Ernest Mandel

The Reasons for Founding the Fourth International

IV. Only the working class is capable of overthrowing capitalism and establishing a socialist world

There is no other social force but the working class anywhere in the world capable of overthrowing international capitalism and establishing a social order founded on universal co-operation and solidarity. Here we are talking about the working class in the classic definition of the term (already mentioned earlier) [9] – all those wage earners economically obliged to sell their labour power in order to obtain their means of consumption, since they lack access to the means of production and do not own capital). Far from declining in numbers or becoming heterogeneous or having a greater segmentation than in 1914,1939 or in 1954, it is today stronger and less heterogeneous than at those times. [10]

1t is true that the billion-strong army of wage-earners throughout the world is not growing at the same rate in every country at all times, nor are their living standards and working conditions bringing them closer together than they were at all times in the past. The development of the working class does not progress in a linear way. It declines (and becomes de-skilled) in certain sectors, regions, or even countries while progressing and becoming more skilled in others. But there are no data that prove that the long-term, world-wide tendency is one of decline, far from it.

Already the number of wage-earners in the capitalist countries is higher than the number of peasants, even if we include the most populous Third World countries (India, Pakistan, Indonesia). Furthermore, this historic transformation has only taken place in the recent past. Just to put things in context, we should remember that when the October Revolution took place wage earners were scarcely 20% of Russia’s working population. World-wide at that time peasants constituted 75% of the working population. Even in Europe, the United States, and Japan the proportion of wage earners was much smaller than it is today.

The fact that only the proletariat has the potential to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a social order based on solidarity and co-operation does not mean in any way that in the dependent semi-industrialised countries, and particularly in the most important semi-colonial countries, there is no need of allies in order to conquer and hold onto power. Even if they have become a minority in those countries, the poor peasants still represent an important social force. Peasants can engage in socially explosive struggles, and their main demands cannot be satisfied by the existing regimes. The worker-peasant alliance is still the main motor force for successfully carrying through a strategy of permanent revolution, the sine qua non for solving problems of under-development.

Furthermore, the specific combination of development and underdevelopment which characterises the emerging dependent semi-industrialised countries over the past two decades, has led to the growth of a particular social layer – the marginalised, semi-proletarian urban population, the shantytown dwellers surviving without proper jobs through irregular work in the “informal” economy. This social layer, often a majority in Third World metropolises (including in the semi-colonial countries), are often arbiters of political struggles in the short term. It can and must also be won as an ally of the proletariat through a permanent revolution strategy which takes up the fight for urban reform, an indispensable complement to the agrarian revolution.

Sometimes the impact of “new social movements” is brought up to cast doubt on the proletariat’s role as the main potential revolutionary subject in the world today. Concerning the definition of “revolutionary subject” we should note the confusion of those who blindly worship the “new social movements” or those who systematically denigrate them by defining them as petty-bourgeois.

One of Marxism’s seminal ideas, without which historical materialism loses all its potential to explain history, is precisely the concept of “social class” having an objective character. Social classes exist and struggle against one another independently of the consciousness they have of their own class and of their own historic interests (this obviously does not mean the level of consciousness does not influence the development and end result of these struggles). A good proportion of American wage-earners see themselves as being middle class. This does not prevent them leading tough strikes against the bosses, sometimes in a harder way than the wage-earners of other countries who have a much higher level of class consciousness. They behave like wage-earners because they are wage-earners, even if they do not see themselves as such.

Viewed from this perspective the great majority of the people involved in the “new social movements” are wage earners, at least in the imperialist and dependent semi-industrialised countries. This is a quasi-automatic consequence of the social structure of these countries, given the very size of the “social movements.” The only social groups outside the proletariat from which they could recruit in a mass way would be housewives or school and college students. But these groups are a long way from being a majority either in the anti-war, ecologist, anti-imperialist or anti-racist movements. Only the student or school students’ movement – as a mobilised mass movement – has up to now been the exception.

