Theirs or Ours?


Their Future or Ours?

THE YEAR 1989, with the East European regimes tumbling in quick succession, could have been greeted as a sign that people do count and that obsolete systems are, ultimately, swept away. Instead it was hailed, illogically, as proof that our system will go on for ever. Naturally, in its extreme form -- Francis Fukuyama's pseudo-Hegelian proposition that history has come to an end -- such propaganda could not last. But the message which mattered, namely that the reign of capital is eternal, is still triumphant. Do you recall the Reaganite charge describing the Soviet Union -- how distant it now seems -- as a hell from which there is no exit? This argument had now been cleverly reversed. It is our world -- hell, paradise, or purgatory -- from which, we are told, there is no possible escape.

You may be repelled by a Western World with its mass unemployment in Europe and its working poor in America, shocked by the contrast between the growing wealth and the spreading poverty, the gap between the have and have-nots, alarmed by uncontrolled growth clashing with our environment, appalled by open racial discrimination and the more concealed bias against women. You may protest and even try to do something about it. But if you move beyond the symptoms and question the system that is at the root of the trouble, you will get the same answer, like a broken record: there is no alternative. T.I.N.A., Tina, was the nickname given to Maggie Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, who proclaimed more often than anybody and in shriller tones that there was and could be no way out of our predicament. But she was not alone. Broadcast throughout the globe by huge machines of propaganda, first thunderously, then more surreptitiously, the message has penetrated people's minds, invaded their unconscious. Tina is now the unwritten premise of virtually the whole political debate.

This book is a presumptuous pebble trying to upset the juggernaut. Its writing was inspired by a passionate reaction against the ruling gospel preaching that profit provides the only possible social relationship between human beings and the market the only guarantee for democracy. The need to fight back was thought particularly important because, whatever the objective reasons for its current domination, the power of the establishment and the arrogance of its spokesmen are also due to our weakness, to our acquiescence and our resignation. The ambition of this book is to discard Tina, to start a genuine debate over a possible alternative, and in the search for it -- at the risk of being branded dangerously utopian -- to venture beyond the capitalist horizon.

The conception of the book dictated its construction. The contention that seeking another world is impossible has been greatly assisted by the clever identification of socialism with the Stalinist experiment and its sequel. Even if one has always been anti-Stalinist, categorically rejecting the confusion between socialism and the crimes of the Georgian tyrant, one must still settle this account with the past.1 The first part of the book, therefore, deals with "The Heritage." It begins with the Bolshevik Revolution, which happened where it could not accomplish its task, then failed to spread to areas where it could have done so, and it tries to assess the tragic results of that contradiction. But nearly fifteen years have now elapsed since Mikhail Gorbachev embarked on perestroika and ten since those heady days when the people of Eastern Europe spectacularly rejected "really existing socialism," enough time, incidentally, for them to discover that "really existing capitalism" was not quite as attractive as it had been painted to be. The second chapter tries to show why Gorbachev's attempt was bound to fail and how bewildered the people of Eastern Europe now are, torn between a rejected past and a disappearing present. The third chapter deals with the impact on an admittedly never quite bipolar world of the sudden disappearance of one of the two superpowers. The consequences are as complex and ambiguous as Soviet foreign policy was, not in abstract theory but in real practice.

If all these three chapters are logically connected, the fourth, completing Part One and covering the crisis of social democracy, may seem odd. It could have been expected that the official, final collapse of the allegedly revolutionary venture in the eastern half of Europe would be coupled with the glorification of Fabian tactics and the triumph of evolution in the western half. Nothing of the kind happened. It actually coincided with a frontal attack against the social conquests achieved during the past quarter century of exceptionally rapid growth after the last war. Since the expanded welfare state is one of the main attractions of social democracy, now taken to mean the reformist management of existing society, the proposed dismantlement of the state posed a serious challenge to the social democratic leaders, whatever their personal readiness to accept it. The popular resistance against this attempt to impose the American pattern should not be underestimated, and these are only the first skirmishes of major battle over the social, and hence the political, shape of Europe.

Meanwhile, with the revolutionary project shattered and the reformist strategy bankrupt, the heritage can hardly be described as very valuable. Part Two, concerned with "Changing Europe," is really seeking new sources of hope. For the reader it should provide a bit of a breather: after the mixture of compressed history and speculation, some narrative and three concrete case studies. The purpose is not to ponder how the euro will stand up to the dollar or how dominant a role the unified Germany will play in European integration. It is to discover -- east wind, west wind? -- where real change will come from.

