Fabio Paolo Barbieri (fpb) wrote,
Fabio Paolo Barbieri
fpb

The Protocols of Jonah Goldberg

One of the most infuriating features in current conservative thinking is that, in spite of much factional fighting, many divisions and many really serious disagreements, they are remarkably prone to group-think. To make an example: someone comes up with an argument that, far from fighting the Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s policies extended it. All right: that is arguable – which means it can be argued for and against; though, stated in that bald manner, it is a pretty poor kind of thesis. It has the classic know-it-all flavour of the latecoming critic, with no sense of the opportunities available at the time, of the restrictions (such as Smoot-Hawley, the single biggest obstacle to growth, which Roosevelt inherited), of the atmosphere, even of the actual powers available to the President. If, however, its actual original statement takes all these things into account, then it amounts to a decent, arguable historical theory; an interpretation of the facts, which can be argued for or against. But that is not enough for the average conservative columnist: for, whoever it was who first proposed this theory, within weeks there were dozens of conservative columnists, and probably hundreds of bloggers, who stated as a fact, indeed as a throwaway remark, that Roosevelt made the Depression worse.

This is groupthink. It means not having the least idea of what history as a discipline is about, nor of the fundamental distinction between fact and interpretation. The fact that employment remained low until 1941 is a fact; how one interprets it is a theory, and does not have the same value. In this matter, for instance, it is just as likely that Roosevelt, in the steadily worsening international situation, had no good options beyond what he was trying to do, that America could not have got out of the Depression without international goodwill, and that international goodwill from 1933 to 1945 was noticeably lacking. It is just as likely that the intangible quality of confidence and courage that Roosevelt’s speeches conveyed so effortlessly (and which all his successors have tried to imitate) may have done just as much for the average American as any actual rise in economic statistics, so that when the dawn of Pearl Harbour came, America was not found divided, scared and ready to crumple, but, to the contrary, morally strong, united, and able to explode into activity on every side.

But whether or not such an interpretation is better, or indeed even alternative at all, one thing is important: it is an interpretation. To retail interpretations as facts is evidence of a muddled mind. What is more and worse, it tends to flatten them. A historian proposing a theory that Roosevelt made the Depression worse would be bound by the rules of his discipline to take many matters into account, and would no doubt give a more nuanced account of events than the simple sentence suggests. By comparison, the columnist who simply states – as many, perhaps most, of them do – that “Roosevelt made the Depression worse” as a fact, states it in a form so bald and one-sided as to be indefensible. Yet this sort of thing is widespread.

If, however, the columnist who crushes a historical theory into a slogan is bad enough, even worse is the columnist who starts works on history with the same mentality. A particularly infuriating instance is Jonah Goldberg’s recent book pretending to show that Hitler and Mussolini were “left-wingers” – a book whose indefensible thesis has gone through bloggerdom and columnist-dom like lightning, like a spreading epidemic. For the last few months, it has become literally impossible to find an American conservative who is not willing to fight over the totally worthless proposition that Hitler and Mussolini were “socialists” or, even worse, “liberals”.

I have to use strong language, since this offends me on three levels: as an Italian, as a historian, and as a man with some ambition to intellectual honesty. This is trash. It is party political hackery at its worst and sorriest. It involves an ugly aspect of ignorant cultural imperialism. It misrepresents the facts so grievously as to make them meaningless – if Mussolini in the years of his power could be counted as left-wing, anything and everything can. And perhaps this is exactly the appeal of such a thesis to partisan minds: that it can be used in any environment whatever. Al Capone was a socialist. The Emperor Nero was a socialist. Aaron Burr was a socialist. Benedict Arnold was a socialist. This has, in short, the historical value of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Let me explain what is wrong with Goldberg’s thesis. In 2004 – not a period so distant that we need to disagree fundamentally about its features and significance – the Democrats went into their campaign with the certainty that they would defeat an unpopular President who had lost the popular vote in the previous election and had since proceeded to increase his unpopularity by an unnecessary war. They were routed. And as we all remember, the most popular explanation was the rise of the “values voter”, generally Christian and profoundly opposed to the kind of social innovation that was then and is still now being pushed on us.

