Rolling Back the Global Advance of the Far Right

In recent years, there have been many articles by socialists and left-liberals noting with alarm the advance of far-right regimes and parties. These include the United States (Donald Trump), Europe (the National Front/Rally in France, UKIP and the Brexit Party in the UK, the League in Italy, Vox in Spain, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, AfD in Germany, Freedom Party in Austria, Viktor Orban in Hungary) and indeed throughout the world: Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jin-ping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyep Erdogan in Turkey, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines – the list goes on and on.[1] If we add regimes that were already extremely authoritarian, like the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Gulf Arab monarchies, the picture looks bleak indeed.

One common explanation for the growth of the far right and simultaneous decline of centre-right and centre-left parties is the espousal by the latter of neoliberal policies which have led to job losses, widespread poverty, and growing inequality. In many instances, they have also pandered to anti-immigrant sentiment instead of combating it. Since they are seen as the mainstream or ‘the establishment’, it becomes understandable that people hurt by these policies should turn to other parties which have previously been less popular.

There is some truth in this explanation, but it begs the question why the number of people turning further to the left has been so much smaller than the number turning further to the right. One reason why this could be the case is that the left has been badly divided, with a section of it converging with the far right on many issues. For example, the supporters of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria include former KKK leader David Duke, the white supremacists demonstrating at Charlottesville, British National Party leader Nick Griffin, Greek fascists of Golden Dawn, the French National Front, the Belgian Vlaams Belang – all neo-fascists who see their own politics reflected in Assad’s ruthless totalitarian regime. Yet at the same time there are people who are seen to be on the left – figures like Seymour Hersh, Robert Fisk, David North and Alex Lantier of WSWS and Max Blumenthal – supporting Assad by spreading his propaganda. Again, Putin invited observers from European neo-fascist parties like the French National Front, Italian League, and Freedom Party of Austria to endorse a widely-boycotted referendum preceding the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, yet this annexation was also endorsed by people seen to be on the left like John Pilger. [2] A third example is Brexit in the UK, fronted by far-right ideologue Nigel Farage, whose campaign poster picturing a long queue of refugees bore a striking resemblence to a Nazi poster.[3] Yet some MPs in the Labour Party as well as sections of the extra-parliamentary left also supported Brexit.

In each of these cases, the far right takes a stance compatible with its politics: in support of a brutal dictator, in support of an imperialist annexation of a weaker country’s territory, and in support of anti-immigrant nationalism. The left, on the other hand, is divided, with one section adopting the positions of the far right. The reasons they give for doing so may be different from those of the far right, but the objective outcome is the same. How has this happened?

Convergence between the far right and a section of the left

Perhaps the most emblematic historical example of a right-left convergence, and one from which more recent examples can be derived, is the Hitler-Stalin pact signed by Ribbentrop and Molotov on 23 August 1939, which lasted until 22 June 1941. The pact did not merely guarantee mutual non-aggression; its secret protocols committed the Soviet Union to providing food products and raw materials to the Nazis in return for finished products like machinery from Germany, and, crucially, Hitler ceding Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and part of Poland to the USSR. Thus Stalin was effectively a Nazi collaborator for almost two years despite being well aware of Hitler’s fascist policies: a fact that is sought to be covered up by referring to World War II as the ‘Great Patriotic War’ which began only in June 1941 when Hitler abrogated the pact.

Stalin’s agenda of converting the USSR into a new version of the tsarist empire was already evident to Lenin before he died, although by then he was too ill to be able to prevent it from happening. Yet he kept dictating his ‘last testament’, protesting against the oppression of Georgian communists by the Russian leadership and accusing Stalin of violating, ‘in substance, the interests of proletarian class solidarity, for nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice.’[4] The same theme – that proletarian class solidarity requires support for national liberation struggles in tsarist colonies – had surfaced as early as 1914, when Lenin declared that ‘What Ireland was for England, Ukraine has become for Russia: exploited in the extreme, and getting nothing in return. Thus the interests of the world proletariat in general and the Russian proletariat in particular require that the Ukraine regains its state independence, since only this will permit the development of the cultural level that the proletariat needs.’[5]

