Far-right leftism and counter-culture : the postmodern far-right
According to a survey published by the French newspaper Le Monde a few days before the 2012 presidential elections, 26% of voters aged 18 to 24 support Marine le Pen (1). These results may always be called into question ; even so, it seems clear that nowadays it is no longer possible to say that “youngsters fuck the National Front”, as the French punk band Bérurier Noirs sang in the 1980s.
Voting the National Front has always been considered “reactionary”, “a thing of the past”, something to which “the youth”, traditionally seen as progressive and prone to liberalism, seemed immune. I will here try to explain this paradox: the resurgence of the far-right shall not be interpreted, as has been said many times, as a step backwards (provided that/ insofar as history has indeed a meaning), but rather as the product of our postmodern society, a phenomenon that can be understood by observing the recent cultural and economic developments.
First of all, I will briefly outline the changes brought about by the post-industrial society and their influence on social movements; I will then provide a short historical overview of the French right-wing from the 1970s to the present day, trying to contextualise the complex power relations into the social trends presented in the first section. To conclude, I will address the issue of the far-right counterculture and examine the factors that played a role in shaping this new approach to politics.
Postmodernism, identity and New Social Movements (NSM)
For the sake of convenience, I shall here speak of “postmodern society” without going into details of more specific terms such as “liquid modernity” (Bauman), “post-industrial society” (Bell), and “consumer society” (Baudrillard). I will thus limit myself to briefly examine the change in the political and cultural perspective that brought about important developments in social movements.
During the 20th century, Western economies successfully developed a new manufacturing process, known as “mass production”, which required the opening of new markets and the advent of large-scale consumption (2). In France, this major shift began in the 1950s. These economic changes opened the door for significant socio-cultural transformations: Featherstone, for example, speaks of “a new morality of commodity consumption” (3), and Jagger uses the term “consumer culture” (4). Before, people defined themselves according to a profession or a social class; however, these old points of reference tended to fade away as new identities, more reflexive and individualised (5), emerged, resulting in many different lifestyles and social roles as well as ways of approaching the consumption of commodities.
In this context, new social movements came into being or started to become increasingly important. These movements set aside the traditional discourse of class distinction in favor of a new dimension, until then considered secondary (6), defined by cultural instead of economic domination: feminist movement, homosexual movement, regionalism, minority movement. Their aim was no longer to start a Revolution to overthrow the prevailing relations of production, but rather to emancipate individuals in their everyday life and to bring art back into life (7). This last issue was part of a broader movement promoting the aestheticisation of everyday life, mainly as a result of three major causes (8): the avant-garde movements, following the Romantic period, the spread of consumer culture, and the ubiquity of images (diffused in a continuous flow). The new social movements (NSM) were anti-authoritarian: they opposed traditional institutions, responsible for creating the modern world, and their views were aimed at weakening the establishment. Not surprisingly, these movements were less formal and rather horizontal, and their institutions less integrated and regulated.
Finally, it is difficult not to see a connection between these movements and the emergence of post-structuralist thought, and notably of the Cultural studies across the Anglo-saxon world: inspired by the Gramscian perspective, they took a very proactive stand in the definition of a cultural – rather than social or economic – identity for the subaltern.
Lastly, it would be too simple to see the NSM as mere “reflection” of the economic developments of that time. Boltanski emphasised in this sense the impact of “the artist critique” on what he calls “the new spirit of capitalism”, while Marcolini argued that the “situationists” have provided the publicists with “theoretical weapons”, thus contributing to legitimise the advent of a permissive and hedonistic society, more open to consumerism. (9)
The modern far-right: a NSM?
French right-wing and conservative left: a similar path
The recent developments of the social movements were thus consistent with the profound changes through which the Western society itself was going. The French right-wing is therefore the product of both a specific history and of these mutations. “Far-left” and “far-right” often tend to be lumped together. In fact, it must be noted that communist and socialist or right-wing political parties, in all their diversity, do fit into similar categories: for instance, the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO in French) and the Union for the New Republic (UNR), predecessors of the current socialist party and of the main conservative party respectively, were considered “partis de notables” and recruited their members from the upper classes, while anti-establishment parties rather developed into mass or vanguard parties.
The 1920s leagues and their reduced and violent militant base evoked Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party; the French Social Party and its rejection of illegalism as well as its structure seemed to pave the way for the creation of the Communist Party. The poujadist movement of the 1950s and its corporate rhetoric reflected a society in which references to classism made sense. Lastly the French right-wing, with its drifts towards violent extremism, whether it was OAS terrorism (Organisation armée secrète, in English “Organisation of the Secret Army” or “Secret Armed Organisation”: a French dissident far-right paramilitary organisation during the Algerian war, ndrI) or unrest among student groups, evoked what communists defined as gauchiste, leftist, a derogatory term used to describe Action Directe (Action directe (AD) was a French revolutionary group which committed a series of assassinations and attacks in France between 1979 and 1987. Its members considered themselves libertarian communists leading an urban guerrilla organisation, ndr) or the Revolutionary Communist League.
Ordre Nouveau or Europe Action: the right-wing leftists
In the 1960s-70s, while the leftist movements were born and died and the Communist Party started to decline, the French right-wing, fragmented and discredited because of the Algerian war, practiced street activism – just like the Mao Spontex and other Trotskyites – while its “young” militant guard protested against the “old farts” of the older generation (10).
These young people, often students, did not consider themselves as “reactionary” but rather as “revolutionary nationalists”. It was an ideological, but above all generational conflict. Dominique Albertini and David Doucet gathered testimony from former members of New Order (“Ordre Nouveau”, a far-right movement created in 1969, ndr): “ We were the young generation of that time: we went to clubs, we seduced women, we enjoyed our lives” (11), as Hervé Le Pouriel explained.
In Catherine Barnay’s words: “We did not have any grown up figures who could share their experience with us, but it must be said that we did not want any of that: we thought they were fools. Not so much in the content as in the form, even though anti-masonry and the Algerian War, that was not really our cup of tea. However, their slogans, their methods, they looked to us as if they came from the previous century.” (12)
As Albertini and Doucet concluded, “in short, even the far right was touched by the spirit of 1968. In the case of New Order, they preferred jackets to frock coats, pinball games to the Sunday mass, the Stones to Wagner” (13).
Dominique Venner, then-leader of Europe-Action, conceptualised this generational gap by opposing the old “nationals” to the young and thorough “nationalists”. In his writings, it also becomes an ideological paradigm shift: having acknowledged the collapsing of the Nation-States after the Algerian War, he replaced the nationalism of his elders with a considerably less obsolete europeism. This transnationalism – coupled with a revival of the local and of a regional identity – is consistent with Bauman’s description of liquid modernity, in which the strong institutions of the Early Modern Period – Church (Venner was an ardent anti-Catholic), nation state, parties, family – end up being jeopardised.
In 1971, after Venner’s withdrawal, the development of this “European identity” continued under the supervision of Alain de Benoist within the Research and Study Group for European Civilization, in French Groupement de Recherche et d’Etude de la Civilisation Européenne (GRECE). It is worth mentioning that, following the example of the Cultural Studies, this New Right (as this branch is known) summoned Gramsci in order to remonstrate against the cultural hegemony of the left. In this perspective, the Indo-european identity that Alain de Benoist tries to build, following a similar approach to Gayatri Spivack’s strategic essentialism, becomes a subaltern identity, similarly to the numerous stirring identities that appeared during the 1970s.
The National Front, a strong institution in the liquid modernity?
The National Front was the result of a coalition within which the New Order militants were initially dominant. Yet, Jean-Marie Le Pen, former poujadist and supporter of the French Algeria, belongs to the “nationals”: “New Order? A bunch of kids in need of an outlet who will join the ranks of the notaries and gaullists once their paunches have grown” claimed Le Pen (15). It was not obvious for this young people to chose Jean-Marie Le Pen as a leader, as it was not for him to accept to become their leader. After several rounds of negotiations, New Order members found themselves in the minority within the executive, and the first program of the National Front shelved New Order’s “revolutionary aspirations” and “reveries” (17). Tensions between New Order’s militant base and the National Front last until 1973: following several scuffles with the Communist League, both New Order and the League are dissolved. The original/founding members of New Order create a new structure, that became the main rival to the National Front.
Under Le Pen, the National Front is a party of “nationals”. Then again, in the first years of its existence, the New Order “nationalists” were the ones who called the shots thanks to a more solid structural system (18), whose aim was to make the National Front pass off as a “gaggle of fuddy-duddies” (18). Forced to collaborate with the revolutionary nationals, who constituted an large supply of militants, he gradually developed similar orientations himself (20). Nonetheless, a clear neo-populist, or right-wing populist political line emerged, and the National Front kept sticking to the social and corporatist agenda. Even nowadays the party is criticized by the smaller groups, who accuse Le Pen of being obsessed with immigration and thus neglecting the cultural, spiritual and identity stakes of modernity. In other words, he would be responsible for having given in to electioneering and demagoguery, while neglecting the secondary fronts and the alienating features of today’s society just to focus on a simplistic antagonism…
If we think of the National Front as the right-wing equivalent of the French Communist Party and its small groups (whose structure the National Front has indeed emulated), these “young people in a leather jacket” (21) are also the “leftists” of the National Front: recently, Marie Le Pen described Philippe Vardon (from the Bloc Identitaire, a regionalist nativist French and Europeanist activist movement, ndr) as “Mao-Spontex” (a marxist and libertarian movement that emerged in Western Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, ndr).
Therefore, it is possible to draw a rather simple distinction between a conservative National Front and small “leftist” groups: modernity and postmodernity, the Party and the New Social Movements, in a manner of speaking. Nevertheless Erwan Lecoeur explains the success of the National Front and the ethnic identity that it promotes by a growing need of a strong identity characterising an increasingly blurred society: the resurfacing of repressed instincts after a century of sociation and individualism (22). We will however make some essential distinctions: compared with the New Right’s transnationalism, and considering that national identity is a recent invention (23), the three-coloured jacobin nationalism of the National Front cannot be seen as the return of a pre-modern perspective (24), but rather as a product of modernity.
For this reason, we could describe it not as the return of a pre-modern past, but rather as a subsistence of modernity, of its values and institutions. It is clear that the National Front has taken advantage of the social changes described above, of the collapsing of the labour movement (25), of the left discarding its anti-classist agenda (26), and of the introduction of community-based electoral districts by the Socialist government in the 1980s. It managed to substitute, in the vocabulary of part of the left, “anti-racism” with “class conflict”, opposing “Beurs’ march” (a term indicating the March for Equality and Against Racism that took place in France in 1983: “beur” is slang for “arabe”, ndr) to “class consciousness”. This policy weakened the Communist Party while at the same time reinforcing the National Front (whose very first electoral success dates back to 1984) against the RPR (Rally for the Republic, a Gaullist and conservative French political party founded by Jacques Chirac in 1976 which in 2002 would become the UMP, Union for a popular movement).
Far-right counter-culture and “postmodern ideology”
There is a demand for postmodern politics from the nationalist youth that the National Front does not satisfy: for this reason, several small political groups, gangs, bands, languages and dress codes have developed. The compatibility between a theoretically anti-modern movement and rock music was not at all obvious back then, as underlines Jack Marchal, one of the first far-right rock musicians in France: “It is true, the equation rock = long hair = leftist+junkie was popular for a long time. That was not what I thought, and for a good reason, since I was playing rock music before doing politics. […] We admitted to ourselves that rock music was part of our universe, but it was not possible to mention this in our publications. The taboo was broken only around 1972-1973”. (27)
While the far-right youth was immersed in the culture of the time, their ideology pushed them to reject it, which is why they developed an elaborate discourse in order to actually enjoy it: rock music, as Marchal later explained, derives from country music and thus does not have any roots in black culture (28).
French teddy boys, then 1970s rockers, and finally the bikers or “white rebels” of the beginning of the 1980s (who were happy to display the southern flag) occasionally expressed sympathies towards nationalism. However, it was actually a fringe of the skinhead movement that officially joined the far-right, in the UK in the end of the 1970s, and then in France at the beginning of the 1980s. The movement had a twofold nature: on the one hand, the cultural background mixing barbarian and nazi references provided these youngsters with a meaning and a precise aesthetics to their fight. On the other, some far-right “old dogs” saw them as potential fascists. However, while the Saint-Michel gang changed its name into “Revolutionary Nationalist Youth” (Jeunesse Nationaliste Revolutionnaire) and ran for the 1993 legislative elections, the skinheads remained marginalised even within the smaller political groups.
Nowadays, some survivors of this generation have become leaders of other political movements: Serge Ayoub, former leader of the JNR, created a movement in 2009 (it would then dissolve in 2013) that gathered former fellows of the 1980s and young skinheads. Fabrice Robert and Philippe Vardon-Reynaud, both former “white rebels” and revolutionary nationalists, member of the French identitary rock band “Fraction”, are nowadays the two main media figures of the Identitarian Movement. This movement, heir to the movements described above, is an actual political movement whose structure was created during the 2000s. Their desire is to associate a counter-culture to their militancy by taking a proactive approach.
These countercultures pose several questions: are they actually political? Why are they associated to fringe groups? What is their actual purpose?
We define here counterculture as a production system of signs (that is a small-scale industry, but also a production work of signifier/signified mobilising cultural entrepreneurs) aiming at aestheticising a limited reality of everyday life – the group – rearranging it, and providing it with a meaning according to precise aesthetic criteria, generally referring to imaginary universes (the romanticised version of the previous generation’s universe, Sparta and the battle of the 300…)
These movements often associate political references to their universe, which labels and further defines the group (for example, redskins as opposed to skinheads). Their political action, when it exists, lies between student activism and the logic of violent gangs, sometimes coupled with a visual and musical militancy, occasionally supporting structured organisations. On the whole, however, as a lifestyle defined by specific pastimes and consumptions, and experienced within a group of friends, the counterculture belongs to the private sphere.