In my view, it is possible that this was not the only main cause. I met a few Vietnam veterans online, and it was clear, even before the Swift boat vets’ testimony, that to choose John Kerry of all people as a candidate was profoundly offensive to them. I was particularly sickened by his posturing as a soldier “reporting for duty” when his biography was that of an anti-war activist fallen into the war at random and swiftly taken out of it. And if I, an Italian with no dog in that fight and a certain dislike or distrust of President Bush, reacted so strongly, I can only imagine what people who actually wore that uniform must have felt. The Democrats, I thought at the time – and, I think, said – might as well have nominated Jane Fonda and be done. And the veteran vote can certainly account for a large part of the million and a half votes by which Bush won his unexpectedly decisive victory.

However, the Democrats and the commentariat focussed on the “values voters”; who, in any case, may well have been the same people, or kind of people. They focussed on what was called the “religious right”. And what happened? Within a year or two, we were faced with a novel, media-friendly phenomenon called the “religious left”.

This “religious left”, of course, has its roots – in what Malcolm Muggeridge called “Consensianity”; in the turgid and sterile phenomenon of the World Council of Churches and its American offshoots; and, going further back, in the heresy of Modernism. It has its counterparts in Europe and Latin America. It is not wholly unrepresentative or entirely artificial. But does anyone doubt that it is an artificial phenomenon, called into being by the Democrats in what was perceived to be their urgent need to steal some of the religious thunder from the Republicans? The very name “the religious left”, indeed, is designed with that in mind. It is designed to suggest an equivalence between the clerical supporters of both parties and both tendencies. It is an ad-man, spin-doctor’s trick, because we all remember that people were talking about “the religious right” when nobody had ever heard of the religious left. We were talking about it in the days of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Indeed, it is a phenomenon that has ancient and deep roots in the soil of America, a popular, voire plebeian movement whose numbers made it remarkable before it ever had a leader worthy of interest or a national position worth considering: something that genuinely comes from below. And that is not the only difference. The “religious right” or “values voters” are an autonomous movement, and in so far as they belong inside the big Republican tent – and a lot of them will tell you that they don’t, necessarily – they do so as a movement with their own goals, priorities and political views. The “religious left” is nothing of the sort; it is at best a Democrat Party chaplaincy, there to consecrate and support the party’s agreed policies and candidates. And the difference between the two is visible in the fact that while nobody in the Democrat big tent particularly either supports or resents the religious left, there are plenty of Republicans – especially in the higher levels of the party – who resent or even hate the religious right. Only something with its own consistency and purpose and with considerable power can arouse so much irritation in its colleagues.

The exact same may be said of the Socialist movement in nineteenth-century in Europe. It is grossly wrong and scarily ignorant to reduce Socialism to Marxism and Marxism to Leninism. If Marxism was an attempt to take over the already existing Socialist movements, Leninism was a positive perversion of Marxism worked out by a man whose powerful internal need to destroy the society he was born in led him to disregard the actual written words of his supposed master in order to exploit his prestige. Until 1918, most Russian Socialists were not Marxists, and most Russian Marxists were not Leninists.

The roots of Socialism are in France, and in the revolutionary slogan: Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood. These words were released into the body politic like a bacillus, in a moment of violent intoxication, by a political leadership that soon effectively repealed them. The democratic constitution and universal franchise that had briefly been established at the height of revolutionary disturbance was almost immediately removed in favour of a much more restrictive order, even before Napoleon imposed his military tyranny. However, those words represented the values that the Republic claimed for itself, and unless the very Revolution were repealed – and not even the Bourbon kings of the Reaction actually tried – they kept their value.

