A POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY PRIMER
Bernie Sanders’ campaign has brought quite a bit of political energy to the surface. Turns out, there is considerable passion and anger in the progressive community. It is also clear that the word “socialist” doesn’t pack quite the punch that it used to. Who would have thought that someone openly campaigning as a “democratic” socialist could even get recognition in U.S. politics let alone win a large percentage of the votes in a major party primary? This is a positive thing for those of us who lean toward the left of the political spectrum. For us, it has been a long, dry forty years.
If the Sanders campaign has done nothing else, it has expanded the discourse and raised questions about radical politics.
Consequently, we can expect a backlash from the right. During the last forty years the conservative movement has done a great job vilifying the left, associating radical politics with extremism, dictatorship and the surrender of freedom to an all intrusive state. Any attempt to empower the powerless and to help the needy is, by the right, defined as “creeping” socialism–understood as an inherently bad thing. You may want to provide health care for old people, but the cost you’ll pay is your very freedom. Since this strategy has been so successful, we can expect a continuation with the inclusion of memes.
However, screaming “Socialism! Socialism!” isn’t quite the boogeyman it once was, the next logical step is to institute Godwin’s Law, not as a cautionary principle, but as a rhetorical tool. Hitler remains the boogeyman of choice, so if the right wants to discredit popular left-wing advocates and ideas its best bet is to associate the left with der Führer and Nazism.
The problem is that Nazism is a right-wing philosophy. It is an extreme example of political conservatism. Well, the right can’t allow a few measly fact stand in the way of a good rhetorical weapon. After all, Germany had quite a few progressive policies that were very popular. It should not be hard to associate those policies with the Nazis. Consequently, we see memes such as this at right. The next thing you know, your conservative cousin, Dale, is frothing about Bernie Sanders the closet Nazi.
This strategy has a history of success, however, because Americans are grossly ignorant of history and politics. Consequently, we are easy to dupe into accepting positions that sound like they should be true. After all, Hitler was a brutal dictator; Stalin was a brutal dictator; Hitler = Stalin; Nazism = Communism. Really, it’s pretty simple to understand.
Simple and wrong.
So if we are going to extend the political conversation it would be best if we actually knew what we were talking about.
To the best of my knowledge, associating Nazism with liberalism in general goes back to Jonah Goldberg and his book Liberal Fascism: The Secret History of the American Left from Mussolini to the Politics of Change. This then became popular with Glenn Beck’s book club and ongoing rants. The rest is, as they say, a perversion of history. It was never more than shallow propaganda.
So the argument that Hitler and the Nazis were socialists is founded on two arguments. First, the Nazi Party was properly called the National Socialist German Worker’s Party. See. Socialist right there in the title. For that matter, the People’s Republic of China really is a People’s republic and Pineapples are apples. Related to this are some hand-picked quotes from Hitler referring to himself as a socialist, because, you know, Hitler wouldn’t lie.
The second argument is premised on the social safety net that Hitler embraced and expanded. Clearly, Hitler was a leftist because, you know, big government! This argument makes two critical mistakes. First, it conflates political philosophy with policy outcomes. Now, it can be argued that there is a correlation between policies that governments promote and the philosophies of those running the government. Ultimately, governments endeavor to survive regardless of philosophy. We can also argue that the “big government” construct is a red herring. Conservatives like big government just as much as liberals do. Conservative big government is just dedicated to the military, police and other social control infrastructure rather than social safety nets.
The second mistake is in defining conservatism and liberalism according to American political representations. Conservatism and liberalism as a general political philosophy isn’t a matter of “big government/welfare state” versus “small government/free markets.” That’s a specifically American construct that does not apply to Germany, especially during the 1930’s when political philosophies all over the world were undergoing revision and restructuring. Historians have a more nuanced, generalized understanding of conservatism and liberalism.
Historians identify conservatism and liberalism based on a spectrum related to actively pursuing social change. Liberalism, according to historians, is a philosophy emphasizing actively pursuing social change for the sake of expanding liberty, equality and justice. Liberals see existing social relations and traditions as more or less constraining. Conservatism is a response to liberalism that seeks to preserve or to restore traditional social relations. Consequently, conservatism in the United States, with a colonial and frontier history, means something a bit different from what it means in Europe. It also means something a bit different in the 21st century than it did in the mid 20th. Both conservatism and liberalism, in order to remain relevent, must change over time, but their essential definitions must remain the same.
