Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Notes on Goldberg, Liberal Fascism Chapter Two

Jonah Goldberg is aware of the semantic slipperiness of the "right" and "left." In speaking of Hitler as having "destroyed the Left," leaving "the Right" to remain, Goldberg reflects, "But ask yourself, how do we normally talk about such things?" In other words, Goldberg knows the terms can deceive.

Unfortunately, he goes on to argue that Hitler was on the left, not the right, assuming that conservatives are on the right, not the left. But there is no interesting sense in which conservatism is to the "right" of any ideological center. And "left" and "right" have such a deep history of being used to draw distinctions between competing fascists that "right" cannot be properly used to label conservatism. "Right" is a vacuous term properly used only in the speech act of calling one's fellow socialists to the task of opposing an enemy. It's a demented term, and for conservatives to continue to use it impairs their ability to reason about political matters. Left and right are, by inalienable senses of the English terms, progressivistic. They signify motion away from the existing frame of reference. Inevitably, if you say that you are on the right, you connote the notion that you have some cockamamie plan for taking our society and moving it away from its existing values to somewhere else, somewhere to the "right."

I know that I am starting to sound like a broken record on this point, but if you think I'm dwelling pointlessly on mere semantics that don't matter, I suggest you consider the title of Goldberg's momentous book.

Goldberg seems to know that something is amiss here. After defining "left" as "the party of change" and "right" as "the party of status quo," and arguing that Hitler, since a revolutionary, was on the left and not the right, he says, "If we put aside for a moment the question of whether Hitlerism was a phenomenon of the right, what is indisputable is that Hitler was in no way a conservative...." But there is the rub. If it is clear that Hitler is not a conservative and debatable whether he was on the right, then it follows that "right" and "conservative" do not mean the same thing. Moreover, conservatism and Hitlerism share no points of political philosophy, and therefore they can't even be two different species of the right. What they do share is that they have been subject to the brickbat, the speech act, "right," being hurled at them by certain fascists who call themselves "left." When it seems possible for one to consider Hitlerism and one's own conservatism as potentially of the same family of political views, then one has been hoodwinked and cannot tell who one's ideological opponents really are.

Goldberg himself puts his finger on this distinction between mere labeling of a political competitor and genuine naming of an ideology. He recognizes that "the Soviet Union defined all nationalisms as right-wing." He says of Hitler's hatred for the communists and Jews who he thought had betrayed Germany during WW I, that it "was not - as communists themselves have claimed - grounded in a rejection of socialist policies.... It was bound up inextricably with a sense of betrayal of German honor pathological anti-semitism." Goldberg shows that Hitler embraces socialist policies. So, Hitler didn't disagree with socialism; he merely opposed those socialists labeled "communist," favoring those labeled "nationalist." Yet, Goldberg still wants to infer from this that Hitler was not of the right. Finally, Goldberg stumbles hard over the difficulty:
But even if Nazi nationalism was in some ill-defined but fundamental way right-wing, this only meant that Nazism was right-wing socialism And right-wing socialists are still socialists.... [W]e in the West have apishly mimicked the Soviet usage of such terms without questioning the propagandistic baggage attached.

Goldberg knows there is a Soviet hoodwinking here, but he still spends pages arguing about whether or not Nazism shares with conservatism a place on the "right." In short, there is no good sense in which a conservative can use the word "right." It's only non-misleading usage entails that the speaker is a fascist.

There are other insightful passages in this chapter on Hitler in which Goldberg sees that "right" is merely a label used by one leftist against his leftist enemies. This is why it isn't cogent for him to maintain that conservatism is on the right. Again, I emphasize that this isn't "mere semantics" because when the fundamental terms of the philosophical terrain are left to remain obscure, one cannot say precisely what one's philosophy is. It isn't obvious how "conservatism" should be philosophically defined. I've given the problem a good deal of thought over the years, as has John Kekes. I find it impossible to reconcile any of the best thoughts about conservatism with any meaningful sense of "the right." I would never say that Goldberg is on the right. He shouldn't say it of himself.