The issue of whether the Nazis were on the left or the right comes up most often in discussions of economics. Some argue the Nazis called themselves socialists, and therefore they should be classified on the left. The problem with that argument is that in spite of the fact that the formal name of the Nazi party translates to the “National German Socialist Workers Party,” they were not socialists. The Nazis did not advocate for or impose the central tenet of socialism – the ownership of the means of production by the state.1 Yes, Hitler employed socialist sounding propaganda when it furthered his political aims (thus the name of the party), especially in attracting disenfranchised German workers. But in actual practice, Nazi Germany was a capitalist country. Therefore, despite the name of the party and some rhetorical sleight-of hand when it suited them, the Nazis were not socialists.
The second question in the title of this post is what I really want to talk about. Because the real question concerns the political spectrum itself. Yesterday I was reading a friend’s Facebook post, and this passage caught my eye.
Anyway… the situation forming in America is most comparable to what happened in pre Nazi Germany where the extreme left fought the extreme right for the control of the future of Germany. You had the Nazi party on the extreme right… and we all know who was in charge there. On the left, though, representing the communists/socialists was an organization called “Antifaschistische Aktion” commonly known under the abbreviation (“Antifa”).
To which I responded:
One of the most fateful errors in all of history is the political spectrum that places Nazi Germany on the extreme “right” and Stalinist Russia on the extreme “left.” Those two regimes had far more in common than otherwise. And to suggest that they are somehow opposite of one another is insane.
My friend completely missed my point and pointed me to this Snopes article arguing that the Nazis, despite their name, were not socialists. I say he missed my point, because, as I have already said, I agree that the Nazis were not socialists. My point is that from a larger perspective, a perspective that takes account of political and not merely economic considerations, it is insane to assert that communism and Nazism are in any meaningful sense opposite to each other.
The fundamental issue around which political systems should be classified is the degree of state control over society. In this system of classification, totalitarian regimes fit on one end (it matters not whether one calls that end “right” or “left”) and liberal2 democracies fall on the other end. Using this more accurate political spectrum, Nazism and communism are practically identical in every meaningful sense and fall on the same end of the spectrum. Let’s start with economics.
Under communism, the state obviously has totalitarian control in the economic sphere. After all, a communist country is, by definition, a country in which the state owns the means of production. This is not controversial. What may be controversial (but which should be obvious) is that the Nazis were very close to the communists in the sphere of economic control. The Snopes article my friend sent me quotes a passage from the 2010 book Hitler: A Biography, by British historian Ian Kershaw that illustrates this point nicely:
[Hitler] was wholly ignorant of any formal understanding of the principles of economics. For him, as he stated to the industrialists, economics was of secondary importance, entirely subordinated to politics. His crude social-Darwinism dictated his approach to the economy, as it did his entire political “world-view.” Since struggle among nations would be decisive for future survival, Germany’s economy had to be subordinated to the preparation, then carrying out, of this struggle. This meant that liberal ideas of economic competition had to be replaced by the subjection of the economy to the dictates of the national interest. Similarly, any “socialist” ideas in the Nazi programme had to follow the same dictates. Hitler was never a socialist. But although he upheld private property, individual entrepreneurship, and economic competition, and disapproved of trade unions and workers’ interference in the freedom of owners and managers to run their concerns, the state, not the market, would determine the shape of economic development. Capitalism was, therefore, left in place. But in operation it was turned into an adjunct of the state.
Just so. The difference between communism and Nazism is that under the former the state owns and controls the means of production directly, and in the latter the state allows the means of production to largely remain in private hands so long as the owners do exactly what the state tells them to do. The two regimes are indistinguishable in terms of ultimate state control. In both, the state directs ultimate goals and imposes an all-pervading top down control.
The fascinating thing here is that modern communist countries are exactly the same as Nazi Germany. While calling themselves socialists, the Nazis oversaw a vibrant capitalist economy. Today, there are 373 Chinese billionaires in a “socialist” country. How can this be? The answer is the same as the Nazi answer. While continuing to call itself “socialist,” the actual Chinese economy is capitalism on steroids. In both Hitler’s Germany and Xi Jinping’s China, the important thing from the leader’s perspective is not economic systems but ultimate state control of all spheres of life.
And that is why in politics, in every meaningful sense, Nazism and communism are indistinguishable. In both systems, citizens do what the state tells them to do or they die. This is not (or should not be) controversial, as witnessed by the millions of citizens murdered in both systems. The only difference between Nazism and communism is one of degree, not kind. And in terms of the scale of carnage, communism was several times worse in actual practice. In rough terms the Nazis murdered about 17 million people (including six million Jews). The communists murdered many more (in addition to enslaving hundreds of millions). In terms of the sheer number of people he murdered, Mao made Hitler look like a piker. Add to this the murder count of other communist regimes (as documented in the Black Book of Communism), and we see that communists murdered approximately 100 million people, over five times the number Hitler murdered.
