Are we returning to an age of political extremes?

In the past few years, increasing numbers of populist and extreme political groups and leaders have risen to power, in parallel with growing concerns about crime, immigration, economic woes and religious radicalism. In issue 13 of BBC World Histories Magazine, seven experts debated whether this shift signals the dawn of a new era of political extremism…

Are we returning to an age of political extremes? (Illustration by Davide Bonazzi for BBC World Histories Magazine)

Seven leading experts assess whether we are witnessing the dawn of a new era of extremism…

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“The popularity of those who offer simple solutions to complex problems is reminiscent of extreme politics in the past”

– Hester Vaizey

Hester Vaizey is the author of Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Historians, with their knowledge of societies across time, are often reluctant to declare a ‘new age’. Attention-grabbing newspaper headlines will boldly claim the uniqueness of our current situation, while historians curmudgeonly mutter: “It was ever thus.” However, in today’s world there are admittedly echoes of periods of extreme politics in the past.

The popularity of those who offer simple solutions to complex problems today is reminiscent of the success of extreme politics in the past. Lenin offered “peace, land and bread” to hungry, war-weary Russian peasants in 1917, while Hitler promised “bread and work” to Depression-ravaged, unemployed Germans in 1933. And both leaders had reductive scapegoats for all of society’s ills. The Soviets demonised the bourgeoisie, whereas Hitler blamed the Jews.  

Immigrants seem to be the scapegoats of our day – witness the Brexit referendum and the popular resonance of Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ campaign in 2016. Personality politics also helps to embed political extremes: core voters stick with popular leaders regardless of what they do. Even as bombs rained down on German cities and food rationing began to bite in the latter part of the Second World War, many Germans maintained their faith in Hitler, expressing the view that if he only knew their level of suffering, he would do something about it. Vladimir Putin may have little interest in domestic policy, but he remains popular in his fourth presidential term, credited with making Russia a great power again. 

Control of the media remains a critical ingredient for the flourishing of extremism. In the past and present, dictators have sought to control freedom of expression in newspapers, on the radio and television. Today it finds new expression through the internet in the form of fake news – for example, Russia apparently flooding social media with pro-Trump propaganda during the 2016 US election. 

The new liberal order that emerged in the aftermath of the Second World War is being challenged and tested, as political extremes manifest themselves in both age-old and unfamiliar ways.

Hester Vaizey is the author of Born in the GDR: Living in the Shadow of the Wall (Oxford University Press, 2014)


“No huge political movements, left or right, are today propagating revolution”

– Ian Kershaw

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw  is regarded as one of the world’s leading biographers of Adolf Hitler. His latest book is Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950–2017 (Allen Lane, 2018)

It would be an exaggerated description to call this an ‘age of extremism’. Society and politics in Europe have undoubtedly become far more polarised over the past decade. The explosion of anti-establishment anger that boiled up in the wake of the bank crash of 2008, and the impact of the migrant crisis of 2015–16, have driven the polarisation, though the roots go back further. But the polarisation does not – at least, not yet – come close to the extremism seen in Europe during the 1930s. There are echoes of that era, it is true. But the differences far outweigh the similarities.

Ethnic, border and class conflict are either absent or greatly muted compared with the interwar years. Capitalism’s crisis has been contained – for now. But xenophobic populism and authoritarianism unquestionably challenge the dominance of liberal democracy in some countries. Pluralist democracy is being eroded from within in Hungary and Poland, exists only as a façade in Russia and Turkey, and is challenged in the United States by Trump’s authoritarian tendencies.

A protest by people, including leftwing demonstrators, against French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018. Should we consider people who support far-left or -right movements extremists? (Photo by Julien Mattia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A protest by people, including leftwing demonstrators, against French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018. Should we consider people who support far-left or -right movements extremists? (Photo by Julien Mattia/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Democracy is, nevertheless, broadly accepted today both by elites and the mass of the population. Nationalist populism, as abhorrent as it is, is not the same as fascism – though fascists are, of course, among its supporters. Interwar fascism promised revolutionary national renewal. Its hallmark was paramilitary violence and extreme militarism, while anti-communism was a central part of its ideological appeal. 

No huge political movements, left or right, are today propagating revolution. No large paramilitary organisations dominate the streets of Europe’s cities. The violent clashes of fascists and communists that characterised the 1930s have largely gone. Militarism plays no role. Since the end of the Soviet Union, anti-communism no longer serves as an ideological driving-force. Moreover, Russian national assertiveness today is, unlike communism, not a doctrine with wide international appeal. The global clash of the extremes – fascism and communism – is also missing. 

The eras are different. We live in dangerous times, but not in a new age of extremism.

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw  is regarded as one of the world’s leading biographers of Adolf Hitler. His latest book is Roller-Coaster: Europe, 1950–2017 (Allen Lane, 2018)


“It is not yet a new age of extremism, but it is threatening the ‘centre’ in many countries”

– Kathleen Burk

Kathleen Burk is professor emerita of modern and contemporary history at University College London. Her latest book is The Lion and the Eagle: The Interaction of the British and American Empires, 1783–1972 (Bloomsbury, 2018)

The difficulty with this question is that it produces more questions than answers. First of all, how does one define extremes? Do we agree that violence has to be involved, or can there be extreme voting? If it is voting, how does one determine an extreme? Is it the distance from the centre, wherever that may be? The centre in the United States is considerably to the right of the centre in the UK, for example. 

