Europe: Character of the far right threat

In a whole series of elections in Europe, far-right parties have made significant gains. The recent votes for Le Pen in France and the Pim Fortuyn List in the Netherlands have rocked the establishment parties and provoked mass anger and opposition. LYNN WALSH looks into the nature of this development.

THE STARTLING ENTRY of Le Pen into the second round of the presidential election sent a shock wave through France and the whole of Europe. Associated with the nightmare of the Nazi past, Le Pen dismisses the holocaust as a ‘detail of history’ and voices anti-Semitic, racist views. For many, a run-off between Le Pen and Chirac raised the horrifying spectre of a neo-Nazi taking over the presidency of the fifth republic, though objectively this was ruled out by the balance of political forces.

Almost simultaneously, elections in the Netherlands on 15 May produced a huge vote for the new right-wing List Pym Fortuyn, campaigning for an end to immigration and a law-and-order drive against crime.

These two results appear to add momentum to the tide of far-right election victories throughout Europe. In Italy, Berlusconi and his National Alliance (AN) have been back in power since May 2001, resting on the support of the xenophobic Northern League (led by Umberto Bossi), and the National Alliance (led by Gianfranco Fini, formerly leader of the fascist MSI). In Austria, Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party (FPÖ) won 26.9% of the vote in 1999, and the FPÖ (but not Haider himself) was taken by the People’s Party (ÖVP) into the new coalition government.

In Denmark the People’s Party, headed by Pia Kjaersgaarg, took 12% of the vote in the 2001 legislative elections. One of its proposals is to ban two foreigners of the same nationality from marrying if they are under 21 years old. In the last Norwegian elections in 1997, Carl Ivar Hagen’s Progress Party won 15.3% of the vote. In Northern Germany, judge Ronald Schill’s ‘Law-and-Order’ Party (PRO) took 19.4% of the vote in the 2001 Hamburg city elections.

In Belgium the Flemish Block (VB – Vlaams Blok) took 9.9% in the parliamentary elections, gaining 15 MPs. In October 2000, the Vlaams Bloc (led by Frank Vanhecke, who has a neo-Nazi past) became the biggest party on Antwerp city council, taking 20 out of 50 seats. And this list is far from complete.

What does this trend mean? Does it signal a resurgence of fascism? The growth of the far right certainly poses a threat to the working class. Racism, unless effectively countered, opens up dangerous divisions within the working class. If Le Pen were to come to power in France (extremely unlikely in the foreseeable future), he would launch brutal attacks on the working class, just as Berlusconi is doing in Italy. But a Le Pen government, though a serious setback, would not be a totalitarian fascist regime. It would be a right-wing capitalist government – and would provoke massive resistance from the working class and other strata. Despite the neo-fascist antecedents of many of the leaders of the far-right parties, these formations are not fascist-type parties with their own para-military forces (apart from small groups of thugs that still shelter within them).

One political commentator, Yves Mény, wrote in the left newspaper, Libération (24 April): "The chief characteristic of the FN-style populism is that the party’s membership embraces the fascist leanings of the party’s leadership". In reality, however, the FN has become significant only because of its electoral support, not its small membership, and most of its votes are protest votes against the ‘plural left’ and other establishment parties, not support for Le Pen’s Nazi sympathies and racism. A common factor in the electoral advance of the far-right, in fact, has been the broad rejection of social-democratic governments and coalitions. Significantly, after the defeat of the ‘purple coalition’ in Netherlands, its leader, the Labour Party’s Wim Kok (a former trade union leader), confessed that European social-democracy was ‘on the ropes’. This is the ground from which the far-right has been able to harvest its votes. The new far-right parties are not merely a growth of older neo-fascist groups, but a new political phenomenon – a far-right populism that has arisen from the conditions of the 1990s.

Leaders like Le Pen and Haider have past links with neo-Nazi organisations and there are still elements of racist, authoritarian ideology in their politics. But they have grown on an electoral level, presenting a respectable face, distancing themselves from the tiny neo-fascist groups on the fringes of far-right politics. They appeal to disillusioned sections of workers on issues of unemployment, urban decay, and crime. Some of the neo-fascist groups, who use physical violence, are still active within parties like the Vlaams Blok in Belgium and shelter behind the parties of Berlusconi’s coalition in Italy. None of these neo-Nazi or neo-fascist groups, however, have been able to make significant electoral gains under their own banner.

