Right-wing populism in Germany and Europe – what can be done to counter it?

On 16th September, the British magazine, “The Economist”, published an article entitled, “The hard right is getting closer to power all over Europe”. And indeed, right-wing populist and far-right parties seem to be the main winners from the current multiple crisis of capitalism. The phenomenon is not new in most countries, but there is much to suggest that it has reached a new quality. Not only because in opinion polls and elections the share of votes of these parties has grown significantly, but also because in more countries they have got hold of, in one form or another, the levers of power at the regional or even national level.

This is true in Poland, Hungary, and Italy, where right-wing populist parties make up the governments. In other countries, they are directly or indirectly involved in governments: in Sweden, Switzerland, and Finland at national level, in Austria and Spain at regional level. In France, a victory of Marine Le Pen is threatened in the next presidential elections; in Austria, the FPÖ is by far the strongest force in opinion polls, and for the first time there is a threat of an FPÖ-ÖVP coalition with a “FPÖ” chancellorship; in eastern Germany, the AfD (Alternative für Deutschland) is the strongest force and it is not impossible that in some federal states it can only be kept off the government benches by (almost) all-party coalitions. The same applies to Belgium, where the Vlaams Belang, which claims to represent only the Flemish part of the population, is the strongest force at the national level with 22 percent in the polls. Some of these parties have existed for a very long time, even with parliamentary representation, but have been significantly strengthened in recent years. In other countries they are relatively new phenomena. This also applies to Germany, where the AfD was only founded in 2013 and none of the many right-wing extremist, neo-fascist or even right-wing populist parties from the NPD to the Schill Party to Pro-Deutschland had previously managed a nationwide breakthrough. Likewise, the Vox Party is a new phenomenon in Spain and even in southern Ireland far right and racist forces openly raise their heads. A triumph of racists, nationalists and right-wing populists looms in the 2024 European elections.


However, it would be wrong to deduce from this a general right-wing trend in society or the working class, although the right-wing populist parties also have a voter base within the working class. The year 2023 was also a year of upsurge of strikes and workers’ struggles. There were big waves of strikes in Britain, France, and Germany, but also important strikes and workers’ protests in other countries like Austria, Norway, Belgium, Croatia. It is also less than two years since a majority in Berlin voted in a referendum for the expropriation of the real estate companies; in Spain there were mass protests for better health care; Greece experienced the biggest general strike since the Euro crisis ten years ago. But these struggles find little expression at the political level now. Nevertheless, they testify to the fact that we are dealing with a social polarisation instead of a shift to the right – a polarisation that is, however, not taken up by the political left in most European countries and used to strengthen its own position. This inability and crisis of the left is a major reason for the strengthening of right-wing populist forces, but it is neither the sole reason nor the underlying cause. It is, however, the decisive reason the rise of the right has not yet been stopped.

Reasons for the strengthening of the far right

The historical turning point marked by the collapse of Stalinism (i.e., the bureaucratically organised non-capitalist planned economies in the Soviet Union, GDR, and other states) in 1989-1991 and the restoration of capitalist relations in these states also initiated or accelerated an upheaval of political relations. Social democracy was transformed from a bourgeois workers’ party into a thoroughly pro-capitalist party and pioneer of neoliberal attacks on the working class. The working class were politically disarmed in the face of the sharp offensive of the bourgeoisie against its gains won in the past and no longer having even a reformist force partially representing its interests. This offensive, accompanied by the continuation of economic and social crises, at the same time undermined social stability and the attachment of large parts of the population to the traditional political forces. A political space emerged that right-wing extremist and right-wing populist parties were able to partially fill. At the same time, an ever-growing part of the working class, especially the lowest strata, turned their backs on the political system altogether and the non-voter rate increased from election to election. These non-voters obviously saw neither in the so-called established bourgeois parties nor in the left parties a representation of their interests – but they also do not take up the offer from the far right. Studies in Germany have shown in the past that a disproportionately substantial number of people among non-voters see themselves as left-wing. Reaching them should be a primary task for a left party.

The rise of far-right and right-wing populist parties after 1989-91 had three main bases: the economic and social crises (i.e. the failure to keep capitalist promises of “blooming landscapes” and the “end of history”) and the growing discontent among the population that went along with it, state racism and the shift to the right or the inactivity of the leadership of the organised labour movement and the left. State racism (and nationalism) should not be underestimated here, because over the years this has led to anti-migration or sceptical attitudes becoming entrenched in part of the population. The right-wing extremists and right-wing populists can build on this anti-migration campaign and present themselves as the force that consistently thinks through the logic of the established parties to the end and is prepared to act against migrants.

Recent developments

In recent years, however, the right-wing parties have also been able to exploit other political factors and issues. The decisive factor remains disappointment and bitterness with the established parties. Often the main motivation for voting for right-wing populists is to spite the establishment. Tom Hoffmann writes at solidaritaet.info: “Only 20 percent of AfD voters say they are very close to the party and its basic political ideas, one in five are less close, four percent not at all. This does not mean that these voters are free of racism and prejudice, but it shows that they do not feel firmly attached to the AfD.”

The issue of migration has also taken on greater importance in recent months. Especially in view of the catastrophic infrastructural situation, an increase in the number of immigrants triggers social fears among many with regard to the supply of housing, the situation in education and health care, childcare, etc. at a time when shortages are becoming more apparent.

A new factor is the debate on climate protection measures. The transition to a “green capitalism” is to be paid for by the masses of working people, if those in power have their way. Debates like the one about the so-called heating law in Germany, which proposed massively cutting the gas heating of homes, have triggered deep insecurity in large parts of the working class and the middle classes. This is why right-wing populists can find an open ear with their denial or downplaying of the dangers of climate change. In the Netherlands, the BBB (Farmer-Citizen Movement) has made a rapid ascent and currently reaches up to 18 percent in opinion polls because the government’s climate protection measures have been at the expense of farmers.

In some countries, the Ukraine war is also a factor with which the right-wing populists can score points. The growing discomfort with the endless military support for the Zelensky government offers right-wing populists in some countries the chance to present themselves as an anti-war force and to give the slogan “This is not our war” a nationalist content. In addition, right-wing populist forces have increasingly relied on anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ+ propaganda and are fuelling a culture war. In doing so, they can exploit a feeling among sections the working class that liberal and left-liberal forces care more about politically correct language than about their pressing needs.

All these issues can be exploited by the right because the left and the working-class movement do not formulate a strong, convincing and unified class position on these issues and fail to formulate and mobilise around the common interests of workers regardless of nationality, religious affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Identity politics positions in parts of the left reinforce the perception that the focus is on what divides us and not on what is common to us all. Nevertheless, common struggles do take place – in the trade union collective bargaining rounds, in tenants’ struggles, etc. But they do not find a political generalisation through a left party that could bring the common political class interests to bear. This is currently the case in varying degrees in most European countries.

Government participation

There is a clear tendency for right-wing populist parties to become part of pro-capitalist governments. The so-called “firewall” of the traditional bourgeois (conservative or liberal) parties against cooperation with right-wing populists is crumbling in one country after another. This is an expression of instability and the loss of their own base. At the same time, bourgeois parties themselves are trying to prevent the loss of voters to the right with right-wing populist content and rhetoric. This process is most advanced with the Republicans in the USA, who with the wing around Donald Trump are themselves the right-wing populist force in the country. This is also seen with the British Tories, who are increasingly transforming themselves into a right-wing populist party and are acting with aggressive nationalism and racism, as shown for example by their “Stop the boats” campaign against refugees.

Sections of the bourgeoisie see no alternative to including right-wing populist parties in government coalitions and hope to curb them by doing so. It is true that these parties cannot simply implement their full programmes in government. At the same time, participation in government does not transform them into “normal” bourgeois parties, and they remain a source of instability and unpredictability from the point of view of the capitalists. The Austrian FPÖ is the best example of this. Nevertheless, right-wing populist participation in government shows that being in government does not mean being in power. The Italian head of government and post-fascist Meloni recently had to accept higher immigration numbers because this was necessary for the labour market from the point of view of the Italian capitalists. She also had to adapt her attitude towards the EU to the attitude of the dominant parts of the Italian bourgeoisie, and her traditionally pro-Russian coalition partners could not prevent Italy’s continued support for Ukraine. At the same time, however, the Meloni government has been responsible for massive attacks against refugees and LGBTQ+ rights.

