A number of factors have contributed to the rise of right wing populism in Europe and, indeed, in other countries around the world. The tap root of these developments lies in neoliberal globalisation and the reaction to it, especially after the great recession of 2008-2011 and the depressed growth rates, and even stagnation, in the major economies that followed it.
These led to simmering discontent with the established political parties, left and right, which insisted there was no alternative to neoliberalism with its race to the bottom in terms of wages and social services. Gradually, an explosive charge of anger built up which could have taken a revolutionary or a counterrevolutionary form.
The pioneers of neoliberalism, Thatcher’s Britain and Reagan’s America, had already used economic recession to destroy old industries in which unions had been strongest and wages above average, slash social expenditure and privatise utilities. This created depressed areas where once there had been strongholds of industry and heartlands of the labour movement and in these “rustbelts”, unemployment and social problems, drugs and petty crime, were rife.
Even outside these immediate areas, the rapid shrinkage of unionisation levels meant stagnant or declining wages. For young people, it meant insecure jobs and rates of unemployment double those of adults. The long lasting after-effect of this misery can be seen in the voting patterns in Britain’s Brexit referendum and Trump’s shock election victory. Right wing populists blamed industrial decline and the loss of good jobs on immigration, cheap foreign imports, outsourcing and offshoring and called for strict migration controls, fences and walls.
The Great Recession, triggered as millions could see, by the rapacious pursuit of the banks in promoting debt bondage to individuals and indeed entire countries, exacerbated and extended these existing problems. Faced with a wholesale meltdown of the banking system, governments of the right and the left bailed out the banks with billions at the taxpayers’ expense. Then, to solve the resulting fiscal crisis, they began to slash the health, pension and education systems built up since the Second World War. At first, the response to this was a radical one, strike waves, the occupation of squares, the rise of left parties and movements (Syriza, Podemos) and the Arab Spring.
These movements, however, failed to move beyond protest to the struggle for power to impose their own solution to the crisis. Spring soon turned to Winter, and not only in the Middle East. Populism, with its attacks on the political establishments, the bankers, globalisation, international financial institutions and free trade agreements, remained strong, but it became a right wing populism, blaming immigration and, in Europe, the European Union.
The major breakdown of another Arab and Muslim state, Syria, added to the still on-going chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan, created a perfect storm in the Middle East. This drew in various regional powers and then Russia, which intervened decisively to save Assad. In turn, the Iraqi crisis generated ISIS, which the spilled over into Syria with its mock caliphate, in fact a vicious totalitarian regime.
ISIS outrages reported in the western media, especially attacks on Yazidis and Christians, were used by the European right to fan the flames of Islamophobia. More recently, they took advantage of “home grown” terrorists who carried out the outrages in Paris, Nice, Brussels, Berlin and London, as “proof” of the need to deport Muslims who failed to totally integrate or were convicted of minor crimes.
They even used secularism and feminism to disguise their racism and target not only the relatively small number of refugees but also the large, long-established communities from the former colonies or semi-colonies of the European powers; in France from North and Sub-Saharan Africa, in Britain from Pakistan or in Germany from Turkey.
Another powerful factor, also linked to the crisis of modern capitalism, was the rising tension between the major powers, and its reflection in a turn to the right in their domestic politics. This was particularly true under Obama’s presidency, and Hillary Clinton’s stint as Secretary of State when, far from pressing the re-start button for a positive relationship, they started a new cold war instead.
After the advance of Nato to the borders of Russia came the EU and US interventions in support of the far right-led Maidan movement that overthrew the pro-Russian Ukraine President, Viktor Yanukovich. Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea, to ensure its huge naval bases did not fall into the hands of the coup-imposed government in Kiev in which sat fascists, led to the imposition by the EU of painful economic sanctions. Putin responded to that by cultivating the far right parties in Europe, including a large Russian loan to Marine Le Pen, and Trump in the USA.
In the light of these events, Putin was even more determined that the Western powers should not achieve regime change in Syria, although Obama at least had little appetite for that anyway. Russian backing and arms for the Assad regime turned the popular uprising into a full-scale civil war in which the regional powers Iran, Turkey, the Gulf States took sides. The US briefly threatened to bomb Assad’s but ultimately rejected intervention. Even so, it was Russia’s subsequent massive aerial intervention, rather than the regime’s own strength, that tipped the scale against the rebels.
The carnage in Syria, plus the advance of ISIS, led to a huge outflow of refugees, first into neighbouring countries and then across the borders, external and internal, of the states of the European Union. This encouraged right wing populist parties, already trading in vicious islamophobia, to set up a cry that Europe’s borders were “wide open” and that our jobs, our freedoms, our religion and culture were being submerged.
Populist racists advance
In such a world situation it is no surprise that more aggressive and bellicose nationalist, racist, and even fascist, leaders and movements are coming to the fore across Europe. Right wing populist parties have increased their parliamentary representation in several recent rounds of elections, becoming serious contenders for office in a number of cases. In central and eastern Europe some have actually come to power or taken a share of it via coalitions.
In France, Holland, Britain and Germany we have seen the rise in electoral support for right wing populist parties that use the defence of supposedly threatened national, European or religious culture or identity as a cover for racism, particularly Islamophobia. In France, we have Marine Le Pen’s National Front, in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom, in Britain the UK Independence Party, UKIP, and, in Germany, Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany, AfD.
