The ghosts of Europe's terrible past are embodied in Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. He and his xenophobic National Front took off in the early eighties thanks to the economic crisis and the popular disenchantment with the French left, which came into office "to change life" and rapidly took on the conservative policies of its predecessors. Le Pen consolidated his position as unemployment and deflationary policy made European integration seem to many people not an opportunity but a threat to their way of life. The political consensus on economic policy enabled Le Pen to appear as the only outsider, offering scapegoats instead of solutions: immigrant workers, sinister Muslims, invading aliens. This foreigner-bashing has gained him fellow travelers elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Belgium and Austria. Naturally, the immediate threat should not be exaggerated. Short of economic catastrophe, the extreme right is unlikely to take over anywhere in Western Europe. Still, the fact that nearly one French voter out of six is now ready to cast his or her ballot for a leader for whom--and he stresses the point--the Holocaust is no more than a "detail" in the history of the Second World War is a sign that the evil ghosts of the past have not yet been laid to rest.
Our society contains the elements of its potential transformation, and in this interaction of the existing and the possible--a possibility perceived realistically but lying beyond the confines of our society--lies the burden of our responsibility and the mainspring of political action.
The defenders of the established order not only argue that human beings are driven by narrow self-interest. Echoing the words of the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, they claim that people are frightened of freedom, that they want to be led like a herd, to obey and not to challenge. Our premise, on the contrary, is that human beings want to shape their lives, that they want to be actors in their own drama. One could argue that history itself, with a different class playing the crucial role in different periods, is really the story of humankind's struggle for mastery over its own fate.
I venture to add a personal thought, prompted by the contrast between historical time and the time of our lives. The rough half-century that has elapsed since Stalin's death in 1953, and the close to a third of a century that has passed since those heady days of 1968, when young people from Berkeley to Tokyo prematurely proclaimed that imagination was seizing power--these are in the eyes of a true historian relatively short periods. In our own lives, however, they correspond to the passage of many of us from adolescence to old age, or to middle age. In moments of weariness and despondency, one tends to wonder what is the use of struggle if one is not going to see the outcome. There is consolation in the thought that "revolution is the only form of 'war' in which ultimate victory can be prepared only by a series of defeats" (Rosa Luxemburg). Still, one would not mind an occasional success and a few more signs that events are quickening their pace. Yet let us not be too weighed down by ineluctable moments of discouragement. History clearly does not belong--even if superficial, immediate rewards may--to the contemptible turncoats who want everything here and now and, when there is no instant revolution, promptly offer their services to the other side, in fact to the highest bidder. The only lasting effect of the contrast between historical and personal time scales is the tendency to look to a younger generation for hope.
We are at a moment, to borrow Whitman's words, when society "is for a while between things ended and things begun," not because of some symbolic date on the calendar marking the turn of the millennium but because the old order is a-dyin', insofar as it can no longer provide answers corresponding to the social needs of our point of development, though it clings successfully to power, because there is no class, no social force, ready to push it off the historical stage. This confrontation between the old and the new--the sooner it starts, the better--will now have to be global in its very nature. France, Italy and Western Europe are the first probable battlefield, though skirmishes are already taking place from Chiapas to Jakarta and from Seoul to São Paolo. Tomorrow Moscow, Warsaw and Prague may emerge from the utter confusion following their conversion to capitalism, while after tomorrow explosive struggles may even erupt in the heart of the capitalist fortress, from New York to California.
On the ground littered with broken models and shattered expectations a new generation will now have to take the lead. Chastened by our bitter experiences, they can advance with hope but without illusions, with convictions but without certitudes, and, rediscovering the attraction and power of collective action, they can resume the task, hardly begun, of the radical transformation of society. But they cannot do it on their own. We must follow their lead and, to the dismay of the preachers and propagandists shrieking that the task is impossible, utopian or suicidal, and to the horror of their capitalist paymasters, proclaim all together: "We are not here to tinker with the world, we are here to change it!" Only in this way can we give a positive answer to the question: Whose millennium, theirs or ours? It is also the only way in which we can prevent the future from being theirs--apocalyptic or, at best, barbarian.