Well, van Onselen-gate had an interesting sequel.
As readers and general Twitter hangers-around will recall, nice liberal Peter van Onselen made a dumb comment about Nazism having been a socialist movement last week, and all hell descended upon him. People pointed out that the Nazis may have called themselves a national socialist party, but North Korea calls itself a democratic republic, Australia calls itself a common-wealth, and McDonalds calls itself a restaurant. Also, that Hitler and the Nazis were bound up with big business from a very early stage.
Then it got funny. PVO had a big sooky la la, and stormed off Twitter because he’d been criticised and sledged, and went to think things over at … The Australian, a monopoly capitalist media organisation. Telling, as well as funny, because Twitter — as a place with minimal rules, a simple framework, and ease of entry — is exactly the sort of place classical liberals should love. Twitter is what Hayek called a catallaxy: a place of minimum necessary laws, where free exchange between individuals gives rise to spontaneous orders.
Faced with actual freedom, van Onselen fled to the protection of capital, and in doing so, he echoed the actions of liberals in 1920s Germany. For a while they stood fast against power, trying to preserve the freedom of the Weimar Republic; then, when it started to get too hot, they made their accommodations with monopoly capital. Monopoly capital then of course made its accommodations with the Nazis. How generous of PVO to actually enact Chesterbelloc’s great criticism of liberals: that they will not even take their own side in an argument.
Mind you, some of the defence was almost as idiotic. Socialism is simply a philosophy advocating that a significant section of the economy should be in collective public hands, rather than individually privately owned (yes, yes, don’t @ me about Chesterbelloc). It can be filled with all other sorts of content. It’s absurd and unhistorical to say there was no socialist strand in fascism and Nazism, in their early years. Indeed there’s a far more interesting story to it.
Until 1914, the European Left in the Second International comprised a wide range of parties, from nationalist and non-Marxist groups such as the British Labour Party, across to Bolsheviks, and those to the left of them. When WWI broke out, the internationalism they had all pledged to one another fell apart rapidly, as national patriotism took over. The Bolsheviks and a few other groups clung to internationalism, and when the former triumphed in 1917, a split between the two lefts was instantiated.
Some of those who had reclaimed their nationalism in the split, then felt a kind of glorious release — a permission to be as chauvinist as they wanted. The general anti-Semitism of the period became, in them, virulent; patriotism morphed into a worship of violence, force and domination. For a while, they retained their socialist, redistributive economics. In 1916-17, Italian fascism, emerging from the collapse of Italian pacifist socialism — which had been led by one Mussolini — could be said to be economically “on the left”, for about six months.
The nationalist parties that bubbled away in Germany in the aftermath of defeat included all sorts of radical socialists. But it didn’t last long in either place. Mussolini quickly made a deal with business, and created the philosophy of corporatism — the state as a body, each with its different organs, all of whom are represented as such. Nazism quickly put race and anti-Semitism at the very centre of its politics, minimised and then exterminated its socialist faction, and innovated integrated monopoly capitalism. The Nazis invented freeways, network television, FM radio, spectacular sporting events, concentration camps tolerated by a national public, and Fanta. Sound familiar? Yes, the Nazis invented capitalist modernity.
Classical liberals like to argue that fascism emerged from the dirigiste tendencies inherent within socialism. This is nonsense. For 20 years in the 20th century, the German Social Democratic Party was a laboratory of theoretical innovation about how a genuinely democratic society could be run, and a how a democratic transition to socialism could occur. Fascism and Nazism’s dictatorial nature was a reaction to this — predating the Bolshevik victory in 1917 — arguing that democracy led to weakness and the lost destiny of humanity (conceived in racial terms).
Socialism of a national character went in quite another direction. After repeated defeats in the 1920s, and looking askance at the Bolshevik progression, the Swedish Social Democratic Party — influenced to a degree by Australia; after the Harvester judgement, “the Australian system” was discussed as a socialist strategy for a decade in Europe — refocused on national rather than class lines, and proposed socialism as “the people’s home”. This emphasised universality of services and treatment, generating equality of condition, or the pursuit thereof. This in turn came back to Anglo nations after World War II as a template to be applied to creating a post-war order.
It was socialism, the left, that took the democratic road. It was the right — including liberals — who took the dictatorial one. Today, that is happening again, as the right face a rising tide of demand for change, after decades of neoliberalism and neoconservatism have delivered us stagnation and war.
As one can see in Trump’s America, all sorts of liberals will scuttle to be with the power, whether it’s a blowhard president, or monopoly media which restricts that pesky right of reply to its favoured contributors. It’s happening all over. One of the lessons from the fire last time is for those tempted by power, to understand the degree to which it is happening in themselves.