Politics is becoming polarised in austerity Europe. We must empower the working class with a revolutionary perspective, says Callum Williamson
The results from the first round of voting in the French presidential elections were another indication of a growing rage against the liberal-capitalist political establishment, a rage which the populist right has been the most successful at galvanising. Marine Le Pen’s Front National is now going to be a key player in French politics (both in the run-up to the second round of voting and in the period of political and economic upheaval to come).
Whilst the campaign of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s Front de Gauche was successful in creating widespread enthusiasm, pushing Hollande’s rhetoric to the left and drawing in thousands, the inescapable fact is that ultimately the far right won the battle for the hearts and minds of the young and disenfranchised. Polls before the election demonstrated how FN is the most popular party amongst the French youth and it is clear that in recent years they have established a solid base amongst young working class people. For a youth who have had their dignity robbed by mass unemployment, Le Pen’s nationalist rhetoric offers a sense of pride and belonging (one based on vicious exclusionary nationalism).
Equally Le Pen’s noises on the economy – at a time of crisis throughout Europe that has cast doubt amongst the masses as to the merits of globalisation – have made it easy for her to tap into this discontent. The success of Le Pen (and to an extent Hollande and Mélenchon) is largely due to the rejection of neoliberalism and the tyranny of ‘finance’.
Bourgeois analysts have already started arguing that the election result demonstrates the similarities between far right and far left: Dominic Lawson argued in The Independent, for example, that these ‘protectionist’ ‘totalitarianisms’ should be counterposed to liberal democracy and economic ‘freedom’, which, of course, has resulted in a perfect and wholly self-regulating socio-economic system. This argument from liberals is to be expected: capitalism and its accompanying liberal politics go into crisis; the class struggle intensifies; and resistance to capital takes different, ‘illiberal’ forms which hegemonic forces within society must absorb or defeat. The anger that fuels the radical left also has the potential to fuel the populist right, and unfortunately this is what has occurred in Europe since the financial crisis hit in 2008.
The rise of the English Defence League; the 500,000 votes for the British National Party in the last general election; and the UK Independence Party’s current performance in the opinion polls – all indicate a similar rise of right-populist sentiment in the UK. Large sections of the capitalist media have played their part in fuelling this (whipping up anti-intellectualist feeling in response to the resistance of students and lecturers to the government’s education reforms; framing the August riots as down to ethno-cultural problems; attacking public sector unions for not accepting austerity for the good of the nation; treating the Muslim community with suspicion, etc). It is likely that if this trend continues there will be an attempt by the capitalist class to usurp leadership of the populist movement in order to maintain social relations within society as they are in the politically turbulent years to come. What this means is the inevitable betrayal of the class by the right, as the populists become the willing servants of capital, and so the popularity of the right must falter sooner or later.
If the left internationally is going to combat the rise of the right it must do so by addressing the systemic causes of the crisis we are currently facing. Capitalism itself is falling to pieces – no government intervention, cliques of bankers or low-paid migrant worker have caused the crisis. We must rearticulate problems perceived as ethnic and cultural, in terms of class and the functioning of global capitalism in the 21st century. In doing so, we strive to unify all workers, students and unemployed people.
Communists must address the rise of rightwing populism and halt its further development by winning back the workers. This can be done if the left achieves meaningful unity around a programme for an alternative to crisis, war and poverty – intervening in the workers’ struggles, as the capitalists try and rob from our class the concessions gained after World War II, and challenging the ‘progressive’ credentials of the populists (Mélenchon did well in exposing how Le Pen’s plan to end state “refunds” for abortion will be a serious attack of women’s rights). Winning those frustrated with the status quo is possible for the left even in its current state, as George Galloway’s election in Bradford West demonstrated. However, there is a world to win and establishing unity on the left is going to be a vital precondition.