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Were the Nazis Really Socialists? It Depends on How You Define Socialism

In establishing national socialism, the Nazis sought to redefine socialism yet again.

Image credit: Bundesarchiv

It’s not every day a sitting member of Congress quotes Mein Kampf on the House floor, but that’s what Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama decided to do on March 25 following Secretary Barr’s briefing on the Mueller Report. In his speech, Brooks then referred to Adolf Hitler as a “socialist,” drawing a connection between the Fuhrer and democratic socialists. Democrats were quick to denounce Brooks’ claims; the Nazis were far-right fascists and thus far removed from socialism—especially democratic socialism. Right?

The Nazis supported big business and even privatized a few government services—all things that would make Karl Marx roll in his grave.

It’s complicated. The Nazis didn’t call their ideology “national socialism” because they thought it sounded good. They were fervently opposed to capitalism. The Nazi Party’s chief propagandist, Joseph Goebbels, even once remarked that he’d sooner live under Bolshevism than capitalism. The Nazis instituted major public works projects such as the Autobahn, promised full employment, and dramatically increased government spending.

On the other hand, the Nazis were virulently anti-communist. That sentiment, along with German nationalism and anti-Semitism, was one of the main pillars of Nazism outlined by Hitler in Mein Kampf. Once in power, the Nazis supported and were supported by big business, and they even privatized a few government-operated services—all things that would make Karl Marx roll in his grave.

Evolving Definitions

So why, then, would the Nazis call themselves “socialists”? In part, it’s because the term “socialism” has been constantly evolving and changing since its inception. Some varieties of socialism bear no resemblance to the works of Karl Marx. According to The Counter-Revolution of Science, by Friedrich von Hayek, the term “socialism” was coined in the 1800s by French philosopher Henri de Saint-Simon, who believed that industrialization and the Scientific Revolution called for a complete rearrangement of government and society.

Writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution, Saint-Simon envisioned a totalitarian society ruled by a technocratic elite made up of industrialists, academics, businessmen, and scientists. Early socialists were primarily concerned with improving society through central organization and scientific discovery, and it wasn’t until Marx that socialism became associated with class struggle.

In establishing national socialism, the Nazis sought to redefine socialism yet again.

Marx derided these early socialists as “utopian socialists,” and, along with Friedrich Engels, he developed his own “scientific socialism.” Marx saw classes locked in a perpetual struggle for material resources and believed that capitalism would inevitably lead to a global revolution of workers against the bourgeoisie. The victorious proletariat would then establish a communist society where there were no classes and communal ownership of the means of production. Marxist-Leninists came to more narrowly define “socialism” to mean the intermediary period between capitalism and communism where the state owned the means of production and centrally managed the economy.

In establishing national socialism, the Nazis sought to redefine socialism yet again. National socialism began as a fusion of socialist ideas of a technocratically-managed economy with Völkisch nationalism, a deeply anti-Semitic form of German nationalism. In their burgeoning ideology, the Nazis saw both capitalism and communism as unhealthily materialistic and based in selfishness rather than national unity, traits they negatively associated with Judaism. Oswald Spengler, one of the main intellectual influences of Nazism, went so far as to call Marxism “the capitalism of the working class.” The Nazis’ redefinition of socialism was realized through the Völksgemeinschaft, which served as a means of connecting the individual to the state.

The Nazis Weren’t Strictly Socialist

While the Nazis were disdainful of capitalism, this disdain did not extend to capitalists themselves. Class conflict figured little into the Nazi conception of socialism, with the exception of the party’s Strasserist faction, which was purged during the Night of the Long Knives. Instead, Nazis considered both capitalists and workers necessary, occupying their own important roles within the Völksgemeinschaft. The Nazis also distinguished themselves from Marxists in their support for private property, although this came with some caveats.

The Nazi government did not own the means of production in Germany, but they certainly controlled them. They set up control boards, cartels, and state-sponsored monopolies and konzerns, which they then carefully planned and regulated.Democratic socialists don’t believe in total government ownership of the means of production, nor do they wish to technocratically manage the economy. Industrial leaders hardly objected. In surrendering control of their enterprises to the state, they insulated themselves from market forces, ensuring they’d remain at the top of their respective industries.

As the early utopian socialists, Marx, and the Nazis show, socialism is constantly being redefined, and its various incarnations can be radically different from each other. This trend continues today with the resurgence of democratic socialism and politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Sanders and AOC point to their version of socialism as providing individuals with “economic rights,” with the government providing health care, college tuition, and various other services.

Unlike Marxists, democratic socialists don’t believe in total government ownership of the means of production, nor do they wish to technocratically manage the economy as the Nazis did. Instead, according to the Democratic Socialists of America, they “believe that workers and consumers who are affected by economic institutions should own and control them.”

Top-Down vs. Bottom-Up Solutions

The wide variance between utopian socialism, communism, national socialism, and democratic socialism makes it remarkably easy for members of each ideology to wag their fingers at the others and say, “That wasn’t real socialism.” However, there is one common thread in each of these definitions of socialism. From Saint-Simon to AOC, all self-described socialists have shared the belief that top-down answers to society’s problems are superior to the bottom-up answers created by the free market.

Marx hated the free market for obscuring the value of workers’ labor, while Hitler hated the free market because it brought cultures closer together and made warmongering difficult. AOC believes the free market is incapable of responding to climate change, and like her forebears, she plans on using the state as a vehicle for dramatic social and economic readjustment.

So, were the Nazis socialists? Only according to themselves. But then again, as far as different forms of socialism go, that’s pretty much always been the case.

  • Michael received his B.A. (2016) from the University of Michigan in history, with a specialization in East Asian history.  His thesis, “Reverse Course: The Secret Battle for the Japanese Economy”, focused on the ideological disputes involved in the reconstruction of the Japanese economy after World War II and won the William P. Malm Award for Outstanding Student Writing in Japanese Studies and the Arthur Fondiler Award for Best Undergraduate Thesis.  He worked as an intern for the Cato Institute and in Fall 2016.