October 6, 2009


That heavyweight intellectual, Jonah Goldberg, loves to tell his audiences that no one on the left took his masterpiece, Liberal Fascism, seriously -- they just made fun of it!

So this is how Goldberg responds to an actually serious critique.

Evidently, Goldberg thinks that ignoring a sound argument lets you declare victory over it.

Now, just to be clear: Goldberg has never responded to the core of my critique. He's tossed off side issues, but what I have said about Liberal Fascism from the get-go is that its central thesis -- that "properly understood, fascism is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left" -- simply does not have any grounding in, and is indeed refuted by, the actual historical facts about the "political space" which fascism historically occupied.

I laid it all out again not too long ago:

This is, in fact, the argument that Goldberg attempts to make in his book as well: That the fascists occupied the "political space" on the Left, and thus were simply out to compete against their fellow leftists. But this is where Goldberg most deeply portrays a lack of respect for the historical material available to him, because any careful study of the actual details of how the fascists came to power in both Italy and Germany makes abundantly clear that they were occupying the available political space on the right -- and had charged hard in that direction from early on in their drive to power.

I discussed this in some detail, citing particularly Robert O. Paxton's work in The Anatomy of Fascism. Paxton, for instance, debunks the fascists' ostensible "anticapitalism":

It turned out in practice that fascists' anticapitalism was highly selective. Even at their most radical, the socialism that the fascists wanted was a "national socialism": one that denied only foreign or enemy property rights (including that of internal enemies). They cherished national producers. Above all, it was by offering an effective remedy against socialist revolution that fascism turned out in practice to find a space. If Mussolini retained some lingering hopes in 1919 of founding an alternative socialism rather than an antisocialism, he was soon disabused of those notions by observing what worked and what didn't work in Italian politics. His dismal electoral results with a Left-nationalist program in Milan in November 1919 surely hammered that lesson home.

The pragmatic choices of Mussolini and Hitler were driven by their urge for success and power. Not all fascist leaders had such ambitions. Some of them preferred to keep their movements "pure," even at the cost of remaining marginal.

Paxton makes abundantly clear that the political space the fascists, in obtaining power, chose to occupy was clearly on the right. Goldberg, in contrast, insists that "fascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all" because, he explains, fascism and communism "are closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space." He claims throughout the book and elsewhere that fascists didn't seek out their political space on the right -- rather, they were doing so on the left.

He actually addresses Paxton's characterization with what can most kindly be characterized as a lame rebuttal (p. 47):

In November the newly named explicitly left-wing Fascists ran a slate of candidates in the national elections. They got trounced at the hands of the Socialists. Most historians claim this is what taught Mussolini to move to the "right." Robert O. Paxton writes that Mussolini realized "there was no space in Italian politics for a party that was both nationalist and Left."

This, I think, distorts the picture. Mussolini did not move fascism from left to right; he moved it from socialist to populist.

Yet if Goldberg had actually bothered to read Paxton's account of how the move occurred -- or for that matter, any other historical account of these events -- he would know that the ideological shift by Mussolini had not even the remotest thing to do with populism. Rather, it all occurred in the defense of wealthy landowners and the established economic and cultural powers, and it entailed a wave of murderous violence against socialists, leftists, and any form of progressive.

From Paxton, pp. 60-64:

Above all Mussolini bested D'Annunzio by serving economic and social interests as well as nationalist sentiment. He made his Blackshirts available for action against socialists as well as against the South Slavs of Fiume and Trieste. War veterans had hated the socialists since 1915 for their "antinational" stance during the war. Big planters in the Po Valley, Tuscany, Apulia, and other regions of large estates hated and feared the socialists for their success at the end of the war in organizing the bracianti, or landless laborers, to press for higher wages and better working conditions. Squadrismo was the conjunction of these two hatreds.

Following their victory in the first postwar election (November 1919) the Italian socialists had used their new power in local government to establish de facto control over the agricultural wage-labor market. In the Po Valley in 1920, every farmer who needed workmen for planting or harvesting had to visit the socialist Labor Exchange. The Labor Exchanges made the most of their new leverage. They forced the farmers to hire workers year-round rather than only seasonally, and with better wages and working conditions. The farmers were financially squeezed. They had invested considerable sums in transforming Po Valley marshlands in cultivable farms; their cash crops earned little money in the difficult conditions of the Italian postwar economy. The socialist unions also undermined the farmers' personal status as masters of their domains.

Frightened and humiliated, the Po Valley landowners looked frantically for help. They did not find it in the Italian state. Local officials were either socialists themselves, or little inclined to do battle with them. Prime Minister Giolitti, a true practitioner of laissez-faire liberalism, declined to use national forces to break strikes. The big farmers felt abandoned by the Italian liberal state.

