Peter Hitchens has written a very silly article for the Daily Mail. He claims that accusing conservatives of engaging in political rhetoric that isn’t too dissimilar from the language of the Nazis in 1930s Germany is wrong and that, in fact “Hitler’s Nazis were in fact left wing racists”.
Hitchen’s claim that “The Nazis were very left wing” is simply absurd. It demonstrates a completely erroneous understanding of politics and even repeats far right talking points such as the “real Nazis’ being socialists. His views are similar to what a lot of fascists are saying today as they try and avoid criticism for the historic regimes that they are clearly inspired by, alongside people like Laurence Fox and J.K Rowling, who in their war against Corbynism in the British Labour Party said, “I’ll use my influence whatever way I want. This country must be liberated from fascists on both the right and the left.”
Hitchens’s column isn’t even that clever in his arguments. He claims that the Nazis were a bad left wing cause because they were “popular with students.” He laughably claims that “workers and peasants benefited from Nazi reforms” in order to make the claim that a lot of middle class professionals didn’t like the Nazis because they were basically communists in disguise. He says that the stripping away of patriotism and Christianity in the Scouts and the Girl Guides in recent years has similar echoes to the reforms the Nazis imposed on the “old German values.”
I assume that these arguments hold water with the regular Daily Mail reader, but it’s important to challenge these false and incredibly one-sided arguments.
What was Nazism? It was a version of fascism, which is a mass movement that originated in Italy and was led by Benito Mussolini. It was based on the middle class, rural people, and also some poorer sections of society. It was deeply conservative and nationalist, violently racist, and utterly opposed to any independent organisation that was seen to be ‘anti-German’. Its members formed paramilitary groups in the 1920s and attacked Jewish people, trade unionists, the left, LGBTQ people, and so on. It was an instrument of class war against workers and progressive-minded people; organised gangs of thugs inflicted terror on people using intimidation and physical threats.
Their argument was that Germany was stabbed in the back during World War I by ‘traitors from within’, including communists, Jews, and liberals. They believed in making Germany great again by retaking territory lost after the war and building a larger nation that included all German speakers (parts of Czechoslovakia and Austria, for instance). Hitler came to power in 1933 after doing a deal with the old right wing Conservatives led by German President Paul von Hindenburg. They didn’t get to power talking about the mass extermination of Jewish people and political appointments but by raising ‘legitimate concerns’ about the erosion of German culture and power.
In government, they banned independent trade unions, the Communist and Social Democratic Parties (KPD and SPD), and effectively ended independent civil society.
They also contained a wing that was fascist but had a kind of populist anti capitalism; they would also deal with the German industrialists and empower the people against the rich. That is why, after 1933, some Communists joined them when their party was banned and its leaders arrested and sent to concentration camps. But, once in power, Hitler purged the Nazi party’s right wing as well. However, this was not a ‘left wing’ of the Nazis; their supposed anti-capitalism was rooted in a hatred of Jews and finance capital in particular.
Hitchens’s claim that workers and peasants benefited from Nazi reforms is based on the fact that for some workers, wages did increase as the economy grew in the 1930s, largely due to the massive ramping up of military production as a prelude to World War Two. But workers had no power or workplace rights, and their leaders were imprisoned and then executed. The notion that this is the left wing is so far removed from reality that it appears to be from another planet. The ones who really benefited from the Nazis’ being in power were the rich industrialists who sacrificed political power in return for the Nazis crushing all anti-capitalist opposition for them.
The problem of Stalinism
In his meandering and poorly written opinion piece, Hitchens does mention a terrible moment in German history when the mass German Communist Party supported a tram driver strike in Berlin organised by the Nazi trade union. He also reminds us that Stalin’s Russia did a deal with Hitler’s Germany in 1939 (the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact). Is this evidence that the left and right wings are the same? No.
It is important to know what was going on with the official communist parties and the Soviet Union at this time. By this point, the Russian Revolution of October 1917 had been usurped by a bureaucratic clique centred on Stalin, who had been one of the Bolsheviks’ leaders before seizing total power and murdering most of the other leaders in the 1930s’ “great purges.” During his time in power, the international communist movement embarked on a ridiculous policy called ‘the third period,’ where the communist parties were told to treat social democratic parties as if they were fascists. This is what led to the German Communists in the KPD supporting the fascist trade driver strike in 1932 against the Berlin mayor, who was an SPD member. This was a completely misguided and stupid approach that only served to strengthen the right while weakening the left.
