The rise of the far right and/or authoritarian political forces in countries with some sort of parliamentary rule has been a global trend in the twenty-first century. This is especially the case during the turbulent period the world has entered since the financial crisis of 2007-08. So we have seen Trump in the US, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in India and Duterte in the Philippines, to list just a few examples.
Yet Europe is probably the region most affected by this phenomenon. The far right’s breakthrough from the margins to the mainstream has been the rule and not an exception, as similar developments have been observed in almost every European country.
Over the past few years, both Austria and Italy have been ruled by coalition governments with far-right parties as a strong component, that is, not a “junior partner” of a dominant ally. In France, Marine Le Pen has emerged as an established and resilient political player, one who contends for governmental power at provincial and national levels.
Most countries in Eastern Europe have traditionally had a dominant presence of various reactionary political currents. This continues to be the case.
Scandinavian countries, long considered the strongholds of social-democratic politics and progressive rule, have not been exempt. Far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats, Finns Party, Danish People’s Party and the Progress Party etc have moved from the margins to constantly secure double-digit electoral scores, and have at times provided centre-right governments with the parliamentary support they need to survive. The same applies to central European countries that were traditionally considered bastions of liberal “tolerance”, such as the rise of Geert Wilder’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands.
It was also proven that even Southern European nations which have living memories of far-right military rule – Spain, Portugal, Greece – are not immune as initially believed. Greece witnessed the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn – a small paramilitary gang active since the 1980s – entering parliament in 2012. In Spain, Vox triumphantly entered the national parliament in 2019, just seven years after its formation, winning 10.25 and 15 percent in elections that year. Portuguese exceptionalism was dealt its first blow when the far-right Andre Ventura and his Chega party won 12 percent of the vote in the presidential elections of January 2021. Another famous “immunity” has been put to the test by the emergence of Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, which has been increasingly normalised despite its fascist core.
To sum up, the rise of the far right has become the new normal across Europe. No one can rest complacently behind the false claim that “this can never happen here”.
In order to understand the breadth and depth of this phenomenon, we should examine some common factors that lie behind it and some features that emerge as (more or less) common in the contemporary galaxy of far-right currents.
The global financial crisis of 2007-8 and its aftermath has been an obvious and important factor driving the growth of the far right. The weak recovery has generated a sense of social and economic insecurity, and in some cases, turmoil. Permanent unemployment or under-employment has become a persistent reality for some parts of the working class, and wages have been largely stagnant. The middle classes have been under various pressures, in some cases material decline but at the very least constant anxiety about their prospects. There is the temptation among parts of the big bourgeoisie to look for and experiment with alternative strategies for governance. Combined, these factors provide the far right an audience to appeal to. The widespread feeling of a “dead end” and the subsequent social exasperation can be translated by the far right in terms of “the nation’s decline” that should be addressed by “restoring its former glory”.
The political crisis is the second obvious factor that benefits the far right. While the financial crisis is the background and the fundamental reason for the political turmoil, we should examine the latter distinctly. The political crisis is a more resilient phenomenon, a result of many factors with its own dynamics that precede the financial crisis. The fortunes of traditional parties and political stability have not always been in total sync with the economic situation. In my organisation, Internationalist Workers’ Left (DEA), we used the term metastasis to describe the political turmoil that emerged even after the first episodes of the economic crisis were relatively contained. The collapse or relative decline of the established parties that used to monopolise the political allegiances of the vast majority of the population for decades after World War Two has unleashed centrifugal forces creating an opening for smaller political parties. While certain far-right parties might have made some inroads among the working class, the far right has tended to benefit from crises in the traditional centre-right, which release social elements already inclined to support conservative ideas.
These global trends have been exaggerated and taken a unique form in Europe. In this region, the economic and the political crisis were translated into a crisis of “European integration”, meaning the Eurozone and the European Union project. The handling of the crisis by Brussels took two forms. The weaker, harder hit countries of Southern Europe were offered bailouts – depicted perversely as a form of support – in exchange for harsh fiscal austerity. These measures were designed to protect private creditors from any losses by squeezing workers and the poor.
This strategy was commonly agreed to protect the core of ruling-class interests in all countries involved. But the international agreements – referred to as memoranda – and the European mechanisms formed to oversee their implementation inflamed nationalist feelings across the board, as everyone tried to deflect public anger from local capitalists. In the North, the nationalist argument complained that “our tax money is spent so that the lazy people of the South maintain their care-free lifestyles”. In the South, nationalists argued that “austerity is being imposed upon us by the vicious Northerners, who want to weaken and colonise our country”. As things evolved, this way of shifting the blame spread almost everywhere – not just between North and South. French nationalist feeling targeted “German hegemony in the EU”. British nationalism revolted against the EU, and so on.
We are living in an era of sharpening capitalist and imperialist competitions. The rise of right-wing “anti-globalism”, in the form of a protectionist economic and political model, is an attempt to address the new situation. Trump has so far been the most vocal proponent of this shift. When he argued in the UN that “the future belongs to patriots” he understood that he advocated a strategy that appeals to many political forces, reflecting the soul-searching among many ruling classes. In the European context, this protectionist spirit has become more prevalent among the far right for two reasons. Firstly, Europe has been the home of the most advanced globalist/integrationist project, in the form of the EU. Secondly, this project is facing the existential anxiety of lagging behind in international competition and losing its place in the hierarchy of world imperialism.
So, for emerging far-right forces, all vices and ills can be attributed to the bureaucrats in Brussels, and all salvation will be found by reclaiming national sovereignty. This was clearly on display from the Euro-sceptic wing of the Tory Party and Nigel Farage’s UKIP during the Brexit referendum. But national priority has become a common banner for all the European far right. Sometimes there is a concession to geopolitical realities by arguing for a stronger Europe in the form of a refounded “free association of sovereign nations”.
If these factors emerged in the post-crisis world situation, we must take into account factors that strengthened their prospects before that and continue to fuel them. First of all there is racism, specifically, Islamophobia. Anti-Muslim bigotry has probably been the sole feature that is common among all far-right forces in Europe. Some are more protectionist while others are more neoliberal. Some are fully reactionary, while others maintain a liberal facade when it comes to social issues. But they all hate Muslims.
The far right has been feeding on the mainstream, state-sponsored Islamophobia that prevailed in the Western world during the War on Terror. Building on over a century of Orientalist prejudices, paired with decades of negative stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists, the campaign to stigmatise Muslims has been a powerful tool. It has justified imperialist aggression beyond the borders, racism on the borders and authoritarianism within the borders. In this context the far right has found a very convenient scapegoat, and presented itself as the most determined to confront this new threat.
Some parts of the contemporary far right – especially in Northern Europe – have even presented themselves as gay-friendly and feminist, in order to claim they are defending supposedly European values against Islamist immigrants. While the emergence of “hipster Nazis” is an interesting development, it is unlikely to be the norm.
The far more common posture on the far right relies on a conservative backlash, twisting reality and arguing that it is the oppressed that are the major/existential threat to society. In this view, the rights of women Europeans, white people and men are being endangered by the arrival of immigrants, the hegemony of minorities and the assertiveness of women.
Some combine these and other issues in a conspiracy called “the Great Replacement”. According to this theory, anti-sexist movements – challenging the traditional family and leading to a decline in native births – are in cahoots with anti-racist movements – asking for open borders and leading to more immigration – in order to replace “native” Europeans with Islamists. Some include progressive environmentalists in their targets, as they see their politics as threatening to national industries and/or causing sympathy to climate refugees. Most blame a shadowy globalist elite led by George Soros for these menaces, but when they feel stronger or more confident, they show their true colours and target the left: the Marxist advocates behind these various causes.
A notorious Greek neoliberal/alt-right spokesperson recently argued that what bothers him in feminism is that “it tries to inflame confrontation…always with the support of the left. Now that class struggle is over, they [leftists] constantly create new types of conflicts in order to maintain the credibility of their left-wing narrative”.
Now this statement is wrong on many levels. Class struggle is not over, the left is not – at least should not be – looking for substitute movements, and struggles for women’s rights should be understood as part of the broader class struggle. But the political messaging is clear: the New Right is targeting any social movement that has challenged the ruling class in some way, and provided opportunities for the left to grow and spread its anti-capitalist message. As soon as workplace militancy is on the rise, these “populists” will almost certainly oppose strikes and workers’ organisations, as the far right always has.
In addition to these existing factors, the pandemic added a new element to the far-right arsenal. In its early stages, many European far-right forces were prepared to treat the threat seriously. Few felt confident to oppose health measures as public fears of the pandemic peaked. Many voted for the first lockdowns or broader state of emergency powers. Instead they used the crisis as a means of whipping up hysteria towards their preferred enemies: some suggested it was a Chinese attempt to undermine the West, others saw it as a globalist virus to weaken the nation. For Vox in the Spanish state, it was the opportunity to bash the feminist strike that happened a few days before the first lockdown. But when in power, reactionaries adopted a denialist policy, as per Trump, Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson. Soon enough the European far right followed their lead. With Trump as a global loudspeaker, opposition to various health measures became a common policy for the vast majority of the European far right.