Some of these right-wing populist parties, such as the Austrian Freedom Party, FPÖ, from 2000-2005, and the Danish People’s Party for almost ten years, have already played a role as junior partners to conservative and/or liberal parties, thus proving their reliability to the capitalist system. In the March general election, the Dutch Party for Freedom, PVV, became the second biggest party with 20 seats in Parliament. In Belgium, sections of the Flemish bourgeoisie and petit bourgeoisie express themselves in two parties of the right, the more brazenly racist Vlaams Belang, formerly the Vlaams Blok, and the right-populist NVA, which became the strongest party in the last Flemish elections.
In Hungary, Fidesz, led by Viktor Orbán, has been in office since 2010 when he won 52.7 per cent of the popular vote, with a two-thirds majority of seats, enabling him to make changes to the constitution which fortified his power. In 2014, he again won 133 of the 199 seats in the National Assembly although, with 44.5 per cent, a reduced share of the vote. A key element in his election campaigns has been his claim that he is defending the frontiers of a Christian Europe against a Muslim invasion. He has actually done what Donald Trump can only sloganise about; constructed a 280-mile long razor wire “wall” sealing his country off from southern Europe. Worse still, his only serious domestic opposition comes from the outright fascist party, Jobbik.
On top of their anti-migrant and islamophobic racism, these parties are increasingly resorting to demagogic attacks on the European Union, often using the language of the Left’s attacks on neoliberalism, globalisation and anti-austerity policies. Of course, they generally restrict their defence of social welfare to the indigenous, that is, white, population, blaming pressure from migrants for the problems that actually result form austerity programmes.
The right wing populist parties, as well as the far right or fascist ones, conveniently use “identity politics”, based on the religion and culture of refugees from Muslim countries, as a cover for their racism. Many of them add to this a denunciation of multiculturalism, either following or being followed by mainstream politicians like Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and David Cameron. Instead, they demand either assimilation to the culture of the host nation or “repatriation”.
In some central and south-eastern European countries, outright fascist parties and movements of a considerable size exist, capable of winning and holding seats in Parliament without modifying their virulent racist message. As we have seen, in Hungary, Jobbik is now the principal opposition party, having gained 22.2 percent of the vote and 23 seats in 201. Its leader, Gábor Vona, was the head of the black shirted fascist militia, the Magyar Gárda, founded in 2007 but banned in 2009 by the courts. It has since metamorphosed several times, changing in its name and uniform. Of course, legal bans by the state are quite inadequate to deal with fascist militia and its thugs still represent a danger to Roma and Jewish citizens, to refugees and to the organisations of the working class in struggle.
Most brazenly Nazi is “Golden Dawn” in Greece, headed by Nikolaos Michaloliakos. Its members have been convicted of hate crimes against immigrants and murderous attacks on them and on leftists. It also has a long record of successfully penetrating the Greek Police Force and, indeed, acting as its agents against the student movement and Left. In September 2013, the Greek conservative government of Antonis Samaras, alarmed by the scale of its penetration of the police force, launched a clampdown on them and a purge of the police.
Predictably, such state repression provided ineffective, as have individual terrorist attacks by anarchists, in crushing Golden Dawn. In the EU elections following the arrests they received 536,442 votes and 9.4 per cent of the vote, compared to 426,025 votes and 6.9 percent of the vote in the Greek parliamentary elections in 2012. In the September 2015 parliamentary election they again won 7 per cent and 18 seats. Moreover, since the betrayal of its promises by Syriza, Golden Dawn has begun to grow again.
It is clear that only militant confrontation with the fascist bands when they attempt to march in areas inhabited by immigrants or the working class, plus training effective defence squads against their attacks, can meet the violence these parties and their paramilitary forces represent. Above all, only the growth of mass political forces, based in the organised working class and proclaiming a message of revolutionary hope and social transformation can finally scatter and disintegrate this virulent form of fascism.
What must we do?
Through these developments, the working class movement across Europe will be seriously tested in the coming period. The reactionary forces, both the racist populists and outright fascists, offer themselves to the bourgeoisie as social enforcers of a solution to the crisis and the suppression of workers’ struggles if the mainstream parties and the state forces are unable to do so. They threaten to split the working class along lines of so-called race and culture, meaning religion, creating a social base at home at home for their imperialist adventures abroad.
For this reason, the radical left, the revolutionary organisations, have to fight with a clear class standpoint and policy. It is not sufficient simply to defend capitalist democracy in alliance with liberals, or to rely on state institutions such as the police and the justice system, to defend us against the rise of reactionary movements and parties. Of course, we must defend each and every democratic right and stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone willing and able to fight racist violence. But, what we must not do is sacrifice effective action against racist or fascist mobilisations for impotent parades with liberals and pacifists or, for that matter, the trade union bureaucracy and reformist parliamentarians.
Where the right wing populists, like Trump, are posing as enemies of the establishment, the elite, neoliberalism, it would be self-defeating to form an alliance with that establishment which has already presided over real losses for workers in terms of jobs and security. That has been the strategy of the reformist parties and the trade union leaders and it has only reinforced their identification with it, not a radical alternative to it.
At the core of antiracist and antifascist mobilisations must be common working class action, and self-defence of refugees and workers. Beyond this, there must be a struggle to build a force, Europe-wide, that presents a perspective of revolutionary hope against the reactionary despair of the right populist and fascists. That means advancing a positive programme, one of socialist revolution against the crises of the capitalist system and the threat of inter-imperialist war.