Europe’s far right under the microscope

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(This piece first appeared in Jewish Socialist magazine in Britain, issue number 69 in October of last year. You can subscribe to the magazine here)

We are now in the eighth year of what some economists have termed “a long depression” following the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the US in 2008.

The European political systems – for so long a stable alternation between the governmental parties of the centre left and centre right – are now more emaciated than at any time since the Second World War. Despite two general elections, Spain has struggled to form a government this year. The social democratic parties in Greece and Ireland have suffered meltdown. Francois Hollande faces political collapse in France, which is under a state of emergency and wracked by violent labour confrontations. Political uncertainty grips Germany. In that once pillar of European order, the two historic governing parties are in coalition but together now muster barely 50 percent of the vote.

What of the extreme right; how severe is the fascist threat today? Comparisons with the 1930s now abound in the European media and it has become a journalistic commonplace that economic distress automatically brings the rise of the extreme right. That contains an aspect of truth. But it is hopelessly one-sided and can serve to exculpate political responsibility for the growth of racism and fascism. An economic crisis is not like a meteorological depression, which brings with the force of nature bad weather. Just because share prices fall, why should the level of racist and fascist activity naturally rise?

Such a view suits the European governments and institutions which continue to preside over crushing austerity and policies of racial exclusion of refugees, migrants, Muslims and other minorities. If the singular opponent is Marine Le Pen in France, the racist AfD in Germany or Golden Dawn in Greece, then surely our only choice is to cleave to the parties of the centre and their European institutions? This reasoning explains why each rise of a far right party hits the headlines in the European media, while electoral support for parties to the left of social democracy appears – if it does at all – as some local quirk. That, or it is conflated with the rise of the extreme right under the common rubric of “populism”. Otherwise intelligent journalists in Britain have claimed that “despite their apparent differences” the lifelong internationalist Jeremy Corbyn really “has a lot in common” with the racist, populist bully Donald Trump.

That said, the rise of fascist and racist politics is undoubtedly serious and we need as precise a measure of the threat as we can if we are to defeat it.

The crisis years in Europe have brought a return of fascist violence at a higher level and more extensively than at any time since the 1970s. In addition to racially motivated killings – which often flow, even if indirectly, from organised racist agitation – the last five years point to a trend of fascist murders of “political opponents”.

In 2011 Anders Breivik murdered 69 youth members of the Norwegian Labour Party and eight others. Neo-Nazi skinheads killed teenage left activist Clement Meric in Paris in 2013. In September of that year, Golden Dawn stabbed anti-racist rapper Pavlos Fyssas to death in Athens. This year saw the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox in June by a man who was reported at the time to have shouted, “Britain First!” or “Put Britain first!” In September, Finnish fascists murdered 28-year-old Jimi Joomas Karttunen after he verbally confronted them.

Europe experienced a frenzy of fascist violence during the interwar period. Of course, the level is much lower today. But we should bear in mind the higher levels of political and social violence as a whole in the 1920s and 1930s – fascist violence then was relative to that. What makes its reappearance so dangerous today is the parallel electoral and organisational strengthening of far right parties, and among them distinctly fascist forces.

A typology of the extreme right

There is a range of far right formations seeking to build out of the European crisis. The fact that they all consciously occupy a space to the right of the mainstream centre right parties means they share a very general “radical right wing” character. If you want to build in that political space you need constantly to demonstrate in word and in deed that you are “more radical” than mainstream parties of the right. And those are increasingly turning to the politics of racism and scapegoating. The authoritarian centre right governments of Poland and Hungary are but hardline variants of that wider phenomenon. Beneath the general character of the far right, there remain important differences of strategy and ideology.

First, there are clearly neo-Nazi parties such as Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary. Both parties are third placed in their respective parliaments. They make open reference to interwar Nazism. Golden Dawn leader Nikos Michaloliakos has been captured on video telling members: “We are the seeds of the defeated army of 1945. We are National-Socialists.” The oath of allegiance for new recruits to Golden Dawn identifies the organisation’s primary enemy as “The Eternal Jew”. Characteristic of both parties, and central to their strategy for political power, is the organisation of what in Greek are referred to as “battalion squads” – the Squadrismo of Mussolini, the Sturmabteilung of Hitler’s Brownshirts.

