s Venezuela sinks deeper and deeper into economic crisis, pundits the world over are furiously trying to diagnose the specific disease responsible for the country’s economic malignancy. Caracas’s downfall is directly linked to a 2014 oil price crash that struck a hard blow on an economy receiving 90% of its export earnings from oil, though corruption, economic mismanagement, and high social spending all played a role in the crisis. But conservative commentators were quick to lay blame on Venezuela’s socialist government, using the Latin American humanitarian crisis as a case study for “why socialism never works.”
The vilification of socialism is hardly a new conservative strategy, but it’s certainly one that has gained traction in today’s increasingly polarized political climate. The news has been peppered with headlines of conservative leaders not only blaming socialism for economic woes but also comparing the far-left ideology to the political beliefs behind Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party. In 2018, Syed Kamall, a British Conservative Party lawmaker, advised European Parliament members to remember that the Nazi party was a “strain of socialism” and referred to the fascist regime as “a left-wing ideology.” And earlier this year, American conservative Representative Mo Brooks referred to Hitler as a socialist while arguing on the House floor.
Left-wing politicians have been quick to clap-back at commentary that equates socialism to Nazism. Following Syed Kamall’s 2018 remarks, German MEP Udo Bullmann, then-leader of the social democrats in the European Parliament, denounced the comparison of Nazism and socialism as “disgusting.” Bullmann argued that the social democrats who opposed Hitler “paid for it with their lives,” noting that many members of social democratic and socialist parties who went against Hitler were murdered or imprisoned by the Nazi regime. And in the American House of Representatives, liberal Representative Steven Cohen condemned assertions that Hitler was somehow a socialist as “abominable and scary.”
As Politico notes, hasty suggestions that Hitler was somehow advocating a left-wing ideology that touts an emphasis on workers’ right is patently incorrect, since fascism and socialism reside on “opposite ends of the political universe.” However, not all commentators agree. In sharp contrast, according to philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye, the far left and the far right all but meet in the middle of a horseshoe-like configuration. Faye made the connection after observing the way the far-left, Communist Soviet Union and the far-right, fascist Nazi party came together to invade Poland and start World War II. Under horseshoe theory, Nazism and socialism are two political extremes that are closer to meeting in the middle than on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
However, when tested against additional evidence, horseshoe theory fails to hold water. Hitler was not only a fascist; he rejected socialism outright. Vox notes that at a 1926 conference, Hitler vowed that he would never assist “communist-inspired movements.” By 1929, Hitler rejected any socialist voices from within the Nazi party who argued for more left-leaning policies.
Proponents of the Nazism-equals-Socialism theory might be quick to point out that Hitler’s vision of “National Socialism,” sought to create a “people’s community.” However, this community wasn’t focused on returning the means of production to German workers, who Hitler cast aside as too simple to even understand socialism or Marxist doctrine in the first place. Ultimately, Hitler wanted to unify the “people’s community” under his leadership, excluding Jews, LGBT people, communists, and socialists. The resulting doctrine was fascism, the polar opposite of left-wing socialist ideology.
Horseshoe theory doesn’t just fail when it comes to Adolf Hitler. During the first round of France’s 2017 presidential elections, leftist candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon was criticized for failing to oppose the far-right National Front party when he said he wouldn’t support centrist Emmanuel Macron. Similar criticism was dished at American supporters of Bernie Sanders who refused to back Hilary Clinton in her 2016 presidential face-off against Donald Trump. In this example, onlookers make the claims that supporters of the far left are perhaps willing to support the far right for the sake of maintaining an anti-establishment voice. However, as author Noah Berlatsky argues, such efforts to link the far left to the far-right muddies actual differences in ideology across the political spectrum. Worse, it creates vulnerabilities in the understanding of comparative politics that allow centrists to prop up far-right fascist parties.
Earlier this year, an unprecedented number of far-left and far-right parties gained seats in the European Parliament. Though Italian leader Matteo Salvini bragged about the dominance of the far right in Brussels after his right-wing Northern League party earned 34% of the vote in Italy, many onlookers noted that it was unlikely that the new far right parties in the European Parliament would be able to form a working coalition. In light of this analysis, it seems even more difficult to imagine, for example, the German Greens propping up Salvini’s Northern League if the Italian party can’t even get along with other right-leaning organizations. Perhaps proponents of horseshoe theory would be wise to look to the recent EU elections as an example the next time they try to forward claims that the far left and the far right are really more similar than they seem.