“The philosophy of the Nazis, the German National Socialist Labour Party, is the purest and most consistent manifestation of the anticapitalistic and socialistic spirit of our age.”
So wrote Ludwig von Mises in “Planned Chaos” in 1947, later added as an epilogue to Mises’s “Socialism” (originally published in 1922), which noted economist Tyler Cowen calls “the best and also historically most important critique of socialism, ever.”
Someone can argue that Mises, the most important critic of socialism of all time, is wrong about the Nazis. One cannot reasonably claim that calling the Nazis socialistic—which they themselves did and which Mises as a critic also did—somehow is a stupid or incoherent or ridiculous position. Yet various Colorado leftist activists have unreasonably claimed that.
Let’s back up. How did a debate over whether the Nazis are socialists become an election-year issue among Colorado politicians and activists?
First I’ll note that this is not a new debate. Two years ago, I wrote about aspects of the history of socialism and debates surrounding it in Colorado. In that article, I noted the resistance to calling the Nazis socialists. I quoted George Reisman, a student of Mises, who wrote, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that Nazi Germany was a socialist country and that the Nazis were right to call themselves National Socialists.”
Media bias rears its head
Erica Meltzer at Chalkbeat has the story about how that debate became a political issue this year. In August, in the context of state history standards, Steve Durham, a Republican member of the State Board of Education, said at a meeting, “People don’t know and have a right to know that this [Nazi] party was and is a socialist party.”
Unfortunately, rather than write a straight account that acknowledges the disagreements among experts, Meltzer chose sides and wrote a biased account. Let us pause on that point.
Meltzer wrote, “Historians say Durham is wrong about the Holocaust and wrong about the roots of genocide. The idea that Nazis were socialists is ‘a lie,’ according to David Ciarlo, a University of Colorado history professor who studies German politics. ‘It’s completely wrong.'”
I guess if Meltzer wishes to take the word of a random history professor over that of literally the most important critic of socialism of all time that is her business. But she ought not present her poorly informed opinion in a news article as thought it were the final word.
Meltzer’s “historians say” line, and the variant “experts say” that she also uses, almost always is a sign that the journalist is writing a biased report. The line relies on an implicit “all” where obviously not all historians agree. If she meant “some” or “most” or “prominent,” she should have said so—and offered some evidence to back up her claim.
Meltzer doesn’t even bother to quote anyone when she calls Durham’s remarks “misleading historical claims”—she just lets her personal opinions shine through.
Meltzer also quotes State Rep. Dafna Michaelson-Jenet, “co-sponsor of legislation requiring Holocaust education statewide,” as saying of Durham’s claims, “It feels very antisemitic, quite frankly.” It “feels”? It is remarkable that Meltzer straight-up defames Durham as making antisemitic remarks, without offering a shred of evidence to support the charge, and then hides behind a quote to pretend that she is reporting the news.
My remarks should not be taken as a blanket criticism of Meltzer, who is otherwise a top-tier education reporter in Colorado. And while most of her article in question is fair and informative, in the respects discussed she strayed from basic journalistic standards. Notably, she did provide important additional context in a Twitter thread.
My remarks also should not be taken as a general defense of Durham. Meltzer provides adequate context to conclude that Durham tried to tie all genocides to socialism, which is ridiculous. To give but one example, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 arose mainly from tribal conflict. Meltzer points to a helpful timeline of genocides published by the Department of Education.
A confusion of concepts
Meltzer inadvertently offers a clue as to why some people are so opposed to recognizing the Nazis as socialists. Consider her following line:
“The Nazis rose to power as a racist right-wing party virulently opposed to socialism and communism, according to historians interviewed by Chalkbeat and resources provided by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.”
The error here is to conflate socialism with its leftist, Communist variants. That is precisely the error that Mises sought to correct by pointing out that the Nazis also are socialists—different sorts of socialists, but socialists nonetheless.
Compare: Just because members of the Crips have killed members of the Bloods, doesn’t mean that both are not street gangs. Given the inherently violent nature of socialism, we should expect different groups of socialists to clash. Obviously fascists are not the same as Communists, but that hardly means that both are not socialist. “Socialism”—essentially, near-absolute government control over the economy—is the broader term that encompasses both camps.
To use a different example: One cannot prove that fascists are not socialists by pointing out that they warred with Communists, any more than one can prove that lions are not mammals because they fight with hyenas. Pointing out the many differences between lions and hyenas hardly overcomes the fact that they also share much in common.
At any rate, the differences between the Nazis and the Communists can be overstated. Both waged campaigns of mass slaughter. The most prolific mass-murderer in history, in terms of total number of victims, remains Chairman Mao, followed by Stalin and then Hitler. The Soviet Union engaged in “ethnic cleansing,” as Anne Applebaum points out. Despite hostilities, the Nazis and Soviets signed a non-aggression pact. And Marx was notoriously antisemitic.
The Gazette weighs in
The debate took off with the Gazette’s editorial backing Durham and declaring bluntly, “Hitler was a socialist.” The article offers good evidence that the Nazis were types of socialists.
However, the Gazette also uses the article to smear its political opponents. Consider this line: “Self-proclaimed socialists, such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez…should never be compared to Hitler. They are not killers. They merely share Hitler’s political identity and much of his fundamental economic and social ideology.” So the editorial says not to compare those people to Hitler and then immediately does just that.
Or consider this line: “Hitler…obsessed over caste and race, much like The New York Times and followers of its 1619 Project.” Whatever you think of the New York Times’s take on race, the Gazette’s comparison is unfair.
Unsurprisingly, Colorado’s left exploded.
