What is right-wing extremism?

Anders Ravik Jupskås and Iris Beau Segers


  • Right-wing extremism is usually defined as a specific ideology characterized by ‘anti-democratic opposition towards equality’.
  • It is associated with racism, xenophobia, exclusionary nationalism, conspiracy theories, and authoritarianism.
  • There are several right-wing extreme parties and organizations in Europe and beyond, but most of them are not particularly successful.
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Key definition

Right-wing extremism is usually defined as a specific ideology characterized by ‘anti-democratic opposition towards equality’.[1] In public debate, but also among scholars, the concept is often associated with behavioral characteristics, such as politically motivated violence.[2] The concept applies to parties, movements, websites, and individual activists and intellectuals. Arguably, (neo-)Nazism and (neo-)fascism are the two most well-known forms of right-wing extremism. Some scholars argue that the more recent counter-jihad movement is right-wing extreme.[3] The concept is controversial, partly because very few political parties, groups, or activists use it to describe their own position, and partly because it is associated with attitudes and actions that are either illegal and/or highly stigmatized.[4]

History of the concept

The concept of “right-wing extremism” arises out of research on fascism in the post-war period. Initially, this research used “right-wing radicalism” as an umbrella term for parties and movements on the far right of the political spectrum—both those with and without clear ties to interwar expressions of fascism and Nazis.[5] During the 1970s and 1980s, however, “right-wing radicalism” was largely replaced by “right-wing extremism”. In the 1990s, it became the dominant concept, particularly in continental Europe. In other contexts, most notably North America, the concept of “white supremacism” is more widely used, and entails overtly racist beliefs that the white race is superior, and therefore should be dominant over people of other races.

In recent years, scholars frequently refer to both ‘right-wing radicalism’ and ‘right-wing extremism’, most often to distinguish between ideologies that are democratic, but illiberal (radicalism), on the one hand, and those that are anti-democratic (extremism), on the other hand.[6] In other words, whereas the radical right is opposed to liberal aspects of democracy (like minority rights) and does not promote the use of violence, the extreme right is inherently anti-democratic and, in some cases, legitimizes the use of violence to pursue its political aims.

Different conceptualizations

There is extensive scholarly consensus that, despite some activists referring to themselves as national socialists, right-wing extremism is on the ‘right’ because it defends a hierarchal social relationship between groups, usually between what is considered the “in-group” and the “out-group” in ethnic or racial terms.[7] However, there is more disagreement about the definition of “extreme”, mainly whether right-wing extremism by definition is violent, and partly what it means to be anti-democratic.

The first, and arguably most prevalent, understanding – the ideational definition – defines right-wing extremism as the combination of anti-democratic attitudes (the extreme aspect) and the defense of social hierarchies (the right-wing aspect). Being anti-democratic is usually narrowly defined as opposition to free and fair elections, although some scholars argue that opposition towards fundamental values of democracy, including universal human rights, is enough to be considered right-wing extreme.[8]

The second understanding – the behavioral definition – looks at right-wing extremism as politically motivated violent behavior, or the justification of such behavior, within a democratic system where the state has monopoly of violence.[9] Many, but not all, police security services and governments rely on this approach.[10]

Moving beyond minimal definitions, right-wing extremism is often associated with antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, exclusionary nationalism, authoritarianism, and conspiracy theories. These features produce a set of “enemies”, which are seen as a threat against the survival of the nation, the culture or the race. The most common enemies and targets of violence are immigrants, ethnic and religious minorities, anti-racists/fascists and left-wing politicians.[11] However, there is also widespread contempt for LGBTQ, feminists, homeless, and disabled persons. Some of the most prevalent conspiracy theories on the extreme right, such as Zionist Occupation Government (ZOG) and Eurabia, identify Jews and Muslims (and the so-called “cultural Marxist establishment”), respectively, as the key enemies.

Prevalence of right-wing extremism

The prevalence of right-wing extremism depends on whether it is defined in terms of an ideology or in terms of (politically motivated) violent behavior.

Following the (narrow) ideational definition, only a few political parties in contemporary Europe can be described as right-wing extreme. Golden Dawn in Greece is among the most notable exceptions. In the most recent European Parliament election in 2019, the extreme right gained more support, mostly Marian Kotleba’s People’s Party Our Slovakia (Kotleba-L’SNS) and the National Popular Front (ELAM) in Cyprus, although overall, neo-Nazi parties lost two seats and one party (German NPD). In the non-party sector, there are several moderately sized and successful extreme right organizations, including the Nordic Resistance Movement, The All-Polish Youth, and CasaPound in Italy. Outside of Europe, well-known examples of extreme right movements are the Ku Klux Klan in the United States, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in India.

Compared to the ideational definition, the behavioral definition categorizes right-wing extremism as a more marginal phenomenon. However, right-wing violence continues to constitute a significant problem in many countries around the globe. Since 2000, there have been at least ten deadly extreme right violent events per year in Western Europe. In the US, levels of deadly right-wing violence are even higher. And in countries like India and Myanmar, there are numerous examples of anti-Muslim violence. Moreover, if we include non-physical violence (e.g., hate speech) or violent imaginaries, this form of right-wing extremism becomes even more widespread.[12]


[1] Carter, E. (2018). Right-wing extremism/radicalism: reconstructing the concept. Journal of Political Ideologies, 23(2), 157-182; Mudde, C. (2007). Populist radical right parties in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[2] Among those who also emphasize violence, see Wilkinson, P. (1995). Violence and terror and the extreme right. Terrorism and Political Violence, 7(4), 82-93.

[3] See e.g., Koch, A. (2017). The new crusaders: Contemporary extreme right symbolism and rhetoric. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(5), 13-24.

[4] Klandermans, B., & Mayer, N. (Eds.). (2006). Extreme right activists in Europe:Through the magnifying glass. New York, USA: Routledge.

[5] Mudde, C. (1995). Right‐wing extremism analyzed: A comparative analysis of the ideologies of three alleged right‐wing extremist parties (NPD, NDP, CP'86). European Journal of Political Research, 27(2), 203-224.

[6] Mudde (2007), 24-25; see also Bötticher, A. (2016). Towards academic consensus definitions of radicalism and extremism. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(4), 73-77.

[7] Bobbio, N. (1996). Left and right: The significance of a political distinction. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

[8] See e.g. Carter, E. (2005). The extreme right in Western Europe. Manchester University Press, 17.

[9] Merkl, P. H., & Weinberg, L. (Eds.). (1997). The revival of right-wing extremism in the nineties. London, UK: Frank Cass.

[10] e.g., the Norwegian Security Services. The AIVD, the General Intelligence and Security Service of the Netherlands, however, defines extremism as ‘the active pursuit of/or support for profound changes in society which could pose a threat to (the continuity of) the democratic legal order’.

[11] Ravndal, J.A. (2016). Right-wing terrorism and violence in Western Europe: Introducing the RTV dataset. Perspectives on Terrorism, 10(3), 2-15.

[12] See for example Goodwin, M., & Ewans, J. (2012). From voting to violence? Far right extremism in Britain. Hope not Hate. https://www.channel4.com/media/c4-news/images/voting-to-violence%20(7).pdf.

By Anders Ravik Jupskås and Iris Beau Segers
Published Aug. 31, 2020 1:36 PM - Last modified Nov. 7, 2020 9:38 PM