Ernest Mandel

The New Vanguard


Source: A chapter in Tariq Ali (ed.), The New Revolutionaries: A Handbook of the International Radical Left, published by William Morrow & Co, New York, 1969.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Thanks to Victor Leser for bringing this book to our attention.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Any analysis of the student revolt must start from one basic consideration: the university explosion. A new social grouping has emerged from the very vitals of capitalism, from all that it considers its essential ‘achievement’: the higher standard of living, the advances in technology and the mass media, and the requirements of automation. There are six million university students in the United States, two and a half million in Western Europe and over a million in Japan. And it proved impossible to integrate these groupings into the capitalist system as it functions in any of these territories.

The students have not found the necessary material facilities for their studies in the universities. They have not found the kind of education they were looking for. And above all when they leave the universities it is getting harder and harder for them to find the kind of jobs they rightly expected when they started their university education.

A young student writing in Le Monde the other day described ‘our’ society as a ‘society of abundance’, a society in which ‘everyone’ is now guaranteed full employment and a steady rise in his standard of living. Evidently, he did not put his glasses on when he read the Western European unemployment statistics. He did not see that in the last two winters there were three million unemployed in Western Europe. He did not see that the number of unemployed in France itself topped a half-million – and this in the midst of a government-proclaimed economic expansion. He did not notice the large number of young people in this mass of unemployed, to say nothing of the still larger number which the statistics do not include. He did not see that the unemployment rate among the youth in the black ghettoes of the United States exceeds 20 per cent – which explains a lot of things. In brief, what he, as have innumerable devotees of capitalism, failed to see is that this system, far from solving all economic and social problems, has not even remedied the basic evils of nineteenth-century capitalism, while it has added a series of new contradictions that have proved more and more insoluble.

Capitalism confronts the student youth with insoluble contradictions, not only in the university but also in the economy and in bourgeois society, which is in permanent crisis. Some people have talked about the inadequacy of the universities and, like good reformists, called for university reform. Therefore, when the students turned their backs on this reform of the bourgeois university, they were accused of rejecting ‘dialogue’. But what the students in revolt rejected was in fact dialogue within the pre-established and supposedly immutable framework of the bourgeois state, of the bourgeois governments in Western Europe and Japan.

The students have been told: ‘The budget isn’t large enough to guarantee all of you the university buildings, professors and assistants, restaurants, dormitories and, above all, the high-quality education you demand right away. You have to be satisfied with gradually changing the existing situation, which we all agree is unsatisfactory.’ And when the students are told this, they are a thousand times right to answer: ‘Stop this nonsense about the appropriation for education and the resources of the public bodies. Talk in terms of the economic resources available in this society. Admit that while there isn’t enough money for the universities, there is more than enough for advertising and superfluous gadgets. Admit that the reason you can’t find the billions needed for a university system fit for the twentieth century is because you’re squandering billions for your “force de frappe” (France’s nuclear striking force). Admit that you are stifling immense productive, technological, cultural and intellectual forces because you prefer to create destructive forces.’

In this sense, and rightly, the students reject ‘dialogue’ and reject ‘university reform’ in the context of bourgeois society. For they have understood the nature of this society. And this awareness, together with their special situation in society, has made them the weakest link in the neo-capitalist chain today, the first to crack throughout the Western world.

What the student revolt represents on a much broader social and historic scale is the colossal transformation of the productive forces which Marx foresaw in his Grundrisse (Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy): the reintegration of intellectual labour into productive labour, men’s intellectual capacities becoming the prime productive force in society.

This is still embryonic and is unrealisable within the framework of capitalist society, but it is already powerfully announcing itself. In speaking of a third industrial revolution, of a scientific revolution, many Marxist sociologists have not always drawn the obvious conclusion about the place of intellectual workers in society. They do not understand that as a result of profound changes in intellectual employment the majority of university graduates will no longer be bosses, or professionals, or even direct agents of the bosses with strictly supervisory functions, but white-collar employees of the state or industry, and thus part of the great mass of salaried workers. They do not understand the specific character of the student milieu as a special social stratum, with which students from bourgeois backgrounds often assimilate, breaking their ties with their family environment without yet being integrated into the social environment of their professions-to-be. There is an unwillingness to understand, or accept, a fundamental fact – that man’s chief productive force will be his creative intellectual power. This intellectual power is only potentially productive today because capitalist society beats it down and stamps it out as pitilessly as it beats down the personality and creative impulse of the manual workers.

There is then at the base of the student revolt a high consciousness of a new dimension which has been added to the classical alienation of labour produced by capitalist society, produced by all societies based upon buying and selling.

We can say that this intellectual labour power is doubly revolutionary and productive today. It is so because it is conscious of the enormous wealth it promises, which could lead us rapidly to a classless society, to abundance. It is so because it is conscious of all the contradictions, injustices and barbarities of contemporary capitalism, and because the results of its becoming conscious are in themselves profoundly revolutionary. The development of this consciousness occurred first of all among the students, for a very simple reason: because the traditional organisations of the workers’ movement are profoundly bureaucratised and long since coopted into bourgeois society. When the workers’ movement does not erect multiple barriers against the penetration of bourgeois ideology into the working class, most of the workers succumb, at least in ‘normal’ conditions, to the preponderant influence of bourgeois ideas – as Marx and Lenin never failed to repeat.

However, when among students who are a larger minority, they can free themselves by individual thought from the constant manipulation and mental conditioning of the great public-opinion moulding instruments in the service of bourgeois society and capitalism. This is precisely because students are in a more privileged social and intellectual situation than the workers.