In the absence of serious research in this field, it is hard to elaborate on details and case studies, which vary depending on the concrete situation in each country. Some scattered and initial remarks follow.
In countries with an individualist right-wing libertarian tradition – the USA being the exemplar – opposition to all health measures as steps towards a communist dictatorship is the dominant theme of the far-right. The same can be said about fascist groups in most countries, with their typical disregard for life, their support for so-called natural selection, and their hostility to societies “going soft”. These groups remained faithful to the historical motto of the Spanish Falangists: “Long Live Death!” Such groups have been responsible for the most violent and openly anti-health attacks during wider anti-lockdown or anti-vax protests, including attacks on vaccination centres and COVID clinics.
Other far-right parties have tended to prioritise opposition to specific measures, depending on their audience, local conditions and their own unique features. Some countries witnessed loud opposition to lockdowns but a relative silence on the vaccine, possibly reflecting the middle-class desire to “open up for business”. Other countries had no noteworthy opposition to lockdowns but are facing protests against the vaccine. This is especially the case where conspiracy theories, obscurantism and religious fundamentalism form a sizeable part of the far-right ecosystem.
Finally, in countries where traditional themes of nationalism, racism and anticommunism provide them with better opportunities to build their forces, the far right have added opposition to this or that healthcare measure to its repertoire, but not as a top priority.
While it would be a stretch to say that all European far-right forces have made opposition to health measures their focus, it is the case that oppositional/denialist movements in every European country were marked by the active presence of far-right forces, either intervening into or leading them. These movements provided an opportunity for the far right to promote its narrative on the pandemic and its own distorted version of resistance to the elites. How sustained they will be, and how much lasting impact they will have on strengthening the far right into the future, remains to be seen.
Having explored the factors shaping their growth and development in recent times, I will try to assess their current state.
In electoral terms, the past couple of years have witnessed a halt to the previously rapid advance of the far right, but also an affirmation of their established presence. The 2019 elections to the European parliament provided the most recent evidence for this at a continent-wide level. In an electoral contest that is usually advantageous to them, the far right in most countries failed to rise to their expectations of an unstoppable march. But at the same time, they held their ground overall, maintaining the support they won in their initial breakthrough phase. They have now proven that they are here to stay, that their organisations express something deeper and more resilient than an accidental protest vote.
In terms of national elections, the most recent and typical example of this is Germany. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the national parliament in 2017, winning third place and 12.6 percent of the vote. In September 2021, they won 10.3 percent and fell to fifth place. With certain exceptions, this failure to build on previous success has been the norm around Europe lately.
For now the centre has withstood the electoral pressure. This has taken different forms. In some cases, we’ve seen the resilience of the established centre-right or centre-left parties, depending on the country and whether they were not in government during the worst days of the crisis. Elsewhere we’ve seen the emergence of new forces that provide a shiny gloss to the neoliberal establishment – see Macron – or the strengthening of smaller parties such as the Greens. The point is that the centre in the broader sense of the term, which includes parties that might not be traditional but are politically mainstream, has proven its ability to survive and adapt.
It is worth noting that the far right has faced the usual troubles associated with governance in the late neoliberal era. In Austria the Freedom Party won its best result for nearly 20 years in 2017, with 26 percent of the vote. It entered a coalition government as equals with the mainstream right-wing Austrian People’s Party. This was undermined in mid-May 2019 as the Ibiza scandal emerged, when its leader was recorded soliciting funds from a Russian oligarch and suggesting that he intended to censor Austrian media for his own gain. The coalition collapsed and in the subsequent election the Freedom Party vote was reduced to (a still impressive) 16 percent. In Italy, in August of 2019, Mateo Salvini felt confident enough to bring down the coalition government with the Five Star Movement, hoping to win an election and form a pure far-right government. He was outmanoeuvred by Prime Minister Conte, who managed to avoid an election and form a new coalition government with the Five Star Movement and the centre-left Democratic Party (PD). The latest developments in France seem to suggest that Marine Le Pen might be paying the price of her relentless effort to appeal to the ruling class as a respectable and trustworthy party of government, leaving her far-right flank exposed to competition from Eric Zemmour.
It is not easy to explain this temporary halt. One could argue that the far right is lacking a clear economic project, trying to balance between accommodation to neoliberalism and promoting welfare chauvinism. They are similarly torn between expressing Euroscepticism and an acknowledgment of the irreversible – or at least, hard to reverse – nature of certain aspects of globalisation and Europeanisation. This hybrid that Henri Wilno has described as national liberalism is hardly a coherent strategy that can win the trust of the majority of the ruling class at this stage. The headaches generated for the British ruling class by Brexit is the most dramatic example.
Another reason that could explain their failure to build the support needed to claim government is that the ruling class might consider them a liability in terms of guaranteeing social peace and overseeing politics as usual: A typical criticism of Trump, even from some of his supporters, was that he was stirring the hornet’s nest with his brash and confrontational style of politics.
These factors combined would suggest that the far right is not the first choice for most ruling classes. They prefer to exhaust other options before promoting the populists to government. The far right is a valuable reserve, but still just a reserve. At least for now. It is worth noting that Steve Bannon, the Dark Prince of the far right internationally, has moved to Brussels to bring his expertise, connections and material support behind various far-right parties in Europe.
The main feature of the period is volatility and uncertainty. It would be naive to try to make predictions on the future course of events. Alarmists who predicted that the far right was on an unstoppable march to power have been proven wrong. But the same can happen to complacent and self-congratulatory assertions about the defeat of populism and the resilience of the centre, which prevail in liberal commentary at the moment.
This is one reason to avoid complacency. There is a second one, which is realising the magnitude of the problem that is the permanent establishment of the far right as a mainstream political force.
In 1999, when the far-right Freedom Party entered a coalition government in Austria, Europe was shocked. Chumbawamba circulated an edited version of their older anti-fascist song “Enough is Enough”, which was played live in massive concerts in Austria and became an instant anthem all around Europe. Anti-fascists protested in many European countries. Governments felt obliged to talk about suspending ties with Austria. Twenty years later, many anti-fascists are relieved when far-right parties “only” receive low double digit votes.
This established presence of the far right impacts far more than electoral results. The latter serve as a concrete manifestation of a deeper problem: the normalisation of far-right ideas. Fearing murder at the hands of his enemies, Mithridatis, the ancient King of Pontus, regularly injected himself with small doses of poison, so that his body become accustomed to the harmful substances. The term “Mithridatism” hails from this story, meaning the gradual accommodation and numbness towards normally harmful effects. This term describes accurately what has been happening in Europe when it comes to racism and far-right ideas in general.
Electoral scores of the far right reflect this situation and serve as part of a vicious circle: the centre applies reactionary policies that enable the growth of the far right, and then the strengthened far right pushes the centre to adopt even more of its ideas. What was once seen as a fringe concern is now legitimised, thus enabling the further growth of the far right on an even more extreme basis. The issues of racism and refugees are a clear example: things that would have been considered extremist years ago are now common sense in Fortress Europe. Intellectuals of the New Right in France and Italy have argued for this strategy since the 1970s. They understood that sticking to symbols of the discredited past was harmful to their cause, and urged the neofascists to focus “on the field of values, which are not related to politics in the traditional sense of the term, but have a direct impact on the existence or not of social consensus, which is governed by politics”. Jean-Marie Le Pen has been a disciple of this school and the phrase “Lepenisation of minds” emerged in French public discourse, in order to describe the reach of his ideas in French society, beyond those prepared to vote for him. As Pierre Milza had argued, “Gramsci’s ideas were used for the triumph of his enemies”, referring to the ongoing war of position and struggle for hegemony by the New Right. It is this kind of war we have been facing over past years.
The rise of the far right is a complex phenomenon, with many variations, as the reactionaries adapt to concrete local situations. In the following part of this article, I shall address a few different cases which I know enough to elaborate on, cases that highlight the different forms the far right is taking, and which, taken altogether, can contribute to understanding the phenomenon in its totality.
Italy’s Northern League has been around since the early 1990s. It never waged an open struggle for independence, but scapegoated southern Italians for being poor and lazy, arguing that greater autonomy would enable the richer North to avoid paying taxes to sustain the South. It enjoyed some level of support among the middle classes in northern Italy, displaying strong results in municipal/regional elections and occasionally serving as a junior partner to Silvio Berlusconi’s national governments.
Under the leadership of Matteo Salvini the party shifted to take advantage of a series of developments. In particular, the crisis of Berlusconism in the aftermath of the global financial crisis unleashed centrifugal forces in the right-wing camp. The party has also taken strong stances around refugees and the debt crisis of Italian capitalism.
