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The rise of the far right- building a trade union response

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The resurgence of far-right parties, movements and narratives is one of the stand-out features of the contemporary political landscape.

Though it has roots in the 1980s, this new wave of right-wing radicalism has been galvanised by the powerful trends shaping the twenty-first century: economic turmoil and financial instability; widening global inequality; the crisis of liberal democracy; imperialism, conflict and international terrorism; mass migration; climate breakdown; rapid technological advancements; and the onset of a global pandemic. As these have deepened and spread, modern forms of right-wing radicalism have found fertile ground on which to operate, not just in Europe and the United States but in Turkey, Brazil, India, the Philippines, Israel and other parts of the globe.

1.1 Defining the ‘far right’

How the far right is to be characterised is a matter of intense debate. This reflects the diversity of organisational forms, ideologies and historical trajectories that can be found within the contemporary right. Rather than thinking about discrete and separate groups, it is perhaps more helpful to think about a continuum. The modern-day far right includes everything from aspects of traditional conservative parties, parties that appear to have journeyed away from their fascist origins for electoral purposes (eg the French Front National, now Rassemblement National), newer parties of the far right (eg Alternative for Germany (AfD), groups modelled on the ideologies and violent methods of 1930s fascism (eg Golden Dawn), and post-9/11 street-oriented movements (eg the English Defence League, Pegida). There is also a wide range of think tanks, civil society organisations, intellectual circles, online forums and networks that work to promote or influence the agendas of various right-wing actors. In addition there is a range of openly fascist and Nazi groupings, often advocating violence.

The far-right umbrella encompasses a range of parties and groups that differ in agenda and policy, as well as the extent to which they support or employ the use of violence. Even the general thrust of Euroscepticism that can be found among the European far right masks varying levels of support for multilateral cooperation and the institutional status quo within the EU.[1] But, for all its limitations, the term ‘far right’ is preferred here because it is the least problematic way of identifying individuals, organisations, political parties, movements and governments that have overarching similarities, as well as distinguishing between different variants.[2]

If there is one thing that defines the contemporary far right, it is the shared emphasis on racial or ethnic and cultural superiority, rooted in the myth of natural inequalities and nostalgia for an imagined past. Although the racism of old is still very much with us, especially among white supremacists, increasingly the far right has come to espouse what is known as ‘nativism’ or ‘ethnic nationalism’. This holds that non-native (or ‘alien’) forces – people, institutions or ideas – pose a fundamental threat to the native population or native culture and to the harmony of the nation-state.[3] The goal of most far-right parties is an ethnocracy – ie a state governed by, and in the exclusive interests of, the majority ethnic group. In practice this results in programmes and narratives designed to strengthen the nation-state by making it more ethnically and culturally homogenous, whether through the assimilation or exclusion of the non-native groups. While the far right has a broad range of positions on socioeconomic issues, these are generally articulated through the same lens of ethnic nationalism.

This shift towards nativism or ethnic nationalism has occurred for two main reasons. The first is that the legacy of the Holocaust and intergenerational battles for civil rights and racial equality have made it toxic for some on the far right to (publicly) express their politics in racial terms. The second is that immigration patterns have at the same time presented right-wing radicals with opportunities to use the tactic of dressing their reactionary politics in primarily ethnic or cultural rhetoric. However, the more the memory of the atrocities of the Second World War fades, the more taboos that are shattered (eg Holocaust denial) and the more confidence the far right gains, the more explicitly and aggressively racist its politics could become.

1.2 The radical right, extreme right and fascism

Within the far right, it is possible to distinguish between the ‘radical right’ and the ‘extreme right’. The main difference between the two concerns their attitude to liberal democracy: the former is prepared to operate within democratic institutions, while opposing aspects of liberal democracy such as the promotion of equality; the latter is explicit about its commitment to the destruction of democracy.[4] Extreme-right parties and groups are generally more recognisable by their open support for the use of violence and emphasis on explicitly racist rhetoric.

