Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Trumping the race card

(January 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.149, January 1992, p.7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The liberal media have responded in two characteristic ways to the rise of the far right in Europe – either to insist that it cannot happen here, or to argue that it will happen here unless something is done to stop a ‘flood of refugees.’

The ‘can’t happen here’ line was put by Neal Ascherson in the Independent on Sunday. The far right, he argued, had never been able to make an impact in Britain because the Tories have always been flexible enough to attract the votes of the racist right without allowing them to dominate its politics.

As an argument it just does not hold water. Apart from glossing over the very nasty effects of Tory attempts to grab working class and lower middle class votes through racism – for instance at the time of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968 – it conveniently forgets the rapid rise of the National Front in the years 1977-78. It overtook the Liberals as the third party in many parts of Britain and received more than 100,000 votes in the Greater London Council elections.

It was not the ‘British character’ that thwarted its ambitions, still less the Conservative Party’s flexibility, but hard campaigning by the left to expose its Nazi character, to drive it from the streets and to build support for the Anti-Nazi League among white as well as black working class youth.

One important by product was that when bitterness at police harassment and long term unemployment boiled over into riots in inner city streets in the early 1980s, these took the form of black and white youth confronting the police together, creating ties of multiracial solidarity that are still to be found today.

These past successes are important in showing that any rise by the far right can be prevented. But they are not a cause for complacency. In many cities, out beyond the multiracial inner city areas where the fascists still cannot pass, lie virtually all white suburban estates without the same strong anti-racist traditions.

This does not mean there is anything to be said for the ‘tidal wave of refugees’ explanation. There is no correlation between the number of immigrants in any of the European countries and the rise of the far right.

Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, millions of immigrants from all sorts of cultural and ethnic backgrounds entered countries like France and Germany. Yet the far right was a completely marginal political force.

Today, the highest concentration of refugees is not in East Germany, where the Nazis are having the greatest success, but in parts of West Germany. By the same token, anti-semitism is much stronger in East European cities like Warsaw, where the Jewish population is minuscule, than in cities like London, Leeds or Manchester where there are considerable numbers of people of Jewish descent.

The real explanation for the rise of the far right in Europe lies elsewhere – in the way in which high levels of unemployment and deteriorating social conditions have become endemic at a time when the political forces that used to fight them have decayed.

A Financial Times editorial early in December noted:

‘The most significant common factor behind the rightward swing has been the the growing belief that the mainstream parties are impotent, out of touch, and in at least some cases, corrupt as well. In France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria – the principal countries where the ultra-right has made the headlines – disenchantment with the parties in power has been combined with a feeling that the mainline opposition offers few genuine alternatives’.

But the demise of ‘genuine alternatives’ is something which, in every other context, the Financial Times would welcome. For to talk in terms of such alternatives is to talk in terms of class politics.

The rise of Le Pen in France is not something separate from the complete surrender of the Socialist Party to the priorities of French capitalism, or the degeneration of the French Communist Party into little more than a marginal sect.

A whole layer of fashionable commentators, including many who used to regard themselves as on the left, have welcomed the decline of class politics. Starting in the late 1970s by arguing that issues of race and gender could not be ‘reduced to class’, within ten years they were using a shortlived capitalist boom to claim Marxism was out of date and that politics was a matter of style rather than of issues. Today the boom is over and in much of Europe the far right is filling the vacuum these people welcomed. Like the Financial Times, they are helpless before the spectre they have helped conjure up.

Fortunately, that’s not the end of the matter. The explicit politics of class may have weakened in much of Western Europe in the last decade, but class organisation and class struggle remain an important element in political life. One reason British fascists have not been able to recover from their defeats of more than a decade ago is that the political vacuum was filled in Thatcher’s last years by successive waves of spontaneous class agitation – over the NHS, over public sector pay, over the ambulance workers’ demands, above all over the poll tax.

Those socialists who had resisted the pull to the right were able to connect with widespread working class anger and to ensure that the politics of class continued to trump the politics of race.

There is an important lesson in this for the future. The economic crisis does not just mean a mood of disillusionment and despair which the far right can exploit to their own ends. It also means sudden, explosive outbreaks of class anger, with which socialist, anti-racist forces can connect. This will be as true in France and Germany in the next couple of years as it has been in the recent past in Britain.

The danger from the far right is real. It can grow in Britain as easily as elsewhere in Western Europe – if we give it the chance. But we can fight it, provided we start with class arguments.

Last updated on 24.06.2010