Monday, April 12, 2010

On the origins of "liberal fascism," a concept that was d.o.a.

Although the concept of "liberal fascism" has caught on like wildfire with the sort of "conservatives" who watch Glenn Beck or read Jonah Goldberg, it's interesting to note, as John Holbo did, that the concept which originated with H.G. Wells never caught on. You might think that would kind of shake the foundations of Goldberg's argument that liberals are really fascist, but we must remember that "facts" only exist in the Conservative alter-verse to the extent that they can be put to ideological/partisan service.

Goldberg has cited the origin of the phrase with Wells to justify his categorization of fascism as a form of liberalism, yet, as Holbo points out, Wells did not even mean "liberal fascism" in the sense that Goldberg gives his reader, i.e. that Wells was a fan of actual, real world fascism.

Wells was imagining a two-stage evolution. An authoritarian, elitist stage, to be followed by a liberal stage. Obviously the two stages are mutually incompatible – Wells is perfectly aware that he is minting an oxymoron. But somehow the authoritarian stage will give way. Basically, Wells believed parliamentary democracy is incapable of bringing about a proper political order. Only an authoritarian, technocratic elite can do so. But when the ideal order is realized, it will be in some ways liberal. “One prosperous and progressive world community of just, kindly, free-spirited, freely-thinking, and freely-speaking human beings”. Well, maybe. Accordingly, Wells fits Spencer Ackerman’s characterization: a liberal fascist is one who won’t take his own side in a putsch. I’ll quote Coupland:

even on the page unresolved tensions between Wells the ‘liberal’ and Wells the ‘fascist’ were visible. Shifting from the voice of the ‘future historian’ narrating The Shape of Things to Come, Wells commented in his own voice of a ‘distaste . . . as ineradicable as it is unreasonable’ aroused by the actions of the Airmen, and continued that ‘but for “the accidents of space and time” ‘he would have ‘been one of the actively protesting spirits who squirmed in the pitilessly benevolent grip of the Air Dictatorship’.
Philip Coupland, the historian who first made note of Wells coining the phrase, noted himself that Wells rejected actual fascists when it came to it.

And the excerpt I'm about to provide from also goes a bit further in putting down the notion that fascists are really liberals because H.G. Wells once or twice (in the early 30's) mentioned that fascist means would be necessary to achieve an ideal liberal state. From Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice by Geoffrey Robertson:

The revival of human rights idea in the twentieth century really began at the instigation and inspiration of the British author H.G. Wells, in the months immediately following the declaration of the Second World War. It can be traced to letters he wrote to The Times in October of 1939, advocating the adoption by 'parliamentary peoples' of a Delcaration of Rights - a fundamental law defining their rights in a democracy and drafted to appeal to 'every responsive spirit under the yoke of the obscurantist and totalitarian tyrannies with which all are in conflict' ....


His achievement was to make human rights relevant to a world from many parts of which they had vanished with the secret policeman's knock on the door, and to include in his list [of universal human rights] the social and economic rights which Western governments had refused to acknowledge during the Great Depression. His Penguin Special, which must be accounted one of the twentieth century's most influential books, was a far-sighted demand for what he was the first to call a 'New World Order,' in which fundamental human rights, enforced by law, would protect individuals against governments of whatever political complexion. What made this slim volume of 128 pages so powerful was the way its author was able to mix unassuming idealism with a devastating attack on Stalin, and especially upon 'the young Germany of Hiter, wearing its thick boots (that have stamped in the faces of Jewish women), its brown shirts, that recall the victims smothered in latrines and all the cloacal side of Hiterlism; its swastika - ignorantly stolen from the Semitic Stone-age peoples; oafish and hysterically cruel , they remind us all how little mankind has risen above the level of an exceptionally spiteful ape.' Wells was the first to argue from 'those outrages upon human dignity' in the concentration camps - outrages that others only felt after seeing the pictures of the corpse-strewn Belsen, six years later.
While Wells was busy inspiring a movement that would culminate in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and denouncing Hitler for violating fundamental human rights, Glenn Beck's hero Henry Ford, one of the biggest promoters of anti-Semitism in the 20th century, was still a big fan of the Nazi regime (having accepted in 1938 from them the highest award Nazis bestowed upon foreigners.)

But, of course, Ford is an anti-fascist hero and Wells is a pro-fascist villian in the Beck bizarro verse.

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