The distinction is not so clear when it comes to far-right social movements, where there is a history and continuing trend of interaction between the radical right and extreme right, including fascists. This takes the form of ‘multiple membership and affiliations, joint mobilizations, transnational networks, social media, voicing support for particular election candidates, personal friendships, and so on’.[5] It should also be noted that the radical right has a more ambiguous relationship with democracy than the distinction implies, as can be seen from the visibly authoritarian and anti-democratic path taken by radical-right parties in government. This calls to mind ‘a fundamental lesson from the history of fascism: that democracy can be destroyed from within’.[6]

What, then, do we mean by fascism? Answering this question is not just a matter of semantics, but is about understanding what is at stake in order to develop tactics and strategies for tackling the threat effectively. Fascism is best understood as an ideology and mass movement whose task is counter-revolution: a total reconstruction of the state that purges the nation of its enemies. In other words, fascist ideas might exist in society, within the political spectrum, but will remain marginal as long as they have not acquired mass support. It is once these ideas have gained popular support and are put into practice – not just by a coercive state, but with the quiet acceptance or active complicitly of large sections of the population – that we can begin to speak of fascism.[7]

To summarise, it is most useful to conceive the radical and extreme right as partially overlapping categories on a sliding scale, with traditional conservatism (the so-called ‘mainstream’ right) at one end and fascism at the other.[8] These categories broadly capture the distinctive features of different forms of right-wing radicalism, while recognising their overlap and interplay. They also allow us to trace movement along the scale and understand how the fascist component of the far right can grow out of another less extreme form.

1.3 The ideology and politics of the far right

In western Europe, the ethnic nationalism of the far right has made a prime target of immigrants, especially those from predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East. Islamophobia was already on the rise by the close of the twentieth century, but gained new momentum in the wake of 9/11 and the bomb attacks in London and Madrid. Parties of the far right “seized on the opportunities generated by an environment of heightened insecurity”, singling out Islam as a global existential threat.[9] In Britain, Islamophobia has grown alongside increasing antagonism towards eastern European migrants following EU enlargement, especially in the context of the 2008 financial crisis. These forms of racism and xenophobia are stacked upon pre-existing prejudices against other black and minority ethnic (BME) groups including Travellers, Roma and anyone deemed to be the ‘other’.

In more recent years, the movement of asylum seekers and refugees – characterised by the right as a ‘refugee crisis’ – has combined with a prolonged economic crisis to exacerbate these tensions, exposing Muslims to more blatant forms of discrimination and attack. In the United States, we have seen the incorporation of Islamophobia into a xenophobic politics “long defined by anti-Mexican racism”.[10] For Islamophobic nationalists, the collective ethnic threat to western civilisation is now represented by the Muslim population at large, including those who may not have a strong connection to religious practices.

Islamophobia’s roots in the history of colonialism help to explain its strength in Europe. This is particularly true in countries such as France, where the legacy of the Algerian War looms large and people with African or Arab names have long been second-class citizens.[11] Today, the idea of a civilisational clash with Islam has helped build the myths of European identity and European values. Even as Euroscepticism has spread, there has been an increased focus on European borders and traditions, with far-right parties emphasising the need to defend ‘native’ Europeans from the threats of globalisation, immigration and ‘Islamisation’.[12] A number of parties, from the Rassemblement National (RN, France) to the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), to the Law and Justice Party (PiS, Poland) and Party for Freedom (PVV, Netherlands), have managed to couple the key demand for national sovereignty with another message: that European culture and values are under threat of extinction. These sentiments have found practical expression in the draconian border, migration and security policies of individual EU member states well as more widely in ‘Fortress Europe’, which continues in the face of an accelerating humanitarian disaster that has cost tens of thousands of lives.[13]

Whereas Islamophobia has become one of the defining features of the far right in western Europe, antisemitism has played a less open role than in the past. In some cases, parties of the non-fascist far right (or ‘radical right’) have even performed dramatic U-turns on past antisemitic positions to advocate strongly for the state of Israel. This shift has been described as “part of a much wider strategy employed by the new radical right to shake off the suspicion of ideological continuity with interwar fascism or postwar neo-fascism”. This strategy of publicly distancing themselves from their fascist predecessors has allowed radical right parties to use more extreme Islamophobic rhetoric for electoral gain.[14]

However, persistent and growing antisemitism sits alongside growing Islamophobia as a pronounced feature of the far right in central and eastern Europe (CEE). While a minority of the population admits to having an unfavourable view of Jews in general,[15] consecutive studies have shown that the strongest agreement with prejudicial statements has often been found in Hungary and Poland. One CNN poll found that about four in ten people in both countries believe that Jews have too much influence in business and finance, while a quarter said that they have too much influence in the media.[16] Another study by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) suggests that antisemitic attitudes may be even more pervasive and on the rise across CEE countries, while remaining dangerously high in parts of southern Europe.[17] In Hungary and Poland, the governing regimes of both Fidesz and the PiS have been guilty of promoting antisemitic discourses and distorting the memory of the Holocaust and Soviet communism for radical nationalist ends.[18] Combined with the proliferation of antisemitic conspiracy theories, this has contributed to the “rampant”ise of antisemitism.[19]