Conditions do not exist for a resurgence of fascism

THE FAR-RIGHT parties have grown as an electoral phenomenon, not as paramilitary forces on the lines of the fascist militias of Hitler and Mussolini. The fascist leaders of the inter-war period mobilised sections of the ruined petty bourgeoisie, unemployed workers and the lumpen proletariat as a battering ram to physically smash the organisations of the working class. They used election successes to legitimise the power they had already built up on the streets, using their electoral gains to reinforce their physical assault on the working class. When they came to power they installed totalitarian regimes that extinguished the workers’ organisations and all elements of democracy. Fascism was victorious on the basis of the defeat of several waves of proletarian revolution, the result of mistaken leadership and especially the false policies of Stalinism.

This is not the situation today. The capitalist class has no intention of unleashing fascist forces, and the balance of class forces is against any reappearance of a totalitarian right-wing movement.

The bourgeoisie burned its fingers with fascism in the inter-war period, or rather burned its arms and legs. Fearing the international spread of revolution after the success of the Russian revolution, the capitalist class in Italy and Germany effectively stepped aside to allow Mussolini and Hitler to smash the working class. They imagined that once the fascists had done their dirty work, the capitalists could resume business as usual. However, fascist leaders, especially Hitler, had established an independent power basis and followed their own destructive logic. That resulted in the unprecedented death and destruction of the second world war. In its aftermath, capitalism lost Eastern Europe and China to a strengthened Stalinist bloc. The bourgeoisie will not make the same mistake again. It will undoubtedly be prepared, in certain periods, to use neo-fascist groupings as provocateurs, to divide workers and provide a pretext for state repression. In the event of counter-revolution, however, they would rely on their own state apparatus, on the lines of Pinochet’s military regime in Chile, rather than the classical model of fascism.

Before the second round in France, big business came out decisively against Le Pen. Earnest-Antoine Seillière, head of the big-business organisation Medef (Mouvement des Enterprises de France), said "[Le Pen’s] programme would provoke a profound economic decline, a strong increase in unemployment, an unprecedented financial crisis, boost inflation and impoverish everyone". The head of the American Chamber of Commerce, which represents US companies with €41 billion investments in France, warned that a Le Pen presidency would turn the country into "a wasteland very fast… US companies would be pulling up stakes, as would everybody else". (International Herald Tribune, 30 April)

Despite the swing to the right electorally, the balance of social forces does not favour a resurgence of fascist reaction. The European working class suffered defeats and setbacks in the 1980s and 1990s, but its organisations have not been smashed nor has its will to struggle been broken. A major factor has been the setback to class consciousness resulting from the collapse of Stalinism after 1989.

While far-right parties have been able to increase their votes, including votes from a section of workers, there have been repeated strike movements and protest demonstrations. During 2001 hundreds of thousands of workers turned out on protest demonstrations at EU and G7 summits, such as Gothenburg, Nice, Genoa, Barcelona and Brussels. After Le Pen’s first-round votes, over 1.3 million turned out on May Day demonstrations throughout France. In Italy, over ten million workers joined a one-day strike on 16 April against Berlusconi’s threat to repeal Article 18, shutting down Italy from North to South. Over 2.3 million joined protest demonstrations in the main cities. In Madrid on 9 May over 200,000 demonstrated outside the European-Latin American summit, marching behind banners like ‘Against war and the Europe of capitalism’. In Germany, 50,000 metalworkers took strike action on 7 May over pay issues. Many more examples could be given.

The working class has not suffered decisive defeats. It retains its capacity to struggle, and is still potentially the most powerful force in society. However, the decline of the traditional mass parties of the working class means that (with the partial exception of the Rifondazione Comunista – PRC – in Italy) the working class is deprived of parties capable of mobilising mass action and providing political representation for the working class on the electoral level.

The new far-right populism

‘POPULISM’ IS AN elastic term used historically to refer to a variety of parties or protest movements that appeal, on a non-class basis, to the ‘common people,’ to the poor or economically disadvantaged social strata excluded from political influence and power. The new wave of far-right parties have some affinities with earlier populist movements in Europe, such as the short-lived Poujadiste movement in France in the mid-1950s (in which Le Pen was involved) or the Scandinavian tax-revolt parties, such as Mogens Listrup’s Progress Party, which won 10% in the 1973 Danish general election before rapidly disappearing. These were, however, exceptional episodic developments.

The appearance of populist parties, however, in some ways points back to developments in the late-19th/early-20th century in the United States and Latin America, where the emergent working class was balanced by big rural populations (peasants or farmers) and/or a large petty bourgeois strata. Populist or ‘progressive’ movements typically started out on radical lines, later moving to the right (particularly if they gained power, as with Perón in Argentina or Vargas in Brazil). Hugo Chávez in Venezuela is a contemporary radical populist development. The current wave of populist parties in Europe, on the other hand, is starting unmistakably from the right. Their only claim to ‘radicalism’ is their opposition to established parties of both the left and the right, which have all embraced neo-liberal policies. It is a contradiction that their policies are actually to the right of the parties they challenge. Most of those who vote for far-right parties, however, are attracted by their strident opposition to the established parties and to the ruling elite, not by the details of their programme. The far-right parties are winning support by default because, at present, there appears to be no other channels of mass opposition to the established political order.

The far-right leaders demagogically appeal to a broad spectrum of people who have been hit by recent changes and are angry at bourgeois parties and institutions. They avoid class language, but take up the grievances of ‘ordinary’ people. Like earlier populist trends, the new parties are organised around the figure of a leader, who makes a personal appeal to his supporters. Le Pen, a very wealthy man, claims ‘I have known cold, hunger and poverty’. Fortuyn was a classic case of a one-man band, and it is questionable whether his List will survive his assassination despite the vote it received.

Typically, populists have vague, contradictory policies. Le Pen, for instance, rants against globalisation and the EU, but he makes no fundamental criticism of the globalisation process. He favours neo-liberal policies for France itself. Indigenous citizens, he claims, would have the first call on jobs and would be protected by national welfare provisions, but not immigrants. The nation, the family and traditional morality will, he promises, provide the security destroyed by recent economic trends.

In the Netherlands, the Fortuyn List is clearly another variant of populism, very different from the FN. Fortuyn championed homosexual rights and was far from defending the family, but at the same time advocated extreme free-market policies, including the privatisation of health, education and other services. Much of his support relies on the fact that people do not take in the LPF’s neo-liberal policies or understand the impact they would have on their lives. Voters see the List mainly as a vehicle for protest, and are not concerned with the small-print policy details.

Where the far-right has gained some power, as in Austria, where the Freedom Party (FPÖ) has shared responsibility for the People’s Party-dominated coalition, the FPÖ’s support has declined in recent local elections in Vienna and elsewhere. In Italy, Berlusconi’s plan to implement ultra-free market policies has undoubtedly been restrained by the fact that, after his first election to power in 1994, he was brought down within eight months by a massive movement of workers. This time round, his attempt to annul workers’ rights (Article 18) provoked a massive one-day strike on 16 April.

Populist movements historically have frequently had a strongly nationalistic character, even in their radical phases, and as they moved to the right often developed a xenophobic, racist complexion. An anti-immigrant, racist stance is common to all the new far-right parties. Le Pen and Haider still express vile pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic sentiments (though increasingly trying to sanitise their public image), but base their broader electoral appeal on restricting immigration and immigrants’ rights. When workers and sections of the middle class are facing increased social insecurity, it is not hard to scapegoat immigrants. Fortuyn may appear an exception, repudiating allegations of racism and boasting of his Moroccan lovers. His target was the Islamic community, on the grounds of its social intolerance and discrimination against women. Nevertheless, it is clear that, despite its coded language, the Fortuyn platform is racist and promotes an anti-immigrant agenda.

The new right parties, to a greater or lesser extent, all draw on a layer who are influenced by racist and xenophobic prejudice, especially among the petty bourgeoisie, the older generation, and in the rural areas. Recently, however, the far-right has been winning more electoral support from sections of workers, especially the long-term unemployed in regions of deindustrialisation and urban decay. There is a danger, undoubtedly, that if this influence is not countered, the electoral successes of the far-right can legitimise and harden racist trends. But the majority voting for these parties, especially from among the workers, are voting to express their anger at the current situation, to register protest at the established parties.

The leaders of the far-right parties have no real solutions for the people they are appealing to. In fact, their ‘remedies’ would be even worse. Populist demagogues have always attempted to manipulate and exploit a variety of grievances in order to gain political power, without any clear programme. Based on very mixed social strata, the far-right parties will not be stable formations. They have grown in the past period because the degeneration of the social-democratic and former communist parties has allowed a temporary undermining of the class polarisation between capitalist and social-democratic/labour parties that developed after the emergence of the industrial proletariat in the 19th century.