By 1941, Stalin had exterminated almost all opponents, dissidents and rivals (including the entire Bolshevik leadership), arresting and executing well over a million and sending millions more to the Gulag, where many died as a consequence of the cruel conditions. This was accompanied by a war on the truth and rewriting of history. He also propounded the theory of ‘socialism in one country’, according to which the USSR was already socialist and it was the duty of socialists/communists everywhere to subordinate their own struggles to defending the Soviet Union, which by this time meant following Stalin’s orders. This effectively made Russian nationalism the ideology of all Stalinists and their followers. It was the totalitarian character of the Hitler and Stalin regimes that allowed them to come together in the pact, although their competing goals of imperial expansion led to the breakdown of the relationship. Post-war, a prolonged period of inter-imperialist rivalry between US imperialism and Russian imperialism came to be known as ‘the Cold War’. The authoritarianism, nationalism and imperialism of the Stalinist definition of ‘socialism/communism’ was the very opposite of what Marx and Engels had meant by these terms.

There was a short-lived attempt to return to a more democratic notion of socialism when Mikhail Gorbachev was in power, and his rejection of Russian imperialism led to real changes in the relationship between Russia and some of the former tsarist colonies as well as Soviet-dominated regimes in Eastern Europe. But hardline Stalinists staged a coup against him, and he was replaced by Boris Yeltsin, who in turn was followed by Vladimir Putin. Putin can be called a neo-Stalinist: unlike Stalin, he made no claim to Marxism and openly rejected Lenin, but like Stalin he was wedded to authoritarianism and saw the tsarist empire as a lost paradise on which the present and future should be modelled. In pursuit of these goals, he has wooed and endorsed neo-fascist groups and parties throughout Europe with the aim of bringing about the collapse of the EU, and has also lent crucial support to authoritarian dictators in other parts of the world like Syria.[6]

Old-style Stalinists and Putinist neo-Stalinists form the core of the section of the left that has converged with the far right, but they influence a much larger number of socialists. Even in Stalin’s day there were social-democratic ‘fellow-travellers’ who admired the Soviet Union and believed it was a socialist society, and they have their modern counterparts. The most charitable explanation for this is ignorance, which is to some extent understandable, given the extremely active, well-resourced and sophisticated drive by the Kremlin and some of its allies to propagate their alternative facts on the media they control and on social media.[7] Their pseudo-anti-imperialist narrative, opposing only Western imperialism and supporting imperialist powers opposed to the West, requires as much critical scrutiny as anything published by Western mainstream media.

Even some Trotskyists and other anti-Stalinists, who might be expected to be more resistant to such propaganda, are swayed by it. In North America and Western Europe, a knee-jerk reaction against mainstream media propagation of the lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which was used to justify the US-UK invasion of that country, has been the conviction that ‘Everything reported in the Western media is a lie, everything done by Western governments must be opposed, and everything done in opposition to Western governments must be supported.’ This provides cover to the ‘anti-imperialist’ claims of neo-Stalinists and the despots they support. For example, the uprisings of 2011 in Egypt and Tunisia were supported by virtually the whole left, whereas the uprisings in Libya and Syria – with the same causes and the same slogans – were assimilated to the US interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq by this pseudo-anti-imperialist section of the left, just as they dismissed the Maidan uprising in Ukraine as engineered by Western imperialism: the very same narratives propagated by the neo-Stalinists.

Failure to support struggles that are not directed against the West is also justified by the argument that ‘Our fight is against our own imperialists’. At first sight, this sounds eminently sensible: we concentrate on fighting our own state because that is where we can have the greatest impact. But when we look more closely, we find that this stance puts a question mark over international solidarity, because the corollary of saying that we fight only our own imperialism is that we show solidarity only when people are oppressed by or fighting against our own state and its allies. The anomaly is best illustrated by the Palestinian liberation struggle. When Palestinians are being incarcerated, tortured and killed by the Israeli state, a US ally, there are large demonstrations in solidarity with them; but when Yarmouk refugee camp, ‘the capital of the Palestinian diaspora,’ is bombed by the Assad and Putin regimes, when its inhabitants are driven out, starved and slaughtered, most of these demonstrators do not protest, nor do they protest when hundreds of Palestinian political prisoners are tortured, raped and killed in Bashar al-Assad’s jails.[8] This reveals that their real agenda is not solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle but opposition to US foreign policy.

Many American socialists in particular believe that opposing every foreign policy intervention by the US absolves them of responsibility for bloodshed, but this is a delusion. If the man next door is battering his wife, shouting ‘I’ll kill you!’, she is screaming for help, and you are unable to break in and rescue her, the only way to save her life might be to call in the police: the same sexist, racist, bigoted police you normally criticise and oppose. If you fail to do so, you become a passive accomplice in her murder. If another neighbour calls the police and you block them, claiming that the woman routinely lies about domestic violence, you become an active accomplice in her murder. This is an apt metaphor for what happened in Bosnia. The Holocaust survivors and others who called on a reluctant Clinton administration to intervene and save the Bosnian Muslims from genocide were the good neighbour, while those who covered up the crimes and opposed the intervention – which, despite all its faults, did halt the carnage – were accomplices of genocide. Similarly, those who oppose any help from the US to Syrians pleading for protection from crimes against humanity by Assad and his allies, and/or propagate the myth that all those supporting the opposition (including the rescue workers known as White Helmets) are Islamists or imperialists, are guilty of passive or active complicity in those crimes against humanity.  

Such positions reveal an incapacity for dealing with complexity: for example, that it is possible to oppose military action against Iran and sanctions against its people while simultaneously opposing the atrocities its theocratic regime inflicts on Iranians and neighbouring peoples, or that it is possible to oppose US imperialism while also opposing Russian imperialism. Like George W. Bush, who famously said that ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,’ these pseudo-anti-imperialists believe that if you condemn the Iranian state’s crimes you must be supporting a military assault on Iran, and if you criticise Russian imperialism you must be a supporter of US imperialism. Completely missing from this geopolitical framework is the notion of solidarity with the working people of these countries in opposition to all oppressors. Indeed, willingness to believe that the huge crowds of protesters in Syria and Ukraine were created by Western intervention implies an Orientalist attitude towards non-Western peoples, seeing them only as victims or dupes of imperialism, lacking any agency of their own, and incapable of fighting for the democratic rights and freedoms taken for granted in the West.

Pushing back against the far right

The far right has been advancing internationally because it has ‘a shared message, a shared vision of social change, shared adversaries and now a shared political platform… Instead of classes it speaks of nations, instead of politics it speaks of culture, and instead of capitalists it speaks of immigrants.’[9] In contrast, part of the left converges with the far right on crucial issues, part is solidly opposed to the far right on all issues but struggles to communicate its message to a wider public, and a significant section is confused by the mixed messages. Unless the left is able to overcome these divisions and confusions, it will continue to lose out to the far right.

There are some practical measures that can be taken to remedy this: for example, instead of a priori rejecting everything reported by Western media and accepting everything reported by anti-Western media, looking at a variety of news media and subjecting them all to critical scrutiny; and recognising that the enemy of our enemy may be equally our enemy, and both may need to be opposed. In general, this implies thoughtful rather than knee-jerk reactions to what is happening in our countries and the world as a whole.     

However, there are also principles that should define the left, which have been abandoned by those who converge with the far right. Democracy, for example. Stalinists and neo-Stalinists have always been hostile to democracy, but the problem runs deeper. Most social democrats and revolutionary socialists see socialism as being introduced from above by the state, in which case only a relatively small number of people would be making decisions and democracy is not necessary. But if socialism is seen as being introduced by all working people, then the need for democracy is obvious. How can they all be involved in government unless unequal and oppressive relationships among them have been eliminated, and they have the experience of electing representatives and holding them to account? How can they control production without vigorous debates on how labor power and other resources should be allocated?        

