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Socialism leading to fascism

Extremes Meet: A Norwegian Case

Norwegian Nazi leader Vidkun Quisling arriving from Germany on 18 February 1942. Photo: Riksarkivet.

Professor Øystein Sørensen has written an interesting book about five Norwegian socialists who became fascists...

Some time ago, a ‘fact-checker’ for Washington Post rejected, a bit condescendingly, the proposition that Hitler’s national socialism was a branch of socialism. In response, I pointed out that the original programme of Hitler’s party (whose full name incidentally was the Nationalist-Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany) included many socialist ideas, although it is true that the Nazis rejected Marxist universalism. They replaced the clarion call for the workers of the world to unite with what they regarded as the national interest, or better still, the national destiny. Instead of expropriating the means of production, Hitler wanted to nationalise the people: transform independent citizens into obedient conscripts. National socialism and fascism were, I submitted, outgrowths of traditional socialism, not the tools of big business (as traditional socialists had argued). The link between the German Nazis and big business is explored, and largely rejected, in a meticulous study by American historian Henry Ashby Turner.  

Socialists Turning Nazis

I also found occasion to criticise a recent contribution by two left-wing historians in Iceland, Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir and Pontus Järvstad, to a book about anti-fascism in the Nordic countries. They were eager to associate the main conservative-liberal party in Iceland, the Independence Party, with the Icelandic Nazi movement of the 1930s. In order to do so, they ignored the crucial distinction which should be made between the Icelandic Nationalist Movement (Thjodernishreyfing Islendinga) founded by an eccentric farmer in 1933 and the Icelandic Nationalist Party (Flokkur thjodernissinna) which was formed by young enthusiasts in 1934 in explicit opposition to the Independence Party. The Nationalist Movement was a harmless debating club, whereas the Nationalist Party could be considered a fascist party. The activists of that party could not accept the fact that some members of the Nationalist Movement wanted cooperation with the Independence Party. Their Nationalist Party however never gained any significant support, for the last time participating in elections in 1938.

In their eagerness to associate the Independence Party with the Icelandic fascists, Kristjansdottir and Järvstad pointed out that the first leader of the organised labour wing of the Independence Party had for a while belonged to the Nationalist Party. They overlooked (or were unaware of) the fact that this man, Sigurdur Halldorsson, had been a founding member of the Communist Party of Iceland, established on orders from Moscow in 1930. This should not come as a surprise. Many fascist leaders in Europe had been traditional socialists or even communists before their conversion: Benito Mussolini in Italy, Oswald Mosley in the United Kingdom, Jacques Doriot in France and Nils Flyg in Sweden. Their catchphrase had been that if you loved your country you had to be a nationalist and if you loved your people you had to be a socialist. As Mosley wrote as a disillusioned old man in a letter to The Times on 26 April 1968: ‘I am not, and never have been, a man of the right. My position was on the left and is now in the centre of politics.’

The Example of Five Norwegian Socialists

A remarkable study of the drift from radical, traditional socialism to fascism or national socialism is found in a book by a distinguished Norwegian historian, Professor Øystein Sørensen of Oslo University, Fra Marx til Quisling: Fem sosialisters vei til NS (From Marx to Quisling: The Journey by Five Socialists to the Norwegian Nazi Party). It was published in 1983 and reprinted with a postscript in 2012. Unlike the Icelandic example mentioned above, the five Norwegian socialists whom Sørensen discussed had been quite prominent in the socialist movement. Eugenè Olaussen (1887–1962) was editor of the left-wing newspaper Klassekampen (The Class Struggle) for ten years, and member of parliament, first for the Labour Party and then for the Communist Party of Norway. Sverre Krogh (1883–1957) was editor of the socialist newspaper Arbeidet for three years, and member of parliament, first for Labour and then for the communists. Halvard Olsen (1886–1966) was Chairman of the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions from 1925 to 1934 and deputy leader of the Communist Party of Norway. Håkon Meyer (1896–1989) was Chairman of the Social Democratic Youth League and active in the left wing of the Labour Party. Albin Eines (1886–1947) was editor of several socialist and communist newspapers.

Between April 1940 and May 1945, Norway was occupied by Nazi Germany, and the Norwegian Nazi Party, led by Vidkun Quisling, actively supported the German occupation force. (Collaborationists in German-occupied Europe were called quislings after the notorious Norwegian Nazi, and the illustrator Ragnvald Blix drew a famous cartoon of Quisling on his way to meet Hitler, presenting himself to a German officer: ‘I am Quisling.’ The officer politely asked: ‘And the name?’) After the war, the five renegade socialists studied by Sørensen were all convicted of treason, receiving prison sentences. But it would be misleading to explain their conversion as mere opportunism. They had already before the war turned against traditional socialism, mostly for the same reason as Mussolini: They remained collectivists, but believed that it was the nation rather than the class which constituted the real collective. Indeed, Olaussen, perhaps the most articulate writer in the group, thought that fascism was the only authentic socialism. Looking back in 1945, he wrote: ‘It is a special pleasure for me to observe that many of my best and most loyal associates over the years at Klassekampen have discovered authentic socialism, and that we have on a national, Norwegian basis seen the implementation of the best in our ideas, cleansed of all the Jewish slag with which Marxism had tarnished it.’

Fascists Do Not Understand the Idea of Spontaneous Coordination

The fascists, both in Norway and elsewhere, were of course unlike traditional socialists in that they did not insist on full public ownership of the means of production, although their position was based on pragmatic considerations rather than on the right to keep one’s earnings. While fascists thus tolerated private property, albeit in a restricted form, they tended to reject capitalism as a system, not least free trade and limited government. Sørensen quotes a Norwegian fascist magazine from 1941: ‘When push comes to shove, the international solidarity principle is basically false. A longshoreman in Oslo or Hamburg does not have the same lifetime interests as a coolie in Shanghai or a farmhand on a South American plantation.’ Quisling and his followers, including the five renegade socialists Sørensen discusses, found little difference between Stalin’s state capitalism and Western ‘plutocracy’, both of which, they believed, were controlled by Jews. Olsen wrote in 1943: ‘The struggle against Bolshevism has also to be a struggle against capitalism. Therefore the national-socialist part of Europe is fighting on both an Eastern and a Western front.’ With his thorough analysis of the relevant literature, Sørensen shows, in a scholarly and detached manner, the common ground between traditional socialism and fascism, not least the adamant rejection by both groups of individual liberty, diversity and tolerance, and the utter incomprehension of Adam Smith’s idea that there might be such a thing as spontaneous order, coordination without commands.