Is fascism on the march?

By taking second place in last week's Dutch general election, the rightwing political grouping called the Lijst Pim Fortuyn (LPF) caused something of a sensation. Even before the assassination of its eponymous leader, the LPF - campaigning on a populist, ultra-chauvinist anti-immigration platform - was set to do well. Its 17% share of the vote, with 23 seats in parliament, as against the victorious Christian Democrats (CDA), with 29% and 43 seats, was evidently augmented by some electors who, while not necessarily agreeing with the LPF's policies, wanted to express their shock and sympathy, as well as their disillusionment with mainstream politics, by effectively voting for a dead man. As a result, the LPF is currently in negotiations with CDA leader Jan Peter Balkenende to form part of a rightwing coalition administration. How should we assess the significance of the LPF's remarkable appearance in the political firmament of a state that has for decades been run by stable coalitions of almost interchangeable parties presided over by an ossified elite? Some on the left have reacted by dubbing Pim Fortuyn, along with Le Pen and Haider, not just a racist but a fascist, and representing them as the standard-bearers of some kind of homogeneous Nazi resurgence across Europe. This hasty, untheorised approach is not only absurd, but counterproductive. As Marxists, we need to address this phenomenon soberly on the basis of a materialist, class analysis, not adopt a scatter-gun approach that uses the categories of 'fascist' or 'Nazi' as little more than swearwords and thus debases their real meaning and content. Let us begin by asking who was Pim Fortuyn and how does the LPF fit into the contemporary political scene in the Netherlands? A flamboyantly high camp homosexual with pretensions to an aristocratic lifestyle, Fortuyn came from a solidly bourgeois, catholic background, which he rejected in the 1970s by involving himself in leftwing student politics. Having been a professor of sociology, he got a job as a columnist on the rightwing magazine Elsevier, which gave him scope to play the political maverick and opportunist by promoting a paradoxical brew of chauvinist, anti-immigrant rhetoric, free market economics and libertarianism. Without any kind of political experience and without a programme, Fortuyn only came to prominence in March this year, when his Leefbaar Rotterdam (Liveable Rotterdam) - not so much a party; more of a pressure group, focused on immigration, crime and the state of the public services - got more than 35% of the vote in the city's council elections. Like Leefbaar Rotterdam, the LPF itself - rapidly cobbled together in order to ride the crest of the Rotterdam wave and fight the general election - comprised nothing more than a vehicle for Fortuyn's political ambitions. Of the 51 candidates on the LPF list, only one - Jimmy Janssen van Raaij, a renegade former CDA MEP - could be called a politician. The rest are a colourful collection of business people, professionals and careerists. Immediately, following Fortuyn's death, the 'party's' financial backer, property magnate Harry Mens, said that without Fortuyn the LPF was meaningless and could not survive. He switched his support to the CDA, who objectively can be seen as the real beneficiaries of the 'Fortuyn effect'. The LPF was led for a few days by Joao Varela, a 27-year-old black immigrant from the Cape Verde Islands who works as a cosmetics executive and who apparently functioned as Fortuyn's deputy. He has since been replaced by former LPF spokesman Mat Herben, who, with van Raaij, is representing the LPF in coalition talks. Given that it lacked even a semblance of internal coherence and organisational infrastructure, let alone a social base, the LPF's showing last week was clearly remarkable. What brought it about and what does it represent? At the centre of Fortuyn's platform was a consciously provocative stance on immigration. His oft repeated statement - "16 million Dutch is enough. The country is full" - seems to have struck a chord with a sizeable swathe of a disaffected electorate. The so-called 'purple' coalition that has run the Netherlands against a benign economic background since 1994 is perceived as having feathered its own nest and that of the wealthy, while having at the same time failed to deliver on schools, hospitals, education and law and order. The so-called "Polder model", a social 'trade-off' (to use a term much loved by Blair guru Tony Giddens, a noted admirer of 'Polder'), meant that Dutch politics were characterised by close collaboration between capital, the state and the trade union bossocracy. In return for generous social welfare provision, organised labour was expected to show wage restraint, take no industrial action and accept the consequences of 'labour market flexibility'. Even in the good times, this has seen a relative decline in real living standards for many, especially the poorest, while the number of millionaires grew markedly. Cynicism about what ossified consensus government can deliver to the ordinary citizen has grown measurably. This sense of fatigue and discontent, along with growing anxiety about the social consequences of an expected economic downturn, was ripe for opportunistic exploitation by a populist demagogue such as Fortuyn, who focused his scapegoating on the immigrants and their families who comprise more than 18% of the country's population. The largest number come from Turkey ('guest workers' and their descendants, invited to Holland in the 1970s). There are also sizeable populations of Moroccans and former residents of Dutch colonies like Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles. Along with calls for strict limits on further immigration and a 'discouraging', harsh approach to asylum-seekers, Fortuyn specifically targeted the islamic immigrant community. Whereas judaeo-christian values had passed through the "civilising Laundromat" of humanism and the enlightenment, islam represented a "backward" cultural influence. Muslims must abandon this backwardness and integrate themselves into the