By Kevin Ovenden
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 264

Polarisation in Europe: Right Turn or Revolt?

This article is over 21 years, 8 months old
The crisis in Europe has allowed the far right a hearing, but it's also led to a resurgence of the left.
Issue 264

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold.’ The Irish poet WB Yeats wrote those words in the wake of the First World War. Today the sense of political crisis across Europe, while not as great as then, is growing weekly as support for the parties of the centre cracks and politics polarises to the left and right.

The social democratic (ie Labour) parties that were swept to office only a few years ago now face a sharp drop in support and internal ideological confusion. Most have suffered a long term decline in membership even when the number of members fluctuates in the short term.

Four years ago social democratic parties were in government in 13 out of the 15 members of the European Union. Since then they have lost power in Austria, Italy, Portugal, Denmark, Spain and Holland, with parties of the far right making advances in all of those elections bar Spain. However, parties to the left of social democracy have also made unprecedented gains. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s success in beating Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin in the first round of the French presidential election underscored the crisis of social democracy. So did the Dutch general election last month, when the Labour Party got its lowest vote since 1945.

Such events seemed unthinkable to most mainstream commentators a few years ago. They had sought to convince us only ten years earlier that the Labour Party in Britain, the Social Democratic Party in Germany and others could not win an election. Then in the late 1990s they suggested that the Third Way of Tony Blair or the ‘New Middle’ muddle of Gerhard Schröder could never lose.

The victories of Blair, Schröder, Costas Simitis in Greece, the Olive Tree coalition in Italy, and others supposedly represented a flight towards centre politics. Publishers are still turning out books that proclaim politics has moved ‘beyond left and right’. This magazine was one of the minority voices explaining how it was a left wing shift among millions of workers that brought the social democrats into government and that that same mood would undermine them. As I wrote in Socialist Review in 1998, ‘The electoral success of European social democracy is unprecedented… Never before have such parties held the levers of government across so much of Europe simultaneously.

‘Yet together they face potentially their deepest crisis at the very moment of their greatest triumph. The central contradiction facing [them] is the chasm that exists between the expectations of those who voted them in and the policies they want to implement. Voters across Europe abandoned the Tories… in the hope of far reaching change to the good of working class people… There is unevenness between Europe’s social democratic governments…Blair stands on the hard right; Jospin is at the left of the spectrum. But each of them has set a course of confrontation with their working classes.’

Failure of neoliberalism

The failure of those governments to meet workers’ expectations lies behind the crisis they now face. Each of them has pursued neo-liberal policies. That is most clearly so in Britain. But Jospin too presided over a record increase in ‘insecurity’ through temporary contracts and he privatised more than the previous two Tory governments.

Hospital waiting lists and transport chaos were key reasons behind bitterness with the Labour-led coalition in Holland. The Dutch Labour Party got just 1.4 million votes last month, over one million fewer than in 1998. The governing coalition as a whole lost over two million votes. Pim Fortuyn’s party got 1.6 million votes and the Christian Democrats, a Tory party that had stayed out of the coalition, gained a million votes to get 2.7 million. The Socialist Party (a long standing left reformist party) nearly doubled its vote to 560,000.

The Labour Party in Britain won a big majority at last year’s general election only because the turnout was the lowest since 1918. Average turnouts in elections across Europe are lower than they were 20, 30 or 40 years ago. They were generally lower at the end of the 1990s than at the beginning. They were lower too when the perceived differences between the main parties’ policies were slight.

The first round of the French presidential election showed the extent of the collapse of the centre parties. The combined vote of the Tory parties was four million less than in 1995. Lionel Jospin’s Socialists lost 1.5 million votes. Le Pen’s vote was slightly up. Some 2.7 million people who voted in 1995 abstained in the first round this year. The far left increased its vote by 1.3 million to get its best ever result–3 million.

These and other election results have led to talk of the ‘political pendulum swinging back to the right’. That image does not fit. We are not seeing a smooth, predictable oscillation from social democracy back to Tory/Christian Democratic politics. Politics is not neatly contained within bourgeois democratic structures. And revolutionaries and forces to the left of the social democratic parties are making serious inroads, not simply the far right.

The Christian Democratic parties are not setting the pace. Those Christian Democratic forces that have made some gains have adapted to the anti-immigration and anti-crime campaigns of the far right. The Christian Democrats in Holland echoed Pim Fortuyn. The German Christian Democrats have selected Edmund Stoiber as their hard right candidate for chancellor.

Electoral respectability

The far right formations do not represent a move towards the centre, but away from it. There is a particularly dangerous line of argument that since these formations (especially the most successful of them) are not identical to classical fascism they are therefore no more than temporary ‘populist’ phenomena. But take Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, Le Pen’s National Front in France and Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance in Italy. Each party has fascist activists at its core and all three leaders have long histories on the fascist right.

The classical fascist parties of Mussolini and Hitler after the First World War built first a paramilitary core out of disillusioned demobbed right wing officers and then sought to win votes, stressing opposition to ‘the system’. Finally, with a mass movement, they won the support of the bulk of the capitalist class who turned to them to physically destroy working class resistance.

Le Pen, Haider and Fini are aiming for electoral respectability before turning that into mass paramilitary support. They face problems in doing so. Le Pen’s May Day parade in Paris revealed tensions between his thuggish supporters and the wider respectable elements. Much of the Freedom Party’s support is soft and the ideological concessions Haider has made have undermined attempts by fascists within it to build a hard core. The Freedom Party and Fini’s National Alliance have been hampered by participation in government in presenting themselves as the ‘radical outsiders’.

But the greater the electoral gains these parties make, the more confidence it gives those in them who want to build Hitlerite stormtroopers. Griffin, the leader of the Nazi BNP in Britain, called for an ‘all white Britain’ after three BNP councillors were elected in Burnley.

