Understanding the new far right threat

What are the far right and fascism today, and how should we respond to them?

Two new books by Marxists try to answer these questions: David Renton’s The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right is scheduled to appear in April; Enzo Traverso’s The New Faces of Fascism: Populism and the Far Right was published earlier this year.

They share important arguments. Both observe that the rise of the far right has been promoted by the self-evident failure of capitalism to sustain living standards during and since the global economic crisis, and by the actions of mainstream conservative parties. Boundaries between conservative parties and the far right are increasingly blurred.

Parties of the mainstream right in many countries have relied more and more on racist ideas and policies, especially against refugees and Muslims. They have tried to distract attention from the consequences of their neoliberal measures and to divide the working class and their opponents. Racism has also been used to justify imperialist adventures abroad and attacks on civil liberties at home.

Nor is the distinction between the far right and fascists entirely clear-cut. US president Donald Trump apologised for the violence of fascists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 – which culminated in the murder of Heather Heyer and serious injury to other anti-fascists – saying that that counter-protesters were equally to blame. In several countries, including Austria, Germany and France, this symbiosis has involved acceptance of former members of fascist groups, or people who have expressed support for fascism, into the ranks and even leaderships of far right organisations.

Renton and Traverso also agree that the electorally successful parties and politicians of the far right today are not fascist. The National Rally (previously the National Front) in France, the League in Italy, the Alternative for Germany, Donald Trump and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini are not simply clones of the fascist and Nazi parties of inter-war Italy and Germany, of Mussolini and Hitler. These organisations and individuals have distanced themselves from fascist traditions. But, particularly as they harbour fascists or are even led by them, they have the potential to shift to the priorities and methods of classical fascism.

The New Authoritarians is a much more systematic and focused book. The second half of The New Faces of Fascism deals with its “old face”, in a discussion of the literature about classical fascism. The first half generalises from the situation in France. Many throwaway comments appeal to left wing common sense, but these are not followed by discussions which deepen it. Traverso does engage in an effective critique of the politically suspect concept of “populism”, but later employs it himself. The book’s convoluted language is not justified by its content.

Renton provides a clear account of what fascism is. Prioritising street violence against opponents, fascism aims to transform state institutions in the interests of the nation, understood as a racial unit. This definition includes both the classic fascist parties between the world wars and contemporary organisations, most of which are small in the developed world, with a few exceptions such as Golden Dawn in Greece.

Fascists can therefore be distinguished from other far right, authoritarian currents, which rely more on existing institutions, especially the police and armed forces, and place a higher priority on achieving electoral success. 

Early chapters in The New Authoritarians examine the mutations of conservative, far right and fascist currents, and their interactions in Italy, Britain, France and the US, which have led to the electoral advance of the far right.

The following chapter looks at the mutual assistance and inspiration that far right organisations in different countries have provided for each other. Globetrotting by the hard right ideologue Steve Bannon, who was Trump’s campaign manager and, for a while, his chief strategist, features heavily. This kind of right wing “internationalism” is, however, not as distinctive as Renton makes out. Political currents in powerful countries, from communists through early radical republicans to fascists, have inspired, sponsored and/or funded co-thinkers elsewhere over at least two centuries.

Renton then deals with the economic roots of the shift to the right in greater detail. He concludes:

“Austerity’s sharp attack on benefits neutralised a long tradition of working class opposition to the far right. Meanwhile, the disagreements within the super-rich as to whether or not to continue with globalisation enabled Trump, Brexit and Le Pen to present themselves as equal combatants in a struggle between a globalised left and a nationalist right.”

The growth of the electoral far right provides scope for its fascist component to expand and for the revival of fascist themes avoided by “respectable” far right politicians for decades, notably anti-Semitism. This is true even though they support apartheid Israel, which is motivated in part by admiration for the repression of the Palestinians and in part by international strategic considerations. For example, Trump and several of his European equivalents, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, have identified George Soros, a wealthy Jew, as a powerful enemy of their people.

Unlike Traverso, Renton considers the appropriate response to the rise of the right in some detail.

In arguing that the centre left must move leftward to offer an alternative to the neoliberal centre and the far right, Renton implies that the parliamentary left could solve the problems that have driven many people, including many workers, to the right. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have helped to reaffirm left wing sentiments and provided hope for people disillusioned with the political mainstream in the United States and Britain. In office they may, at least initially, implement reforms that benefit the oppressed and workers.

But their policies are incapable of solving the underlying problems of the capitalist system, which is based on production for profit and subject to profound economic crises.

Renton is on stronger ground when he concludes that it is important to expose and refute the racism of the right, to confront fascists when they mobilise, and for the left to engage in struggles against oppression and exploitation. These are vital elements not only in combating the right but also for building confidence to challenge capitalism.

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David Renton will be speaking at Marxism 2019 in Melbourne, 18-21 April. For details visit www.MarxismConference.org.