What is Nazism? What does it mean to be a Nazi? How are Nazis different from conservatives, liberals, or socialists?
Most Americans would probably answer that Nazism is bad. Many would agree that it is racist. But beyond that, are there any more specific definitions of Nazism? Is Nazism really no different from racism, or is there something more to it?
Make no mistake, the Nazis were bad. But the notion that there is something unique to their badness has the odd effect of isolating Nazism from other ideologies. At the same time, the word “Nazi” is a general-purpose insult, and was actually a term of abuse, similar in meaning to “hick,” in Germany even in Hitler’s day. (Nazis referred to themselves as National Socialists or members of the NSDAP.)
As a result of all this, in the year 2021, we find Nazism difficult to understand. Like the term “fascism,” it is both separate from everything else, but also deployed so often as a childish insult that it has lost almost all meaning. But the Nazis were a political party with a political program as well as a certain voter base, one which is essentially identical to the voter base of the modern Republican Party (as well as moderate Democrats). The typical Nazi voter, in the last “free” election which took place in Weimar Germany, was older, petite bourgeois (a professional and/or property owner), a resident of the countryside, Protestant, male, a member of the largest ethnic group, rabidly anti-Marxist (yet critical of big business), and probably suffering from some kind of psychosis brought on by childhood abuse or neglect. (Plenty of Nazis were also educated.) Remarkably, the percentage of people who voted for the Nazis in Weimar Germany’s final election is similar to the percentage of Americans who vote Republican in presidential elections. And, like modern Republicans and Democrats, the Nazis were bankrolled by the wealthiest and most powerful industrialists in the country (as well as American industrialists like the Rockefellers).
The political needle the Nazis needed to thread involved winning over enough of the 99% to allow their party to win elections. Because the Nazis could not point the finger at their wealthy financial backers — who were the obvious source of Germany’s problems — they turned instead to scapegoating Jews, just as Republicans blame the world’s problems on Muslims, Mexicans, and welfare queens. These days, in fact, Republicans and moderate Democrats have joined hands in condemning violent antifascists, a term which is often a codeword for black people who do not know their place, or who have been led astray by outside agitators. It is wrong to burn down buildings if people get killed, according to these two parties, but it is right to kill people if buildings are destroyed. To destroy entire countries is okay — to allow hundreds of thousands of Americans to die from a preventable disease isn’t structural violence at all — but when you throw a brick through the window of your local bank, you’ve just committed a heinous act.
The proper way to change things, according to this logic, is to write your congressperson and vote — even though the overwhelming majority of antifascist uprisings occur in cities which have been run entirely by Democrats for decades — and even though the Democratic Party fights far harder against its left wing than it has ever fought against Republicans. Many future leftwing insurgents in America will probably point to the 2016 and 2020 Democratic Primaries as the last time they were foolish enough to believe in electoralism in America.
Like any political party, the Nazis also made specific electoral promises. Hitler told the wealthy he would get the Jewish labor organizers out of the factories; then he told the workers that he would stop Jewish businessmen from squeezing them. And, as we have seen, he did indeed deliver on these promises! At the same time, however, Hitler privatized numerous state-owned industries virtually the moment he took power, a move which would be applauded by America’s Republicans and moderate Democrats today. (What is Obamacare except the government threatening you with a fine if you fail to purchase private insurance?) Essentially, Hitler used race to win a plurality in that last election — just as both Republicans and Democrats deploy race in different ways to energize their respective bases today. Republicans are fighting, on behalf of white people, to get supposedly lazy immigrants and black people off everyone’s backs; while Democrats are fighting for the right of a tiny minority of diverse wealthy people to exploit everyone else.
Neither major political party in America appears to possess the slightest interest in American workers. The Republicans draw their support mostly from rural business owners and landlords, while the Democrats are heavily favored by educated professionals — the professional managerial class, who may count as workers, though they are at the very top of the labor hierarchy. (I myself am a younger disaffected PMC who comes from an ethnic minority, meaning there is a good chance I identify as a socialist.)
When we consider the attitude of these various parties toward capitalism, we can likewise see just how similar or different they are. Nazis, Republicans, and Democrats are all fervent supporters of capitalism. Only a tiny minority of elected Democrats occasionally questions the free market’s wisdom. The number of self-proclaimed Marxists in elected office in America could probably be counted on one hand. (I am one of them.) Mussolini said that a better term for fascism would be “corporatism,” and by this definition America is run almost entirely by fascists. Some are polite, others less so. But all have the same goals: more money for the rich and powerful.
In describing Nazism, scholars have pointed to its reactionary nature, as well. Nazis, conservatives, and fascists are all anxious to return to an imaginary golden age. Trump wanted to make American great again, while the unofficial slogan of the Biden campaign is “a return to sanity.” (Blue MAGAists have frequently been caught saying online that Biden truly will make America great again, word for word.) Personality cults are likewise involved, here, and I think few people would disagree if I argued that Trump, Biden, and Obama are all worshipped like gods by large numbers of Americans. To so much as raise an eyebrow at their records is to be accused of insanity by one wealthy person or another. Try discussing Obama’s drone program or construction of concentration camps with your wealthy friends or relatives, and see how long it takes them to ask you to visit a shrink. (At the same time, in our deeply sick society, I think it’s actually pretty unusual to feel calm or at peace with anything, and I believe that everyone could use a good therapist.)
There are exceptions to all of these rules, of course: a small number of young workers supported the Nazis, just as some young workers support Republicans today. (The Nazis called themselves National Socialists specifically because they were trying to attract support from workers.) I think workers who support Nazis can be explained by that psychosis I mentioned earlier, religious indoctrination, as well as the domination of the corporate media, which has no desire for you to ever think any positive thoughts about socialism. (Why would business owners favor an ideology which insists on the destruction of their class?) This is becoming a serious problem for the American elite, as about half of the American people under the age of 40 nonetheless have a positive view of socialism (however vaguely defined) and one sixth — or about fifty million people — agree with the statement: “abolish the police.” According to one study, if 3% of a country involves itself actively in a revolution, that revolution has a strong chance of success. (About 3% of the country is involved in the police or military. If large numbers of American soldiers supported a socialist revolution, that revolution would probably prevail. In the 2020 primary, Bernie Sanders received the strongest support from members of the American military — stronger even than Trump.)
Since the capitol riot last month, the moderate Democrats who are now in power (as well as their many, many supporters in corporate media) have decried the spread of “extremism” rather than fascism or Nazism. They are likewise embarrassed by any discussion of the class orientation of the capitol rioters, most of whom came from wealthy, educated backgrounds. It is easy to see that moderate Democrats view the insurgent left as far more of a threat to their power, which is precisely why they ceaselessly complain about extremism rather than fascism. As vaguely as people understand the term “fascism” today, the term “extremism” can be applied to anyone who opposes the neoliberal project of corporatizing every last aspect of human existence (while stamping it with a rainbow flag to deflect criticism).
If we don’t stop them, we can expect that modern Democrats will follow the path of the liberal SPD which lost Weimar Germany to the Nazis: rather than attacking American Nazis, moderate Democrats will use the Nazi police force to attack socialists, and eventually find themselves completely outmaneuvered by the monster they have unleashed — a group of people who have almost the same worldview and class background, and who only really differ in their level of politeness.