Was Fascism Right-Wing (Again)?

by Jonah Goldberg

The often very interesting blogger Pseudoerasmus has a long post about whether fascism can be considered left-wing (picking up from another post by  John Holbo at Crooked Timber). Pseudoerasmus focuses on the question of Italy’s place on the left–right spectrum, though when convenient he cites examples from Nazi history. He is very skeptical, arguing that in “historical terms” fascism should be seen as right-wing. “I think the issue is kind of obvious,” he writes, “but it’s always good to have an excuse to pontificate on matters historical.”

I agree, so let me offer some counter pontification.

Pseudoerasmus illuminates a great source of confusion among critics of Liberal Fascism — and among some fans as well. When I say that fascism or Nazism was of the Left, I’m using as my yardstick the Anglo-American, classical-liberal, tradition. Many people want to track the Left by a kind of lineage interpretation. So they go back and look at intellectuals (usually quite selectively) and say something like: These people called themselves the Left, the people they hated were “the Right,” they hated the Nazis therefore the Nazis were right-wing.

Others look at voting blocs or interest groups and offer a very similar kind of analysis. The Nazis got X voters, X voters were on the right, therefore the Nazis were right-wing. This might seem like approaching things through “historical terms,” but it largely ignores the substance of the policies in question, uses a very limited benchmark for what is “left-wing,” and obscures the fact that the center of gravity intellectually in the 1920s and 1930s was much farther to the left than is widely understood.

So, yes, sure fascism was seen as being to the “right” of Communism, because it was. Even Trotsky considered fascism to be right-wing socialism or middle-class socialism. It seems to me that the key word there is socialism, which is properly understood as a phenomenon of the Left. (The Soviets also considered not only the New Deal fascist and right-wing, but the American Socialist Party, too. Why take their judgment so seriously?)

Another particularly irksome approach is the selective use of the Soviet Union. If the Soviets and the fascists differed on a policy, that’s taken as proof the fascists weren’t left-wing – at all. It is absolutely true that the Soviet Union was left-wing, but can’t we all agree that not all left-wing regimes are Soviet?

So Pseudoerasmus (and many others) notes that the Nazis maintained (limited and often purely rhetorical) respect for private property! The Soviets didn’t! Therefore, the Nazis were not left-wing! Well, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders believe in private property a good deal more than the Nazis did. Does that make them right-wingers?

Here’s the first item in Pseudoerasmus’s nine reasons why fascism should be seen as a form of right-wing extremism:

All actually-existed fascist states practised business-friendly economic policies, even if they were not ideologically laissez-faire. They could have easily done otherwise — this was after all the 1930s, the heyday and apogee of socialism as an ideology. But no fascist in power even contemplated taking the Soviet route of destroying the capital- and land-owning classes.

That’s largely true, though there were certainly “National Bolshevik” types within the Nazi party who were quite gung-ho for seizing capital, etc. But to say the Nazis were not ideologically laissez-faire is very misleading. The Nazis loathed laissez-faire economics, said so at nearly every turn, and organized the economy in ways that demonstrated that fact. The Nazi organization of the economy was certainly to the left of what FDR did during the early New Deal. It was also very similar in numerous ways, as many New Dealers admitted at the time (including FDR himself). Many respected historians (such as Wolfgang Schivelbusch, John Garraty, et al) have noted these similarities. To be sure, the New Deal was right-wing compared with the Soviet model too. But that makes the New Deal “right-wing” only from the Marxist perspective, not the laissez-faire/classical-liberal perspective.

Then, in the very next bullet point, Pseudoerasmus writes:

All actually-existed fascist states repressed labour unions, socialists, and communists. Despite the worker-friendly rhetoric of fascists, they in actual power regimented labour in such a way as to please any strike-breaking capitalist of the 19th century. The Nazis, for example, forced workers into a single state-controlled trades union (DAF), which controlled wage growth and prevented striking and wage arbitration. Businesses (some, not even most), by contrast, were given incentives to consolidate into Morgan-style industrial trusts as shareholers and engage in contractual relations as monopolists or near-monopolists with other trusts and with the state.

Here we go again. Yes, Nazis squelched independent labor unions. Yes, yes, Nazis repressed socialists and Communists. Fine, fine. You know who else treated independent labor unions roughly? You know who else repressed socialists and Communists? The Soviet Union. The Soviets surely killed and arrested more domestic socialists, starting with the Mensheviks, than the Nazis did. And how did labor unions fare in the Soviet Union? How were strikes treated? Let’s ask the survivors of the Novocherkassk massacre or the Kengir uprising. Were they not for all practical purposes folded up into paper-tiger fronts as extensions of the State?  

Maybe workers were treated better in “left-wing” Russia than in “right-wing” Germany, though I doubt it. But even if that were the case, it’s ridiculous to hold up the Soviets as examples of how the “Left” treated workers well, unlike the “Right.” From 1940 to 1955, 15 million workers were sent to the Gulag simply for committing the crime of not working hard enough. Workers paradise!

And then there’s the third item on his checklist:

Communists have a demonstrated record of erasing traditional society root and branch — exterminating aristocrats, industrialists, landowners, priests, kulaks, etc. Fascists in actual power, despite their modernist reputation, seem almost traditional in comparison. In Mussolini’s Italy, the king, the titled nobility, the church, the industrialists, the landholders, and the mafia slept soundly at night. The chief innovation of fascism was not really in political economy, but in political community.

And we’re back to using the Soviets as the only benchmark for what counts as left-wing. For the record, I agree with much of what he says about Mussolini and Mussolini’s fascism. But Hitler most certainly was an anti-traditionalist (as was Mussolini personally), who loathed the Church and had zero desire to restore the monarchy. The Horst Wessel Lied identifies both the Red Shirts and the reactionaries as the enemy.

The more interesting point, I think, is that most Communist regimes eventually stop erasing traditional society root and branch and move toward a policy of invoking and co-opting useful national traditions and institutions. It turns out that the masses grow weary of doctrinaire socialism and need a little nationalism to get out of bed (and, quite often, nationalist regimes slowly realize they can’t stay in power without becoming ever stricter socialists). We’ve seen this in Stalin’s Soviet Union (he did declare WWII “the Great Patriotic War for Mother Russia” after all), Mao’s China (Communism with “Chinese characteristics”), and virtually every other Communist regime (it’s somewhat ridiculous to view Castro’s Cuba as anything other than national-socialist). The best example of course is today’s North Korea, which started conventionally Communist but eventually became insanely nationalist (and racist). The economic policies don’t change that much, but the arguments for them do. 

I have many other complaints. He says that progressive support for Mussolini in Western countries was insignificant and mostly among “kooks” — I think that’s demonstrably wrong. He says that “fascists fetishised law & order, and made a cult out of the armed forces.” Ah yes, unlike the Soviets (and the Red Chinese!) who were notoriously loosey-goosey on law-and-order issues and treated the military contemptuously. Etc., etc.

I could go on, of course. But this is already an absurdly long response to a critique of a seven-year-old book by a blogger who doesn’t seem to have read it in the first place. 

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