socialist register

The rise of the populist right shows that the centre cannot hold, and a socialist alternative is the only solution, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh


Leo Panitch and Greg Albo (eds.), Socialist Register 2016. The Politics of the Right (The Merlin Press 2015), xi, 381pp.

In the week following the Brexit vote on 23rdJune, police chiefs reported a five-fold increase in reported racist incidents, from abuse to physical attacks. Media accounts of the spike in racism tended to report it as if it was caused purely by the referendum result, divorced from any other factors. A more credible understanding however would surely see the response to the referendum result as the consequence of the racist campaigns fought by both the Leave and Remain sides. David Cameron was after all only prepared to argue for a remain vote after he had negotiated an ‘emergency brake’ to curb benefits for EU citizens coming to the UK. For all that pro-EU demonstrators after the vote might celebrate the free movement of people, much of the Remain side before the vote were in the same place as the Leave campaign in seeing EU migration to the UK as something to be curbed.

Despite the media focus during the referendum campaign on immigration as the key issue, it is evident that a majority of Leave voters were motivated by issues of sovereignty and democratic control, rather than by racism. It is also clear that the vote was a class protest by working-class voters ignored and exploited by the political elites for thirty years of neo-liberalism. It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that dire pronouncements from senior establishment figures that the racism after the Brexit vote means we are on the road to fascism arise more from panic at the establishment’s electoral defeat than from a sober assessment of the situation.

It is also worth noting that when racist incidents increase after events which play into a right-wing establishment narrative, such as when the murder of Lee Rigby was followed by a wave of Islamophobic violence and sizable far-right demonstrations, they are rarely met with such establishment concern. This does not mean, however, that the racism is not real. As the essays here set out, the context in which we should see the Brexit campaign is at least partly the rise of the right across Europe.

Radical right-wing parties have been enjoying increasing success in recent years in both European Parliament and national elections. This is true in Austria, where at time of writing the Presidential election in which the far-right candidate, the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer, was narrowly defeated by the left candidate, has been declared null and void and is to be re-run. It is also true in Belgium, Denmark, France, Poland, Hungary, where between them FIDESZ and Jobbik got nearly 65% of the vote in the 2014 national election, and Switzerland, where the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) was the single largest party in the October 2015 elections with 26% of the vote.

These electoral successes on national and supra-national stages have been mirrored by advances for the right in many places at local level. The grim reality of this, as Liz Fekete sets out in the opening essay, is not restricted to symbolic victories. Rural, impoverished Roma communities in Hungary now find themselves ruled by Jobbik mayors who define them as the source of all Hungary’s problems. Muslim children in French towns like Beziers now have Front National mayors collecting data on how many of them attend which schools, and forbidding those schools to provide them with halal food (p.12).

The advances for the right in electoral politics can be seen as reflecting a grassroots upsurge in ultra-right violence, which Fekete sees as beginning with Anders Breivik’s massacre of 77 people at the Norwegian Labour party youth summer camp in 2011, and continued and extended through white supremacist groups, football hooligan firms like Cologne’s Hooligans Against Salafists (Ho.Ge.Sa) and the Autonomous Nationalists.

An obvious question is how far we should think of these developments as fascism, usefully comparable to the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Some of the groups achieving electoral success, like Golden Dawn in Greece or Jobbik in Hungary, clearly do embrace the violent strategies of fascism, and Golden Dawn has used the Nazi symbols in the past. As Walter Baier points out here, other right parties may avoid making explicit links to the fascist past, but will also ensure that their supporters understand that they stand in relationship to it. Far right Austrian politicians, he points out, have a habit of ‘slips’ in making positive references to the Third Reich, which, though retracted with apologies, are not slips at all but very deliberate signals to the FPO’s German nationalist base (p.73). In general, however, as Geoff Eley puts it here, the modern far right does not present itself as a ‘mass movement mobilised for the seizure of power by violent confrontations with an equivalently-mobilised mass-political opponent in the form of a Communist or socialist party’ (p.112). Instead, the violence of the streets can act as the ‘tolerated spearhead’ for state authoritarianism directed at minority groups.

