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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Putting The “Nazis Were Socialist” Nonsense To Rest

Since they liquidated socialists by the score and opposed everything we believe, Nazis were not leftists.

It should be perfectly easy to see why the Adolf Hitler’s “National Socialists” had nothing to do with socialism, just as it should be easy to see why Kim Jong-Un’s “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” has nothing to do with democracy or republicanism. After all, what do socialists stand for? Well, a few core principles are:

  • A classless society – socialists believe that there shouldn’t be a small caste of people who own and control everything, and a large majority of people who must sell their labor to the powerful.
  • Anti-racism and women’s liberation – socialists believe that “workers of the world must unite,” and see ethnocentrism as a way of dividing people so that they do not recognize what they have in common. And because socialists deplore hierarchy and exploitation, the domination of women by men has historically been an important socialist concern. 
  • Anti-militarism – socialists have historically deplored war and conquest, in which working people are forced to murder their counterparts in other countries. From Eugene Debs’ imprisonment for opposing World War I, to the Vietnam protest movement to the Iraq War, socialists have been the ones saying no to aggressive and futile wars and envisioning a world of peace. 

Socialists follow the principle of solidarity. You can hear this in Debs’ famous quote, “while there is a lower class, I am in it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” There are echoes of it in Bernie Sanders’ exhortation to “fight for someone even if they are not like you and you do not share their problems.” If you ask socialists what they believe, they will talk about elevating the weak and downtrodden, and guaranteeing the basic rights of all to a decent standard of living. (I expand upon all of this in my new book Why You Should Be A Socialist.) 

We can therefore ask: How many of these beliefs did the Nazis share? And the answer is: absolutely none of them. Nazis did not believe in the elimination of social class, but in a rigid caste system. They were not feminists and anti-racists, they practiced racist genocide. They were not against militarism and prisons and the death penalty; they were history’s worst murderers. Did they believe, like Debs, that their own freedom depended on the elimination of prisons, that “while there is a soul in prison, I am not free”? No, they built giant death camps! Did they believe in the principle of “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”? No, they massacred and enslaved the weak and disabled. Did they believe in worker ownership? Did they think, as socialists do, that racism is an illusion used to divide workers and keep them from recognizing the common interests of the working class? Everything socialists stand for was opposed by the Nazis, which is why they killed countless Communists and members of the socialist German Social Democratic Party.  

So the most obvious reason for thinking that Nazism wasn’t socialism is that the things Nazis believed are rejected entirely by socialists, and the things socialists believe were rejected entirely by Nazis. All that is left is the name “national socialism,” but Hitler himself said that “our adopted term ‘Socialist’ has nothing to do with Marxian Socialism.” Instead, it was a piece of branding, like all the dictatorships that call themselves the Extremely Democratic Totally Non-Dictatorial People’s Democracy. 

How, given that Bernie Sanders is a Jew advocating free-at-point-of-use healthcare and workplace democracy, while Adolf Hitler was advocating the extermination of all Jews and the elimination of democracy, can anyone even making the argument that “the Nazis were socialist” do so with a straight face? Well, usually they do it by offering an incorrect definition of socialism that renders the case much easier to make. 

The incorrect definition is: Socialism means “government control of the economy.” Many critics of socialism use this definition. Libertarian economist Bryan Caplan used it in his debate with socialist columnist Elizabeth Bruenig. Senator Rand Paul uses it in The Case Against Socialism, which includes a part about how the Nazis were socialists. Jamie Dimon appeared to use it when he said that young socialists don’t understand that “most state-owned enterprises don’t do a good job.” And George Reisman uses it in this Mises Institute article “Why Nazism Was Socialism And Why Socialism Is Totalitarian.” Reisman says the actual substance of ownership of the means of production resided in the German government. Reisman says that “socialism, understood as an economic system based on government ownership of the means of production, positively requires a totalitarian dictatorship,” and sets out to prove that in Hitler’s Germany, it was “the German government and not the nominal private owners that exercised all of the substantive powers of ownership.” Reisman says that it is strange that so few people think of Hitler as a socialist, given that he called himself one and that the Third Reich satisfied the criteria for a socialist economy.

