Originally published 25 November 2022
By Connor Rosoman
Many people will have watched with dismay as the far right have made a number of gains around the world this year. In Italy, the most right-wing government since the fall of Mussolini’s fascist regime has come to power on a reactionary platform against the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people and refugees and workers. The Sweden Democrats have become the second largest group in the Swedish parliament, wielding considerable influence despite not being formally part of the right-wing coalition government, and nationalist Marine LePen made it to the final round of the French elections.
In the US, extreme-right, Trumpist forces have taken over the Republican party, leading a backlash against women’s rights and the recent struggles for racial justice. Similarly, the Tory leadership increasingly rely on right-populist, anti-worker and “anti-woke” policies – although they remain, ironically, deeply unpopular. And at the time of writing, Bolsonaro has come out of the first round of the Brazilian elections behind Lula but stronger than anticipated, resting on a base of hardcore supporters.
For many working class people – especially young people, women, LGBTQ+, and black and brown people – these developments are rightly frightening. The growth of the far right has signalled a rolling back of rights, including trade union rights, as well as attacks on measures to tackle climate crisis, bodily autonomy, and a decline in living standards for the vast majority. But to stop the far right, we need to understand why they are on the rise.
Why is the far right growing?
As part of the ongoing ‘age of disorder’ and capitalist crisis, we have seen deepening political instability and the political ‘status quo’ has been shaken to the core. Hence the dramatic loss of faith in the political establishment which has failed to defend the lives and living standards of ordinary people. This has meant a crumbling of capitalism’s traditional, establishment parties and a deepening of political polarisation.
Part of this process has been reflected in the growth of right-wing organisations which blame this crisis not on the system itself, but on scapegoats such as immigrants, or the decline of the nuclear family, whilst parading as ‘anti-establishment’. For example, Trump declared on the eve of his election that he was the ‘only anti- establishment’ candidate. The populist right tries to come across as radical and different, yet continues to defend the capitalist system.
The recent Italian elections reflect this process clearly. Absolute poverty in Italy has tripled since 2005, even as big businesses such as banking giants Fineco and Mediobanca report massive profits. And after years of stagnant growth, debt levels have become a ticking time bomb.
Unfortunately, following the merger of the Communist Party (formerly the main party of the working class in Italy) into the centrist Partito Democratico, and the collapse of the Party of Communist Refoundation which was originally launched in the 1990s to build a new mass left party, workers’ justified anger has struggled to find an organised political expression. Such a party would have been able to spearhead the fight for pension reform, for a liveable minimum wage and counter the right wing’s blaming of refugees for the economic crisis in Italy.
The lack of such an alternative has only fuelled a deep disillusionment in the political system – with one recent poll indicating that 65.3% of Italians have little or no confidence in the ‘political class.’ It is this disillusionment from a section in society that Meloni’s ‘Brothers of Italy’ have channelled, masquerading as a radical alternative.
Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to write off the majority in Italy as irredeemably reactionary. The majority did not vote for Meloni’s racist programme. In fact, this year’s elections had the lowest turnout in Italian history, at only 64%. The decline and failure of the traditional workers’ parties internationally, such as the Social Democrats, Labour Party and in some countries the Communist Parties, allows the populist right to partially fill that vacuum at elections.
However, recent experience shows how the anger and disillusionment in society can be directed instead toward struggle – if given a lead. The explosive launch of Enough is Enough, as well as numerous social movements in recent years, have given some expression to the anger in society around the cost of living crisis, but which had found no expression through Starmer’s corporatised Labour Party.
Is Britain moving rightward?
This new wave of struggle counters the idea that the working class in Britain has moved to the right. Although a certain layer in society ‘lent’ Boris Johnson their vote in the 2019 general election, this by no means represents hardcore support for the Tories, or their anti-working class policies. The Tories gained from a mood to break the logjam around Brexit. But rather than a surge toward the right, those elections were mainly characterised by a low turnout, and the collapse of the Labour vote.
The vote for Brexit itself represented a confused backlash against the political establishment. Although this mood was partially co-opted by right-wing populists like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, opposition to the EU was not purely a sign of a nationalist turn in society. There is undoubtedly a turn further to the right by a majority of the Tory membership and a section of the traditional Tory vote. On the other hand, many on the left – including Corbyn himself, as well as the RMT trade union – had a history of principled opposition to the EU as a pro-austerity bosses’ club.
Had the left taken the lead in harnessing the existing anger at the establishment, it would have opened up the possibility of a genuine alternative to the bosses’ EU. Combined with
attempts to reach out to workers and socialists internationally, the possibility of a Europe based on solidarity and socialism could have been posed. Instead of defending the bold programme that inspired millions in 2017, and building on these ideas, Corbyn adopted a conciliatory position to appease the neoliberal right wing of the party. Labour was paralysed and, without a clear position on the Brexit vote, it allowed the Tories to step in, positioning themselves as the only way forward, offering the chance to ‘take back control’.
But far from hardened support for the Tories, those who lent their votes to Johnson have quickly turned against them. The Conservatives’ gains in the former ‘Red Wall’ seats have all but completely crumbled and many workers in these regions will play a key role in the growing strike waves this Autumn and Winter. Recent polls show that those that want to see lower levels of immigration represent an overall minority in society at 42%.