The same is true of newer far right forces: Pim Fortuyn’s party in Holland; the movement around the right wing Hamburg judge Ronald Schill; and others. These do not hail from the traditional fascist right. But they have attracted or encouraged fascist elements and their base is among the same petty bourgeois layers fascism seeks to galvanise. Fortuyn’s party, for example, mopped up many of the activists of the two Dutch fascist parties. These new formations can be unstable, but they provide a milieu for fascist forces which can thrive on such volatility. There was a range of radical right movements and leaders in Europe in the 1920s. All of them gravitated towards fascism after Hitler’s rise.

The far right has managed to establish a dangerous foothold before any renewed slump intensifies bitterness and despair across society. There will be no return to ‘normality’ on the right, and there must not be a flight to social democratic normality on the left.

Yet that is what’s on offer from mainstream social democracy, combined with the suicidal (and sickening) strategy of adapting to racist arguments in an effort to undercut the racist right. There was little contrition from the leaders of the French Socialist Party in the wake of Jospin’s defeat. Instead social democratic leaders across Europe are attacking working class French voters for not getting behind Jospin, and the far left for daring to stand in the election–a case of, ‘If the people won’t vote for us, then dissolve the people and elect a new one.’

Far left provides the challenge

It was Jospin’s policies that lost him support. Analysis in ‘Le Monde’ revealed that Le Pen got significant votes from people who said they would not otherwise vote. The far left also got support from that layer. In other words, the far left provided a challenge to Le Pen that the social democrats and the parties of the centre could not. The shock of the first round result triggered a huge left wing reaction on the streets. The revolutionary left vote strengthened that movement and prepared future confrontation with Chirac.

Such growth of the far left has not been seen for 30 years and is the other side of the crisis of social democracy. The majority of workers are still to the left of mainstream social democracy on many issues. That was the main reason why Labour lost votes in last year’s general election. John Curtice wrote soon after in the Financial Times, ‘Some of these votes appear to have been lost on an unprecedented scale to the parties of the far left. There was a real fragmentation of the electorate never seen before in British postwar politics.’ The Socialist Alliance vote in last month’s council elections was a step forward from the general election.

Various left formations in Europe have attracted electoral support over the last five years. The former Communist PDS in Germany continues to pick up significant votes in the east and is gaining some support in the west. The Refounded Communist Party in Italy has increased its profile and support through its participation in the anti-capitalist movement. There is the success of the revolutionary left in France, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Socialist Alliance, and left electoral challenges in other countries.

The crisis of social democracy provides a tremendous opportunity for the left to grow if it can provide answers which reach out to the mass of workers, including over how to push back the far right.

The crisis in Europe resembles the 1930s in slow motion (but speeding up), as various writers in this magazine have argued. The method of the united front advocated by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in the 1930s to counter the threat of fascism is central. It means seeking to mobilise the mass of workers, who still look to social democracy, for united action against the right. The same general method is true of building resistance to all the attacks workers face and to developing the re-emergent left.

It is also about continuing the break to the left of social democracy in the course of those struggles. For the crisis of social democracy does not mean it will simply go away leaving revolutionaries a free hand. The French Socialist Party says it received 15,000 applications for membership in the week after Jospin’s defeat. It tapped some of the reaction against Le Pen even though it had created the conditions for him to grow. Social democrats and their sympathisers want to steer the European Social Forum in November into channels that suit them. The polarisation of politics creates strains between the social democratic leaders and their mass base through sudden political eruptions. But social democracy will only disappear if the far left is able to replace it.

If ignoring the continued influence of social democracy in the working class movement is one danger, surrendering to it and moving back towards the centre is another. The left reformist PDS in Germany has joined the social democrats in running the city of Berlin. The council is imposing cuts. The Greens in France were part of Jospin’s ‘plural left’ coalition. Green leaders are now calling on the far left to join a new version of the plural left, which would suffer all the faults of Jospin’s. Failure to provide a coherent alternative to social democracy means leaving people prey to the fake anti-system appeals of the right.

The left’s electoral success is a reflection of a far deeper radicalisation. Working class resistance is growing. Recent years have not seen defeats like the miners’ in Britain in the mid-1980s or the mass sackings in Turin in the late 1970s that shattered working class confidence. Instead there has been a slow recovery in Britain, the public sector revolt in France in 1995, and more recently the important pay victory by engineering workers in Germany and the general strike and 3 million strong march in Italy.

The mass strikes of 1995 led to a big shift left which, combined with rising anti-fascist activity, marginalised Le Pen in 1998 and 1999. The first Berlusconi government fell after 10 million workers struck and 3 million demonstrated in October 1995.

The bitterness with the system is even greater now and more generalised. Above all hundreds of thousands of often young people are developing a deeper opposition to the system as the anti-capitalist movement continues to grow. The half a million strong mobilisation in Barcelona surpassed Genoa of last year. It surprised even the organisers, whose most optimistic forecast the night before was that 70,000 would take part. It has fuelled support for a general strike in Spain on the eve of protests against the EU summit in Seville this month. In Britain the May Day protest in London united trade unionists and anti-capitalists and was the largest for decades. Far from being derailed by 11 September the anti-capitalist movement has fed the struggles against Bush’s war and for the Palestinians. Two demonstrations of 100,000 and 50,000 greeted Bush’s visit to Berlin last month evev though Schröder is trailing Stoiber in the polls.

The political polarisation is intensifying debates in a growing left over how to connect with even wider layers and how to offer a consistent fighting alternative to social democracy. Revolutionary socialists face the challenge of showing that their ideas can build that alternative. The anti-capitalist mood means a serious fight against the far right today is not only that. It can accelerate the shift to the left which social democratic governmants have turned their backs on and are now paying the price for.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance