I know, I know. But I’m going to talk about it anyway. Here he is, today:
I tried to explain, for those whose feelings were so hurt they didn’t even crack the spine, that the title Liberal Fascism comes from a speech delivered by H. G. Wells, one of the most important and influential progressive and socialist intellectuals of the 20th century. He wanted to re-brand liberalism as “liberal fascism” and even “enlightened Nazism.” He believed these terms best described his own political views — views that deeply informed American progressivism and New Deal liberalism.
I happen to know a thing or two about this, through research on Wells’ work on his cinematic (Wells scripted, Korda produced, Menzies directed) good-bad boondoggle, the 1936 SF film, Things To Come [wikipedia].
I’ve posted about the film before on CT here. I wrote a really fun post about it at the Valve: how H.G. Wells prevented steampunk.
I might as well get a few more links out. If you want to read Wells’ book – his fictional future history, The Shape of Things To Come – it’s online here. YouTube has a couple clips from the film. [UPDATE: the whole thing is downloadable from the Internet Archive.] None of the relevant political writings appear to be available online. But if you want to read a scholarly article about Wells’ notion of ‘liberal fascism’, “H.G. Wells’ ‘Liberal Fascism’” [JSTOR], by Philip Coupland, in The Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 35, No. 4. (Oct., 2000), pp. 541-558, seems a reasonable starting point. If you want to look further, Coupland provides references.
I’ll be basing much of the following on Coupland, all I have access to tonight. (And most of my research has been in film history, actually.) Let’s consider Goldberg’s claim: “[Wells] believed these terms best described his own political views — views that deeply informed American progressivism and New Deal liberalism.” Indeed, let’s amplify. A few weeks back he said something similar, by way of dismissing Dave Neiwart’s review: “The title alone is enough to indicate its thoroughgoing incoherence: Of all the things we know about fascism and the traits that comprise it, one of the few things that historians will readily agree upon is its overwhelming anti-liberalism.” Goldberg: “you’d think I just made-up the phrase from whole cloth. Nowhere does Neiwert mention that I get the phrase from H. G. Wells, quite possibly the most influential English-speaking public intellectual during the first third of the 20th century.”
Well, let’s inquire: in what spirit was the phrase ‘liberal fascism’ advanced, in 1932? In what spirit did Wells’ audience receive it? Taking the latter question first, I must concede one strong similarity with the fate of Hillary’s ‘politics of meaning’. It got terrible reviews. John ‘the white fox’ Hargrave (founder of Kibbo Kift, the ‘green shirts’) reported on the speech for The New Age (“A Liberal Fascism”, August, 1932). He pointed out that it was obviously an impossible combination, like ‘an attempt for tepid boiling hot water’ or ‘harmless poison gas’ (I’m getting this from Coupland.) H.M. Tomlinson wrote “Mr. Wells Has His Joke,” which made the point that the liberals were about as likely to turn fascist as were “the guardians of the home for lost dogs.” But did the idea get any traction? Coupland mentions a single organization, the FPSI (Federation of Progressive Societies and Individuals), which apparently was induced by a £20 donation, plus Wells’ name on the letterhead, to agree to have it’s ‘basis’ redrafted on Wellsian lines. (But they proved to be tepid boiling water, at best.) That’s pretty much the high water mark for ‘liberal fascism’, in terms of political influence.
So: point to Neiwart.
But did Wells think it made any sense? Yes and no. You can read the Coupland article. 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’. (p. 557)
Air Dictatorship? Roll tape:
Here’s the first paragraph from Coupland’s article:
‘Is Mr Wells a secret Fascist?’ was the ironic question posed in the British Union of Fascists’ (BUF) paper Action. In fascist eyes Wells was a ‘socialist’ and, even worse, an ‘internationalist’, but against the certainty of that knowledge was the perplexing fact that there appeared to be Blackshirts playing the role of Wellsian revolutionaries in the Wells/Korda film, Things to Come. The author of the letter which prompted this enquiry regarding Wells’s politics noted that ‘the supermen all wore the black shirt and broad shiny belt of Fascism! The uniforms were identical, and their wearers moved and bore themselves in the semi-military manner of fascists.’ A cinema audience, being familiar with the sight of Blackshirts on British streets for the previous three and a half years, would have naturally been struck in the same way, and ‘Observer’ wrote that ‘all around me last night I heard people commenting on it’.’
In the film, the two stages – the Air Dictatorship and the pure, rational order that succeeds it – are sharply distinguished, visually: the Airmen dress like fascists with giant, ridiculous Darth Tweety helmets. I did rather a good caricature, if I do say so myself, which I use in my film and philosophy class.
The next generation are all in white, with curtain rods as shoulder pads, and the biggest kneecaps you’ve ever seen.
It’s quite a film.
There are some attempts to condense the fascist and liberal stages, clearly due to troubles getting the whole story crammed into one film. The Air Dictatorship is much more humane than in the book. For example (perhaps a reproach to a certain critic?) there is harmless poison gas, ‘the gas of peace’. Sleeping gas in white globes that the airmen drop on their reactionary enemies.
I like the scene in which the white-clad leader, behind his glass desk, is listening to right-wing talk radio. (Hey, you can’t ban the stuff. We’re liberals! What do you want, speech codes?)
Since this film (which stank up the box office something fierce) is where ‘liberal fascism’ went to die a strange death, it’s pretty darn silly that Goldberg tries to waggle ‘liberal fascism’ as any sort of paradigm. Now of course he would reply that even if the slogan sank like a stone, was regarded as an oxymoron by Wells’ audience and even by Wells, still he was an important intellectual. This idea didn’t take, but his history books and novels were influential, etc. He made a big expensive film, even if it flopped. And it’s true that lots of intellectuals, on all sides, lost faith in democracy and liberalism in the 30’s. It was assumed by many that, one way or another, it was on its way out.
The problem is that this really doesn’t get you very far. Here’s something that struck me, listening to the Goldberg/ Wilkinson bloggingheads exchange. Goldberg is peeved at leftists for not believing that ‘history matters’. Or rather, for hassling conservatives about every little thing Reagan or Goldwater might have said, but not being willing to hassle liberals about every little thing Herbert Croly might have written. Before listening, I assumed Goldberg was taking the piss. But after listening, I’m convinced that – before some rather gentle questioning by Will – he just didn’t see the point. Conservatives revere Reagan. And, if you look at the map of states the Republican Presidential candidate can probably count on winning in ‘08, the Southern Strategy appears not entirely a dead letter. By contrast, the Dems are not exactly getting all Croly-er than thou, in their debates. There might be a reason for that. The fact that it turns out Goldberg has based his title on a thing that really only exists in an SF film is a nice way to underscore the problem. Round about minute 50 of the exchange, Goldberg is making the point that you shouldn’t get your European and American wires crossed. What is ‘left’ and ‘right’ in one context may not be in another. But then he says that, in the American context, being ‘on the right’ means respecting the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Basically, being willing to accept a liberal form of government. Now this works for getting H.G. Wells and Hitler on the ‘left’, if you must. But it places American liberals like Clinton, Obama and Edwards on the ‘right’. (So it turns out that what is wrong with trying to stick Hillary with a Hitler moustache is that she is a woman of the right, in American terms, whereas he was a man of the left, in American terms – although perhaps a man of the right, in European terms?)
Well, anyway, I obviously think Goldberg’s argument is quite foolish and unserious. And I thought you might be curious to hear a bit about the Wellsian background for ‘liberal fascism’.
If you want to get the Wells film, it’s cheap through Amazon