Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Liberal Fascism

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, February 25, 2015

“The relevance of the past is that unlike the conservative who has wrestled with his history to make sure he does not repeat it, liberals see no need to do anything of the sort. And so, armed with complete confidence in their own good intentions, they happily go marching past boundaries we should stay well clear of.”

The story of how the National Socialist German Workers Party and the fascist government takeover of businesses became defined as a conservative movement by socialists and leftists who believe the government should control businesses.

RecommendationRecommended
AuthorJonah Goldberg
Year2007
Length488 pages
Book Rating6
Roosevelt’s Blue Eagle

That Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration/Blue Eagle program looked fascist wasn’t lost on the Roosevelt administration—or on fascists.

My friends on the left who post on Facebook asking that we import Christian values into government policy would be right at home among the fascists in Italy and Germany, according to Jonah Goldberg. Fascism is, among other things, supplanting religion with government, a “religion of the state”. This is similar to the definition used by early progressives who talked of the “social gospel”.

Progressives like to tout Christian values at the point of a gun for things that sound nice, like forced charity. The first time I ran across this, I thought it was because they hadn’t thought the implications through. But if progressivism is “applied Christianity”, as early progressive William Gladden described it, perhaps they have thought it through and enjoy the thought of aligning religion with the government.

Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism is the story of how the National Socialist German Workers Party and the fascist government takeover of businesses became defined as a conservative movement by socialists, progressives, and leftists who believe governments should control businesses.

Several years ago at a library book sale I stumbled across an old book of interviews by the progressive Chicago Daily News. The interviewer, Edward Price Bell, “Dean of the Foreign Staff of the Chicago Daily News”, openly praised Mussolini. At the time I found it a humorous example of the media getting things very wrong in their quest to suck up to power.

They call him dictator. To the unpatriotic, to the anti-social and anti-civilized, to the lawless, to the bolshevists, he is dictator. To Italy—full of sterling human worth—to Italy, in my judgement, Mussolini is liberator.—Edward Price Bell (World Chancelleries)

But according to Goldberg, this was not isolated praise. Progressives loved fascism as a more active form of socialism, and before World War II the connection between fascism, socialism, and progressivism was considered normal by each of those three groups. Fascists were members of socialist groups. They continued to call themselves socialists after leaving those groups. Prominent socialists continued to call fascists socialists, and prominent progressives continued to call fascists progressive. The three groups studied the same philosophies, including Marx.

To put a nice spin on it, this book describes pre-war progressives knowingly emulating fascism, and praising fascists for being progressive men of action. After the war progressives continued promoting those ideas but refused to identify them with fascism, instead using the term as a catch-all for ideas and people they disagreed with. The result is that today’s progressives—nearly the entirety of the influential left—continue to use fascist methods and pursue fascist paths but without any sense of history to tell them where these methods lead and what awaits them at the end of their journey.

Many of the things that the left call “fascist” are almost 180 degrees away from it; school choice, for example, “is arguably the most un-fascist public policy ever conceived, after homeschooling”. Fascists understood that their control over people’s minds worked best when started as young as possible. Taking education away from the parents supports this.

Fascism is another of the utopian ideas of that time that seek to throw off the shackles of the bourgeoisie.

The American fascist tradition is deeply bound up with the effort to “Europeanize” America and give it a “modern” state that can be harnessed to utopian ends.

It seeks to remake society along militaristic lines, not by glorifying the military but by turning civilian organizations into little armies: the Peace Corps, Americorps, and turning every public policy into a “war on… drugs, poverty, etc.”

Progressives enjoy the emergency powers government gains during a war, and after both World War I and World War II tried to convince Americans to retain a war mindset in order to maintain those powers.

It is important to remember what “totalitarianism” actually meant. It wasn’t a term applied to fascism by its enemies, but by its practitioners. It meant that the state is everything:

Mussolini coined the word “totalitarianism” to describe not a tyrannical society but a humane one in which everyone is taken care of and contributes equally. It was an organic concept where every class, every individual, was part of the larger whole.

