The Polish government attacks democratic institutions on a broad front; Russia brings in its own snooper’s charter, which Edward Snowdon dubbed the Big Brother Law; and France faces yet more turmoil, not least a threat to the so-called ‘socialist’ government (it isn’t socialist) from the Republican right and the far right, National Front. Meanwhile, in Spain, the established two-party system is dead but the right-wing, Popular Party, emerged twice as the biggest single party. In Germany, the hardline anti-immigration Alternative is the most popular right-wing party since World War Two. And, in Greece, the Left is crushed by the twin neo-con hammers of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
As for Little England, there is an attempt to eviscerate the left by an anti-democratic putsch, carried out within the Labour Party by the right (the so-called Blairites) funded by millionaires. Meantime, the anti-immigration, anti-democratic Conservative government has swerved to the far right since Brexit, a process marked with threats to dismantle human rights while hinting at halting all immigration and holding EU nationals hostage. The result? The latest polls (at the time of writing) predict an unassailable Tory lead of 17 points, with pundits predicting a 20-year-long rule for the Tories at Westminster, a point not lost on Scots living in the dead zone of the Trident replacement.
Looming over this is the nightmarish emergence across the Atlantic of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, presidential nominees of the almost indistinguishable Democrats and Republicans respectively, both parties corporate, xenophobic, pro-Zionist, Islamophobic and anti-immigration. Two halves of the same neo-con imperium, in effect.
In the wake of World War One (more than 8m dead, more than 21m wounded), there was a new spirit abroad. Four, multi-ethnic empires had been swept away. Emperors, kings, dukes, pashas vanished. Thirteen republics were established. Jurists formulated constitutions forming liberal democracies and civil freedoms as well as social benefits. This new, liberal democratic experiment was short-lived.
Europe was pulled three ways. US President Woodrow Wilson urged a world safe for democracy. Lenin promised a communal society free of want and authoritarian hierarchies. Hitler pushed his vision of an imperial warrior race, purged of impurities, bent on fulfilling its Teutonic destiny. The new constitutions were suspicious of executive authority. Power was centred on the legislatures. Parliamentary committees had oversight of the executive. Proportional representation was adopted. The new laws covered health, welfare and social security. The new order attempted to bridge 19th century liberalism and popular demands for social democracy.
In Russia, the left was split between a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ and a ‘proletarian socialist’ one. When the Bolsheviks gained less than a quarter of the votes cast for the new Constituent Assembly, Lenin closed it down by force. Mark Mazower, in his masterful work Dark Continent: Europe’s Twentieth Century (Penguin, 1999) suggests that Lenin’s triumph, like that of Mussolini’s from the right, was a consequence of liberalism’s failure in mistakenly assuming a profound social crisis could be solved by offering people constitutional liberties.
The people – especially 15m Russian peasant conscripts along with the urban working class – wanted peace. They wanted land. ‘Kerensky’s provisional Government had become an empty shell well before Trotsky’s Red Guards seized power in Petrograd’ Mazower wrote. Increasingly, democrats were squeezed between fascism and communism.
The Russian Revolution resonated in areas of rural discontent – in Bulgaria, in Spain, in Hungary and in Italy. So it was in Italy where agrarian civil war opened the way for Mussolini. In 1922, he was invited to form a government, not because his fascist movement was large, but because of the establishment’s fear of socialism – the reason too why broad swathes of police, military, civil servants and royal court sympathised with the fascists. Mussolini’s first government was, after all, a coalition of three parties. Without the support of Liberals and Socialists, he would have been unable to dominate the Chamber of Deputies.
In Germany, no fewer than 16 parties secured seats in the Reichstag in 1930, 19 in the 1929 Czech elections, while in Latvia, Estonia and Poland there were sometimes even more. It wasn’t only the electoral system – parties were highly organised, often with educational, cultural, welfare and paramilitary wings. Society was polarised, and forming governments became increasingly difficult. ‘There were hardly any countries in Europe after 1918 where the average Cabinet last more than a year; in Germany and Austria the average was eight months,’ Mazower says.
