The prehistory of “liberal fascism”

A week or two ago I was doing a bit of work on the Wikipedia article on political correctness, and I came up with what may well be the first introduction of the term (initialised as “p.c.”) to the general public, as represented by the readership of the New York Times, in an article by Richard Bernstein.

At least since the 1970s, the description “politically correct” or, in Australia, “ideologically sound”, had been used within the left to mock those who were excessively concerned with doctrinal and linguistic orthodoxy. The story of how “political correctness” turned from an inside joke to a Marxist-inspired assault on All We Hold Dear is reasonably well known. Bernstein traces its emergence as a pejorative to a conference by the Western Humanities Conference held, appropriately enough, in Berkeley.

For me, at least, the real surprise in this article came right at the end, with a quote from Roger Kimball, now of Pajamas Media, who said “It’s a manifestation of what some are calling liberal fascism”. Apparently, Jonah Goldberg owes him royalties.

Update I haven’t made proper use of the excellent NYTimes search facility until now. This search shows a string of sardonic references to political correctness in the Arts section (and one reference to its use by the Chinese CP) appearing in the years before Bernstein’s piece. After that, there’s an explosion). And “liberal fascism” made its first outing (post-1980 at any rate) in a 1988 story about the Dartmouth Review, spoken by then editor Harmeet Dhillon.

16 thoughts on “The prehistory of “liberal fascism”

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a leftie use the term “politically correct”. While the term may have originated with the left, as you say, it was latched onto by the right in the 1980s, and used as a term to club the left with (and still is). The term doesn’t mean what it says – it is actually used in a sarcastic sense by the right in the same manner as the term “do-gooder” was. I seem to recall it being used by the tobacco lobby against those who were advocating the rights of non-smokers, but it was quickly taken up by racists and used against the critics of racial abuse, and recently by climate change denialists against environmentalists.

  2. Interesting, but compare this which is almost the same:

    George P. Shultz, Hoover distinguished fellow and former U.S. secretary of state, vehemently disagrees with such claims. “The United States,” Shultz states, “supports Israel not because of favoritism based on political pressure or influence but because the American people, and their leaders, say that supporting Israel is politically sound and morally just.”

    Hoover Inst

    Dissenting from American policy priorities for the Middle East has not always been politically sound for Israeli leaders. Sometimes, however, it has been, and instructively so. Begin and Moshe Dayan’s secret initiative to bring Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Jerusalem, and Rabin and Shimon Peres’s clandestine talks in Oslo with the Palestine Liberation Organization, were embraced by Washington once it became aware that Israel had successfully implemented a radically different strategy
    Yossi Alpher

    FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 1957

    United States Senate, Subcommittee To
    Investigate the Administration of the Internal
    Security Act and Other Internal Security Laws

    […]Of course, a man had to be politically sound in order to get through.


    And this one is nice …

    and the Cold War: The Cultural Mission of the United States in Austria after the Second World War

    the […] process involved in selecting politically sound films for Germany

    This in a piece about affirming US cultural values in the conquered territory.

    I can’t find the quote but years ago I found one in which J Edgar Hoover used the terms “politically correct/sound” to indicate those seen as beyond the suspicion of HUAC.

  3. Some outfit called Fugazi, in 1988, used the phrase “politically correct” with apparent approval in one of its rap ditties: “”Yes I know this is politically correct / But it comes to you spiritually direct / An attempt to thoughtfully affect / Your way of thinking.”

    Anyone know an earlier example than this?

  4. @Robert
    As written, the line “Yes I know this is politically correct / But” sounds like an acknowledgement that the phrase was already a pejorative description of (as viewed by the user) excessive earnestness, which could be applied to statements that were in fact “spiritually direct” and “thoughtful”.

  5. Yes, Professor Quiggin, I guess the phrase could be interpreted in the way you mention. I hadn’t thought of that possible reading of it.

    Anyway I do recall when the ditty in question appeared (there was a review of the relevant recording in Esquire, of all magazines). It was one of the very first times that I’d come across the phrase at all.

