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Who said this? “I have put into practice what these peddlers and pen pushers have timidly begun … the whole of National Socialism [was] based on Marx.” And this? “What Marxism, Leninism and Stalinism failed to accomplish, we shall be in a position to achieve.” And this? “How, as a socialist, can you not be an anti-Semite?

You probably know or can guess that it was none other than Adolf Hitler. But if you persist in thinking that the National Socialist German Workers’ Party was not really, truly a party of socialists, you are wrong. Daniel Hannan discusses the connection at length in “Leftists become incandescent when reminded of the socialist roots of Nazism.” Before you accuse Hannan (or me) of violating Godwin’s Law, read his piece. He’s simply noting an historical fact. He’s most sensitive about use of the term “right-wing” as a synonym for “authoritarian,” but in fact it may be authoritarian along some dimensions.

Still, it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to learn that the authoritarian Nazi regime was packed with socialists. Socialism is a philosophy based on the preeminence of society over the individual, emphasizing public provision of goods and services, and control (if not ownership) of the means of production. In such a regime, central authority must supplant decentralized decision-making to a significant extent. The word “authoritarian” is fitting. From Hannan:

In fact, authoritarianism was the common feature of socialists of both National and Leninist varieties, who rushed to stick each other in prison camps or before firing squads. Each faction loathed the other as heretical, but both scorned free-market individualists as beyond redemption. …

Authoritarianism – or, to give it a less loaded name, the belief that state compulsion is justified in pursuit of a higher goal, such as scientific progress or greater equality – was traditionally a characteristic of the social democrats as much as of the revolutionaries.

The Italian etymology of “fascism”, implying the strength of a “bundle” relative to individual pieces, also suggests the socialist roots of the totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and in Italy under Mussolini. Left-wing fascists or right-wing socialists? Take your pick. In a strong sense, the labels applied today make no sense, including the modern misuse of the term “liberal” to describe a preference for a strong central government. Perhaps labels are unavoidable, but words usually have meaning apart from the latest political usage. Unfortunately, distorting or co-opting words for political purposes has a long and dishonorable tradition.