Why Communists turn into Nationalists

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On November 9th 2016, the day after Trump’s election as the 45th president of the United States, bells prophesying the doom of repeated history rang loudly over Europe, a continent Nazis had decimated into a fascist bloodbath seven decades earlier. One British paper ran a full page image of a grief stricken Statue of Liberty, her grey palms pressed to her eyes as dark clouds rolled overhead. But German newspapers were more vitriolic. Die Welt showed Trump devilishly grinning against a film still of Apocalypse Now, Der Spiegel claimed ‘Tragedy’, and ‘Madness’. Yet another paper grouped him with Stalin, Putin, Pol Pot and Hitler with the headline ‘Psychopaths of History’.

A year later, it seems Germany had good reason to be afraid. The parallels drawn between Trump and Hitler—in his rhetoric, in his beliefs and in his policies—both during the campaign and since have been cited by newspapers, historians and academicians alike. And despite the famous words of Anne Frank—“What is done cannot be undone, but one can prevent it from happening again”—many feel the chill of déjà vu. It is not mere hyperbole.

Yet to understand what is happening in the United States might also be to understand the current rise of nationalism in Europe. Because few were surprised that rich white conservatives had voted for Trump, just as no one was surprised that Theresa May’s rich cronies had voted for Brexit six months earlier. But their votes alone didn’t account for the unexpected results. Educated analysts scrambled to make sense of the election as close scrutiny of demographics revealed that the biggest win lay in the voting patterns of the blue collar workers. In the U.K. “populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote Leave.” This was supported by research published out of Warwick University, which found that “areas with deprivation in terms of education, income and employment were more likely to vote Leave.”

Likewise, in the U.S. the poorest, least-educated white folk of the United States had voted for the wealthiest candidate ever to run for president despite his numerous professional failings and evident disregard for their welfare—as demonstrated by over 3500 lawsuits from ordinary Americans—the little people—whose invoices remained unpaid by Trump and his corporations. According to a review of government filings by USA Today, ‘Trump’s companies had also been cited for 24 violations of the Fair Labour Standards Act since 2005 for failing to pay overtime or minimum wage.’

Any disgust for Trump’s personal character flaws it seemed, had been outweighed by his extravagant campaign promises. It was the system, he’d claimed, which was broken and had forgotten them. Only he Donald Trump, could repair it—he would ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington. He would build a wall to keep ‘bad hombres’ out from Mexico (and make Mexico pay for it). He would reform immigration laws, introduce a ‘Muslim ban’ and bring back jobs to Americans. Borders would be closed, protectionist measures implemented. America would be great again. Crooked Hillary—a woman emblematic of the system which had mistreated the proletariat—would be locked up with her well-to-do, pant-suited pals. The angry, downtrodden populists cheered, their rage against the machine had been heard.

The return to nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic has been relentlessly fuelled by the perception of the working people that international accords like the those which support the World Trade Organization, the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization no longer serve national interests (if they ever did). In Trump’s own words, “We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism.”

What the educated analysts had failed to understand, and even more to forecast, was the extent of poverty, rejection and betrayal perceived and experienced by those who believed their local communities, livelihoods and identities had been undermined by the supranational ideals of the freedom of trade, labour and investment.

Meanwhile in France…

Returning to Reims, a 2009 memoir by French, politically progressive, intellectual Didier Eribon was written after his estranged father’s funeral; an event which he didn’t bother to attend. It shines a light on his working class family’s struggle to survive and Didier’s effort to distance himself from them and his past.

The relevance to today’s political landscape is particularly pertinent given Didier’s discovery that in a seemingly abrupt volte face, his staunchly communist father had voted in his later years for Le Front National, a far right party whose co-founder—Jean-Marie Le Pen—recently dismissed the holocaust as a mere detail of history and described the Nazi Occupation as ‘not particularly inhumane.’