The Nazis received a large number of votes, but they never won a general election. If the KPD and SPD had united and smashed the Nazi demonstrations, shut down their offices, and demoralised their forces, then Hitler would never have come to power. In his first speech as Chancellor, Hitler stated that the only way the Nazis could have been defeated was if “our adversaries had understood its principle, established a clear understanding of our ideas, and not offered any resistance.” Or, alternatively, if they had from the first day annihilated with the utmost brutality the nucleus of our new movement,” Instead, the left was divided and confused, which allowed them to grow.
It isn’t just the bad tactics of Stalinism that helped lead to Hitler taking power. Stalinism in Russia was a barbaric and authoritarian political system, though it had a different economic base. Fascism in Germany was about defending and consolidating German capitalism. Stalinism in Russia was based on a bureaucratic, planned economy in which there was no capitalist class.
The claim that the Nazis were left wing is a horseshoe theory in which the extremes of the right and left end up in the same place, both authoritarian and dictatorial. Certainly Stalinist regimes (and those inspired by them like the Chinese Communist Party) are undemocratic and authoritarian regimes over the working class and popular masses. In the case of the Soviet Union, it started off far more radical: emancipating women, legalising homosexuality and abortion, giving land to the peasants, projecting an internationalist view of politics, and so on. These revolutionary ideas, however, were all rolled back during the 1930s as the country retreated into nationalism, pushed women back into the home, and recriminalised homosexuality. This is not because they were ‘too left wing,’ but because these regimes became counter-revolutionary formations that suppressed dissent and reintroduced reactionary ideas in order to maintain their own privileges and control. In the Soviet Union, gains were reversed; in Nazi Germany, there were no gains, only constant persecution and violence against minorities.
Socialism cannot exist unless it is founded on popular democracy and working class economic control. A government can call itself whatever it likes, but even if it has wide-scale state ownership and some kind of central planning without workers’ democracy, it isn’t what could be called a socialist society. However, it is clear that there can be left wing and right wing forms of authoritarianism, as there were during the 20th century. This is why a healthy and genuine revolutionary socialism has to leave behind the horrors of Stalinism in the mid-20th century if we want to plot a genuine path to human liberation.
The danger of the Nazis were left wing argument
We live in an age when one of the most common tools routinely deployed by fascists and the far right is the destruction of the meaning of words. They spend an inordinate amount of time trying to dislocate language from meaning because it sows confusion and obscures their actual politics.
In the USA, this is particularly bad; Republicans and fascists routinely call the Democrat leaders communists or Bolsheviks, which doesn’t just betray an appalling political literacy; it is rooted in an increasingly deranged political world view whereby any welfare spending or state intervention into the economy makes someone like Joe Biden basically Lenin.
Conservatives like Peter Hitchens use sand in people’s eyes to divert attention away from the potential consequences of mainstream Conservative parties’ increasingly right wing politics. He is attempting to say that ethno-nationalist, anti-democratic, and violently racist policies couldn’t come from the right wing Tories because the regime most associated with these things—the Nazis—were left wing. His argument is the product of a mind that wants to defend a Conservative government hellbent on demonising and criminalising asylum seekers for cheap political gains and votes, while the economy and society crumble around them.
The problem of ‘left and right wing’
The concept of categorising politics as left or right (or centre) stems from the French National Assembly after 1789, when the more radical elements sat on the left and the more conservative elements sat on the right. Even that was a confusing way to understand things as what was considered radical or conservative would shift with each new episode or controversy during the revolution.
The problem is that it’s a bit simplistic. We can clearly draw out some differences: right wing politics is usually characterised as nationalistic, religious, pro-capitalist, pro military, pro-police, focused on the nuclear family, against rights for women and LGBTQ people, against racial equality, and so on. Left wing politics is usually defined as desiring progressive change around equal rights, being critical of capitalism, being more open about alternatives to the nuclear family, being critical of the police and militarism, being against imperialism, and so on.
When it comes to issues such as poverty or homelessness, the right wing focuses on individual responsibility and failings, whereas the left focuses on structural issues. While right wing politics tends to downplay the structural oppression of minorities or women, saying that their struggles “have gone too far”, the left is in solidarity with people struggling against their social oppression.
However, right and left are not ideologies in and of themselves, but rather general indicators of political alignment. Just as liberals can span both right and left, so, to a degree, can conservatives. Even socialists might be very left wing on economic issues but concede ground to right wing arguments about immigration.
Some people on the left have challenged the ‘left wing Nazi’ argument by pointing out that the Nazis banned trade unions and imprisoned worker leaders, so how could they possibly be left wing? True to a point, but the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe also banned independent trade unions and imprisoned workers leaders that disagreed with them, so the left-right split isn’t that useful.
It is useful to highlight how some ostensibly socialist regimes became authoritarian dictatorships, why this occurred, and how it might not happen again. This is a more useful debate than whether the Nazis were left wing in general—they clearly weren’t.
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