The first case examined is that of Russia, seen through the prism of the miraculous election of Boris Yeltsin as president in 1996, a poll hailed by President Clinton, with unconscious humor, as "a triumph of democracy." In fact it was a striking example of how a free election can be cooked. It showed the corrosiveness of corruption and the power of the profiteers of privatization within the new regime. The conduct of Yeltsin's henchmen, whom with Orwellian predilection we continue to call "democrats," and the hypocrisy of their Western backers should not lead us to conceal the confusion, lack of new ideas, and jingoism of the other side, that is to say of the Communists and their national allies. Actually, the "miracle" at the polls was in vain. Two years later, Russia's bankruptcy and the fall of the ruble brought the reign of Yeltsin virtually to an end. A postscript on the unmaking of a president tries to assess the several calamitous years of the Western-sponsored attempt to convert Russia to classical capitalism.

While its plight is in no way comparable, Poland, too, is a sad case. It is the more depressing because of the high hopes it once aroused. Poland, after all, was the only country in Eastern Europe where the change of regime had been prepared by a lengthy struggle and a genuine movement from below. The entry of the Polish workers on the political stage in 1980 precipitated the course of events throughout the area and seemed to open up a new historical vistas. The political branch of Solidarnosc is back in office in Warsaw, but it is now clearly a highly reactionary as well as a clerical force. The second chapter traces, and tries to explain, the disenchanting road from Gdansk to the present. The two cases combines, the Russian and the Polish, suggest that for all sorts of understandable reasons -- notably the time needed for class interests to crystallize and for the Soviet past to be seen in a certain perspective -- in the next few years, the light is most unlikely to come from the East.

Most encouraging is the third case, the French winter of discontent, the strikes and mass demonstrations which, in 1995, revealed the potential for resistance in western Europe. Indeed, future historians may treat it as an ideological turning point, the first revolt against Tina. What momentarily caused panic within the establishment was that its usual propaganda -- you must accept the world as it is, with Maastricht, the markets, the IMF and all -- had no effect whatsoever on the mounting movement. The plain reply of the protesters was: if that is the future you offer us and our children, to hell with your future! The significance of this refusal of permanent black-mail is crucial. We will not bet able to achieve anything as long as we accept, even implicitly, that nothing can be done. But the negation is only the first vital step. There is a point in the objection that, if we reject their future, we must provide a vision of our own. This brings us to Part Three, the longest, "In Search of an Alternative," which requires a word of explanation.

Even if I had all the space in the world and the arrogance to pretend that I knew all the answers, the resulting program would be of little use to a genuine popular movement, which must forge its own project. Gone are the days of programs imposed from outside and from above. Later in the book we shall consider the apparent contradiction between this healthy refusal of blueprints handed down by the leadership and the natural desire of the people, if they are to embark on a long-term action, to have a clear vision of where they are going. But the dilemma does not have to bother us here, because I do not have the audacity to present a program. Rather than provide answers, the third part of the book will raise the questions and list the main problems that the left, labor, the progressive movement -- call it what you wish -- will have to face and solve if it wants to be relevant once again, to mobilize people, and to help them to become, if not yet masters of their fate, at least actors in their own story.

The first series of questions will be concerned with the function work assumes in our fast-changing society, because, if we were really witnessing "the end of work," the labor movement could no longer play a central part in the transformation of that society. What we are actually watching is, probably, the end of the illusion, born during the period of postwar prosperity, that the system, at least in advanced capitalist countries, can provide steady, fairly decent, and improving employment for all. The problem today, and the task is tremendous, is how to unify a working class that is not vanishing but which has been deeply reshaped in the last half century through the expansion of the service sector, the inflow of women, and, more recently, the re-emergence on a mass scale of precarious, "contingent" employment. Yet even if labor were reunited and forged an alliance with out social movements, could it still play a historical role in a world whose frontiers have been swept aside by the winds of globalization? Since the term used so obviously as a substitute, or aid, for Tina, it is useful to stress that globalization is not an automatic product of technological progress in the age of the computer. The form economic internationalization has taken is the response of capital to its structural crisis. This having been said, it has changed the rules of the game. The radical transformation of society can still be initiated, say, within a medium-sized European nation state, but it must rapidly move beyond its frontiers. Seen in perspective, internationalism is the reply to globalization.

Looking at the global picture one gets a striking view of inequality. The fact that the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world nearly equals the annual income of the poorer half of the earth's population, that is to say more than 2.5 billion human beings, is more arresting than volumes of social criticism.2 Actually, inequality appears at the very center of the major issues of our time: international exploitation, racism, gender discrimination, and the hierarchical division of labor. And when polarization rhymes with stagnation, it is no longer possible to pretend that, because of the expanding pie, equality is irrelevant. Egalitarianism -- not to be confused with leveling and uniformity -- must be at the very heart of any progressive project. But, in your quest for equality, will you not be sacrificing freedom? To answer this question, the fourth chapter is devoted to democracy. Democracy is fundamental, and not only because of the horrors committed in the Soviet Union, allegedly in the name of socialism. The Soviet experience has shown how precious the so-called "formal" freedoms -- of expression, assembly, election -- really are. And yet just to restore them, without filling them with social content, cannot be enough. Democracy had to be reinvented on the shop floor, in the office, on the campus, at all levels from the local neighborhood to the very top, if Soviet experience is not to be repeated, if power is really to be given to the people and planning turned into the self-organization of society.

Two main lessons are drawn from the chapters devoted to the search for an alternative. The first is that all liberation struggles are closely linking and, however significant each protest movement and however valuable its autonomy, the potential whole is more important than its parts. The capitalist system is an elaborate construction, centuries old, adaptable and invading all walks of life. It will only be thrown off the historical stage by another social order capable of defeating and replacing it on all the fronts. For the second lesson is that all the struggles -- for the control over the work process, for greater equality, for real powers to the people -- being within existing society and drive us beyond its borders. This is why the book's conclusion calls for "realistic utopia." Realistic since it must be rooted in current conflicts and in the potentialities of existing society. Utopian because that is how any attempt to look beyond the confines of capitalism is branded.

Have you not tried to conceal under an initially liberal presentation the real inspirer, the bearded villain, whom so many now present as the begetter of our predicament? There is no reason for hiding. Karl Marx is the great analyst of class society, and the reign of capital, though not eternal, is a present predominant on the bulk of this planet. His inspiration, therefore, is not precious, provided he is not treated , in a most un-Marxist fashion, as an infallible and mummified oracle. Marx did not have the time to complete the analysis of his own society; notably, he did not reach the point where he planned to study the state. For all his extraordinary foresight of the shape of things to come, he could not take into account many features of our society. He probably could not imagine that, with the extraordinary technological progress achieved in the century and a half that followed, the social organization would lag so far behind. The Marxism welcome in this book is not the ritual "Marxism-Leninism," a Holy Scripture serving as a tool and a disguise for Soviet leaders, but a living instrument questioning the fast-changing world and examining its own premises in the process.3

Since we are at the confessional stage, let me also admit that this book is not written by an ex- or a post-, but by an unfashionably plain socialist -- with hope, however, that it will be read not only by fellow socialists, anarchists, or ecologists. For its aim is very simple, even if in another sense it is quite ambitious. It is to help revive the belief, once quite widespread though now ruthlessly uprooted, that you can change life -- yes, your life -- by reshaping society through collective political action.

Having explained the construction and the purpose of the book, let me now briefly, before the critics do their job, outline some of its limitations. Because it tries in not too many pages to cope with several major issues, the book does not do justice to some of them. Thus, though I hope it is quite obvious that the ecological dimension and women's liberation are for me fundamental elements of any project for the future, these two topics do not figure prominently in these pages. Partly because it was not the purpose of the book, largely because other authors can write about these subjects so much better and have done so. This preference for subjects one knows intimately, some will accuse, may explain the emphasis on Poland rather than Hungary or France rather than Italy, though one can plead that the choices justified on its own. In any case, this argument cannot be used for the admitted Euro-centered bias of the story. This is a question of choice, since the assumption underlying the book is that for all sorts of reasons -- the attack on the welfare state, the popular feeling for social conquests and political traditions, weakened but not gone -- western Europe is likely to be the terrain of the first big confrontation of the new millennium. I will be delighted to be proved wrong if the limelight is switched to Asia or Latin America, because it is there that the revolt against capital's global offensive has, even earlier, taken the form of a counterattack.

After all, this book wants to be a contribution to a debate which cannot afford to be parochial. It looks forward to publications inspired by the same refusal or resignation, but looking at the system from a different angle because written in Tokyo or Seoul, in Mexico City or São Paulo. For the struggle is increasingly and inevitably international. History, far form coming to a stop, has quickened pace. The downturn precipitated by the financial crisis in Asia is no recession, but a slump as we have not seen for years. Its repercussions are unpredictable. There are also signs that France is not the only place where, after a couple of decades of absolute domination, the ruling ideology is starting to be questioned. But together with hope comes danger, its companion. If we do not quickly offer progressive solutions to the growing popular discontent, there are plenty of dark saviors waiting in the wings.

Above all, this is not an essay announcing the impending collapse of capitalism and the advent of a socialist millennium. Too many great expectations have been shattered to revive such exercises. But the certainty of victory is not indispensable for action. Its possibility is a sufficient spur. Whose Millennium? is fundamentally a gesture of revolt against Tina, a refusal of the prevailing religion of resignation and of its natural ally, irresponsibility. We are not tied to the system, and nobody can prevent us from looking beyond the capitalist horizon. We cannot just wash our hands and pretend. We are not doomed to impotence and inaction by fate.