Today, we might talk about how “it takes a village”, and Goldberg devotes an entire chapter to Clinton-era progressive politics. “As adults we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child…” said Hillary Clinton in 1996, and in It Takes a Village,

“I cannot say enough in support of home visits,” she gushes. “[The] village needs a town crier and a town prodder.” Again, scrape the saccharine from the sentiment and look underneath. Imagine if, say, the former attorney general John Ashcroft had said, “I cannot say enough in support of home visits.” The shrieks of “fascism” would be deafening.

Now, it’s important to remember that he is not calling Clinton—or any modern leftist—fascist. His point is that their ideas are rooted in the thinking of pre-war leftists who called themselves fascist and adopted fascism as a valid movement. Among the paragons of the pre-war left who endorsed fascism are, according to Goldberg, The New Republic (which called it “an amazing experiment… in reconciling individualism and socialism, politics and technology”, Jules Verne (who originated the term liberal fascism), and George Bernard Shaw (who “at one time or another… idolized Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini as the world’s great ‘progressive’ leaders because they ‘did things,’ unlike the leaders of those ‘putrefying corpses’ called parliamentary democracies”).

Goldberg especially calls out President Woodrow Wilson for attempting to impose fascism’s ideas on America.

As Wilson put it, the essence of Progressivism was that the individual “marry his interests to the state.”

Goldberg has no kind words for Senator Joe McCarthy, but,

… nothing that happened under the mad reign of Joe McCarthy remotely compares with what Wilson and his fellow progressives foisted on America.

Wilson, after all, signed the sedition act of 1918 and wanted to extend it into peacetime. McCarthy didn’t have the benefit of the sedition act, nor did he have a citizens league to spy on Americans.

The Justice Department created its own quasi-official fascisti, known as the American Protective League, or APL. They were given badges—many of which read “Secret Service”—and charged with keeping an eye on their neighbors, dockworkers, and friends. Used as private eyes by overzealous prosecutors in thousands of cases, they were furnished with ample government resources. The APL had an intelligence division, in which members were bound by oath not to reveal they were secret policemen. Members of the APL read their neighbors’ mail and listened in on their phones with government approval.

And Wilson’s administration didn’t just spy on what people were thinking, they also tried to plant pro-Wilson thoughts. In scenes reminiscent of the Nazi youth speechifying in the movie Cabaret, Wilson’s Committee on Public Information trained…

…an army of nearly a hundred thousand “Four Minute Men.” Each was equipped and trained by the CPI to deliver a four minute speech at town meetings, in restaurants, in theaters—anyplace they could get an audience—to spread the word that the “very future of democracy” was at stake… These speeches celebrated Wilson as a larger-than-life leader and the Germans as less-than-human huns.

To Goldberg, Franklin Roosevelt, who served in Wilson’s presidency as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, was the inheritor of Wilson’s legacy.

The British ambassador cabled London to alert his superiors to the spreading hysteria fomented by the nation’s new leader. The “starved loyalties and repressed hero-worship of the country have found in him an outlet and a symbol.” Visiting the rural hinterlands, an aide reported back on the brewing cult of personality: “Every house I visited—mill worker or unemployed—had a picture of the President… He is at once God and their intimate friend; he knows them all by name, knows their little town and mill, their little lives and problems. And though everything else fails, he is there, and will not let them down.”

Though the crisis was economic in nature, the new national commander had promised to seek the “power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe… I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.”

Perhaps the most fascist symbol of the FDR administration was the Blue Eagle program. Businesses were encouraged to fly the Blue Eagle as a sign that they were voluntarily complying with some serious government restrictions; Americans were encouraged to shop only at the Blue Eagle.

