Whenever the topic of the far right and the threat it poses is discussed somebody will inevitably bring up the left and far left. It’s usually done at a time which isn’t appropriate and is an attempt to draw some kind of equivalency between the two competing ideologies. Perhaps the critic of what they view as left-wing overreach is acting in good faith but it’s never entirely clear what their motives are. And regardless of this, some of their concerns tend to originate from a centrist worldview in which the far left and far right are both sides of the extremist coin. In other cases the intervention comes from those firmly on the right who claim to despise everything ideologically to the left and right of them while ignoring their own party’s flirting with the far right either in the past or more recently.
Understanding the difference
It almost goes without saying that the far left and far right couldn’t be more different. In the case of the left the role of the state varies across the spectrum from committed Marxists to anarchists. Instead it’s the core features throughout the left that unite it: Respect for people’s dignity and rights, control over the means of production, the removal or limiting of corporate power, and stopping the destruction of the earth’s ecosphere. In general it amounts to a vision for a fairer society in which equality is paramount. Where the various parties and groups on the left do in fact differ is how to achieve this.
On the other hand the far right is focused on the reverence of power and the myths of a past that never really existed before modernity ruined what they believe to be the natural order. For advocates of this ideology the only people worthy of having their dignity respected are white men. Others they consider degenerate or unworthy are to be deport or eliminated. We see this again and again in the far right’s targeting of various minorities, be they Black people, members of the LGBTQIA+ community, or migrants.
To say that the far left and far right are not only different but completely opposed to each other would be an understatement. The only logical reason for making a comparison between the two is to draw a false equivalency between them in order to shore up the status quo. Ironically, it’s the status quo that has allowed the far right to surge in popularity across the world over the last ten years.
The mainstream press has also played a role in drawing a false equivalence between the two. On more than one occasion journalists in Ireland have viewed anti-fascist counter-protestors as no different than the National Party members they were there to disrupt. For a particular scribe one “mob” is as good — or bad — as the other. It’s this blinkered committal to a holier than thou form of centrism which sees any kind of opposition to a growing far right as also a threat. And it creates space for far-right extremists to grow and become mainstreamed. As Robert Fisk once argued, if you were back in 1945 and interviewing the survivors of Auschwitz you wouldn’t then run off to get a comment from Rudolf Höss for the sake of neutrality. Yet similar instances of reporting on “both sides” is a regular feature of the press. It’s a serious issue that can have massive consequence for minorities.
Property and people
Apart from a qualitative difference between the two ideologies, there’s also a quantitative one. When it comes to attacks that have supposedly originated from the far left the targets are more often than not property. A report by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) highlights that the overall number of “extremism or terrorism related deaths” that can be attributed to the left is non-existent compared to far-right actors.
According to a Europol study, in 2020 there were what it described as “24 completed left-wing and anarchist terrorist attacks”, all of which took place in Italy. Authorities arrested 52 left-wing extremists across Europe, with 24 of them being made in Italy alone. Of the attacks 10 targeted various telecoms infrastructure such as 5G towers. Tellingly Europol also argued that the left “continued to pose a threat to public order” with “Longstanding issues of the radical left, such as anti-fascism, anti-racism and perceived state repression” being the apparent motivators.
As for the far right, Europol recorded three terrorist attacks in Europe, specifically in Belgium (which failed), France (that authorities prevented), and Germany. In the latter case a 43-year-old man shot and killed nine people in Hanau. In his manifesto the shooter accuses movie studios of stealing his ideas, justifies Western wars in the Middle East, and suggests “halving the population” of Germany so only the “purebred” remain. Law enforcement officers in eight EU countries arrested 38 people “on suspicion of involvement in right-wing terrorist activity”.
By comparison during the same time period Europol recorded ten jihadist attacks which killed 12 and left more than 47 injured. Authorities also arrested 254 people in relation to jihadist terrorism.
It can be argued that jihadist attacks have more in common with far-right attacks given the core beliefs of the perpetrators. Both ideologies are concerned with the creation of a so-called “pure state”, for jihadists a new caliphate and for the far right a white and Christian state. Any kaffirs or untermenschenen will be deported or simply murdered. The only comparison that can or should be made between ideologies, and that has any kind of substance, is between far-right extremism and Islamic extremism. When combined, the threat from both these world views far outstrips any supposed threat from the left.
