Fascism isn’t socialism. This isn’t the sort of thing that one should have to say, but apparently it is.
Politics has content as well as form. It is not, as fascism always tries to make it, a game of aesthetics. No matter how superficially similar fascist and antifascists may be – and I contend that, with a very little good-faith scrutiny, they are not actually very similar at all – there is a world of difference, so much difference on every level that equivalence of any kind is a gross falsehood, a catastrophic failure of understanding. It is the content of political action which gives it meaning, not the form. And the content always ultimately derives from the class content, which ultimately derives from the class basis. The class content and basis of fascism, whatever the rhetoric, is bourgeois, based on the defence of capital either directly or via the defence of those divisions and oppressions which are both generated by and bolster the rule of capital. They don’t need to be generated by or to bolster capital to be wrong, but they are and do. The class content and basis of antifascism, by contrast, is found in defensive reaction against the fascists’ project to divide the working class along lines of race in the interests of capital.
This is ultimately both why people can pull the “the nazis were socialists” bullshit – “National Socialists! It’s even in the name!” – and why they’re wrong. The question of why the Nazis called themselves socialists, and why fascism generally often flirts with left-wing rhetoric and even some superficially left-wing ideas, is complex. What isn’t complex is the question of whether fascism is or is not, ultimately, a phenomenon of the left. The answer is no, because of its content, which is ultimately its class content, and which is ultimately determinable via an examination of what it actually does.
Fascism as a governmental form was a form of response to a crisis of capital accumulation. Fascism as a movement – at least in its classical form – also tends to arise as a reaction to the rise of a challenge, or perceived challenge, to capitalism from the working class, and from socialism. Part of its process of evolution as a mass movement tends to be a certain aping of left movements in an attempt to assimilate some of their popularity and membership while opposing them. The Nazis arose in Germany on the crest of a wave of reactionary, nationalist counter-revolution against the German Revolution of 1918-23, which caused the Kaiser to abdicate and flee, and the German generals to capitulate to the Allies in the First World War. The defeat of the revolution was a combination of sharp turning points and slow decay. But socialism remained a hugely popular idea with the working masses of Germany throughout the 20s and 30s.
The ostensibly socialist Social Democratic Party (SPD) was huge, with a vast network of workers’ clubs, magazines, papers, camps, youth organisations, etc. The Nazis consciously mimicked their mass organisation, and the way they entered into the lives of workers through associations outside work, as part of their drive for power. More fundamentally than this, the word ‘socialism’ had arguably almost come to mean ‘of workers’ in the Germany of this period. To call yourself a ‘socialist’ party was an almost compulsory move for any party aspiring to mass appeal with workers, the working classes being very class conscious and proudly identifying themselves that way.
Anton Drexler, the founder of the German Workers Party (forerunner of the NSDAP or Nazis) consciously wanted to win workers to nationalist, antisemitic politics – hence the name of his party. This sort of thing was common in the ecology of the German reactionary far-right of thise period. They were responding to a revolution of workers, sailors and soldiers with an attempt to win such people to far-right instead of far-left ideas.
This isn’t to say that it was all mere pretence or trickery. There was a strong ‘left’ current (or rather current of left rhetoric) within Nazism at the start, as there often is in the early stages of fascist movements. Such movements, while far-right, are also grassroots responses by non-members of the ruling class to crisis and revolution, every bit as much as are left movements. Again, the distinction is to be found in the class character and class content of the movements. Whereas the SPD and German Communist party drew their support from the working class, the far-right movements arose among the middle layers, the small business people, the state officials, police, etc. The social cause of the arrival of such movements may be unitary but the responses are not, because the responses come from different social layers and express different worldviews born of different social positions. But reality is complex. It is not made of neat boxes and categories that fit nicely onto simple charts. To mistake the messiness of reality with some secret inner unity of manifestly divergent political trends is sheer disingenuousness.
Messy reality will mean ideas are echoed across class divides. A lot of the Stormtroopers in the early days shared what Michael Parenti called a “share the wealth mentality”. Devoted as they were to smashing the left on the street, they nevertheless resented rich capitalists and bankers. They came from that middle layer that is always the base of fascism, though the Stormtroopers also incorporated elements from the working class, the unemployed, etc. Antisemitism was a vital ideological and rhetorical lever for the Nazis because the figure of the Jew – the imaginary inkblot villain who lived in their heads, that is – could represent both the perfidious communist who wanted to infiltrate and overthrow their society and the evil businessman and financier behind the capitalism that had treated them so unsatisfactorily. In this way a populist pseudo-anticapitalism that connected with socialist politics could be used to pervert it and co-opt workers and resentful, anxious petty bourgeoisie. (Real socialism has no truck with antisemitic fantasies; it bases its analysis on real material things like class, not unreal racial divisions.)
There were strong ‘left’ ideological currents in National Socialism. They did not amount to real socialism in practice because racism debarred them from inclusion. That isn’t the ‘no true scotsman’ fallacy; racism is an inherently anti-left idea because racism divides the working class and actual left praxis – praxis with real left content – is always, by definition, based on attempting to bring the working class together across all divisions and empower the working class rather than disempowering it through disunity. If it doesn’t aim at this, it is a nonsense to call it ‘left’ at all. In what sense is it ‘left’ if it contravenes, in its actual content and practice, the most basis prerequisite of left politics? The reactionary contention that fascism is left-wing because it contains left rhetoric is an exercise in politics as form, as label, as aesthetics. Viewing politics as having content immediately dispels the illusion because the actual content of fascism is inimical to the actual content of socialism, names entirely to one side.
The empirical proof of all this lies, again, in what actually happened, and most especially in the class content of what actually happened. For instance, the leading ‘left’ theorists and leaders within ‘National Socialism’, the Strasser brothers, were purged, one killed and one exiled. Rohm, the leader of the politically untrustworthy Stormtroopers, was also killed. The Stormtroopers, whose ranks included recruits from the working class, and who harboured ideas about a radical alteration to the German state with a Nazi version of a workers’ militia replacing the old army, were suppressed and subordinated to the Army once the Nazis were in power. The Night of the Long Knives – the violent internal Nazi coup/purge in which Rohm died – was all about reassuring the respectable reactionaries, capitalists and militarists in the German state – particularly the Army high command – that the Nazi government was ‘trustworthy’, i.e. not remotely likely to act on any of its old anti-capitalist, anti-establishment rhetoric. In power, with such assurances having been issued and gratefully accepted, the Nazis proceeded to merge with and take over – with very little resistance – the German state.
The Nazis ran Germany in the interests of big monopoly capital and established interests. They banned unions, banned other political parties, persecuted the left, immediately began setting up a framework of racially discriminatory laws, put women back in the home, attacked scientific and cultural institutions open to LGBT+ people and issues, etc.
Much is made by reactionaries of the fact that the Nazis were ‘statists’ who nationalised things, ostensibly proving them to have been left-wing. Firstly, this is based on a crude misunderstanding of socialism, which equates it entirely with state ownership. This is far from the entirety of socialism, though – significantly – it would’ve been a very widely shared understanding of socialism in Germany at that time, owing to the degeneration of the Marxism of the 2nd International and the influence of this thinking in the early-20th century German SPD. But socialism, as even the SPD at that time would mostly acknowledge (in words at least), is ultimately not supposed to be about state ownership but about workers’ power, with some currents of socialism advocating state ownership as a way of achieving workers’ power if combined with workers’ democracy. Other currents of left thinking of course reject the state entirely, or see the workers’ state as a more radically different kind of state based on workers’ councils. Besides, as the scholar Germa Bel has shown, the Nazis were enthusiastic privatisers, to the point of being forerunners of neoliberalism.
The truth is that the Nazis used any method at hand for rescuing, preserving, and expanding German capital. They certainly did not abolish private ownership. On the contrary, they were themselves capitalists. Hitler received royalties for use of his own image and became enormously rich, essentially running his cult of personality as simultaneously political propaganda and a massive copyright/franchising business. The Nazis were extensively funded by big business, especially heavy industry which stood to gain from government contracts for armaments as a result of Nazi expansionism and military build-up.
And how can the existence of left currents within Nazism prove it is left-wing while the (presumably) undoubtable existence of right currents within Nazism does not prove it right-wing? Is it somehow not valid to point to Hitler’s virulent hatred of the left – described in detail in page after page of Mein Kampf, in which he rages at Marxists, the USSR, the SPD, etc – as evidence of anti-socialism? It is pure nonsense to declare the Nazis ‘left-wing’ by any sane evaluation of the actual material content – that is, the class content – of their politics. The fact that they contained left currents is actually evidence against the idea, since that left politics was a) completely detached from an actual basis in working class politics, being far more based in petty bourgeois resentment of big capitalists and banks, and b) purged as the Nazis achieved power in concert with the reactionary capitalist state!
It is not only that fascism and socialism are objectively different in character, content, actions and aims. Essentially, anyone can see that. It is that the real test of the difference, the criterion which winnows the difference down to the quick, to its most fundamental conceptual level, is the test of the class content of fascism. The essence of the socialist analysis or critique is always the class question. Analysing fascism in this way makes sense not only of it in itself but of its complex, intertwined, but ultimately deeply divergent and hostile relationship to socialism. The essence of the fascist worldview (as distinct from its actual content, which stems from its class character) is race; ideologically, fascism views everything through the prism of race. Not only is this completely opposite to the socialist standpoint, because it divides the class socialism tries to unite and from which it tries to take its perspective, but it is also a conceptual dead end. You cannot make sense of fascism using a racial prism and arrive at any viewpoint but the fascist one. Fascism is conceptually tautologous. This works very nicely for fostering the internal unity and coherency of thinking which Ian Kershaw identifies as key to Hitler’s psychology, but it allows us no escape from the fascist worldview. Indeed, that’s the point!
So unless we are prepared to adopt as correct, or at least valid, the ideological self-description of a political current responsible for the most systematically savage genocide in human history, an abyss of horror running like a crack down the spine of human existence, we must retreat from the racial view and view it as having been disproved ontologically by its own consequences. Essentially, it must be false because the consequences of it not being false are too dreadful to countenance.
Luckily, we also have the support of modern science, which comprehensively refutes the racial view.
The only place left to turn – unless we want to huddle in one or another dark corner of befuddlement, where the liberal mind pessimistically despairs and offers increasingly hysterical reiterative descriptions of the incomprehensibility of it all as if they constitute an explanation, or the closest we can get to an explanation – is back to the class analysis that it is fascism’s most basic nature to attack.