To many educated liberal folk like Didier, it seems inconceivable that the values extolled by conservative far-right parties, and laid out for example, within anti-immigration policies (often conflated or combined with racism, and oppressive attitudes against minorities) could represent anything other than a choice by the ignorant and inferior to proceed down the slippery slope to fascism. But to disregard others’ right to self-determine via the ballot box is to similarly undermine the pillars of democracy…

Unfortunately, M. Eribon senior isn’t a likeable protagonist for his cause. Didier describes him as ‘a rude, despotic, beating man, unable to give love, least of all a son who professes his homosexuality.’ Indeed, his father ‘incarnated everything [Didier] wanted to run away from, everything he wanted to break with.’ Still as he sat with his mother poring over old family photographs of the man he scarcely recognized anymore, the question haunted him—what would propel a man so fiercely invested over a lifetime in leftwing politics to vote for a far right extremist party?

Didier’s father was the eldest of twelve children and left school at the age of fourteen to work in a factory with a responsibility to contribute to the family finances. He was destined for a life of hard manual labour ‘…the work was so exhausting-to a degree unimaginable to anyone who hasn’t experienced it—and where the noise, the heat and the daily repetition of the same mechanical movements slowly wore away at the health of even the most resilient of organisms.’

His home environment offered little respite. He grew up in a garden city, described by Didier as a ‘place of social ostracism’, ‘a reservation for the poor’ which ‘resembled a destitute ghetto’. Moreover ‘the drift into delinquency was one of the prime options open to young people’ as if it ‘constituted some kind of obstinate popular resistance to the laws imposed by the state that was perceived on a daily basis to be an instrument wielded by a class enemy.’ Certainly ‘many sociologists and historians now blame [the garden city] model for rising crime rates, social exclusion, limited access to public amenities and heightened class divisions.’

Garden Cities were certainly built with an agenda but were once altruistically proposed as planned developments for the workers with interspersed green spaces, and as a solution to relieve overcrowded urban areas. The philanthropists who sponsored these building projects imagined themselves experts on the ‘immoral’ worker and how to keep him or her domestically docile. By coincidence or design, decentralised urban planning contributed to a less cohesive and disconnected community, whilst the catholic bourgeoisie also encouraged high birth rates in order to keep the working class ‘invested in their home lives and to divert them from the temptations of political resistance.’

At this, the misguided middle-class failed spectacularly because for those who struggle for survival, the political becomes personal. For the workers, ‘what are at stake are the most concrete realities of many individual lives—people’s very health’, food and day-to-day work. Short of obtaining further education, and transgressing class barriers there seemed little opportunity to escape the multiple intersecting oppressions brought about by destitution save one: the dream of Communism, to which Eribon senior was fiercely dedicated.

This dream was based on common ownership of the means of production and the absence of social classes, money and the state. It represented a rebellion against a system which exploited labourers, and dominated their lives from the wage they were paid, the hours they worked, the run down housing provided to them and the education accessible to them. “My family divided the world into two camps, those who were ‘for the workers’ and those who were ‘against the workers’…” writes Didier. Communism, as intended by Marx, wanted to level the playing field and saw itself as in conflict with bourgeois capitalism itself. Communism might not have been a bourgeois dream… but it was M. Eribon’s dream.

Communism spoke the language of his victimhood.

But great swings in a nation’s political direction are more predisposed to occur under certain predictable conditions. One of those is prolonged economic hardship which disproportionately affects lower income workers—those without status, power or a financial buffer. This in turn often sets the stage for a leader to promise ‘a better way of life and solutions to the intractable problems facing the population of that country.’

Thus communism had once been seen by the Eribon family as the solution to these problems. But even during the Early Cold War communism never managed to gain enough traction to deliver on its promises in Western democracies. The U.S. who were concerned about the prospect of communist power in France and Italy, offered money via the Marshall Plan to help expel communists from governments in both countries.

As communism proved at best ineffectual and at worst a failure in Western Europe, M. Eribon senior must have been devastated; after all, so much of his social identity was tied to it. But at least four other factors can be considered as complicit in the downfall of the family’s already dwindling hopes for a better future and which made way for a new, more appealing political inclination.

  • The Schism of the Left

Didier writes, “in his Abécédaire [an 8-part documentary which ran on French television in 1988-89] Gilles Deleuze puts forward the idea that being on the left means first of all ‘being aware of the world’ […] by which he means considering the most urgent problems are those of the third world which are closer to us than the problems of our own neighbourhood […] In working class environments a leftist politics meant […] a protest and not a political project inspired by a global perspective. You considered what was right around you […] the hardships of daily life and the intolerable nature of injustices around them.”