One thing I find funny about socialism’s critics is that they have a tendency to say things like “young people today don’t understand what socialism means” even as they themselves offer an obviously wrong definition of the term. I say obviously wrong, because when we think about the implications of “socialism” being synonymous with “government control of production,” we realize instantly that this can’t be right. It would mean that any government that was sufficiently powerful would automatically be “socialist” no matter who ruled it. The worst dictatorships would all be socialism by definition, because socialism is defined as government control. A monarchy could be “socialism” if the king was powerful enough. A feudal aristocracy could be “socialist” if those who “governed” also “controlled production.” This would be ludicrous, though, because it would mean that an economy in which a giant caste of wage laborers served a tiny wealthy aristocracy would be “socialist,” so that a society violating every single principle socialists endorse would be said to satisfy their principles.

The reason this definition goes so badly off the rails is that it fails to consider basic socialist concepts like class, democracy, equality, and exploitation. Government control of production gets you nothing if your society is still stratified by class, undemocratic, highly unequal, and filled with exploitation. Everything depends on the kind of government you have. When socialists talk about their economic ideal, they speak of worker ownership, which is not the same as “government ownership.” The government, after all, could be feudalism, in which case government ownership would give the workers nothing. Socialists want to see a world in which the people who do the labor have control over their workplaces. This is also why “communist” countries that are authoritarian dictatorships should not be called “socialist” even if they claim the label for themselves. To know whether an economy is socialist, you have to look at how equal it is, how much power workers have, whether people are exploited, and who is in charge of what. (When you do this, you find that the more socialistic a country is, the better-off people are.) 

Now, socialism may involve some government ownership of production, because democratic government is the institution through which people are able to act collectively. But it also might not involve government at all; many socialists historically have been anarchists. Government ownership is a means for achieving socialistic ends, it is not inherently or automatically socialistic. For example, I believe in publicly-owned airports, and fret about the possibility of private corporations replacing public services, but if we lived under a dictatorship, I’d favor less government ownership and more cooperative “private” ownership. The public sector is good to the extent that it’s democratic, just like the private sector is bad to the extent that it’s undemocratic. (If every corporation was a worker-owned cooperative rather than a dictatorship, socialists would have less to object to about corporations.) 

Alright, so socialism does not mean “government control of production,” thus proving that the Nazis controlled production does not prove that they were socialists. But it is worth noting here that even if socialism was “government control of production,” the argument that “the Nazis were socialists” would still be incredibly misleading. When people say “the Nazis were socialists,” what they want you to hear is “socialism and Nazism are synonymous.” They want you to believe that if they can prove Nazi Germany had a socialist economy, it shows that socialist economies are totalitarianism. But the reasoning is fallacious, for the same reason that “Hitler was a vegetarian, therefore vegetarianism and Nazism are synonymous” is fallacious. Let us stipulate, for the sake of argument, that (1) socialism means “state-controlled production” and (2) Nazis had state-controlled production. (1), as I have pointed out, is false, and (2) can be the subject of historical critique over the extent of public versus private control in the Third Reich.

But for now, let’s say they’re true: What have we proven? Very little. The features that horrify us about Nazi Germany generally relate to their racist militarism: They were homicidal maniacs who tried to conquer the world. My problem with Nazis is not that the state was too involved in the economy, but that they tortured and murdered millions upon millions of people. If they had had “government control of production” without the racist, genocidal, militaristic, anti-human elements, then they would lack the elements that horrify us. People who say “The Nazis were socialists because the state controlled production” are trying to get you to associate one aspect of Nazi Germany (power of the state sector in the economy) with the others (the racist genocide). Like “vegetarian Hitler,” the attempt is to show that because two things occurred together in an instance, they are related. The reason you know it’s silly is that the moment we look at other cases, we see that it is not true that state direction of economic activities means a Nazi-like government. You can say “the Nazis had a state-run healthcare system.” But Britain has a state-run healthcare system and has not got Nazi government. (It’s rather funny that one of the classic texts of conservatism is Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, which argues that socialistic policies lead to totalitarianism. Shortly after its publication, a socialist government came to power in Britain and introduced a socialized healthcare system, which proved wildly popular and did not in fact lead to totalitarianism. Hayek’s argument was utterly destroyed by the success of countries that became more socialistic without becoming less democratic.) 

