Radical Revival?: economic depression and political extremism

With persistent panic and media scaremongering over the “Eurozone crisis”, coupled with genuinely unstable global financial conditions, the economic malaise of the past few years looks set to deteriorate once again.

Historically, periods of economic hardship have been accompanied by an increase in popularity for extremist politics. The most obvious example to cite is the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany after hyperinflation and the Wall Street Crash of 1929. Yet, many other examples from the twentieth century exist. Therefore, with several prominent economic analysts and doomsayers claiming the current “crisis” as the worst since 1929, are we seeing, or going to see, a revival of mainstream radical politics?

This article shall endeavour to answer this question by comparing historical precedents with contemporary trends. Particular attention shall be given to the three main reasons why people have historically looked towards extremist politics during times of economic woe. Namely, the offer of a radical alternative to the centrist parties widely regarded as culpable for economic collapse; the use and denigration of scapegoats to direct the anger of the economically oppressed; and the presence of charismatic leaders, whose populism rather than policies lifts people in times of gloom.

In an attempt to offer a broad spectrum of political extremism, historical examples shall be taken from revolutionary Russia, Nazi Germany, and Spain during the Civil War.

Political extremism as an alternative to centrist parties

A period of sustained economic malaise is often seen by the people as a failure of the political system to protect their interests. When that system is well-established, with traditional powers of hierarchy and bureaucracy, a change is usually deemed necessary. Whether this just means the election of a new party into the existing corridors of power or an upheaval of the system itself often depends on the severity of the crisis.

In pre-1917 Russia, the imperialist Tsars of the Romanov dynasty had held power for several centuries, governing in an autocratic and apolitical fashion. The emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had done little to improve the lot of the Russian peasantry, many of whom gradually migrated to the growing urban centres in the hope of finding work. There they were exposed to radical new political ideas, which advocated an overthrow of the existing Tsarist system as a means of alleviating the poverty and mistreatment of the common man. The Communists, led by the charismatic exile Vladimir Lenin, saw the persistence of monarchical rule and its loyal servants as the reason for the mass impoverishment of the Russian people. In 1917, during a period of acute starvation and destitution during the First World War, the people finally embraced this new left-wing ideology as their saviour and overthrew the Tsarist regime. When once before the revered status of the Tsars may have prevented mass politicisation and agitation amongst the working class, now was the time for change. With Russia having been dragged into a brutal war by the monarchy and its economy all but destroyed, the peasantry sought the radical overthrow of the existing system to be replaced with an extreme form of government.

Bolshevik forces march on Red Square during the 1917 Revolution

Whilst not as revolutionary in terms of political upheaval, the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany also resulted from an unprecedented downturn in economic conditions. Having held onto power during the hyperinflation years between 1921 and 1924, during which Hitler’s failed Munich Putsch occurred, the Weimar Republic appeared to enter a more stable economic phase where it had staved off the rise of extremist politics. The new Rentenmark currency and American loans papered over the cracks for several years. However, the Wall Street Crash of 1929 resulted in the US calling for its loans to be repaid and revealed the massive structural debt of the country as a whole, and that of its struggling citizens in particular. This worsened economic environment gave Hitler and the Nazi Party the platform they needed to orchestrate the overthrow of the Weimar regime, which was quickly being regarded as overly-archaic and bureaucratic by the German population. Whilst Hitler worked within the existing political system for several years, during which support for the extremist Nazi vision rose steadily, on being appointed Chancellor he seized his opportunity to dismantle the Weimar regime and establish a dictatorship. The reason such a momentous manoeuvre was even possible was because of the population’s detestation of a political establishment that had not only surrendered to the Allies at the end of the First World War, but led them into an economic climate that made mere survival a struggle.

Thrown into a similarly undesirable economic situation after 1929, Spain saw an explosion of radical politics and contradictory ideologies gain popularity in the early 1930s. Unlike with the Communists in Russia and the Nazis in Germany, no one political grouping received majority public support in Spain after the overthrow of the monarchy in 1931. The Second Spanish Republic that replaced the monarchy was at first welcomed as a progressive change to a traditionalist institution associated with the financial strife of the country. However, when it soon became clear that the new Socialist-Republican government was unable to reverse the economic woe, the various political factions that had developed during the unpopular monarchical period gained in prominence. For the conservatives, fascists and military factions, the democratic reforms embedded in the new Spanish constitution of 1931 were too left-leaning and represented an undesirable break with the traditional values of the past. For the communist and anarchist factions that had also surged in popularity, the reforms did not go far enough to overthrow the hated political and economic system. Consequently, an unstoppable process of factional rivalry evolved in a bid to eliminate the centrist politics of Spain along widely diverging ideological lines. Without the economic depression and monarchical inefficiency after the First World War, these factions may not have arisen with such popularity. However, such was the desire to overthrow the system held responsible for imparting these troubling times on the people that wildly-different groups of radicals emerged in a process that would lead to civil war.

As of yet, Europe has not succumbed to political upheaval on this level, which was a result of the bitter economic legacy left by the First World War and the Wall Street Crash. However, that is not to say that radical politics have not once more taken root in certain countries, albeit within the existing political systems. The largely centrist and moderate parties that led Europe’s leading countries through the years of economic boom no longer command the sort of respect they once did, whilst more marginal groupings have begun to make political ground.

Since the global economic downturn of 2008, more radical political parties have made progress within the parliamentary system. In Scandinavia, for instance, the True Finns and Danish People’s Party, both considered as socially right-wing, have become the third largest parties in their respective countries. The Slovak National Party, which many critics deem as having ultranationalist tendencies, now forms part of that country’s coalition government. Even in Great Britain, the British National Party won two seats in the European Parliament in 2010, despite its overtly extreme policies. Whilst none of these parties can consider themselves to have the support of the majority of their country’s population, this “turn to the right” in Europe has alarmed some analysts, given the historical link between economic depression and extremist politics.

The response to the True Finns parliamentary success was not entirely appreciated

Fortunately, there has yet to be any sustained extra-parliamentary movements against existing political systems in Europe. This was the phenomenon that made the Nazi Party and the Russian Communists so dangerous and contributed to the civil strife in 1930s Spain. Whilst large-scale demonstrations and riots have been evident in many European cities over enforced austerity measures, Athens being the most obvious example, they have not been tied to any extremist political movements. However, the potential for radical politicians to exploit such public anger is a cause for concern.

Even in the USA, a country that prides itself on its liberal and democratic principles, the right-wing has made a revival. The Tea Party movement, associated with ultra-conservative social beliefs and Christian evangelism, has become such a prominent force in American politics that the current nominees for the Republican presidential candidacy have had to pander to their desires. All the leading contenders have set out their stance as anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage candidates who favour massive tax cuts despite the economic situation. This is an example of how radical political groupings, no matter what their size, can influence public opinion to such an extent that leading political parties have to alter their stance. Thus the potential exists for traditionally centrist parties to take more radical policy lines simply as a means of retaining power, rather than allowing their votes to be subsumed by more marginal and extreme groups. Whilst no threat is currently posed to the existing political systems of the Western World, another economic downturn could see radical politics infiltrating traditional power structures, which could have a significant impact on society.

Scapegoats for economic depression

A further reality of an economic depression is that people naturally look for a person, or group, to blame for the unwanted situation. Very often, large swathes of the population neglect to factor in the geopolitical circumstances in which an economic downturn has occurred, or remain ignorant to the fact that they have been outliving their means. Whatever the situation is, people look for scapegoats. This tendency is consequently exploited by ruthless political parties seeking to popularise their radical ideas.

In revolutionary Russia, the Communists sought to exploit existing class-based tensions to make the “rich” the culprits for the mass impoverishment that existed amongst the lower classes. Never mind the fact that Russia was immersed in a brutal war and had suffered consecutive years of atrocious weather and bad harvests; the aristocracy and bourgeoisie were presented as the economic oppressors. Through effective propaganda, and the harnessing of existing distrust between the classes, the Communists convinced a majority of the working population that the bourgeoisie were the unscrupulous minions of the capitalist elite, seeking to squeeze every penny from the poor through their ownership of the means of production. As a result, the Communists engineered sufficient support against a shared enemy, which helped lead to the 1917 revolution and the murder of the Romanov rulers. Not only that, but during the subsequent establishment of the Communist state, hundreds of thousands of “bourgeois” collaborators were sent to the GULAGs or executed by state-sponsored death squads. Countless other professionals from the Tsarist period fled into exile, where their talents were put to good use. Whilst some of the bourgeoisie undoubtedly increased the burden of the poor through the imposition of low wages and long hours, to discriminate so freely against an indeterminate proportion of the population was a ploy of the Communist exploitation of the economic depression. Without it, their creation of a repressive state may have proved impossible.

With regards to Germany, the scapegoats for the post-war depression were not class defined, but race defined. After 1929 the Nazis accelerated their anti-Semitic propaganda campaigns, exploiting traditional anti-Semitic beliefs in the country and the status of Jews as the chief money-lenders and financiers of Germany. Rather than focusing on their industriousness, the Nazis pointed to Jewish greed and economic subversion which resonated with millions of Germans desperate to pin the blame for their destitution on a tangible entity. How anti-Semitism degraded to such horrifying levels is still difficult to comprehend. Yet the Nazis, and Hitler in particular, seized their chance to portray the Jews as the economic enemies of the people, from which developed their more renowned ideologies regarding racial impurity and physical degeneration. Again, without that particular economic climate that existed after the Wall Street Crash, compounding the misery of war reparations, it is unlikely the Nazi Party would have been able to ride to power on predominantly anti-Jewish sentiment. By identifying the Jews as the cause of economic woe, the Nazis had a ready-made solution to fix the problem: eliminate the Jewish presence in society.