While mass parties or totalitarian regimes had shifted the boundaries of everyday life into the public sphere, the counterculture seems to have followed the opposite path. In his classic study on militancy, Yvon Bourdet described in detail these “libidinal” and consumerist militants, who are actually “not militants” at all in the sense that they do not differ from “jazz lovers, sports fan, even stamps collectors”. Politicised counterculture comes from all this; however, Serge Ayoub’s approach (29) or the identitarian movement represent more serious attempts at politicising it: “By working untiringly to tame and control my basic instincts, I tried to transform the rebel into a revolutionary” (30), as Vardon wrote in his latest book, Militants.
To conclude, what were the main causes of this counterculture? First of all, the context of late capitalism, in which work ethic was substituted by an ethic of consumption. This lead to a new relationship with politics that Bourdet would describe as “libidinous” – we however prefer the term “consumerist”. Militancy becomes thus part of everyday life in the same way as pastimes, often accompanied by everyday aesthetics (31) with a social role. This playful attitude replaces thus the sort of “adult scouting” represented by the old mass parties, which brings us to our second point: the disappearance of this institution deprived young people from the middle and lower classes of all possibilities to take part in the political life. In this sense, the counterculture allowed them to “take charge aesthetically of their everyday life” – to paraphrase the situationist watchword – since they could not take charge of it politically. For want of enabling them to reclaim control on their life, it allowed them to disalienate themselves from the dominant consumerist culture and at the same time create their own culture – or to adopt a culture that felt like their own. This explains the popular mix of political themes and aesthetic universe: while the main decision-making bodies seem to be moving further away, local activism within a romanticised history of the West gives the possibility to build a positive – and solid – identity, based on the illusion of control.
Lastly, we should underline that these revolutionary movements, by staging a utopia, essentially appeal to emotion and hope, as Ernst Bloch explained. National identity in the 19th century is a collective project, the result of the work of romantic intellectuals and artists. It is therefore a question of mourning over its disappearance while at the same time invoking its resurrection.
In the 20th century, the revolutionary movements, be they left or right-wing, occasionally link themselves to avant-gardes (constructivism, futurism). It is also worth noting Brasillach’s aesthetic fascination towards fascism: “the true poetry of the 20th century”, as he wrote. The propaganda in totalitarian regimes, as well as their attention to details and appearances, resonated well with the youth of the 1960s-1980s, who became attached to the “figures of the revolution”, military surplus and symbols. The rock stage productions themselves evoke nazi ceremonies, sometimes drawing an explicit parallel (see Pink Floyd’s The Wall).
At the end of this study it seems thus that the far-right is deeply connected to its own time. The National Front becomes in this sense the receptacle of a “reactionary demand for modernity”, that is for strong institutions and for an embedded economy, following Polanyi’s words.
On the contrary, the small groups and movements surrounding the National Front satisfy the need for political and cultural consumerism, but also for solid identities and stable self-definitions. Moreover, as we previously described, they allow through their grandiose rhetoric, attention to detail and rowdy activism, to offer a make-believe political participation.
(2) Alt, Beyond Class, p.71.
(3) Featherstone, The body in consumer culture, p.19.
(4) Jagger, Consumer Bodies, p. 45
(5) Giddens, Les conséquences.
(6) Touraine, Beyond Social Movements, p. 128
(7) Boltanski & Chiapello, Le nouvel esprit.
(8) Featherstone, Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, p.66.
(9) Marcolini, Le situationnisme, p. 313.
(10) Albertini & Boucet, Histoire, p. 26.
(12) Ibid., p27.
(13) Albertini & Boucet, Histoire, p.27.
(14) For more details on Dominique Venner’s ideological evolution and his leftist revolt towards the oppression of the middle class, see Casajus, Du dandysme en politique
(15)Albertini & Boucet, Histoire, pp.26-27.
(16) Ibid, pp.33-37.
(17) Albertini & Boucet, Histoire, p.37-38.
(18) Camus, Le Front National, p.19.
(19) Albertini & Boucet, Histoire, p.55.
(20) Camus, Origine, page citée
(21) Albertini & Boucet, Histoire, p.26.
(22) In spite of the anti-individualist rhetoric of the far-right movements, we cannot assume that, by promoting strong and romantic personalities, opposed to mainstream modernity, they really take part in this “modern ideology”, as Durmont put it
(23) Thiesse, La création.
(24) The identitarian anti-jacobinisme re-establishes the traditional opposition towards the “reactionary” Republic
(25) Wieworka, La France, p. 26.
(26) Dubet, Touraine & Wierwoka, Le mouvement ouvrier
(27) Collectif, Rock haine Roll, p. 18-19.
(28) For more details on the preconditions to the construction of a far-right counterculture, see Casajus, Les identitaires
(29) Petrova, Les skinheads, 1997.
(30) Vardon-Raybaud, Militants, p. 13.
(31) From a rather meaningful interview dating back to 2002: “I joined the redskins especially for their folklore”