With the Great Depression, one country after another moved to the right. Parliaments were rarely abolished entirely; they lingered on ‘in a shadowy half-life’ in Hitler’s Germany, fascist Italy and many other authoritarian states – a sign that these regimes still craved popular legitimacy.
Has Westminster reached this stage today, dominated by far right English Tories and a right-wing, Blairite Labour? May we be forgiven for thinking that only the 56 SNP MPs seem to act as a real, democratic opposition to the English government?
Mazower maintains that in the inter-war years Europe’s democratic roots were shallow. In contrast, anti-liberal and anti-democratic creeds had been gaining ground since the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Reared on war, extremist ideologues preferred violence to reason, action to rhetoric, especially in the wake of mass unemployment.
Woodrow Wilson’s liberalism was cut short by American isolationism. Britain and France were more concerned about communism than dictatorships. The European left was weakened by the split between social democrats and communists, the latter opposing parliamentary democracy (‘bourgeois formalism’) without being able to destroy it.
‘The fact is that in most of Europe by the mid-1930s – outside the northern fringe – liberalism looked tired, the organised left had been smashed and the sole struggles over ideology and governance were taking place within the right – among authoritarians, traditional conservatives, technocrats and radical right-wing extremists’ Mazower argued.
The new radical right rose to power in Italy and Germany through elections and parliamentary process. Its instrument was the party, allowing it to outflank old-style conservatives unused to the new game of mass politics. Austria followed Portugal with a Christian nationalism which would affect Slovakia, Spain, Greece, Croatia and Vichy France as well as right-wing politics in Poland, Hungary and Romania. ‘Violent anti-Semitism was the corollary’ according to Mazower.
The difference between, on the one hand, Dollfuss’s Austria, Franco’s Spain and Antonescu’s Romania, all of which acknowledged and coexisted with traditional bases of authority, and on the other the Third Reich was this: one kind of right defended the old order against the forces of mass politics; the other exploited those very forces to seek to reshape society itself. And today?
The 1989 collapse of the Soviet empire was not a victory of democracy, but of global capitalism. Capitalism does not create feelings of belonging, but heightens insecurity by destroying class solidarity and a sense of community. The individual is cast adrift, forced to fend for themselves on the semi-slavery of workfare, the hand-to-mouth subsistence of contract work, the minimum wage and punitive unemployment ‘benefit’.
Europe has again shifted to the right, not least because people are tired of politics. They perceive a game being played out over their heads. They feel powerless, ignored, without a voice. Brexit was surely a symptom of that sense of disenfranchisement on the part of the working class in England’s former industrial cities – neglected, disempowered, impoverished and deserted by an elitist Labour Party of professional politicians.
Politicians across Europe have not hesitated to stoke fears of ‘The Other’ by playing the immigration card – the contemporary Islamophobic version of 1930s anti-Semitism. The Hungarian prime minister described refugees fleeing the Middle East’s violence as a ‘poison’ while busloads of refugees were greeted by a German mob chanting ‘go home’.
Mainstream media has deepened public anxiety by enthusiastically building an image of Putin’s Russia as a predatory, militarist state that poses an existential threat to European democracy – one can’t help suspect this is ‘punishment’ on the part of Washington and London for Moscow’s robust and effective air campaign against US and Israeli-backed Daesh in Syria.
For sure, some of the so-called terror attacks, notably in France and Germany, are indeed the work of vengeful Islamists. Others seem to be the work of the deranged. Many posts on social media suspect deliberate ‘false flag’ attacks to justify draconian police powers and rule by decree – indeed, to encourage a flight to safety in the embrace of the neo-conservative right.
The price for whipping up ethnic and religious enmity has been a sharp spike in racist attacks, especially in England. We should not forget, as Westminster plans to repeal European Union human rights law, that Hitler removed legal protections for minorities in 1937. If we look back, as Mazower has done so ably, we see that democracy is still a frail and delicate plant, and that the totalitarian tradition, irrational as it may seem, runs deep. Too deep.
John Fullerton is a journalist, correspondent and editor covering foreign affairs. He is the author of five novels and one work of non-fiction, and is a member of Scottish CND, the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Global Justice Now and the SNP.