Returning to Horseshoe Theory

A couple of weeks ago, I made a Facebook post complaining about someone using horseshoe theory in an argument regarding fascism. For those who aren’t familiar with the theory. Horseshoe theory believes that the political spectrum looks like a horseshoe with the “far right” and the “far left” actually being quite close together.

File:Political spectrum horseshoe model.svg - Wikimedia Commons
A diagram of horseshoe theory.

Ultimately, it is a theory used by centrists to attempt to persuade others (and themselves) that centrism is a superior political theory to politics both on the left and the right. Proponents of the theory will often turn to the authoritarian regimes of fascist Germany and communist USSR to suggest that, at their ridges, communism and fascism are essentially the same. Yet, this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of communism and fascism, those two historical examples, and the political left and right. Fascism retains ultranationalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, protectionist trade, strict hierarchical enforcement (i.e. race and class hierarchies), and a mixed/privatized economy. This was the case in fascist Germany where Hitler promised the bourgeois that he would outlaw labour unions in his rise to power.

“Hitler kept his promise to capital. After being declared Chancellor in January 1933 he outlawed both workers’ parties and the trade unions within a few months. Thousands of Social Democrats, Communists and trade unionists were arrested and murdered.”(Source)

Nazi Germany did not attempt to socialize the economy as proponents of horseshoe theory might have you believe. They were proponents of privatized industry – something far away from the socialist approaches in the USSR. Even though I don’t believe that the USSR represents an actual example of communism (particularly with and after Stalin it functioned as state capitalism), it didn’t hold ultranationalism, xenophobia, patriarchy, protectionist trade, strict hierarchical enforcement and a mixed/privatized economy as central tenants of its ideology (though it may have practiced some of those things). The only real similarity between the two regimes was that they were authoritarian. Proponents of Horseshoe theory might use this to suggest that authoritarianism is intrinsic to both the far right and the far left in an attempt to prop up their theory, but this is absurd. It reveals a complete ignorance of multiple political ideologies on both the right and the left: most notably anarchist or autonomous ideologies on the far left which completely shun any institutional political authority.

Thinking about the horseshoe theory, I’ve come to think that this discussion comes about because of a larger error which is taking place. I’ve come to see the idea of a “political spectrum” in general as one that is, itself, problematic. The political spectrum is not a fixed entity, and political theory or ideology do not need to condition themselves to fit into its structure. Horseshoe theory attempts to fit all of the political into a neat little classical liberal box which believes that all political ideology flows out of liberal/conservative dichotomy. Horseshoe theory reduces all of political ideology to notions of liberty (both social and economic, to varying degrees), but political ideologies tend to not fit into these structures. Both “leftist” and “rightist” politics should not be forced into the categories of “more liberty” or “less liberty”, but rather should be understood under the nuanced positions of each theory or ideology.

Attempts to map the political spectrum can get pretty messy…

Political ideologies do not need to neatly fit within a spectrum of the political for the spectrum itself is no more than a mere taxonomy, a device for organizing knowledge of various ideologies. To suggest that it is otherwise – thus granting the political spectrum ontological priority over political ideologies – would be to render the political spectrum a transcendental property. This is absurd. There is a multiplicity of political ideologies that are disparate from one another in a multiplicity of ways. These cannot be nicely mapped onto a structure that attempts to rule them. The ideologies exist prior to the structure, and the structure simply seeks to understand them.

Is this not true of most taxonomic classification? That they are useful as organizing devices, but fall flat on their faces when taken as universals?


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