There is a real far right in Europe today, but also an artificial one inflated by its enemies. The real far right possesses the saving quality of brainlessness. It is visceral, reactive, xenophobic -- but has no vision to offer, no program to make people dream, no interpretation of history to make men act.
This is why it is not a serious affair, although movements of the xenophobic and racist right are significant factors in the electoral politics of contemporary France, Belgium, Austria and Germany. They are, as yet, an inchoate force in several of the East European countries, and in Russia and some other nations of the former Soviet Union.
The artificial right is the one which parties of the left and center like to run against. It is founded on something real but is deliberately built up by its enemies to become a conveniently dramatic but essentially undangerous target for their electioneering. At a time when left-wing parties are in trouble, it suits them to confront a "neo-fascism" which -- they can belligerently proclaim -- shall not pass!
It profits a leftist or socialist party to polarize politics between left and right, so that the extremist right compromises or burdens the moderate right. The moderates are driven toward adopting far-right positions to win voters back from the extremists, and this allows the left to pick up the moderates from the center.
For the past decade the National Front Party in France has indirectly been promoted by France's Socialist government. President Francois Mitterrand, at electorally delicate moments, has repeatedly made proposals (on immigration liberalization, foreigners' vote in local elections, etc.) sure to drive conservative voters toward the National Front and thereby weaken the parties of the moderate right which are his real threat. The Socialist government installed proportional representation for legislative elections in 1986, to the National Front's profit and the moderate right's disadvantage.
The tactic does not always work, of course, and the French Socialists' latest attempt to promote the National Front as a huge menace against which a vast -- and Socialist-led -- mobilization of democrats is necessary, has come off badly. The anti-racist left has turned on the Socialists, accusing them of hypocrisy. Socialist deputies had to drop out of an anti-racist demonstration in Paris last weekend because the rest of the marchers were so hostile toward them.
The far right naturally profits from this, since it is made to seem the most dynamic political force in the country. However, parties of the National Front sort are actually mobilizations of the discontented of all political camps, which is another thing
There are not many places to turn today if you want to protest government and politicians. The Communist parties of southern
Europe used to fulfill that function but they have all but collapsed. The Green parties fulfill the role to a degree but are irredeemably respectable. The far right in most countries is the only popular protest movement left. (In France, at least, there has been a documented transfer of votes from Communist Party to extreme right in recent years.)
The "skinheads" and neo-Nazis of Germany, Flanders, the Netherlands, Newcastle and Liverpool in Britain, and elsewhere, are mainly motivated by hostility to immigrants and foreigners. These are considered rivals for jobs, disproportionately favored by social insurance systems, objectionably visible, as well as being different in color and religion.
Skinhead mobilization is usually dramatic and violent, the violence often gratuitous. Much of it takes place simply for the sake of a good riot with attendant display of machoism. These groups usually favor the iconography of Nazism, biking and sado-machoism, and therefore provide good copy for newspapers and television. But they are usually no more than disrupters of public order; they do not make up a political movement.
Parties of the National Front variety are more serious forces because they articulate serious complaints in ways many ordinary voters find more or less acceptable. They profit from plain-speaking -- saying what others think but what the respectable politician can't say. National Front militancy is a safe way to repudiate respectable conventions and institutions.
These groups, however, lack a serious ideology. If fascism accomplished nothing else between 1920 and 1945, it succeeded in discrediting fascism. There is no movement in Europe today, or in the United States, which offers an intellectually defensible political program of authoritarian leadership, national discipline, and exclusion of minorities or of "inferior" groups.
There are nationalists, but nationalism is not fascism. There are racists. Particularly in Eastern Europe and the ex-Soviet Union are racist sentiments expressed that in the West long ago were driven to the disreputable edges of society. Gypsies are persecuted there. There is an anti-Semitism -- without Jews.
None of this adds up to anything positive. Mussolini's fascism held a vision of Italy's transformation -- the re-creation of the Roman Empire. Hitler's Nazism foresaw Europe's dynamic unification under Nordic leaders. A great many proved willing to die for ideas like that, and there were intelligent people among them.
Europe's new movements of the right have demonstrated only an ability to motivate their young toughs to be knocked about by the riot police, and to slink in the dark to desecrate cemeteries and set fire to immigrant hostels. There's not yet reason to think that the far right is going to do any better in the future.
William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.