Germany in the 1930’s had only been a unified nation for less than seventy-five years. During the founding and growth of Germany as an industrial nation it had developed a tradition of making social investments in education and the social safety net. It was among the first to do so. Yes, socialists did play a huge role in creating these programs, but they were an incorporated part of German society by the time the Nazis rose to power.
The United States, on the other hand, has a solid tradition of individualism, limitations on government regulation–though not government patronage–of the marketplace. Hence, free markets are a conservative value in the United States. In much of Europe, with a tradition of mercantilism, free market capitalism was, and largely remains, a liberal idea. Hitler’s support for a social safety net does not make him a socialist. It demonstrates, rather, that he wasn’t willing to challenge popular programs on his rise to power.
Nazism is a conservative or right-wing philosophy because the central belief is that Germany had strayed from its traditional virtues, defined by a mythical Aryan ideal. By returning to traditional German values of family, patriotism and racial purity, the Fatherland will be great again. (yes, same message as Trump).
Hitler and the Nazis presented their new variation as a third way politics, embracing progressive and socialist programs for their popularity, but reserving these entitlements to specific groups, excluding others. Rather than being socialists, Nazis referred to themselves as “National” Socialists. They were nationalists in their emphasis on defining the “true German” and pursuing the exclusion of all groups that might challenge the traditional and superior German ideal. This is where the distinction between socialism and Nazism is most clear. Socialists largely reject nationalism. National unity, to the socialist, is often a tool to keep working people under control. Socialists seek building a class identity without regard to national origin. True, socialists will, under certain circumstances, enter coalitions with nationalists groups when the goal is to liberate an identified nation from a larger, oppressive power. This was the case in Ireland during the uprisings after 1913. Socialists, however, retain their classist rhetoric and goals.
Another distinction between Nazism and socialism is in their approach to militarism. Socialists see militarism as the prime ingredient of capitalist imperialism. As such it’s a waste of resources (yeah, I know, the Soviet Union. Give me a minute). Nazis and fascists, however, embrace the military as a central element of their power. The military is, after all, among the most traditional of institutions.
Racism is also a central component of Nazism, but is not for socialists. According to socialists, race is a myth designed to justify exploitation and create division among the working class. Race is central to Nazi Fascism, however, as providing an essential out-group around which to define the superior against the inferior. Racial and ethnic differences provide a convenient scapegoat against which to explain why a presumed superior race is not in a superior position. “Those people,” Jews, Roma and homosexuals in 1930’s Germany, were allowed to infiltrate German institutions because liberals had been too tolerant. They thus weakened the Fatherland from the inside. They are also thinning superior German “blood” through intermarriage.
Even gender roles in socialism contrast with Nazism. Nazis emphasized manly values of work and warfare and consigned women to feminine roles of having children and domestic tasks. Women in Nazi Germany were actually rewarded for having children. Socialists see men and women as equally exploited by the capitalist system and are inclined to promote equality between the sexes, questioning established, patriarchal family structure as bringing the exploitation of the factory into the home.
The Nazi political-economy clearly contrasts with socialism. It is the socialist ideal to do away with capitalism. That was not Hitler’s goal. Hitler promised to preserve private property and nationalized few industries. He did demand that business work in the interests of the state, but actual state ownership was never a centerpiece of Nazism. In fact, many corporations profited handsomely under Hitler, including American companies like IBM, Ford Motor Company, etc. Corporate profits increased under Hitler as did the German stock market. Not something you would see from a socialist. Hitler was violently anti-union, another fact that made him popular among capitalists. Unions are central to socialism and communism.
Then there’s actual Nazi actions toward socialists in Germany and elsewhere. It’s funny how such so-called “historical analyses” neglect the fact that the first groups to actually engage Fascists and Nazis in battle were socialists and communists. This was especially true in Spain. Hitler helped fund and arm his fascist friend Franco. Socialists and Communists also resisted in Germany and Italy. Hitler hated socialists. He imprisoned them, executed them, shut down socialist presses and publications. He believed that the Jewish conspiracy was working through the socialist parties to weaken Germany.
