It is well known that economic difficulty breeds support for extremism. The effects of the First World War birthed fascism in Italy and communism in Russia. The effects of the Great Depression of the 1930s saw the rise of a large number of right-wing dictatorships – most infamously, of course, Nazi Germany, but also those of Hungary, Portugal, Romania and Spain, to name a few. In these cases, the situation tipped to one side of a knife edge – so easily these right wing autocracies could have been left wing ones. It was only through the authoritarian, violent nature of the eventual winning parties that this was prevented.
Since the end of the Second World War, where Western democracies and a Soviet dictatorship defeated a Nazi dictatorship and its allies, much has been done to prevent the spread of such ideologies. Germany endured a process of rigid denazification – any semblance of Nazism was wiped out, and the US kept a stern hand on the German people, who only preserved sovereignty due to their strategic position against a potential new enemy in the form of the Soviet Union. Similarly, the US kept an occupying force in Japan for a decade after the war’s conclusion to subdue any resentment or resurgence of nationalist ideals. To this day, the US keeps military forces in Germany and Japan.
The fear of communism – whether Stalin’s dictatorship can be truly considered communist aside – was all-pervasive in the 1950s, and led to the banning of communist parties in the western world to a similar degree as the banning of fascist and national socialist ones. The policies of McCarthyism saw a systematic elimination – by expulsion, rather than murder – of suspected communists on a scale similar to Nazi Germany barely 15 years previously.
Today, our democracies intact, we choose between two or three central parties each election and complain when little changes. In the UK, the Labour Party that gradually became less and less socialist is now different only in colour from the ruling Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats having lost any semblance of individuality. In the US, Obama’s Democrats are almost as centre-right as the Republicans – the president’s attempted healthcare reform is dismissed as socialist, which has become a buzzword to the extent of fascist, a misnomer that generates images of grey Stalinist dictatorships.
Right-wing nationalism has grown since the Credit Crunch, especially in Europe, and these groups are feeding off islamophobic sentiment to gain a modicum of popularity. Whether moderate, as Ukip and the French National Front are, or extreme, as Britain First, Golden Dawn and Pegita are, these groups tread the fine line of ‘nearly being banned’. In some cases, they are not allowed to stand for election; they stand as much chance as the UK Communist Party, which can only afford to stand in a handful of constituencies due to the political system.
The media loves to report on the ‘terrifying’ growth of these ‘fascist’ groups (which are neither particularly large, nor particularly fascist), and it becomes common to fear any sort of ‘extremist’ party having success in an election. That fear is the same fear that leant support to the Nazis, and expelled all kinds of innocent people from the US in the 1950s. It is a fear of change, a fear that if we gave another party a chance, things could get worse rather than better. That is the kind of fear that forces disillusioned Americans and Brits into voting for the Democrats/Labour or Tories/Republicans, even if they don’t like or agree with their policies.
In a Greece where the austerity of the New Democracy party that has led to a 25% unemployment rate and a plummet in GDP per capita to pre-Great Depression levels, the Marxist-Green alliance Syriza polled at 35% – higher than any other – before the election. Both Ukip and the Green Party have enjoyed unprecedented popularity in polls in the UK. And this is not restricted to a few countries in Europe. All over the world countries are seeing new political movements emerge, far more radical than the left- or right-of-centre parties they are used to.
With many other European nations having elections this year or next, the increasing popularity of extremist parties in Europe signals not a protest but a real desire for change. Fear of extremism, fear of change needs to end. As we live in a democracy, it is high time we started acting like one.