Far-Right Politics in Europe is timely, important and frustrating in equal measure. The timely bit is easy: just look around. A “radicalized conservative right” rules the Polish and Hungarian capitals; “far-right electoralist parties” in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere are nationally competitive; while “Islamophobia, which is at the heart of neopopulism” is an issue with troubling appeal to mainstream voters that has derived from what Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg call the “far right field”.
This is a field that should not be understood simply as “to the right of the conservative and liberal parties”, although the authors dismiss such taxonomic debates as “mere quibbles”. Likewise, they argue that ideologically focused analysis of these phenomena can cause “unnecessary confusion”, although they later hold up ideological “transgression” as a key subcultural appeal for neo-Nazism. Cue frustration, then, as early on as a 50-page introduction in which Camus and Lebourg seem less interested in dispelling confusion than narrating 19th-century reactions to the French Revolution. The authors argue that the First World War was but a “turning point” for the far Right, rather than – as most scholars contend – the violent catalyst for fascist ideology, which, post-1945, morphed into a post-fascism that eventually became known as the European far Right.
In addition to its hit-and-miss approach to terminology and a needlessly looongue durée, the book often overplays its Francocentric hand. As befits the authors’ national context, their French examples are excellent – particularly regarding the development of the Front National over the past generation, and in their analysis of the more culturalist, “metapolitical” agenda of Nouvelle Droite intellectuals. Yet their comfort with discussing the French far Right sometimes seems to come at the expense of other geographical areas, as the final chapter’s whistle-stop tour of Central-Eastern Europe reveals.
For all that, however, there are important insights offered here. The first two chapters range across the often mutually exclusive ways that neo-fascists dealt with the “necessity of reinventing their radicalism” in the immediate post-war decades. Some doubled down, such as the World Union of National Socialists, founded in 1962, while others turned to euphemisms such as Oswald Mosley’s “European socialism” and Alain de Benoist’s “ethnopluralism”. The latter, which is well covered here, is a kind of intellectual judo that broadly casts multiculturalism as a kind of racist insensitivity to “difference” (since racial mixing dilutes both – allegedly equally valued – ethnic groups). Expect to hear more of this backdoor “white affirmationism”, in the authors’ useful phrase, in the coming years.
Camus and Lebourg also handle the far Right’s approach to racial difference skilfully. Immigration is a much greater issue for Western Europe’s far Right than it is among such groups in post-Soviet states, with the latter tending to more overt anti-Semitism and anti-Roma prejudice. Even if a family resemblance places, say, the Serbian Radical Party in the same frame as the True Finns in Scandinavia, the authors are alive to key differences and contexts that could, at least in these two cases, be summed up in a word: Russia.
Perhaps most important (and surely most reassuring for anxious liberals) is the authors’ identification of the Achilles heel of “national populism” – namely, that “an antisystem position is more tenable without power”. True, coalition government can be the kiss of death for the far Right, as it was for Italy’s Alleanza Nazionale. But Camus and Lebourg also characterise the turn of the 21st century as “the height of neopopulism”, and that conclusion may soon seem optimistically premature.
Matthew Feldman is professor of contemporary history and co-director of the Centre for Fascist, Anti-Fascist and Post-Fascist Studies, Teesside University.
Far-Right Politics in Europe
By Jean-Yves Camus and Nicolas Lebourg, translated by Jane Marie Todd
Harvard University Press 320pp, £23.95
Published 30 March 2017