Hitler and Nazism: “Left Wing” or “Right Wing”?
November 15, 2016 by Paul McKeever
Your “right wing” acquaintances assert that Hitler and his Nazis were left-wingers, but your “left wing” acquaintances assert that Hitler and his Nazis were right-wingers. If you have spent a significant amount of time debating such things, you have probably observed that both sides believe themselves to be correct. Well, why do they each believe themselves to be correct? And which of them is correct?
I reject the idea of a left-right spectrum, but a left-right spectrum is a presupposition among most who enter this debate, so let us start by defining our terms. For the purposes of this argument, when I use the term “right-winger”, I will mean someone who is pro-individualist, and opposed to wealth redistribution by government. By “left-winger”, I will mean someone who is pro-collectivist, and in favour of wealth redistribution by government. You might believe the labels to be inappropriate or unfair – and I might agree with you – but I believe that those terms sufficiently capture the spirit of “left-wing” and “right-wing” for the purposes of what I am attempting to communicate below.
Now, let us consider the typical arguments made by right-wingers and left-wingers, so defined.
Typically, right-wingers correctly will assert that the word “Nazi” is a short-form of the name of Hitler’s party (the NSDAP), the full name of which (in English) was the “National Socialist German Workers’ Party”. The party called itself a socialist party. A party’s self-naming can hardly be written off as irrelevant, especially when it is accompanied with substantive party policies that are consistent with the name. Socialism is, essentially, the redistribution of wealth from those who earn it to those who do not, with the aim of ensuring that everyone ends up with roughly the same amount of wealth. And, most certainly, the Nazi party was in favour of wealth redistribution, as evidenced by the property they stole from Jewish people and others; as evidenced by their military invasions of other European lands so as to give “liebsraum” (breathing space) to Germans; and as evidenced by the Nazi party’s program, which included such socialist favourites as “an expansion on a large scale of old age welfare”, and “education at the expense of the State of outstanding intellectually gifted children of poor parents”. That said, Nazism embraced not the communist form of socialism (in which title to all property is held by the state) but the fascist form of socialism, in which title to productive capital remains in private hands, but the government has ultimate authority about what one can, must, or must not do with one’s productive capital: a public-private partnership in which the government calls all of the shots.
Right-wingers also typically and correctly will assert that Nazism is a form of collectivism. In particular, Nazism asserts, in part, that if one is genetically German, one is an “Aryan” and a member of the collective “master race” and should have living space (i.e., a large expanse of land) within which to live, without having to compete with non-Germans. What made someone genetically German? Without getting into unnecessary details, according to Hitler and other Nazis, a German was generally a person who had phenotypical features such as blonde hair, blue eyes, etc., and who was not Jewish. This is the reason for the “National” part of the Nazi party name. A “nation state” is a country in which the residents are phenotypically similar, have a long history of being so, and have a long heritage of certain cultural practices et cetera. A “National Socialist” was a person who wanted to redistribute wealth from non-Germans to Germans, wanted all Germans to end up with the same amount of wealth (or, at least, wanted there not to be a large disparity of wealthiness among Germans), and wanted to set up Germany as a nation state.
The right-wingers also tend to assert, correctly, that, like left-wingers, Hitler and the Nazis were anti-individualist. The Nazis asserted that the highest good is the sacrifice of the individual for the alleged greater good of Germany and all Germans: “The common good before the individual good”, as they wrote in their party’s platform.
Given the obviousness of the socialist nature of the Nazi party’s name, of its socialist policies, and of its collectivism, right-wingers typically are astonished to hear a left-winger assert that Hitler and the Nazis were right-wingers. Usually, right-wingers will simply assume that left-wingers are lying or delusional when they deny Hitler and the Nazis were left-wingers and assert the reverse. However, it has been my observation that left-wingers genuinely believe Nazism to be right-wing, and there are at least two good reasons for their belief.
First, although Nazism was politically left-wing, the reverse is not true. The advocacy of collectivism and socialism does not necessarily imply the advocacy of a collective comprised exclusively of Germans (or of any other particular genetically-defined, or culturally-defined, subgroup of humanity). A variant of left-wingism could instead, for example, include in their collective all human beings. Likewise, advocating socialism does not necessarily imply a redistribution of wealth from non-Germans to Germans. Indeed, the more common redistribution advocated by left-wingers is “to each according to his need, from each according to his ability”.
Second, whereas right-wingers note political similarities between Nazism and leftism, left-wingers tend instead to focus upon the ethical similarities between Nazism and right-wingers. To see what I mean, consider who it is that left-wingers tend to call Nazis. Generally speaking, a left-winger will use the term Nazi to refer to just about anyone who claims, or is praised as being, better than someone else in some way. Thus, we see billionaires called Nazis because they have more money than others, and because demonstrations of that wealth (in the form of driving a fancy car, or wearing tailored suits, etc.) are often seen by left-wingers as a form of in-your-face boastfulness. We also see people with more political power or social influence called Nazis. Almost daily, one can find another photo of a rich or powerful person defaced with a Hitler moustache or swastikas (the symbol of the Nazis).
