The rise of the far-right in Europe

This article is based on the notes for an introduction given by Will on 2nd October which, along with the discussion afterwards, can be watched on YouTube: The rise of the far-right.

Over the last two decades we have see the growth of far-right parties across the continent of Europe. This has taken place in a global context. Authoritarian governments have grown across the globe, notably Erdogan in Turkey, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil, El-Sisi in Egypt and Putin in Russia. One could add others. Now Javier Milei, the Argentine far-right candidate, looks to be the front runner in the Argentine elections.

One way to observe the growth of these types of movements and governments in Europe is through the lens of their electoral performance after the great financial crash that unraveled between 2008 and 2010.

The table below covers elections between 2010 and 2012 and compares them to the most recent elections held. It presents a snapshot and shows how far the far-right have grown in electoral terms in the last decade or so. Portugal is an outlier simply because CHEGA has only emerged very recently but has made real gains.

Broadly speaking, these movements have three general political characteristics. First, ‘the irrational’, fears about threats to national white identity with a focus on nationalism, racism, Islamophobia and opposition to immigration. There are also elements of denialism when it comes to the environmental crisis and Covid science.

Second, the ‘traditional values’ of family and church and state combined with an opposition to women’s rights, with a focus on abortion and attacks on LGBT communities. Where small farmers exist as a social base, for example in Poland and Denmark, there is a defence of their traditional interests.

Third, they present as oppositional, through an appeal to those who have been impacted by the financial crash, alongside calling for a rolling back of the ongoing integration and centralisation of the European Union.  

Many have a very flexible interpretation of neo-liberal economics, which allows them to protect their social base when needed.

In the table I have indicated by red – in this case for danger – where the far-right has advanced. Yellow – they have not advanced but perhaps stabilized, and where green is used, they have been pushed back. There are three immediate points to note:

Firstthe far-right has advanced across most of Europe over the last decade, with the exception of a couple of set-backs, Austria and Norway. On the whole, they are on the front foot.

Second, in over half of the countries where the far-right have advanced they have more than doubled their vote – in some places they have tripled it.

Third, in some countries the far-right has changed appearance – either to shake off a fascist past or to get greater purchase on the electoral process, or because of splits and fusions. For example, The Brothers of Italy are clearly the continuation of the MSI, a successor of Mussolini’s fascists, and are encouraging people to think of them as ‘post fascist’.  In Germany, the German National Democratic Party is replaced by AfD which has much greater electoral purchase. In Greece, while Golden Dawn has been under pressure from the legal system, it has re-badged as Spartans and been joined by two other far-right parties, the trio have more than 10% of the seats in the legislature.

Fourth, there are some newly emerging far-right parties that we need to take notice of. CHEGA from Portugal has emerged in just the last few years and now has 12 seats in Parliament – it seems to be the standard authoritarian right party formation. But two others, Republic in Slovakia and Konfederation in Poland are of a different order in terms of far-right politics, a point I return to below. 

There may be trouble ahead for the Union.

One issue worth considering is, barring Norway and Switzerland, all of the countries in the table are in the European Union. 

While it was possible for the European Commission to bring Syriza to heel in Greece with austerity a decade ago, bringing the ever-growing far-right to heel in the next period might prove to be a more challenging problem and could produce a rupture in the system of governance. Already, the far-right has a substantial presence in the EU parliament, at least ten percent of the seats, when it was not present a decade ago. 

Identity and Democracy is the far-right political group of the European Parliament, launched in June 2019.  It is composed of nationalist, right-wing populist and eurosceptic parties from ten nations:  Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy – the last three being core founders of the EU project. This electoral growth is not an insignificant political problem for the Commission. 

Underlying this growth are two main factors. The deepening ruling class offensive against the working class across the continent as a response to the financial crash of 2008 has combined with the inability of the European far-left to produce an adequate response to this crisis that has traction with the working class.  

The defeat of Syriza set back the whole of the left for a period. The emergence of NUPES in France, Corbynism, and Syriza were left social democratic responses rather than socialist or Marxist responses to the crisis. In effect, we have witnessed the failure of the broad left party project that was a main strategy for this whole period for some on the European left.

