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A Shift To The Far Right In Europe?
WHAT ARE the prospects for a resurgence of far right parties in Europe following the electoral gains of Le Pen in France? ROBERT BECHERT of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI - the socialist international organisation to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) looks at this far right threat and explains the tasks of the socialist movement in defeating it.
LE PEN'S success in reaching the second round of the French Presidential elections has highlighted the series of electoral defeats that the so-called "centre-left" government's have recently suffered in European elections. It follows on the recent election gains for far-right or racist parties in Austria, Denmark, Italy and in the Netherlands.
In 1999, 13 of the 15 European Union (EU) states were governed by what were described as "centre-left" coalitions, the exceptions being Ireland and Spain. Now that total is down to six, and the media's attention is on what they describe as the rise of the Right and what is called "the crisis of the Left".
Naturally many workers, young people, immigrants and sections of the middle class have been shocked by Le Pen's advance, just as they were last year by the victory of the Berlusconi/Fini/Bossi alliance in Italy and, the year before that, by Haider's FP... joining the Austrian government.
Many are asking whether the growing dissatisfaction, alienation and anger at capitalism and its social democratic and conservative 'managers', are going to benefit the extreme right.
Undoubtedly, Le Pen's advance has seized the headlines but the fact that he is in the second round must not be allowed to obscure the other significant aspect of the French election, namely the near doubling of the Trotskyist left vote to 2,973,600 (10.44%).
France illustrates that what is happening is not really a "crisis of the Left" in general. Rather, both the far right's advances and the jump in the French Trotskyists' vote are indications of the same process, a growing alienation from what is seen as the ruling elite.
This is especially directed towards the political leaders, usually careerist and often corrupt, who are seen to be indifferent to the problems and fears of the mass of the population.
Often the far right has been able to gain from this because the leaders of social democratic and communist parties, organisations that originally grew out of the working class movement, are losing their social basis and are generally being cut off from increasing parts of the working class, poor and youth.
Fundamentally, these electoral defeats are the result of disappointment and disenchantment with the policies of these so-called "Left" parties. In Spain, for example, the right-wing AP's 1996 election victory was preceded by 14 years of rule by PSOE, the 'Socialist' party.
In recent years these "Left" or "centre-left" governments, to a greater or lesser extent, have carried out fundamentally 'neo-liberal' (i.e. capitalist) policies.
Immediately after Le Pen's success a top EU diplomat was quoted as saying that "Leftwing parties have gone down the same road as the right, embracing globalisation, using populist language against growing unemployment and crime".
Partly this reflected the fundamental change in the world that took place at the start of the 1990s. The collapse of the old Stalinist regimes (dictatorships, resting on distorted planned economies) in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe removed both a counter-weight to the power of world imperialism and appeared to undermine the idea that socialism was a viable alternative to capitalism.
This was re-enforced by a ferocious ideological offensive by capitalist politicians and commentators to try to eliminate from political life the very idea of striving to replace capitalism with socialism.
The result was that the leaders of most of the workers' movement made a sharp turn to the right at the same time as the neo-liberal offensive attacked living and working conditions.
In the old social democratic and communist parties most leaders worked during the 1990s to break the remaining commitments to socialism and transform their parties into bodies only seeking to help capitalism "work better". New Labour in Britain and Italy's Left Democrats are the prime examples of this.
Thus these election defeats are not defeats for socialist ideas but for parties that, while coming historically from the workers' movement, generally have broken their links with it. Their loss of votes was a reaction to their record in government, not any rejection of socialism.
In France, Jospin's loss of support was particularly marked among industrial workers and youth. Fundamentally there was a tremendous disappointment with the government he led. Jospin became prime minister after winning the 1997 general election which saw a rejection of the policies of Chirac, who had been elected president only two years previously.
The policies of Jospin's "gauche plurielle" (plural left) government had a dual character. It did carry out some reforms but these were in the framework of an acceptance of the basic character of capitalist policies in the late 1990s.
