Some Americans think that because the Nazi party was the National Socialist Party that means fascism is a left-wing movement. That’s why I began this series on American fascism by taking care to define communism, capitalism and socialism. Unfortunately history doesn’t fit into tidy little black and white boxes. Let’s unpack the history of socialism in fascist Italy and Germany.
The Rise of National Socialism (the Nazi Party)
It’s hard to fathom now, but at the time of the rise of Hitler and Mussolini, socialism was trendy. People all over were angry about the effects of industrialization and feeling a revolutionary sentiment. Socialist union organizing had won benefits like higher wages and better working conditions. By the first World War, the Socialist Democratic Party of Germany had over a million people, the largest political party in the world at that time.
On the other hand, communism hadn’t brought rainbows and utopia to Russia. Some of the radicals who embraced socialism started to wonder if society’s woes weren’t due to class warfare (as the socialists and communists claimed) but the inferiority of foreigners.
Nationalism was a popular trend all over Europe, historian Richard Evans calls the late 19th and early 20th centuries the “age of nationalism, not just in Germany, but everywhere in Europe.” (Remember that fascism is born of extreme nationalism.)
Hitler claimed the Nazis were neither left nor right, but a “third way,” a new option for radicals dissatisfied with left-wing options. Thus, fascism is best understood as a reaction against the rise of radical leftist movements like communism and anarchism. Historian Richard Evans again: “In the eyes of the right, communism and social democracy amounted to two sides of the same coin, and the one seemed no less a threat than the other” (Those I know on the right feel the same way today—hence their fear of democratic socialist Bernie Sanders.)
The communists organized community members around the notion that workers were part of a common class; it was rich against poor, claimed these Marxist types. The fascists started out as people attending these socialist meetings (which, recall, were the largest political party at the time) who developed some different ideas about who was to blame. The “us against them” isn’t rich against poor, they claimed, but “insiders versus outsiders.”
The Marxist notion of class had become the dominant worldview, and fascists reacted against the very idea of class. Think of how today’s Fox News anchors accuse people of “class warfare,” the underlying notion being that class itself doesn’t exist, and therefore pitting rich against poor is to make enemies of who should be allies. To a fascist complaints of racism/classism are just ways for a different dog to get ahead in a dog-eat-dog world. Fascism was born out of a rejection of everything Marxists stand for.
Hitler kept the label “National Socialist” because socialism was popular, but once in power he aligned with the capitalists…in both cases it seems Hitler advocated whatever would gain him more power, rather than some economic preference. Though he continued to call the party National Socialism, any remaining socialists were expelled, violently, on the Night of the Long Knives. Ultimately Hitler’s National Socialist Party wasn’t any more socialist than The People’s Republic of China is run by the people, or the Republic of North Korea is a republic. And regardless of economic preference, the entire Nazi philosophy is a checklist or extreme-right ideology (see below).
Is Fascism Left or Right? Mussolini Had Strong Feelings on the Topic
Don’t take my word for it: Mussolini, the first and founding fascist, was explicit. In Doctrine of Fascism, Mussolini said, “Fascism has taken up an attitude of complete opposition to the doctrines of liberalism, both in the political field and the field of economics.” Here’s what Mussolini thought of liberal politics:
Such a conception of life makes Fascism the complete opposite of that doctrine. The base of the so-called scientific and Marxian Socialism, the materialist conception of history; according to which the history of human civilization can be explained simply through the conflict of interests among the various social groups and by the change and development in the means and instruments of production…And above all Fascism denies that class war can be the preponderant force in the transformation of society.
Mussolini backed up his words with the Blackshirts, who were best known for starting fist fights with communists and socialists. The Nazis copied this with their Brownshirts, also picking fights with communists, socialists, and anarchists (essentially, the radical left) and targeting Jews. In both cases, the tyrant rose to power through the support of gangs that beat up suspected liberals. For Mussolini, this was everything, whereas Hitler decided “insiders versus outsiders” should be defined by race.
However, even Hitler’s choice to target the Jews was part of a right-wing mission. The Jews represented a growing liberal elite. The Coming of the Third Reich puts it like this:
Jews were associated above all with the most modern and progressive developments in society, culture and the economy. It was developments such as these that made the Jews the target for disgruntled and unscrupulous agitators…those who felt pushed aside by the Juggernaut of industrialization and yearned for a simpler, more ordered, more secure, more hierarchical society such as they imagined had existed in the not-to-distant past, the Jews symbolized cultural, financial and social modernity.
You can definitely point to things Hitler’s Third Reich did or said that were capitalist and socialist, just as most economies are some mixture of both ( e.g. are Americans socialist for having social security?). But despite calling his party the National Socialist party, the Third Reich was a radical right-wing movement, hell-bent on crushing the growth and popularity of socialism.
The Nazis and the Italian fascists were known to seek out and assault or kill communists, socialists and anarchists. If it’s unclear to you, read Mussolini’s own words, at the link above. The essay’s only four pages, and in that space he claims liberalism is a religion, pacifism is a lie, and that German nationalism proved liberalism is a failure. Yeah, real lefty that one.
Bottom line: don’t conflate economy with system of government. The philosophical yearnings of fascists are easily aligned with the aims of the far-right: trust in the nation, traditional/conservative values, unfettered patriotism, respect for authority, dislike of immigrants, social Darwinism/meritocracy…seriously that’s like a list of things that people on the left are known to oppose!
Ultimately, if you can’t see how fascist Italy and Nazi Germany were right-wing regimes, I urge you to read the philosophy of fascism in this series. I’d be interested to see how you can claim these things are liberal. But if we can disagree on the name and agree to oppose the philosophy I’m describing, we can still be aligned.
In the following posts, I’ll go into detail on each of the characteristics of fascism, and give examples of how we can see it on the rise in the good old USA.
But What About Democracy?
Democracy hasn’t fared well with revolutionary ideologies. Both communism and fascism have failed to maintain democratic societies, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Now that America has elected it’s first fascist, we get to try again. Let’s hope American democracy can prove history wrong.
Additional Sources and Recommended Reading
Karma has a degree in writing and sociology. She’s an Americorps grad and a board member of the California Writers Club. Her first foray into human rights work was with the Westcott 12 activists who launched a 100+ day camp out in protest of sweatshop labor. Since then she’s organized with IndyMedia, Occupy Oakland, and most recently with Solidaridad Con Los Ninos, a group that organizes caravans to visit detainment centers. She loves street art, poetry, and dancing with wild abandon.