Unteilbar demonstration, Berlin October 2019. Unteilbar demonstration, Berlin October 2019. Photo: Leonhard Lenz / Public Domain

The far right are not unstoppable, but neither is their decline inevitable; the radical left is key to the anti-fascist movements halting their march, argues Kevin Ovenden

“Every victory has a hundred fathers: every defeat is an orphan.” – Tacticus, Roman historian

The victory against Golden Dawn

The Greek anti-fascist movement has won a tremendous victory in achieving the conviction of Golden Dawn as a Nazi criminal organisation.

The specific weight of the victory was still in the balance as judges were to decide on Wednesday whether the jail sentences of all bar one of the 57 convicted leaders and members were to be suspended pending appeals hearings (years away) or implemented now.

The outrageous proposal for suspension came from the state prosecutor in the case. She has shown her sympathies for Golden Dawn throughout this trial, including recommending almost across the board acquittal for crimes ranging from participation in murder to running a criminal enterprise. 

But already the victory is so significant that it has changed official Greek politics. Now all of the establishment say that they not only welcome the convictions but also have always been vigorously opposed to Golden Dawn, for some years the third party in the Greek parliament.

The forces of the left inside and outside parliament have indeed opposed the fascists. But the Tory-type party of prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who usurps credit for breaking Golden Dawn, was the only one not to send a witness to the court to testify to its fascist character.

Mitsotakis’s New Democracy party is home to several MPs with long fascist pasts who defected from previous far right organisations. His predecessor as leader maintained backchannel communications with Golden Dawn when prime minister in 2012. He implemented racist and authoritarian policies targeting the left and paving the fascists’ advance.

We have seen this before: the success of anti-fascist movements and of the left in throwing back far right breakthroughs being falsely claimed by politicians of the centre-right and mainstream.

That should be no inhibition at all when it comes to organising to defeat the fascist right. But it does mean we have to fight for the true version of events and for the methods of working class unity in action that are crucial to such victories.

Against fatalism

There are a number of false interpretations emerging off the back of the Greek victory and off of some other recent setbacks for the far right in a number of countries.

The AfD in Germany, which has a powerful fascist wing, is now down to polling 9 percent. Two years ago it was on 14 percent and rising. It has just come fourth in city elections in Chemnitz, in east Germany where its support has been strongest, beaten by the radical left Die Linke.

Tensions within it have deepened into schisms. There have been splits, though against those who say this will lead to its “domestication” into simply a national conservative party it is the fascist “The Wing” faction that is gaining ground.

The similar FPO in Austria has suffered a disastrous electoral defeat in elections in the capital Vienna. There are setbacks for the Lega in Italy, though part of that is losing ground to smaller and in some cases more fascistic parties.

The leader of the neo-Nazi party in Slovakia has just been jailed.

That is all very good news for the left and for the labour movement internationally. It flies in the face of the fatalist view that the rise of the far right in the last decade constitutes some unstoppable forward march towards state power.

But in parts of the European media and among political commentators an equally fatalistic view is forming, but pointing in the other direction: that crisis and defeat for the far right are inevitable; that their own contradictions and the stability of the political system mean they can reach only a certain point and then fall back or collapse.

That is complacent – look both at the continuing organisation of the far and fascist right and at the considerable potential base of support among the minority who have succumbed to the most reactionary ideas. It is also associated with writing out of the picture the centrality of mass mobilisation and of a radical left that will not yield a millimetre to the fascists or to the state racism which powers their growth.

So in Germany, for example, commentators in high-brow capitalist organs such as the Financial Times say that the exposure of the fascist character of key AfD leaders and many activists has alienated those voters who thought they were choosing merely a national-conservative option, not dissimilar to the hard right conservative party in Bavaria.

There is some truth in that. But how did this fascist aspect become exposed? After all, it was there four years ago when the AfD made its big advance.

It was not the automatic working out of the “checks and balances” in the political system. It has required a vibrant anti-fascist movement at national and local level across Germany.

Two years ago a demonstration of a quarter of a million took place in Berlin against the AfD and focusing on anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism, under the banner Unteilbar – Indivisible. There have been countless more local mobilisations. They have taken the argument to the base of German society and connected it to stirrings of revolt by workers: strikes and workplace struggles, campaigns over public health and capping soaring rents.

Politically, the movement also stopped the centre-right from going into coalition with the AfD in one east German region, thus reimposing the cordon sanitaire around the fascists and winning that “no platform” policy among wider layers nationally.

That has all depended upon strands on the left who recognised the nature of the AfD, did not imagine its rise was an unstoppable expression of social discontent, and refused the idea that it could be dealt with by treating it as a normal political party.

In order for that to happen there was a major debate on the radical left and inside the party Die Linke. The argument was won to make a particular political effort against the AfD and on an internationalist, anti-racist basis, giving no concession to the anti-immigration campaign that was shared by the mainstream right.

