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Economic crisis and the right

This article is over 12 years, 7 months old
Right wing forces were the main beneficiaries of the European elections, but there is a complex relationship between economic crisis and political polarisation, argues Chris Bambery
Issue 2156

The media reacted with surprise and some satisfaction as it proclaimed the right were the big winners of the recent European elections.

Right wing parties, including those of Nicolas Sarkozy in France, Angela Merkel in Germany, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and, of course, David Cameron won a significant share of the poll.

These results seem to fly in the face of a common sense wisdom that growing unemployment and economic difficulty should steer people to the left.

Some have even blamed divisions among the radical left for the success of the right.

But the simple explanation is that working class voters across Britain and Europe deserted the centre-left parties, such as the Labour Party, which have been enthusiastically following neoliberal social and economic policies.

The truth is that huge economic and social crises don’t push people in one direction – they create polarisation.

Both the left and the right can grow at the same time.

There is nothing automatic about collective struggle or leftward shifts. If workers are not confident and combative their initial reaction in a crisis can be to try and find individual solutions.

In the 1930s the first beneficiaries of the depression were the right. This was particularly true in countries where Labour or social democrats were in government at the start of the crisis, as was the case in Germany and Britain.

In Germany middle class voters and some unemployed workers, who had previously looked to liberal or Tory parties, began moving rightwards as those parties failed to offer a solution to the crisis. Adolf Hitler was the ultimate beneficiary of this.


But working class resistance and radicalisation revived in the mid-1930s.

This was in part a reaction to the growth of fascism. But it was also partly because the initial shock of the slump had begun to wear off – and for many people, resistance seemed to be the only response.

In the 1970s economic crisis returned to a system that had basked in two decades of economic boom since the Second World War.

This time working class struggle had been on the rise since 1968.

But class polarisation occurred too.

The biggest strike wave during the 1970s took place in Italy. The country had the biggest left – but the 1970s also saw a revival of fascism, which was egged on by sections of the state and the employers.

In Britain there was a high level of class struggle during the early 1970s. But the Nazi National Front also began to grow, largely among discontented Tory voters.

In the mid-1970s various establishment figures talked wildly of a coup to overthrow Labour prime minister Harold Wilson.

Matters were more serious in Chile. In 1973 the US government, the CIA and the country’s bosses cheered on a murderous military coup that toppled the left wing Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende.

This event was held up globally as a warning to the left not to push too far.

Mass unemployment can also affect resistance by undermining traditional forms of struggle.

If your workplace has no orders or is on the verge of closure, there’s little point in simply striking and then standing outside the gate for weeks on end.

So in the 1930s workers came up with new forms of resistance, including hunger marches and riots.

By the middle of the decade tactics centred on occupying factories, to hold machinery and plants to ransom, and launching city-wide strikes.

The 1970s saw a revival of occupations as a way to beat closures. In Britain this continued into the years of Margaret Thatcher’s government, with successes as well as defeats.

The current crisis has seen workers take up such forms of direct action much sooner into the crisis than in the 1930s.

The occupations at Visteon, Prisme and Waterford Crystal in Ireland have won results and inspired other workers.

Yet it remains the case that the loss of your job and your home, and the onset of sudden poverty is not always a spur to resistance. People can sink under the weight of such dreadful experiences.

They may blame family members, former workmates or more conventional scapegoats, such as “foreigners” or migrants.

In Britain we have seen anger over the recession explode, but some strikes have focused on the wrong target – migrant workers.

Elections don’t give a true reflection of the complexity of people’s attitudes. Most people oppose privatisation and war, but this is not shown in voting patterns because there are very few parties that reflect these views.

It is true that the right has gained some ideological ground on certain issues – most notably on immigration but also on crime and welfare.


Behind the debate over why the right has seemed to gain from this recession is the sneer you often hear from media pundits and right wing politicians – that the left can’t get its act together and is tearing itself apart.

Of course, division and rancorous debate are not consigned to the left. The Tories almost tore themselves apart after ditching Thatcher in 1990.

But to many the left does seem to suffer more from disunity and division. Why is that?

The right represents those interests that have power – economic, ideological and political. It repeats “common sense” ideas, those that are widely accepted as forming the building blocks of our society – such as nationalism, competitiveness, racism and greed.

The fascists are at the far end of this spectrum and, unlike mainstream right wing parties, they aspire to forge a powerful paramilitary force to unleash racial genocide. Yet they too start from these beliefs.

The parties of the left, in contrast, base themselves on the working class. This class seems to have little power under capitalism – its main strength lies in its ability to resist and withdraw its labour.

The ruling class prefers to have its direct clients in office rather than social democratic parties who might occasionally still mention socialism.

They accept that Labour has to rule at certain points, as when the Tories imploded in the mid-1990s, but generally they prefer their old Etonian mates to run things for them.

The old adage is that “power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely”. In reality it is lack of power that corrupts.

If you believe that change is impossible and that unemployment and blighted lives are inevitable, then you are less likely to blame the bankers and the corporations for the mess the world is in.

This lack of power is the reason why, for most of the time, the vast majority of the working class accepts many ruling class ideas.

This changes when people fight back. People begin to realise their own power. Ideas of resistance and class solidarity gather strength.


But until a majority is won to revolution there will be a clash between the old ideas encouraging class compromise, and new, revolutionary ideas.

That has been true of all revolutions, including those that brought the capitalist class to power. But there is a fundamental difference between those “bourgeois” revolutions and working class ones.

In the great French Revolution that began in 1789, the new capitalist class had economic power and the nobility and monarchy were in debt to it. It also had ideological power – the new universities and publishing houses had eclipsed the church.

What it did not have was political power. But it could draw on its economic and ideological strength to achieve that.

So in France the capitalist class did not have to painstakingly create a mass popular party and hold meetings week in, week out.

The driving force in the revolution was in fact a small political club called the Jacobins.

We do not have such a luxury. The odds are stacked against us. We need to organise, educate and agitate to create a fighting chance of winning revolutionary change.

This is fundamentally centred on struggle, meaning that defeats will happen as well as victories.

The defeats can breed division and frustration and can encourage people to look for short cuts or to make their peace with the old order.

The divisions that occur on the left generally flow from failure. As the saying goes, success has hundreds of parents, but failure is an orphan.

The German playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht said that socialism was an easy thing to understand but so difficult to achieve.

An understanding of our collective power to save jobs, overcome racism and to change the world is key to unlocking this apparent dilemma.

The problem is that, for much of the time, we see that power all too fleetingly.

But victories breed confidence and encourage further struggle and change. A key task for us is to secure more victories.

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