Piero Ignazi, L ‘Estrema Destra in Europa (Bologna: II Mulino, 1994), 260pp.
Piero Ignazi has written numerous books and articles on the Italian extreme Right. In his most recent book, however, he addresses broader European concerns. Although he acknowledges the Left-Right dichotomy no longer depicts clear-cut political realities (when workers voted predominantly for labor and social-democratic parties, while the middle and upper classes voted predominantly for moderate and conservative ones), he insists on its relevance because it is still used by the media as well as by voters and, at any rate, it simplifies politics. This, however, is problematic and ultimately prevents Ignazi from grasping what is truly new about the unexpected resurgence of the extreme Right in the 1990s.
Political competition in West European democracies has become increasingly depoliticized. In the 1995 French presidential elections there were hardly any real policy differences between the Center-Right and the Center-Left candidate. Both proposed tackling unemployment through state sponsored public works. In Italy, the Left-Right dichotomy has been blurred because both sides of the political spectrum moved to the center in an attempt to appeal to moderate voters. To this end, both party coalitions sought to smooth out their rough edges. The Center-Right said it favored tax cuts but would neither eliminate superfluous state employees nor cut social spending. The Center-Left sought to assuage its image as a statist coalition. Even the Lega Nord participated in this rush toward the Center, thus diluting its policy proposals.
The disintegration of the Left-Right dichotomy exemplifies the end of the post-WWII order and the crisis of the welfare state. The turn from the mass to the catchall party was the result of the blurring of class divisions under the unprecedented economic growth of the 1960s. Both working class and conservative parties lost their raison d’etre as unique representatives of particular social groups. During the 1970s and 1980s, huge budget deficits began to accumulate, thus limiting the state’s ability to cure social ills by allocating large amounts of resources. In this climate of political uncertainty, the clear-cut alternative between leftist coalitions which supported the expansion of the welfare state and rightist parties which advocated rolling back “big government” is no longer meaningful. Similarly, new issues such as the environment, immigration and the expansion of international organizations cannot be understood within the old political framework. Federalism is currently being advocated by both the Right and the Left, while reservations concerning “globalization” and the growing importance of international organizations are widespread throughout the political spectrum. Although some political scientists still find the Left-Right dichotomy viable, it is generally regarded as inadequate after the end of the Cold war.
These considerations help explain the recent resurgence of the extreme right and why this phenomenon cannot be understood exclusively within the old framework of Left and Right. Ignazi begins by distinguishing between three Rights: reactionary-traditionalist, conservative and fascist. He believes the Right can be identified in terms of the following principles: “political authority, superiority of the state, the nation or the Church, which supersedes the individual, roots and traditional values, order, harmony, adherence to social and natural inequalities within the social-political realm, the sense of belonging and organic communities” (19). This is related to Norberto Bobbio’s Left/Right distinction, according to which the Right stands primarily for social and political inequalities, while the Left is committed to the principle of equality.
The reactionary-traditionalist Right goes back to Joseph de Maistre, Donoso Cortes and Louis Bonald. Its antagonism to modernity, predicated on a monistic order, strong state sovereignty and cultural-religious homogeneity seeks to reintroduce “the certainties and the seriousness of the pre-revolutionary transcendental order.” This reactionary-traditionalist view is founded on a transcendental vision of politics and society. Man is seen as corrupt and evil. Thus society needs authority and discipline to avoid disorder and chaos. The doctrine of sovereignty is based on this negative view of humanity: the sovereign is a bridge between God and man and is entrusted with guaranteeing peace. As de Maistre points out, however, the sovereign is not omnipotent: “the biggest problem in Europe is to figure out how to circumscribe the power of the sovereign without destroying it.” These counter revolutionaries were aristocrats who fought against the sovereign’s attempts to overpower the estates. They saw society as an organic whole; accordingly, the sovereign had to respect those institutions which stood between him and society (e.g., corporatist structures, the Catholic Church and the estates). Only the estates or the pontiff could resist sovereign power. Today this Right has very few political followers. It is made up of small groups such as Lefreve’s movement or what is left of the Monarchical Party in Italy and France. Their authoritarianism has marginalized them in current political debates.
The conservative Right is an altogether different matter. Its most important ideological figures are Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk. Its main difference with other Rights can be readily seen by examining Burke’s reaction to the French Revolution. He was not opposed to some of the values of that revolution, but he did not approve of the way the French had overthrown the monarchy. While the French Revolution had made a violent break, thus completely altering French society, the British Revolution had been gradual. British gradualism made it possible to preserve Anglo-Saxon traditions while introducing political innovations. The conservative Right does not share the virulent anti-modernist attitude of their reactionary-traditionalist counterpart, but is satisfied with salvaging aspects of traditional society without derailing political and economic change. Prezzolini argues that “a conservative must not be a reactionary: one who wants to return to outmoded societal arrangements or one who wants to abolish labor unions . . . . A conservative is a realist. For this reason he is opposed to those who dream about political, social and economic arrangements that have never existed in the past. The past belongs to history.” According to Kirk, conservatism is a state of mind and, as Prezzolini emphasizes, conservatives do not believe in utopian ideologies but in limited, feasible and realistic programs. Unlike the reactionary-traditionalist Right, the conservative Right has frequently entered into alliances with liberal and socialist forces. In Austria, the conservative Christian Democratic party has ruled for more than 20 years in collaboration with the Socialist party, while both German and British conservatives have occasionally formed grand coalition governments with the Left.
The conservative Right is also characterized by a fierce defense of private property. This is why it is opposed to redistributive policies. In principle, it is hostile to the welfare state, but in practice it has frequently accepted it. In Italy, the Christian Democrats expanded the scope of state intervention and have often worked with unions as a way to counter the popularity of the Italian Communist Party. But, whenever possible, the conservative Right has also deployed free market policies. Thus the British Conservative Party overhauled many social programs and abolished a number of workers’ protection laws during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure. It advocated nationalism and national unity, as did Thatcher herself during the Malvinas-Falkland war. Most recently, the French conservative Right has sanctioned nuclear tests in the South Pacific to assure French security, even in the face of strong international opposition.
The conservative faction is the strongest component within the West European Right. In this context, the British Conservative Party does not differ much from moderate and Christian Democratic parties. Thus Caciagli emphasizes that “the Christian Democrats have always been the conservative party in modern Italy. In the past, it was because of its history and position. Today, it is the result of its social basis and the interests it defends.” The same can be mid of Germany, where the Christian Democratic Union included staunch conservatives such as Franz Joseph Strauss. Immediately after WWII, however, Christian Democratic policies in Italy were not in line with mainstream conservatism. They followed the social doctrine of the Catholic Church, which criticized both capitalism and communism as political philosophies based on materialistic values insensitive to human spirituality. Thus they criticized free market economies and advocated “social buffers” to reduce inequalities created by capitalism. Eventually, this changed as the Cold War left little room for a “third way.” At any rate, given the fact that moderate voters were predominantly rightist and anti-communist, Christian Democratic parties had to downplay their criticisms of the market economy.
Ignazi understands fascism as a rightist response to modernity: a mass movement seeking to revolutionize society not by altering socio-economic relations but by changing values to oppose liberalism, democracy and capitalism. Fascism precipitates an ethical revolution by imposing values such as authority, hierarchy, honor, loyalty and the supremacy of the national community. These values have traditionally been associated with the Right. Moreover, some fascist policies such as strengthening the state and aggressive foreign policies are similar to those of the traditional-reactionary and the conservative Right. What differentiates fascist from conservative policies is their more radical character with respect to, e.g., nationalism, interpreted by Giovanni Gentile, Dino Grandi, and Alfredo Rocco as a secular religion. Moreover, fascism is much more opposed to capitalism than the conservative Right. In fact, fascist socio-economic policies are predicated on a corporatist “third way” that defends private property but opposes unchecked free market economics.
What separates fascism from the reactionary-traditionalist Right is modernity. Fascism accepts mass political organizations such as parties and unions, state intervention and mass communication. Fascism mobilized the populace against democracy and liberalism, while the reactionary-traditionalist Right sought to limit mass political participation by strengthening the dictatorial powers of the sovereign. Moreover, fascism was ambiguous toward the monarchy — at times even opposed to it. According to Sternell, fascism cannot be understood as simply a rightist mass movement. Rather, it is the result of the coming together of two political and ideological forces: the non-Marxist Left (anarcho-syndacalists, patriotic socialists and corporatists) and the nationalist Right. The former accounts for fascism’s “third way” policies, the latter for its authoritarian-nationalist policies. Fascism was initially formed by Left splinter groups dissatisfied with the way both social democracy and Marxist internationalism had come to accept capitalism and democracy. Fascist leaders never really dropped leftist ideas and policies. During the Republic of Salo, Mussolini reintroduced the original fascist social philosophy. He launched socialist reforms and adopted a very anti-monarchist stance. During the last days of fascism, the movement returned to its radical origins.
Many extreme Right parties are the heirs of fascism. Here Ignazi observes that there are many terms used in the literature that do not travel well and do not help understand the phenomenon. He rejects “far Right” because this term is too narrow and was initially conceived to describe a particular emotional state of mind, (such as a predisposition toward extremism and violence). He also rejects “radical Right” because he believes this term can only be used to describe those terrorist movements which sought to subvert democracy after WWII. For Ignazi, many extreme Right parties do not accept liberal-democratic values but, unlike the radical Right, do not engage in subversive activities. Rather, extreme Right parties actively seek an electoral consensus. Ignazi also rejects the term “New Right,” since he claims this term can only be used to refer to two very distant political cultures. First, New Right is frequently used in the US to refer to the neo-conservative movement, whose worldview does not coincide with that of the extreme Right. The latter might share the same dislike for bureaucracy and “big government,” but it has very different long-term goals. Second, the term is used in Europe to refer to Alain de Benoist’s political and cultural movement. Ignazi claims that the European New Right does not have “any relation with extreme Right parties.” (43) Moreover, the New Right’s worldview differs drastically from that of the extreme Right.
The extreme Right is influenced by various sources. In Italy, the most widely read authors are Giovanni Gentile and Julius Evola, but there is also interest in the jurist Alfredo Rocco and in the historian Gioacchino Volpe. In Britain, the extreme right focusers on Oswald Mosley. In France, the most widely read authors are Charles Maurras and Maurice Barre. These authors are also widely read by the New Right, but the latter has broken with nationalism and has opted for European federalism. Iganzi defines an extreme Right party as follows: “it must: 1) be positioned at the extreme Right on the Left-Right continuum, with no other party to its Right (unless it belongs to the same party family); 2) express an ideology related to fascism; 3) express attitudes, values and issues opposing the liberal-democratic party system.” (47) Within the extreme Right, he distinguishes between two “subtypes”: The first includes traditional extreme Right parties such as the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano-Destra Nazionale, the Dutch CP’ 86, the Vlaams Block in Belgium, the neo-nazi British National Party, the French National Front and the German NDP. For half a century the Movimento Sociale Italiano-Destra Nazionale (now renamed Alleanza Nazionale) has been the strongest neo-fascist party in Europe. It has always consisted of two wings: a majoritarian national-conservative wing heir of what Renzo De Felice defines as “regime-fascists”; and a leftist, revolutionary and anti-capitalist wing, heir of the “movement-fascists.” While the former has defended traditional Right positions such as the death penalty, a strong presidential regime and anti-communism, the latter has consistently criticized the market economy, called for workers participation and the socialization of the means of production. The second type includes post-industrial extreme Right parties such as the French Front National, Germany’s Republikaner party, and the Austrian Liberal Party. These are recent political organizations and most of their members did not experience historical fascism. Post-industrial extreme Right parties rise in advanced capitalist countries as a response to problems such as voter dissatisfaction with established parties and political corruption, Third World mass immigration, inner-city violence and social alienation. While virulently opposed to parliament and in favor of a strong authoritarian state, the French National Front does not fully adhere to a fascist worldview. Its socio-economic policies clearly conflict with fascist corporatism and its main think tank, the Club de l’Horloge, calls for a free market economy with little state intervention.
Ignazi lists four factors responsible for the success of the extreme Right. The first is the rise of neo-conservatism, which contributed both to Reagan’s and Thatcher’s electoral victories during the early 1980s. This political philosophy vindicates the viability of a free market economy with little or no state intervention. Neo-conservatism argues that the state is too strong and unchecked. To meet many social demands, the government is forced to tax and borrow. High taxes hinder new investments while the state’s expanded role in the economy limits the market and creates non-competitive situations, with monopolists controlling market niches. The welfare state must be overhauled and the government must restrict itself to a few areas such as foreign policy and internal order. One of its main concerns, the critique of “big government,” has been picked up by the extreme Right. Thus the French National Front is very critical of labor unions, which it considers unaccountable organizations. The anti-tax party represents Danish groups opposed to the high level of taxation.
The second factor concerns law and order. As crime, immigration and unemployment grows in large cities, many voters turn to extreme Right parties which promise tougher legislative measures against street violence and mass immigration. The third factor is the legitimation crisis of many West European party systems, which manifests itself in the increasing number of no-shows at the polls and by the decreasing membership of established political parties. The fourth factor is the rightward shift of many Western European party systems. Thus conservative panics are taking increasingly uncompromising positions with regard to issues such as immigration, abortion, etc.
