Extreme Right Parties and Movements Research Paper

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Political parties and movements that current conventional labeling by political scientists and other informed analysts would regard as of the extreme right have emerged in many countries and on many occasions, since at least the early nineteenth century. The label, as currently employed, is necessarily an encompassing one because it is applied incontrovertibly to numerous parties/movements that nonetheless differ from each other in other ways, and also, more contestably, to certain political formations onto which not every recognized specialist is willing to confer that designation. Some analysts have preferred descriptions such as ‘neo-populist’ or ‘right-populist’ for movements not universally classified as ‘extreme right.’

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1. The Term ‘Extreme Right’

The term ‘extreme right’ can be shown to have been used in a political sense, but not with quite its contemporary meaning and connotations, since the mid-nineteenth century and before. However, the term and its cognates are surprisingly recent arrivals in political science’s standard vocabulary, having been regularly employed in the discipline only since the late 1950s. Lipset, for example, used the term very occasionally in his Political Man (1959 1963), it became conventional usage among European (except German) commentators during the 1960s, and it achieved final recognition in American political science with Lipset and Raab’s The Politics of Unreason (1970 1971). One reason for the slowness with which the actual term came to be adopted in the USA was the popularity of the alternative, and still used, ‘radical right’ in order to describe political phenomena that most, but not all, present analysts would now call ‘extreme right.’ Lipset had also been responsible for the introduction of the term ‘radical right’ into US political science, and so for its popularity during much of the following decade. It was perhaps taken from the usage in German of rechtsradikal. This neologism, although also postwar, can be traced back to its introduction into German in the early 1950s, probably influenced by the fact that Germany’s most significant extreme right party was then the later proscribed Sozialistische Reichspartei (SRP). This designation, though sometimes also extrem rechtsradikal, was widely used by German authors in the 1960s and 1970s, and has only relatively recently been superseded among political scientists by rechtsextrem rechtsextremistisch. The distinction was also a bureaucratically important one in Germany, since a purported and casuistical distinction between rechtsradikal and rechtsextrem was the basis on which the German Office for the Protection of the Constitution justified varying monitoring and control strategies toward different right-wing formations. By the 1990s extreme right activities in Germany made this distinction increasingly dubious and inoperable, and the latter term now in practice subsumes the former one.

2. A Definition Of ‘Extreme Right’

A definition of extreme right parties/movements has necessarily to be extensive and complex, for it must be appropriate for such movements as diverse in time and location as the American Anti-Masonic Movement of the 1820s; the Know-Nothing Movement of the 1850s; the French Boulangist Movement of the 1880s; interwar fascism in Italy and other European countries; Nazism in Germany; McCarthyism in 1950s USA; Poujadism in 1950s France; George Wallace’s 1968 American Independent Party (AIP); more recent European examples such as the French Front National (FN) and the German Die Republikaner (REPs); Latin American paramilitaries in countries such as Nicaragua and Colombia; Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party in Russia; and even purportedly more mainstream political parties of the present such as Austria’s Freiheitliche Partei Osterreichs (FPO) and Switzerland’s Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP). The contemporary American militias are usually regarded as extreme-right, but they are idiosyncratic examples, their most obvious European analogue perhaps being the militant neo-Nazi defense groups of Germany and some Scandinavian countries. Although not all analysts would agree on the ‘extreme right’ designation for every one of these, each has nonetheless attracted many such attributions from historians, political scientists, or informed journalist observers. Commentators from some countries (such as France and The Netherlands) have been more ready than those elsewhere unwaveringly and without collateral justification to label the contemporary examples as ‘extreme right.’ An inclusive definition of the extreme right has to be based on ideological features such as those below and, although each would not necessarily apply with equal emphasis and significance to all extreme right parties/movements, all political scientists using this concept would understand that many or most would, at leadership or mass-support level, characterize a political phenomenon so designated:

  • selective inclusion, especially within the nation and often based on imposed assumptions about ethnic or religious similarity (which may take the form of aggressive nationalism or ethnocentrism);
  • selective exclusion, directed against foreigners and/or indigenous or immigrant ethnic minorities, but also against social minorities such as homosexuals, travelers (gypsies), or in the past even the Masons;
  • racism, based on biological perspectives about supposed inferiority or on the fabrication of ethnic and cultural boundaries;
  • anti-Semitism, which may be both specific and directed at contemporary targets, but which may in some cases involve denying, or mitigating the scale of, the Holocaust and glorifying the deeds of the Third Reich;
  • a preference for authoritarian initiatives by a strong state; the cult of a leader figure;
  • a preference for a hierarchical social order;
  • antisystemic and antipluralist political perspectives;
  • overt hostility to political opponents, often associated with the use, encouragement, or tolerance of violence;
  • low tolerance of social change; and
  • nostalgia for the past.

2.1 Extreme Right Phenomena In The Twentieth Century

It is useful to give a very general, if crude, periodization for extreme right phenomena of the twentieth century, although in each of these periods there was nonetheless a considerable variety of such parties/movements:

  • 1920–45. The era of ‘classic’ anti-Semitic Nazism and fascism.
  • 1945–70. The era of the ‘old wave’ extreme right, often comprising anti-Semitic neo-Nazi neofascist movements with a yearning for the ‘classic’ era (e.g., the SRP or Italy’s Movimento Sociale Italiano, MSI) and nostalgic anticommunist movements (e.g., McCarthyism).
  • 1975–present. The era of the ‘new wave’ extreme right, appealing particularly on a basis of xenophobia and racism against ethnic minority immigrant groups and asylum seekers.

This periodization is not perfect, particularly because of anomalies among the US cases: the AIP, for example, anticipated the issues of the ‘new wave’ extreme right. However, it is a useful heuristic device for discussing theoretical approaches to the analysis of these movements.

3. Theoretical Approaches To The Extreme Right

Fashions in political science towards the analysis of the support of extreme right parties/movements have not been constant. While it is important not to exaggerate these changes, it is true that research in the 1950s and into the 1970s, conducted on the vote for Nazism (the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, NSDAP) and on ‘old wave’ postwar movements, was especially concerned with answering questions about the partisan origins and the social base of these examples of extreme right support. The lack of any individual-level data on voters for the NSDAP led to the use of different combinations of aggregate data in a substantial body of research about Nazism’s partisan origins and social base. The most recent and comprehensive research in this tradition has argued the case for considerable social variety in the NSDAP’s later support. Postwar movements for whose support there existed survey data were frequently analyzed in the first instance in terms of the social categories to which they particularly appealed. Ideological and attitudinal dispositions towards the extreme right were not ignored, of course (especially not by research drawing on perspectives in The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno et al. 1950), but they were not always treated as the principal explicandum; indeed, many authors (e.g., some of those writing about McCarthyism in The Radical Right, Bell 1963/1964) simply imputed motive. Researchers working on movements that have emerged in the ‘new wave’ era have been more inclined to recognize that most extreme right movements draw from a variety of social sources and have given greater attention to the attitudinal, psychological, and contextual bases of such support. The disproportionate support for many ‘new wave’ extreme right movements among the self-employed and among younger voters from manualworker backgrounds (especially males) has been noted (e.g., in the cases of the FPO, the FN, and the German Deutsche Volksunion, DVU), but it has not been a central plank to theorizing about these movements.

In giving an overview of the theoretical perspectives towards extreme right parties movements, it is essential to distinguish between the pre-World War II and postwar cases. Many of the interbellum movements played major political roles, especially so, of course, in the cases of Italy and Germany. Even in countries where such movements did not achieve power, they often had substantial impact upon national politics during the 1930s (as in France or The Netherlands). On the other hand, in the postwar period extreme right parties/movements, though not without some important effects upon the content of political agendas, have not usually achieved actual governmental office—significant exceptions being Italy briefly in 1959 and during the mid-1990s, Austria in 2000, as well as the problematic cases of Spain till 1975, and of contemporary Switzerland in the light of the recent metamorphosis of the SVP towards the extreme right.

