Daniel Hannan and the convenient myth of fascism’s socialist roots
As sure as night follows day, there’s another article along from a right-winger telling us that the “Left’s cultural ascendancy” has led to the incorrect and unfair allocation of fascism to the right-hand side of the political spectrum. This time it’s Daniel Hannan MEP‘s turn:
One of the most stunning achievements of the modern Left is to have created a cultural climate where simply to recite these facts is jarring. History is reinterpreted, and it is taken as axiomatic that fascism must have been Right-wing, the logic seemingly being that Left-wing means compassionate and Right-wing means nasty and fascists were nasty. You expect this level of analysis from Twitter mobs; you shouldn’t expect it from mainstream commentators.
Hannan doesn’t actually indicate who these “mainstream commentators” may be, but he seems sure enough of his assertion, so let’s go with the flow.
A key part of this regular leftie-baiting ritual is to say that fascists are really just socialists, and that socialists trying to tar right-wingers with the fascism brush is all part of the clever plan to get away with. Cue Hannan:
‘I am a Socialist,’ Hitler told Otto Strasser in 1930, ‘and a very different kind of Socialist from your rich friend, Count Reventlow’.
No one at the time would have regarded it as a controversial statement. The Nazis could hardly have been more open in their socialism, describing themselves with the same terminology as our own SWP: National Socialist German Workers’ Party.
Almost everyone in those days accepted that fascism had emerged from the revolutionary Left. Its militants marched on May Day under red flags. Its leaders stood for collectivism, state control of industry, high tariffs, workers’ councils. Around Europe, fascists were convinced that, as Hitler told an enthusiastic Mussolini in 1934, ‘capitalism has run its course’.
It always strikes me as odd in these circumstances that Adolf Hitler, who in general doesn’t have a tremendously good reputation for rigorous self-analysis and intellectual honesty, should be seen as such a trustworthy guide to his own ideological leanings. It is, after all, just possible that the Nazis used socialism as their key descriptor in an attempt to win votes from the Social Democratic Party, much as the BNP now seek to gain votes from Labour by claiming, as Hannan indeed notes, that they represent Labour values of old*. (Possibly the best contemporary representation of this dynamic is to be found in Hans Fellada’s semi-autobiographical A Small Circus, published in 1931 before the final rise to power of the Nazis.)
Further, the idea that being opposed to capitalism, and claiming that it has had its time, automatically makes you a socialist is really quite bizarre – it’s as though other forms of social structure had never existed. Hannan’s inability/unwillingness to see beyond a simplistic historical bipolarity - if the Nazis weren’t capitalist, they must have been socialist – is precisely the error he now claims “lefties” are making when he talks about the ‘far-right’ epithet applied to the BNP (for the record, I don’t think the BNP have any particularly fascist features).
In fact, almost any basic reading about Nazi ideology will tell you that it was primarily rooted in a weird anti-modernist, anti-materialist mysticism, a jumble of 19th century Romantic yearning for a return to nature with a bit of Sun worship thrown in. As GL Mosse set out right back in 1961, the so-called ’socialist’ elements around centralised planning, and even the growth of the military industrial complex, were a later addition, given the dawning realisation that for a glorious Aryanism, based on quasi-feudal social relations, to win out, ideal needed to be translated into action.
In his first book, H. F. K. Gunther, later to become the chief racial expert of the Third Reich, sketched such a social ideal. Human rights have today pre-empted the place of human duties. These duties, formerly expressed in the loyalty of the knightly gentleman to his king and generalized throughout society in the web of reciprocal loyalties between landlord and peasant, must once again become the cement of social organization. To Gunther, ” the community, the public good, demands that every profession fulfill the work which is its due.”
Manifestly, such a social ideal found in all these men, continued the impetus of romanticism. It was reminiscent of that Bavarian deputy who earlier in the XIXth century believed that ” Love ” would cure the tensions between laborer and employer. In an immediate sense it was a part of the ideal of an organic society which reflected organic man. Langbehn was explicit in his insistence that true individualism could only be realized in such a social order. He considered liberal individualism a part of materialism, dissolving society into incompatible units rather than knitting it together. Paul de Lagarde summarized this in one of those phrases which made him so popular: ” That man is not free who can do as he likes, but he is free who does what he should do. Free is he who is able to follow his creative principle of life; free is that man who recognizes and makes effective the innate principles which God put within him.” Such freedom led to an organic view of man and the state. Not only was liberalism mistaken, but socialism as well. Social democracy, Diederichs claimed, was mechanistic; a true people’s state was viable only if it reorganized society in a more meaningful manner, according to the aristocratic principle, the only environment in which men could unfold their real inner selves.” Langbehn concluded that this corporate structure not only fulfilled the aristocratic principle but was also in tune with the Germanic past.
Significantly, this ideal urged these men to advocate only one concrete social reform: each worker should be given his own plot of land. Again, the reform’s justification was sought not in terms of material welfare within the framework of the movement’s general ideology – factory work removed man from the all-important contact with nature. Yet these men desired the transformation of their ideology into deeds. It is of great significance that while Diederichs used the word ” theosophy ” in the first prospectus of his publishing house, he came to be critical of that movement-not because it was spiritualist, but because it was too purely speculative in nature. The feeling about infinity must lead to deeds, and to his important journal, he gave the name Die Tat, ” The Deed.” Paul de Lagarde had already made it plain that while something was accomplished through the understanding of true ideology, it was even more important to transform such ideals into serious practical action. It was an ” idealism of deeds” which such men desired, deeds which helped to create a nation resting upon this idealistic foundation. Through such a concept, ideas of force came to play an important role in this ideology. For Langbehn, art and war went hand in hand. His proof was by a method representative of his whole work. Shakespeare’s name meant, after all, shaking a spear, and this for him was proof of the connection between art and war. Moreover, in German spear (Speer) and army (Wehr) are words which rhyme. Thus in the Germanic past, true individual development had gone hand in hand with war.
The fact that Nazism as it was played out was a cocktail of bizarre belief and latterly borrowed practice may be hard for us to get our heads round at this remove, but it doesn’t make it any less real as a phase of history. For Hannan now to claim that Nazism was simply an extreme form of socialism, simply because the Nazi party bought in some centralised (though chaotic) planning and Mefo bill spend-and-lie economics to make its weird vision a reality, is quite simply wrong.
Similarly, the idea that simply because Mussolini and other Italian fascists had bought into some revolutionary socialist activity before the first world war doesn’t mean that the Italian fascism that emerged post-war was simply a continuation of that trajectory. We know that Mussolini, for example, was influenced by the turn of the century, Nietszche-influenced ‘counter-culture’, a reaction to the modernity of ‘reason’ and ‘progress’ i.e. the antithesis of Marxist thought. Further, as Philip Morgan sets out, Mussolini and his fascist colleagues (like Hitler) were heavily influenced by their experience of the trenches:
In the sublimation of the war experience was rooted one of the most powerful myths of the war, that of ‘combatantism’….[The] idealised relationship between junior officers and their men. comradely yet elitist, was the basis of the hierarchical organisation they wanted to impose on their own societies. The point was that the hierarchy was new. Based on performance, the merit earned by self-sacrificing service to the nation, it replaced the conservative hierarchy of birth and wealth (p.25).
Again, Hannan’s claim that fascism emerged as a linear consequence of socialist doctrine and pre-war practice, with no other material or ideational influence, is simply wrong.
Having got history quite wrong Hannan makes his call for reconciliation:
Whenever anyone points to the socialist roots of fascism, there are howls of outrage. Yet the people howling the loudest are often the first to claim some ideological link between fascism and conservatism. Perhaps both sides should give it a rest.
At least we can agree on this, though a call for us all to calm down a bit coming at the end of a piece dedicated to doing just the opposite does jar a little, I have to say.
When I wrote my somewhat controversial piece on the potential for the rise of a 21st century version of fascism within Hannan’s own Conservative party, I did so explicitly on the basis that fascism and Conservatism have no core ideological linkage, though there may be some operational method crossover. While Anthony Painter of the Extremis project and I disagree on many things, we both see a real danger of a nasty extremism emerging within the Conservative party post-2015 – an extremism alien to Hannan’s own liberal/free market tradition (I’d argue there’s a tendency to the exclusionary within liberalism, but that’s another blog).
Whether or not any such emerging extremism might come to be defined as fascistic – that will depend on the precise form in which it emerges, and I am not implying that Anthony agrees with me on this - any danger of its emergence, under the leadership of the Tory party’s darker forces suggests that Hannan might be better employed at home, not engaging in attacks on the Left which are both historically ignorant and hypocritically framed as calls for peace.
* I am reminded by @sohopolitico that Hitler also said in 1930: “Our adopted term ‘Socialist’ has nothing to do with Marxian Socialism. Marxism is anti-property; true Socialism is not. As noted, Hitler may not be a very reliable source on Hitler.