Submitted Question: Why do conservatives frequently argue that the Nazis were left-wing?
Before there were a French Revolution and a right and left wing, Europe was illiberal, but not anti-liberal: the official cosmology of the European Universe was that everyone lived under the soverignty of God, whose temporal authority was shared between the Church and the state. The balance of power (theoretically) between the two offset the risk of tyranny in each that would reflect what was effectively the tyranny of the universe as depicted by the religion.
Europe never recovered politically from the Reformation. There was no way to legitimize pluralism nor sacralize the status of the mercantile classes, and the de facto powers of centralized states and economic clout were never reconciled to a metaphysical world order that everyone could get down with.
Then came 1789. Did you ever notice, or wonder, how strange it is to carve up the political universe into right and left wing? I don’t just mean the oft-noted point that left and right is better reflected across a matrix than a single line spectrum. I mean the idea that one “region” of political space was suddenly held to be “correct” at the expense of the other. And here’s the key: the very concept of the political left means resistance to nature. This is the Christian legacy—Christianity is the only religion in world history that openly and proudly advocates a certain resistance to nature as the touchstone of true spirituality (I don’t necessarily mean this derisively), and the anti-Christian leftists have never quite grasped the irony of their own militant Christianity. (They usually use “religion” and “Christianity” interchangeably, and in their mental universe, the resistance buried in Christianity is ipso facto; it’s the beholdenness to spiritual and political authorities outside themselves that is up for debate).
The problem, for people not amenable to anarchy, is that the right has only ever really been, could ever really be, resistance to the resistance to nature. That’s just more resistance, not actual submission to nature. As soon as you have to call yourself a “conservative,” the jig is already sort of up: inherited wisdom and institutions are authorless, and the moment they have to defend their legitimacy they have been moved into the jurisdiction of those who dispute not just their authority but the very grounds by which they derive it. Isn’t it strange that the Christian Church has reflexively and unquestioningly found the right more hospitable than the left, given the rather radical, not-friendly-to-temporal-wealth-and-power-sounding the protagonist of the Gospels comes off? Religious people can sniff out the devil in the gut. And they as a rule correctly sensed what the state-worship built necessarily into the very concept of the left had in store for the sovereignty of God. The excesses of the Church and the Aristocracy over fifteen hundred years hardly seems to add up to a week in Stalin’s Russia. The more religious one is, the more he will instinctively ally with someone, anyone, that recognizes an authority outside himself: at least the Satanism he unleashes might be managed.
Fascism was self-consciously a “third way” between capitalism and communism, which was a lot harder to dismiss for many European intellectuals before World War II than it is now. True fascism, as of Mussolini and Franco, was really reactionary in spirit, and sought to accommodate the changes recognized as inevitable to the preservation of the rapidly disappearing world of the nineteenth century. Nazism was something different, and really was the exception that proves the rule. They were “socialists” in word and deed: the only difference between national and internationalism socialism is self-awareness. They believed in public works, full employment, abortion/birth control (and much besides), and reserve of the last word on all matters commercial as well as political to the state.
So here is the difference: real conservatives believe your life belongs to God, liberals believe your life belongs to yourself, and socialists/statists believe your life belongs to the state. Why do people claim the Nazis were left-wing? Because the simple ability to get out of the way of your own savagery does not, in some people’s minds, place you further to the right. The Nazis were determinists, who believed one’s primary weight was carried rather by genes than deeds, not to mention narcissistic, almost childlike thugs who felt no less than more “properly” left-wing socialists that their self-pity was spiritually and politically significant. Conservatives aren’t into militarism and ersatz masculine or aristocratic virtues for their own sake; they’re into personal responsibility, the sovereignty of the family, faith not just in the spiritual wisdom of the elders but the improbability of your own private heresy being wiser than the inherited orthodoxy whether religious or political, and above all, a willingness to defend these things, if necessary, with force. If you’re not willing to die for them, you won’t have them long anyway. This can make them more or less liberal given the circumstances, but never statist or socialistic.
Do you notice how the Catholic and Protestant schism, like the Sunni/Shi, or even the Hindu/Buddhist, if you read some of the conservative denunciations of the Buddhist heresy in the classical literature, are so ferocious? Someone wholly other is only a political, not a spiritual threat; their heresies don’t threaten anyone who matters. Take a look at how fascists and communists talk about each other, and see if you can’t better read between the lines. The last 1% of their theology is so contentious only because the other 99 is taken for granted.
Michael Beraka is a passionate teacher, writer, and researcher at the University of Chicago Divinity School.