When might this schism of ideologies—noted as a given by Gilles Deleuze in 1988—have occurred?

The book Babylon and Beyond: The Economics of Anti-Capitalist, Anti-Globalist and Radical Green Movements is cited as a reference for the 70s movement where some parts of the left merged green issues with anti-capitalism. So began the recalibration of the left’s lens onto outward, globally-focused, longer-term, social justice causes—inequality in relation to comparisons across the world—rather than attending to the immediate local needs of the lower income working class.

For those who struggled to attend to their daily needs, environmental concerns it might be assumed, were not only far less relevant, but considerations solely reserved for the pompous and privileged. Those with time on their hands. Those with money in their pockets. People a world removed from the Eribon family.

  • The Formation of the European Economic Community

Perhaps partly as a reaction to the newer more outwardly facing Leftist profile, partly as a resistance to a perceived loss of identity, a widespread perception that globalization negatively impacted the poor and more generally as a wholly human fear of destabilising change, sprung an anti-globalist movement which positioned itself against corporate economic globalization, where the enemy was European Economic Community. But the machine was unstoppable. The treaty of Paris (1951) was followed by the treaty of Rome (1957), the merger treaty (1965) and the Schengen Agreement (1985) which abolished border checks.

To become part of a greater whole, is from one perspective, to be subsumed. In becoming European, did this mean becoming less French? Sacrificing what little power they retained? Remembering that if the bloody fissures of tyranny suffered during second world war had healed, they had only done so recently for M. Eribon who had barely survived the wreckage of World War II.

  • The Betrayal of the System

And then there was the character of the man himself, what personal psychological buttons might be exploited to prompt such a change in heart?

The masculinity of M. Eribon was, kindly put, of his time. He found ‘the idea of sitting in a passenger seat and being driven around by his wife so degrading that he preferred driving without a license.’ Didier writes, ‘He would go literally go crazy and turn quite nasty when my mother would voice her concern.’

Imagine then, when in 1970, he ‘was caught in a long period of unemployment’ Mme Eribon was compelled to find work in the factory, in order to rescue the family finances. One can only imagine what damage was ‘done to his masculine sense of honour by not being able to provide for his household.’ What constituted being a real man if it wasn’t to provide for his family?

Finally at the age of fifty-six he was forced into ‘early retirement’ as was his wife—whether they chose it or not—‘both of them spit out by the system that had exploited them so shamelessly.’ The subtle strands of what constitutes gross betrayal are all evident. The violated trust in the system, the loss of control over livelihood, and the destruction of self-esteem.

  • The Culture Clash between Immigrants and the White Working Class

Into this state of social disquiet, Mitterand was elected as the first socialist president in the fifth republic at the beginning of the 1980s. He relaxed the rules on immigration and “powerful civil rights groups such as SOS Racisme and MRAP emerged from this shift in legal framework.” The consequences were that ‘Maghrebi families moved in, rapidly becoming the largest group in the neighbourhood’, writes Didier, ‘and the extreme right’s ability to attract those who had previously voted communist […] was made possible or at least facilitated by the profound racism that constituted one of the dominant characteristics of white working and lower class circles.’

Researchers consider that one of the functions of social identity is to contribute to an individual’s self-concept derived from ‘connection to and similarity with other in-group members’ as well as the ‘distinction between the in-group and the outgroup.’ Social groups are created through similarity on factors like tastes, race, class, religion, gender and status. Essentially, when we perceive familiarity, we feel safe. The Eribon family did not feel safe.

“A set of enormous threats erupted into a world that had once been theirs […] the swarms of children belonging to the new arrivals who urinated and defecated in the stairways, and who once they were teenagers transformed the housing complex into a world of delinquency, producing a climate of fear and insecurity[…] She could no longer bear the incessant noise…, nor the cries of the sheep that was butchered in the bathroom of the apartment above hers to celebrate Eid al-Kabir.’

Didier was not there. He cannot guarantee that the circumstances as described to him above by his mother corresponded to the ‘reality around her or only to her fantasies.’ But he concludes, ‘most likely both at once.’

