The Right’s Useful Idiots

Bhaskar Sunkara

Yesterday’s Euro Cup final, starring teams from two austerity hit nations, is cause enough to revisit the continent. From the liberal-left we’ve come to see the situation there in Manichean terms: a struggle pitting a popular resistance against continental elites. It’s a narrative that can lead us astray. Right-wing populism has deep roots in Europe, roots that have reemerged in parties with ostensibly anti-neoliberal platforms. Worst still, there are portions of the American left all too willing to cheer them on.

One party without such support is Golden Dawn, a Greek neo-Nazi outfit. With around 20 seats in parliament and polling close to 10 percent, there’s plenty to be horrified about. Not that we should neglect the bit of humor in it all – the Golden Dawn consists of Nazis who ferociously demand war reparations from Germany for crimes committed during the Second World War. They want full coverage of Greek debt and another 200 billion in punitive payment.

Very oedipal, but not a bad idea. Luckily the swastika-like insignia is a bit too much for potential liberal fellow-travelers to bear. The same can’t be said for France’s National Front. Not quite fascist, it’s a nationalist party with extremist roots and a real, growing social base. Anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, and committed to re-introducing the death penalty, there’s a lot of charm to the party. And they aren’t nearly as nasty as their Greek counterparts. In 1995, then leader Jean-Marie Le Pen proposed sending three million non-Europeans” out of France by humane and dignified means.” Generous of him. I bet there even would have been an in-flight movie on the trip out.

But like Leszek Kolakowski said, the Left bases itself on the experience of history, while the Right is the mere expression of surrender to the situation of the moment. The Left can have political ideology, while the Right has nothing but tactics.

The National Front, true to course, has been opportunistic, softening some of its rhetoric and transforming its economic program with the changing political climate. The party supported the European Union in the 1980s, but opposed it in the 1990s on the grounds that it was a path to globalist world government. Alex Jones would be proud.

Under Jean-Marie Le Pen the party was at the cutting edge of neoliberalism, before shifting towards a kind of right-wing protectionism, an evolution cemented in the recent election rhetoric of his daughter Marine Le Pen, who has positioned herself as a defender of the social safety net and the European Central Bank’s foe. Neither right nor left – French!” the slogan goes.

Our comrades at Counterpunch ate it up. Binoy Kampmark wrote there that Marine Le Pen’s suggestions are colorful and, in many cases, appealing.” Not an example of a single such colorful” suggestion is given, I assume it isn’t any of the ones aimed at making France’s population significantly less colorful. 

Worst still is Diana Johnstone. Don’t worry she insists, Le Pen is basically on the Left.” 


Not content to leave it at that, she continues with characteristic bluster, “[W]hich is worse: refusing entry to Muslim immigrants, or bombing them in their home countries?” 

Has our political imagination shrunk to these two choices? When the Left is so weak it settles for cheap political alternatives, it guarantees a future where it continues to lack relevancy and where choosing a candidate that’s both anti-war, anti-austerity, and pro-immigrant is not an option. (Johnstone’s piece, by the way, was reprinted in The Indypendent and other venues that either endorse her stance or have lost the political aptitude to filter through it.)

Simply, I’d rather have Sarkozy and the globalists” than the worst of the French petite bourgeoisie. But that’s not really an option either. It’s been the center-right in Europe that has enabled the far right. Merkel, Sarkozy and other conservative leaders have utilized their own brand of xenophobic rhetoric and moved to co-opt rising right-wing sentiment. It’s bolstered their case against the lazy and undisciplined” southern zone of European capitalism – Greece included.

There is an alternative, but on the Left today we see everywhere the marks of the abandonment of structural critiques of capitalism and the political principles that traditionally guided the workers’ movement. Kolakowski said the Left could have ideology – there were no guarantees. Today, it looks like many prefer the cheapest of populisms to that.

Bhaskar Sunkara is the founding editor of Jacobin magazine. Follow him on Twitter: @sunraysunray.
Subscribe and Save 66%

Less than $1.67 an issue