Failure of the Left

The deepening social crisis since the beginning of the pandemic has, so far, led to a strengthening of right-wing populist forces in most countries, while – with few exceptions – the left is weakening. Why is this so? It was different after the so-called Great Recession of 2007-09. At that time, old or new left parties and currents strengthened in many countries – Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, the Party of Labour in Belgium, Mélenchon’s projects in France, the Corbyn wing in the Labour Party, Bernie Sanders in the USA, even DIE LINKE (the Left party in Germany had its best election results in that period). Corbyn and Sanders, in particular, also showed that credible left alternatives can weaken the right. There were several studies indicating that Bernie Sanders would have won a presidential election against Trump in 2016. The UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and with a left reformist programme won 1.5 million votes from former voters of the right-wing populist UKIP (UK Independence Party) in the 2016 general election and scored the most votes for Labour in decades. But in one way or another, left-wing parties and leaders have failed in recent years to meet the demands of the times. This is most obviously the case with Syriza and Podemos, whose governmental policies have disappointed all the hopes placed in them and so they have lost a large part of their voters, but above all of their active support. In the case of the Spanish state, this has also opened the way for the rise of the right-wing populist Vox party.

This also applies to DIE LINKE, which is increasingly seen as a left-wing part of the establishment and not as an anti-establishment opposition. This is not least because of DIE LINKE’s participation in government in various federal states and municipalities and because of its well-behaved parliamentary activity. Their failure to visibly and understandably distance themselves from the ruling pro-capitalist parties on both the covid pandemic and the Ukraine war has reinforced this perception. What good are party executive resolutions against arms deliveries when prominent DIE LINKE MPs, government members and, as in the case of Carola Rackete, their non-party lead candidate for the 2024 European election, publicly announce that they find this foreign policy position wrong? This raises the question as to whether they support arms deliveries to the Zelensky government. The split between Sahra Wagenknecht and her supporters, which has been developing for years and will probably soon be concluded, is not so much a cause but an expression of the mistakes of the party leadership. A possible Wagenknecht party may lead to a parliamentary weakening of the AfD in the short term, as some opinion polls suggest. This would prove that the AfD’s voter base is fragile. However, Sahra Wagenknecht is borrowing from the rhetoric of the AfD to achieve this, and this will unfortunately lead to right-wing populism not being pushed back in society. This requires a strong genuinely left and socialist alternative.

What to do?

The counter-strategy against the AfD that dominates on the left and in DIE LINKE will ultimately only lead to a further strengthening of the right-wing populists. When “broad alliances” are repeatedly formed together with pro-capitalist parties whose only consensus is a moral rejection of the AfD, they only serve those who are already morally outraged. But those who vote for the AfD out of justified anger and disappointment about the prevailing politics, or who are considering doing so, will rather feel confirmed in the fact that on one side of the political spectrum there are the parties from CDU/CSU to SPD to DIE LINKE, and as the only opposition to it there is ‘only’ the AfD. Bertolt Brecht already knew that “first comes food, then comes morality”. Whether one likes it or not, this is also true today with regard to right-wing populism and racism.

An effective counter-strategy against the right must be a pro-strategy for a real alternative in the interest of the working class and the socially disadvantaged. Building such a strategy requires maintaining complete political independence from pro-capitalist parties and seeing them not as allies but as opponents. It requires not only attacking the right-wing populists as racists and nationalists, but also exposing their anti-working class policies and making clear that they are no better than the established bourgeois parties. Above all, the construction of such an alternative will require that the left forces that want to create it are active in the trade unions and labour struggles, tenants’ movements, neighbourhoods and social movements, both to strengthen them and to bring the idea of a socialist alternative into them.

DIE LINKE is in a crisis that could only be solved by a radical break with the politics of the past (and indeed the politics of both government socialists, Wagenknecht supporters and the “movement left” tendency) and a change to a socialist course. Unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that this will succeed. A split of the Wagenknecht camp will not strengthen the party left and a “Wagenknecht party” will not represent a socialist and class-political alternative to the Left Party. The need for a socialist workers’ party is not diminished by this and without such a party, the AfD in Germany and other right-wing populists internationally will not be able to be pushed back decisively. It remains our task to build this alternative. New opportunities for this will arise from the struggles and movements, from trade union and other self-organisation. The stronger socialist forces organise themselves; the better new attempts will succeed. In the course of this process, sections of DIE LINKE will also have an important role to play.

This article was written for „aufmüpfig”, the magazine of the Anticapitalist Left (AKL), a left-wing current inside DIE LINKE. Sascha Staničić is the national spokesperson of Sozialistische Organisation Solidaritat (Sol, German section of the CWI) and a member of the AKL.

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September 2023