[It] was often compared to the swastika or the German Reich eagle in both American and German newspapers. Johnson1 demanded that compliance with the Blue Eagle program be monitored by an army of quasi-official informations, from union members to Boy Scouts. His totalitarian approach was unmistakable. “When every American housewife understands that the Blue Eagle on everything that she permits to come into her home is a symbol of its restoration to security, may God have mercy on the man or group of men who attempt to trifle with this bird.”

Johnson’s favorite means of promoting compliance with the Blue Eagle were military parades and Nuremberg-style rallies… A hundred thousand school kids were marched onto the Boston Common and forced to swear an oath, administered by the mayor: “I promise as a good American citizen to do my part for the NRA. I will buy only where the Blue Eagle flies.”

Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration had no problem saying that America under Roosevelt was evolving toward fascism:

The Research and Planning Division of the NRA commissioned a study, Capitalism and Labor Under Fascism, which concluded, “The fascist principles are very similar to those which have been evolving in America and so are of a particular interest at this time.”

It’s ironic that in the 1930s it was far from out-of-bounds to call the New Deal or FDR fascist. Yet for the two generations after World War II it was simply unacceptable to associate the New Deal with fascism in any way.

This was possible because previous to the war “right-winger” meant anyone who opposed FDR, including left-leaning New Republic columnist J. T. Flynn who “denounced Roosevelt for moving in what he considered a rightward direction.”

Likewise Father Coughlin is still considered right-wing on the left, despite supporting FDR until FDR refused to move left enough for Coughlin. Coughlin’s platform—for his National Union for Social Justice—included the following:

  • a just and living annual wage
  • nationalizing those public necessities which by their very nature are too important to be held in the control of private individuals
  • controlling [private property] for the public good
  • the right to organize in unions but also in the duty of the Government… to protect those organizations

Like asking us to believe that a National Socialist Workers Party has nothing to do with socialism, they also ask us to believe that a National Union for Social Justice is right-wing.

Goldberg isn’t the only person who considers FDR’s policies fascist:

“There is at least one official voice in Europe that expresses understanding of the method and motives of President Roosevelt, began a New York Times report in July 19332. “This voice is that of Germany, as represented by Chancellor Adolf Hitler.” The German leader told the Times, “I have sympathy with President Roosevelt because he marches straight toward his objectives over Congress, over lobbies, over stubborn bureaucracies.”

No discussion of liberal fascism could be complete without Margaret Sanger, founder of perhaps the most progressive organization in daily life, Planned Parenthood, and founded in the spirit of the eugenics movement. Sanger is still “today considered a liberal saint, a founder of modern feminism, and one of the leading lights of the progressive pantheon… Planned Parenthood gives out annual Maggie Awards… Recipients are a Who’s Who of liberal icons, from the novelist John Irving to the producers of NBC’s West Wing.”

Sanger was, according to Goldberg, a racist and a eugenicist, who “sought to ban reproduction of the unfit and regulate reproduction for everybody else.”

A fair-minded person cannot read Sanger’s books, articles, and pamphlets today without finding similarities not only to Nazi eugenics but to the dark dystopias of the feminist imagination found in such allegories as Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. As editor of the Birth Control Review, Sanger regularly published the sort of hard racism we normally associate with Goebbels or Himmler. Indeed, after she resigned as editor, the Birth Control Review ran articles by people who worked for Goebbels and Himmler.

In 1939 Sanger created the previously mentioned “Negro Project” which aimed to get blacks to adopt birth control. Through the Birth Control Federation, she hired black ministers, doctors, and other leaders to help pare down the supposedly surplus black population. The project’s racist intent is beyond doubt. “The mass of significant Negroes,” read the project’s report, “still breed carelessly and disastrously, with the result that the increase in Negroes… is [in] that portion of the population least intelligent and fit.”

For progressives, such as Sidney Webb, the minimum wage was less a part of their social justice movement than a part of their eugenics movement—“establishing a minimum wage above the value of the unemployable’s worth would lock them out of the market, accelerating their elimination as a class.”

