HOW BIG a threat are the Nazis in Europe today? Many liberal establishment commentators dismiss groups like the British National Party as nasty but marginal thugs who have no chance of ever getting near power. This position has become much harder to sustain, especially since Nazi Jean-Marie Le Pen beat prime minister Lionel Jospin into third place in the first round of the French presidential elections on 21 April.
Martin Jacques, once editor of Marxism Today and now a pillar of the left-liberal establishment, reacted by declaring, 'Not since the 1930s has the threat of the irrational, of a turn towards barbarism, been so great in the West.' Neither panic nor complacency is a rational response to contemporary fascism.
Properly assessing the extent of the threat requires careful analysis based on a historical perspective. The victories of Hitler and Mussolini in the inter-war years depended on a convergence of two distinct social and political forces - core sections of the German and Italian ruling classes on the one hand, and fascist mass movements on the other.
What brought them together was the greatest crisis in the history of capitalism. This made large numbers of small businessmen, petty officials and better-off peasants open to the fascist promise of a new order in which all the contradictions of modern life were overcome in a harmonious, racially pure 'national community'.
At the same time the scale of the economic crisis drove big business towards desperate solutions. Standing in their way was the organised working class. And the fascists also detested the labour movement as traitors to the 'national community'.
So the bosses and the Nazis could strike a bargain based on the shared objectives of crushing the working class and launching a programme of imperial expansion. Out of this devil's pact came the Holocaust.
When we compare Europe today with the situation in the 1930s there are, as always, both similarities and differences. Protracted economic stagnation and the cumulative effects of two decades of Thatcherite policies have created growing social polarisation and popular disaffection with the mainstream political parties.
This is the soil on which the far right has grown throughout Europe. But clearly the present economic crisis is still much less serious than the Great Depression of the 1930s, which threw a third of the workforce in Germany and the US onto the dole. There is, therefore, not yet the same desperation at either the top or the bottom of society.
Francois Olivier of the French Revolutionary Communist League wrote recently, 'No significant section of big capital actively supports Le Pen's party.' This is true enough, but it doesn't mean that the fascists can't make big gains now. During the second half of the 1920s, when the Weimar Republic in Germany seemed at its strongest, Hitler laid the basis of the party that took power in January 1933.
He did so in two ways. First, he carefully built up a fascist political and paramilitary machine that was firmly under his control. Secondly, Hitler carefully cultivated 'respectable society' in the shape of the extreme right of the ruling class.
The unsuccessful far right Munich putsch in October 1923 had taught Hitler that the Nazis could only come to power with the support of the establishment, and not by seeking to overthrow it.
As Jim Wolfreys shows in an excellent article in the latest issue of International Socialism, Le Pen understands this dual strategy very well.
He was prepared to split the National Front in 1999 to break with a faction that wanted to give priority to electoral alliances with the parliamentary right led by Jacques Chirac.
But Le Pen still seeks to appeal to more traditional conservatives. We can see the same tension between the two elements of the dual strategy - building a hardened fascist organisation and cultivating electoral respectability - in the other far right parties. In the BNP's case it is embodied in the rivalry between the veteran Nazi leader John Tyndall and the more media-friendly Armani fascist Griffin. In the Austrian Freedom Party the leader Jorg Haider has carefully maintained a distance from his own ministers in the right wing coalition government. He has just attacked them for postponing a big tax cut.
Determined mass mobilisation against the Nazis now can cause these tensions to explode.
The experience of the Anti Nazi League in Britain in the late 1970s and early 1990s shows how counter-mobilisations and mass propaganda like this weekend's carnival in Manchester help to isolate the fascist hardcore from their looser racist sympathisers.
The weaker the Nazis are now, the more difficult it will be for them to exploit a more serious crisis in the future. We can't afford to ignore them.