The character of far-right populism

THE NEW WAVE of far-right populist parties represents neither a simple growth of neo-fascist organisations, nor a mere a repetition of earlier populist developments, though they may share some features of earlier parties. They have to be analysed as a new political phenomenon produced by the political conjuncture that developed throughout Europe in the 1990s. The main features of this conjuncture are:

1. Globalisation and the implementation of neo-liberal, ultra-free market policies by governments of all complexions.

The capitalist turn to globalisation and ultra-free market policies led to rapid social changes in the 1990s, adversely affecting wide layers. Mass unemployment, temporary contracts and poor prospects for young workers created stress, insecurity and anxiety about the future. Sleazy links with big business have discredited established politicians, while deception and fraud have provoked anger at capitalist financial institutions. Instead of opposing these trends, the social-democratic leaders have enthusiastically advanced neo-liberal policies, claiming they are inevitable and ultimately beneficial to the majority. This provides an opening for the far-right, which demagogically exploits alienation and anger, despite the fact that they themselves support ultra-right market policies. Far-right populist leaders denounce changes in the ‘traditional way of life’, blaming powerful forces located within the ruling elite or in foreign capitals.

2. The strengthened integration and enlargement of the EU and the introduction of the euro as a common currency.

The European Union, supported by most bourgeois and social-democratic parties, is widely blamed for cuts in government spending, the rise in unemployment, etc. Rationalisation plans, agreed at EU level, have had a devastating impact on farmers, the fishing business, miners, steelworkers, and others. The EU Commission, dogged by corruption scandals, exemplifies for many the faceless, remote, unaccountable government. The far-right is unanimously opposed to foreign control of the home economy and society. The apparent loss of national sovereignty, especially through the introduction of the euro, symbolises national decline and insecurity. With a deadening political consensus between most bourgeois and social-democratic parties, far-reaching measures, including the euro, have been pushed through with minimal public debate. In trying to escape from the limits of the nation-state, the European capitalists have come into collision with the national consciousness that developed historically as an organic element of bourgeois society, but which under conditions of crisis increasingly expresses itself in the form of narrow nationalism, xenophobia and racism. Without exception, the far-right parties exploit this. Using nationalistic, chauvinist demagogy, the far-right plays on the resulting discontent.

3. Increased immigration from the poorer European and underdeveloped countries under conditions of growing unemployment, poverty and social inequality.

The recent spurt of immigration, particularly of desperate asylum seekers, under conditions of economic malaise and social tension, has provoked a political reaction. In reality, the European capitalists need more immigrant workers to assure economic growth in the context of ageing home populations. Big business is always ready to exploit cheap labour, but is incapable of ensuring a living wage, decent houses, education, etc, for immigrant workers. Fearing an electoral reaction against immigration, EU governments have recently drastically restricted legal entry. However, desperate immigrants, driven by poverty or persecution, have continued to enter Europe without official documents, ending up in run-down ghettos and the cheap-labour black economy. Even worse, establishment parties (like New Labour) have played into the hands of the racist right by condemning ‘economic migrants’, ‘bogus asylum seekers’, ‘scroungers’, and so on. New repressive legislation and police harassment of immigrants further fuels racist prejudice, while doing nothing to resolve the social problems.

When there is no answer from the left, it is easy for some sections to blame foreigners, immigrants, for social problems. For angry, politically confused people the rapid increase of the immigrant community can appear as a symptom of disturbing social changes. Throughout Europe (even in countries of low immigration, like Norway) the scapegoating of immigrants is a key element of the far-right’s demagogic appeal to frustrated, angry voters.

4. The bourgeoisification of the traditional social-democratic parties, which has effectively disenfranchised the working class.

Above all, the electoral successes of the far-right reflect the failure of social democracy. Peter Mandelson, architect of Blair’s ‘modernisation project’, recently admitted that the New Labour government had only ‘tinkered’ with social problems: ‘too many of the worst and deprived communities remain unchanged by five years of Labour’. In reality, millions of workers are worse off in terms of income, public services, insecurity, stress and uncertainty about the future.

