Just as progressives were generally enthusiastic about socialist movements in the Soviet Union and Europe, they were also overwhelmingly supportive of the fascist movements in Italy and Germany during the 1920s and 1930s. “In many respects,” writes journalist Jonah Goldberg, “the founding fathers of modern liberalism, the men and women who laid the intellectual groundwork of the New Deal and the welfare state, thought that fascism sounded like … a worthwhile ‘experiment’”:
According to Goldberg, progressives’ affinity for fascism was quite understandable because, contrary to popular misconception: “[F]ascism, properly understood, is not a phenomenon of the right at all. Instead, it is, and always has been, a phenomenon of the left.”
To clarify this point, a working definition of fascism is in order. A comprehensive discussion of fascism’s tenets and variations can be located here, but for the purpose of this discussion, fascism can be distilled down to this: It is a totalitarian movement that empowers an omnipotent government to control every nook and cranny of political, economic, social, and private life – generally in the name of “the public good.” Its leadership is commonly spearheaded by a powerful, charismatic, even deified figure who is viewed as uniquely capable – along with his hand-picked advisers – of leading his nation to new-found or restored greatness. Its economics are collectivist, socialist and redistributionist – supremely hostile to free-market capitalism and wealth inequalities. And it tends to promote and exploit the grievances of “the common man,” portraying society as the theater of a ceaseless conflict – a class war – between oppressor and oppressed, victimizer and victim. Consequently, identity politics are central to fascism.
The foregoing traits are also part and parcel of progressivism. Thus it is accurate to say that progressivism is, in effect, an American version of European fascism. Modern progressives recoil in horror at the utterance of this plain reality, chiefly because, for decades, the word “fascism” has been tossed about carelessly by many people who have not understood its actual meaning. As George Orwell once observed, “The word ‘fascism’ now has no meaning except in so far as it signals ‘something not desirable.’”
Nowadays the term “fascism” is typically used as a synonym for such unsavory phenomena as tyranny, authoritarianism, racism, militarism, anti-Semitism, and genocide. And indeed, all of these traits were characteristic of the fascism that developed in Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler. But German fascism was only one of numerous types, or varieties, of fascism. Fascist impulses manifest themselves differently in different cultures, though they draw, as Jonah Goldberg explains, “on the same intellectual wellsprings.” “Fascisms differ from each other because they grow out of different soil,” Goldberg elaborates, and “the differences between various fascisms can be profound.”
For example, whereas the Nazis were genocidal anti-Semites, the Italian fascists were protectors of the Jews until the Nazis took over Italy, and the fascist dictator Francisco Franco refused Hitler’s demand to deliver tens of thousands of Spanish Jews to the latter for extermination. Whereas the Nazis despised Christianity, the Italian Fascists made peace with the Catholic Church – notwithstanding Mussolini’s passionate contempt for that institution. And whereas racism was central to Nazi ideology, Mussolini expressed his own “sovereign contempt” for the “one hundred percent racism” of Hitler’s government. (A more detailed discussion of the various possible manifestations of fascism can be found here.)
According to Jonah Goldberg:
“Nazism was the product of German culture, grown out of a German context. The Holocaust could not have occurred in Italy, because Italians are not Germans. And in America, where hostility to big government is central to the national character, the case for statism must be made in terms of ‘pragmatism’ and decency. In other words, our fascism must be nice and for your own good.”
Along those lines, Goldberg elaborates, American fascism “was moderated by many special factors—geographical size, ethnic diversity, Jeffersonian individualism, a strong liberal tradition, and so on. As a result, American fascism is milder, more friendly, more ‘maternal’ than its foreign counterparts…. Nice fascism. The best term to describe it is ‘liberal fascism’” – a phenomenon characterized by “nannying, not bullying.” In the early decades of the 20th century, it was simply called progressivism.
“Progressivism was a sister movement of fascism,” writes Goldberg, “and today’s liberalism is the daughter of Progressivism.” The journalist J. T. Flynn – perhaps the best-known anti-FDR muckraker of the 1930s, foresaw that American fascism might one day manifest itself as “a very genteel and dainty and pleasant form of fascism which cannot be called fascism at all because it will be so virtuous and polite.”
It should be noted, at this point, that fascism is closely related not only to progressivism, but also to communism. The chief difference between fascism and communism is that the former is rooted in nationalism and seeks to create a socialist utopia within the confines of a particular country’s borders; thus the Nazis embraced “National Socialism.” Communism, by contrast, seeks to transcend national boundaries and promote a worldwide proletariat revolution, where the foot soldiers are bound together not by a common nationality but by their membership in the same economic class. This was expressed by Karl Marx‘s famous exhortation in the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of the world, unite!” Apart from this distinction, communism and fascism are kindred spirits of anti-capitalism. Jonah Goldberg characterizes them as “closely related, historical competitors for the same constituents, seeking to dominate and control the same social space.” “[I]n terms of their theory and practice,” he says, “ the differences are minimal.”