So I’m afraid the right must own fascism and Nazism as an example of its own extremes. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is incumbant upon all of us who submerse ourselves in political thought to admit that our most cherished beliefs can, if taken to extremes, become dangerous. This is just as true for the left as it is for the right. Just as conservatism must own fascism and Hitler, so left liberalism must accept Leninist-Stalinism or Bolshevik communism as our own.
There were many similarities between fascist/Nazi totalitarianism and state communism under Stalin in practice, though the foundation of their legitimizing philosophies were different. Whereas fascists and Nazis wanted a restoration of some version of their traditional values, Soviet communists, like all communists and many socialists, wanted to uproot all traditional values as bourgeois systems of capitalist brainwashing. That’s what distinguishes state communism as a left-wing form of totalitarianism while Nazism and fascism take their place on the right.
The lesson here is that totalitarianism is totalitarianism regardless of its legitimizing principles. All ideology can be exploited and any transcendent value can become the premise for violence and genocide. We do well to be wary of the extremes in all of our ideas. When conservatives try to conflate left-wing socialism and communism with right-wing Nazism and fascism they are trying to pass off their own ideology as innately and perpetually good, while the wages of liberalism are, regardless of intent, the way to totalitarianism. This is a gross distortion of history. It’s denial. Denial is often dangerous in its historical consequences.
Now we must remember that Nazism/fascism and socialism/communism constitute two opposite ends of the political spectrum (I could also discuss anarchism and theocracy, but I don’t want to further complicate the matter). It is a standard rhetorical mechanism to associate any opposing idea with its most extreme elements. The truth is that few people really advocate for the kind of nationalist purity as the fascists any more than they pursue the overthrow of capitalism. Most people fall somewhere between these extremes.
The ideological underpinnings of liberalism is reforming society in order to make it more free, just and equitable. This is a laudable goal. There may be some debate as to whether or not liberal policies actually produce these outcomes, but the underlying principles of freedom, justice and equality is what makes liberalism a cohesive philosophy. Liberalism is premised in Enlightenment principles and humanism. It was a reaction to the abuses of the old “estate” system that had evolved from European feudalism and was successful in bringing down that structure.
Conservatism, historically, was a response to the consequent excesses of liberalism represented by the French Revolution. It turns out, when too many changes take place in too short a period of time the results may destabilize the society, creating anomie, violence, competition to fill power vacuums and economic collapse. The ideological underpinnings of conservatism is social stability. This is also a laudable goal. After all, freedom, justice and equality are impossible in an unstable society.
This is why people can agree with aspects of both ideologies. Most people hold some combination of liberal and conservative views.
Liberalism and conservatism also change over time and evolve according to regional needs. The best example of this is free market capitalism. In Europe of the late 18th and early 19th century, free market capitalism was considered a liberal idea. The idea was to take the market out of the hands of a mercantilist nobility and put it in the hands of free individuals. This philosophy was of especial interest to the increasingly wealthy and powerful merchant class, or bourgeoisie in Europe. For Europeans, this remains a mostly liberal position. The idea of neo-liberalism is derived from this form of market liberty. In the United States, however, a nation without a royal heritage, the merchants and planter aristocracy were the sole power elite. Americans never developed a bourgeois concept of market freedom. It already largely existed. The Civil War established the industrial merchants as the dominant power group within the United States. Thus, in the United States, free market capitalism has evolved into a conservative ideal.
In the early 20th century, when nationalism was rising in Europe, the United States was beginning its experiment with progressive liberalism. Americans discovered that market forces could be even more oppressive than a tyrannical government. The socialists, Populists and groups considered “Progressive” debated just what freedom, and government’s role in this endeavor, meant. In the 1930’s as fascism was ascendant in Europe, the American liberalism was being reshaped by the New Deal. These historical processes are not understood by Americans, who often eschew the formal study of history.
If there is any benefit coming out of this election it is in the questions it raises with regard to political ideology. It turns out that the simple Liberal Democrat, Conservative Republican dichotomy that most people take for granted, is clearly inadequate for describing our political arrangements. It turns out that small government conservatism may be less influential on the right than is nationalism. Meanwhile, progressive liberalism may be even more popular among Democrats than previously thought. It might be a good idea to hash out what we mean by these terms. We may be seeing a realignment of the political spectrum analogous to that experienced in the 1930s.
What is certain, however, social media memes are not sufficient for elaborating complex political philosophies.