Only four years ago, social-democratic parties and coalitions were in government in thirteen out of the fifteen EU countries. Since then, they have been thrown out in Austria, Italy, Denmark, Portugal and the Netherlands. Jospin was humiliated in the presidential election in France, and the Parti Socialiste’s prospects for the national assembly elections remain uncertain. In Germany, it cannot be ruled out that Stoiber, the conservative Christian Democratic premier of Bavaria, will defeat the social democratic chancellor, Schröder.

Underlying this trend is the commitment of social democratic governments to neo-liberal policies. They vary from country to country only in the degree to which they have bowed to the dictates of the market. Fundamentally, there has been an ideological convergence between the traditional capitalist parties and the traditional workers’ parties, symbolised by Blair’s informal policy pact with Berlusconi and Aznar. This has produced a deadening consensus on most issues, stifling genuine political debate. Party organisations have largely been transformed into passive electoral machines, accompanied by a mass exodus of active members. Closer links between social-democratic leaders and big business has everywhere given rise to corruption scandals and pervasive sleaze. There has been, in short, a process of bourgeoisification. This is now complete in cases like the British Labour Party and PSOE in Spain, and is far advanced in most other European countries.

Recent elections demonstrate that the traditional workers’ parties are no longer a vehicle of workers’ demands or protest. Everywhere they have lost a massive share of their traditional votes and there has been a rise in abstentions, especially among working-class voters. Out of political frustration, a section of workers have turned to the far-right parties.

5. Setback in working-class consciousness following the collapse of Stalinism and the delay in the emergence of new mass parties.

There was a profound setback to working-class consciousness as a result of the collapse of the Stalinist regimes (analysed by Socialism Today in many articles). Even the politically advanced layers of workers were disorientated and confused. There have been massive industrial struggles and protest movements throughout Europe during the 1990s and more recently. These struggles, however, have lacked cohesion and clear political direction. Although some new sections of workers have been drawn in, especially young people, the active layer of workers has not been able to reach wider layers of unemployed workers and alienated youth. Some of these have therefore been susceptible to the propaganda of far-right organisations. The political degeneration of the social-democratic parties and former Stalinist Communist Parties has left the working class effectively without representation on the political plane.

As yet, with the limited exception of the PRC in Italy, no new mass working-class parties have developed. Their role would be to bring together different sections of workers and young people, as well as embracing a wide range of anti-capitalist campaigns and political trends. Contesting elections, they would be able to reach much wider layers of the working class as well as sections of the middle strata. They would combat the influence of the far-right parties, playing a crucial role in unifying workers around an anti-capitalist programme.

The potential for the development of such parties clearly exists. While the far-right has gained in elections throughout Europe, so have left, and even far-left parties. In France, the Trotskyist presidential candidates took 10% of the vote, an astounding result in a country where the left was once dominated by a mass Stalinist Communist Party. After the first round, the leaders of Lutte Ouvrière and LCR had an unprecedented opportunity to issue a rallying call for the formation of a new workers’ party. Unfortunately, they are allowing this opportunity to slip away. Nevertheless, in the next few years events will unavoidably place the building of new workers’ parties on the agenda. Even in the early stages of the building of a new workers’ party it could have a dramatic effect in undercutting the pernicious influence of the far-right parties, provided it adopts bold programme, strategy and tactics.

How to fight the far-right

FIGHTING THE far-right requires, first of all, a correct appraisal of the character of the new far-right parties. Exaggerated alarms about the revival of fascism lead to mistaken strategy and tactics. Socialists have to reveal the reactionary aims of the far-right and counter their racist propaganda, linking the issue to the social conditions – unemployment, poverty, urban decay, etc – which underlie the growth of racial prejudice. At the same time, we have to organise effective action against neo-fascist groups which attack immigrants and left activists.

The fight to initiate steps to build new mass workers’ parties is a crucial part of countering the growth of far-right populism. Together with mobilising the more active layers of the working class and young people, new mass workers’ parties, through campaigns and contesting elections, could reach much broader layers of the working class, offering them a way out of the crisis. In the course of struggles, even sections of the middle strata, small business people, etc, could be won to the side of class conscious workers.

The formation of broad, democratic workers’ parties, on the basis of an anti-capitalist programme, would be an enormous step forward. Within such parties we would fight for a socialist programme, linking concrete demands on economic issues, immigration, asylum, etc, to a programme for the socialist transformation of society. We would fight, moreover, to give new workers’ parties an all-Europe orientation on the basis of socialist internationalism.

This article will appear in the June 2002 issue of Socialism Today, the monthly journal of the Socialist Party (England and Wales CWI section)

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