Discrimination and violence against the LGBT+ and Roma communities is another prominent feature of far-right activity in southern and eastern Europe. While attitudes towards the Roma are believed to have improved marginally in recent years, especially in northern Europe, anti-Roma sentiments are particularly high in CEE countries, and Italy and France to a lesser extent.[20] In each of these countries, the Roma suffer from disproportionately high levels of poverty, are discriminated against in employment and education, have limited access to services, live in conditions of forced segregation, and have long been subjected to intimidation and violence. This is particularly true for Hungary’s 700,000-strong Roma community, whose experience over the past decade has been one of increasing social and economic exclusion, despite the adoption of EU anti-discrimination laws. State officials and members of various parties – including Prime Minister Viktor Orbán – routinely incite hatred against the Roma, scapegoating them as criminals and welfare abusers.

In Latin America, the right-wing resurgence has parallels with dynamics playing out in other parts of the world. At the same time, many of its characteristics are specific to the region’s postcolonial conditions. Above all, the rise of the far right in Latin America can be viewed as an aggressive backlash against the ‘Pink Tide’ effort to decolonise the continent and dismantle economic, racial and gender inequalities.[21] Hence the right-wing agendas that are being pursued in a number of Latin American countries tend to combine neoliberal economic policies with the “exaltation of Christianity, patriarchy, ‘Hispanic’ whiteness and authoritarianism”.[22] This is most apparent in Brazil, where Jair Bolsonaro has openly espoused his support for military dictatorship, denial of racial inequalities and rejection of the rights of a range of groups including women, LGBT+, indigenous and Afro-Brazilian people.[23] A similar style of conservative response has been visible across Latin America, to a greater or lesser extent in different countries.

In general terms, the far right today is extremely male dominated and anti-feminist. It is true that women such as Marine Le Pen (Rassemblement National) and Alice Weidel (AfD) occupy prominent positions in parties that have broadened their appeal to women. There is also evidence of the gender gap in support for far-right parties closing, as female support for these parties grows, in countries such as Denmark and France.[24] In addition, there are a number of female ‘alt-right’ personalities who promote a particular form of anti-feminism linked to white and male supremacy. Overall, however, men continue to dominate the far right at both leadership and grassroots level. Most far-right parties and groups hold ‘traditional’ sexist views on the role of women in society and on gender issues more broadly. The far right engages in both ‘benevolent’ and ‘hostile’ sexism. ‘Benevolent’ sexism sees women as physically weak but morally pure and believes that mothers and what is described as ‘the traditional family unit’ of a married heterosexual couple with children are fundamental to the nation. ‘Hostile’ sexism views women as morally corrupt but politically powerful, and resents what they view as the threat posed by women’s rights and agency. This type of sexism is mainly encountered online, where young men (some of whom describe themselves as ‘incels’ or ‘involuntarily celibate’) discuss their hatred of women and enact fantasies about inflicting violence on women.

Most far-right groups display a combination of benevolent and hostile sexism. The majority also view feminism negatively. Feminism, like LGBT+ rights, is portrayed as an existential threat to the nation because it undermines the integrity of the ‘traditional family unit’ and the demographic majority of the ‘native’ in-group. It is also considered to be an agenda ‘alien’ to the national culture, imported by foreigners. Far-right groups in western Europe have at times opportunistically feigned concern for women’s and LGBT+ rights in order to win support from those groups and provide cover for their Islamophobia. But outside of this context, anti-feminist and anti-LGBT+ sentiments continue to be widespread across the far right.[25]

1.4 Populism

It is common for journalists and public intellectuals not to talk about the far right, but instead about ‘populism’. This might seem a useful term to use currently, given the obvious differences between contemporary far-right political parties and those of past eras. However, the term has been used so widely and indiscriminately that its usefulness as a description is open to question.

It is important to understand that “populism is above all a style of politics rather than an ideology”:

It is a rhetorical procedure that consists of exalting the people’s ‘natural’ virtues and opposing them to the élite – and society itself to the political establishment – in order to mobilise the masses against ‘the system’.[26]

In recent years the charge of populism has been levied at political leaders such as Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France; Nigel Farage and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK; Matteo Salvini and Beppe Grillo in Italy; Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Pablo Iglesias in Spain; Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the US; and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Brazil and Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Given the huge differences among these figures and the movements they represent, the word ‘populism’ has become “an empty shell, which can be filled by the most disparate political contents”. Used in this way, “[t]he concept of populism erases the distinction between left and right, thus blurring a useful compass to understand politics”.[27]

However, there is little doubt that radical right parties and movements have made effective use of populist strategies to further their agenda. This relative success lies in their ability to combine anti-establishment rhetoric with a culturally homogenous conception of ‘the people’ that excludes marginal groups, especially immigrants but also indigenous populations, the LGBT+ community, women and so on.