Men at some time are masters of their fate:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves . . . .4

Cassius may have exaggerated.5 The main fault is not in ourselves. It lies in our unjust and unequal society, in a social system that in no way corresponds to the potentialities of our development, just as our technological sophistication contrasts with the primitiveness of our social organization. But we cannot just plead innocence and irresponsibility. We are not prisoners of this system. Though sobered up by past defeats and burdened by the weight of our environment, we, too, can try to be masters of our fate and fight for a different future.


1. This note is just for the right-wing reviewers who tend to accuse any critic of capitalism of indifference to the fate of the victims of Soviet terror. The author happens to be the son of a zek, who barely survived his time in one of the worse labor camps, Vorkuta, in the distant, inhospitable North. Back to text

2. In its 1996 edition, the Human Development Report stated that the wealth of 358 billionaires (measured in U.S. dollars) exceeded the combined income of 45 percent of the world's population. In its 1998 edition, it puts the wealth of the 225 richest in 1997 at more than 1 trillion dollars, nearly equaling the annual income of 47 percent of the world's poorest people. Human Development Report (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). Back to text

3. For an example of such creative Marxism, see István Mészáros, Beyond Capital (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1995). Back to text

4. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene 2). Back to text

5. So has Shakespeare in leaving women out and putting fate in the hands of men alone. But that was at the end of the sixteenth century. Now even those who think so would not dare to put it in writing. Back to text


Written only days before the author's passing, and to be included in the next edition of Whose Millennium?

Because of controversy over the actual beginning of the Millennium there is here an ambiguity. This book was already published in New York in 1999, i.e., at the height of the Asian crisis and its Russian-American repercussions. Now Asia is booming again and yet I do not propose to rewrite the text. Not only because no serious economist looking at the vagaries of Wall Street can guarantee further prosperity. This book was never based on the assumption of a catastrophic collapse of capitalism, followed by the smooth advent of a socialist society. Capitalism will have to be pushed off the stage and the future will be what we shall make it.

What about the other changes? While touring the States I spoke as often about Kosovo as about the book itself. And it was important to put a plague on both their houses (on Milosevic and his ethnic cleansing as well as on Nato "moral bombers" and double standards). Nationalism, however, is a huge subject on its own, to which Whose Millennium? could not do justice. Our defeat with the incapacity of the left to oppose universal, class, human values to the cheap propaganda based on our fear and prejudice. Another full book is needed to search counterpoison to this terrible disease.

The event of Eastern Europe bring only confirmation. I have picked Yeltsin's presidential election of 1996 to show how a corrupt administration in full control of the media can swing an election. The crowning of Vladimir Putin four years later made the point even better, showing that when it suits it the West will swallow anything, the destruction of Gronzy, Chechnya massacre and all. Developments in Poland and elsewhere seem to confirm the gloomy prospect that the light for the moment does not come from the East.

Alas, gloom in the east has not been compensated by progress in Western Europe, quite the contrary. The American model, in other words the most advanced capitalist model for the moment, is spreading with no resistance from Europeans states. If anything, there has been a shrinking of illusions. The so-called "third force," the vague feeling that the American capitalist drive could be combined with remnants of reformism, proves to be what it always was -- a fairy tale. The left-wing governments lost ground and the dividing line between the two sides got blurred.

It takes a learned specialist in political science to draw a distinction between the "reactionary" José Aznar in Spain and, say, the "progressives" Blair or Schroeder. And this gradual vanishing of a left-wing alternative is potentially dangerous since it offers opportunities to all sorts of would be saviours.

True, the split within the biggest of these parties -- the National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen -- gave us a breather. But the same causes produce the same effects. If we don't show that the deep reasons for disorder lie in the nature of our society, the scoundrels are ready with their dirty wares; Jörg Haider, ex-open admirer of the Nazis, Umberto Bossi and his fascist lega's getting ready for ministerial jobs, the Vlams block captures 30 percent of the votes in Belgium's second city, Antwerp. Naturally we should not exaggerate and panic. But when in gentle Denmark the xenophobic party of Vlaams Blok headed by Filip Dewinter is credited with 15 percent in opinion polls something is rotten in the Kingdom of Europe. Our failure, our inability to show that there is a way out of our society, is their success, there is danger for our future.

But there are also signs of younger generation refusing the idea that our technological genius can only produce polarization and possibly the end of the planet. It is this new generation from Seoul to Seattle that will show us the way. Capitalism "may contain the seeds of its own destruction," but it will not leave on its own.

Paris, november 2000

Whose Millennium? Theirs or Ours? copyright © 1999 Monthly Review Press. All rights reserved.