Are the millions in the Midwest of the US who voted for Donald Trump extremists? What about those in France who vote for the farthest left of the left-wing? What about Le Pen’s party on the right? What about the far right in Austria? Are they extreme if they are not violent just because the centre-left or the centre-right considers them so?

If political beliefs push people into violence, that can be defined as extreme, at least in a democracy. It becomes a more difficult question when the violence is against an autocratic or authoritarian or totalitarian regime; leaders and supporters of such a regime would certainly consider opposition as extremism. Examples include Russia, China, Egypt and Myanmar (Burma).

What about pure nativism? Here there are nuances. It can imply an anti-others world view, but are those who genuinely fear the loss of English culture extreme? On the other hand, those who attack immigrants in eastern Germany are certainly extremists. There are many in the Midwest who are anti-immigrant, not necessarily because they are racist but because they worry about jobs.

As for the question – is this a new age of extremism? – the answer has to be retrospective. How will things develop? It is not yet a new age of extremism, but it is threatening the ‘centre’ in many countries. More to the point, is this a new age of authoritarianism? Hungary is purposively moving in that direction; Poland possibly, and the Philippines. Will Brazil? The future will show.

Kathleen Burk is professor emerita of modern and contemporary history at University College London. Her latest book is The Lion and the Eagle: The Interaction of the British and American Empires, 1783–1972 (Bloomsbury, 2018)


“The idea that liberal democracy would prove the most lasting form of government seems under major threat today”

– Rana Mitter

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford, and author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

Francis Fukuyama’s declaration of 1992, when he famously called the end of the Cold War “the end of history”, seems a long way away. Indeed, the American political historian has spent much of the past quarter-century protesting that he meant end in the sense of ‘purpose’, not ‘termination’. Certainly, his idea that liberal democracy would prove the most lasting form of government seems under major threat today. 

The challenge comes not just from internal contradictions within western democracies but, notably, from the new model in China. In the past few years, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China has made it clear that it is no longer seeking to create a more liberal society – one that converges with the democracies across the world. Instead, it has developed a sharply contrasting model: an authoritarian state in which the party’s control is superior to that of the law, but which also offers consumerism and rapid economic growth. 

China can back up its model with trade, overseas investment and one of the world’s most powerful militaries. Beijing makes no bones about the fact that it is prepared to curb legal and media freedoms as it seeks to strengthen its power. But its economic success and unapologetic authoritarianism is providing fuel for strongman leaders (usually men) around the world, in a way that seems in determined, even extreme contrast with recent widespread democratic norms.

In Hungary, prime minister Viktor Orbán cites China as an “illiberal democracy” that he looks up to. Turkey under Erdo˘gan, Brazil under Bolsonaro and the Philippines under Duterte all seem to want their leaders to recreate their countries in ways that recall China. Even US president Donald Trump, who has launched a trade war with China, has referred to Xi admiringly as the “king of China”. 

A decade ago, it seemed that democracies tended to vote for moderate leaders.  Now it seems that many of them want leaders who have reacted strongly against democratic norms. And the authoritarian success of China’s economy gives them part of their justification for that shift.

Rana Mitter is professor of the history and politics of modern China at the University of Oxford, and author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction (2nd edition, Oxford University Press, 2016)


“After decades of relative stability, societies all over the world are now wracked with deep divisions”

– Saskia Schäfer

Saskia Schäfer is an assistant professor at Humboldt University Berlin

Political leaders today outbid each other with aggression and vulgarity. Streets are again becoming unsafe for those marked as minorities. Established parties are fragmenting. But when one recalls the street battles in 1930s Germany, or the anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in the 1960s, the present suddenly still seems quite far from a new age of extremism.  

The question remains, though, whether many parts of the world are sliding into one. Weimar artists vividly foresaw how re-armament and the propaganda of the Nazi regime were leading to war. It would be overly alarmist and analytically unhelpful to conclude that history is repeating, but this must not discourage us from detecting patterns and trying to grasp the long-term consequences of concrete political decisions.

An Indonesian civilian is seized during the army-backed crackdown on communists in the mid-1960s, when several hundred thousand people were killed. Modern extremism often takes different and less obviously violent forms, says Saskia Schäfer.
An Indonesian civilian is seized during the army-backed crackdown on communists in the mid-1960s, when several hundred thousand people were killed. Modern extremism often takes different and less obviously violent forms, says Saskia Schäfer. (Image by Getty)

After decades of relative stability, societies all over the world are now wracked with deep divisions. For young people in China and south-east Asia, opportunities are greater than 50 years ago – but so are the risks. Increased individualisation, loosened social structures and volatile financial markets form the backdrop against which these young people seek to fulfil their dreams of comfort and consumption. At the same time, we can no longer pretend that, in the age of online media, political parties are still the best means of representation and decision-making. Parties are dissolving before our eyes, and not only do career politicians have a new incentive to turn themselves into personality cults, they also have few reasons to honour campaign promises.  

The system is dissolving without any convincing alternatives. For all the fanfare surrounding digital technology, it has been used neither to improve political decision-making nor to create more equality. Ideas about how to harness technology for democratic ends remain sparse. Instead of striving for a reduced work day for everyone, governments continue to fixate on full employment and punish their unemployed with ever-more-complicated schemes for incentivisation. Economic development and progress are still measured in outdated metrics of growth, blind to the environmental costs. 

What marks the extremism of our time is less the new generation of political entrepreneurs, but rather the extremism of the centre: the belief that an economic model that formerly suited western Europe and North America can last forever. 

Saskia Schäfer is an assistant professor at Humboldt University Berlin


“Brazil’s president-elect has clearly learned lessons from extreme victories elsewhere in the world”

– Matthias Röhrig Assunção

Matthias Röhrig Assunção is a professor of history at the University of Essex, specialising in the history of 19th- and 20th-century Brazil

In October, Jair Bolsonaro won Brazil’s presidential election. Many of the views he has aired – homophobic, racist and misogynist – echo those espoused by extremist political movements across Europe. So how did he achieve victory?

Partly, he benefitted from the discredit of the nation’s main parties, all of whom – on the left, the right and the centre – have been involved in huge corruption scandals in recent years. Despite serving as an MP for seven terms since 1991, Bolsonaro has managed to sell himself as a political outsider. 

But there are other key factors in the massive rejection of Brazil’s main leftwing Workers’ Party PT. Many middle-class white people fear that affirmative action and other policies to fight inequality endanger their status. Supporters of Pentecostal churches and other moral conservatives, meanwhile, disagree with policies that bolster gender equality and the rights of LGBT people.

Bolsonaro also benefitted from a disunited political class – PT refused to support a leftwing candidate who might
have had more chance of defeating Bolsonaro – and a divided electorate. Though many Brazilian people have expressed concern about his announcements regarding easily purchasable weapons, retreat from environmental agreements and much else besides, many others long for the radical change in political culture that Bolsonaro aims to represent.

He has also clearly learned lessons from extreme rightwing victories elsewhere in the world. For instance, he seems willing to inundate the public with provocative news via social media in order to divert attention from specific measures he intends to take. 

There is a clear sense among Brazilians that this is a watershed moment, though nobody is yet able to predict exactly what will happen. 

Bolsonaro’s stated aim to wage a cultural war in schools and universities will inevitably lead to broad resistance and conflict from teachers and lecturers, and facilitating the executions of bandits and the easy purchase of weapons will increase violence and strengthen militia groups that are already on the rise. In these regards alone, Brazil certainly looks set to be entering a new age of political extremism.

Matthias Röhrig Assunção is a professor of history at the University of Essex, specialising in the history of 19th- and 20th-century Brazil


“In terms of politics, economics and conflict, 2018 might be called the age of amplification”

– Evan Mawdsley

 

Evan Mawdsley was professor of international history at the University of Glasgow. His books include World War II: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

‘Extremism’ is by definition about comparison. As a historian who spent several decades studying the Russian Revolution, Stalinism and the Second World War, my view has to be that, in comparative terms, the present decade is certainly less extreme than the first half of the 20th century. At that time, part of Europe underwent drastic political developments, with the rise of the extreme left and the extreme right in 1917–33, a result of warfare on an unprecedented scale and political and economic breakdown. This rise was followed by total war and politically-based mass murder in the period 1937–45.

Those who describe the current period as an ‘age of extremism’ often contrast it with the post-1945 era, when a supposed ‘rule-based international order’ was in place. The world was indeed less extreme after the destruction of fascism, the appearance of a reformist (or less violent) communism in the USSR (but not in China) after 1953, and the end of formal European and Japanese colonialism. For much of this time, however, ‘order’ was based on the economic preponderance of the United States and the totalitarian politics and military potential of the USSR. Also taking place was a highly dangerous competition in nuclear weapons and violent struggles in the post-colonial ‘third’ world. The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm used the term ‘age of extremes’ to describe the ‘short’ 20th century (1914–91), lumping together the decades before and after 1945. 

In comparative terms of politics, economics and conflict, 2018 is not a time of extremism. It might be called the age of amplification, in that electronic media give a voice to nationalist forces and forces of political outliers. What is remarkable, however, is the general connection between present and past politics, the continuing globalised nature of economies and the absence of a genuine threat of full-scale conflict between major powers. More pessimistically, one could argue that environmental and demographic problems may in decades to come generate ‘extreme’ challenges. These challenges are not being addressed today, masked as they are by a preoccupation with what are in most respects much less critical issues.  

Evan Mawdsley was professor of international history at the University of Glasgow. His books include World War II: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2009)

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Issue 13 of BBC World Histories Magazine was first published in December 2018. You can read more from BBC World Histories here.