Another defining principle is internationalism, based on the understanding that capitalism is global and therefore the struggle against it can succeed only if it is equally global. Hostility to immigrants and refugees is a defining feature of the far right, and some socialist politicians, while refraining from echoing the far right’s hate-speech and violence, have implied that immigrants are responsible for the unemployment and low wages of locals instead of pointing to other factors like technological change and neoliberal policies. Again, many socialist politicians have joined forces with Donald Trump in denouncing globalisation for shifting jobs to lower-wage countries. It is, of course, in the nature of capital to maximise profits, and if this means shifting production to low-wage countries, that is what capitalists do. While trying to protect local jobs as much as possible by demanding and winning information and consultation rights, it is the task of socialists to explain that low wages in developing countries are the legacy of imperialism, and the internationalist remedy is to help workers in them to win at least the basic labour rights embodied in the ILO Core Conventions;[10] this would, of course, entail supporting their struggles for democratic rights in general in countries where these are denied. Underlying these retrograde positions of socialists is an implicit belief in ‘socialism in one country’, and a failure to understand that socialism can be won only by the working people of the world. The left can roll back the global advance of the far right only if it unites around a clear and unambiguous platform of always pursuing the truth, siding with the oppressed, promoting democracy, and standing in solidarity with the working people of all countries.


[1] See, for example, Nick Robins-Early, ‘How far-right extremists abroad have adopted Trump’s symbols as their own,’ Huffington Post, 7 April 2019. ; Elif Shafak, ‘From Spain to Turkey, the rise of the far right is a clash of cultures not civilisations,’ The Guardian, 6 May 2019. ; Noah Millman, ‘Why are far-right populists winning everywhere?’ The Week, 30 October, 2018.

[2] Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-imperialism, (Chicago: Haymarket), 2018. pp. 263–268; pp. 52, 9–10

[3] Heather Stewart and Rowena Mason, ‘Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant poster reported to the police,’ The Guardian 16 June 2016.

[4] V. I. Lenin, ‘The question of nationalities or “autonomisation”’, 1922. 

[5] Zbigniew Kowalewski, ‘For the independence of Soviet Ukraine,’ International Marxist Review, Autumn 1989. Transcribed and reproduced by Louis Proyect, 20 April 2014,

[6] This trajectory is discussed at greater length in Rohini Hensman, Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-revolution, and the Rhetoric of Anti-imperialism, (Chicago: Haymarket), 2018, pp. 28–93

[7] Terry Burke, ‘“Russiagate,” Syria and the left,’ Countervortex, 2019.

[8] Budour Hassan, ‘Yarmouk: a late obituary for the capital of the Palestinian diaspora,’ OpenDemocracy, 22 June 2018. ; Middle East Monitor, ‘More than 560 Palestinians tortured to death in Syria’s prisons,’ 19 December 2018. ; Women’s UN Report Network, ‘Syria: Thousands of Palestinian women raped, tortured, killed in Syrian prisons,’ 4 April 2019.

[9] Lea Ypi, ‘The far-right international is here – when will the left wake up?’ Social Europe, 26 June 2019.

[10] See Rohini Hensman, Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India, (New York: Columbia University Press; New Delhi: Tulika Books), 2011, pp. 278–336


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

By Rohini Hensman: Rolling Back the Global Advance of the Far Right

By Zillah Eisenstein: Why Democracy and Socialism Need Anti-Racist Socialist Feminism

By Denise Lynn: Claudia Jones and the Emancipatory Promise of Socialism

By Melissa Farley: Prostitution, the Sex Trade, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Ninotchka Rosca: The Dutertefly Effect and the Philippine Stub Universe

By Paola Cavalieri: On the Poverty of Philosophy or the Black Hole of Factory Farming

By Robert Lacey: The Filibuster and the Ghost of Calhoun

By Patrick D. Anderson: Christian Cotton and Robert Arp (editors), WikiLeaking: The Ethics of Secrecy and Exposure (Chicago: Open Court, 2019).

By Erik Grayson: Mary Dearborn, Ernest Hemingway: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2018)

By Aidan J. Beatty: Daniel Finn, One Man’s Terrorist: A Political History of the IRA (New York: Verso: 2019)

By Warren Leming: Brett Anderson, Afternoons With the Blinds Drawn (New York: Little, Brown 2019)

By Iain Ferguson: The Unconscious in Social and Political Life, (London: Phoenix Publishing House 2019)

By Ben Shepard: Peter Riley’s Against Vocation: Whitman, Melville, Crane, and the Labors of American Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019) and Caroline Hellman’s Children of the Raven and the Whale: Visions and Revisions of American Literature (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019)

By Michael Karadjis: Andy Heintz, Dissidents of the International Left: New Internationalist Publications, (Oxford, University Press, 2019)