, but there wasn't.

Left and right aside, critics don't engage in censorship, just criticism.
Only the State--"the biggest mass murderer, armed robber, enslaver, and parasite in all of human history," in the immortal words of Murray N. Rothbard--engages in censorship.
He wouldn't have said "censor," because the State has no competition in those actions, unlike murder, robbery, etc.

Vincent Festa - 1/22/2008

Mr Dresner, perhaps your pointed criticisms of the review (and of Mr. Goldberg's book) would raise less hairs if you would actually provide some accompanying insight into *why* the author(s) are incorrect, instead of just dismissing their points.

Also, your last paragraph is a little puzzling. Have any proof for any of this?

Jonathan Dresner - 1/22/2008

You're arguing, then, that his thesis holds up for the pre-1945 period?

I don't "prefer" Goldberg's anything, but I don't see how you accept part of his argument and reject the rest based on any reasonably consistent standard of evidence or argumentation. The same definitions which fail to reflect reality in the post-war also fail to reflect reality in the pre-war/wartime eras. The same tendentious use of evidence, the same ad hominem inconsistencies characterize the argument at all stages.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/22/2008

If you prefer Goldberg's "consistency" to my argument that his thesis breaks down in the post World War II era, you're welcome to it. Eugenics lies in the background to certain forms of fascism and was certainly incorporated into Naziism. There also remains the Wilson administration's abandonment of civil liberties in WWI and its aftermath, pre-World War II progressives' admiration for Mussolini, and the similarity of NRA to fascist reforms of the economy. Only on that last point would Goldberg have an argument that American conservatives opposed the liberal flirtation with fascism.

Doug Ireland - 1/21/2008

The great Robert Paxton's book "The Anatomy of Fascism" hs become the definitive work on the subject, and shold be read by anyone before they start throwing around that loaded word. Paxton's definition makes Ron Radosh's hosannah for Jonah Goldberg's book just plain silly. Wrote Paxton; "Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victim-hood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion."

Jonathan Dresner - 1/21/2008

You noted Radosh's criticism, but it's a very weak one since it's Goldberg, not you or Radosh, who is being consistent on the argument at this point.

I'm not associating Naziism with Fascism, but trying to deal with Goldberg's conflation of statism and eugenics (which was not an element of fascism, so the conflation belongs to him) and attempts to tar modern progressives with early 20c antecedent brushes which they've clearly repudiated many times very clearly.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/21/2008

No. If I were confusing fascism and statism, I wouldn't claim that Goldberg's argument breaks down in the post World War II years, when American liberalism had clearly bought into statism. You make the mistake of equating fascism with Naziism and holding all fascism responsible for the Holocaust. I didn't claim that Goldberg is the place to start to have these discussions, so a reply that mis-states my position is hardly a reply worth giving.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/21/2008

There was no shouting or bullying in my comments. Just criticisms based on my own historical understandings. It's very common for the Right to accuse critics of censorship, when it's really just disagreement.

It's actually part of the rising fascist movement, and has been increasingly powerful in Christianist and neo-conservative circles: the sense of embattlement and entitlement which silences critics despite actually being a majority and powerholder.

Charles S Young - 1/21/2008

Radosh, and presumably Goldberg, write as if statism or corporatism can be defined as a creature of either left or right. But if we want to play dueling examples, for every Herb Croly, there's a Henry Ford. The use of government force, and behind the scenes corporatist arrangements, appeal to power in general, not just one flavor.

Further, although the Progressive movement certainly had authoritarian tendencies, that does not mean the right is therefore the pole of liberty. The most recent activity -- by Bush, the dominionist evangelicals -- are coming from the right. Radosh seems to be playing a game of "whoever did it first, that's the bad one." If so, rather than trace fascism back to the Progressives, how about Caesar? And would he be right or left tyranny?

Michael P. Morley - 1/21/2008

". . . Is Goldberg a scion of socialist Jewry who has turned on his roots (like a cornered rat)?"

Well, there's a persuasive argument! A little ad hominem, a dash of classic anti-Semitisim (Jew = rat) -- how very scholarly of you!

You might actually try, you know, reading the actual book and responding to its thesis. I'm about halfway through, just hitting the chapter on the eugenics movement. Based on what I've read so far, Mr. Radosh's review is accurate and fair.

Instead of engaging the book on the level of ideas, you and Mr. Dresner have chosen to try shouting down and bullying the author and the reviewer because you don't like what they said. How very--dare I say it?--fascistic of you.

Jonathan Dresner - 1/21/2008

Like Radosh and Goldberg, you are confusing fascism with statism, and inverting the chronology of the development of eugenics and Naziism, not to mention ignoring the difference between class-based and race-based eugenics and between sterilization and mass murder.

There are interesting discussions to be had on these subjects, but starting with Goldberg, or Radosh, is a dead end.

Michael Green - 1/21/2008

Let's face facts. If Goldberg were a liberal who blamed conservatives, Radosh would savage the book. If a liberal reviewed the book, would it be savaged? I would like to think, as a liberal, that I would read it on its merits. But to base an argument about the evolution of American liberalism into what Goldberg and Radosh consider Fascism seems to me to require a lot more than Goldberg has offered.

Peter Kurilecz - 1/21/2008

I just love reading comments from folks who write "I haven't read the book, but..." and proceed to comment on how wrong the book is.

Lewis Bernstein - 1/21/2008

I haven't read Jonah Goldberg's book but it sounds like Ronald Radosh he thinks he's discovered gravity. Sorry to disappoint but Mussolini's and Hitler's and Stalin's forms of national socialism or socialist nationalism has been or should be well known to Americanists. If not, they ought to examine the parallels between the ways the ideologies worked. The New Deal was not fascist simply because it was too eclectic, too improvisational and because Old Guard of the GOP still wielded tremendous economic and political influence in making policy. I don't know why this upsets people. Forms of national socialism/socialist nationalism are alive and well in various parts of the world--Europe as well as places like Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela as well as this country. It seems to me as though it is the only surviving ideology left.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/21/2008

I should add that I think Goldberg would have more difficulty with the inversion of his argument: that is, I think he'd have a very difficult time showing that American conservatives presented a disciplined and conscientious opposition to the progressives' embarrassing emulation of fascist-like agendas.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/21/2008

That seems incorrect to me, Jon. In the first place, Radosh hasn't given a "blanket endorsement" to Goldberg's book. He points out that the argument is strained, at best, in the post-World War II years. The problem is that Goldberg isn't altogether wrong. American historians have known for a long time that Mussolini had many admirers among post-World War I progressives, that Woodrow Wilson's administration crushed civil liberties after entering World War I and promoting the Red Scare, that eugenics was widely popular among progressives, and that there were certain similarities between the New Deal's NRA and the way a fascist re-organization of the economy. It is Goldberg's building on those facts and extending his argument into the post-World War II era that makes it so misleading.

Lorraine Paul - 1/21/2008

Mr Dresner, I say 'hear hear' to your analysis.

I have not read the book, however, I did see the 'review/interview' on the Jon Stewart Show!

Sat there squirming with embarrassment for Goldberg trying to defend his book! How on earth he makes connections between the left and fascism is beyond me. Both are anathema to each other.

One might say that fascism is soft-porn-capitalism, whereas Hitler's nazism is hard-porn-capitalism!

Did anyone else besides Radosh endorse this book? Is Goldberg a scion of socialist Jewry who has turned on his roots (like a cornered rat)?

Jonathan Dresner - 1/21/2008

Radosh's blanket endorsement of Goldberg's thesis and book tells me, once and for all, that he is not a historian worth listening to on any subject at any time.