The French case seems to support Ignazi’s claim that there has been a shift from the extreme Left to the extreme Right. During the 1960s and 1970s, ideological polarization came from the Left. For more than 30 years the French Communist Party was the dominant Left political force. It had more votes than the non-communist Left and it could mobilize workers since it controlled France’s largest trade unions. In 1978 there was a shift in the Left political balance. The socialists out-polled the communists which, as a result, no longer dominated the Left and lost considerable influence over trade unions. Today, the French Communist Party is in decline and the Left overall is less radical than in the past, while the National Front is the strongest anti-system party in France, This party does not openly advocate the end of French democracy but it is very critical of multi-party systems. But the Italian case seems to refute Ignazi’s thesis. In Italy, the neo-fascist Movimento Sociale Italiano-Destra Nazionale has recently undergone considerable ideological modernization. Renamed Alleanza Nazionale, the party has severed all ties with fascism and has taken on more conservative positions. Currently, there is an electoral shift toward the Right, but Rifondazione Comunista remains the only true anti-system party.
At any rate, the center-periphery cleavage has recently re-emerged in West European politics. Federalist and populist forces have emerged to fight the state’s monopoly of politics. Rejection of social engineering, preservation of ethnic or regional identities, opposition to higher taxes and other burdensome state constraints provide these movements with their raison d’etre. This helps explain the rise of the Italian Northern League, the resilience of the Scottish National Party and the Catalan Autonomist movement. Their electoral success is a function of their critique of state centralism and the vindication of a populist polities opposed to the integration promoted by the state. These parties have called for constitutional reforms along federal lines predicated on subsidiarity and fiscal autonomy.
Most extreme Right parties advocate corporatist programs that stress the need for national unity against the divisive effects of class war. Similarly, The Movimento Sociale Italiano-Destra Nazionale was the only Italian party that advocated union participation in the internal decision-making of corporations — a version of the German Mitbestimmung. During Pino Rauti’s tenure in office (1990-1992), this party developed a quasi-revolutionary political platform based on opposition to the free market and the search for a “third way” between capitalism and communism. On a similar vein, during the 1980s the British National Front opposed Thatcher’s free market policies. As Ignazi argues, the National Front “supported the miner’s strike throughout the 198485 period and emphasized the need for a return to the environment (i.e., the ecologist element of tradition) by demonizing the city as the place of physical and moral depravity. Moreover, the National Front opposed both civil and military nuclear plants” (68).
With regard to the center-periphery cleavage, the extreme Right has historically taken a nationalist and state centralist position. Alleanza Nazionale, for example, favors a strong central state to counter the secessionist tendencies of the Northern League. Most British National Party rallies rave against the Irish independence movement or Scottish and Welsh Nationalists. The Austrian Liberal Party is also in favor of national unity and is strongly opposed to European unity. The Republikaner party was a staunch supporter of German unification. During German unification this party was overwhelmed by Kohl’s CDU, which was able to attract the nationalist electorate. The Dutch CP ’86 is also a classic example of an extreme Right party advocating strong state sovereignty. It adheres to “the concept of the organic state so that all those elements in the way of the state’s viability should be eliminated” (120) and advocates tougher measures against crime and illegal immigration and wants a stronger and more active police force.
Most extreme Right parties also advocate constitutional reforms, such as the National Front’s call for a stronger presidential regime in France. The deviant case is Vlaams Block, which opposes a strong nation-state. It actively pursues the interests of the Flemish ethnic group which, on most issues, is in outright opposition to those of the other Belgian ethnic group. The extreme Right usually sides with the Catholic Church against enlightenment values. It stands for family values, respect for traditions and customs, hierarchy, order and discipline, and respect for authority. It does not advocate respect for authority as such. Frequently, such parties are the most virulent opponents of Left coalition governments. They advocate respect for what they consider legitimate authority: a political order reflecting nationalist and traditional values. In Italy, the extreme Right has a very conservative position with regard to abortion and divorce. A poll conducted by Ignazi reveals that 54% of extreme Right party members are in favor of mandatory Catholic teachings in public schools. The Vlaams Block, the Austrian Liberal Party and the Front National strongly sympathize with Catholic values. At times, the extreme Right takes positions different from those of the Catholic Church’s social teachings. Thus immigration is an issue which separates the Italian clergy from Alleanza Nazionale. In December 1995, Dini’s technocratic government sought to apply tougher laws against illegal immigrants. This measure was backed by parts of the Left and by all the parties of the Center-Right alliance. The Catholic Church strongly opposed this measure.