Most contemporary theoretical analyses of the interbellum extreme right focused on German Nazism and Italian fascism. Some influential perspectives came from self-avowed Marxists and, though incorporating views about the social base of these movements, attributed to them a particular role in the balance of class forces. Perhaps the more subtle of these Marxist perspectives were those by Gramsci, who used a concept of Caesarism, and by Trotsky and Thalheimer, who drew Bonapartist analogies and regarded fascism as a resort by capitalists to perpetuate their interests in a situation of class stalemate between the proletariat and capital. Postwar Marxists have sometimes resurrected such perspectives in looking at Italian fascism and Nazism and have even sought to apply them to postwar movements, but, to most analysts, these approaches are no longer relevant. Instead, the great majority of political scientists writing on the ‘old and new wave’ extreme right have sought, albeit in varying ways, to focus on the social situations that may produce extreme right sympathy and behavior.

A widespread feature of numerous theories of both the ‘old and new wave’ extreme right is to see them as supported by those who in some way have suffered, or see themselves to have suffered, from social change. This theorizing may take the form of predicating status loss (e.g., Hofstadter and Lipset on McCarthyism), or disorientation as a result of social strain (e.g., Parsons), or a reaction against the growth of postmaterialist values (e.g., Ignazi), material loss due to processes of modernization or globalization (e.g., Heitmeyer). Theories with a social-psychological basis, as by those who have applied perspectives derived from The Authoritarian Personality and the Frankfurt School to ‘old and new wave’ movements, also assume a resistance to, and intolerance of, certain types of social change. ‘New wave’ extreme right movements since the 1970s, because in many cases they have made racism and xenophobia the principal basis of their appeal, have particularly attracted theorizing seeking to explain the presence of such attitudes among individual voters and certain groups of voters.

4. The Tendency Of Extreme Right Parties To Schism

Extreme right parties movements frequently exhibit distinctive organizational characteristics in comparison with mainstream political parties. The former have a particular tendency to splits, and contain strong schismogenetic features. This is sometimes because of personal animosities between leaders, who are often psychologically disposed to be authoritarian and are intolerant both of different perspectives and also of rivals. Because of the variety of ideological appeals offered by extreme right parties, their leaderships and supporters often have a mixture of social origins and this too can lead to divisive differences over minutiae of ideology (a characteristic shared with extreme left movements). Extreme right parties, particularly those in the postwar ‘new wave’ period, have exhibited a remarkable tendency to fracture. In France, Germany, Great Britain, The Netherlands, and Switzerland, to name only some examples, the indigenous extreme right has had a history of division and internal dissension. Indeed, many of the apparent electoral successes in the 1980s and 1990s by extreme right parties foundered on the organizational collapse of the elected legislative grouping, something that has been a particular feature of the German extreme right parties, the REPs and the DVU.

5. The Future For Extreme Right Parties Movements

It would be scientifically insupportable to suggest that such parties/movements will wither away. A troubled world is likely to provide just too many dynamics to underpin their emergence, especially in certain Third World contexts. In the liberal democracies, however, despite some successes in obtaining municipal control (as the FN has had since 1995) and breakthroughs by parties such as the FPO and the SVP (both of which emerged from mainstream political formations), there are few indications in most countries that, on a national level, extreme right parties will emerge on any scale from a political exclusion zone. Support even for the most successful examples has in most cases reached a zenith and elevated levels of one-time support frequently erode. These parties depend on a pariah status for attracting the votes of the politically alienated, and sometimes, as in France, where a party faction has wanted to seek accommodations with mainstream politics, the result has been a damaging split to the greater disadvantage of the faction arguing for such a reapprochement.


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