Organisation and the far right: the Art of the possible

Cover of Inside the Radical Right by David Art  David Art’s new book Inside the Radical Right: The Development of Anti-Immigrant Parties in Western Europe (Cambridge University Press) is one of the boldest and most interesting pieces of writing on comparative European party politics I have seen for a long time. Its deceptively simple thesis is that the success of radical right parties in Western Europe is not, as conventionally argued, the combined product of  differing opportunity structures  (types of  electoral system, party system format and so on)  and differing social structures (varying levels of ethnic diversity, structural unemployment etc), but of the capacity of the far right to build and sustain political organisations and professional and credible core of activists suited to the demand of electoral politics. Nothing, Art argues – pointing out the contradictory morass of comparative findings  is consistent with the reality that social demand for anti-immigrant ethnocentric policies is roughly the same across Western Europe and that countries with similar institutional and social structures often present quite different outcomes for radical right parties: one of several pertinent examples that the example Art offers is that of Belgium where the success of Vlaams Blok (VB) in Flanders contrasts with the erratic and marginal performance of the National Front (FNb) in Wallonia.

 Success or failure in organisation building – which Art argues often precedes electoral success -  is Logo of Danish People's Partydependent partly  on the presence of sufficient large nationalist and/or radical right subculture, offering a source of recruits and a short-cut to long-term and disciplined party building, and the extent to which the radical right is socially and politically isolated through cordons sanitaire and social ostracisiation. While intellectuals, professionals and local notables pay little price for joining the Danish People’s Party, membership of (say) the British National Party would be a route to social isolation and career suicide.  Anti-fascist mobilisation, even of a fairly violent and intimidatory kind, is also found by Art to an effective sanction on far-right recruitment among the well educated and political experienced, if it comes at the right time.

Where there is a broad, established far-right sub-culture reaching into the middle  or upper classes and tolerant or pragmatic acceptance of the radical right, the road is open (eventually) for it to succeed in party politics.  An alternative route explaining the success of Denmark’s DF and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands is the success politicians, who rise to power at the head of ‘flash’ parties, but realise that serious and early organisation building – and a shift to fill the gap on the anti-immigrant  right -  is needed if they are to stick around.  Transforming an established minor party into a radical right, anti-immigrant actor is a further alternative and shorter route, which swops the advantage of having an existing organisational structure in place with the disadvantage of having wage ideological battles to kick out rival factions. This Art suggests occurred in the case of the Swiss People’s Party (SVP)  (originally an agrarian formation) and to a lesser extent Austria’s FPO (notionally a liberal party, but always something of a subcultural vehicle for former Nazis).

Art's argument in summary

Summary of Art' s comparative analysis

Art’s arguments boldly put party organisation – normally something of a Cinderella subject -centre stage in explaining the entry and survival of new political parties, although as the book makes clear large amount of private or state cash can, when carefully husbanded, be effective for voting winning, at least in the short term. Gerhard Frey’s German People’s Union (DVU) uses its millionaire founder’s cash for mass mailshot campaigns, while Geert Wilders Freedom Party (PVV) has only one formal member (Wilders himself) backed by a handpicked cadre of loyal followers.

Logo of Dutch Freedom Party (PVV)As Herbert Kitschelt’s blurb comments suggest with characteristic Exocet-like accuracy,  while the book makes its argument for the importance of organisation and its precursors as an anchor for small, emergent, defeated and marginal parties, it is less clear whether  it overturns or merely complements existing explanations based on variations in socio-economic and political opportunity structures. Indeed, in some ways the book offers a  very similar, but organisation-focused, structure and agency mix:  historical legacies and nationalist sub-cultures take the structure role with established parties’ cordon sanitaire strategies (or lack of them) and anti-fascist mobilisation supplying variations in agency.  (Social disapproval of far-right activism may perhaps be a structural factor, so the structure/agency split is not cut and dried).

The book could also perhaps point up more that, while organisation may matter generally (or, at least often,) there may – as my  diagrammatic summary hints – seem to be multiple paths to far-right success, rather than one over-arching formula, with Scandinavian cases , particularly, seeming to stand in terms of their origins and conditions of success – a very clear finding of Veugelers and Magnan’s 2005 article using configurational comparison to test out  Kitschelt’s theories on the conditions of far-right success.

An interesting question is how well Art’s model(s) travels beyond the eleven West Europe states covered in the book: the Spanish case (and perhaps that of Portugal?), for example, would seem to echo the German pattern of strong historical far-right subculture in a new democracy where the  emerging centre-right keeps radicals at arms length politically, while co-opting its more able or more moderate elements.

Logo of Slovak National Party

Logo Slovak National Party

For me, naturally, the still more interesting question is how well Art’s model might travel to Central and Eastern Europe.  Surprisingly, on first examination it seems to cross over quite well: Slovakia, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and, to a lesser extent,  Latvia seem to have success radical right parties and  nationalist intellectual and social milieux, looking favourably or ambiguously, on  interwar fascist movements and/or episodes of wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. Slovenia, where historical controversy has raged over the role of the role of the wartime Domoobranci (Home Guard) , also seems to fit the model, although the origins and ideology of the Slovene national Party (SNS) seem more eclectic than the kind of party political projection of certain sub-cultures as, for example, with the identically acronymed Slovak National Party (SNS).  Poland represents, as so often,  interesting case with strong tradition of integral nationalism, but where collaborationist and neo-Nazi traditions are, for obvious historical reasons, marginal or absent.

Logo of Czech Republicans

SPR-RSČ logo

The Czech Republic, by contrast, approximates to the Dutch/Danish/British pattern of having a weak and marginalised far-right sub-culture, utterly cut off from the political mainstream: the experience of the Republican Party (SPR-RSČ) – represented in the Czech parliament in 1992-8 – also offers a nice illustration of how not to consolidate party organisation – the party leadership did not entirely neglect building an activist base, but was too egocentric and authoritarian to hold the party together. It seems tempting to put Bulgaria’s Ataka in the same category, although as a colleague recently pointed out to me recently, there are radical nationalist traditions and an anti-semitic Orthodox-oriented extremist sub-culture.

The question of cordons sanitaires  in CEE is, however, perhaps more difficult : there is little in the way of strong anti-fascist mobilisation in a region where social movements – and especially social movements of the radical left – are weak. To the best of my knowledge there are no formal cordons with radical right parties actually  represented in government in Slovakia and Poland,  although mainstream parties’ treatment of the Republicans in 1990s  perhaps comes closest.  Interestingly, however the SNS in Slovakia was a coalition partner for the centre-left, rather than Christian Democratic and liberal centre-right for whom such co-operation seems much less conceivable.  In the  end, what may matter more than an assessment of party strategy in CEE  is whether radical and mainstream are on an ideological continuum, or whether (as in the Czech Republic and Slovakia) they have different political and ideological points of departure.

When all is said and done, however, Art has written a fine academic book which offers some  elegant and orignal big picture comparison in an exceptionally clear and readable way interweaving  important comparative argument about politics and part development with informative and sometimes  close-up accounts of the highways and by-ways far-right activism.

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