An old specter is again haunting Europe – neo-fascist and neo-Nazi movements and political parties are returning to prominence.
This feature in Britain’s The Guardian notes an increase in attacks on Jews in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Further east and south, Nazi-like parties are surging in the polls in countries like Hungary and Greece, as this New York Times piece reports, accompanied by their supporters’ many verbal assaults and physical beatings on immigrants from Asia and Africa.
It is all disgusting and disheartening. But there are serious forces at work that those of us who advocate freedom, individualism, and tolerance must grasp in order to be able to respond accurately and decisively.
Much of the commentary focuses on the racism. In Greece, for example, supporters of the Golden Dawn party, which now has elected members sitting in parliament, have expressed their desire to “rid the land of filth.”
More precisely, though, the commentary should focus on the ethnocentrism. The hostility sometimes targets individuals for their skin color, but more often it is focused on religion, nationality, and financial status, all of which cut across many racial categories. Seeing individuals as interchangeable members of racial groups is part of the problem, but treating individuals primarily as members of ethnic groups is another major part. Biological and cultural collectivism are both in play.
But much of the commentary, unfortunately, misses another huge part of the phenomenon. One hint of this is that the neo-fascist parties are typically labeled as “far right” or “hard right” parties, as the writers for The Guardian and The New York Times do. And this is where the widely-discredited left-right way of presenting the political spectrum and a lack of research get many commentators into trouble.
Take a look at this Golden Dawn manifesto, for example, as stated by one of its articulate advocates. Right there, in plain English and Greek, Point 8 states:
“The state should have control over private property so that it is not dangerous for the survival of the People or can manipulate them. The economy should be planned so that it serves the national policy and ensures the maximum self-sufficiency without dependence on international markets and control of any multinational companies.”
Packed into that are four key sub-points:
- State control of private property.
- A government-planned economy.
- Isolation from international markets for capital, goods and talent.
- Foreign companies not allowed or subject to extra controls.
All of those are profoundly anti-capitalist and part of the long tradition of socialism – the other socialism, that is: National Socialism. As the manifesto’s authors put it in Point One, Golden Dawners are “opposed both to communist internationalism and universalism-liberalism.”
“National Socialism” of course takes us back to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and forces us to reflect on the lessons of history. That history is alive in Greece, as Golden Dawn supporters gave Hitler salutes and sang the Horst Wessel song outside the parliament in Athens, and as the #HitlerWasRight hashtag now enjoys lively Twitter usage. (And, parenthetically, as Hitler’s Mein Kampf was a best-seller in Turkey in 2005.)
A particular notion of human identity and a particular notion of economics are both important to national socialism. And according to its supporters, there are clear and important connections between the two. We might disagree, but to understand them we cannot ignore the persistence of that packaging and its continued popularity.
Go back to 1920 when the German Worker’s Party, as it was then called, and its leader Adolf Hitler announced their new program and name-change to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. The NSDAP program listed 25 points: 14 of the 25 points itemize economically socialist demands. These include the nationalization of industries, the state-confiscation of lands, government-run welfare, retirement, education and healthcare, the abolishing of charging interest and stock market speculation, and so on.
In speeches and pamphlets, Hitler and Goebbels regularly attacked free-market capitalism and endorsed socialism.
“We are socialists, we are enemies of today’s capitalistic economic system for the exploitation of the economically weak, with its unfair salaries, with its unseemly evaluation of a human being according to wealth and property instead of responsibility and performance, and we are all determined to destroy this system under all conditions.” That’s Adolf Hitler in a 1927 speech.
“The worker in a capitalist state — and that is his deepest misfortune — is no longer a living human being, a creator, a maker. He has become a machine. A number, a cog in the machine without sense or understanding. He is alienated from what he produces.” That’s Joseph Goebbels in a 1932 pamphlet, with rhetoric inspired directly from one of his intellectual heroes, Karl Marx.
So, yes, the Nazis were racist and ethnocentrist, but they were also socialist. (Commercial advertisement: I discuss the socialism of national socialism in detail in my Nietzsche and the Nazis documentary and book.)
The same holds for the fascist variant. Benito Mussolini was an orthodox socialist of the Marxist variety from his teen years until his 30s. He joined the Italian Socialist party, joined with unions to organize the workers, and wrote pamphlets urging violent revolution.
World War I and a reading of Friedrich Nietzsche triggered Mussolini’s break with Marxism. He was struck by the intense nationalistic fervor the war wrought: Humans are moved most, Mussolini judged, not by workers-of-the-world class fellowship but by their ethnic identity as Italians, Germans, and Russians. So the socialist cause had to be recast in nationalistic terms to be successful in Italy.
What Mussolini took from his reading of Nietzsche was that socialism could not wait for the masses to rise up – it required an iron-willed leader to impose it top-down.
So Mussolini’s fascism was to be socialism for Italians, just as Hitler’s Nazism was to be socialism for Germans. Here’s Mussolini in 1932: “As regards the Liberal doctrines, the attitude of Fascism is one of absolute opposition both in the political and in the economical field” (my emphasis added).
Golden Dawn and the others are the ideological grandchildren of Hitler and Mussolini. There is an organic connection between the fascism/nazism of the early twentieth century and the fascism/nazism of the early twenty-first. Its advocates have always taken both the nationalism and the socialism seriously.
That is to say, they take collectivism seriously. Racism and ethnocentrism are collectivism applied to human identity: You are not primarily an individual, they say, but a member of a group. And socialism is collectivism applied to human action: You are not an economic free agent, it says, but an asset belonging to society. An effective response to the sorry phenomenon of neo-fascism in Europe must target both elements.
The antidote to collectivism is individualism: Individuals are primarily individuals, and they should judge themselves and others primarily in terms of their individual beliefs, character, and actions. And individuals are free agents who should be free to chart their own courses economically and in life generally.
Don’t miss last week’s column: Is Life Unfair? My Challenge to the Best Tennis Player in the World
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Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at StephenHicks.org. For future columns on The Good Life, feel welcome to send your philosophical questions and moral dilemmas to him at ProfessorHicks@EveryJoe.com.