The party now abandoned its geographic reference point, rebranding itself simply as Lega. Salvini projected his party as the main national force on the right. Migrants replaced Southern Italians as the main scapegoat, and their narrative shifted from defending the northern middle class against the state to a nationalist defence of the Italian middle class against the European bureaucracy in Brussels. The Lega has made some inroads in parts of the working class and in parts of central and southern Italy. But it remains mostly a party of small and middle capitalists, based mainly in the North.
When it comes to the economy, its main message revolves around tax breaks for business. But more recently it has had some success in building a nationalist-racist coalition around opposition to the most globalised sectors of big capital, which Salvini associated with the stridently pro-EU centre-left party, and to migrants. When in power, opposition to the former was proven to be mostly demagogic, but Salvini, as Minister of Interior, overcompensated with rigorous activity against the latter. To cover for his typical neoliberal policies and agreements with the EU, he made a series of infamous decrees targeting migrants’ rights and NGOs that engaged in rescue missions in the Mediterranean, but also restricted the right to protest and strike. He also cracked down hard on the social centres, occupied buildings that serve as the strongholds of Italian Autonomism. These spaces were among the last bastions of continuous left-wing activity in the aftermath of the retreat of the political left and the trade-union movement.
After the fall of the first Conte government in August 2019, the Lega returned to opposition until February 2021, when it began providing parliamentary support to a national unity government. This new coalition brought together the full spectrum of Italian parliamentary politics behind the establishment’s favourite Mario Draghi, the former head of the European Central Bank.
The only parliamentary party that is not part of this national unity is the Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia). This organisation is the latest in a series of mutations and rebrandings of the old MSI, the fascist current that emerged after the fall of Benito Mussolini. Concerningly, the Brothers are the most successful to date. Their growth was enabled by the toxic climate created by Salvini in government, and now they benefit from being the sole parliamentary opposition. In the polls, the Brothers have surpassed the Lega as the major force on the right, a trend that was confirmed during recent municipal elections. In Rome, their most popular council candidate was Rachele Mussolini, the granddaughter of the fascist dictator. The lack of any personal career and fame suggests that Rachele was elected entirely because of her family name, and not despite it.
Many analysts believe that a governmental coalition between the Lega and the Brothers is a very possible – if nightmarish – outcome of the next election. Even if this doesn’t occur, Italy is now firmly established as a country where the traditional centre-right has been relegated to junior status in the right-wing camp. If the Brothers manage to overcome the Lega, after the Lega defeated Berlusconi, this will be an extremely disturbing sign of a steady radicalisation on the broad right.
During the rise of Lega, the reactionary sentiment was mostly expressed by individual acts of racist violence. The Lega itself was more or less “institutionalised” from the outset. While it held the occasional ritual rally to provide a vague sense of belonging to its supporters, it was always a party that primarily concerned itself with the routine tasks of local administration. The current context is quite different. In the context of the rise of the Brothers of Italy and the growing anti-vax protests against the Green Pass, the organised fascists of Forza Nuova have felt emboldened to escalate. They attacked the headquarters of the CGIL, the main trade union federation, in Rome – not in the shadows, but in broad daylight, as leaders of a 10,000-strong mob. One hundred years after the destruction of Chambers of Labour by Mussolini’s Blackshirts, this was a menacing reminder of the threat looming behind this constant radicalisation to the right.
The background to the sudden rise of Vox was accurately described by Miguel Urbán of Anticapitalistas, in the title of a relevant article: “Francoism never died”.
The transition from Franco’s dictatorship to a parliamentary democracy from 1978 was a smooth process, controlled entirely by the ruling class. This was assisted by the compliance of both the Socialist and Communist parties. The Francoists remained powerful in the state machinery, which was never purged of fascist elements. Even the mainstream right-wing party, Partido Popular, has its roots in an alliance of Francoist organisations founded by former officials of the dictatorship.
The PP faced many tests during the global economic crisis. Strong social movements challenged its rule and the political system inherited from the transition, targeting the monarchy, austerity and the centralist constitution of 1978. These challenges include the most massive and militant feminist movement in Europe, mobilising hundreds of thousands of women and organising successful “feminist strikes” every International Women’s Day; a re-awakening of Catalan nationalism, with the emergence of a movement that pushed for a referendum about Catalan independence; a series of scandals that hurt many of its leading members and subsequent electoral losses.
This was the background to the formation of Vox. Francoist currents, which had remained for years in the big tent of the PP, felt that there was both the need and the potential to organise an independent political intervention.
Vox is probably the most typical example of the reactionary backlash driving far-right growth. It is possibly the most aggressively sexist party of the European far-right, being very vocal on its outright hostility to women’s rights. It is not a coincidence that this is happening in the country with the most militant feminist movement.
In a similar vein, Vox can be described as a product of the constitutional crisis over Catalonia. Of course there is a consensus over the “integrity of Spain” among all national political forces. But with Spanish nationalism whipped into a frenzy against the autonomists, it was Vox that benefited most, blaming the Socialists and Podemos as traitors for their insistence on a negotiated solution, and targeting other right-wing forces for being unwilling to confront this supposed existential threat.
Vox also draws heavily from the medieval theme of the reconquista, when the pope sought to drive all Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula. According to Vox, Spanish Christians must “reconquer” Spain from Muslim immigrants and refugees. The term was also popular among General Franco’s forces, which fought to “reconquer” Spain from the scourge of godless communism. This fusion of bigotry and fascistic reaction was accelerated after the emergence of a coalition government of the Socialist Party (PSOE) and Unidas Podemos, which relied on parliamentary support from regional nationalist parties from Catalonia and the Basque Country. In Vox’s narrative, this re-enactment of 1936 threatens the “Una, Grande Y Libre!” – One, Grand and Free – Spanish state. Autonomist forces threaten the unity of Spain; the “communists” of Podemos threaten its liberty, while PSOE is targeted for enabling them both.
Greece has been a rather unique case in the general trend of far-right growth. Generally we see in Europe the rise of far-right parties and right-wing populists who respect the rules of liberal regimes – or pretend to do so for now – somewhat separate to violent paramilitary formations which are smaller and more marginal. In Golden Dawn, we witnessed the rise of a group that enjoyed parliamentary representation and a mass following and also had an openly fascist ideology and violent militias in the streets.
While cautious, I tend to believe that the (foreseeable) future belongs to what we call “fascists in ties” as opposed to “fascists with boots”. This has been the prevailing model, and it has paid off for the European far right. Having said that, Greece serves as a reminder that it would be naïve to argue that something more closely resembling historical fascism can’t happen again.
There are many factors that help explain why Greece was the location of this terrible development. The scale of the crisis – both economic and political – was unmatched elsewhere in Europe. The modern history of the country, with a Civil War from 1946-49, a regime of White Terror during the 1950s and a military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974 offers recent experiences for the far right to draw on. Finally, the collapse of the respectable version of the far right – LAOS, Popular Orthodox Rally – after it joined a coalition government to help impose the dictates of the IMF and the EU are some parts of the answer.
But the most important factor was the level of class struggle. It is no coincidence that Golden Dawn escalated its activities, and found increased support among parts of the media and the Greek state, in early 2009. In December of 2008, the police murder of 15-year-old Alexis Grigoropoulos led to a youth uprising that shook the ruling class and challenged the ability of the police to control the streets. Such was the turmoil that some mainstream government officials were openly contemplating deploying the army to restore order. The rebellion eventually lost its steam, but with Greek capitalism about to face the devastating economic crisis, it was widely understood that December’s revolt was a glimpse of one potential future. The extreme militarisation of the Greek police accelerated in the aftermath the protests, as well as a vicious political and ideological counterattack against protest movements in general. It was a multidimensional campaign that has been described as “anti-rebellion politics”, a form of pre-emptive counter-revolution.
The promotion of Golden Dawn was part of this strategy. During the chaotic scenes of December 2008, no-one paid much attention to the early reports about groups of citizens taking the law into their own hands to protect property. These stories, depicted positively in the media, were simply the prelude. From 2010 to 2012-13, widespread resistance to austerity shook Greece. There were dozens of 24-hour general strikes, and some of them 48-hour, a myriad of militant sectoral struggles and movements of civil disobedience, a two-month-long occupation of public squares inspired by Tahrir in Egypt and the Indignados in Spain, massive protests encircling parliament for hours in the face of unprecedented police violence. It was in this heaving political situation that SYRIZA, a small coalition of reformist, centrist and revolutionary forces, was catapulted from a minor party that received 3-5 percent of the vote, to contending for governmental power.
During the same period, Golden Dawn benefited from growing support from a range of organisations.
The police had a long history of active collaboration with the far right, which reached new heights during the “dark biennial” of 2011-13. In this period Golden Dawn conducted numerous attacks on the left and immigrants in broad daylight, at the same time as around 50 percent of the riot police voted for the neo-Nazis.
