The 20th Century – Left vs. Right

In The Illusion of Left And Right we saw that in politics the terms “Left” and “Right” originated in the French Revolution of 1789. We also saw that probably the most basic principle that differentiated these political positions was change. Those on the Right wanted to preserve the existing order while those on the Left sought radical change.

Those on the Left in the French Revolution declared the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and in the Reign of Terror quickly set about murdering or imprisoning anyone they thought might disagree with them. The end result was the dictatoship of Napoleon and wars that decimated much of Europe.

Good Intentions

There is an important principle here. Good intentions do not guarantee good results (or as the old saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions!“).

Jumping ahead to the 20th century now we have the Russian Revolution of 1917 which led to the Soviet Union and another bloody mess. In The Illusion of Left And Right we saw the Soviet Union was right up there with Nazi Germany in murdering its own citizens.

No one debates that Communism, Socialism, and the Soviet Union were solidly on the Left. Before World War 2 National Socialism and Fascism were mostly seen as belonging on the Left. This changed radically after the war and discovery of the horrors of the Nazi death camps.

Somehow the Nazis and the Fascists had to be put on the Right so as not to taint the Left with the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau. It is now politically “correct” to see the political spectrum something like this:

One view of the political spectrum

The official name of the Nazi Party in Germany was Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei  (NSDAP) which translated means “National Socialist German Workers’ Party.”

Were the Nazis on the Left or the Right?

Despite having “Socialist” in its official name, detractors will say that the Nazis were not true Socialists. It is true that Hitler murdered some of the more radical Socialists in the Nazi Party who wanted to nationalize industry in the Night of the Long Knives in 1934. However this had little to do with Hitler being a fan of Capitalism or the Right. It had everything to do with eliminating any rivals or threats to his absolute authority.

Some will argue that some business leaders in Germany supported Hitler and the Nazi Party before the war. It is true that some business leaders were a significant factor in Hitler’s rise to power. Although that is true, one has to fully understand the motivation of at least some of them. The late Ludwig Von Mises put it this way:

“The fact that the capitalists and entrepreneurs, faced with the alternative of Communism or Nazism, chose the latter, does not require any further explanation. They preferred to live as shop managers under Hitler than to be “liquidated” as “bourgeois” by Stalin. Capitalists don’t like to be killed any more than other people do.”

“Progressive” Attacks on Capitalism Were Key to Hitler’s Success, Ludwig Von Mises

There was no option of “free enterprise” for these owners in Germany at that time. Hitler allowed them the illusion of still owning and running these enterprises so long as they did the bidding of the state. The alternative was to end up in the concentration camps themselves. Many large companies in Germany utilized slave labor during the war and more than a few German businessmen were less than repentant after the war.

The point is not that German businesses were blameless or just victims of the Nazis. The real point is that whatever else one may say about it, it was not an example of free enterprise or a market economy. It was most certainly not what American Conservatives stand for.

No one knows what the Nazis would have done if they had won the war. Would they have kept the same system where titular business owners were kept as “shop managers” (Betriebsfuhrer) or would they have went ahead and nationalized businesses? Like I said, no one knows the answer to that because very fortunately they lost that war.

Communists & Nazis – More Alike Than Different

The Nazis under Hitler and the Soviet Communists under Stalin were very much alike in that both were absolute, totalitarian states run by ruthless dictators. Both murdered millions of their citizens. Neither allowed truly free enterprise or had any real respect for individual rights or private property. The socalled “ownership” of private business could be revoked at any time if it was no longer convenient to the state.

So if the Nazis and the Soviet Communists were both on the Left why did the Nazis try to destroy the Communists? Again the answer should be obvious. It had nothing to do with Nazis being on the Right. It was simply a fight over who would run things. No matter who won you would have a totalitarian state where everyone and everything would be subservient to the state.

There is another obvious reason why the Nazis (and Fascists) were on the Left. Like the Left in the French Revolution they were for radical change. The Nazis were not fans of protecting the existing order of the Weimar Republic which Hitler despised. To Hitler large businesses were just a tool to achieve his goals of power and conquest.

In reality, in the 20th century “Left” vs. “Right” may not have been really useful ways of understanding states like Nazi Germany or even the Soviet Union. It may not even be very useful to understanding our own politics today right here in America in the 21st century. That will the subject we will look at next.