David Cameron’s admission this week that RAF drones killed British nationals in Syria has once again raised the question of how we handle political extremism. This debate not only addresses the appeal of violent jihad to young Westerners, but also the rise of the far right in some European and former Soviet states. Even the politics of white supremacy has returned to public attention, from the revival in electoral fortunes of the National Front in France, to the spectacular outrages carried out in Norway in 2011, and the deadly assault in June this year on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. But what actually is “political extremism”?
Despite their regularity, public accusations of political extremism tend to take the form of general condemnations rather than precise definitions. Legal proscriptions on extremism are targeted at specific groups, language and behaviour. But extremist beliefs are considerably harder to define and police, and any attempt to do so risks undermining a state’s liberal democratic credentials. What’s more, there is a reluctance among Western politicians to acknowledge that definitions of extremism are contested, and that they have shifted considerably over time.
What has remained constant, however, is the idea that ‘extremes’ are bad and the ‘middle’ good. Plato and Aristotle are seldom cited in today’s media coverage of extremism, yet they established some of our most basic assumptions. Both equated the middle with virtue and the extremes with degeneration and barbarism. Plato believed that the ‘middle’ could only be achieved through a mixed constitution of monarchy and democracy. Aristotle advanced the idea that different types of constitution existed on a continuum, and that a powerful middling class was the best guardian of the political centre. These ideas were neglected until the thirteenth century, when Thomas Aquinas applied them to commend virtuous rulers and warn against tyrants.
When translations of these works first entered England in the 1590s, they were regarded as a direct threat to the Tudor state. Within half a century, however, royalists and parliamentarians competed with one another to associate their respective causes with mixed government. In the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, the virtues of constitutional monarchy became widely celebrated, and supplied a model for dissidents in Europe’s absolutist monarchies. The founding fathers of the United States developed this further to advocate a mixed constitution which ensured moderation through the division of power and the balance of opposing social forces.
This might have settled the matter but for the French Revolution. It established the now familiar left-right political division and cast both ends of the political spectrum as extremes. In France and elsewhere, liberals came to regard revolution and reaction as extremes, with some advancing the innovative idea that both extremes were alike. They applied the label ‘ultra’ to politicians who adopted an exaggerated political position, and the suffix ‘-icide’ to mark a destructive, murderous tendency. Reactionaries initially cast democracy as extreme, but over time they instead harnessed it for their own ends. For Marxists, the clash of extremes served as the motor of history and the means of achieving dictatorship of the proletariat. This led liberals to worry that extremist parties called forth one another in a never-ending struggle, and that the political middle could be shifted as a result. The danger seemed to be demonstrated by the US Civil War, which many held to be the result of extremism on both sides of the slavery debate. Not for the last time, liberals considered illiberal legislation to suppress extremism.
In the first half of the twentieth century, the extreme left and extreme right were readily identified with Communism and Fascism. The Italian politician and priest, Luigi Sturzo, argued that both systems were similar, in that they denied legitimacy to other parties and sought to determine public and private lives. Others took a more partisan approach, with conservatives viewing Fascism as a bulwark against Communism, and socialist governments adopting constructive relations with the Soviet Union.
Claims and counter-claims about extremism continued after the Second World War. Divided between East and West, the two German states denounced each other as extremist. The East’s criticisms of survivals from the Hitler era was later taken up by student radicals in West Germany. The Bonn authorities at first reacted harshly, but over time came to accept that many critics were not necessarily anti-constitutional or even extremist. This led some to express concern that the partial accommodation of erstwhile extremists might lead to relativism and weaken the basis of liberal democracy. This type of anxiety was not confined to Germany, and continues to exercise commentators today on a range of controversial issues.
The reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, and the more recent protests about the Confederate flag in the United States, demonstrate that debate about the acceptable bounds of political behaviour is normal in healthy democracies. It can of course lead to illiberal responses, and knee-jerk reactions risk depicting people with reasonable grievances as extremists. But some kinds of extremism have been progressive forces in politics. As long as debate about extremism is encouraged, and set in a historical context, we might better avoid or move on from simply unreflective and unconstructive condemnation.
Image: the School of Athens, by Raphael (detail: Aristotle and Plato), from Wikipedia
Neil Fleming is Senior Lecturer in Modern History, University of Worcester. He is the author of The Marquess of Londonderry: Aristocracy, Power and Politics in Britain and Ireland (London, 2005). His most recent publication is ‘Diehard Conservatives and the Appeasement of Nazi Germany, 1935–1940’, History, vol. 100, no. 441 (2015), pp. 412−435.
 Marc Mulholland, Bourgeois Liberty and the Politics of Fear: From Absolutism to Neo-Conservatism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 1.
 Uwe Backes, Political Extremes: A Conceptual History from Antiquity to the Present (London: Routledge, 2010), passim.
 Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe since 1945 (London: William Heinemann, 2005), pp. 390−421.
 N.C. Fleming, ‘Political Extremes and Extremist Politics’, Political Studies Review, vol. 12, no. 3 (2014), pp. 395−401.