It is an unquestionable fact that the revolt against the dirty imperialist war in Vietnam arose from the students and youth in the United States. It was these American students and young people who set in motion a powerful movement against this war, eventually drawing in masses of adult black workers and now beginning to affect the white workers also.

Essentially the same process has been set in motion in Western Europe and Japan. From among these students and young people emerged the most powerful mass mobilisation against the war in Vietnam, which at its outset went beyond the absolutely opportunist and capitulationist phase of movements ‘for peace in Vietnam’ or ‘for negotiations’. We have seen young revolutionaries by tens of thousands go into the streets of Paris, Berlin, London, Copenhagen, Rome, Amsterdam and Brussels to launch the only valid slogan – the slogan of full and complete solidarity with the Vietnamese people, the slogan of victory for the Vietnamese revolution.

In its twofold revolt against the bourgeois university and the imperialist war, the student vanguard has become conscious of the necessity of rising up against bourgeois society in its entirety. Now, it is drawing logical revolutionary socialist conclusions from its anti-capitalist consciousness; it is preparing itself for a socialist revolution. For, without a proletarian socialist revolution, there will be no overthrow of the capitalist system, not in Western Europe, nor anywhere else in the imperialist world.

Another comment must be made on this subject. The ‘revolutionary’ concept, in the proletarian, Marxist sense of the term, has always implied another idea: ‘internationalism’. This internationalism was demonstrated during the period when Che Guevara, an Argentinian, fought for the victory of the Cuban Revolution, then went on to die for the Bolivian Revolution. At a time when even the technocrats are talking about the need for a united Europe, a secretary of the French Communist Party describes our friend Danny Cohn-Bendit as a ‘German anarchist’; on the contrary, it is Cohn-Bendit who represents proletarian internationalism, and the Communist Party secretary who personifies petit-bourgeois nationalism.

The description that Comrade Bensaïd has given us of the way in which the 22 March movement was organised should remind us all of a striking parallel: the way in which Fidel Castro and Che Guevara began to organise the armed struggle in Cuba. They also began by saying:

We are going to put aside the tactical differences that divide the various tendencies in the revolutionary movement. Once we agree on the essential thing, on the action to be initiated, on the way to break from the stagnation and backwardness of the traditional movement, on the way to initiate the struggle against imperialism and the oligarchy in Cuba by the armed road, we will little by little create a process that will gradually accelerate by its own internal logic, that will make it possible to classify and reclassify the various tendencies by experience.

This attitude is essential for all who want to free themselves from the empty verbalism which has done so much harm. After a certain point, the movement can only progress through action, and the absence of action condemns it to permanent division and prolonged sterility.

As other comrades before me have said, an urgent task is the integration of the students into the workers’ movement. Yes, the workers’ movement must win back the student movement, particularly inasmuch as the students are workers. But this cannot be accomplished by way of the ossified and bureaucratised structures of the traditional workers’ organisations. It is within the working class, rising up in spontaneous struggle against the capitalist system, creating its own new leadership, its own committees, that this will take place, through action and in action, in their mutual interest, the supreme interest, of the revolution. It will not take place in the traditional organisations, because of the spirit which today inspires this new, young revolutionary vanguard. And if we fight for this union, if we fight for this alliance and this convergence between the student revolt and the struggle for the proletarian revolution in Western Europe, it is because we know very well that neither by virtue of the place which they hold today in society can the students alone overthrow bourgeois society in the West.

They can and they must play a powerful role as detonator. By playing this role within the working class, above all through the intermediary of the young workers, they can free in the working class itself enormous forces for challenging capitalist society and the bourgeois state.

Today we see on a world scale the rise of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist forces, an authentic new world revolutionary ascent. The heroic struggle of the Vietnamese people against American imperialism, the Cuban Revolution, the struggle of the courageous guerrillas in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and the struggle of the black masses in the United States for racial and social liberation, are all basically one and the same struggle.

And this struggle of the most oppressed masses, of the masses of the countries of the Third World and of the black masses in the United States, is beginning today to receive a significant response in the imperialist countries. This is evidenced by the mass mobilisation against the dirty war in Vietnam; the mass mobilisation of the student movement; by the mass mobilisation of the young workers in very arduous strikes and demonstrations in Le Mans, Caen, Turin, and in Bremen and Essen against Springer. An integral part of this struggle is the struggle of the student and intellectual vanguard in the so-called socialist countries of Eastern Europe and the USSR. We send particularly warm greetings to the students and workers in the vanguard of this struggle. For, as much as we are on the side of the Soviet Union and the ‘socialist camp’ in any confrontation with imperialism or the bourgeoisie, we support also our comrades Kuroń and Modzelewski, and the courageous vanguard of workers and students of Warsaw and Poland in their fight against bureaucracy and for real soviet democracy, which can only be a democracy of councils, a democracy based on workers, students and poor peasant councils as Lenin taught us.

When this world-wide struggle that is already in progress makes it possible to draw in the adult workers against the incomes policy, against the économie concertée (union-government agreement to hold down wages), against the revival of unemployment, against job insecurity, against the integration of the unions into the bourgeois state, against the more and more marked drift everywhere in Western Europe towards authoritarian ‘strong states’, against NATO and the Atlantic Pact, to achieve a revival of the workers’ movement which will develop into workers’ struggles challenging the capitalist system itself, then we can transform today’s vanguard into a mighty revolutionary party, marching at the head of the masses.

Then, all together, we will be invincible. Then, all together, we will complete the great work begun 50 years ago by the October Revolution, and bring about the victory of the world socialist revolution!

Last updated on 8 December 2020