It is that that has exploded the contradictions in the AfD, not some automatic and objective process. The same is true in Austria. Today the European media highlight the electoral defeat of the FPO in Vienna. But yesterday they did not report at all on years of campaigning targeting the FPO and in a way that constantly sought to reach wider layers of the working class while retaining a militant focus.

There are tensions within the far right and its components over strategy. How much to pursue a legal, parliamentary and electoral approach, and how much to encourage the violent street actions against opponents that were the hallmark of classical, interwar fascism?

But those tensions can be managed and different strategies coexist for a considerable period of time. That is what Golden Dawn did and is what made it both so dangerous and so attractive to parts of the European far right looking for a successful “militant” model.

It required an intelligent mass movement to break that model and force its tensions into the open. It needed an anti-capitalist left to offer a political alternative to the capitulation of the Syriza government to EU austerity and the Fortress Europe policy out of which Golden Dawn in 2015-16 expected to make a second surge. The five-and-a-half year trial has been critical.

A second emerging false explanation is even more “objectivist” – that is it puts the recent setbacks for the far right in some places down to the movement of unconscious processes, lines on graphs, and not determined political action.

It says that the reduction in cross-border movement of people – migration and immigration – under Covid is the reason for far right difficulties in some countries. Less immigration means less “concern about immigration” means less scope for the far right.

It is a strange argument. For the far right can equally argue (wrongly) that the pandemic shows the need for the tightest borders and restriction on international movement. (In fact it shows the need for the strongest national public health measures and international cooperation, putting both above profit and corporate power.) And the pushing back of the far right began over a year before the pandemic.

It also isn’t true that the large refugee flows of mainly Syrians in 2015 led to the rise of the far right. In fact, this time five years ago the news was saturated across Europe with moving images of ordinary citizens of Athens, Vienna, Munich, Frankfurt and other cities providing practical support for the hundreds of thousands fleeing to a place of greater safety.

In Greece, the country hardest hit by the European austerity disaster, 85 percent of respondents in a poll said that “the government must help the refugees”. In that atmosphere the far right did not dominate the story.

That began to change months later when the EU signed its shameful anti-refugee deal with Turkey. That and many other measures signalled officially that refugees were a problem. In Germany, the Chamber of Commerce said that in order for refugees to be gainfully employed it would have to be on lower than the normal minimum wages.

No new refugee was yet in the labour market. But their mere presence had been linked to lower wages. Not by force of some “objective” economic law, but by profit-seeking and cynical employers.

The centrality of the radical left

It is not true, as some parts of the European labour movement have wrongly accepted, that economic distress plus immigration must mean only the rise of racism and xenophobia. It can lead to multiracial struggles by working people. Equally, it is not true that cutting immigration will reduce racism and undermine the far right.

In every scenario it depends upon political struggle – central to that is a principled radical left that looks to mobilise the many on whatever front, not to be content talking among our few selves.

Especially if Joe Biden beats Donald Trump in a fortnight’s time – as I hope he does – we are going to be treated to a barrage from the politicians of the failing capitalist centre.

It is that what they call the “populist tide” of four years ago is over. The system of the sensible centre has been re-established.

They are crushing the radical right and have seen off the radical left – they see us as two peas in a pod and usually the left as the greater danger.

All back to the centre, and everything from the Egyptian revolution and Occupy of 2011 through the Corbyn leadership of Labour to the Brexit vote in Britain is safely in the history books. That this is in conditions of devastating crises – the pandemic, the slump, the environment, threats of new wars – shows how thin the rhetoric is.

The story from Greece is not the re-establishment of the neoliberal centre. It is the ongoing political polarisation in conditions of deep systemic crisis.

When the Golden Dawn trial started in April 2015 there was a mood of optimism on the international left. In some quarters it was overly optimistic, taking insufficient account of the political problems and weaknesses on our side.

The Syriza government in Greece was still defying the EU; Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for Labour leader was heading to victory; Bernie Sanders was emerging as a left Democrat contender; Podemos looked insurgent in Spain; Jean-Luc Melenchon in France was beginning to show that it was not just the fascist Marine Le Pen who could grow from the collapse of the Hollande presidency…

Five years later, under lockdown in many countries this spring, there was a widespread, opposite and debilitating mood. Syriza, Corbyn, Sanders, Podemos; Melenchon… all defeated in the electoral field or tamed.  

It was tempting this summer to think that the far right were now ascendant – and conservative and liberal media told us it was the “populist right” or the liberal centre.

Greece reveals the reality. The far right can be stopped. In so doing, it is not a matter of rallying to the centre. Nor is it some comforting, inevitable development.

In knocking out the fascist right through mass methods, the radical left can reopen the path to the growth of working class struggle and of socialism.

This time, with all the benefit of the intervening experience, we must aim to do better than before.

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Kevin Ovenden

Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.