That said, we can see that fascism, communism, and progressivism are all closely related to one another. The progressive U.S. President Woodrow Wilson was a devoted disciple of the German philosopher Georg Hegel, whose ideas – most notably his view of history as an evolutionary, unfolding process where conflicting forces constantly battle in order to bring about change and progress – also had a profound influence on Karl Marx. Mussolini, for his part, carried with him a medallion of Marx. Progressives commonly saw Mussolini’s project and Lenin’s as linked enterprises. The progressive muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens referred to the “Russian-Italian” method as if the two were flip sides of the same coin. Steffens and his fellow progressives generally saw Mussolini, Lenin, and Stalin as three men pursuing a similar objective: the fundamental transformation of corrupt and outdated societies. As Jonah Goldberg observes, “The reason so many progressives were intrigued by both Mussolini’s and Lenin’s ‘experiments’ is simple: they saw their reflection in the European looking glass.”
Because progressivism embraces the ideal of nationalism and touts the so-called “Third Way” between capitalism and communism, its pedigree is closer to fascism than to communism. Progressivism and fascism share the totalitarian belief that with the proper amount of tinkering, social engineers will be able to realize the utopian dream of establishing a nation where perfect equality reigns. This mindset accounts for the support that the early progressives gave to eugenics, whose ultimate aim was the creation of a pure race, a “New Man” – not unlike the Nazi “Aryan” ideal. Such a project, of course, could only be overseen and carried out by a wise and omniscient leadership, an intellectual elite endowed with judgment superior to that of the unwashed masses.
The totalitarian impulses that animated both fascism and progressivism were once viewed by the Left as evidence of compassion and humanitarian concern for the welfare of the lowly. In its original sense, the word “totalitarian” did not have the negative connotations it has acquired over time. Mussolini himself coined the term to describe a society where everyone belonged, where no one was abandoned socially or economically. This ideal dovetailed neatly with the progressive (and fascist) desire to eliminate class differences among the populace. In many of his speeches, Hitler clearly stated his intent to erase all lines of division between rich and poor. Robert Ley, who headed the Nazis’ German Labor Front, boasted: “We are the first country in Europe to overcome the class struggle.”
Consistent with the totalitarian roots of fascism and progressivism alike, was the progressives’ dismissal of America’s traditional system of constitutional checks and balances as an anachronistic impediment to social progress. Progressives reasoned that such restraints on power would only slow the process by which the governing elite could implement their programs to refashion society in accordance with their own progressive vision.
The degree to which progressive and fascist values complemented and echoed one another was on clear display in the work of the progressive writer and New Republic founder Herbert Croly (1869-1930), one of the most important voices in American intellectual history and a leftist icon for more than a century. Specifically, Croly embraced economic socialism; promoted febrile nationalism; said that a “great” and heroic revolutionary leader was needed in order to restore American pride; rejected the concept of parliamentary democracy; believed that society could be guided to enlightenment by an intellectual elite – a cast of “social engineers” whose “beneficent activities” could bring about a “better future”; and rejected individualism, saying that “an individual has no meaning apart from the society in which his individuality has been formed.” All of these ideals were, by definition, both fascist and progressive.
Another parallel between fascism and progressivism was their shared faith in the process of experimental trial and error, modeled on the scientific method, as a means of developing better forms of societal organization. Franklin Delano Rosevelt (FDR), whose politics were heavily influenced by progressive ideas, boasted that he was not wedded to any preconceived notions vis a vis social policy, but rather that he measured an idea’s worth by the results it achieved. “Take a method and try it,” he said in 1932. “If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” His primary guiding principle was “bold, persistent experimentation.” Thus was the modern American welfare state conceived. New Republic co-founder Herbert Croly put it this way: “If there are any abstract liberal principles, we do not know how to formulate them. Nor if they are formulated by others do we recognize their authority. Liberalism, as we understand it, is an activity.” The Italian Fascists put it still more succinctly: “Our policy is to govern.”
In late 1934, Rexford Guy Tugwell, an influential advisor to FDR, visited Italy and noted: “I find Italy doing many of the things which seem to me necessary…. Mussolini certainly has the same people opposed to him as FDR has.”
Early fascism and progressivism also shared the trait of militarism. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, German intellectuals advanced the notion that war could serve as a means of unifying a population and thereby overcoming class distinctions. These intellectuals had an enormous influence on the American mind. Consequently, progressives in the U.S. favored America’s entry into World War I because they believed it would help to collectivize society and make it properly obedient to the mighty federal government. For example:
Meanwhile, Benito Mussolini was making virtually the same pro-war arguments on his side of the Atlantic.
American progressives, for the most part, did not disavow fascism until the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust became manifest during World War II. After the war, those progressives who had praised Mussolini and Hitler in the 1920s and 1930s had no choice but to dissociate themselves from fascism. “Accordingly,” writes Jonah Goldberg, “leftist intellectuals redefined fascism as ‘right-wing’ and projected their own sins onto conservatives, even as they continued to borrow heavily from fascist and pre-fascist thought.” This progressive campaign to recast fascism as the “right-wing” antithesis of communism was aided by Joseph Stalin, who began to label all of the most blatantly evil traits shared by communism and fascism alike, as simply “fascist.”
– Source: Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left, From Mussolini to the Politics of Meaning, by Jonah Goldberg.