As a powerful institution in Greek society, the Orthodox Church has lent meaningful support to Golden Dawn. Many high-ranking priests displayed public support for the “good lads in black”, a reference to the black uniform T-shirts used by Golden Dawn thugs. Bishops met GD leaders and attended openings of new local headquarters of the party to bless them. They found a common cause when GD violently shut down Terrence McNally’s play Corpus Christi, which was condemned by the Church as blasphemous.
A section of the most notorious and aggressive capitalists, including those involved in organised crime and the shipowners of the Port of Piraeus, provided support to Golden Dawn in this period. Their most important collaboration involved a serious attempt to try and break the Communist-led unions on the docks, while a range of smaller capitalists also provided material support to GD’s efforts to create its own structures of welfare; but only for Greeks.
Overall then, Golden Dawn was either tolerated or actively supported, as a valuable reserve for a ruling class that felt threatened during those tumultuous years of class struggle.
In Greek mythology, when someone commits the sin of hubris, the gods mess with their mind, causing tisis, a blinding self-confidence that leads them to commit even more arrogant acts. This eventually leads to nemesis, a severe punishment that brings their humbling downfall. This could be a summary of the trajectory of Golden Dawn.
In September 2013, the dog tried to escape its leash and started to bite uncontrollably. A Golden Dawn battalion viciously attacked Communist Party unionists who were putting up posters in disputed territory in Piraeus. It was a serious escalation that risked an open war with the CP, a party that remains organisationally strong in the area, and with an established presence in mainstream politics.
Soon after, Golden Dawn physically attacked a number of centre-right politicians at a nationalist forum organised each year to pay tribute to those executed by partisans for collaborating with the Nazi occupation. Given its significance to right-wing mythology, it was a big step for Golden Dawn to try and intervene in this aggressive way to claim hegemony over the broad right.
To top off this month of violent aggression, Golden Dawn thugs murdered anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fyssas on the night of 17 September. He died standing defiantly, protecting his friends from a Nazi squadron, remaining true to his rhyme, “there is no way I will be afraid”.
This slogan became the battle-cry for many tens of thousands of protesters marching outside Golden Dawn headquarters in big cities and small towns all around Greece. Thirty such protests were organised immediately after the murder, with 100 taking place over the next couple of weeks. These demonstrations involved thousands of people, well beyond those who usually engage in anti-fascist activity.
This anti-fascist revolt and the widespread popular anger forced the government’s hand. The minister of the interior, a man who had earlier sought to sue The Guardian for revealing police torture against arrested anti-fascists, suddenly “discovered” dozens of cases of Golden Dawn crimes that had been collecting dust in his drawers for years.
Golden Dawn had overplayed its hand, at a time that the Greek ruling class had not reached the point of enabling some sort of “fascist solution”. But it was the massive fightback that made it clear to the ruling class that escalated neo-Nazi violence would cause more problems than it would solve. The existence of a vibrant anti-fascist movement, a strong left and the broader context of strong working-class resistance meant that Golden Dawn’s ambitions were a political liability.
The outcome of the subsequent trial against Golden Dawn – and their prospects in general – was not a given. Initially the left understood the pressing of charges against GD as a half-hearted concession to the anti-fascist revolt. We expected that the trial would end in a compromise between the state and the Nazis, possibly sacrificing some leading members but allowing Golden Dawn to continue its activities.
But in the end, the result was far better than we had dared to hope for. All members of the leadership and the parliamentary group of the party were found guilty of being members of a criminal organisation, while party leader Nikos Michaloliakos and his senior henchmen were found guilty of directing a criminal organisation. In three separate cases that were examined in parallel with and as part of the big trial, the verdict was also against GD members of the squadrons that killed Pavlos (murder), attacked Egyptian fishermen (attempted murder) and CP unionists (inflicting serious injuries). Sentences ranging from five to 13 years, depending on the charges –as there was a bunch of other offences for each, like illegal possession of arms etc – were imposed on 57 GD members, with the maximum sentences being for the top leadership (except for the thug who killed Pavlos, who received a life sentence).
The significance of the verdict was that GD was declared a criminal organisation as a whole, bearing full responsibility for the crimes committed by its squadrons. This left no room to present the crimes committed during all these years as isolated incidents – separate from the party’s true nature – or to shift all the blame onto the expendable thugs at the lower echelons.
This outcome was determined by social struggle and political developments in Greece over the years of the trial. This is not meant to minimise the efforts of the leftist lawyers who ran the trial. Far from it, their legal intervention and their detailed legal and political work over five to six years were proven important during many stages of the trial. “Without the existence of the Civil Action, there would be no case at all!”, argued a defender of the neo-Nazis. Indeed, the state prosecutor initially proposed the acquittal of all Golden Dawn members of all charges, and never stopped displaying her sympathy for them. One can only imagine a trial with Nazi defence lawyers on one side and this so-called prosecutor on the other! But the Civil Action lawyers, being seasoned left-wing activists, always acknowledged the importance of a mass movement in determining the final outcome.
Anti-fascist mobilisation never ceased, with the annual anniversary of Pavlos’ murder becoming an extremely important date for any activist’s calendar. Golden Dawn was proven weak when it lost the confidence that the state will always be there to protect it. Forced to withdraw their gangs from the streets, under pressure from both the trial and the anti-fascist movement, Golden Dawn organisationally disintegrated, while their most high-profile electoral allies jumped the sinking ship. This is all the more remarkable given that the political situation provided them with opportunities – mass rallies against Macedonia, rising tensions with Turkey, growing numbers of refugees.
In the summer of 2019, they were finally kicked out of parliament and a series of splits followed. New Democracy has rallied the right-wing vote around it and won the full confidence of the ruling class. Meanwhile a new far-right party, “Greek Solution”, entered parliament, declaring its distance from the most fascist practices of Golden Dawn. So, when the time came for the verdict, the fascists were politically expendable. To be crystal clear on the order of things: the party was defeated before the judgement; the decision reflected the success of the political movement to isolate and smash them.
The lesson from Golden Dawn is that it can be a fatal mistake to focus exclusively on the machinations from above, which can lead to being passive, a posture which underestimates the intervention of the masses in shaping the terrain. The day of the verdict was a final reminder – and what a reminder! – of who were the ones who beat the Nazis. On 7 October, a day we shall never forget, many tens of thousands of people rallied outside the court. They were there to celebrate, in anticipation of a victory they rightfully understood as their own making, or to explode in case the Nazis were left off the hook.
Kostas Plevris, the elder patriarch of Greek National-Socialism, who was recruited as a lawyer by one of the GD leaders in the final stages of the trial, summed up the mood of the day: “On my way to this courtroom, I felt like I was entering a People’s Court during the French Revolution”.
In addition to the electoral rise of far-right parties or the activity of more openly neofascist formations, we should mention another development, which is qualitatively different but part of the trend: The radicalisation of established right-wing parties. This process has been named Orbánisation, after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
His party, Fidesz, has gradually moved to the right. During the 1990s it evolved from liberalism to conservatism, leaving the Alliance of Free Democrats, which brings together parties like the German FDP or the British Liberal Democrats, to join the European People’s Party, the alliance of the centre-right. Since winning office in 2010 the party has continued its evolution further to the right. It has adopted a series of reactionary policies against the Roma, LGBTQ people, non-Christian immigrants and the homeless. It has sought to extend the party’s control over branches of the state and the media, engaged in occasional – actual and staged – conflicts with Brussels, and targeted George Soros in public propaganda that veers dangerously close to explicit anti-Semitism. On the economic front it has engaged in a limited shift from the economic orthodoxies, deploying some interventionist economic policies, certain aspects of paternalist protection, forcing electricity companies to charge less and paying them the difference. At the same time, they’ve dismantled workers’ rights while making life insufferable for the unemployed. Fidesz’s leaders don’t shy away from openly describing the regime they have been trying to build as a “Christian illiberal democracy”.
Victor Orbán has presided over the most extreme version of this general trend within the mainstream right. It is telling that the European People’s Party felt embarrassed enough by this ally that it suspended Fidesz and then changed the rules of its parliamentary group to allow the expulsion of a party’s entire delegation. Fidesz has since left the parliamentary group and begun consolidating its ties with the far right.
In this sense, we should be precise about the uses and abuses of the term Orbánisation. It can be applied to describe an observable tendency of the radicalisation of the centre-right, which in certain conditions could lead to the Hungarian outcome, but this is not a predetermined process. Its results depend on a range of factors, most important being the political situation and the class struggle. Overuse of the term, in a way that identifies certain right-wing parties with Fidesz and Orbán, is usually a tendency among the centre-left. To strengthen the pull of lesser-evilism even as social-democracy moves to the right themselves, it is necessary to present their centre-right adversaries as constantly on the cusp of outright fascism.
