"That Europe is at present in a state of decline cannot be seriously disputed." This proclamation of decline comes early in Walter Laqueur's latest survey of Europe's fortunes and dominates it throughout. There is much talk of Gibbon and Spengler, the cyclic rise and fall of civilizations and the imminence of a "new ice age" for European democracy. Detailed accounts of the political and economic malaise of the 1970s alternate with sibyline utterances full of menace.

Laqueur is perhaps the best established practitioner of "contemporary" history now active in the English-speaking world. He directs the Institute of Contemporary History in London and edits the Journal of Contemporary History. His books are numerous and often well received. Whether his conceptual and analytical powers are fully equal to the ambitious tasks to which he sets himself is something else again, but his scholary energy is surely impressive.

What he attempts to show in "A Continent Astray" is that Europe in the 1970s suffers not so much from any real diminishment of its wealth or power as from a paralysis of will. The term he suggests to diagnose Europe's contemporary ills is "abulia," a word coined by Freud's French precursor Cbarcpt to describe the listless behavior of patients afflicted by Parkinson's disease. The choice is apt, in a way not intended by Laqueur. Charcot did not understand the physical causes of the disease and wrongly attributed abulia to neurosis. Laqueur does not understand the causes of Europe's sickness in the '70s and offers instead a series of clinical descriptions of the symptoms. Attaching a fancy Greek label to them explains nothing.

But at the level of description "A Continent Astray" is a convenient survey of non-Communist Europe in this decade. It makes no attempt to deal more than glancingly with the world outside. It is also heavily political in its emphases. After a hurried account of "Euro-Economics," whose writing Laqueur delegated to his friend Herbert Block, the book settles down to six chapters on domestic and international politics, seen as a melancholy record of "fragmentation, internal squabbles, and aimlessness."

Wherever he turns, Laqueur finds "a steady erosion of authority." The basic problem, he concludes, is the absence of the civic virtues needed to confront issues squarely. Europe's leaders in the 1970s have been mediocrities, "pragmatic politicians lacking strong character, firm beliefs, and on the whole, superior intellect." Europe's people have grown selfish and insubordinate, infected by "the mistaken belief" that in free societies "one may get something for nothing by right."

The paralysis of will affects every major segment of European political life. Laqueur decries the performance of conservatives, liberals and social democrats alike. In a trenchant chapter on "Euronationalism" he also attacks the centrifugal forces at work within Europe that have blocked the progress of Europe-wide cooperation. These forces, including the upsurge of ethnic separatism typified by movements for Scots, Breton, and Basque independence, are tied by Laqueur to his master-thesis: the weakening of central state power resulting from mediocre political leadership. Two additional complications, he argues, are the continuing military superiority of the Warsaw Pact nations and the continuing loyalty of Eurocommunists to Moscow, despite all rhetoric to the contrary.

The solution that Laqueur proposes, with some uneasiness, is a swing to the right, in the sense of regimes with strong leaders and fearless policies bordering on authoritarianism. He worries about a resulting erosion of civil liberties, but not as much as he worries about the further spread of abulia. "The reassertion of authority may be brutal, far-reaching, and costly," he warns, "but it is equally possible that societies facing a crisis of survival will voluntarily surrender some of the freedom to which they have become accustomed and that gradually a new equilibrium will emerge between the rights of the individual and the interests of society."

It is not too difficult to see where all this leads. Laqueur does not want a return of fascism, but in effect he is predicting and encouraging the rise of a new generation of European strong men and (not forgetting Margaret Thatcher) strong women. The new Caesara of his vision will build a unified, disciplined Western Europe that can collaborate on terms of equality with the United States in the integration and defense of the "free world." Such a prospect does not seem unlikely. It accords with the best current reading of the dynamics of the capitalist world system. Laqueur may not even begin to understand those dynamics, but his forecast of things to come rings ominously true