Is this emergence of far-right forces paving the way for fascism?

By posing the question in this way I am suggesting that the overwhelming majority of these forces are not fascist in the sense of Mussolini or Hitler in the 1930s – I think this is clear and there are reasons for it.

In the 1920s and 30s the rise of fascism across Europe took place in the context of the Wall Street Crash of 1928; a rising and mass communist movement – although hobbled by Stalinism; the disintegration of the living standards of the petit bourgeoisie who, as a significant layer in society in that period, formed the base of fascism, and the inability of the European ruling class to either stabilise the situation or go on ruling in the same way.

History never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The societies and economies of Europe have changed a lot over the last century – the social and political chemistry has also changed. While we are amidst a deepening economic and environmental crises, there is no sign of a rising mass communist movement.  Nor the inability of the ruling classes to go on ruling in the old way – despite the difficulty EU political structure and processes may face, and the social weight of the petit-bourgeoisie is much reduced compared to the 1930s – so literal petit bourgeois boots on the ground, squadristi – are not present.

Instead of an internal threat to bourgeois order, the main challenge for the European ruling class is to reduce working class living standards and working conditions to meet the rise of China and a much more protectionist United States. On these counts, all is still to play for and it is not clear that the conditions yet exist for sections of the ruling class to encourage the development of a fascist movement.  

Given the weakness of the workers’ movement in the present period, we might see the European ruling class resorting to authoritarian right-wing governments rather than fascism. Fascism is a last desperate roll of the dice, which is a risky, costly and perhaps presently an unnecessary gamble.  What cadre there might be for mass fascism might be neutralised under the wing of these authoritarian movements. 

So for the most part what we are looking at is the emergence of far-right authoritarianism across the continent which, if there was a strong challenge from the working class, might be used as the primary shield for the ruling class. 

There are three final points that should be considered. First, an issue in need of discussion is what differentiates an authoritarian far-right government that doesn’t challenge the bourgeois democratic settlement, because not all of them do, and one that does, and how might these two differ from a genuine fascist movement and government. 

For example, Putin has fundamentally undermined the bourgeois democratic electoral processes in Russia and closed down the democratic space, Erdogan tried similar steps, yet neither are the leader of a fascist movement but rather of the nationalist authoritarian far-right. 

Second, this article is not presenting a complacent view of the emergence of these far-right forces. The post-war working class gains will be under further attack, there is an ongoing closure of the democratic space in European societies but the reconfiguration of these societies does not necessarily have to be produced by a fascist boot on the neck – it can also be produced by other strategies if the working class shows no threat to bourgeois class power. 

Third, I am not suggesting that no fascist movements will emerge in specific countries.

Golden Dawn had boots on the ground attacking trade unionists and migrants. Its successor party Spartans will head in the same direction.  The 30 September election results in Slovakia saw the Republic party just miss the 5% threshold for seats parliament. Its now vice-chair of the party Milan Mazurek argued in 2016 that the Holocaust was a “lie and fairy tale”. Ondrej Ďurica, vice-chair, used to be a frontman for a Slovak neo-Nazi band titled White Resistance.

In mid-October elections in Poland will take place. Konfederation just missed the 5% threshold in the 2019 elections. Its candidate got just under 7% in the 2020 presidential election. Konfederation is a coalition of six far-right parties with members who have made anti-semitic, racist, homophobic and anti-women statements. They tick all of the boxes of fascist positions.   

Korwin-Mikke who is running for Konfederation in Warsaw region said: “I am against voting rights for women. This is biology. A woman at the age of 55, when estrogen stops working, reaches the age when she can finally vote.”  Ryszard Zajączkowski, one of the coalition’s candidates, argues that after World War Two Poles were subjected to what he described as genocide “at the hands of Jews working together with communists” and “communism is worse than fascism.” He said: “Compared to which the Auschwitz camp could be called a holiday camp.” 

The dangers are evident – but the ruling classes of Europe do have other mechanisms for destroying political expressions of working-class resistance and democracy, a witnessed in Britain with the Corbyn movement. Rather than resisting fascism, perhaps the main question we need to pose is how do socialist and communists resist the rise of authoritarianism across the continent?

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