  6. I recall, back in 1989, a couple of fellow students using the term “ideologically sound” in an approving and non-ironic sense, as in: “Green Left Weekly is the most ideologically sound paper around”. But admittedly they could have been naive, and unaware that the term was generally used ironically – I didn’t move in left activist circles so I wasn’t in a position to know. That was not long before before “ideologically sound” was pushed out of the linguistic ecosystem by “politically correct”.

  7. Yes, “ideologically sound” has always been a self-mocking phrase used by lefties, twas around in my first uni year in 1980.

    Wandering off just a little: The Dead Kennedy’s song “California Uber Alles”, released 1979(?), was a tongue in cheek portrait of what life would be like under president Jerry Brown (who was then California governor), where everyone must jog “for the master race”, children must meditate in school, the denim and suede secret police raid homes and haul “uncool” people away for re-education.

    A liberal dystopia ..

  8. Silkworm @ 1

    While the term may have originated with the left, as you say, it was latched onto by the right in the 1980s, and used as a term to club the left with

    It was actually an early shot in the culture wars, in which the right sought to position itself as channelling the cultural sentiment of plebeians against remote and arrogant authority, with which it sought to identify/smear leftists.

    Leftists, they asserted, were putative authoritarians, if not positively totalitarian, a claim that fit well with the claim that “government = socialism”. Given the accessibility of Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 this was very easy to massage into a meme.

    Best of all, the kind of “resistance” that ordinary folk could indulge in to these putative leftist thought police involved nothing more challenging than espousing ignorant and reactionary tabloid dogma, now upgraded from being evidence of being an unreconstructed sexist, racist, xenophobe, law and order anti-union bigot after the fashion of Archie Bunker or that character from Love Thy Neighbour to someone with ‘out of the mouths of babes’ untainted silent majority common sense.

    Really, what could be better, from the point of view of the interests of the privileged elites than to mobilise ignorant populism and angst and not only against counter-cultural critique, but as if it were that very thing?

    By 1996, Howard, on behalf of actual elites to whom he offered protection had adopted the word elites to describe what he claimed was the cultural left in charge of the bureaucracy, the arts fraternity and academia. This was extremely useful for in so far as people bought it, he was relieved of the need to justify any of his policies in intellectual or even equitable terms. Much of the cultural and intellectual ediface built by Menzies, Gorton, Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke/Keating was ruthlessly torn asunder and Australia entered a period that can best be described as an intellectual and cultural Dark Ages from which, as recent events off Australia’s coast underline, the country has not recovered.

  9. this time I read your post correctly Fran – apologies again – and can only agree. Dark times indeed. (Although I think the decline started with Hawke/Keating, gaining enormous pace under Howard and continuing unabated with Rudd. Also the states have been no slouches)

  10. @nanks
    Its so much easier to engineer an “enemy within” even a non existent one if you want to shove through your own elitist policies which JH clearly did. A distraction and the old one two shuffle under the table. In the middle of those fear mongering dark days of terrorists and reds under the bed I used to say the voters wont wake up until they feel it in the hip pocket. It took workchoices to do that. Then it made voters more aware that they can be, and were lied to. I think it takes longer to undo that distrust. Bligh and Rees and rest beware.

  11. @Alice
    but I take it back to Hawke and Keating with their fawning obsequious pandering to corporate interests and the destruction of academic freedom via the Dawkins reforms.

  12. @nanks
    On that Im inclined to agree with you Nanks. Ive always though Hawke had so much promise as leader of the ACTU but he failed to deliver in full and Keating, as witty as he was, just followed the Zegna suit wearers further down the path to his own glory. All that de-regulation privatisation crap really started with them but I actually suspect the Commonwealth Treasury lay behind some of their “setting of the tone” having been infected by the market mania bug and all hail central bank worship that started even earlier with Fraser who copied the US anyway. Fast forward and we end up with biggest Bush shoeshine boy of all. John Howard.

  13. @nanks
    Ive noticed lately JH is still about on the lecture trail…only I think his lecture trail is an apology trail. He is better now at justifying / apologising for his own leadership than he ever was at apologising to the stolen generation. Must need the money.

  14. @Alice
    “He is better now at justifying / apologising for his own leadership than he ever was at apologising to the stolen generation.” 🙂
    re H & K – I guess we are seeing and have seen a post-colonial play out, sucking up to whoever looks like the master of the universe

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