Second, we have the parties of the “Eurofascist” extreme right. The term is an analogy to the “Eurocommunist” evolution of many Communist parties in the 1970s towards emphasising “a long march through the institutions”, especially parliament, as a strategy for political conquest as opposed to a sudden, insurgent advance. The most important are the Front National in France and the core of the Freedom Party (FPO) in Austria.

And third, we have the newer, national-chauvinist and xenophobic parties of the hard right, such as UKIP in Britain and the Alternative for Germany, the AfD, alongside older but broadly similar formations in Scandinavia and elsewhere. Along with these political parties we have seen anti-Muslim and violent “street movements” such the English Defence League and, much more substantially, Pegida in Germany.

This classification is important, especially when discussing tactical issues in the fight against the extreme right. It is evident that the murderous activities of the battalion squads of Golden Dawn in Greece present different practical tasks for the antifascist movement to those arising from confronting the xenophobic rhetoric of UKIP in England. Racist parties of the UKIP or AfD-type are different from the fascist organisations. But their appearance and rhetoric can serve both as a mechanism for further pulling the entire political landscape rightwards and as a precursor to more violent and fascist forces, whether those operate in the ranks of such parties or outside them.

Ideologically, the far right everywhere represents a radicalisation of the reactionary ideas of the right in general in each national political context. So everywhere they share hardened racism, particularly Islamophobia. But there are also differences. Anti-Roma racism features prominently in Hungary in a way it does not in Germany. Front National and UKIP MEPs have voiced support in Brussels for the authoritarianism of Vladimir Putin in Russia. To be on the far right in Warsaw or in Kiev, however, means to be virulently anti-Russian, with echoes of the extreme right’s denunciation in those parts of Europe in the 1920s of “Jew-Bolshevism”.

The far right across Southern and Eastern Europe continues to be marked by overt anti-semitism. The Front National in France under Marine Le Pen, however, has tried to distance itself from the public anti-Jewish outbursts of her father and party founder Jean-Marie. That has not stopped members of the Front National “stewarding section” chanting in the last year on demonstrations: “Robert Faurisson is right – the gas chambers are bullshit”, in praise of the French Holocaust revisionist/denier. That in itself should caution us from turning useful working categories into rigid distinctions which take no account of the evolution of these parties or of competing currents within them.

A radicalising threat

Again we confront a widespread media fatalism that far right parties making an electoral breakthrough will then naturally evolve towards the centre. There is, indeed, some logic of “domestication” in order to win over support from European publics among whom racist prejudice may be worryingly widespread but there remain very strong inhibitions on support for fascism. The process, however, is not so simple or only in one direction.

The rise of the AfD in Germany is a case in point. It was founded three years ago as a right wing Eurosceptic party by neoliberal economists reacting on a nationalist basis to the bailout programs for Southern Europe. The subsequent evolution of the party has been sharply to the racist right at the same time as it has grown electorally. A critical moment was the ousting of the original leadership last year and its capture by a group who made anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim racism much more central to the party’s programme. That was before the large-scale refugee flows, as was the explosion of the Pegida anti-Muslim street agitation into which AfD branches have immersed themselves. “Europe” hardly featured in the party’s advances in state elections this year. Stopping the supposed “Islamisation” of Germany was central to its propaganda. The radicalised racist rhetoric has drawn seasoned fascists into the party. It now contains a “fascis-ising” wing arguing for more radical – ie violent – tactics as a complement to the electoral front.

The older Austrian FPO led by Heinz-Christian Strache also illustrates the contradictory tendencies in the development of the European far right. It has long since managed to break the cordon sanitaire which existed around it in the 1990s. It is even a junior coalition partner to the social democrats in the eastern province of Burgenland. It stands perilously close to winning the national presidential election in December, which is being re-run thanks to staggering bungling by Austrian state officials, which has played into the FPO’s claim to be the only party able to “bring order out of chaos”.

The advance has depended on a calibrated policy of trying to appear respectable and of burying its leaders’ history in the far right, anti-semitic student fraternities which have been a seedbed of fascist politics for decades in Austria. Strache this year visited Yad Vashem on the invitation of two leading figures of the Likud party. The Austrian paper Die Presse said the motivation was to “make himself kosher in Israel” in order to be acceptable elsewhere. Beleaguered Israeli liberal opinion was outraged.

Not only is the party viciously anti-Muslim in words, it also organises street demonstrations. And just four years ago Strache circulated a Der Stürmer style cartoon of an archetypal Jewish figure being fed morsels by “The Government” as a starving “People [Volk]” looked on.

The coincidence at the heart of the FPO of Islamophobia and anti-semitism is symptomatic of something wider. A Pew opinion survey earlier this year found soaring anti-Muslim racism across Europe and rising anti-Roma racism as well – and not just east of the Danube. It also found an increase in anti-semitism, in social attitudes rather than state and institutional discrimination. It is a European conceit to regard anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish racism in our societies as some kind of import from the Palestine/Israel conflict in the Middle East. For one of the strongest findings of the Pew study was that those in Europe who hold the worst views of Muslims are also the most likely to hold anti-semitic prejudices of Jews. Both racisms are constitutive of European society and politics, and their modern discontents.

And both share structural affinities. The modern anti-semitism perfected as a political ideology in Paris, Vienna and Tsarist Russia before the First World War is more than just scapegoating – as all manner of anti-migrant racist ideas are. It simultaneously held “The Eternal Jew” as an existential threat to European civilisation from without, and a potential fifth column undermining the national organism within. Nazi ideology took what was a lingua franca among European and North American conservative elites ranging from Henry Ford to Winston Churchill, concentrated it and made it the cement for the incoherent drivel which passed for its political theory. In the Brownshirt imagination, “the Jew” is simultaneously responsible, as “Jewish finance”, for the manipulation of the money markets at the expense of “honest” National Capital and, as “Jewish socialism” (Marxism), for the deception of workers from the path of “honest” National-Socialism.

Islamophobia too is more than just a recoding of anti-immigrant prejudice against Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Arab, Turkish, Kurdish and other minorities in Europe who have for decades faced racist scaremongering about taking jobs or living on welfare. “The Muslim” and “Islamisation” in the context of the now 15-year-old “war on terror” are held up as an existential threat from without – on the increasingly fortified borders of Europe – as well as corrupting of Western civilisation, a threat to security, within.

So both racist ideologies can be combined in a concentrated form as an organising “world view”, not just as racist election propaganda, for fascist political forces trying to present themselves as an answer to systemic crisis.

A resistible rise

How the far right evolves in the coming year, which will see national elections in France, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and elsewhere, is an open question. A large part of the answer depends on the response of the radical left and on our capacity to build broad yet militantly effective movements against both racism and fascism.

It cannot be left to the forces of the political centre. Angela Merkel this September gave the rising AfD a bigger victory than any it has won at the ballot box when she capitulated to its anti-refugee agitation and formally repudiated her “we can do it” policy of accepting refugees last year.

The “combined and uneven” development of the far right across the continent means that tactical priorities vary from country to country. But two features are common. The many-sided struggle against racism – and ensuring that movements against austerity contain a strong anti-racist current – is central. One of the great achievements of the anti-capitalist left in Greece has been to fuse together at the base of the society the fights against both racism and grinding austerity. That has required a deliberate political effort. So this autumn, teacher trade unionists are organising both to get refugee children out of the camps and into the schools, and to strike to reverse staffing cuts of the crisis years.

At the same time we do not face only the longstanding problem of racism – institutional or in social attitudes. We face also the particular threat of a radicalising right, and within that of actual fascism. The specific anti-fascist response in Greece, of which the ongoing trial of Golden Dawn is a part, has been critical to halting its rise and confounding predictions that the retreats by the left government of Syriza must inevitably bring another breakthrough for the fascists.

At key moments it has also provided a focus for mass mobilisations in which more general arguments against racism and anti-immigrant politics have found a wider audience.

The checking of Golden Dawn’s growth in Greece has had a demoralising impact on those forces elsewhere in Europe looking to adopt its explicitly neo-Nazi strategy. But no one can be complacent, even in somewhere such as Britain where the success of previous antifascist struggles has left the neo-Nazi right fragmented, despite a serious increase of racism in general.

What this fluid situation does call for is unity, confidence and the intelligent application of all the tactics and strategies our movement has developed, not least in Britain since the East End rose in October 1936 and slammed the door on Mosley’s rise.

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