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Is Europe’s far-Right always wrong? Liberals shouldn't scorn unlikely political alliances

Far-Right protestors in Spain (Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Far-Right protestors in Spain (Marcos del Mazo/LightRocket via Getty Images)


May 26, 2022   4 mins

“In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t about Putin’s attack against Ukraine… It is about democracy, sovereignty — fundamentals like freedom of speech and human rights. It is about Western democracies’ ability to stand up for themselves and the values they’re built on.”

This may sound like the words of a liberal internationalist. But they come from Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the anti-immigration, Right-wing populist party, the Sweden Democrats. In the past he has equivocated when asked whether he preferred Putin to Emmanuel Macron or Joe Biden. But four days after the onset of Russia’s invasion, speaking to Sweden’s parliament, his tone was unflinching.

Many Right-wing leaders have shifted their rhetoric since the start of the war. Marine Le Pen first downplayed Russia’s threat to Europe and described Putin as a force for good, only to then call Russia’s invasion “condemnable”. In Italy, Lega Party leader, Matteo Salvini, supported Russia’s annexation of Crimea, opposed retaliatory EU sanctions, and praised Russia’s government for “working for its people’s interests”. But he eventually condemned Putin and “Russian aggression”.

The shifts in rhetoric offer insight into their values, as well as the challenges facing their loudest opponents. Indeed, as the far-Right distances itself from Putin in varying degrees of about-face, centrist commentators are pouncing. The Times of Israel claimed Russia’s invasion “plunged far-Right movements across Europe into an identity crisis, as they struggle to square their loyalty to Vladimir Putin with the public’s overwhelming solidarity with Kyiv”, leaving the far-Right in a “pickle”. The Japan Times and the Times of India ran the same report calling it a “quagmire”, while the New York Times said Europe’s nationalists were “squirming”.

Commentators such as prominent Russian-American journalist Julia Ioffe were more prescriptive than descriptive in their characterisations. As she wrote for an American audience: “To the people who think… that trans people are made up, that ‘cancel culture’ has gone too far, that ‘men should be men and women should women’ — congratulations, you agree with Putin. You are his ideological ally.” CNN columnist Frida Ghitis went further in theorising coherence and consistency between Russia’s invasion and the agendas of Western rightists, linking Putin with Marine Le Pen’s reach for the French presidency and even Elon Musk’s attempt to purchase and transform Twitter. “We’re all witnessing the great challenge of our times play out around us,” she concludes.

Two agendas seem to drive much of this commentary. The first, revealed in comments such as Ioffe’s, is strategic opportunism: to use public opinion about foreign policy to advance a domestic political effort. Link local cultural conservatives to the unpopular Putin via alleged ideological commonalities, and you make conservatism less appealing.

The second is more psychological. It has to do with convincing yourself that the people you oppose in one context are also your enemies in all others: to declare the universality of your ideological map, and to extinguish all suspicion that You and They might look at a single consequential political development and feel the same way about it. It may be an outgrowth of the Left’s enduring insistence that its visions and campaigns (minority rights, environmentalism, anti-Imperialism, etc.) will all smoothly integrate in a political universe suited to mass management, where ideological consistency and coherence reign.

Ideological consistency is elusive among the far-Right — a fact the Left likes to point out, without understanding its implications. But it’s worth understanding the nuances of the far-Right’s worldviews and values, which vary and are at times mutually irreconcilable. If we were to divide Europe’s ultra-nationalists into two camps, we would see, on the one side, more moderate reformers who tend to endorse cultural nationalism, philosemitism, and pro-democratic liberal chauvinism opposite hardline idealists lurching toward ethnonationalism, anti-Semitism, cultural conservatism, explicit anti-liberalism, and authoritarianism.

However, perhaps counterintuitively, “liberal” nationalists have produced some of the more tepid criticisms of Russia’s invasion. One example is that blond bombast Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom, who has long claimed that liberalism, rather than conservatism, motivates his opposition to immigration on the grounds that Muslims threaten feminism, gay rights, and democracy. And yet that ostensible commitment to core liberal values has seldom inspired opposition toward anti-liberal Putin. Even in the weeks following the invasion, Wilders’s previously qualified endorsement of the Russian leader has mostly gone quiet as he opposes sanctions and spreads talking points of the Russian state in his media channels.

