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Liberal Fascism(s): Contemporary Critique and H.G. Wells’s Failed Vision of the Future

Human Rights
Political Theory
International
Normative Theory
Emma Planinc
University of Notre Dame
Emma Planinc
University of Notre Dame

Abstract

The American conservative right likes to draw attention to the frequency with which left-leaning liberals employ the term “fascism” to describe policies, polities, and attitudes they do not like. Jonah Goldberg writes in Liberal Fascism (2007): “There is no word in the English language that gets thrown around more freely by people who don’t know what it means than ‘fascism.’” So too does the founding member of the far right Nouvelle Droite in France, Alain de Benoist, reject the label of fascism: “Today there is no definition of fascism that is unanimously accepted by political science researchers . . . ‘Fascism’ has thus become an empty word . . . a Gummiwort (elastic concept).” Recognizing ‘fascism’ as a Gummiwort, Goldberg both critiques and employs it—calling the left fascistic due to its faith that “any action by the state is justified to achieve a common good.” De Benoist also sees the liberal left as fascistic due to its totalizing embrace of universal human rights and values, and its aspirational cosmopolitanism. These two accounts of “liberal fascism” employed by the right for the purpose of critique assist in hollowing out the meaning of fascism as an elastic—and thus empty, amoral—concept. So too would leftists claim that this account of “liberal fascism” employs and thus perpetuates a hollowed-out, or straw man, conception of “liberalism.” Though he uses the phrase for the title of his book, Goldberg acknowledges that he is not the originator of “liberal fascism.” The term was created by H.G. Wells, who first used “liberal fascism” in 1932. In this paper, I turn to H.G. Wells’s account of “liberal fascism,” and Wells’s later political writings, to demonstrate that he employed this term not because of the elasticity of its constituent concepts, nor for the purpose of critique, but because he believed that full liberal and fascistic visions could come together in a political harmony for the betterment of humanity. Where Goldberg thinks that a “liberal fascism” has succeeded and is oppressing the masses, however, Wells’s “liberal fascism” required a “world reconstruction”—the reeducation of the whole world, a fundamental world law, a “world brain”—that was never realized. Examining Wells’s own account of what a liberal fascism would look like will facilitate a re-examination of what both liberalism and fascism mean for today’s left/right political spectrum, and for those who decry the “fascisms” and “liberal fascisms” of our current age—propelling clarity of use and purpose, instead of the elasticity of empty critique. So too will this examination of Wells allow for a re-consideration of the potentials he saw in the normatively preferable prospects of totalitarian world reeducation and reconstruction—expressed in his advocacy of a universal declaration of rights—and his subsequent turn away from the desirability of these prospects in the wake of the atrocities of World War II. We can use Wells to think about the prospects and pitfalls of totalizing world orders today—whether “liberal” (universal rights?), “fascistic” (the Far Right?), or—perhaps—both.