rest of the population by learning Dutch and assimilating the values of Dutch culture. A multiculturalism that allowed islam to continue practices like arranged marriages, genital mutilation of females, discrimination against gays ("For muslims, as a homosexual, I am less than a pig") and so forth could no longer be tolerated. What was needed was a "monoculturalism" founded on Fortuyn's imagined Dutch identity. He cleverly played on the long tradition of social liberalism in Dutch society by mixing his anti-immigrant chauvinism with justifiable demands for an end to what liberals and socialists alike would regard as reactionary, unacceptable practices and attitudes. He emphasised that the LPF would not accede to the CDA's mooted notion of turning back the clock on such questions as euthanasia, easy abortion and the decriminalisation of marijuana. Indeed, he advocated making marijuana available in supermarkets and grocery stores as just another commodity. As Rotterdam LPF boss Ronald Sorenson put it after the election, the CDA would have to accept the entire 'left-liberal' legacy on social policy if a CDA-LPF coalition were to materialise: "They're going to have to lump it. These are all laws of the land and it's too late to start changing everything now" (The Daily Telegraph May 17). True, Fortuyn's ultra-chauvinist rhetoric and his effort to play the islamic card in the wake of September 11 were contemptible. But to equate his position with that of Le Pen or even label him a 'fascist' or 'racist' is misguided. Le Pen's extreme nationalism, with its antecedents rooted in Vichy and the Algerian experience, openly demands the repatriation of ethnic minorities. Fortuyn's calls for restrictions on fresh immigration and for the social integration of immigrant minorities from above, however repellent, are qualitatively different. In fact, rather similar noises are being made, in slightly more restrained language, by mainstream politicians, not least in the UK. Does that make Blunkett and Hain 'fascists' or 'racists'? Predictably, before the election, the CDA wasted no time in mimicking Fortuyn's chauvinist rhetoric and adapting it to its own rightwing neoliberal agenda. CDA prime minister-in-waiting Balkenende may make pious statements about the need to "show respect for islam" and to tolerate "genuine" refugees, but the essence of his party's position differs little from that of the LPF itself and includes similar meaningless and inoperable commitments to an imagined 'monocultural' integration. On a turnout of more than 80%, these two rightwing political forces garnered more than 46% of the vote, reflecting widespread malaise, particularly in relation to the perceived relationship between immigration and rising levels of crime. The rest of Fortuyn's platform, insofar as the LPF had one, was also broadly the same as that of the CDA, except concerning the Netherlands' relationship with the EU, where Fortuyn talked about abrogating the country's commitment to the Treaty of Schengen and giving the Dutch veto power over EU expansion via a referendum. Since the election, the LPF has already started to backtrack from its stance on both questions. On economics, the CDA and LPF platforms were pretty indistinguishable: both called for tax breaks and incentives to stimulate 'entrepreneurship', along with the ending of the 'abuse' of the social welfare system by 'undeserving' claimants - not much different from Blair and Brown in fact. In an interview published in Socialist Worker, comrade Pepijn Brandon of the International Socialists in Holland states that, "The comparison between Fortuyn and the Austrian far right leader Jörg Haider is accurate. Both presented themselves as maverick anti-establishment politicians, but campaigned hard on the traditional themes of the fascist right "¦ the issues on which Pim Fortuyn campaigned were virtually identical to those Le Pen used" (May 18). While he concedes that Pim Fortuyn's organisation is not a fully fledged fascist party, the drift of the comrade's position is that the LPF is well on the way to becoming one. Of course, it would be a serious mistake to be complacent about the electoral success of the LPF - the left must learn the correct lessons from what is happening. But the comrade's approach seems fundamentally wrong-headed in that his equation of Fortuyn even with Haider and Le Pen, let alone with fascists, does not bear serious examination. An examination of the nature of fascism has to start from a sound analytical basis. Fascism is the price the working class pays for not making revolution. Fascism represents the negative, counterrevolutionary resolution of a revolutionary situation on behalf of the interests of a failing bourgeoisie. Rule in the old way - through parliament, one party replacing another, etc, - cannot be maintained. Fascism moves to forcibly remove the contradiction within the ruling class. But crucially our class, the working class, our parties and trade union organisations are not just neutralised, but smashed. In no small measure this counterrevolutionary smashing of the working class is carried out by non-state fighting formations organised by a fascist party or movement - these counterrevolutionary formations are the essence of fascism. Since there is no revolutionary situation in any European country, none of Europe's ruling classes are about to turn to fascist parties. Neither is the extreme right our main enemy - the system of capital itself occupies that category. One common facet of the present period of reaction following the collapse of 'official communism' and the decay of traditional social democracy is the absence of a left alternative, whether revolutionary or social democratic in character. Where governments fail to deliver on the basis of their neoliberal, free market economics (to which, as we are ceaselessly told, 'there is no alternative'), then those who suffer, or think they suffer, as a result will become more polarised and look with increasing despair for some force capable of filling the resulting political vacuum. For us, this is both a threat and an opportunity. Maurice Bernal