BOOK REVIEW / Racist demons running loose across Europe: The extreme right in Europe and the USA - Ed Paul Hainsworth: Pinter, pounds 45

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THE ALARMING success of the right-wing Republican party in the local elections in Hesse on Sunday reveals once again the presence of an emphatic nationalist streak in European politics. Refuge hostels have been torched in Germany. Turkish Gastarbeiten have been murdered, and Muslim girls driven from French schools for wearing headscarves. As for Britain, it is, as Roger Eatwell of the University of Bath points out, undergoing a severe crisis of identity and of confidence at a time of great economic difficulty.

Moreover, questions of race and culture remain unresolved here. Significant Muslim support for the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the demand for separate fundamentalist schools, and the organised opposition among Imams to this country's involvement in the Iraq war suggest that assimilation is not necessarily going to be painless. Heaven knows how generously or calmly we would receive several million Hong Kong Chinese.

In Eastern Europe and the Balkans the collapse of Communism has released racist demons as well as opening up the destabilising prospect of mass migration to the West. Yugoslavia is being ethnically cleansed with almost Nazi zeal. Czechoslovakia has fallen apart along racial fault lines. And, to quote from one of best- known songs of Tom Lehrer, the American satirist, 'Everybody hates the Jews'.

All this is set against a backdrop of the deepest and most prolonged economic depression in more than 60 years. Unemployment is high and looks likely to remain so, while left-wing panaceas are deeply discredited. For the first time since the Second World War the ingredients for a revival of right-wing extremism are in place.

The 12 contributors to this book analyse the extent and nature of the appeal of the extreme right in the European Community, country by country, since the Second World War. (The former Warsaw Pact states are dismissed in a single chapter while the section on the United States is trivial and anomalous.)

According to the editor, Paul Hainsworth, the most significant surge in extreme right gains has occurred, across Europe, in the past 10 years - 'as immigration, unemployment, insecurity and disillusion with mainstream parties emerged as key issues'. It is hard, in theory, to quarrel with Paul Hainsworth's further assertion that 'many of the factors favourable to the extreme right elsewhere exist in the United Kingdom, too'.

Yet the extreme right has so far 'failed dismally' in Britain, as Eatwell concedes in his opening sentence. This is perhaps surprising. Sir Oswald Mosley was intellectually and personally the most impressive fascist leader to have operated in democratic Europe since the war. Eatwell is good on Mosley's apparently high- minded but unsuccessful attempt to redefine the fascist creed as 'Europeanism' - a third way between capitalism and Communism - and to link it with the colonial development of Africa. He is good, too, on why Enoch Powell and the National Front did not make common cause in the 1974 election. Other reasons aside, Powell was adamant in his commitment to laissez-faire economics and parliamentary democracy while the Front was, at that time, neo-fascist. The author is less balanced on the manner in which Mrs Thatcher played to the racist gallery.

He claims that Mrs Thatcher made 'reference to Britain being 'swamped' by alien cultures' in 1978. What she said was: 'People are really rather afraid that this country might be rather swamped by people with a different culture.' The difference is crucial. The former would have constituted a paranoid expression of prejudice. The latter was a report of a distressingly general public mood.

What emerges is the central importance of race, ethnicity and immigration to the far-right cause. For the extremist voter, immigration is often the single issue determining political choice. More ominously, it is the principal issue over which those who do not vote for the extreme right might be tempted to switch their allegiance. Communism may be dead, but fascism is most assuredly alive and kicking.