Overall, the extreme Right has taken an ambiguous position with regard to the establishment/anti-establishment cleavage. Some extreme Right parties are very concerned about the environment and are heavily involved in preserving it as an integral component of the national identity of a people. The minority wing of the now defunct Movimento Sociale Italiano-Destra Nazionale (Rauti’s group), was the first European extreme Right faction to take up environmental issues. On the other hand, there are some extreme Right parties (e.g., the French National Front in its support for Chirac’s nuclear testing) opposed to environmental issues. The extreme Right has been a strong opponent of “political correctness” and 1960s neo-liberal views. Thus the Vlaams Bloc defends very traditionalist and reactionary positions. Ignazi writes that this party “upholds traditional values against permissive policies and feminism by intensively mobilizing against abortion” (107). Other extreme Right parties are very concerned about “quality of life” issues. The Danish FRDP is a single issue political organization (i.e., anti-tax). This party has emphasized the obsolesce of the workers-middle class cleavage and is very critical of political parties regarded as bankrupt organizations (80-81).
Ignazi sees a silent counterrevolution taking place in Europe, evident in the electoral growth of extreme Right parties which compete with the conservative Right to produce an electoral shift toward the Right. This counterrevolution is allegedly altering the structure of West European party systems and poses a direct challenge to the viability of liberal-democracy. Ignazi is very thorough in assessing what led to the rise of extreme Right parties and makes some predictions concerning the future evolution of the European extreme Right in general. But today in Europe there is a new dichotomy (pro-Europe vs. anti-Europe) which cuts across the Left-Right continuum and wilt be the focus of political debate in the foreseeable future.
Within each European member state there are conflicting reactions toward the strict economic criteria set by the Maastricht Treaty, the creation of a single European currency and the plan for more cohesive European political institutions. Extreme Right parties are opposed to a federal Europe because this process weakens the nation-state’s sovereignty. Opposition to European unity is not only made up of strange bedfellows (i.e., a negative coalition that does not stand for a coherent program); it cuts across the Left-Right cleavage. The Italian and French party systems are exemplary cases where this unusual alliance has come together. In 1991, both the Movimento Sociale Italiano-Destra Nazionale and the Front National as well as the Italian and French communist parties voted against the Maastricht Treaty. All four parties currently oppose the austerity and deficit-reducing measures that the Italian and French governments have proposed to meet the strict budget criteria set by the Maastricht Treaty.
The extreme Right opposition to European unity is driven by two motives: First, both the National Front and Alleanza Nazionale receive most of their support from working class voters. According to Meny, the National Front “has attracted more than the traditional right-wing supporters; surveys carried out in 1988 showed the breadth of its cross-class support, while one poll taken from late 1991 put it as the leading party among France’s working class.” Alleanza Nazionale’s support is concentrated in the poorest and most underdeveloped Southern regions of Italy. The tough austerity policies of many European governments will take away entitlements previously enjoyed by the working class. Thus the extreme Right fights against cuts that threaten to erode their voters’ standards of living.
Second, the extreme Right still thinks in terms of the nation-state as the only legitimate source of sovereign political power. In fact, both the French National Front and Alleanza Nazionale oppose European unity because it threatens the sovereignty of the nation-state. This state of affairs points to the inadequacy of Ignazi’s thesis. No doubt, in terms of the old categories, there has been a shift from the Left to the Right. But at the same time the very distinction between Left and Right became superfluous because the historical divisions on which it was based disappeared. The nation-state and the concept of sovereignty itself, which have defined politics since at least the 17th century, have become obsolete, amino movement predicated on these outdated concepts can possibly define a new era. Moreover, such a notion as the “extreme Right” makes sense only in opposition to a Left which no longer exists. It is becoming increasingly clear that the main political division in Western Europe is not even that between advocates and opponents of European Union but between a managerial elite with privileged access to knowledge, expertise, etc. and a marginalized populace unable to keep pace with new developments. Opponents of this New Class may appear to be on the Right, even the extreme Right of this self-styled “Left.” But clearly neither side corresponds to the old categories of what has defined political life in the 290th century. New categories are needed to analyze a qualitatively new political configuration.
[Telos; Fall95 Issue 105, p147, 11p]