This is the feature of history that historians are most afraid to tackle, to the point that some opt out and try to explain everything by mechanistic and materialistic processes: the influence of ideas upon facts. In the case of the revolutionary values, the issue was simply that a society that claimed to draw its legitimacy from them could be seen to fall disastrously short of them – dominated by military and capitalistic interest, riddled with caste and prejudice, easily mobilized for authoritarian purposes. And yet the three words stayed. As a statement of moral values and purposes, each hung together with the other and modified them, so that the three together did not and do not mean exactly what any of them means in isolation. Freedom means, well, freedom; equality, that this freedom and all the attributes that go with it must be the equal right of every citizen; brotherhood, that the tie between citizens is something more than a mere administrative convenience, that it is a matter of community of spirit, substance, feeling. That is, “brotherhood” modifies “liberty” as “liberty within a profoundly bound community whose members are in some sense brothers, that is, related to each other by a natural bond.” “Equality” modifies both “freedom” in that this freedom has to be spread equally among all the community, and “brotherhood” in strengthening the horizontal nature of the link: related as brother to brother, not as father to son. (The idea of the king as father of his nation was, of course, widespread, and this sounds like an unconscious rejection of it.)

This was taking place in a society that had already deeply changed from the scene of the Revolution. The republican ideas of the eighteenth century were based on the idea of an independent, self-supporting class of farmer citizens. It was as the image of such a free citizen (although a small entrepreneur rather than a farmer) that Benjamin Franklin had his social triumphs both in England and in France. The French Revolution, in obedience to this ideal, broke up the great landed estates of aristocracy and Church (and in pre-revolutionary France the Church was pretty much in the pockets of the aristocracy) and abolished entail, in order to create a class of free smallholders. By 1790, nobody had any notion that power over large numbers of men could take any other form than that of landowning; heavy industry with its swarms of unskilled employed men was something that neither Condorcet nor Ropesbierre, neither Washington nor Lord North, neither Frederick of Prussia nor Voltaire, had even imagined. It seemed clear to everyone that the foundation of a republican order lay in breaking up – or in not allowing the formation of – great landed estates. However, by 1830, the great industrial workshop employing thousands of “wage slaves” was a reality not only in Britain but in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States, and was being studied and introduced in other European countries. The republican dream of a society of free, independent freeholders was facing a challenge much more radical and destructive than any feudal landholder had ever been.

It was in this industrial society that the old republican values underwent the mutation into Socialism. It became clear to everyone that the ability to employ, sack, and order about, more men than many countries had under arms, was a much worse threat to freedom, equality and brotherhood, than any surviving feudal power (even where the aristocrats did not actually morph into industrialists – which they did throughout Europe from Britain to Russia and from Sweden to Italy). As for freedom, one just had to contemplate the huge and ugly complexes where men and women worked backbreaking hours at tasks that they barely understood and that did nothing to fulfil them. As for equality, where a hundred men and women were at the beck and call of one supervisor, and ten thousand at that of one capitalist, where was equality? And as for brotherhood, employees were and are lucky if they find a father in their employer; much more often it is a matter of a vicious and distant stepfather. A brother is out of the question.

(It is a curious phenomenon how certain important historical developments have tended to take place at the very last minute in which they were possible. When the Colonies revolted against Britain, Britain’s power was growing, but still limited: the country had barely ten million inhabitants, as against three million Americans, and the effort of a long and major operation beyond the seas was simply beyond it. Twenty years later, Britain had more than fifteen million inhabitants, was able to fight major and very lengthy wars in Europe and India at the same time, settle Australia, and build up a naval presence in the Mediterranean so strong that Napoleon was never able to dislodge them from Sicily, Sardinia, Corfu or Malta. An American insurrection in 1800 would certainly have failed. By the same token, Italy won independence and unity in 1859-60 after decades of unrest and occasional insurrections and war, mainly through Garibaldi’s genius for insurgent warfare; but the 1860s were also the decade in which the new technology of repetition and machine guns and heavier artillery became widespread. From 1789 to 1848, rulers and governments had had no answer to revolted cities and insurgent warfare, but by 1871 they definitely did, and the fate of the Commune of Paris served notice on the world that barricades and revolts in capital cities would no longer be an effective way to regime change. If Italy had not been united in 1860, it never would have been. More such examples could be made.)

Now, if European society had simply moved from aristocratic leadership – whether we call it feudalism or not – to capitalist leadership, without the little accidents of the American and French Revolutions, things might have been comparatively simple: new groupings of lower classes would have joined the tenants and serfs of feudal tradition, without generating a whole new ideology. However, once you have taught people that they are born equal, you cannot unteach it. These words have a power of their own, and as the Italian Communist poet Francesco Guccini said, their power is that of dynamite or of a steaming locomotive. Once the equality of men is recognized, the uncontrolled supremacy of one very rich man over ten thousand poorish or at any rate resourceless ones becomes impossible to justify – especially in the minds of the ten thousand. A movement to, at least, redress the balance of power becomes an inevitability.

One way or another, Socialism represented the attempt to reverse the anti-democratic, anti-egalitarian pressures brought about by industrialization, while at the same time recognizing its inevitability. Its essence was not nostalgic or backward-looking; it lived in the present and was motivated by present-day conditions. The various forms of socialism always tended towards collective property and worker control. In political terms, they went from ultimate anarchism to statism; but the emphasis on collective decision and mass movement inevitably tended towards collectivism. This emphasis was made inevitable by the political dimension of the rise of workshops and factories: the worker only counted in the mass, as one of thousands of other workers. The only way that the will of an employer could be opposed was if every last worker moved together and in step to revolt against him. The experience of trades unionism and early socialism was naturally collectivist and naturally tended to reduce the primacy of individual liberty: alone and without his colleagues, the only liberty an industrial employee enjoyed was that of starving in the gutter. However, given the variety and occasional perversity of the various currents of socialist, trades unionist and anarchist thought at the time, there was no necessary connection between socialism and unfreedom, and it took the perverse conjunction of Marx and Lenin to engineer it.

Socialism incubated for decades in small-circulation newspapers, occasional brainwaves by academics or cloistered intellectuals, cult-like organizations such as Comtist Positivism, and trades unions. Like the American religious right, it was a multi-faceted popular movement with deep roots in an ultimately simple and easily understood set of politico-moral values. And like the religious right, it remained for decades fairly marginal and ignored, the target of the more or less good-humoured contempt of the practical men and the men in power. Its great-wave moment struck in the eighteen-eighties and eighteen-nineties, almost a century after the French Revolution; but it could not have happened without that long and despised incubation. For decades, skilled workers in various industries had been setting up their trades unions to improve their lot – not only through strikes and company struggle, but also through reading circles, sports and self-education, mutual support, and so on. By the eighteen-eighties, the mechanism of the trades union, including the discipline of collective actions, strikes and picket lines, was well tried and tested; and it was in that decade that it was extended to the masses of unskilled labourers, many of them women, who worked in the ever-expanding new industries.

This multiplied the numbers of organized labour several times; and in its wake, the Socialist parties exploded across Europe. From 1890 to 1914, the rise of organized labour and Socialism was the pre-eminent phenomenon across Europe. Of course, not all organized labour was necessarily Socialist; in particular, the Christian Democrat movement arose at the same time and from the same roots, especially in those Catholic countries where the Church was for some reason in opposition to the ruling elite. But to give Italy as an example, for every voter who voted for the Popular (Christian Democrat) party in 1910, two voted for the rival Socialist Party; and made it the largest party in Parliament. The same was pretty much true across Europe.

What is more, the impact of the movement went beyond numbers. Before the rise of organized labour with all its concomitants, politics did not occupy a large part of the life of a politically active citizen. With the exception of the committed revolutionaries in oppressed countries such as Poland or Italy, a man might be a reactionary or a liberal or a moderate without much effect on his daily life. Employment, sports, family life, pastimes, were not affected in any major way. A reactionary might be more likely to belong to certain church bodies than to others, a liberal was more likely to be a Freemason, but even those were not hard-and-fast rules. Parties had barely any popular membership at all and rarely ever did anything more than mobilize at election time.