George Reisman, in his Mises Institute article, attempts to prove that government intervention in the economy requires totalitarianism of the Nazi kind by necessity. He says, for example, of price controls: 

The requirements merely of enforcing price-control regulations is the adoption of essential features of a totalitarian state, namely, the establishment of the category of “economic crimes,” in which the peaceful pursuit of material self-interest is treated as a criminal offense, and the establishment of a totalitarian police apparatus replete with spies and informers and the power of arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. Clearly, the enforcement of price controls requires a government similar to that of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia, in which practically anyone might turn out to be a police spy and in which a secret police exists and has the power to arrest and imprison people. If the government is unwilling to go to such lengths, then, to that extent, its price controls prove unenforceable and simply break down… In order to obtain convictions, the government must place the decision about innocence or guilt in the case of black-market transactions in the hands of an administrative tribunal or its police agents on the spot. It cannot rely on jury trials, because it is unlikely that many juries can be found willing to bring in guilty verdicts in cases in which a man might have to go to jail for several years for the crime of selling a few pounds of meat or a pair of shoes above the ceiling price.

Here you see an example of the way that free market libertarianism is a kind of “speculative fiction.” Instead of examining the world as it is, and seeing whether something holds true, it tells a story about a world as it could be, if a certain set of assumptions were true, and how things would operate in that world. In fact, we have minimum wages and we have rent control and laws against price-gouging, and neither has required a “government similar to that of Hitler’s Germany or Stalin’s Russia.” Now, libertarians argue that these are bad policies (they say that minimum wages cause unemployment and rent control limits the housing supply, neither of which appears to be true), but to say that the enforcement of these laws has been Nazi-like requires an abuse of language that insults the victims of the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulags. (In fact, one reason that the government can enforce economic mandates without much totalitarianism is that the government is so important to the functioning of the marketplace to begin with. The state doesn’t need to throw anyone in jail for violating its requirements: It could just decline to enforce their property rights. Corporations only exist because the state has granted them a charter and agreed to enforce their rights in court, meaning that the state would have quite a lot of coercive power over them even if it had no ability to put anyone in prison.) 

In conclusion, then: 

  1. You can only argue that “Nazis were socialist” if you adopt a definition of socialism that conflicts with the values held by socialists and ignores the entire point of the doctrine, which is not to increase the power of the state but to eliminate class hierarchy. In order to understand what socialism is, you should listen to the people who call themselves socialists, rather than saying that they don’t understand their own political ideology while you (with an unworkable and clearly false definition) do understand it. 
  2. Even if Nazis had complete control of production, and control of production was synonymous with socialism, that still wouldn’t tell us that socialism was bad or that socialism is Nazism, because the actual thing that is bad about Nazis is the goddamned Holocaust and not its industrial policy. The fact that a Nazi did something is not proof that it is bad (vegetarian Hitler argument) and if the Nazis had been economic socialists, then the “socialism part” would not have been the bad part about Nazis. 
  3. Hitler himself said that the thing he was calling “socialism” had nothing to do with leftist socialism. The Nazis deplored Marxism and wiped out social democrats by the score.

 It’s rather funny that the Mises Institute tries to connect socialism and fascism, given that old Ludwig von Mises himself, the great free market libertarian, infamously said that “It cannot be denied that Fascism and similar movements aimed at the establishment of dictatorships are full of the best intentions and that their intervention has for the moment saved European civilization.” (I absolutely love watching them try to defend this by insisting it was somehow taken out of context.) But the important point is this: Wherever this argument comes up, we must laugh it out of the room. It makes no sense. It has never made sense. The only people who deploy it are people who are unwilling to look seriously at history or to try to understand what socialism has historically meant to those who have believed in it. 

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