By Marcel Rajecky
There are possibly few regions in the world where the far right has as strong a foothold as in central and eastern Europe. In each of the four “Visegrad” states (Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) far-right parties are either partners in a ruling coalition, or the sole party in government.
Conservative and liberal commentators in Britain, failing to understand the rise of the far right in this region, often retreat into pseudo-scientific and bigoted arguments about the “backwardness” of its people, their “inherent” racism, their hostility towards “modernity” and above all invented tales of “ancient ethnic hatreds”.
By contrast, a socialist analysis of racist populism and fascism provides a more useful tool for understanding the rise of the new European far right. By identifying far-right ideology with a crisis within the ruling classes, in which fractions of the bourgeoisie were forced to appeal to the “radicalised” but still reactionary middle layers to form an alliance against the working class, it becomes clearer both why neofascism developed earlier in the successor states of the former Soviet bloc, and how it is currently in a more advanced phase, further entrenched within the core of the state. In the aftermath of the death of Gdansk Mayor Pawel Adamowicz, a moderate but prominent advocate of LGBT rights, an analysis of exactly how this has happened is as urgent as ever.
The Marxist who analysed fascism best was Leon Trotsky. He understood fascism as a plebeian mass movement capable of wielding physical terror against minorities and the working class, but one that would only be able to come to power when the ruling class needed its services to crush the labour movement. However, as Hitler and Mussolini both demonstrated, the overhead costs to the ruling class of allowing such a movement into power can be very high indeed.
But the ruling class has another from of repressive government that it resorts to far more frequently. This is one that can replace or render impotent normal electoral and parliamentary mechanisms, invoking emergency powers and using the army and the police to repress opposition. Karl Marx called this type of regime “bonapartist”, after the regime of Napoleon III in France of 1852-71.
Modern racist populism copies many of the demagogic themes of fascism, but does not make the mobilisation of street gangs waging a civil war against the labour movement into its main axis of activity; rather, it seeks a parliamentary road into government office. What we see in central and eastern Europe today is both a growth of outright fascist parties and the electoral rise (and indeed the coming to power) of far-right racist populists.
The mass expropriation of former state industries by newly recreated national bourgeoisies after 1989 sent this region into a social crisis as deep as that of Germany in 1929-33. Known as “shock therapy”, this process was followed by a prolonged stagnation in which wages, pensions, healthcare and social services were decimated.
In response, people often turned first of all to liberal and centre-left parties in national elections, on the promise of protecting jobs and living standards. The latter were often the “reformed” successors of the former ruling “Communist” parties rebranded as “social democrats”. Unwilling and unable to break with capitalism, these parties could not bring their countries out of economic crisis. As the nascent bourgeoisie was subordinated to foreign capital and faced a working class with high political expectations, a new opportunist reactionary right began to make inroads.
The Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland led a coalition government in 2005, while the Slovak National Party (SNS) and Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in Hungary returned to government as major coalition partners in 2006 and 2010 respectively, after years in opposition. These parties typically mobilised support on the basis of social conservatism and “community” politics. All share a venomous hostility towards national minorities (like ethnic Hungarians in Slovakia, or ethnic Ukrainians in Poland) and have often endorsed violence against them. Many also revived antisemitism, even though the Nazi Holocaust has left behind only tiny Jewish communities in these countries.
All have voiced support for laws against sexual and reproductive freedom. Most notable of these has been the Polish government’s attempt to tighten up what are already some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. This was met in 2016 by a wave of protests that brought tens of thousands of women (and progressive men) out onto the streets.
The new wave of far-right activism during the refugee crisis of 2015 affected the established right-wing parties in different ways. The SNS has been eclipsed by the neo-Nazi “People’s Party – Our Slovakia” (known as “Kotleba”), while the Czech Republic’s Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD) represents the most potent force of that country’s far right. Both share the prejudice against national minorities of the established right, although they have both preferred to position themselves more vocally as “defenders of Christianity” from what they describe as an “Islamic invasion”.
Both are also known for their extra-parliamentary actions. In 2015, Kotleba organised one of the largest protests in the country’s history against the “Islamicisation” of Slovakia, while in 2017 the SPD invited its supporters to a conference of the international right, with France’s Marine Le Pen and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders as special guests.
