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Sprung from the same dark roots
on 7 January 2011
Several conservative commentators have observed that left-wing politics has its basis in the idea that all (perceived) human needs can be satisfied. The conservative, on the other hand, intuitively understands that desires and obligations may be inherently conflicting --- sometimes even tragically so. Left-wing politics centers on a belief (statolatry) that the power of the state can and should be extended to the point where the (perceived) needs of all in society can be maximally satisfied. This faith in Progress, with a capital `P', according to Goldberg's thesis, is definitive of the left; its absence is equally definitive of the right. This understanding is however at odds with the ways in which the terms `left' and `right' are used in everyday political parlance, and Goldberg seeks in this book to realign debate with the proper understanding of the terms.
In addition to socialism, social democracy and communism, Goldberg's definition of the left also includes `centre' or `Third Way' liberalism and, most controversially, fascism or national socialism. (Goldberg uses `national socialism' without capitals to refer to a family of related creeds combining a socialist platform and nationalism. Used in this way, `national socialism' is a synonym for `fascism'. German National Socialism, or Nazism, was of course additionally characterized by aggressive anti-Semitism, but this is not a feature of all, or even most, groups whose politics can be described as both nationalist and socialist.) Goldberg nevertheless shows that these movements share an ideological commitment to the state as well as a common history. (This idea was earlier developed in the work of the remarkable Austrian thinker Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, whom Goldberg regrettably omits to mention. The Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau occupies a central place in the thought of both as intellectual primus motor of the Left.)
Consider, for example, that Benito Mussolini started out as Italy's most prominent socialist, before he rejected the internationalist Marxist-Leninist interpretation of socialism in favor of a nationalist one, and founded the fascist movement. In 1920's Germany, red and brown factions supported by paramilitary groups vied murderously to achieve domination of the same constituency. It is from the bloody rivalry between socialists faithful to the internationalist interpretation, and heterodox nationalists, that the popular present-day usage of the term `right-wing' derives. Stalin labeled as `rightist' anyone whose socialism did not entail loyalty to Moscow (which, for Stalin, came to include Leon Trotsky). In many ways, popular usage follows his lead today. This flawed understanding is a source of endless paradox and deception. The absurd identification of eugenics with the right fails to square with the conservative stance on abortion, or with the fact that social democratic countries Norway and Sweden practiced, until the 1970s, enforced sterilization of patients suffering certain forms of mental impairment. And when the facts fail to jive with cherished conceptions, truth is the first casualty. Think of media portrayals of the present day Ku Klux Klan. A quintessentially conservative rural movement, right? The inconvenient truth, that it is a largely cosmopolitan `progressive' phenomenon, originating as a fan club of D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation, with its white supremacist take. It was the highest grossing film of the silent era. More recent examples that spring to mind include the war reenactment controversy surrounding Tea Party candidate Rich Lott, and the sickening celerity with which certain liberal commentators imputed `right-wing' motives to the disturbed (and politically illiterate) Jared Loughner, the would-be assassin of Gabrielle Giffords, and the murderer of six others.
It is not hard to understand why these perverse equations endure, although it is no less regrettable for that. In the wake of the Holocaust, Nazism became petrified in public opinion as the ultimate expression of human evil. The `right-wing' label stuck. It is an enduring tragedy of the Second World War and the post-war period that only a few souls have had the bravery and honesty to penetrate the cloak of taboos surrounding Nazism to try and really understand the connection between the war's unique horrors and the system of beliefs and attitudes that created the conditions that allowed them transpire --- beliefs and attitudes that are not only alive today, according to Goldberg, but at the most fundamental level part of the mainstream. Behind the widespread caricatures of Nazi evil, the essential nature of Nazism and Fascism remain widely misunderstood.
Before the War, things were all very different. National Socialism and Fascism were widely regarded not only as benign, but as models to be emulated by progressive politicians like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose New Deal was sufficient proof to Mussolini that the American president was "on side". Goldberg skillfully lays bare the parallels between the national socialist political systems of Europe and several US administrations with profound and lasting influence on the history of the West. Woodrow Wilson's war socialism brought with it unprecedented violations of civil liberties and free speech, and the first propaganda ministry in world history. John Kennedy too presided over one of the most militaristic and nationalistic periods in US history. Lyndon Baines Johnson was FDR's direct ideological successor.