Having said that, elements of the “Orbánisation” tendency can be found among many parties of the centre-right. The British Tories under Boris Johnson and after the implementation of his nationalist-racist version of Brexit is a case that should be monitored. In German Christian-Democracy there has been an emergence of a more hard-right current, especially among its Bavarian affiliate the Christian Social Union. Merkel has been under fire in her party for enabling the entry of certain numbers of refugees during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015-16. Of course, Merkel’s motive for allowing a greater number of asylum seekers was a cynical calculation of how much imported labor was needed by German business. But this was considered too generous by many Christian Democrats, who blamed Merkel’s pro-immigrant stance for the rise of AfD. With the Merkel era over and the party in opposition after a substantial electoral decline, it is worth monitoring the debates that will inevitably emerge about the party’s future direction.
One of the most advanced cases is that of Partido Popular in Spain. We have already mentioned the reactionary roots of this party and the significance of its political discourse for the emergent Vox. To make a long story short, the PP is shaping its tactics in opposing the centre-left government, always trying to outcompete Vox, and, before that, the populist nationalists of Ciudadanos. The latest and most flagrant example of this course is the rise of Isabel Ayuso. She won the Madrid regional elections by combining anti-lockdown rhetoric with virulent anti-communism and a toxic Trumpian mix of politics. Her campaign started with the slogan “Socialism or Freedom” which soon evolved to “Communism or Ayuso”. Ayuso is now considered a potential contender for the national leadership of PP, and has become famous for repeating the argument that “If they call you a fascist, you should know that you stand on the right side of history”.
Similar trends emerged in New Democracy in Greece, which has a similar history to that of the Spanish PP. As well, both parties possess sizeable monarchist, far-right, reactionary and ardently anti-communist currents within their organisations.
However, there are some differences. The Greek junta was brought down by the historical uprising of November 1973, which played a big part in bringing down the military junta, and the subsequent governments were plagued by high level of class struggle and left-wing militancy. So while the Spanish “Transition” is a synonym for the lasting power of the far right and the demand for a break with its institutions is a slogan of the anti-capitalist left, the Greek term, Metapolitefsi, is a synonym for working-class militancy and the prevalence of left-wing ideas and the demand for a “break” with it is a right-wing slogan.
In this different post-dictatorship background, the Greek right was forced to actively rein in its reactionary currents and appear to be more serious about transforming into a modern liberal-democratic party. But we should not forget that New Democracy was founded as a re-incarnation of National Radical Union (ERE), the party that oversaw the brutal “White Terror” of the 1950s. For many of its leaders, members and supporters, New Democracy is still understood as the party of the right-wing victors of the Greek Civil War.
So there has always been an affinity between ND and the Greek far right. Sometimes the far-right fraction gets the upper hand in the party, sometimes it is forced to accommodate a more centrist leadership, sometimes far-rightists try to operate independently, other times they choose to return back to the fold of the mothership.
Since 2015, New Democracy has been led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is considered a neoliberal centrist. But they found it difficult to oppose SYRIZA’s economic austerity – which they voted for alongside the SYRIZA leadership in a blow to the now expunged SYRIZA left. Instead ND drew on classic themes of conservatism, spending four years inflaming nationalism, racism and law and order. SYRIZA’s policies were not particularly progressive on these issues, but it was easier to create a sense of differentiation. ND accused the government of failing to halt immigration and of being unable to deal with crime because of an anti-police prejudice in SYRIZA’s ranks. Crucially, they attacked the SYRIZA government’s deal to recognise the former Republic of Macedonia as Northern Macedonia. Despite it being celebrated as a victory by many Greek capitalists, enabling NATO to integrate this country into its defence agreements, New Democracy denounced it as high treason. Amid these specific policies, there was a steady barrage of propaganda riffing on traditional conservative fears of communism and the left.
Since coming to power in 2019, Mitsotakis has ruled in ways that correspond to the conservative feelings his party whipped up while in opposition. He has sought to maintain support from far-right voters and keep the organised political far-right current of the party happy. This convergence of an avowed centrist with far-right elements has a more strategic reasoning than mere electoralism or cynical management of internal party politics. The neoliberals embarked on a project to “finish off Metapolitefsi”, requiring both a full-scale material attack on working-class conditions as well as an aggressive political attack on left-wing ideas. This anti-left revanchist campaign is the point of strategic convergence between the centre and the far-right.
This process is reflected in the fate of the former main far-right party of Greece, LAOS. After its collapse during the financial crisis, most of the top lieutenants jumped to New Democracy, where they now hold ministries. This situation led the former LAOS leader to joke that his party is in power but he is not part of it. One of those former LAOS leaders, Interior Minister Makis Voridis, is one of the most sophisticated representatives of the Greek far right. Before evolving into a strategist, he spent his youth in fascist formations and was notorious for wielding an axe in street fights with anarchists during the 1980s.
So, when a fascist group attacked leftist protesters this autumn, a cartoonist brilliantly summed up the situation. He drew a couple of armed young fascists talking:
“Are you sure what we are about to do is safe? I mean, some of the guys that did such stuff are now in jail.”
“Don’t worry, some other guys who did such stuff are now in government.”
As previously mentioned, it would be wrong to draw from these facts that the far right is in power, or that Mitsotakis is identical to Orbán. It is probably the most dangerous government we have faced since 1974, it has a strong far-right current which dictates part of the governmental agenda, but it is not a far-right government. A serious assessment of our enemies is the precondition for developing tactics and strategies to fight them.
The experience of Greece shows that far-right policies and ideas are becoming mainstream not simply due to the radicalisation of the right-wing of traditional conservatism, but also because of their cynical adoption by the political centre as a whole.
The rise of the far right has led to a growing awareness of the danger it poses, even among mainstream politicians. There are many problems with anti-fascist arguments used by establishment parties, generally, though not exclusively, of the centre-left. Firstly, they are usually characterised by exaggerated alarmism, constantly screaming “Fascism!” in order to herd together voters who seek stability. Secondly, such arguments tend to be paired with purely electoral action. If the centrist alarmists were right about an imminent fascist threat to democracy, they could not be defeated by a simple vote. Thirdly, this sort of centrist anti-fascism tends to rely on a defence of the capitalist status quo. This is obviously not the historical task of a left that is worthy of the name, and in any case is not an effective tactic for rallying opposition to insurgent far right forces.
But the most important critique of centrist arguments against fascism is that they cannot address their own role in making the far right a despicable threat. Denmark is the most typical example of a trend that can be seen to varying extents across Europe. There, a social-democratic government is overseeing one of the most inhumane versions of institutional racism. And it is highly vocal about it. Most mainstream commentators admit that the social democrats are implementing the program of the far right.
The Italian PD, long discredited for implementing austerity, has gambled on posing as the anti-fascist opposition to the Lega. They have improved their standings as a result. They also benefited from the healthy anti-fascist mood that emerged with the mass “Sardine” protests during Lega’s governmental alliance with the Five Star Movement. Despite the sizeable demonstrations, the movement’s vague messaging that avoided any concrete political/social questions other than hatred for Salvini made it easily co-optable.
After the outmanoeuvring of Salvini by his former allies in the Five Star Movement, the PD returned to government in a new coalition that presented itself as a democratic alternative to the far right. Yet after eighteen months in power, the notorious “Salvini decrees” were still in place, and initiatives that aimed to save refugee lives in the Mediterranean continued to be harassed by the Italian Navy. Then, when Mario Draghi formed a government of national unity in 2021, the PD proved the limits of its anti-fascism by once again collaborating with the Lega.
Tariq Ali popularised the term “extreme centre” to describe the convergence of centre-left and centre-right and their adaption of radical pro-capitalist policies. President Emmanuel Macron is arguably the living embodiment of the neoliberal centre. He declares himself “neither left nor right”. He built a new party from scratch, drawing in politicians from both the Socialist and Republicans on the promise to re-establish a stable centre ground for capitalist politics. He is a Europeanist and a liberal, and has experience in the public sector – as an advisor to governments – as well as being a former businessman. He managed to win the presidency on the basis of widespread disgust with his opponent, the far-right Marine Le Pen.
Yet despite the promise of liberal restoration, under Macron, French politics has moved substantially to the right. France has spent a big part of Macron’s tenure under a state of emergency that grants extra powers to the army and police. Terrorist attacks have been opportunistically used to curtail democratic rights, including at times the right to public protest. The scale of repression Macron unleashed against the Yellow Vest movement of 2019 was unprecedented in the contemporary European context. When such events take place in countries that are not allies of the West, they are condemned as authoritarian and undemocratic. Yet in this case, Brussels and the wider EU were silent as thousands were arrested and injured, with many losing an eye or a leg after vicious attacks by the French riot police.
Islamophobia has been a constant feature of successive French governments, but under Macron it has risen to new, extreme levels. The biggest outrage was the state-enforced dissolution of the Collective Against Islamophobia. It is a rather mainstream organisation that works with local and international institutions to provide legal support to Muslim victims of discrimination. It was banned for supposedly collaborating with terrorists, but the only “proof” given was the fact that it had rightly described some government policies as Islamophobic.
This was part of a reactionary assault on leftist and anti-racist activists and ideas, especially on the campuses. Macron even coined the phrase “Islamo-leftism”, a concept dangerously similar to the far right’s stalking-horse of “Judeo-Bolshevism” in the interwar years. Darmanin, the notoriously reactionary minister of the interior, occasionally criticises Marine Le Pen from an even more hard-right point of view on these issues.
It is in this context that the French far right is becoming more and more audacious. A notorious hard-right journal had Jean-Luc Mélenchon on its cover, under the provocative headline “The Islamo-collaborators”, while Communist party offices have also been tagged with graffiti calling them collaborators. It is a shocking appropriation and reversal of the term, which was traditionally used to describe and shame the Vichy regime of World War Two, and those on the right who were sympathetic to the Nazis.
In this context, it is no wonder that a number of retired army generals felt confident to publish an open letter warning of the looming threat of a civil war, and implied the need for a military coup. Though extreme, their arguments were merely an exaggerated version of the mainstream discourse in French politics. If the government was not up to the task of confronting the enemy, the generals expressed their confidence that “colleagues in active duty” shared their feelings and would take action to ensure the homeland was safe.
Back in 2017, between the first and the second round of the French presidential elections, some walls of Paris were covered with a slogan: “Macron 2017 = Le Pen 2022”. From a purely electoral perspective, it is too early to say whether it was right or wrong. But the political dynamics suggested by the slogan have been vindicated. Given the nature of the Macron government, it is no surprise that Marine Le Pen and a number of other far-right figures have been legitimised as serious contenders for the presidency.
This is an important part in explaining the contradictory nature of the so-called detoxification of the French far right, set in train by Marine Le Pen. It is true that the National Front/National Rally seems to have made a few steps away from its fascist past towards mainstream politics. But it is also true that mainstream politics have moved closer to the positions of the old National Front. One could say that liberal democracy and Marine Le Pen have met halfway. This simplistic picture doesn’t conclude the debate on the nature of the National Rally, but serves to illustrate the broader trend.
Stathis Kouvelakis recently described a “double banalisation of Le Pen’s discourse”: she speaks “like everyone else”, after having led “everyone else” to speak like her. The latest worrisome development in France is the rise of Eric Zemmour. A journalist with extreme far-right views, he has become popular in the political climate created by Macron. His rise reflects the fact that many far-right nationalists are unhappy with Le Pen’s detoxification strategy. This approach “seriously undermines her ability to channel the anger and various resentments that she had earlier managed to crystallise”. Kouvelakis quotes Zemmour himself:
There is no longer any difference today between her discourse and that of Emmanuel Macron… Marine Le Pen speaks like Emmanuel Macron, Emmanuel Macron speaks like Marine Le Pen, they are already in the second round, since no one is supposed to exist apart from that second round [matchup], and it is clear that voters are refusing to be forced into this choice.
Zemmour is building support by being more extreme – or more honest – about his agenda. He propagates the Great Replacement conspiracy and is open about his enemies. In a public meeting he described France’s education system as “infiltrated by Marxism, anti-racism and LGBT ideologies”. Zemmour wants to force parents to give their children “French names”, banning alternatives like Mohammed. He is even harsher than Le Pen in his opposition to migrants, arguing not only for closed borders, but for mass deportations. His best-selling book attributed France’s decline to so-called “feminine” values, denouncing women’s rights as an “emasculation” of society. It is telling that he won the implicit endorsement of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the veteran fascist who has been alienated by his daughter’s approach to politics. Jean-Marie has argued that Zemmour is saying “all the things I always said”, but his Jewish origins help protect from accusations of being a Nazi. On this score, Zemmour has even argued that Jews were protected by the French state during World War Two, whitewashing the Vichy regime that sent thousands of French Jews, unionists and leftists to death camps in Germany.
It is not yet clear whether Zemmour is simply winning over parts of Le Pen’s support or if he is bringing in new forces to the far-right camp. But no matter what the electoral outcome, those who actually face the threat of the far right and are willing to actually confront it, are now facing a new enemy. This further radicalisation of the far right, similar to Fratelli d’Italia challenging the hegemonic role of the Lega, is a worrisome trend. A youth movement, called Generation Zemmour, was recently founded. Its name is an open acknowledgment of the connection with Generation Identitaire, the neo-fascist group that was officially dissolved a few months ago. In reality, it has probably been rebranded, this time around a recognised leader who enjoys some level of popular support.
This vast experience amassed from different countries and different examples help us sketch the rough outlines of our response.
– The far right is trying to win over positions and build its strength; it has already managed to establish itself and the political/social situation will continue “feeding” it or at least providing it with opportunities. Confronting this kind of enemy is not a question of an intense but brief campaign that could smash them in a manner of months, as could be the case with marginal extremist groups in the past. We should organise for a protracted struggle.
– Mobilising on the streets is essential. Tactics may vary, depending on the exact situation, the balance of forces, the nature of the each threat (eg fascist or not). But controlling the streets in the broader sense of the phrase, meaning building mass movements, holding protests, doing the work of local organising – all kinds of extra-parliamentary activity are vital. Such activity can stop the growth of the “traditional” fascists, confront efforts to build new, broader racist “movements” and prevent the electoral support of the far-right parties from translating into something more menacing, with deep social roots, extra-parliamentary organising and so on.
– Waging an ideological/political battle should accompany this task. Now, this is something Marxists always strive to do in all their interventions in any struggle. But in the context where there is an overall drift to the right, fighting to reverse this trend, confronting far-right ideas in general (and not just the party that explicitly advocates them), winning people’s minds over to solidarity against hate, building and raising arguments against racism, sexism, nationalism and authoritarianism is very important. To put it differently, resting on the laurels of anti-Nazi feelings that prevailed in the decades after World War Two is not enough to rally mass support in the fight against this new, different, enemy.
– Social struggles that can help build (or at least offer glimpses of) an alternative are a necessity in our fight against capitalist exploitation and systemic injustice, but are not irrelevant to the fight against the far right. Such struggles were the “fuel” that in some cases enabled the emergence of left-wing challenges to the centre in the recent past. In the past few years in France, Marine Le Pen, constantly a protagonist in public life and political debates, felt irrelevant twice. The first time was during the Yellow Vests protests. The far-right tried to intervene in this movement, but as soon as it took an anti-police, anti-repression character, Le Pen was forced to keep a distance, torn between the need to appeal to cross-class anger against Macron and the need to remain on the side of the police, a bastion of support for the French far right. The second time was the inspiring strike movement against Macron’s pension reform, this time a class movement by unionised workers. Le Pen found herself torn between maintaining her anti-neoliberal demagogic posturing and not alienating employers and her traditional middle-class supporters.
These broad “guidelines” lead to a conclusion, making another feature of anti-fascist activity very clear: that a serious confrontation with the far right is necessarily combined with a confrontation with the state (institutional racism, police brutality etc) and the bourgeois political forces. It is not simply a matter of not counting on them as reliable allies. In order to be up to the tasks described above, activists should be conscious about challenging the system that constantly enables the rise of such vicious forces.
We are facing a multi-faceted threat and there is a wide variety of enemies that fall under the broad category of the far right. Each case should be analysed and dealt with accordingly, taking into account the specific national context. There are ongoing debates about the nature of Le Pen’s National Rally in France, and much analysis needs to be done to classify and organise against both the Lega and the Fratelli. Similarly, there are big tactical differences involved in confronting and defeating Golden Dawn squads versus fighting against a right-wing government with reactionary politics.
But a couple of strategic constants remain valid, undisputed starting points before moving on to elaborate our tactics.
One obvious error is to ignore the threat posed by the far right. The Stalinist idea of “social-fascism” and its attendant ultra-leftism are not popular among serious parts of the left in any country. But simplistic arguments about “everyone being the same” can resign activists to passivity and indifference to a growing threat. These arguments are found everywhere, as are tendencies that seek to downplay the threat. The right-wing drift of mainstream politics can make these arguments more compelling, as in the case of Macron. But it is dangerous to gamble on the possibility that far-right governments will be no worse than their bourgeois counterparts. My argument is not about electoral choices; the problem mostly begins if the attitude of “a plague on both your houses” translates to the refusal to engage in the specific fight against the far right during the many hundreds of days other than election day.
In the European context, an even more dangerous version of passively downplaying the threat seems to emerge among fractions of the left. Hostility to globalisation, the EU and the liberal centre leading to some sort of implicit “understanding” of the rise of the far right. Especially among some of those with a Stalinist background, a historic refusal to engage with anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-nationalist struggles is sometimes attributed to these issues being part of the so called “globalist liberal” agenda. This position plays an identical though inverse function as the dominance of identity politics and Europeanism among other parts of the left. In the latter case, the left is hegemonised by the liberal wings of the establishment, while in the former it accommodates to the politics of the far right.
The most worrisome version of this trend is the argument in favour of listening to the legitimate concerns of the far-right base. This is inevitably paired with a push for the left to try and win over people from the far right by capitulating to parts of their agenda. This became a major point of tension in the Dutch Socialist Party, combined with an electoralist calculation to avoid the unpopular demands of the anti-racist or environment movement. Mélenchon’s France Insoumise has been tormented by similar debates among its ranks, mostly around issues of Islamophobia and French nationalism, and in Greece we are definitely no strangers to such ideas among leftists.
The most typical example of this trend is the circle around Sahra Wagenknecht in Germany and Die Linke. From her origins on the left of the party, Wagenknecht has ended up criticising her party for being in favour of open borders and trying to out-green the Greens. These are all supposedly examples of losing touch with normal workers. Her conclusion is that Die Linke should take up the racist legitimate concerns of workers to prevent them from being radicalised towards the AfD. Describing these reactionary arguments as based on a “class perspective” cannot hide the fact that it is a capitulation to chauvinism and nationalist protectionism.
The second pitfall is probably more prevalent. It is a resurrection of Popular Frontism, which involves seeking to build alliances with discredited mainstream figures as a strategy for fighting the right.
Journalist Paul Mason was one of the earliest to revive the term as a positive program for political action during the Brexit debates in the UK. On the one hand, Mason glowingly referenced the Popular Fronts in Spain and France, limiting his vision to 1936 and the early victories of the governmental coalitions. The tragic defeats that followed, and the rise of far-right governments in both cases, were conveniently written out of his narrative. Yet even then, Mason’s preferred policy of an electoral alliance between the contemporary Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats – with a slightly improved trade deal with the European Union as the main platform – makes the earlier versions seem revolutionary by comparison. The same caricatured arguments emerged in 2020 when leftists were urged to vote for Biden to avoid the re-election of Donald Trump.
Caricature or not, in the face of more or less serious threats, the logic of Popular Frontism has re-emerged in a number of countries across Europe. It does so under the slogan of rallying behind the status quo – be it the EU or the liberal centre – as a bulwark against far-right populists. The call usually comes from the centre-left, who are generally in a better position to play the anti-fascist card than the centre-right. But there are cases of politicians of the centre-right trying to claim anti-fascist credentials or pose as the last line of defence against the far-right. Some leading members of New Democracy claim anti-fascist credentials for providing a mainstream electoral alternative to parts of the GD electorate, while Xavier Bertrand had announced his intention to run in the Republicans’ primaries in France by invoking his victories over the RN candidates in the regional elections of 2015 and last June.
The strategy we should counterpose to those two dangers is also known from the past, the United Front, as advocated by Trotsky in his writings against Nazism. Of course this is easier said than done in the contemporary world, with the working-class movement in a very different situation than it was in interwar Europe. The task is to extract the essential reasoning of the strategy: trying to mobilise the broadest forces possible, uniting them in action, maintaining working-class independence from the bourgeoisie and its parties, maintaining freedom to criticise and independence from reformist allies. To be translated into tactics this logic must then be applied to a concrete analysis of a concrete context.
Another strategic constant in our fight against the far right, not irrelevant to the logic of the United Front, is the need to combine struggles and social movements. Our activity should not be confined to a very narrow sense of anti-fascism, involving direct confrontations with far-right hooligans. Confronting racist policies, supporting migrants and refugees, building a movement that fights under the banner of class solidarity against racist hate, are also important in building the left and pulling the rug from under the far right’s feet. Of course the same applies to LGBTQ rights, women’s struggles, fighting against nationalist warmongering, but for now, and in most countries, racism and Islamophobia remain the main banner of the far right. Fighting against the far right should not be the exclusive work of committed anti-fascists, but a common cause for the mass movements of the oppressed, the working class and all the potential victims of far-right policies.
I will conclude with some additional examples of the experience in Greece that illustrate some of these points.
In early October 2021, on the anniversary of the conviction of Golden Dawn, a series of fascist attacks on leftist activists sounded the alarm. They were organised by marginal and violent groups that were overshadowed and semi-absorbed by Golden Dawn in the past. It is too soon to tell whether it is the beginning of an organised campaign. The point is that massive protests were organised in the following days and there was public outcry against the re-emergence of fascist violence. Especially in Thessaloniki, the epicentre of recent fascist activity, a thousands-strong march was organised with participation ranging from the Communist Party to anarchist groups.
This kind of reflex was not always a given. The absence of such responses was a factor that enabled Golden Dawn to grow in the first place. Too many on the left only started paying attention after GD entered parliament. In the case of the Communist Party, it took another year to seriously upgrade its anti-fascist activity. Until then, the best organised working-class party in Greece was mostly absent, content to argue that fascism will be vanquished when we deal with capitalism.
Perhaps it is not too hopeful to say that recent experiences have developed a stronger immune response by most parts of the left and among broader parts of the population. Compared to the rise of GD or the mass electoral support for far-right parties around Europe, the threat by these new groups is minimal, for now. But the massive response was an important and positive sign.
Faced with criticism for harbouring the far right and enabling these attacks, New Democracy played on its anti-fascist credentials, since they were in power both when charges were pressed against GD in 2013 and during the final verdict in 2020. It is a sick joke for ND to claim credit for the victory against Golden Dawn. But such an argument is in line with the concept of “The Wall of Democracy” put up as a headline in a progressive newspaper back in October 2020, featuring anti-Nazi comments by the leaders of all the parliamentary parties, including Mitsotakis and former Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, a leader of the far-right current of New Democracy.
An actual, material wall was being built during the same period, with the blessings of most parliamentary parties. A wall in Evros, on the Greco-Turkish border, where extremely militarised tactics are constantly employed against refugees dismissed as tools in the hands of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who are thus treated as invaders. During a flare-up on the border in March 2020, the army was deployed. The mainstream media and most parties cheered their repression of unarmed, hungry and desperate refugees as if they were facing an invading army. In this climate, impromptu militias emerged, willing to supplement the military’s efforts to defend the border. This is what the “Wall of Democracy” looks like.
This example highlights the importance of confronting the state and government, as part and parcel of the fight against the far right. During the past few years, Golden Dawn was unable to utilise the opportunities presented to it. But the activation of the “social” far right (in the form of army veterans’ associations, local churches, racist “citizen committees”) was rising and falling in tandem with mainstream politics. During 2015-16, hundreds of thousands of refugees arrived in Greece and a magnificent and inspiring wave of popular solidarity welcomed them and helped them in their journey, while racists went silent. When the borders closed and the EU-Greece-Turkey agreement was signed (stipulating that no more border crossings are allowed), the governmental and mass media propaganda started portraying the refugees as a “problem”. As soon as that happened, racists felt confident enough to start organising against accepting them in their towns or villages.
The same applies with nationalism, especially in the midst of escalating tension with Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean. Another recent example illustrates how state policies can encourage the far right even as the same governmental forces can use the threat of the far right to strengthen its popular support.
The fascist attacks in Thessaloniki happened as a new military agreement with France was being voted through in parliament. Nationalist fervour prevailed in the mass media. Any dissent to the expenditure was dismissed as naïve at best or treasonous at worst. One New Democracy MP quoted a far-right leader of a historical nationalist Greek-Cypriot organisation that fought to unite Cyprus with Greece: “We faced the British, the Turks and the Communists. And our biggest problem were the Communists”. It was widely understood as a signal of sympathy to the fascists that the previous day violently attacked leftist students.
Nikos Dendias, the foreign minister, intervened to reprimand his party’s MP and he was lauded as taking a progressive and anti-fascist stand. But it is interesting to note what he said. Dendias criticised his colleague’s comments as unnecessarily divisive at a time that Greece needed to unite against the national threat coming from Turkey – actually promoting a nationalist warmongering argument. When he was called by the opposition to denounce the MP’s smooth co-existence with Golden Dawn members in a ceremony that commemorates the nationalist-monarchist victory in the Civil War, he did it with ease, describing sharing any space with GD as unacceptable. But he skilfully dodged the question of many centre-right politicians attending such reactionary events, “winking” to his far-right audience: “I don’t know who attends those contemporary events about the battle of Vitsi. I do know that my father was present at the battle of Vitsi”.
Dendias was the minister of the interior when charges against GD were pressed and he is trying to build a democratic reputation. Suffice to say that during his time in the ministry of the interior, he launched the Orwellian campaign of “Xenios Zeus” – ancient God of Hospitality – to clear the streets of Athens of immigrants, and that during his time anti-fascists were tortured by police.
As I finish this article, news has emerged about the police murdering Nikos Sabanis, an 18-year-old Roma boy. He died after a car chase ended with seven cops opening fire on an unarmed and non-threatening group of three youths, shooting 38 bullets. One was murdered, another sent to hospital. In Greece, Roma lives don’t matter. While the police were forced to start an investigation, Adonis Georgiadis, a government minister and deputy to the prime minister, rushed to proclaim on Twitter that the officers “did a great job”. The minister in charge of the police rushed to meet the murderers as they were held in custody, and later expressed his gratitude for their release. His measures to address the issue consisted of more police, after the mass media turned reality upside down and presented the affair as a case of mass lawlessness.
