Nazism: left or right?

One of the greatest controversies on the Brazilian internet these last few days was to define Nazism as either left-wing or right-wing. I even wrote something about it in Portuguese, and although I really tried my best not to be controversial, I was amazed by how divisive the issue seems to be. So here is my view on this issue, now in English.

Is Nazism a left or right wing political movement? The first thing I believe we need to consider to answer this question is what is right and left? The answer (surprisingly simple in my view) is that right and left are words. Words are signs we use to describe things, but as (I guess) most linguists will say, words don’t have any objective connection to the things they describe. For example, there’s no special connection between the word “cat” and that fluffy animal that drinks milk and chases rats. It is just a convention that in the English language we call that animal “cat,” and not “alligator” or “hot dog.”

However, when we say that there is no objective connection between words and stuff, that doesn’t mean that words are simply random. Words only work in a linguistic context, so there is no use calling a cat anything else if you want to communicate properly. The English language (as any other language, except for Esperanto) was not invented by any specific person. Languages are actually a spontaneous order, something that economists in the Austrian School really enjoy talking about. So, if you want to communicate well, you have to join the party (or the conversation).

With all that said, we need to admit that the word most often used to describe Nazism politically is right-wing. Actually, far-right. The point in discussion (that so many people in Brazil just don’t seem to get) is if this description makes any sense. You see, other groups classified as right-wing are conservatives and liberals (classical liberals, to be more precise). So the question is: why are conservatives, liberals and Nazis all classified as right-wing? What do all these groups have in common? Going back to the example of the cat, there is a reason why you can call both a lion and a tiger a cat (or a feline): they both share several characteristics. It may be just at the eye of the beholder (although evolutionary biologists will say something different), but a lion has much more to do with a tiger than with a frog. So it seems fair to include lions and tigers in a small group where frogs don’t belong. So, the question is: is it fair to include conservatives, classical liberals and Nazis in the same group? Why?

I know there are reasons why all these groups are generally classified together. I know that left and right are terms that go back to the French Revolution. I know how these terms are generally used. All I’m saying (with Friedrich Hayek, David Nolan, and many others) is that we should reconsider the way we typically classify political groups.

Dinosaurs were classified as reptiles. And then people realized they were closer to birds. I guess it was a shock when someone first said that a Velociraptor has more to do with a chicken than with a Komodo dragon, but it seems to me (as an outsider of paleontology) that this is common wisdom now. Similarly, maybe we should have the courage to reconsider the way we classify Nazis. Leftists, of course, won’t like this. But neither do conservatives like being called fascists. Are leftists tasting their bitter medicine? Maybe. But I believe they should give us a good explanation why Nazis should be considered right-wing. I haven’t heard any.


8 thoughts on “Nazism: left or right?

  1. This really does not fly.

    First, there is the very real option that Nazism is neither left nor right, a bit like libertarians could hardly be considered as either. Being left or right implies a form of parliamentary democracy, options, elections, while Nazism stands for the very opposite of all that. By calling yourself, say, a leftist, you open the possiblity for someone else to be a rightist, you imply confrontations, debates, alternatives and relativity, while the very point of the Führerprinzip is that there is none of those in a country dominated by the Nazis. In such a country there is but one will that matters.

    Then there is the fact that, unlike the cat or the frog, left and right are not objective matters. Political parties are but aggregates (and more often then not inconsistent aggregates) of ideologies whose backers have gotten together for the sake of conquering power.What brought together the supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam Hawks into the Democratic Party in the 1960s? Nothing, their alliance was purely circumstantial. All sorts of policies which in one country and one period would be considered as archetypically rightist are elsewhere regarded as typically leftist. To take but one example, in 1924, the French assembly, then strongly dominated by rightist nationalists, passed a law increasing the marginal tax rate from 50 to 90% – not what you’d expect from a “rightist” parliament.

    Looking more specifically at the Nazis, none of their “policies” can be pined down as specially rightist or leftist. Militarism can come from both sides, so does colonialism, statism and mass-murder. Once accounting for the fashions of the time which prevaled from the Kremlin to the conservative old boys’ clubs in London, thing are even less clear. Building highways and spending billions, was it leftist or was it what every one was doing at the time?

    There are other ways to look at the problem. We could say that the Nazis were rightist because their chief opponents during their election days were considered as leftists, but that is obviously a rather weak argument in light of what has been said before. Sociologically, the bulk of the cadres and of the electorate of the party could be said to hail from the right. But, again, this definition by previous acquaintances hardly feels fully convincing, if nothing else because Italian Fascism, while ideologically close to German Nazism, hails from the left.

    So the answer may simply be that both the opposition between right and left and the temptation to place naziism into either of these boxes are fundamentally flawed and that we should not mistake practical contemporary tags with sound concepts. Left and right may well be epistemological dead-ends.

    • Hello, Benjamin! I’m not sure what you mean with “This really does not fly”, but other than that I pretty much agree with everything you wrote. I’m still unsure if I’m making my point clear, in English or Portuguese, but the thing is that being a liberal-conservative-libertarian, I don’t like being called a fascist. It’s interesting to notice that leftists also don’t like if someone tells them that Nazis were leftists as well. There’s a saying in Portuguese that may fit this situation really well: “an ugly kid has no parents”. Anyway, I usually believe that this labels (left and right) are not all that good, at least not the way that popular media seems to use them.

  2. Seems to me, in general, that the theorists that called fascism/Nazism a “Third Position” were most correct. On the one hand, Nazism doesn’t fit at all with the minimal government model. On the other, it doesn’t fit with a social welfare model. Instead of the unreal left v. right diagram, it’s more like a opposition between Liberalism, Communism and Fascism.
    But, to be simplistic, people often call libertarianism “right-wing economics and left-wing social views.” Nazism, on the other hand, is “left-wing economics and right-wing social views.” Nazism and libertarianism are opposites, just as fascism and anarchism are opposites.

  3. In a perfect world we might say liberals are left wing, conservatives right wing, and nazis down wing.

    For me, left and right are positioned relative to some status quo with the left wanting to make radical change and the right wanting to keep things basically the same. So libertarians are usually more of the left than the right. For a time they were right wing when interventionist liberals were adding to the scope of government. But in the current context, stripping down the government has become the radical position rather than the conservative one. In this framework, modern nazis have right-wing goals (preserve/return to the “glorious” past where white men were in charge) but presumably left-wing approaches (although Trump is evidence that these folks just wouldn’t know what to do if they were given power).

    I guess the ultimate conclusion to draw is that the left-right distinction is too wishy-washy to be useful outside of a fairly narrow domain.

    • Pretty much agree. I think a good left-right political spectrum should measure how much state controls individuals on the extreme left and how much state does not on the extreme right. Anarchists would be on the extreme right. A lot of people (Nazis, Socialists, etc.) would be on the extreme left. It’s still rough and doesn’t have much room for nuances, but I believe it’s better than what we generally got.

      • I think libertarians like to think about elaborate refinements to the political spectrum that nobody else (or at least nobody in the mainstream) really cares about. Given that, I think the Nolan chart is about as good a compromise between accuracy/validity and being able to communicate with normal people as we can reasonably hope for any time soon. Mind you, that might be changing. I still don’t hold out hope for neonazis being considered anything but “right wing” by too many intelligent people.

      • These attempts to redifine left-right spectrum as “left – state controls individuals; right – state does not control individuals”, or the opposite (like Rothbard in “Confessions of a Right-Wing Liberal” and “Left or Right – The Prospects for Liberty”), don’t work in the real world, because, while some people are against state control as a matter of principle, NOBODY is in favor of state control as a matter of principle – usually the people who are in favor of more immigration control are against affirmative action; people who are in favor of environmental regulation are against the use of eminent domain to build pipelines; people who want laws against at-will employment are against right-to-work laws or laws making unions liable by the losses caused by strikes; people who want religious education at public schools are against sex education in public schools, etc.etc.

        In a general rule, people who think that the state should do “A” will prefer the state doing nothing instead of doing “the opposite of A”, meaning that in most issues you don’t have “statist” in one side and “liberals” at the other – what you have is “some kind of statists” in one side and at the other an alliance of “other kind of statists” and “liberals” (usually with the liberals siding with the weak “statist” faction).

        In the 19th century, in most of time we had, at the “left”, liberals+socialists, and at the “right”, conservatives; at the first half of the 20th century, the pattern were not much different, with socialists+communists+most of liberals (note that Popular Fronts included parties like French Radicals or the Spanish Republican Left and Republican Union) against fascists+conservatives+some liberals (note that Italian Liberal Party supported Mussolini); after WW II (and with the communists largely marginalized in the West because of the cold war), we had socialists versus conservatives+liberals; and, today, we have socialists+greens+communist+”alternative left” (like Greek SYRIZA) versus conservatives/christian-democrats+liberals+nationalists (yes, parties like the National Front and the Vlams Belang are usually subjected to the “cordon sanitaire”, but, at least in Western Europe, the few coalitions involving nationalist parties are with conservative or liberal parties)

        [Probably the reason why in some countries “liberal” is used with the meaning of “mild socialists” is because of the past of liberals + socialist alliance against conservatives]

  4. “why are conservatives, liberals and Nazis all classified as right-wing? What do all these groups have in common?”

    We could also ask what classic liberal and more classical (specially mainland European-style) conservatives have in common (I am talking about De Maistre, Bonald, Metternich, D. Miguel de Braganza, Maurras, Dolfuss, Franco, Salazar, etc., perhaps even Plinio de Oliveira, not about Reagan or Thatcher, or even about Russel Kirk or Burke). And perhaps we could came to the conclusion that, in the triad liberalism-conservatism-fascism, perhaps it is the liberalism who is the outsider, not the fascism.

    Similarities between fascism and (mainland European-style) conservatism:

    – Belief in hierarchies and inequalities as natural and desirable (in contrast with left-wing egalitarianism)

    – Connected to the former, open opposition to democracy and specially to the “number” (contrast with communist, who say that they are the true “democrats”)

    – Authoritarian leaders (absolute kings or dictators – but the contrast with communism is more complex here: in opposition, communists have the cult of the “collective”; but in power they usually make a 180º rotation and put the portrait of the leader in every place)

    – History as a cyclical or chaotic process were “decadence” could easily replace “greatness” (in contrast with the historical optimism of the left and also from many classic liberals, where the trend is to things become better and better, even if with some occasional setbacks)

    – Connected to the former, an Hobbesian view of life, as an eternal struggle, a perpetual “fire and blood”, where individuals, races, nations, are in a constant struggle with each other and only a combination of religion and brute force prevents us from cutting the throats of our neighbors; in internal politics, “law and order”; in foreign policy, militarism (contrast with both leftists and even some liberals, who are more prone to believe that, in the proper social environment – communism, welfare state, free market – will have some kind of harmony or at least peaceful cooperation)

    – Anti-materialism and anti-economicism, usually considering that both marxism and liberalism are the product of a materialist and utilitarist vision of the world, only worried about material welfare, without place to heroism, glory, religion, etc.

    General rule – Left-wing is Rosseau (“Man is good and is perverted by society; if we reform society, people will become almost automatically better”); right-wing (both conservatives and fascists) is Hobbes (“Man is bad, and, if anything, are the social institution who are preventing the collapse and the bloodsheed, but everything could be turned apart in few minutes”); liberals are someone in between.

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