Upon this settled world burst organized labour and the socialist parties. While a Socialist party was, like any other party, an association for the election of particular candidates, it was a great deal more. It was the political arm of a movement whose life was collective; which organized popular libraries, evening schools, sports clubs, and which routinely engaged in collective action against employers. What is more, it was the appearance on the scene of a whole class that had been growing in the new industrial slums of every European city for decades, but which had so far had nothing to say for itself and had only been the object of the investigations and studies of sociologists, journalists and politicians – all rigorously upper- and middle-class. The mere visual impact of one or two hundred thousand labourers marching through the polite parts of a great city, where they had barely ever been seen before, was overwhelming and actually terrifying. It reminded people of the French Revolution and the Commune of Paris – memories both fresh and bloody. Hitler himself remembered such a spectacle in Vienna in the days of his youth as one of the most tremendous and appalling experiences of his life.

Part of the effect of this was a complete renewal of political life. The old conservative, moderate and liberal parties, in order not to be drowned in the din, adopted the new methods of mass membership and permanent association. Parliaments became the setting of struggle and compromise between really opposite groupings, with the new Socialist parties taking their seats to defend interests that had never had any representative before and ways to organize and work (for instance, closed shops and picket lines) which were necessary to them but on which the law had always frowned. The very fact that they entered the institution of parliamentary government meant that those institutions gained, rather than lost, in interest and influence; and many people were disposed to welcome, though with reservations, the rough, aggressive, but organized and earnest new social grouping, in the hope of extending citizenship and legal equality to the whole of society as had always been hoped.

But there were eyes that were looking at the might of Socialism with a completely different attitude in mind. If the forces of parliamentary government hoped to be able to welcome the new party as a part of an enlarged free community, there were political forces that still hated parliamentarism, liberalism and democracy altogether. They saw Socialism differently – not as a movement to an egalitarian end, but as an immense destructive force to be readdressed. Almost from the beginning of the Socialist great wave, there were deliberately engineered attempts to imitate, control or pervert it for purposes totally opposite to those from which it had arisen, and, in particular, for the complete denial of the formula, Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood.

One might say that the two Prussians, Marx and Bismarck, were forerunners of this tendency. Bismarck, an unmitigated reactionary, saw the great wave of Socialism come from afar, when it had not yet reached anything like its full potential; and rather than oppose it directly, he worked to integrate it in the Prussian class-based state, pretty much inventing his own version of the Welfare State. His success can be gauged by the fact that the Social-Democrats backed Prussian ambitions all the way to World War One and beyond, and that the first Socialist head of state after the fall of the Empire, Friedrich Ebert, ruled as a committed Prussian-German patriot – after doing his utmost to save the Kaiser.

As for Karl Marx, too much is made of his fairly distant Jewish ancestry. His Prussian background is much more important, the more so as it was a deliberate choice of his whole family and of their social circle – including the von Westphal family into whom he married. It is as a Prussian thinker and organizer, with the typical Prussian mix of gambling, sober organization, and power-thirst, that he really matters in history. Marx, like Bismarck, saw the coming strange beast, Socialism; and, like Bismarck, he decided to organize it. The difference between the two is that Bismarck was interested in protecting and extending the class rule of his narrow Prussian aristocratic grouping; Marx, in turning Socialism into a movement so coherent and powerful that it could rule by itself – with him (that was in the background) at the helm. But the notion of “organizing the working class”, indeed the very words, were common to both.

Marx, as he said himself, was no Marxist; much less was he a Leninist. I feel certain that if he had lived long enough, he would have excommunicated Plekhanov and Lenin as ruthlessly as he excommunicated Bakunin, and for much the same reason. He did not believe in revolution in peasant countries that had not undergone, or were only beginning to undergo, the industrial revolution: his analysis told him that all countries had to undergo a certain series of changes, at the end of which, rather than at the beginning, lay the extinction of government and socialism as equality. What is more, he had a Prussian prejudice against Slavs in general and Russians in particular. And he had no set idea of how the revolution was to take place. Towards the end of his life, the international movement he had created started to gain parliamentary seats across Europe, and Marx clearly let it be understood that he did not see any reason why parliamentary reform should not be the road to revolution. Like Bismarck, he accepted parliamentary government grudgingly and as an instrument, not as a goal; but, like Bismarck, he accepted it. Lenin’s unswerving claim for total power and unlimited dictatorship would not have impressed him. It is, however, equally important to remember that Socialism existed long before Marx. To identify Socialism with Marxism is to fall into Marx’ own trap.