Opposition to immigration has in fact decreased. Likewise, the mass outpouring of anger that followed the murder of Sarah Everard last year has highlighted an increasing willingness of women to challenge gender violence and femicide. And the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 continues to be a reference point in discussions about decolonising education two years on. This indicates anything but a uniform shift to the right among the mass of the population, notwithstanding the creation of a small but more frenzied basis of support for the most right-wing ideas proposed by the Tories.
“Sleepwalking into fascism?”
These trends contrast sharply with the government’s increasingly reactionary “populist” measures. Such measures have included attacks on the right to strike, attempts to severely curb the right to protest, refusing to ban conversion therapy, as well as recent xenophobic attacks on refugees and international students. Some have warned that these moves from the Tories represent Britain “sleepwalking into fascism”.
Fascism is a word that can mean many things to many people. However, the threat of a mass movement to install an outright dictatorship, abolish all democratic rights, and crush the working class by force, like in countries such as Italy and Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, is not in reality an immediate prospect. Historically, fascism has been a weapon of last resort – supported by the ruling class only to stave off the immediate threat of socialist revolution. Currently, the capitalist establishment is still comfortable to put their trust in ‘regular’ parliamentary methods to resolve their crisis.
Historically, especially in Britain, this model has proven to be a useful means for the ruling class to keep political struggle within “safe” bounds. In certain periods of crisis, sections of the ruling class have considered turning toward dictatorial means but it has been consistently rejected. The ruling class know that even the basic democratic rights we enjoy today were won through mass struggle and the backlash against decisively removing them would be huge.
But rather than underestimating the threat of these Tory attacks, understanding their purpose in shoring up the party’s base and of their right-wing core voters highlights how we can get organised against them. This should involve struggle through the trade unions (even despite the anti-trade union laws that have been forced through), social struggles and building a political challenge in the form of a new mass left party of struggle to take on their reactionary agenda and isolate the tiny minority of hardened reactionaries. This could draw millions of people, currently looking for an alternative to Tory rule, into the struggle in order to defend the right to strike, end the cost of living crisis and guarantee a decent standard of living for everyone.
Fighting for an independent, working-class alternative
Posing such an alternative is crucial to truly stemming the tide of the right. This means going beyond the failed approach of ‘lesser evilism’. We saw that an establishment coalition in Hungary, involving practically all opposition political currents, was unable to beat back Viktor Orbán’s right-wing Fidesz party in the elections in April.
In the US, although mass revulsion at Trump’s agenda propelled Biden into the White House, the Democrats have been unable to stem the tide of Trumpism, which has continued to grow in US society as the Democrats have presided over ongoing crisis while failing to meaningfully implement any of Biden’s promises. Pinning our fate to that of the political establishment, which can only present ‘more of the same’ – wage stagnation, rising cost of living and economic uncertainty – is not enough.
We saw a glimpse this year of how the mass opposition to the right in the US can be channelled into concrete action through the resistance to the Republican’s attacks on abortion rights. Despite the reversal of Roe v Wade, effectively criminalising abortion around the US, working class people have organised in Seattle and Dane County, Wisconsin to win “abortion sanctuary” legislation protecting the right of women and queer people to choose, with other similar campaigns ongoing in other parts of the country.
Understandably, during election periods, there will be an increased pressure to vote against the right, even if that means voting with the political establishment. In Brazil, many are looking to vote for ex-president Lula to get rid of Bolsonaro. ISA supports a critical vote for Lula in this 2nd round of the elections to kick out Bolsonaro, while building an independent, fighting movement to challenge the right in the streets and prepare for battles under a Lula presidency.
Just as in the US, the far right will not disappear after those elections. They will continue to be a threat, and potentially grow further, where the left fails to offer a mass working class alternative. Already, Bolsonaro has made gestures toward refusing to acknowledge the election results should he lose. The threat of a coup attempt, much sharper than even the 6 January protests at the US Capitol to overturn the election results, is posed. This is a threat that Lula’s passive pro-capitalist electoral campaign is unprepared to face down, and shows why the struggle against the right can’t end at the ballot box.
On the other hand, Lula’s strong showing in the elections shows that in Brazil, like in the US and around the world, the far right can be defeated. But only if we get organised to build a movement that can do so. To resist the right, we need to build a mass struggle not only to defend our existing rights but to put an end to this system of crisis and instability. This should include fighting for inflation-busting pay rises for all workers; nationalising energy, mail and rail companies to end profiteering, along with the other big corporations making millions off of rising prices. Such a movement should also be prepared to organise to resist any and all attacks on the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people that may be pushed by this Tory government as it tries to cling to power.
Campaigns in Britain such as Enough Is Enough should take up these questions as part of building the broadest possible struggle against the right-wing government we face here in Britain. But such a campaign would be an example too for workers in other countries that we do not have to lie down and accept such attacks. This is the kind of campaign Socialist Alternative will be fighting to build in trade unions, on campuses and in the streets over the next period.