Meanwhile, during a joint press conference with the prime minister of the Netherlands in November 2021, a Dutch journalist had the courage, all too lacking among her Greek colleagues, to publicly confront Mitsotakis on the crime of refugee boats being turned back in the Aegean Sea. The prime minister lashed out against her, and the next day the Greek media portrayed the affair as a moment of national pride.
The important fact is that in both those revolting incidents, the government’s vitriolic messaging enjoyed the support of a sizeable part of its base. So, both the social and the political material for a far-right rebirth are present. If and when the centre-right party enters a crisis, especially if this is accelerated by the handling of national questions, this galaxy of forces on its right could find both an opening and potential allies among forces that currently roost inside the big tent.
After the end of the Golden Dawn trial, two extreme reactions emerged, an over-optimistic and an over-pessimistic one. The first triumphantly argued that the threat of the far right was over, while the second bitterly argued that nothing changed. We argued instead that we should celebrate the victory, and pay attention to the qualitative differences between reactionaries and conservatives voting for a right-wing party, attending rallies of a far-right party, or joining a fascist fighting battalion. But we must also keep in mind that a far-right social base always exists – they live among us. Constant features of capitalism, like institutional racism and nationalist warmongering, will continue feeding this current in society.
We will have to constantly face them, at times achieving some victories and winning some breathing space, only to have to fight them yet again. At the end of the day, when not used as a justification for passivity, the argument remains: to get rid of the far right once and for all, we will have to get rid of capitalism.
Bloodworth, Sandra 2019, “From revolutionary possibility to fascist defeat: The French Popular Front of 1936-38”, Marxist Left Review, 19, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/from-revolutionary-possibility-to-fascist-defeat-the-french-popular-front-of-1936-38/
Borger, Julian 2019, “Donald Trump denounces ‘globalism’ in nationalist address to UN”, The Guardian, 25 September. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/sep/24/donald-trump-un-address-denounces-globalism
Clark, Nick 2019, “Paul Mason’s ‘popular front’ of failures is not the way to beat the right”, Socialist Worker (UK), 19 August. https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/48799/Paul+Masons+popular+front+of+failures+is+not+the+way+to+beat+the+right
Cossé, Eva 2021, “French Court Confirms Dissolution of Anti-Discrimination Group”, Human Rights Watch, 27 September. https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/09/27/french-court-confirms-dissolution-anti-discrimination-group
De Jong, Alex 2021, “Why the Dutch Socialist Party Is in Crisis”, International Viewpoint, 19 January. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article7004
Farand, Chloe 2019, “Denial and Dampening Ambition: Where do Europe’s Right-Wing Populist Parties Stand on Climate Change?”, DeSmog, 16 May. https://www.desmog.com/2019/05/16/right-wing-populist-parties-climate-science-denial-european-parliament-elections/
Garí, Manuel 2021, “May 4 in Madrid: A defeated left (a chronicle of urgency)”, International Socialism Project, 9 May. https://internationalsocialism.net/may-4-in-madrid-a-defeated-left-a-chronicle-of-urgency/
Kovács, Zoltán 2019, “PM Orbán at Tusványos: ‘The essence of illiberal democracy is the protection of Christian liberty’”, About Hungary blog, 27 July. https://abouthungary.hu/blog/pm-Orbán-at-tusvanyos-the-essence-of-illiberal-democracy-is-the-protection-of-christian-liberty
Kouvelakis, Stathis 2021, “The Zemmour moment”, International Viewpoint, 26 October. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article7367
laSexta 2021, “Ayuso: ‘Cuando te llaman fascista estás en el lado bueno de la historia’”, laSexta, 21 May. https://www.lasexta.com/noticias/nacional/ayuso-cuando-llaman-fascista-estas-lado-bueno-historia_20210315604f3537ad0f4b0001e59d0f.html
Makris, A 2012, “More Than Half of Police Officers Voted For Neo-nazi Party”, Greek Reporter, 11 May. https://greekreporter.com/2012/05/11/more-than-half-of-police-officers-voted-for-neo-nazi-party/
Mallet, Victor 2021, “Resurgent old parties of right and left triumph in France vote”, Financial Times, 28 June. https://www.ft.com/content/6c184774-0b53-4f69-b171-6f8fa72e96d1
Marx21, 2021, “Die Linke: seven theses on the way forward. After the German election debacle”, Tempest, 1 October. https://www.tempestmag.org/2021/10/die-linke-seven-theses-on-the-way-forward/
Milza, Pierre 2002, L’Europe en chemise noire: Les extrêmes droites européennes de 1945 à aujourd’hui, Fayard.
Mullen, John 2020, “Murder, McCarthyism and Islamophobia in France”, Red Flag, 23 October. https://redflag.org.au/node/7425
Mullen, John 2021, “How dangerous is Marine Le Pen?”, Red Flag, 6 May. https://redflag.org.au/article/how-dangerous-marine-le-pen
Petrou, Panos 2020, “Goodnight Golden Dawn”, Red Flag, 10 October. https://redflag.org.au/index.php/node/7404
Petrou, Panos 2021, “Broad response to the neoliberal authoritarianism of the right-wing government”, International Viewpoint, 26 March. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article7084
Reuters staff 2018, “Hungarian PM sees shift to illiberal Christian democracy in 2019 European vote”, Reuters, 28 July. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hungary-Orban-idUSKBN1KI0BK
Siegel, Zachary and Marie Targonski-O’Brien 2017, “When Golden Dawn and the Greek Orthodox Church align”, The Groundtruth Project, 24 May. https://thegroundtruthproject.org/golden-dawn-and-greek-orthodox-church-unite/
Turigliatto, Franco 2021, “Build the response to the fascist attack and the policies of the bosses”, International Viewpoint, 17 October. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article7352
Tzimeros, Thanos 2022, “Gynecology and gynecoparasitism”, The President, 15 April. https://www.thepresident.gr/2021/04/15/gynaikoktonia-kai-gynaikoparasitismos-grafei-o-thanos-tzimeros/
Urbán, Miguel 2019, “Franco never left”, Jacobin, 1 May. https://jacobinmag.com/2019/01/spain-vox-partido-popular-far-right-franco
Wilno, Henri 2019, “The coming crisis and the rise of ‘national liberalism’”, International Viewpoint, 8 November. https://internationalviewpoint.org/spip.php?article6281
 In his address to the UN General Assembly in September 2019. See Borger 2019.
 See Farand 2019 for an overview of the European far right’s positions on climate. The AfD leader is quoted describing climate change as a “replacement religion of all left green world parties”.
 Tzimeros 2022.
 Wilno 2019.
 Alain de Benoist, “Orientations pour les années décisives”, quoted in Milza 2002 (a study on the trajectory of the European far right after World War Two), p.326 of the Greek translation published in 2004.
 Milza 2002, p.324 of the Greek edition.
 Most insights on the nature of the Lega, especially during its time in government, draw heavily from an interview with comrade Antonello Zeca during the Conference of Sinistra Anticapitalista in February 2019. It was published in the Greek Marxist journal Kokkino (“Red”).
 In the most notorious incident typical of that time, Luca Traini wounded six Africans in a drive-by shooting in the city of Macerata. He was a former member and local candidate of the Lega.
 See Turigliatto 2021 for more on this incident.
 Urbán 2019 is a very helpful article for understanding Vox.
 Makris 2012.
 Siegel and Targonski-O’Brien 2017. This rather mild report mentions just a few examples of public displays of support by certain bishops. In a country where it is an open secret that many priests use their Sunday sermons for political propaganda, such instances were only the tip of the iceberg.
 For an account of that day and the trial, see Petrou 2020.
 Reuters staff 2018. For the far-right reasoning behind this theme by an Orbánist source, see Kovács 2019.
 On the political importance of these elections see Garí 2021.
 A left-wing European MP, Kateřina Konečná, tweeted a declaration condemning the statement on TV. https://twitter.com/konecna_k/status/1383028690473381889. See laSexta 2021 for a Spanish report and video on the incident.
 For more on the right-wing revanchist project after 2015, see Petrou 2021.
 For a more detailed account see Mullen 2020.
 Cossé 2021.
 All quotes from Kouvelakis 2021.
 John Mullen has made that insightful point in many articles about FN/RN. In Mullen 2021 he expands on the strengths and weaknesses of RN.
 De Jong 2021.
 Such arguments can be found in most articles published by Jacobin after Die Linke’s bad election result. See Marx21 2021 for a response to these ideas.
 Bloodworth 2019.
 For a reply, both on the failures of the historical Popular Front and on the politics of the “contemporary” proposal by Mason, see Clark 2019.
 “History will relate that twice here in the territory of Hauts-de-France the Front National has been stopped and we have pushed them back.” Quoted in Mallet 2021.