Home >Opinion >Is the history of the 1930s repeating itself?

Across the developed world, the hold of traditional centrist parties seems to be slipping away with the rise of extreme right-wing nationalist parties and leaders. There is the AfD in Germany, the Front National in France, the Independence Party in England, the Freedom Party in Austria, Syriza in Greece, the Dutch Party for Freedom, and Donald Trump in America. Developing countries, where fascist ideologies are not demonized as genocidal, have seen a similar surge—in Turkey, the Philippines, Egypt; the two biggest emerging markets, China and India, have taken a right-wing jingoist turn. These developments mimic the eclipse of globalizing forces and the rise of right-wing movements in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. Is history being repeated?

Revolutionary Europe spawned the political ‘Right, Centre and Left’. The space on the Left was in time occupied by socialists and communists. Beginning with the sans-culottes during the French Revolution, the ranks of the Left were soon swelled by the new working class following the Industrial Revolution. Right-wing movements mobilized the petty bourgeoisie, comprising declining small producers and the new white-collar class. A decisive rightwing turn in the 1930s catalyzed the Spanish Civil War, World War II and the Holocaust, following which the current Left-Centre consensus was forged in the West.

Both left-wing and right-wing extremism culminated in totalitarian regimes, Bolshevism and fascism, facilitated by mass mobilization through civil society. Modern civil society emerged with the breakdown of traditional ordering devices such as the patriarchal joint family and feudalism, giving way to centralized bureaucracies, trade unions, political parties, clubs, and mass media such as newspapers, magazines and gazettes. Atomized individuals could now be directly influenced and mobilized through civil society.

The rise of a new middle class lay behind the success of both liberalism and fascism. The former grew deep roots in Western civil society at a time of growing opportunities, in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution. Nazism and fascism were both products of shrinking economic opportunities during the protracted Great Depression of the 1930s. Their contemporary avatars feed on growing inequality, stagnant real wages, falling labour participation rates and stalled growth in the wake of the global financial crisis. Islamist terrorism, itself the product of a lack of economic opportunities in large swathes of the Middle East, the immigrant surge, along with globalizing forces, is compounding the fear of losing one’s job and way of life in the West.

Mainstream political parties seem unable to address these popular concerns. Free trade and the middle class, the bedrocks of market capitalism and liberalism, are under threat as they were during the Great Depression. Muslims and immigrants are becoming straw men, just like the Jews in the 1930s. Instant mass mobilization through social media in the 21st century not only parallels the rise of civil society and mass media in the 20th century, but also enables marginal groups to mainstream old, declining prejudices.

Karl Marx quipped that historical events occur as it were twice. But they do so as a farce the second time around. Despite striking parallels to the Great Depression era, there are crucial differences.

First, the crisis in Western countries in the 1930s was cyclical. The demographic profile was young, productivity was growing robustly, post-war reconstruction fuelled demand, all of which made for a strong economic recovery and resurgence of liberalism. The current crisis seems structural, of a middle and labouring class in decline. The roots of right-wing extremism in developing countries lie in a rising middle class, more reminiscent of the 1930s.

Second, the civil war in Syria has several parallels with the Spanish Civil War that dragged in extant powers, culminating with World War II. China and India, the two major global players with the biggest capacity to put boots on ground, are however not involved. Also, with no major power able to challenge the US in conventional war, the latter is now conducted through quasi- and non-state actors that destabilize nation states and terrorize civil society.

The hegemony of liberalism was far from secure in Germany, Italy and Japan in the 1930s. The Junkers in Germany and Southern landowners in Italy exercised significant state control, and Japan was an imperial power. The state was strong, civil society weak. Traditional elites were swept away with the war. Germany, Japan and Italy joined the Western Left-Centre mainstream of liberal civil societies. Eastern Europe and large swathes of the developing world followed, but liberalism is far from secure here.

Fourth, while liberalism was the chief bulwark against fascism in civil society, the organized Left countered right-wing mobilization on the streets. Its support surged as the working class was economically distressed alongside the middle class. Both Nazis and Fascists touted socialist credentials, redirecting them towards aggressive nationalism. Their victory owed much to political blunders of the Social Democratic Party in Germany and the Confederazione Generale del Lavoro in Italy. Today, the organized Left is a much weaker force. Left-centrist parties have failed to address the concerns of their traditional working class base, a part of which has moved to right-wing parties that blame immigrants for job losses.

Fifth, totalitarian states of the 1930s preyed on their own citizens. While liberal regimes protected citizens through the ballot box, they nevertheless cohabited with the Empire and continue to prop up repressive regimes overseas. The brunt of current right-wing extremism is likely to be felt by the large number of immigrants with no voting rights, from the developing, and particularly Muslim, world, fleeing right-wing regimes in their own countries. The escalating violence by vigilantes against innocent people is likely to be perpetrated by nationalist right-wing militias, rather than the state. Classic fascist regimes are more likely in developing countries where both liberalism and civil society are weak.

History is unlikely to be repeated in the same manner, but with capitalism in crisis, and both Centre and organized Left in retreat, human tragedy of indeterminate magnitude is likely. Whether the post-war liberal order will survive the right-wing onslaught is moot.

Alok Sheel is a retired civil servant.

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