The far right’s populist message takes aim at an elite of establishment parties, media, intellectuals, corporate figures and supranational bodies (eg the EU), which are accused of failing to represent the true interests of the people. As well as controlling much of society’s resources, this elite is viewed as having delivered globalisation and multiculturalism to the material and cultural detriment of the nation. Coupled with this is the notion that marginal groups outside of a victimised, ‘hardworking’ majority are favoured by the corrupt elite, be that in terms of welfare provision or the granting of social rights. Conspiracy theories, appeals to purer forms of democracy (eg referenda) and attacks on ‘political correctness’ have all found a place in these strategies in different places. But whatever the combination of tools, the core objective is the restoration of a majority ethnic nation-state.

[1] Vasilopoulou S (2017). “European integration and the radical right: three patterns of opposition”, in Cas Mudde (ed), The Populist Radical Right: a reader. Oxford & New York, pp 127–30.

[2] Halikiopoulou D (2018).“‘Far right’ groups may be diverse – but here’s what they all have in common”. The Conversation, 27 September 2018. Available at:

[3] Mudde C (2019). The Far Right Today. Cambridge, p 33.

[4] Ibid, p 19.

[5] Copsey N (2018). “The radical right and fascism”, in Jens Rydgren (ed), The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right. Oxford, p 180.

[6] Traverso E (2019). The New Faces of Fascism: populism and the far right. London, p 5.

[7] Renton D (2020), “The lessons we need to learn from Europe’s struggle against fascism”, Jacobin, 29 September 2020. Available at:; Renton D (2018). The New Authoritarians: convergence on the right. London, pp 13–14. See also Arthur Rosenberg’s classic essay “Fascism as a mass movement” (1934), Historical Materialism, vol 20, no 1 (2012), p 154.

[8] Renton D (2018), op cit, pp 64–5.

[9] Kallis A (2018). “The radical right and Islamophobia”, in Jens Rydgren (ed), The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right, p 77.

[10]  Denvir D (2020). All-American Nativism: how the bipartisan war on immigrants explains politics as we know it. London, p 166.

[11] Traverso, op cit, pp 75–6.

[12] Zúquete JP (2017). “The European extreme-right and Islam: new directions?”, in Cas Mudde (ed), The Populist Radical Right: a reader. Oxford & New York, p 110.

[13] Akkerman M (2018). Expanding the Fortress: the policies, the profiteers and the people shaped by the EU’s border programme. Amsterdam.

[14] Kallis, op cit, p 77.

[15] Pew Research Center (2019). European Public Opinion Three Decades After the Fall of Communism. Washington, p 85.

[16] Greene RA (2018). “CNN poll reveals depth of anti-Semitism in Europe”. CNN, November 2018. Available at:

[17] ADL Global 100: an index of anti-Semitism,

[18] Fekete L (2019). Europe’s Fault Lines: racism and the rise of the right. London & New York, pp 100–1.

[19] Echikson W (2019). “Viktor Orbán’s anti-Semitism problem”. Politico, 15 May 2019. Available at:; Inotai E and Ciobanu C (2020), “Antisemitism creeps back as Hungary and Poland fail to draw red lines”. Balkan Insight, 11 September 2020. Available at:

[20] Pew Research Center, op cit, p 86.

[21] The Pink Tide refers to the radical wave that brought left-wing parties and social movements to power in several Latin American countries in the 1990s and early 2000s.

[22] Weld K (2020). “Holy War: Latin America’s far right”. Dissent, spring 2020). Available at:

[23] Gomes D (2019). “Brazilian politics and the rise of the far-right”. Black Perspectives, 7 January 2019. Available at:

[24] Scrinzi F (2017). “A ‘new’ National Front? Gender, religion, secularism and the French populist radical right”, in Michaela Köttig, Renate Bitzan and Andrea Petö (eds), Gender and Far Right Politics in Europe. Basingstoke, pp 127–40.

[25] Mudde, op cit, chapter 9.

[26] Traverso, op cit, pp 15–16.

[27] Traverso, op cit, p 17.

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