In the absence of help from the public authorities, the large landowners of the Po Valley turned to the Blackshirts for protection. Glad for an excuse to attack their old pacifist enemies, fascist squadristi invaded the city hall in Bologna, where socialist officials had hung up a red banner, on November 21, 1920. Six were killed. From there, the movement quickly spread through the rich agricultural country in the lower Po River delta. Black-shirted squadristi mounted nightly expeditions to sack and burn Labor Exchanges and local socialist offices, and beat and intimidate socialist organizers. Their favorite forms of humiliation were administering uncontainable doses of castor oil and shaving off half of a proud Latin moustache. In the first six months of 1921, the squads destroyed 17 newspapers and printing works, 59 Peoples' Houses (socialist headquarters), 119 Chambers of Labor (socialist employment offices), 107 cooperatives, 83 Peasants' Leagues, 151 socialist clubs, and 151 cultural organizations. Between January 1 and April 7, 1921, 102 people were killed: 25 fascists, 41 socialists, 20 police, and 16 others.

... Long after his regime had settled into routine, Mussolini still liked to refer to the "Fascist revolution." But he meant a revolution against socialism and flabby liberalism, a new way of uniting and motivating Italians, and a new kind of governmental authority capable of subordinating private liberties to the needs of the national community and of organizing mass assent while leaving property intact. The major point is that the Fascist movement was reshaped in the process of growing into the available space. The antisocialism already present in the initial movement became central, and many antibourgeois idealists left or were pushed out. The radical anticapitalist idealism of early Fascism was watered down, and we must not let its conspicuous presence in early texts confuse us about what Fascism later became in action.

Paxton, p. 83:

The Italian Fascist Party, having discovered that in its first identity as a Left-nationalist movement the space it coveted was already occupied by the Left, underwent the necessary transformations to become a local power in the Po Valley. The Nazi Party broadened its appeal after 1928 to court farmers desperate over going broke and losing their farms. Both Mussolini and Hitler could perceive the space available, and were willing to trim their movements to fit.

The space was partly symbolic. The Nazi Party early shaped its identity by staking a claim to the street and fought with communist gangs for control of working-class neighborhoods of Berlin. At issue was not merely a few meters of urban "turf." The Nazis sought to portray themselves as the most vigorous and effective force against the communists -- and, at the same time, to portray the liberal state as incapable of preserving public security. The communists, at the same time, were showing that the Social Democrats were unequipped to deal with an incipient revolutionary situation that needed a fighting vanguard. Polarization was in the interest of both.

Fascist violence was neither random nor indiscriminate. It carried a well-calculated set of coded messages: that communist violence was rising, that the democratic state was responding to it ineptly, and that only the fascists were tough enough to save the nation from antinational terrorists. An essential step in the fascist march to acceptance and power was to persuade law-and-order conservatives and members of the middle class to tolerate fascist violence as a harsh necessity in the face of Left provocation. It helped, of course, that many ordinary citizens never feared fascist violence against themselves, because they were reassured that it was reserved for national enemies and "terrorists" who deserved it.

The path to power for both Italian Fascists and German Nazis was essentially the same: They presented themselves as "revolutionary socialists" in their initial appeals but, finding the political space for such a movement already well occupied on the left by socialists and communists, shifted their appeals and their alliances to the right and center, particularly with business capitalists who financed them, sponsored their activities, and essentially contracted with them to engage in systematic violence against the Left. For the Nazis, Fritz Thyssen, head of the nation's largest steel producer, was only the most prominent example of business capitalists who funneled money to the Nazis both as they rose to power and once they gained it.

Now, going simply from Goldberg's own inadequate definition above -- which stipulates that the Right is "respectful of religion and tradition" (in fact, a more accurate definition would stipulate that the Right "ardently defends traditional values, mores, and institutions") -- the fascists in their rise to power clearly fit the definition of being "a phenomenon of the Right" -- and not the Left.

Of course, we can also rest assured that Goldberg will never even noddingly acknowledge that the chief leg of his argument has in fact been thoroughly knocked down. Because who knows how that might affect book sales.

Now, if you look at Goldberg's actual responses to my critiques -- you can see them here, here, here and here -- you will find that he has not even attempted to address these issues. Instead, he's chosen to indulge side issues (was the Klan proto-fascist? Actually, it was.), including a feeble attack on my own work on fascism that did not address a single point that I had raised in my critique. My final smackdown of this nonsense can be read here. Jonah has never responded to it nor acknowledged it.

So Goldberg thinks he can sneer his way around historical fact with clever putdowns. Well, we'll see about that. There's more coming down the pike from serious historians who are finally ready to take seriously the toxic effects of Goldberg's fraud. We'll have more info on that soon, I hope.

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