On the other hand, there is no shortage of far-Right parties in Eastern Europe who embrace ultraconservatism while opposing Putin. The Alliance for the Union of Romanians and Latvia’s National Alliance, which have both always been hyper-conservative and anti-Russian — this has accelerated since February 24, with the National Alliance, for instance, proposing to deny residency to Russian citizens in Latvia. Meanwhile, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia — once mildly supportive of Putin — not only switched its tone but has been supporting proposed energy embargoes. And the European country with one of the most robust records of action in support for Ukraine, its neighbour Poland, is led by Andrzej Duda, an ultraconservative sprung from the Law and Justice party, who pursued dramatic curtailing of abortions, gay rights, and immigration.

Political sympathy toward Russia, in other words, is not tracking with far-Right parties’ attitudes toward liberalism. Their reactions, instead, appear plainly related to whether they feel directly threatened by Russian military expansion. When facing an existential crisis (Poland), or seeing historic antagonisms revived (Sweden, Finland), they care little for talk of ideology.

So while centrists see strategic and idealistic reasons to criticise the far-Right now, their attacks may be short-sighted. With Western economic and military coalitions being tested — and with calls from some on the Left for Ukraine to surrender, uttered with an aloofness resembling liturgy more than political analysis — far-Right parties may provide vital reinforcement. This is true even beyond Baltic states and Poland. In Sweden, for instance, the Sweden Democrats not only voted in favour of sending arms to Ukraine, but also altered their stance on Nato membership early in response to Russia’s invasion, bolstering the cause and with it the likelihood that Russia ends this conflict geopolitically weakened. Matteo Salvini, meanwhile, pledged early support for Ukrainian refugees — a move that observers speculated might have been a tactic to outflank a political threat from the Right ahead of elections next year, from the ascendent Brothers of Italy party, who are vocally pro-Ukraine.

But a deeper challenge beckons, that of resigning ourselves to the possibility that certain circumstances might align us with our political opposites. Grievances often levied against the far-Right in the West — about its anti-democratic sentiment; disinformation; a coarsened political discourse; fetishes for state violence — take a different shape today. Confrontation with Russia calls us to question whether the internal fights we have in Western politics really do span the ideological spectrum as we like to think, or whether we curse each other while huddled in the corner of a vaster terrain. When presented with actual violence instead of symbolic violence, and war crimes instead of word crimes, we may find we have less time for things like ideology.


Benjamin Teitelbaum is an American ethnographer and political commentator. He is author of War for Eternity: The Return of Traditionalism and the Rise of the Populist Right.

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Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago

I have commented in the past favourably on Putin’s condemnation of leftist woke culture in the West and I am not particularly right wing. Indeed he seemed a lot more sensible than many of the woke mob.
There is nothing I would unsay but as is often the case I had misjudged him and had not taken into account the full depth of his aggressive authoritarian character – as a consequence I have no difficulty holding to the position that he has said some sensible things about the lunacy of the woke in the past but that his invasion of Ukraine puts him into the box of authoritarians who should be unequivocally opposed.
Not to be able to see the logic of this this is, as the author points out, merely to engage in leftist political posturing.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Completely agree, thanks for setting it out so clearly.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

It simply shows you have a brain, and are able to form your own opinions rather than blindly following a chosen side. Unfortunately for too many politics is simply a tribal affair similar to following the football

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

I agree with these sentiments entirely. His views are acceptable to me. His actions are not. It’s a terrible thing that the usual suspects are seeking to tar all with his brush in an ideologically nonsensical way.

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Quite right.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

That is fair enough, but it should always have been entirely clear that Putin, an ex-KGB agent for God’s sake, is not fighting for ‘Christian civilisation’ or any such thing, has always been an utterly brutal leader, and and any comments he makes on issues such as identity politics are entirely transactional and opportunistic. They serve him only as (yet) another way to try and divide the West and reduce any resistance to his authoritarian aggression.
We don’t need to cite Putin to combat identity politics, and indeed as current events are showing, this guilt by association ends up weakening that cause in the West itself.

