The specter haunting Europe is no longer communism, as it had been for decades, but ascendant right-wing movements and parties that have resurrected the fear of fascism. Reactionary forces are also on display in Donald Trump’s demagogic presidential campaign, and in the racist, anti-immigration tactics that drove the victorious Brexit referendum.
But it’s in continental Europe that the far right is more powerful today than at any time since World War II. National Front President Marine Le Pen is expected to do well in next year’s national elections, while the Austrian Freedom Party lost the presidential election by .6 percent earlier this year. In Eastern Europe, aggressively nationalist and even authoritarian parties are surging. Most extreme is Hungary, where the ruling nationalist conservative Fidez has acted to suppress democratic institutions, while the even further right-wing Jobbik Party is the third-largest in parliament. In Greece, the openly fascist Golden Dawn is accused of actually orchestrating a murder.
Sheri Berman, a professor of political science at Barnard College, has devoted her life’s work to studying the twin emergences of the social democratic and fascist parties in the 1930s. Her 2006 book The Primacy of Politics argues that following the Great Depression, the fascists and the social democrats both acted more aggressively than established parties to ensure a robust social safety net and full employment.
In Berman’s telling, fascism was in large part a response to the failure of the Marxist, socialist, and liberal parties to adopt effective political or economic strategies to deal with the crises of the late 1920s and early 1930s. Both were too mired in their conventional wisdom and establishment economic programs, which didn’t do nearly enough to help the millions ravaged by the Depression. Fascism offered a new option. The threat went largely unanswered by a fractured left, too often constrained by centrist economic policies or in thrall to the Soviet Union.
Sound familiar? The Prospect got in touch with Berman to discuss how today’s reactionary impulses compare with the fascism that ravaged Europe in the 1930s and ‘40s. This is an edited transcript of that interview.
Jake Blumgart: An aggressive right-wing nationalism seems to be on the march, from Donald Trump to Brexit. In my Twitter feed, I see Julia Ioffe repeatedly asking, “Is this what the 1930s felt like?” Historically, you are on the record rejecting the casual use of the term fascist to describe parties like Le Pen’s Front National in France or the Austrian Freedom Party. Do you still hold that position?
Sheri Berman: There are important similarities, but there are some really fundamental differences. The key difference is folks like Trump or Le Pen say that they are the real democrats. While they have significant criticisms of how institutions and elites function, they are generally not themselves anti-democratic. Fascists were explicitly anti-democratic. They didn’t want to improve the system, they wanted to reject it. It’s a very different view of the way politics should work and the relationship between people and their leaders.
That’s not to say they [far right leaders] aren’t scary in a lot of ways and that their understanding of democracy is not very problematic. The extent of nationalism and racism are distinctions as well. The amount of violence, and whether it is institutionalized and sanctioned, those are also important differences. You could see this being on a spectrum rather than being black and white. Part of what we are trying to understand is the implication of these parties for Western political systems. Right now there are no groups out there but truly marginal ones that have a fundamental critique of democracy and want to replace it.
The National Socialist Party or the fascists in Italy were a fundamental threat and critique of the status quo in a way we don’t have today, at least not yet.
But these aren’t mainstream conservatives. They have offered themselves as an alternative to what they describe as an incompetent and corrupt elite, which the fascists did as well. Are they just less ambitious?
The other way to think about it is how vulnerable, weak, and problematic the existing order is. What we had then was a fundamental breakdown of not just the political, but the economic order. We are facing real and serious problems, but we aren’t dealing with anything along the lines of the 1930s. There’s a kind of push-pull between the level of collapse and the power of the critics of the existing order. We’re not there today, so the political space for critique is certainly present and growing, but the kind of space for a fundamental restructuring of how we think about politics, economics, and the social order isn’t on the same level.
So global institutions did a better job of managing the Great Recession, and therefore the right-wing backlash to the economic crisis is less radical?
Clearly there’s a lot more that could and should have been done, and there’s a lot of suffering. But we aren’t dealing with anything like the 1930s, with the possible exception of a place like Greece—and there you have seen some pretty significant chaos.
Trump is a little different because the United States is always a little different than Europe. But the thing that’s important to note when we make comparisons between the Trump populist phenomena and the kinds of things we are seeing in Europe is that the National Fronts and all those things are not really conservative in any sense of the word, but particularly in the American sense of the word.
The most obvious example is that these are parties that do not want to roll back the state, or more significantly the welfare state. They want to recapture the state and expand social programs, expand all kinds of government activity. They just want to exclude from the benefits of that people they feel are not truly part of the national community. In that sense there is an analogy to the 1930s, because fascists and national socialists were not traditional conservative parties either.
