Politics & Media
Mar 25, 2024, 06:28AM

Were the Nazis Leftists?

“Yes and no” is the answer, Jordan Peterson. The left-right spectrum is the merest hooey.

Jordan peterson dangerous mind.jpeg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Shockingly for a man who’s right so infrequently, Jordan Peterson's claim that "no one" has been able to determine whether or not the Nazis were leftists is true. Admittedly, his rightness only lasts a sentence or two before he goes off the rails, suggesting that AI could help us decide. But no system, artificial or organic, has sufficient intelligence to answer the question of whether the Nazis were leftists or not. It's not clear enough to be tested, and the basic terms don’t refer. It’d be like asking ChatGPT what percentage of non-existent skunks are yellow.

As always, Hitler's problem is everybody's: no one can determine whether anyone is anywhere on the left-right spectrum, because the basic taxonomy by which we identify political positions, systems, parties, and so on is complete nonsense. It has no meaning. Yet most (?) people woke up this morning still arranging their political opinions and identities around this miserable conceptual void.

I've done a shitload of work attacking various characterizations of the spectrum as entirely fictional or disingenuous that I won't repeat right now (but see links below). For example, lots of leftists characterize the spectrum by saying that right-wingers are pro-hierarchy, while the left is pro-equality. What is this, comedy? The left is in favor of hierarchies of state power, totally committed. That's the only sensible way to define “socialism”: government domination of the economy. It’s as profoundly hierarchical a vision as has ever been articulated. The left, by and large, favors hierarchies of expertise and education and thinks they should coincide with the hierarchy of state power they adore. However, it's true that the left favors the vocabulary of equality, even as it repudiates the reality, and as I'll suggest below, maybe the real distinction between left and right is a matter of favored jargons.

That the right favors free markets and left state economies seems fairly plausible as a start. But now let's consider right-wing Catholicism, for example, which isn’t about free markets at all. And let's ponder the Nazis once again, who weren’t free marketers either. A column in the Washington Post by US Army War College professor Ronald J. Granieri says flatly that the claim that the Nazis ("National Socialists") were leftists is "untrue." And then: "Although the Nazis did pursue a level of government intervention in the economy that would shock doctrinaire free marketeers, their 'socialism' was at best a secondary element in their appeal."

You might not notice by the time you finish the column that he's straightforwardly defined socialism in terms of state control of the economy, and straightforwardly admitted that the Nazis provide a clear example. That is, in one sentence he says it's obviously false. Then in the next sentence goes, "It's true, but..." Obviously, we're not going to be able to conduct the argument at all if you won't hold still for a minute.

There’s no way to characterize the left/right spectrum or any position along it in a coherent way: it's a useless conceptual mess from which the world has suffered to the tune of millions of deaths. I’m not going to argue that again, but will say this: lob me proposed definitions of left and right on X (@CrispinSartwell) that (a) distinguish them in a principled way and (b) make sense of the paradigm cases. I’ll annihilate them. It's going to be easy. Or respond to the challenge on YouTube.

Various strategies might occur. For example, it often struck me that, though leftists and rightists can’t be distinguished in virtue of any specific beliefs or positions, we could try what's sometimes known as an "ostensible definition." Perhaps we can’t define the difference between red and blue as we experience them. If you ask me to describe the difference I might have recourse to metaphors and feelings: red is hot and blue cool. More promisingly, though, I might say: “red looks like that” as I point at something, and then, “blue looks like this” as I wave at something else. See how they're different? That I can't define them verbally with precision doesn't matter too much in most situations if we agree on basic examples.

We can start piling up names (Stalin, Mao, Chomsky, Biden against Mussolini, Joseph McCarthy, Ronald Reagan, Trump). On this approach, let's say, the left-right spectrum moves from Mao on the distant left to Hitler on the distant right. Maybe you think that's unfair to whatever side you're on. Suggest other avatars, then.

At any rate, this would define right and left as matters of degree: you’re more or less left or right as measured by your proximity to Hitler and Mao. But however, just as Jordan Peterson asserts and our War College professor flatly agrees (even as he says he doesn’t): it's really not clear whether Hitler was a socialist and hence a left-winger or not. A sheer definition of right as “whatever Hitler thought” would be an arbitrary stipulation, not a representation of how the term is actually used. That is, even the very clearest cases—the paradigms to which we might have recourse in a definition—are totally obscure.

But the left will be happy to characterize the right as "approaches Hitler" and the right will be happy to define leftism as "approaches Mao." So that's half the battle, I guess. Now your political spectrum just runs from totalitarianism to totalitarianism and leaves you to choose. If you ask me, that's just what this left/right exercise is for: it's a little menu of oppressions, and you get to check the boxes for the oppressions you favor, or (you know) the oppressions you yearn for sexually. For there's no sense trying to distinguish the left-right spectrum from the sexual kinks that give rise to it.

Now, I want to point out that, though leftism might be defined as “approaches Mao” and rightism as “approaches Hitler,” Hitler and Mao approach each other: as statists, militarists, nationalists, mass murderers, and as dictators going mad somewhere in the concrete world they created. Mao killed in the name of class, Hitler in the name of race, and perhaps we could distinguish left from right in terms of what sort of collective agencies they adore or invent or try to annihilate. When they come for you, however, all that yip-yap might appear to be irrelevant.

I think the best way to distinguish left from right is by favored terms, tropes, rhetorical flourishes, vocabularies. You talk different. But you think fundamentally the same, comrades.

Why I'm Not a Leftist

Why I'm Not on the Right

The Left-Right Political Spectrum is Bogus

from my book Entanglements: A System of Philosophy

  • Are we better off than we were 4 1/2 years ago when I explained that left and right are tired concepts therefore Andrew Yang may become president? https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/the-limits-of-left-and-right Arguably, thinking about the definitions, the problem is not that left and right are meaningless, but rather that each evokes a cluster of attributes (eg, right = affinity for some real or imagined past condition; left = affinity for progress beyond benighted past) that are common but not always present in each case.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment