This feels like old times. Across the pond at the Telegraph, Tim Stanley and Daniel Hannan are having a friendly disagreement on the question of whether the Nazis were in fact socialists. I don’t usually wade into these arguments anymore, but I’ve been writing a lot on related themes over the last few weeks and I couldn’t resist.
Not surprisingly, I come down on Hannan’s side. I could write a whole book about why I agree with Dan, except I already did. So I’ll be more succinct.
Fair warning, though, I wrote this on a plane trip back from Colorado and it’s way too long. So if you’re not interested in this stuff, you might as well wander down the boardwalk and check out some of the other stalls now.
Stanley makes some fine points here and there, but I don’t think they add up to anything like corroboration of his thesis. The chief problem with his argument is that he’s taking doctrinaire or otherwise convenient definitions of socialism and applying them selectively to Nazism.
Stanley’s chief tactic is to simply say Nazis shouldn’t be believed when they called themselves socialists. It was all marketing and spin, even putting the word in their name. Socialism was popular, so they called themselves socialists. End of story.
So when Nazi ideologist Gregor Strasser proclaimed:
We are socialists. We are enemies, deadly enemies, of today’s capitalist economic system with its exploitation of the economically weak, its unfair wage system, its immoral way of judging the worth of human beings in terms of their wealth and their money, instead of their responsibility and their performance, and we are determined to destroy this system whatever happens!
. . . he was just saying that because, in Stanley’s mind, socialism was “fashionable.”
Obviously there’s some truth to that. Socialism was popular. So was nationalism. That’s why nationalists embraced socialism and why socialists quickly embraced nationalism. It wasn’t a big leap for either because they’re basically the same thing! In purely economic terms, nationalization and socialization are nothing more than synonyms (socialized medicine = nationalized health care).
Nazis Hated Bolsheviks, Who Knew?
That Hitler wasn’t a socialist became apparent within weeks of becoming Chancellor of Germany when he started arresting socialists and communists. He did this, claim some, because they were competing brands of socialism. But that doesn’t explain why Hitler defined his politics so absolutely as a war on Bolshevism — a pledge that won him the support of the middle-classes, industrialists and many foreign conservatives.
There’s a stolen base here. Sure, Hitler’s effort to destroy competing socialists and Communists “doesn’t explain” all those other things. But it doesn’t have to. Nor does Stalin’s wholesale slaughter (or Lenin’s retail slaughter) of competing Communists and socialists explain the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact or the infield-fly rule. Other considerations — economic, cultural, diplomatic — come into play. But when people say Hitler can’t be a socialist because he crushed independent labor unions and killed socialists, they need to explain why Stalin gets to be a socialist even though he did likewise.
The fact that many “foreign conservatives” supported Hitler’s hostility to Bolsheviks is a bit of a red herring. Many conservatives today support the military in Egypt as a bulwark against the Muslim Brotherhood. That tells you next to nothing about the content of the junta’s domestic policies. But, it’s worth noting that some foreign Communists and liberals, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, actually supported Hitler’s domestic economic policies (though not the anti-Semitism) in the mid-1930s.
For what it’s worth, the reason that Hitler declared war on Bolsheviks is a rich topic. The short answer is that he was a socialist but he was also a nationalist (hence national-socialism). And the nationalist part considered Bolshevism an existential threat — which it was!
Speaking of Nationalists
Stanley goes on:
Dan asserts that Hitler was a socialist with reservations, that:
Marx’s error, Hitler believed, had been to foster class war instead of national unity – to set workers against industrialists instead of conscripting both groups into a corporatist order.
Yet, by this very definition, Hitler wasn’t a socialist. Marxism is defined by class war, and socialism is accomplished with the total victory of the Proletariat over the ruling classes.
Ah. So deviating from the definition of Marxism disqualifies one from being a socialist? Preferring national unity to international class solidarity will get your socialist membership card revoked? If that’s true, no one is a socialist in the real world. Stanley’s standard, if uniformly applied, would expel from the ranks of socialists: Stalin, Mao, Lenin, Castro, Chavez, Maduro, Ortega, Ho Chi Minh, Pol Pot, Kim Il Sung (and progeny), Norman Thomas and all of the American Socialist Party, the Fabians of England, virtually every social-democratic or avowedly socialist party in the West now or recently. If none of them are socialists, then why ever again talk about socialism?
Simply put, no one talks about uniting the workers of the world anymore. Every socialist movement or party that comes to power promises national unity, not international solidarity. Sure, rhetorically a handful of tin pots may talk about their brothers across some border, but that’s a foreign-policy thing. Domestically, economically, culturally, it’s all about nationalism, not internationalism. In other words, nowhere in the world does being a nationalist preclude a person or movement from being a socialist. Rather, it’s a requirement.