These parties in Europe, and also Trump, reflect that because they have very significant working class support. In that sense they are also a reflection of the decline of traditional social democratic or moderate left parties. These are the sort of people who would usually associate with left parties and, feeling abandoned by them, they are fleeing to these parties that promise them similar things: a state that is going to take care of you, welfare policies that will help you when you are displaced economically.
There’s also a distinction between Trump and the leaders of Brexit, on the one hand, and the continental European right parties. Trump’s rhetorically promised a different program than traditional Republicans, but his policy specifics are basically the same old Republican line.
You could imagine that morphing into something more, but right now he’s just kind of an individual lightning rod for anger and discontent. In Europe we have what are now fairly organized and institutionalized parties in many of these countries, so what they are offering is more expansive and more consistent than Trump. The ideas he’s offering are a mixture of the unreal and the traditionally Republican. But the affect and the appeal is quite different.
Britain’s Brexit leaders seem more similar to Trump than the Front National.
This idea you would take the money from the EU and put it to the NHS is a fantasy. But the idea was we can protect our own people and serve them better rather than sending it to these crazy European bureaucrats. [British people are] worried about economic dislocation and change and looking for someone who speaks to that too.
Earlier you mentioned that an important component to fascism is paramilitary. There’s violence at Trump rallies, British MP Jo Cox was murdered, but there’s nothing comparable to the brownshirts. Are we seeing anything like that in far right parties on the Continent?
The only place that really has existed in Europe is in the Golden Dawn party in Greece, which a not insignificant force, and Jobbik in Hungary. You’ve had far-right parties that have been quite violent and semi-organized in those places, not brown or blackshirts, but it’s not tangential to the movement either.
You have crazy, riled-up Trump supporters beating people up at rallies and some disaffected lunatic in Britain assassinating an MP who is pro-EU and pro-immigration, but it’s not organized. It’s not part of the movement in any institutionalized way, as you can begin to see—although at a much lower level than the 1930s—in the parties in Greece and Hungary.
Greece’s Golden Dawn and Hungary’s Jobbik seem closer to literal fascism.
Those are places where democratic traditions and legacies are very weak and very short lived. Greece is not just a relatively recent transition, part of the early third wave of democracy, but has had a very problematic history with democracy. The same is true of Hungary, so the fact that the reaction there has been stronger is not as surprising as it would be in France, Britain, or the U.S.
I think it’s surprising there hasn’t been anything else to the level of Jobbik elsewhere in Eastern Europe.
Oh, it’s coming. I bet its coming. You are beginning to see it even in a place like Poland. The question is where is that going to go, and a lot of that will really depend on what happens with the EU.
Speaking of the EU, in the past you argued for a communitarian social democracy because if the left doesn’t champion communitarianism someone else will. Is that feasible given the current flows of people into Europe and the sheer scale of the displacement crisis?
Questions about immigration, national sovereignty, and identity are actually more important in driving peoples’ reactions than even the economic stuff. There’s a decent bit of survey data confirming that, although I think it is very hard to for folks to disentangle. But I think that’s at least if not more important than what’s undergirding the political reactions we are seeing today.
I think the left has been less successful in dealing with that issue than the economic issue. There are a variety of obvious ways to deal with things like globalization and economic change. They may be politically difficult to implement, but the solutions aren’t rocket science. Figuring out a way to accept that their societies are changing and that change doesn’t have to mean a complete eradication of the past, but it does require some adaptation.
I don’t think we’ve see a very successful way even on the left of convincing people that the circle can be squared.
Do you think social democracy can be renewed through the institutional frameworks of the EU and Eurozone?
A European world without social democracy is a pretty scary world. Because without these strong center left parties, political systems get extremely unbalanced.
Look, we can accept capitalism as the only game in town, that it has these incredible productive and adaptable abilities, but we have to be careful to keep it under control. We can’t allow it to be so socially destructive, and we have to make sure individuals are protected from its worst outcomes. That still strikes me as the only logical way to deal with socioeconomic reality. The particular programs for dealing with that have to change over time, but the particular understanding of the need to make capitalism safe for democracy and society—that’s social democratic understanding. I just don’t see a better alternative.
The question is can social democrats and center-left parties figure out a way to instrumentalize that for the 20th century, because we aren’t in 1960s or 1970s anymore. The policies that worked then don’t work now. We have a new economy and a new society. Can the center left or social democratic left come up with a way of dealing with these other questions of social and demographic changes? It seems very hard, given the level of immigration we’ve seen in some European countries. Those levels have been unprecedentedly high. Anyone on the left wants to feel some sense of duty to people who have been displaced from their homes, but there’s a question of the carrying capacity of these societies.
Be that as it may, the people are there. They have to be integrated. But this idea that they can live their own lives and live in their communities, that’s a dead end. It has to be figured out how to make them buy into some common project; otherwise you end up with a balkanized society that looks like the United States at its worst.