This Nazi propaganda poster from 1932 links Jews with the development of capitalism, communism, and socialism.

Because of the confused state of Spanish society and politics in the 1930s, a number of economic scapegoats were identified by equally-persuasive factional groups. This unique situation helped contribute to the beginning of a civil war, rather than a dictatorship. For the socialist and communist radicals, the monarchical legacy of rich landowners and patronised nobles created an endemic economic weakness that the majority of the population suffered under. As with the Russian revolutionaries, their attribution of blame was class-based. For the extreme left-wing anarchists, on the other hand, it was the political establishment in general that was the culprit for economic depression. In perhaps the most popular anarchist movement in history, the state itself was targeted as a useless entity that engendered mismanagement of funds and the impoverishment of workers.

On the right of the political spectrum, meanwhile, the conservative military saw the agitation of the workers as the cause for economic struggle in itself. Rather than working at full capacity, they were deemed to be preoccupied with counter-productive protests, supported by a socialist-led government that upset traditional hierarchies. The extreme-right Falange, the Spanish Fascists organised in 1933, held the left-leaning government in even greater contempt. Yearning for a return to state intervention and planning, as well as the nationalisation of key industries, the Falange saw Bolshevism as the cause of economic meltdown. They detested the infiltration of foreign ideologies, which they believed heightened agitation amongst the workers. In a country with low levels of foreign immigration, any outsider was considered a subversive by the Falangists, who demanded the return of a strong Spain. Perhaps most bizarre of all these factions, however, were the Carlists. With their supporters largely congregated in the agricultural north of the country, the Carlists were ultra-traditionalist Catholics who deemed modernity itself as the economic enemy. Distrusting any ideological strand of thought, from liberalism to communism, the Carlists called for the return of a Bourbon monarchy, which they believed the only sound form of government. With so many well-supported factions identifying their own scapegoats for the economic troubles of Spain, a “blame culture” developed within the Iberian nation that led to a confrontation of society on the grandest scale. It was a unique event in history, borne out of the economic circumstances of the time.

So, who is to blame for the current economic crisis in the Western world? Have political groups identified their own scapegoats? Thus far, blame has largely been restricted to individual political parties within the democratic systems of the West. Unlike in the post-1929 era, there has been little significant parliamentary challenge to traditional methods of rule. Governments have been toppled, but the system has remained in place. Rather, the causes of our current economic struggle have largely been seen as three-fold: 1) The greed of bankers and the failure of the banking system; 2) the apathy and expense of the ‘Welfare State’; 3) the over-bureaucratisation of society.

Public anger at the economy has largely been directed towards bankers

Unlike in the past, these perceived contributors to economic criminality cannot be easily-defined as targetable groups. Yes, protests have been launched in most capital cities against bankers’ bonuses and unsafe lending. But is anyone really suggesting getting rid of bankers? If so, it would be a minority. For the reality is, we need them now more than ever. As for those benefitting from the ‘Welfare State’, they are typically the people who have been the driving-force of radical politics in the past. Because the poorer classes suffer most during economic depression, they are often those most tempted by radical alternatives, and take heart from the identification of scapegoats. But when they themselves are the scapegoats for economic waste, there is unlikely to be the same level of enthusiasm for changing the system. Bureaucrats too are difficult to single-out because of their close ties with the existing political establishment, which is not yet under serious threat.

However dissatisfied some people might be, the level of anger directed against the contemporary political and economic systems is not comparable to the early twentieth century. Equally, there does not seem to be a shared opposition to particular societal groups, as there was against the Jews in Nazi Germany for instance.

It is true that the people of the Scandinavian nations have shown a degree of general mistrust towards foreign immigrants into what are their traditionally homogenous societies. This may explain the rise in popularity in right-wing political parties there. However, as of yet, none of these groups threatens to take control of the country. Meanwhile, individual acts of terror by right-wing lunatics like Anders Behring Breivik are often highlighted as an example of a society becoming infused with extremist ideologies. Yet, as with the recent discovery of a vicious neo-Nazi cell in Germany, these are one-off incidents. They are not linked to a wider mass movement that threatens political control, as was the case in the turbulent days of post-WWI.