Following are some of the remarks made about the Gazette editorial by Colorado leftist activists, politicians and journalists:
Ian Siverii: “What the fuck is this? Honestly. No one with a brain believes this. Nazis were German White Nationalists, much closer to today’s GOP than anything on the left, ever. You can cherry-pick all you want, this is an embarrassment and you should be ashamed of yourself.”
Also Silverii: “When is enough enough? When will the responsible professional journalists at this horseshit partisan billionaire ego trip of a website stand up to the editorial board and say ‘we will not be associated with this publication any longer?'”
Laura Chapin: “Let’s be very clear what the [Gazette] editorial validating historically wrong statements about Hitler is about: demonizing the left so the work and the violence of Jan. 6 can continue.”
Scott Wasserman: “There’s a reason Hitler put the word ‘socialism’ into the name of his political party: to trick people. Its ironic, dangerous, and sad that [Colorado Politics Opinion, affiliated with the Gazette] and the Colorado Springs Gazette are falling for that exact same trick 102 years later.”
Colorado Newsline reporter Chase Woodruff: “Hitler jailed socialists for their own protection, you see, and murdered them by accident. When he railed against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’ he was kidding. These signs [saying ‘Death to Marxism’ in German] say ‘Marxism is cool’ and ‘No seriously we like Marxism, don’t Google Translate this.'”
Westword reporter Conor McCormick-Cavanagh: “Hitler was not a socialist!”
Colorado Times-Recorder reporter Heidi Beedle: “When the Gazette’s editorial board isn’t pushing content from the Heritage Foundation or the Manhattan Institute they are telling people Hitler was a socialist, just giving the dumbest people a giant platform the spread ahistorical bullshit.”
State Rep. Steve Woodrow: “Anyone who wants to teach children that Nazis were actually socialists should stfu about indoctrinating children—you literally support misinforming kids about Nazis in the hopes they don’t see how similar you are to them.”
State Rep. Emily Sirota: “Hitler rounded up socialists and communists and sent them to the concentration camps. They were made to wear the red badges of political prisoners. This editorial is deranged and despicable.”
Some of these criticisms are fair to a degree. It seems to me that Durham and the Gazette are taking an opportunity here to embarrass the left, and judging from the response, they’ve succeeded. But regarding the connection between Nazism and socialism, the criticisms from the left are way off base.
We can tell that Dave Flomberg’s column, published by the leftist Colorado Times-Recorder, gets off on the wrong foot when its headline declares, “Hitler and the Nazi Party were fascists; full stop.” Obviously the Nazis were fascists, but that misses the point. Calling the Nazis fascists is entirely compatible with calling them socialists. That’s Mises’s point.
Flomberg then accuses Durham and the Gazette of antisemitism with no evidence.
Flomberg says the claim that the Nazis are socialists “is an abject lie that’s been at the fringes of pedantic political punditry for ages. It’s almost universally only been espoused by right-wing wonks desperate to shift the discussion away from the horrors of fascism into a pillorying of the philosophy of socialism.”
The grain of truth here is that socialists of the left long have sought to deny the fact that Nazism is a variant of socialism. That makes strategic sense for those who want to promote socialism while claiming that any troublesome real-world example of it is “not real socialism.”
Thankfully, Krista Kafer wrote a sensible take for the Denver Post. She writes, “Clearly, socialism/communism and Nazism are not the only ideologies that encourage and justify atrocities. Quibbling about where to place Nazism/National Socialism on a reductive left-right political continuum misses the larger point. Under the right conditions, groups of human beings with power and motivation will exterminate other human beings.”
Ideology underpins the debate
Mises was one of the foremost critics of socialism precisely because he was one of the foremost champions of liberal capitalism. He had no problem identifying Nazism as a type of socialism precisely because he saw both Nazis and Communists as enemies of liberal capitalism. Hence, by Mises’s worldview, the similarities between Nazism and Communism are more fundamental than their differences.
Obviously neither a Marxist nor a fascist will agree with Mises about the fundamental similarity between the two movements.
Some on the left will point to a dark irony regarding Mises. The so-called Mises Caucus of the Libertarian Party has become fascist-adjacent. As Andy Craig writes, “Under the direction of the so-called Mises Caucus, the LP has become home to those who don’t have qualms about declaring Holocaust-denying racists ‘fellow travelers’ and who don’t think that bigots are necessarily disqualified from the party.”
By my lights, using Mises’s name for this group constitutes a profound injustice to Mises and a betrayal of everything Mises stood for. But Mises is no longer around to defend himself or his legacy.
Some on the left will argue that capitalism as Mises endorses it inevitably descends into fascism. I think that’s totally wrong and that Mises was right: Unchecked socialism of any variety inevitably descends into brutal totalitarianism. If you agree with Marx and the leftists, you will not want to categorize Nazism as a type of socialism; if you agree with (the real) Mises, that’s a perfectly natural grouping.
I’ll end by throwing out a detail about the elections, and I’ll leave readers to make of it what they will. Brian Peotter, the Libertarian candidate for U.S. Senate, is far more of a Trumpist religious conservative than he is a libertarian. He was endorsed by Republican Ron Hanks, who lost the primary to Joe O’Dea. Peotter also was endorsed by the Colorado branch of the Communist Party USA, partly on grounds that Peotter opposes U.S. support of Ukraine in the face of brutal Russian aggression. As they say, you couldn’t make this stuff up.
Hopefully through the heated debate over the relationship of Nazism to socialism, more students as well as adults in Colorado will pay more attention to the totalitarian atrocities of the last hundred years. Then maybe we will be better-prepared to declare, and mean it, Never Again.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com
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