Generally, many workers did not fully benefit from the uneven economic boom of the 1990s. Cash wages may have increased, but so did the intensity of work along with insecurity.
The steady process of cutbacks in public spending meant that, for the first time, it was likely that the next generation would have worse conditions.
The increasing polarisation between rich and poor, along with the increase in the number of permanently unemployed, helped create elements of disintegration in society. Social problems, drink and drug abuse along with crime, all increased.
The exposure of widespread corruption and influence buying has added to the correct belief that the rulers do not really care about the majority, especially those who feel they are on the bottom of the pile.
Added to this there is the increasing feeling that it is more difficult to have any say in what is happening as real power moves further away, especially as a result of globalisation and the increasing role of the EU.
On top of this many countries have recently experienced sizeable population movements without the governments providing the necessary resources resulting in increased competition for jobs, housing, social services etc.
The labour movement should have fought on these issues, but it did not due to a combination of the leaders of the former workers' parties sitting in government, trade union leaders generally unwilling to struggle, and the weakness of the genuine socialists.
This created the opportunity for the Right to step in and, using a combination of populist and nationalist slogans, win elections.
Unfortunately this is not a new phenomenon. Previously, even when they still had roots within the working class, the failures of social democratic governments prepared the way for right-wing governments. Thatcher only came into power because of the 1974-79 Labour government's austerity measures.
This cycle will only be broken when a genuine workers' government mobilises the mass of the population to start the socialist transformation of society.
Naturally many British workers and young people have been horrified by Le Pen's advance as they were when Berlusconi allied with Fini (the leader of the neo-fascist National Alliance) to become Italian prime minister.
However, Italy shows that electoral defeats do not mean a decisive defeat of the working-class movement. Less than one year after Berlusconi's election victory we have seen the three million strong 23 March Rome demo and 13 million staging a one-day strike on 16 April against the government - some of the biggest workers' movements in history.
Earlier in the 1990s the first Berlusconi government was forced out of office after less than nine months because of a huge wave of protests.
Similarly, Chirac's first presidential term was fatally undermined by the public sector workers' struggle a few months after his 1995 election. Within two years, Chirac lost a parliamentary election to Jospin.
While not all Right governments will face opposition so quickly, at a certain stage, workers and youth will move into action outside of the parliamentary arena to defend what has been won in the past and, increasingly, against the government.
In such situations there will be attempts to corral opposition within safe confines, ie to prevent radical socialist ideas from gaining support.
Often this will be by leaders of the trade unions and old political parties calling for "unity" against the government and/or the far right. But by this they do not mean unity in action, unity in struggle against the Right and to win the movement's demands.
Instead, they seek to manipulate workers' natural desire for unity and for solidarity into uncritical support for the leaders and policies that were responsible for allowing the Right to gain its successes.
Thus, in France, Jospin has been sacrificed as the rest of the Parti Socialiste leaders try to avoid real discussion of their responsibility for the Right's victory by concentrating on Le Pen.
In Italy, too, the majority of the social democrat leaders of the former "Olive Tree" government concentrate on attacking Berlusconi and demand unity from their Left critics in order to defeat him.
However, while this strategy of the old leaders may, temporarily, dampen down discussion it is increasingly clear that it will not prevent a radicalisation developing as the records of the governments like Jospin's and the Olive Tree are discussed and an economic crisis develops.
The clearest sign of this radicalisation is the nearly three million Trotskyist votes in France. The size of this vote means that there are a sizeable section of workers and youth who are looking for a genuine socialist alternative. This could be a powerful lever in revitalising and rebuilding the workers' movement in France and setting an international example.
The two largest Trotskyist organisations in France have a responsibility of acting quickly to seize the initiative of setting in process the formation of a new workers' party in France. Such a party, especially if it has a clear socialist programme, would not only have the opportunity to build powerful support within France but would also be an international example of a new workers' party re-establishing the idea that socialism is the genuine alternative to capitalism.
Huge anti-Le Pen protests rock France
In The Socialist 3 May 2002: