Thoughts on N. Davidson et al., The Longue Durée of the Far-Right (London: Routledge, 2015)
The most exciting idea in the book, and the one with which I will engage, is the analogy contained its title. The title alludes to the French Annales school and a way of thinking about history which is well expressed by Ferdinand Braudel’s extraordinary book The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II
Braudel’s story of the Mediterranean is organised around a distinction between three sorts of time, each of which he addresses at equal length: in the first section of his book, the time of people in relationship to their environment, as he calls it, “a history in which all change is slow, a history of constant repetitions, ever-recurring cycles … almost timeless history”
In his second section, he turns to social history, the history of economic states, and civilisations. In his third and final section, he writes on the scale of traditional history, the history of events
Now, writing about the far-right has undoubtedly suffered from an over-focus on the history of events at the expense of longer history (the longue durée). The shortness of the timescale structures the story that is written
To give an example: in 2002, I was living in the North East of England, where the British National Party was hoping to win council seats in England. I met a journalist, a left-winger, whose job was to report on the election for the national press. His newspaper ran a piece saying that the BNP was on the verge of a breakthrough – locally and nationally. After he had left, he sent me a short, kind note thanking me and other anti-fascists who he had interviewed. “I wish I could come back next year, and report the good news of the BNP being held, pushed back. But of course that would not make a story that we could publish”
He had an idea of the far-right as a perennial outsider, newsworthy only when it seemed on the verge of entering the mainstream.
You could imagine a historian of the future trying to analyse the BNP’s growth only from the snapshot-reports about its success in the mainstream press; every report would say that the BNP was growing (and yet it never achieved such a breakthrough as to become significantly larger than it always had been). Such a historian could tell that it was growing not from the content of the reports, but only from their frequency (it was only when this story became weekly or daily news that the BNP was actually in a condition of ascent).
What is true of people who write for newspapers is also true of people who write books. There is an enormous and ultimately unsatisfying literature of books which have been published over the past 30 years whose message could be simplified down to “watch out: the FN, or the FPO, or the BNP (or whoever) are coming”
Just to speak of the longue durée is already to raise the possibility of a richer way of thinking about these movements – a history which recognises their troughs as well as their peaks, the work of their opponents, the economic and social cycles that sustain or limit them
That said, there are at least two specific conceptions of the longue durée raised in the book, one of which makes me cautious, while the other I find more interesting
First, a caution: at times, at least some of the contributors write as if the longue durée is expressed in what one of the editors terms a “persistence” between the far-right of early twentieth century France and the far-right of today
France is a key case because it has both the most successful far-right party of contemporary Europe (the FN) and because it had a vibrant far-right milieu expressed in Boulangism and the Dreyfus affair (see image, above), which has immensely well mined by historians such as Ze’ev Sternhell. It is superficially a strong case of continuity; whereas if you were to start in Britain, a heroic effort would be needed to find in Edwardian politics a neat precursor to, say, Nigel Farage.
But the notion of a persistence in French or European politics between 1914 and 2014 is a sociologist’s not a historian’s comparison, which is polite way of saying simply that I distrust it.
The people of 100 years ago who seem superficially to be the predecessors of Le Pen (Peguy, Barres, Maurras…) were writers who for the most part supported Catholicism, the return of the monarchy, and the defence of the army. They were, in other words, the militant champions of conservative politics, not the harbringers of an independent politics with a hostile relationship to the existing state.
In English terms, they were not Robert Kilroy-Silk or even Douglas Carswell, rather they were noisy followers of Boris Johnson.
(And who, if you look to the Britain of 1914 for continuity was a premature Nigel Farage?)
Second, in Neil Davidson’s chapter of the book, there is a slightly more diffuse and therefore actually more compelling, use of the longue durée focussed on the key question of whether capital needed either the historic or the contemporary far-right.
Among the points he makes are these
• That some aspects of far-right politics are counterproductive to the needs of capital
• That fascism performed services for the interwar capitalist class without being a movement of capitalist or reducible to these aspects of its programme
• That, there is a wide span between the far-right groups, both within and between countries
• That within the contemporary far right there is a key distinction between parties that aim to challenge the democratic regime as such, and those that do not
• That in the contemporary world capitalism does not need, nor the far right offer, to crush the working class
• That a unifying factor within the contemporary far right is extreme social conservatism – always involving fear of immigration, but potentially with other sources; and that
His key point is that the crises of 1929 and 2008 belong to different periods in the history of capitalism, and that the movements which emerge from them are consequently different (eg in terms of the salience within their programmes of opposition to capitalism and plans for smashing the working class) in terms of their ambitions, programme, etc
Which seems just about right to me.