Ahundred and twenty-five years after Lassalle, and a hundred years after the founding of the Second International, the socialist and labour parties are at a loss as to where they are going. Wherever socialists meet they ask one another gloomily about the future of our movements. I think it is perfectly justified to ask such questions, but—and this should be emphasized—they are not confined to the socialist parties. All the other parties are in the same position.

Who really knows what the future will bring? Who even thinks they know, apart from the Muslim, Christian, Jewish and other irrationalist fanatics whose numbers are again on the increase precisely because blind faith alone appears to be reliable in a world in which all have lost their way. Do they know their future in the United States, where they are haunted by the ghost of economic and political decline? Do they know in Rome, where, despite every effort, the Catholic Church is falling apart? Do they know in Jerusalem, where the dream of the national liberation of Judaism is collapsing under the batons of Israeli soldiers? That they do not know in Moscow, and do not even profess to know, is obvious. But what is happening in the Gorbachev era, developments which had been declared a priori impossible by generations of cold warriors on the basis of theories of totalitarianism, proves that even the intellectuals and ideologues of the cold war have come to the end of their cul-de-sac. And the economists—the theologians of our time, disguised as technical experts—do they know? Evidently they do not. How little talk there is about monetarism these days, considering that even at the beginning of the eighties it still dominated the thinking of Conservative governments. When was the last time even Mrs Thatcher mentioned the names Friedman or Hayek, although it was just ten years ago that they were parading their new Nobel prizes? Do businessmen know? Who really believes that? Certainly we in the socialist movement are only scratching our heads as we face the future, for we appear to be entering a land for which our guidebooks ill equip us. But the others no longer have relevant guidebooks either.

That, of course, is not surprising, even without taking into account the fact that movements born in the last century bring a great deal with them from their period of origin which can only be transposed very indirectly from the era of Krupp’s howitzer to the modern age of laser technology. However, the main point is this: in the thirty years following the Second World War the world was transformed globally, fundamentally, radically, and with such unprecedented speed that all previous analyses, even when they remained quite correct in principle, simply had to be modified and brought up to date in practice. There is no need to demonstrate this in detail. To put it in a single sentence, one might say that, taking the world as a whole, the Middle Ages ended between 1950 and 1970. And I would go further and assert that as far as Europe is concerned, those twenty years saw the end of the modern era too. Let us only consider what happened to the peasantry in those two decades, not only in central and western Europe but also in large parts of the Third World. This unique acceleration of historical development alone would have demanded a fundamental revision of previous interpretations. In my opinion this will present the main problem for historians of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

However, for a generation after 1950, it was possible, or at least tempting, to try to conceive this macro-historical revolution in a linear fashion, or to over-simplify it by, for example, describing it as ‘economic-technological growth’ or something along those lines. But this epoch of global boom—not only in capitalist economies, but also, in a very different setting, in socialist economies—these ‘thirty golden years’, as a French commentator has described them, led to a world-wide, long-term economic crisis, which has already lasted at least fifteen years. I do not think we can expect a new long-term era of ‘economic Sturm und Drang’, as Parvus once called it, before the 1990s. I know of no more optimistic forecast that we could really take seriously.

But it is in this time of crisis (which strangely enough began exactly a hundred years after the onset of the analogous ‘great depression’ of the Bismarck era) that the internal and external contradictions of the postwar period have moved to the front of the world stage. What has become clear is how frail or untenable old analyses or political remedies are, and how hard it is to replace them with new ones. For example, the deindustrialization of the old industrial economies has clearly emerged for the first time as a possible future for our countries. I mean not a shift away from the old industries to technically superior ones, or the transfer of industry from the Ruhr to the Neckar, but the movement of industry away from the West altogether. For the so-called ‘new industrial nations’ of the Third World are a phenomenon of the current era of crisis. May I merely remind you that at the beginning of the seventies South Korea was still classed as a ‘developing country’, and her industry was described as follows: ‘foodstuffs, textiles, plywood, rubber and steel works under construction’. The real crisis of the left today is not that we do not understand the new world situation as well as the others, but that we do not seem to have much to say on the matter. Capitalism does not need to say much, as long as a sudden collapse of the type which occurred in 1931 is avoided—and, after all, that much has been learned from the thirties. Capitalism can retreat to the logic of the market, for as a millionaire in New York explained to me a few days after the stock exchange crash: ‘Sooner or later the market finds an appropriate level again, so long as we avoid revolution in the meantime.’ We, however, are expected to say much more.

The crisis of the old ideas, and the need for new thinking, were imposed on socialists by reality itself and its effect on political praxis. The world has changed and we must change with it. I would almost go so far as to say: we more than anyone else. For as parties and as movements we are very much trapped in history. We became mass movements, very suddenly, a hundred years ago. In 1880 there was no socialist or other workers’ party with mass support, with the partial exception of Germany. Twenty-five years later Sombart considered the worldwide rise of such mass parties so natural that he tried to explain why the United States, which had no socialism, was an exception.

I should like to make five points about those new movements, which have by now grown to be very old movements. First, they were formed on the basis of a proletarian class consciousness among manual and wage workers, in spite of the striking heterogeneity—the inner and outer fragmentation—of the workers. One cannot even say that those workers who joined the new parties formed a particularly homogeneous group. Never-theless, it is clear that for workers at that time, what they had in common far outweighed any differences, with the exception sometimes, but not always, of religious or national differences. Without this consciousness, mass parties whose only programme in practice was their name could never have emerged. Their appeal—‘You are workers. You are a class. As such you must join the workers’ party’—could not have been heard. What we find today is not that there is no longer any working class, but that class consciousness no longer has this power to unite.