This describes, for example, the relationship between the UK government’s Prevent strategy, aimed at the Muslim community, and the racist violence of the EDL. This is clearly a symbiotic relationship, for all that we are supposed to see Prevent as a reasonable response to a threat of terrorism and the EDL’s violence as abhorred by the government whose own rhetoric created and nourished it. The Prevent programme is not only Islamophobic in effect and intent, but is also part of the increasing authoritarianism of a state bent on widening its powers of surveillance as part of the ‘war on terror’. The essays here on policing with impunity and the growth of the surveillance state are thus intensely relevant to a discussion of the development of the right and the far right, being as it is an authoritarian project buttressed by increasing state and non-state violence.

The police, who in New York started a work to rule in response to the Mayor’s suggestion that they perhaps should not have strangled Eric Garner to death, or who in Spain can now levy a €600 fine on anyone they deem not to have shown them sufficient respect, are increasingly likely themselves to belong to far right groups, illustrating the convergence in policing between the far right and the centre. Private security is also an area of strength for the far right, as demonstrated in 2013 when it was revealed that the firm providing security at one of Amazon’s German warehouses was Hensel European Security Services, whose initials, non-coincidentally, spell HESS for Rudolf Hess (p.13).

In one sense, then, the relationship between the politics of centre, the electoral extreme right and the violence of the ultras is clear, and predates the current rise of the right. As A Sivanandan said about Enoch Powell (the Tory politician who made the infamous Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 against immigrants), ‘What Powell says today, the Tories say tomorrow and Labour legislates on the day after.’ In another sense, however, it is contradictory: the insurgency of the far right has to be seen in context of ‘neoliberal economic policies, emergency laws, a permanent war culture and the securitization of migration’ (p.2), but it is not simply a continuation or a more extreme version of mainstream-right government policies.

The populism of extreme-right electoral parties, as seen with protest movements like the anti-refugee Pegida, finds its appeal in an anti-neo-liberal stance. These parties thus can become a vehicle of protest for those left behind by neo-liberalism and globalisation, as UKIP did with their strong votes in some old-Labour heartlands in the general election in 2015, and with the Leave vote in many of the same areas. Votes for parties like this are racist votes in so far as the people who are being exploited and left in poverty can be told that their problems are because the migrants are taking their jobs, their doctors’ appointments and their children’s school places. It is however notable how even votes for the most extreme of these parties are apparently neither committedly racist nor committedly right-wing. The success of Syriza in Greece, for example, was able to some extent to counter the rise of Golden Dawn by offering opposite answers to the same, neo-liberal problems. It seems that people were looking for a way of opposing the status quo and were willing to settle for a violent, fascist way if that appeared to be all that was available, but that at least some of them would take a left-wing alternative if that was offered.

What all this means is that the centre cannot hold. The rise of the right shows us how the old calculation, that people would dutifully vote for one of the centrist parties and keep quiet, is untenable. The protest votes thrown up in this situation can be captured by the right if the left is prevented from offering a genuine alternative, so simply returning to the policy of triangulation and compromise with the centre will not work. To return from the European stage to the strictly UK, Labour will not win back its voters lost to UKIP by pandering to their perceived racism but otherwise offering them more of the same. Only a socialist programme will cut it. It must offer renationalisation of privatised industries, real investment in and roll back of the marketization of the NHS, and a fair wage for the job policy, so that migrant labour cannot be exploited to undercut more established workers.

The protests of middle-class Remain voters, who seem to think that being outvoted by working-class people is the same as being disenfranchised, may signal the rise of what Tariq Ali has dubbed the ‘extreme centre’. The politics of the centre offers nothing to the working class, but also has no hope of maintaining the neo-liberal status quo, while holding the far right in their place as marginal and easily contained shock troops. The rise of the right tells us that the choice really is between socialism or barbarism. The current situation, even more so than when these essays were written, in 2015, offers us the chance to choose.

Elaine Graham-Leigh

Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and Marx and the Climate CrisisHer sci-fi novel, The Caduca, is out now from The Conrad Press.