As for splitting with Marx, they all did it and continue to do it. Some admitted it, some simply stumbled on Marx’s shortcomings without saying so and just tangoed-on, adding hyphens and modifiers: Marxism-Leninism, Marxism-Stalininism, Marx-Lenin-Stalin-Maoism, socialism with “Chinese characteristics,” etc. It was like totalitarians from across the globe kept forming booming law firms and adding names to the shingle. Finding Marx in error in one way or another isn’t a disqualifier for being a socialist; it is once again a requirement for being one (outside the classroom, at least).
Stanley at times seems to hold up Marx as the only acceptable standard for socialism. It isn’t and never was. I would argue as a matter of sociology and philosophy, socialism traces back to caveman days. But simply as a matter of accepted intellectual history it long predates Marx. Babeuf’s “Conspiracy of the Equals,” for instance, was hatched long before Marx was even born.
Hitler the Non-Egalitarian
Then Stanley goes on to insist Nazism wasn’t socialist because it was anti-Semitic and racist. He writes, “Hitler’s goals were, in fact, totally antithetical to the egalitarianism of socialism.”
This is some weak sauce. Yes, Nazism was the worst of the worst when it came to organized bigotry and prejudice. But Stanley misses that the basic idea of Nazism was egalitarianism — egalitarianism for Aryans. Nazi rhetoric was incredibly populist. Workers were exalted over everyone. Economic policies were populist too — remember the peoples’ car (a.k.a. Volkswagen)? But it was all aimed at “good Germans.” This differed from Stalinism’s rhetoric to be sure, but it’s not all that dissimilar from various forms of African or pan-Arab socialism.
And again, why is only Nazism disqualified from the “honor” of belonging in the socialist club because of its bigotry? Why is it alone held up to the theoretical ideals of socialism, rather than compared to other socialist systems? (And, it’s worth noting, even in theory, socialism fails Stanley’s test. One need only read what Marx had to say about “the Jewish question” or blacks to recognize that.)
Stalin was hardly a racial egalitarian (or any other kind of egalitarian). Before he died, Stalin was planning a major new assault on the Jews to improve on the impressive work he’d already done. And he had no problem treating non-Russian Soviet populations as expendable playthings and puzzle pieces. Even later regimes had preferential policies for ethnic Russians. But, hey, is North Korea not socialist because its ideology is racist?
It’s somewhat amusing that Stanley invokes George Bernard Shaw as an authority on the inauthenticity of Hitler’s socialism. This is the same George Bernard Shaw who said “the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialization of the selective breeding of Man.” Shaw wanted a “human stud farm” in order to “eliminate the yahoo whose vote will wreck the commonwealth.” Do such non-egalitarian comments mean that Shaw wasn’t a socialist either?
Corporatism v. Socialism
Stanley is certainly right that German National Socialist economics differed from Russian Bolshevik economics. So what? The question was never, “Were Nazis Bolsheviks?” Nor was it “Were Nazis Marxists?” The question was “Were Nazis socialists?” Demonstrating that the answer is no to the first two doesn’t mean the answer to the third question is a no, too.
I actually agree with Stanley that corporatism is the better term for Nazi economics. Here’s the problem: that’s also true of most socialist systems.
Yet in these historical debates, the term is only dusted off for Nazis and Italian fascists. “Oh, the Nazis weren’t socialists, they were ‘corporatists’” is a fine argument to make, if you’re willing to acknowledge that corporatism is actually a more accurate word for the socialisms of Sweden, France, South America, etc. In other words, the “they were corporatists!” line is usually an attempt to absolve socialism of any association with Nazism and fascism rather than an attempt to get the terms right.
A Final Word
I’ve come to believe that corporatism (which does not mean “rule by corporations”) is the natural resting state of pretty much every political order. Politicians naturally want to lock-in and co-opt existing “stakeholders” at the expense of innovation. They love talking about “getting everybody at the table,” which really means getting the existing insiders to create rules that help themselves.
Stanley says that politics came before economics in the Nazi state. That’s true. But where is that not true? Certainly not in America or the U.K. Which is why conservatives, libertarians, and other champions of free-market economics must constantly put pressure on politicians to fend off the natural human tendency to fight innovation as a threat to the status quo and the powers that be. Across the West there’s a tendency among bureaucrats, politicians, academics, and other members of the New Class to convince the people to hand over the major decisions of their lives to the “experts.” These experts aren’t all in the government, but they all collude with government to convince people that the experts have all the answers and that the people need to hand the reins over to them. They will tell us what to eat, what to drive, what to think. It’s an approach that puts politics before economics. Because it is an attempt to politicize peoples’ lives. Or as Hitler put it, “Why need we trouble to socialize banks and factories? We socialize human beings.”