Above all, etched within the prose of this memoir, is the penmanship of one who sees his mistakes of the past yet sombrely acknowledges their inevitability. Didier considers that the responsibility of the defeated workers’ movement must also lie with the people who were once nurtured by their left-wing families, only to reject them. People like him.

Didier was of a younger generation, his took his access to education for granted despite the fact his mother worked in inhumane conditions to send him to high school. He was one of those from poverty stricken circumstances who utilised all the family resources to ascend into a position of power, where his preoccupations became less about the challenges of the ordinary folk he’d left behind and more about intellectual pursuits as ‘defenders of a world perfectly suited to the people they had all become.’ Those born of workers, who appropriated leftist politics to promote their own values and systematically excluded the very existence of their kith and kin ‘from the landscape of legitimate politics.’

“From the 1980s the left gradually turned its back on workers in manual or menial jobs; the resulting “neoconservative revolution” and its dismissal of class as a category of political discourse is the crux of voters’ growing appetite for the far right.”

– Profile on D. Eribon, Financial Times, June 2017

Against a fear-infused backdrop of a loss of social, political, professional, national and racial identity, M. Eribon likely both searched for feet at which to lay the blame and a solution to his dashed hopes.

The enemies had changed; they were now within the ranks. The New Left were pro-Europe, and they also consisted of activists who campaigned on a broad panoply of issues—feminism, gay and civil rights. His son was one of them. It was a personal betrayal.

Luckily there was a new leader with a new solution. In 1972 Jean-Marie Le Pen had co-founded a political party. One which offered a strong identity and pride in being French, one which was anti-Europe, one which resonated in the hearts of the workers.

Le Front National spoke his language of victimhood.

Le slogan du Front National (1978)

Translation: One million unemployed, is one million immigrants too many. France and the French First!

Present Day

Le Front National is now led by Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie who led a campaign to kick her anti-Semitic father out of the party in 2015 in an effort to paint Le Front National’s brand image in more modulated tones. Her approach broadened voter appeal, yet a softer stance on Nazi Apologism was accompanied by doubling down on anti-immigration policies.

Six months after an explicitly racist and misogynist social climber, a reality TV billionaire who mocked the disabled and the fallen—had been elected as the President of the United States, it was France’s turn to vote. Le Front National did well, especially among those with lower incomes, lower life expectancy and lower education levels.

Back in Reims, at the top right-hand corner of France the Eribon’s voices had been heard. In an interview with Didier conducted and published in the Financial Times after the 2017 elections, he says ‘It’s easy to convince yourself that you wouldn’t shake the hand of a Front National voter, but when you realise it’s your mother, your brothers and the entire milieu you come from, it becomes a lot more complicated.’

Six months later the following September, the world waited for Germany’s election results. Having narrowly failed to clear the 5% hurdle for parliamentary representation in the previous elections, ‘the AfD, anti-immigrant Euro-sceptics hailed victory as the third biggest party.’ Unsurprisingly, their strongest support was in the former communist East Germany.

As clear and inevitable as the turn of events may seem now and as insightful as historical analysis might have been following similar events in the past, the waters remain obstinately muddy in terms of any future solution. That’s because politics more than many disciplines is subject to our most human of psychological flaws—the desire for power. As causes grow in popularity, the original victims are often left behind whilst those already in power claim more space and more status by piggybacking on these issues without having suffered first-hand experience in order to promote their own agenda.

But there is hope on the horizon—and surprisingly it comes from the election of President Trump. The misogynistic angle of Hillary’s defeat by a man who boasted of being able to grab any woman ‘by the pussy’ wasn’t missed by feminist commentators. Global outrage at the position given to a man who clearly abused his power in so many senses of the word, has sparked off a chain of protests. Recent movements like #metoo promise a less hierarchical, less power-hungry solution. In this movement, although not without its problems, the voices of the victims have been centred and largely supported. Men have given way to women. White women have given space to women of colour.  Women of colour have promoted the stories of the even more marginalised to lend nuance and context to the entire discussion. Perhaps this movement will succeed better than its predecessors in redistributing power more equally, because the language of victimhood is finally spoken by the victims themselves.