Ernest Mandel

The Reasons for Founding the Fourth International

III. There is no perspective for capitalism

The main objection made against the theoretical analysis justifying the Fourth International – the objective necessity for the world socialist revolution to resolve humanity’s crisis – is that it supposedly underestimates the capitalist system’s adaptive capacities (and therefore of its at least partial capacity for future progress). How can one talk about the “agony” of the system that has gone through exceptional economic growth from 1948 to 1968 (even up to 1973)? How is it possible to deny that in the main imperialist countries, as well as quite a lot of so-called “Third World” countries during the same period, there has been an unquestionable increase in living standards, skills, and culture of broad proletarian layers? [5]

Our reply is that it is the critics of revolutionary Marxism and not Marx who have a totally partial and incomplete view of world reality since 1938 or 1948. It is they who are guilty of subjectivism, utopianism, even blind dogmatism.

Let us accept that Marxists may have indeed underestimated the international capitalist system’s adaptive resources. [6] But a question immediately arises: what was the price of such adaptability? How can one draw the balance sheet of the last fifty years without including the 100 million dead of the Second World War without bringing in Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the millions killed in the colonial war since 1945, the holocaust of children dying of hunger and curable diseases in the Third World since 1945 (a figure much higher than those killed in the Second World War)? Is it a secondary problem, this enormous mass of human suffering; is the concept of “agony” so misplaced when we survey this overall reality?

True, the decline of civilisation is not linear or total. Unlike some infantile leftists, serious Marxists have never claimed that. Shouldn’t we remember Lenin’s famous phrase about there not being a situation where there is no way out for capitalism? Capitalism has to be overthrown. If it is not, then it can always sort itself out for a certain period at the expense of the exploited masses.

The delay in the world revolution has held back the tremendous contribution the human mind and human creativity could make to progress in the widest sense. But it has not stopped the human mind functioning. Science and our understanding of reality proceed apace. The fruits of such endeavours are as yet only partially diverted to ends that are destructive of humanity and nature. We continue partially to benefit from such progress as proved by the lengthening of life expectancy and the fall in infant mortality world-wide over the last fifty years.

But this progress in production and consumption, paid for by the infinite suffering which preceded it or which still accompanies it, can only be temporary, precisely because it has taken place within the framework of an economic and social regime racked by insoluble contradictions. The post-war “boom” was followed by a new long depression. [7] Marxists were not surprised by that, unlikely the reformist, neo-reformist (post-Stalinist) and neo-Keynesian acolytes of the capitalists. We had said this reversal of tendency was inevitable even before it actually took place. [8]

What remains today of the dreams of “guaranteed economic growth, full employment, and social progress”! Where are the real utopians if not in the camp of those who assumed that capitalism (sorry, the “mixed economy”) was capable of ensuring all that? They have egg on their faces now with 40 million people unemployed in the imperialist countries, hundreds of millions underemployed in the Third World, a fail in the real income of at least 10% of the Western proletariat (the emergence of the “new poor” is part and parcel of this) and a fall ranging from 30% to 50% in real wages in most dependent semi-colonial and semi-industrialised countries.

Finally, while capitalism may have been able to more or less adapt itself to a world marked by the crisis of the decline of its civilisation, the threshold of inadaptabiity is gradually approaching. Few lucid men and women doubt that a new “adaptation” by world war, by the irresponsible development of technology, by the super-exploitation of the Third World, by the erosion of civil liberties (torture is already institutionalised in more than fifty countries), would threaten not only civilisation but the physical survival of the human race.

Formerly, the alternative was presented as “socialism or barbarism.” Today it has taken the form “socialism or death.” For it is impossible in the long term to avoid these disasters without ending the egotistical and competitive behaviour that flows from the regime of private property and competition, which inspires double moral standards and the incapacity of extending real solidarity to the whole of the human race.

More “nuanced” critics of Marxism label this line of reasoning as “excessive catastrophism.” They do not deny the tendency for crises to multiply (social, economic, political, moral, military ones), which in any case would be a bit difficult since 1968. But they argue that these crises do not necessarily result in “final” catastrophes. Up to now they have been “absorbed” below the threshold mentioned above. There is mass unemployment, but it is proportionally less serious than during the 1930s. There is a “new poverty,” but the unemployed and other marginalised people are not forced to sell their beds to buy bread. There is hunger in the Third World, but the population there is still growing and not declining, which proves that the great majority are not dying of hunger. The economic depression is continuing and getting worse, but a “soft landing” for capitalism is nonetheless not ruled out. The working class is still capable of resisting the most provocative attacks the capitalists throw at it, but it is said to be sufficiently weakened for the bourgeois restructuring plans to go through. The tendency towards a strong state is deepening, but it will not necessarily take the extreme form of fascism. “Local” wars are increasing in number, but they do not necessarily lead to world war, etc., etc. ...


5. Presenting the considerable increase in the production and mass consumption of foodstuffs, textile products, consumer durables, medical services, education, etc., as “a development of the destructive forces” is obviously to invite justifiable ridicule.

6. In his report to the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921, Trotsky outlined the hypothesis of renewed sustained capitalist growth in 25 years after the historic defeats of the working class and terrible slaughter and destruction. 1921 + 25 = 1946 ...

7. We have tried to develop a systematic theory of “long conjunctural waves” inspired by Trotsky’s writings on this, in Late Capitalism and especially in a little ad hoc book, The Long Waves of Capitalist Development (Cambridge University Press, 1980).

8. This is the historical role played by inflation and the soaring debt in the last decades.


Last updated on 22.7.2004