Laura Creighton
Laura Creighton
2 years ago

The ruling left immediately labels anything that isn’t internationalist and globalist (since that is what they are promoting this year) as ‘far right’, whether that makes sense or not. (We’re the left. Our opponents are the right. Because we say so, and we’re the left! Never mind that we have completely flip-flopped on practically every issue, where we are now doing the things we used to decry and decrying the things we used to stand for. ‘Free Trade’ used to be right-wing, and “trade-protectionism” left. More generally, the left saw itself as restraining the over-reach of corporate power. How things have changed!)
In the Swedish press, when Jimmie Åkkeson was starting his political career, he was first mocked for being the leader of the ‘backwards-looking nostalgia’ party, because repeatedly got up and said that the Social Democrats had lost their way, and have become the party of the corporations and the rich, which is why he wanted to go back to the policies of the Social Democrats of the late 20th century. This badly backfired on them, as a lot of people scratched their heads and said, “hmm, you know, I wouldn’t mind some of that myself”. But at that point the script was worked out. The way to debate policy direction with people who don’t like your policies is to call them all N a z i s and far right extremists.
There is only so much milage you can get out of ‘right-wing bad, left-wing good’ sloganeering, unless you are trapped in a 2 party state. Then ‘their guys bad, my guys good’ means that you can run this slogan no matter what the left and the right are supposed to be believing and doing this week, forever.

Last edited 2 years ago by Laura Creighton
Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

The label ‘right-wing’ is a tactic often used against the psychological susceptible to override rational thought processes and instigate a negative knee-jerk reaction toward any opinion or thought the Establishment disapproves of.

Russ W
Russ W
2 years ago

The post-modern, social constructionist left, or “the woke,” is led by a wealthy “western” elite.

This group is illiberal but “identifies” as liberal. I suspect that frequently accusations of “far right, fascist” are distortions designed to smear and project their own intentions onto their political opponents.

Western is in quotes as the woke hate their history, culture, and institutions and prefer an authoritarian model which is under their “control.”

It seems likely that the money at the top wants Xi like authoritarian power and justifies that by rationalizing it as avoidance of WWIII and “saving the planet” from climate change.

This illiberal strategy relies on division, deception, and confusion to destabilize institutions and individuals. It’s solution is the reverse: unity, honesty, and clarity to stabilize ourselves and our institutions. The time is now. We have multiple geopolitical actors seeking global hegemony by bringing down the Western world order.

We must become awake, not woke.

Last edited 2 years ago by Russ W
Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

I honestly believe that a significant majority of the electorate consider free speech and freedom of expression one of the most important issues of modern life, which, ergo, means that people must be free to criticise LBGT Q, racial issues, global warming zealots, and other issues that are becoming ” off limits”- They also believe in fair imposition of law and order, and free and unprejudiced trials and systems of justice, which includes holding Police to account. Does this make this majority ” Far Right”, ” Liberal” or ” Libertarian”?…. or indeed ” Leftist”?…. The great Richard Ingrams, fonder of Private Eye once described his political affiliation as ” Whig Anarchist”, and I identify with that- Britain needs a new form of “Whig” party, and if certain MPs of all hues had the courage, one could be formed and it would win its first election.

M. Gatt
M. Gatt
2 years ago

Geo politics is about balance of power. Geo politics is neither right or left. If has no morals or ethiics. The Russian- Ukraine war has NO good guys. If you do not accept realpolitk then you are like an adult who see’s the world as a 10 year old would. Grow up. And stop supporting escalation.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  M. Gatt

This sort of ‘realpolitik’ (supposedly…) is fine as far as it goes – but why is it ‘the West’ that is only ever accused by some of you of ‘supporting escalation’? The Russians, or more to the point, the Putin clique, ARE the ‘bad guys’ here, unless ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have absolutely no meaning at all. This was an all-out invasion, without any warning at all, or even an ultimatum given. Was Japan justified in attacking Pearl Harbour? Was Hitler a ‘bad guy’ in the 1930s? He had plenty of excuses and grievances as well. In your world perhaps, simply give in to his endless demands? That wouldn’t, I’d hope we might all agree on this, have produced a better world, although at least we – were we alive – wouldn’t have to worry ourselves about writing comments on UnHerd!
As far as I can see, the West on the whole with all its flaws (and it isn’t a monolith) is striving rather hard to support the Ukrainians while NOT escalating the situation. Some on the Right seem to have been totally discombobulated, not to say morally corrupted, by their equivocations on this issue (it is usually the ‘anyone but the West’ Left which is guilty of this). It is Putin who keeps threatening to use nuclear weapons, and you can’t get much more ‘escalation’ than that!

Richard Craven
Richard Craven
2 years ago

Europe’s far right is Europe’s far left.

Edit Szegedi
Edit Szegedi
2 years ago

The Alliance for the Union of Romanians is considered a Russian-backed party.