Populist Leaders

Perhaps the most obvious absence from today’s economic climate compared to the past is that of the populist leader. Historically, economic downturns have offered charismatic, radical politicians the opportunity to spread the appeal of their particular ideologies. With people far more willing to listen to extremist ideas during periods when mainstream policy is deemed to have failed them, the more opportunistic leaders take their chance through utilising their own personal appeal.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, the Communist Party was effective in championing the personal virtues of Lenin, even when he was consigned to exile. Such an aura was developed around his persona that when he returned to Russia in April 1917, Lenin was revered as a saviour of the people. Exploiting this chance, Lenin outlined his most radical vision of communism to date in his ‘April theses’, using his persuasive public speaking powers to secure his popular mandate. The combined effects of his exploits, real and imagined, coupled with effective propaganda ensured Lenin was able to direct the building of the new communist state, a monumental challenge given the departure from monarchical rule.

Lenin charismatically directed the anger of the masses

Whilst Lenin was a great speech-maker, Adolf Hitler was unsurpassable as an orator. His well-orchestrated, powerful speeches became a hallmark of Nazi rule and earned him the support of large swathes of the German population who might otherwise have been repulsed by his outlandish policies. As with Lenin, and later Joseph Stalin, Hitler was popularised further by an effective propaganda campaign, in his case directed by Joseph Goebbels. The “Hitler Myth” as it has come to be known, portrayed Hitler as a demi-God come to rescue the German people from economic disaster and Jewish subversion. Hitler’s populism played on people’s emotions rather than their reason, a ploy that would not have had the same success during a time of economic stability.

Hitler's oratory power captivated millions

Part of the reason Spain fell into rival factional groups of similar strength in the 1930s was because of the prevalence of populist leaders. From Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader of the fascist Falangists, who relied on martial pomp and extensive political writing; to Dolores Ibárruri, known as La Pasionaria (passion flower), who spearheaded the Communist Party with matriarchal strength that attracted men and women alike; to General Francisco Franco, whose authoritarian nature and championing of a “nationalist patriotic” cause enabled him to mobilise millions of supporters during the Civil War even though he had no political policies or experience to speak of, charismatic leaders existed. They ruthlessly took advantage of the impoverishment of large segments of the population to turn Spaniards against one another in the hope that this would lead to their empowerment. The bloodshed that reigned in Spain between 1936 and 1939 is testament to the various leaders’ powers of persuasion.

La Pasionaria was a Communist inspiration in impoverished Spain

Contemporary politics in the West is not exhibiting this trend of increasing numbers of populist leaders that occurred during the economic hardships of the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, it could be argued that few of today’s leaders are anything more than moderates, who prefer drawn-out negotiations to radical action. Just look at the ongoing wrangling in Europe. This perhaps explains why radical politics has largely been kept away from the mainstream despite the economic climate in which extreme ideologies might appeal.

Some current examples of populist politicians do exist, however. Timo Soini, leader of the True Finns, utilised his “brain, wit and charisma” to popularise his radical brand of Eurosceptic, nationalist politics so that he was the most voted-for candidate in the 2011 Finnish parliamentary elections. A contrasting example would be Silvio Berlucsoni, whose inexplicable retention of power amidst public scandal and huge national debt in Italy was largely a result of his unique brand of populist politics. Yet, when you think of Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, or even Franco, there are no contemporary equals in the West. This will no doubt please the majority of readers, though it is somewhat of a surprise considering our supposedly awful economic predicament.

Today’s reality

This essay has tried to demonstrate that, despite many analysts claiming us to be in an economic depression comparable to the post-WWI period, extremist politics has not taken route in contemporary Western society as it did in the 1920s and ‘30s. The reasons for this are two-fold.

Firstly, notions of democracy and liberal values are far more entrenched in today’s Western world. After WWI, democracy was still a largely-distrusted political ideology that cannot be said to have been well-established anywhere, with the possible exception of the US. Consequently, the departure to radical politics in a time of economic want was not as great as it would be today, when democracy has become an accepted norm of the Western political system. Therefore, when looking for economic scapegoats, it is far harder for extremist parties to create a blame consensus towards a specific group of people when all men are considered equal in liberal-democratic societies. Such was not the case with the Jews in Nazi Germany or the bourgeoisie in Russia, when the possibility of racial and social inferiority was readily accepted.

The second reason why extremist politics are not flourishing at present is because the current economic depression has been frequently over-exaggerated by the Western media and opposition political parties. To compare our current economic status with the 1930s is absurd and, whilst people undoubtedly have to exercise more thrift in their daily affairs, this latest “crisis” is self-made. The horrific consequences of WWI created an endemic economic weakness in the Western world that could not be countered. Today’s malaise has largely resulted from greedy bankers, over-spending politicians and our own individual tendencies to live beyond our means and accumulate debt. The reason extremist politics don’t appeal to most today is because individuals know that they are largely to blame for their own situation. It is they that need to change, not the system. Analysts and “experts” need to be careful when they compare our current luxury to the destitution and terror of the 1930s.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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