The ambiguous relationship of the two Prussians to parliamentary government was not shared by a younger generation: industrialists scarred by negotiations with aggressive trades unions, landowners embittered by land strikes, intellectuals out of love with the mess and cattle-trading of parliamentary government and aching for an aesthetically pleasing paternal form of rule, saw Parliament simply as an enemy, and in the uncontrolled mass strength of the workers’ movements simply a tool to destroy it. From the end of the nineteenth century on, the attempt to create “national socialist” parties, into which to inveigle the working classes, were as numerous as they were unsuccessful.

Mutatis mutandis, it is these attempts at reactionary pseudo-socialism that may best be compared to that recent Democrat invention, the “religious left”. They represent the effort, by a political elite which shares nothing of the background and values of a mass popular movement, to somehow gain control of at least a part of its potential membership, for purposes directly opposite to its own, and by deceptive means. At the heart of such an attempt lies the belief that the working classes here, the Christian masses there, are not actually dedicated to a set of values which they take with great seriousness, but rather “poor, ignorant and easily led” (and easily organized), as the Washington Post famously said. The Socialist movement wanted a more egalitarian society, more control by the workers, and the recognition of equal rights for all; those were not negotiable features of its program, those were its being, its basic values, the moral demands from which it had arisen and without which it would cease to be itself. You understand NOTHING about European socialism unless you understand that the three words, Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood, are at its very core; all three of them. The pseudo-socialists, on the other hand, wanted an “organic” caste society, inequality enshrined in law, and hierarchical societal control with power flowing from and to the top. To say that both were collectivistic proves nothing more than to say that wolves and rabbits both have four legs. By the same token, the religious right in America is concerned with family values, sexual and social morality, the opposition to abortion, the opposition to the normalization (though not necessarily to the existence) of homosexuality, and the use of State power in the pursuit of these things. By contrast, the “religious left” blesses a Democratic Party that is committed to all of the above. I repeat: to say that both claim to be in some fashion followers of Jesus Christ proves nothing more than to say that wolves and rabbits both have four legs. To be fair, however, there is an important difference between the relationship between Fascism and Socialism and that between the “religious left” and the religious right: nobody, I think, expects any member of the religious left to go out and murder any members of the religious right. But that was, from the beginning, the purpose of Mussolini’s groupings. They were gangs of thugs designed for street violence and political assassination.

I should have to say nothing more about the sheer imbecility of Jonah Goldberg’s thesis. Wolves eat rabbits; and Fascists murder Socialists. That is the intimate, organic, collective relationship between them. Fascism was invented to destroy Socialism. To say that they have anything in common is to say that human beings and the bubonic plague have something in common. Unfortunately, reasons will be found to support even the worst thesis, when it is suited to one’s own prejudices. What is clear about many of my conservative friends is that they know even less about socialism than they know about Europe; that they have no idea about its real values and meaning; that all they do is cast upon it their own nightmares of state and collectivist oppression. This is what I mean by cultural imperialism: imposing inadequate American categories upon realities that they cannot explain. The truth is that even state action as such is an optional extra, or in philosophical terms an accident, in socialist tradition. The associative tradition in American history is much closer to the ground-level trades union and cooperative tradition in European affairs (which often used it for a model) than either of them are to Fascism. But if you abuse words and history to such an extent and for such reasons, then do not be surprised, and do not dare act indignant, when the likes of the Kos Kids and Code Pink call you Fascists to your face. You deserve it, not because you are, but because you dared accept a thesis that trashes a century of hatred, contempt and murder merely because it does not fit your categories.
Tags: communism, fascism, history, human folly, jonah goldberg, nazism, polemic, socialism, tyranny
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