Liberal Fascism is an important memoir of pre-war fascism. It is difficult, looking back on the pre-war world, to understand how fascism could succeed when it is so clearly everything that is wrong today. The answer is that back then fascism wasn’t seen as a bad thing by the progressive movement. However, his book has some weaknesses. He makes a lot throughout the book out of politicians promising to “transcend old categories of left and right” as indicative of fascism. But this isn’t surprising from any politician—if you want to get votes from the other party, you have to claim to be above partisanship.

In his defense, he occasionally—not always—adds a qualifier, for example,

… a new ‘post-partisan’ spirit that places the important decisions in the hands of experts and intellectual superman…

But this is lacking more often than not, and I honestly don’t know whether this applies to all “third way” or “middle way” politics.

His quotes tend to be abbreviated: you’re going to have to followup on the voluminous footnotes to get the full sense of what was said. And in some cases, footnotes are seriously lacking. For example,

FDR witnessed, approved, and, on occasion, participated in all of the excesses of World War I. There’s no record anywhere that he disapproved of George Creel’s propaganda ministry or that he had any larger misgivings about the war abroad or at home. He watched as Creel’s acolytes actively promoted what they dubbed “the Wilson cult.” He approved of the oppression of dissidents and heartily celebrated the passage of the Sedition and Espionage acts.

There are no quotes here from Roosevelt and no footnotes explaining how Goldberg knows this. The book is heavily footnoted, but still some things are stated that would better be shown.

As a book for people who tend toward the conservatism and classical liberalism, this is a great history. But it will probably not convince anyone else. That said, convincing the left wasn’t his purpose in writing it. His purpose was to help conservatives what fascism was and why the left’s attempts to tar conservatism and even classical liberalism with the label fascist is both dishonest and dangerous. If that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t be disappointed.

  1. Hugh Johnson, head of the Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration.

  2. Anne O’Hare McCormick, “Hitler Seeks Jobs for All Germans,”, New York Times, July 10, 1933, pp. 1, 6

Liberal Fascism

Jonah Goldberg

Recommendation: Recommended

If you enjoyed Liberal Fascism…

If you enjoy The Dream of Poor Bazin, you might also be interested in Intellectuals and Society, Scoop, The First Casualty, Advise & Consent, For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko, Call Northside 777, The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time, The Tyranny of Clichés, All the President’s Men, World Chancelleries, The Elements of Journalism, Letters to a Young Journalist, Inside the Beltway: A Guide to Washington Reporting, The Vintage Mencken, Deadlines & Monkeyshines: The Fabled World of Chicago Journalism, A Matter of Opinion, Kolchak: The Night Stalker (TV Series), Front Row at the White House, The Prince of Darkness, The Vision of the Anointed, The Powers That Be, and The Dream of Poor Bazin (Official Site).

If you enjoy eugenics, you might also be interested in Eugenics and Other Evils and The pseudo-scientific state and other evils.

If you enjoy Fascism, you might also be interested in A direct line to the Charlottesville riots… from 1938, Why now for the alt-right?, World Chancelleries, and Eugenics and Other Evils.

If you enjoy Jonah Goldberg, you might also be interested in The Tyranny of Clichés.

If you enjoy President Franklin Roosevelt, you might also be interested in Should we be pessimistic about good governance going into 2016? and Republican President must keep Roosevelt’s word.

If you enjoy President Woodrow Wilson, you might also be interested in Should we be pessimistic about good governance going into 2016?.

If you enjoy progressives, you might also be interested in Surviving the anointed, Progressives ruin a different kind of race in New Jersey, Should we be pessimistic about good governance going into 2016?, and Progressive taxation static analysis.

If you enjoy socialism, you might also be interested in Big government demands a nanny state, Bernie Sander’s Ponzi scheme, Does Hurricane Harvey support socialism in Texas?, Eugenics and Other Evils, New York Times claims even moderate Democrats socialist, and Sanders complains: world has too much food.