Friday, February 13, 2009

Praising the enemy

The first column I turn to in my Sunday paper is Nick Cohen's. He's a beautiful writer and usually a stimulating and enjoyable read. We don't always see eye-to-eye, but last Sunday he produced a review that I had big disagreements with. He gave qualified praise to a book that was written to oppose everything he has ever stood for. Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, as described by Cohen, strikes me as an attempt to justify a conservative ideological position by the use of some dubious, anachronistic history.

I have to say that I am only writing a review of a review, a risky business that opens me to the possibility of misrepresenting the book in question. But come on, it is 496 pages long and I have a life. However, the theme of a close relationship between fascism and socialism is a familiar one, especially if you have any knowledge of right libertarian thinking. This discourse, in its modern form, originates from Hayek's assumption that state planning and collectivism are steps on the road to totalitarianism. However, some of the literature extends this further and suggests that social democracy is in itself totalitarian. I have engaged in debates before on what I see as the over-extension of the term here and here.

I would always approach a book that links two mutually contradictory terms, such as liberal and fascism, with extreme suspicion. Liberalism is not fascism and fascists are not liberals. I know the title is taken from a quote by H G Wells, but by the end of his life the kindest description one can give of his elitist views is 'strange'. However, this is typical of the genre; take an extreme, and preferably barking, comment from an unrepresentative individual and then write about it as if it were a key to the understanding of the whole, rather than the product of a lunatic fringe. This is bad enough, but compound it by using the words 'secret history' and alarm bells should be ringing. Anything labelled 'secret history' usually refers, as in this case, to something with a voluminous published historical literature. It doesn't half add to the air of conspiracy and intrigue though.

Let's take a few points from the review. First there's this:
In America, flustered liberal critics have had far greater difficulty with the notion that they and their predecessors are the inheritors of ideas that began in the fascist movement.
Chronology matters, just ask the BBC. Socialism pre-dated fascism. Therefore it was fascism that inherited some ideas that began in the socialist movement and not the other way round. If the left had imitated fascism it implies they admired and sympathised with it and clearly that was the impression the book intended to convey.

The problematic relationship between fascism and communism has been the topic of extensive debate and research, stretching from totalitarian theory to the Historikerstreit. There is a perfectly respectable school of thought that sees fascism emerging from the early socialist movement and even, at a stretch, being a malign form of socialism. This position can be maintained in that fascism shares a statist, anti-capitalist, collectivism with some parts of the socialist movement.

However, common roots do not make a common ideology. Crucially, fascism replaced the notion of class conflict with national unity, drew in irrationalist concepts of struggle and the utility of war, a worship of inequality and later added the poison of pseudo-scientific racial theory. And so I cannot agree with "Goldberg’s definition of fascism as the 'right wing of the socialist movement'".

By the time we get to this bit though something should have clicked.
He begins with Woodrow Wilson and shows that before Mussolini came to power, a Democratic president imposed a militarised state. When America entered the First World War, the progressives of the day used the conflict as an excuse to arrest dissidents, close newspapers and recruit tens of thousands of neighbourhood spies. Wilson began the overlap between progressive and fascistic politics, which continued for the rest of the 20th century.
Eh? After all the crass Bush=Hitler guff, shouldn't the idea of Woodrow Wilson as Mussolini have grated? Describing Wilson as a proto-fascist is simply absurd and ahistorical. However, this is a persistent trope amongst American conservatives. Take this example where Ralph Raico this time associates Franklin Roosevelt with Mussolini and writes on the National Recovery Administration, part of the New Deal, under the heading, "Fascism comes to America".

I could pick up on more but I want to finish with his start.
It is undeniable that the best way to have avoided complicity in the horrors of the last century would have been to have adopted the politics of Jonah Goldberg. Much can be said against moderate conservatives, but it has to be admitted that their wariness of grand designs and their willingness to place limits on the over-mighty state give them a clean record others cannot share.
Actually, most of the horrors of the last century could have been avoided if almost anyone else had been in power other than Hitler and Stalin. However, in history we can't deal with ifs. Hitler came to power and it actually was conservatives of Goldberg's stamp who formed the governments of the Western democracies and who had to deal with him. What did they come up with? Isolationism and appeasement. Neither can be described as a howling success. What about more recently? The colossal failings in former Yugoslavia was one of theirs, as was the decision to allow Saddam to stay in power and murderously crush the risings against him after the first Gulf War. They are also the ones who would leave the Afghans in the hands of the Taliban. Nick, they have produced the journalism of Simon Jenkins. A clean record?

Sorry, this book reads from the review as simply an attempt to discredit socialism by equating it with fascism. There are really interesting studies and critiques of the extension of state power from the 19th Century onwards, but playing games of guilt by association is not serious history, it is merely a way of denigrating the success of social democracy in building prosperous and stable post-war democracies by its entrenched enemies.

Let's get the relationship between social democracy and fascism right. It didn't borrow from it, it defeated it. It defeated it militarily, economically, socially and morally. Fascism only re-emerges where social democracy is diminished. Social democracy is the success story of the 20th Century. Nick, comrade, we do not need "a plea of mitigation" for "the undoubted crimes of the left". We need to celebrate the success of the democratic left in reconstructing the post-war world and to resist the dismantling of its achievements. Let's have some confidence and faith in the possibility of a better future.

Any mentally honest leftist will be aware of the abhorrent trends that the left has spawned, from Stalin to Galloway. We should not spare them our scorn, but we do need to differentiate between different versions of 'leftism'. The democratic left may have got some things wrong, but they also got a lot right. A bit of self-criticism does no harm, though not to the extent of lionising the opposition who will gleefully wallow in your mea culpa and seek to undermine all the values of the left. There is a long way to go and different paths to travel, but with intelligence and clear thought, as Terry Glavin likes to say, the people will win.

Stuart Jeffries gives the book a kicking in a good review. I particularly like this:
His book, as published here, is a triumph of the terminological will whereby words mean just what the author means them to.
Jeffries neatly expresses contempt for the book's ludicrous thesis:
Anyone who believes in collective action through the state to improve people's lives is fascist or operating with unconscious fascistic impulses, Goldman argues. Our 1944 Education Act and the NHS, then, rest on the same foundational principles as Kristallnacht and al-Qaida.
This makes Nick Cohen's misreading all the more perplexing.

1 comment:

Will said...

Fuck. You were gentle with the cunt.

You are obviously trying to get a Gaurdin colmn out of this.