Democrats figure predominantly, but by no means exclusively, amongst America's `friendly fascists'. An important lesson that emerges from this book is that it is impossible to equate the Republican vs. Democrat dimension with the opposition Right vs. Left, properly understood in terms of the role of the state. Goldberg argues several leading republicans have succumbed to the progressive temptation, including Pat Buchanan, John McCain, and George W. Bush who, as a "compassionate conservative", presided over significant increases in health and education spending during his incumbency. Interestingly, Goldberg is supportive of the Bush administration's commitment to bringing Western-style democracy to the world, which might explain his silence on the question of the ideological connections between the neo-cons in Bush's administration and the radical left, where several prominent neo-cons started out their political lives. Ronald Reagan, however, emerges as a genuinely conservative liberal figure.
One of the most pernicious myths bequeathed us from the first half of the Twentieth Century is the notion that fascism and national socialism are uniquely bourgeois in origin, in collusion with or a direct expression of capitalism in its dying phase. The myth was shaped and propagated by doctrinaire Marxist-Leninists, perhaps partly because they stood to lose most from fascist gains, but also because Marxist-Leninist theory was unable to accommodate national socialism within the simple dichotomy of capitalist exploiter and oppressed proletariat. If national socialism could not be construed as working towards the international socialist revolution, the logic of the theory leaves only the interpretation that it was a manifestation of capitalism. This myth has gone on to become a received wisdom in the media, the film industry, in academia (except, of course, scholars that actually specialize in the subject). In Germany at least, the support of big business for the Nazis came after the fact of Hitler's political success, and then it was motivated by opportunism, not ideology. And yet, the ahistorical, ideologically motivated equation of big business interest and `the (quasi-)fascist right wing' (as popularly understood) persists to our day.
There is indeed significant collusion between government and business, and this is the subject of much critique, from liberals, certainly, but also from true conservatives. Goldberg writes (p. 290) "Many liberals are correct when they bemoan the collusion of government and corporations. [...] What they misunderstand completely is that this is the system they set up. This is the system they want. This is the system they mobilize and march for." The de facto collusion of governments and corporations is an emergent by-product rather than ideologically motivated, however. Because regulations are so costly to implement, small businesses end up being punished for the reason they can't afford lawyers to negotiate the regulations or lobbyists to represent their interests to the regulating bodies. The increased regulation so favored by liberals ends up rewarding big business and promoting the collusive pattern of government by proxy by large corporations. Liberals fail to grasp the connection, and the collusion takes on the complexion of a conspiracy. The truth, though, is more prosaic.
All left-wing movements, according to Goldberg, have an emphasis on mobilization against a common enemy. Socialism may come naturally in times of war, but in peacetime, left wing groups must find a `modern equivalent of war'. The pretext for mobilization, whether it is poverty, the environment, patriarchy, perceived oppression of one kind or another, varies depending on the place and time. However it manifests itself, the author discerns in the endless quest for action a profound sense of ennui. And anyone who cannot or will not march to the beat will be vulnerable. Because the left-wing reasons using an alphabet of defined groups (`the nation', `the ethnic group', `humanity', `women', and so on), discrimination is an inherent, reflexive feature of left-wing politics. And for Goldberg mainstream liberalism too "is joined at the hip with racial and sexual identity groups of one kind or another".
Goldberg devotes attention to parallels between our own obsessions and those of Nazi Germany. The parallels are disturbing: vegetarianism and organic food, environmentalism, paganism and New Age spirituality, hatred of Christianity, language hygiene and `political correctness', technological and managerial solutions. If some of these sound contradictory, I can thoroughly recommend Irving Babbitt's Rousseau and Romanticism for an insightful treatment of the deep connections between scientific naturalism and romanticism.
In sum, learned a very great deal from this book. I was unable to put it down, and whatever your political views, you won't be either.