Consider next Hitler’s frequent use of the terms “Aryan” and “master race”. Aryan is an old sanskrit term that essentially refers to a nobleman; to someone who is better than or above others (consider also the similar Greek word “aristo”, which means “best”). The term “master”, obviously, implies superiority.
Finally, consider that left-wingers are pro-collectivist and in favour of wealth redistribution by the government that is aimed at ensuring that everyone is equally wealthy and equally powerful/influential. Implicit in this political philosophy of egalitarian wealth or power redistribution is an ethical philosophy that asserts that everyone is equally deserving of everything; that your wealth or power or the amount of love or admiration you receive should not be based upon anything you choose to do or refrain from doing, but should instead be allocated to everyone equally because everyone is a human being. By that code of ethics, it does not matter whether you have sat on a couch all of your life or whether you have worked hard to build skyscrapers, to invent technologies, etc.. What you choose to do or refrain from doing earns you nothing. By the leftist ethics, to be born is to deserve, and everyone deserves equally. Nobody is more noble, or better, or best, or a master.
Thus, from the left-wing perspective, anyone who asserts that he deserves to keep the wealth he has created is asserting that his superior ability to produce makes him better and more deserving (of having what he produced) than those who lack his ability; is asserting that he is better, Aryan, or a master. From the leftist perspective, anyone who thinks some people are more deserving than others is a “supremacist” and is not essentially different from a Nazi, because – as the left winger sees it – the essence of Nazism is the belief that some people are better than others and that those who are better are more deserving than others. The left-winger does not care why one holds oneself out to be better and more deserving: whether one claims to be better and more deserving because one is a German (as the Nazis did), or because one has worked very hard to produce something of value that others have not produced, the left stands opposed; opposed to any notion of anyone being better than anyone else, or more deserving of anything. As the many left-wingers see it, those who believe that some people are better and more deserving than others are, essentially, Nazis.
However, that stance is as inappropriate as would be the right-winger’s labelling of all left-wingers as Nazis. There are many right-wing movements or parties that share with Nazism the belief that one person can be better than, and more deserving than, another person. However, advocating an ethical system in which one should apply some criterion to evaluate whether a person is better/worse and more/less deserving than another person does not require that one’s criterion be an unchosen criterion such as one’s genetic make-up or place of birth. For example, a capitalist variant of right-wingism could regard a productive earner to be better and more deserving than an unproductive non-earner. Or – as is the case with several strains of conservativism – a variant of right-wingism could regard an altruistic person to be better and more deserving than an egoistic one (see noblesse oblige).
So, who is right? In my view, the right-wingers (as I have defined them above) are correct to assert that collectivism and socialism are left-wing and that Nazism is pro-collectivist and pro-socialist, such that Nazism is a left-wing political ideology if one considers nothing but political philosophy. However, there is more to both left-wingers and right-wingers than their political philosophies. Ethical philosophy is the dog that wags the political philosophy tail. Whereas the political philosophy of Nazism is certainly left-wing (as I have defined that term above), the ethical philosophy of Nazism is a mix with feet in both left-wing and right-wing camps. Specifically, whereas Nazi ethics supported wealth redistribution by eschewing the idea that one German is any better or more deserving than another (i.e., a “judge not” ethics that fits naturally with left-wing egalitarian political philosophy), Nazism simultaneously embraced the idea that every German is better than every non-German (i.e., as with many right-wing ideologies, it judges some people to be better and more deserving than others). It is this latter idea upon which the left-wing founds its argument that Hitler and the Nazis were right-wingers.
Accordingly there is an argument that the quite common left-wing ethical sentiment – that nobody is any better or any more deserving than anyone else – bars Nazism from having a home among other politically left-wing people/movements due to the superiority it attributed to all Germans. At the same time, the superiority that Nazism attributed to all Germans bars Nazism from having a home among right-wingers, given that individualism effectively rules-out assertions that an individual’s value or deservedness is determined by his membership or non-membership in a collective. If one takes into account these ethical considerations, Nazism and Hitler really find good company neither among right wingers nor among left wingers.
I submit that a proper resolution of the argument should be founded upon a consideration by everyone – left-wingers and right-wingers – of why this argument comes up so frequently, and is so hotly debated. As I see it, each side wants to smear the other side with the “Nazi” label, but does not want to appear hypocritical in doing so. Therefore, I have a suggestion for both sides; a suggestion that will diminish the frequency and heat of this particular debate.
Stop calling your opponent a Nazi.
Whenever you are about to draw a Hitler moustache or a swastika on a photo of a billionaire, a politician, or a left-wing protestor or a right-wing journalist, consider being…honest. Save the “Nazi” label for those who want a government to allocate wealth to an alleged “master race”, and who want to expropriate, imprison, and murder those who aren’t members of that “master race”. Don’t white-wash the pure evil that was Adolf Hitler and Nazism. Don’t minimize the destruction, of millions, committed by Hitler and other followers of Nazism.