Kotleba openly identifies with Slovakia’s “First Republic”, Joseph Tiso’s Nazi puppet regime during the Second World War. But Poland’s PiS has also revised its own country’s wartime history, earlier this year attempting to criminalise anyone who pointed out any Polish complicity in the Nazi Holocaust. PiS has also positioned itself as the leader of street protest. Most notably, it overturned a ban against the annual Independence Day march in Warsaw (which last year became a festival of neofascism), and sent its Prime Minister and President to march alongside the protesters.
In Poland and Hungary, the established right have largely stolen the clothes of this new wave of neo-fascist politics rather than being replaced by it. And in both countries, the governing parties have bolstered their support through fear-mongering over EU-wide plans for refugee quotas.
Paramilitaries and the state
While these new parties have made inroads into the major towns and cities, something altogether more sinister has been developing in the countryside. Dissatisfied with electoral politics and the inability of the state to implement their reactionary programmes, armed fascist groups have begun to emerge.
The most powerful such paramilitary forces so far have been the “Slovak Levies” (Slovenski Branci), which operate legally. The Branci regularly patrol Slovakia’s southern border with Hungary. Their primary objective has been to harass refugees, although they have also entered Roma areas to intimidate their communities. They have a rigorous recruitment programme, which includes the tactic of posing as “scouts” in order to enter schools and spread their ideology there.
The ruling class in the Czech Republic and in Hungary clearly does not yet see any special need for fascist auxiliaries to the police and the army, although the illegal status of the “Hungarian Guard” and of the Czech “National Home Guard” has not prevented either of them from holding secret arms training camps in remote parts of their countries. In any case, their governing parties are perfectly willing to use racism to poison popular debate.
By contrast, the Slovak state has not seriously confronted the paramilitaries, whether due to weakness or to the absence of any political will to do so. For the first six years of its existence, the Branci were completely tolerated by the state. Only this year, under immense international pressure, has the Slovak government been forced to take action.
But even then its measures against them have been remarkably limited. The scope of an official “investigation” into the Branci currently does not extend beyond determining whether or not they pose a threat to “the security of the state”; and its recommendations are unlikely to go beyond dismissing soldiers who serve with the paramilitaries.
While Slovakia allows paramilitaries to conduct repressive activities that are normally the property of the state, what is common to the other three countries is the penetration of far-right ideology beyond the parliamentary level and into far more entrenched state institutions. Poland and Hungary have gone furthest in removing the independence of the judiciary, both by subordinating it to the executive and through a climate of intimidation against judges who produce verdicts unfavourable to the ruling parties.
Academic and journalistic freedom have also come under attack, with targeted university courses being closed down, and taxes being levied on institutions taking on foreign students.
The idea that the countries that once formed the Warsaw Pact could transition seamlessly from “actually existing socialism” to liberal social democracies without an empowered labour movement was always a fantasy. In particular, the “shock therapy” administered during the restoration of capitalism created a class of oligarchs who controlled what used to be major state industries.
Within a decade, much of this nascent bourgeoisie had been driven to bankruptcy by predatory business practices of more established foreign capitalists. Meanwhile, the “social democratic” and “liberal” parties alike proved unable to reverse the homelessness, crime and poverty of the early 1990s. These are precisely the conditions in which fascism thrives; and it is probably already too late for these countries’ ruling classes to reverse the rise of the right by making social concessions to an enraged petit bourgeoisie.
Socialists in Britain ought to take note that rather than collaborating with neofascist parties in this country, the new parties of the European right have found allies in our own Conservative party, which in September provided cover for Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party in a crucial vote in the European Parliament. As these two forces of reaction begin to recognise each other as partners, so must we.
We must fight the right in all its pernicious forms. Under the influence of Brexit and former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, UKIP has swung sharply to the right, openly collaborating with the fascist Tommy Robinson. Brexit could form the basis for the development of both a racist populist split away from the Tories, and of neofascist street organisations. To meet this threat we need to link up anti-racists and anti-fascists across Europe to defend migrants and minorities, and fight for a socialist alternative to the far right’s politics of despair.