Why does it matter how we classify Nazism and communism on the spectrum? Because it has important real-world implications both domestically and internationally. Let’s start internationally. The fact of the matter is that Nazism is dead as a governing political philosophy. There is not a single Nazi country in the world (ironically enough, Russia under Putin probably comes closest). But there are several communist countries, China being the most prominent. And in terms of sheer evil perpetrated, it is vitally important to remember that China is on the same end of the political spectrum as Nazi Germany (only worse in actual practice). Mao killed tens of millions, and Xi stands in unbroken linear succession to Mao. It is as if Germany had won the war (or brokered a peace), and the Nazi government were still in place. If that had happened, Angela Merkel would be in linear succession to Hitler just as Xi stands in succession to perhaps the most evil man in the history of the world.
Wake up people! Mao’s government is still in place. His picture is on every Chinese banknote. Chinese students are taught to venerate him. His crimes have been stuffed down the memory hole. Yes, for a few years after Deng Xiaoping, we all hoped China was heading towards political liberalization. It turns out that was a cruel mirage, as witnessed by the extinguishment of democracy in Hong Kong and the one million Uighurs languishing in concentration camps. Thus, on the international stage, there are no Nazi regimes, but China looms large. It matters that we classify Xi’s China on the same end of the political spectrum as Hitler’s Germany, because Xi’s China is evil in the same way Hitler’s Germany was evil. At best it is a distraction to set these regimes off as opposites. At worst, that sort of muddled thinking will cause us to commit egregious geopolitical blunders.
Domestically, despite progressives’ penchant for calling everyone who disagrees with them about anything a Nazi, the only real danger of authoritarianism in this country comes from the very people who make that claim. Progressives have learned well from their Nazi forbearers. For mid-twentieth century Nazis and early twenty-first century progressives, political rhetoric has nothing to do with truth and substance and everything to do with propaganda that demonizes the opposition. Progressives call Republicans Nazis. But in terms of pushing for state control of society, the Republican platform is as far from Nazism as it is possible to be. Conversely, Progressives want to take over literally everything. Consider the Green New Deal as just one example among many. To implement that program (which has been endorsed by every major Democratic politician), the federal government would have to take over and control literally every sector of the economy. Do progressives want to kill people who get in their way? Certainly they want to put them in jail. That was the purpose of opening a criminal investigation of companies that had the temerity to fund research that was not in line with the climate alarmist agenda. Putting people in jail is a start. Give them more power, and we will see where their abuse of it ends. My bet: To quote Chambers, “to a gas chamber, go!” Progressives should be classified on the Nazi/communist end of the political spectrum. And it is an intellectual outrage that the mainstream media classifies them on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Yes, it matters how we classify Nazism. It matters because on both the international and the domestic stage, we have actors who are closely ideologically aligned with Nazis in the sense of advocating for state control of every aspect of our lives and persecuting those who oppose them.. And it matters because the media is lying to us about who those actors are.
To answer my friend’s comment, the violent struggle today is not between left and right. It is between the fascists who go under the antifa label and the fascists who go under the white supremacist/nationalist label. In the 1930s the Nazis and the communists fought one another. That is true. But it is a tragic mistake to believe they fought one another because they were on the opposite ends of the political spectrum. Just the opposite is true. They were on the same end of the spectrum, and the reason they fought is that there was room for only one of them to govern from that end. The same is true today. It is a mistake to call some totalitarians “rightists” and some totalitarians “leftists.” They are both totalitarians and should be opposed for that reason. And that is why all mainstream Republicans and Democrats should join to oppose both groups. Sadly, while I see a lot of influential Republicans condemning both groups, the same is not true of Democrats. I have yet to hear a single prominent Democrat (including Joe Biden) condemn Antifa and BLM.
1 Socialists like to formulate it as the ownership of the means of production by the WORKERS instead of by the STATE. But that is just silly window dressing that fools no one but the most gullible. The only way for “workers” to unite to own the means of production is within a political structure, and whatever one chooses to call that structure, it is functionally indistinguishable from the “state” as that term is commonly understood. To be sure, Marxist theory postulates that the “state” phase of communism will ultimately give way to stateless communism. Of course, that never happened in any communist country. In fact, just the opposite happened. Instead of fading away, the state in each such country became an all-controlling Leviathan that dominated everything everywhere and never showed the slightest sign of fading away.
2 By “liberal,” I mean classically liberal in the tradition of the American founders. I do not mean “progressive,” which expresses itself through authoritarian (some would say fascist) methods. I do not take account of anarcho-syndicalism and radical libertarianism in the spectrum, because neither is currently of much practical consequence.