The source of the real danger has been verified elsewhere. Last year the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) reported that the far right forms the wellspring of terrorist attacks in the US. After studying a number of attacks that took place over the course of eight months in 2020, it found that the far right was responsible for 67% of them while the far left accounted for 20%, an increase from 8% the year before. In keeping with the far right’s targeting of individuals, the Economist also pointed out that “Since 1994 more terrorist incidents have been associated with the far right than with all other groups combined”.
Further solidifying the differences between the far right and far left is a piece the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) published last November. The author, Teun van Dongen, notes that intelligence agencies across Europe don’t see the far left as a particularly dangerous foe. He writes:
The official national-level threat assessments for Norway, Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands are all very clear that left-wing extremism in their countries is small, isolated and fragmented, and has little potential to pose a violent threat.
The Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service has gone so far as to highlight “a trend away from actions directed against individuals and towards objects with some symbolic value”. Van Dongen does mention the case of Italy and the anarchist attacks noted above. But he underlines the fact that nine arson attacks and 12 cases of vandalism are “hardly overwhelming” for a country with a population of over 60 million people.
Relying on a false comparison
Speaking with The Beacon, he points out there’s “substantial evidence that left-wing ‘violence’ often looks quite different from that committed by the right”. When the left does engage in such actions it’s generally aimed at property and statues. Such behaviour, he says, is “quite different from the often direct interpersonal violence often committed by the right-wing”, especially when the property being targeted is a symbol of those “perceived to be exploiting the communities from which left-wing demonstrations arise”.
His research for The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) further confirms this. It showed that the attendance of far-right actors at anti-lockdown protests “led to the protest overwhelmingly steering towards violence”. In contrast, only 6% of Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests turned violent. Within that 6% it’s not even entirely clear who started the violence in the first place. As he writes, while some looting and violence originated with the demonstrators, “other events have escalated as a result of aggressive government action, intervention from right-wing groups or individual assailants, and car-ramming attacks”.
Stall revealed to The Beacon that one of the variables for violence at BLM rallies has been “right-wing militias and other far-right actors escalating violence against BLM demonstrations about 26% of the time”. The role of the police is also an issue given that “state forces are often penetrated by or sympathetic to right-wing interests”. As a result of these biases, the response to BLM protests means that authorities have ended up “intervening in BLM demonstrations almost three times as often as in any other demonstration”. And, what’s more, he says there’s “mounting evidence of collaboration between state security forces and paramilitary units”.
Recognising the danger
It’s intriguing then to see the outrage generated in the mainstream press, especially in the US, around “antifa”. The studies mentioned clearly show which direction the threat is coming from. But drawing a comparison between the two ideologies is also a tactic the far right itself uses. Oftentimes it presents the left as a hoard of dishevelled yet totalitarian-minded robots taking orders from the ghost of Karl Marx. Combatting these zombified Marxists has been put in the hands of those on the far right given what they believe to be the left-leaning bias of mainstream society. In this scenario the left becomes the negative to the positive of the far right, with the latter destined to fight the former in the battle for who will determine the future of our societies.
Like Stall, van Dongen himself asserts that any threat coming from the left is limited. In studying 50 left-wing attacks from the period of September 2019 to August 2021 across the world, the ICCT revealed that only three people were wounded. Ramming home the point, van Dongen insists that “left-wing extremist terrorist attacks are small, are carried out by simple means and rarely claim any victims”. In fact, he says “left-wing extremist actions claim few victims, so the impact is overwhelmingly limited to property damage”.
Taken altogether, he maintains that “Jihadism and right-wing extremism are at present simply bigger threats and therefore deserve more attention from researchers and policy makers in the security domain”. If we try to compare the far left and far right — which are “fundamentally different” from each other — we only end up with false equivalencies.
Considering this, the role of the press and even the gardaí in helping this comparison thrive needs to be challenged. It’s misinformed and dangerous. Centrists in the media and politicians attempting to deflect from their own policy failures, and those of their party, must be made to recognise where the real danger lies. It’s not coming from someone who’s read some Friedrich Engels or Peter Kropotkin. The risk comes from those who believe they’re in a war against minorities to save white people and sees anyone with different views as an enemy. Understanding this essential difference is paramount.
Featured image via Twitter – Dr. Robert Bohan Artist