Confusion arises because the “new social movements” are organisationally. and often ideologically, not really connected to the organised labour movement. In fact, in most cases it is the latter’s fault since it has been slow or simply refused to take up the defence of the objectives these movements struggle for. Hence we have fragmented and tangential movements. As single-issue movements they often mobilise big numbers. But at the same time their fragmentation facilitates their diversion into reformist dead ends. It is not possible seriously to defend the idea that students, housewives, or even Third World peasants have sufficient economic and social power to overthrow bourgeois states in the main centres. They can weaken this power. They are vital allies of the socialist revolution. This is especially the case with the feminist movement. Its liberating potential concerns more than half the human race, and its independent effectiveness is considerable. It mobilises an important sector of wage-earners and a growing proportion of the proletariat as a whole. However, these social movements cannot on their own bring about the socialist revolution. This victory is necessary if humanity wants to survive. Only the proletariat is socially capable of making sure this comes about. Any other project of overthrowing international capitalism is unrealistic.

Just as unrealistic is the idea that used to be quite popular on the left, but which practically nobody supports today anymore, that imperialism could be overthrown through a combination of strengthening of the “socialist camp” and of victorious revolutions in the Third World. To the extent this hypothesis implied a world nuclear war “won” by the “socialist camp” it was criminally irresponsible. It presupposed you could “build socialism” with atomic dust instead of with living men and women. Once this hypothesis was dropped the general approach was limited to the idea that a monstrous giant could be killed by cutting off a leg, an arm, and a few toes. Given the monster’s vast resources for equipping itself with very effective artificial limbs it is a remarkably silly position to hold.

Other critics reply that if the proletariat is the only potentially revolutionary subject capable of overthrowing international capitalism then the world socialist revolution becomes a utopian project, since the proletariat has shown itself incapable of carrying out any such revolution in any sort of advanced industrial country. In fact throughout the history of international workers movement a refusal to recognise the potential revolutionary role of the proletariat has nearly always led to the giving up of any revolutionary perspectives or activity.[11]

But is it really correct, on the basis of the concrete experience of the last fifty years, to assert that the proletariat has ceased to be the revolutionary subject as Marx predicted? Merely to list all the defeats in successive revolutionary crises is not sufficient to prove this argument. Not only is the historical period much too short to draw definitive historical conclusions [12] but Marx’s very analysis of the proletarian situation implied that the first wave of proletarian revolutions would be almost inevitably defeated. [13]

The correct approach to this question is quite different. We must not start from the metaphysical norms which reflect idealised visions of the proletariat and the proletarian revolution but from the real movement of the actual proletariat in history. We should ask: is it the case that millions of wage-earners have continued to periodically (i.e. not every year or in every country) mobilise in struggles of such scope that the possibility of working-class, popular counter-power is put on the agenda – in other words a generalisation of dual power, of struggles that can lead to the overthrow of the bourgeois state and to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the classic Marxist sense of the term? Have these struggles a tendency to broaden or to get smaller in the long term? Have they a tendency to paralyse bourgeois power more than in the past or has the latter increased its ability to technically and materially defeat them? Do wage earners have a perspective of taking over the factories and centres of communication or is this less so than before? Do they tend more or less than in the past to move towards self-administration and self-management?

We just have to compare the 10 million strikers of May 1968 with the 3 million of June 1936 in France, the 10 million Polish workers in Solidarnosc in 1979-80 with the ½ million who were involved in the general strikes of 1905-6 or the 1918-1920 revolutionary movements in Poland, and those involved in the 1973-4 Portuguese revolution with the numbers participating in previous struggles there. We can see that at least in a number of countries (we do not say all countries) there is a clear tendency for the numbers involved to increase significantly.

It is certainly true that the scope of these explosive mass struggles is not enough in itself to bring about victorious proletarian revolutions. But it is enough to make them possible. But once you accept that these revolutions, the only chance to ensure the survival of the human race, are possible, then a refusal to fight to bring about the conditions for their victory appears unreasonable. It means literally playing Russian roulette with the physical survival of humanity. Never was the equivalent of the “Pascalian gamble” in relation to revolutionary political commitment as valid as it is today. By not committing oneself everything is lost in advance. How can one not make that choice even if the chance of success is only 1%? In fact, the odds are much better than that.


9. This is the definition used by Lenin, in the first programme of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party that he drew up with Plekhanov.

10. See our article on the future of work published in Quatrième Internationale, No.20 May 1986.

11. This is what happened to the most gifted intellectual collaborator of Trotsky, Jean Van Heijenoort, who broke with Trotskyism and Marxism on this basis in 1948.

12. Do we need to remind our readers that 200 years passed between the first bourgeois revolution (in Holland) and its victory in France in a “mature” and definitive form, consolidated by the industrial revolution?

13. “Now and then the workers sit victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers.” Communist Manifesto, p.58, Marx and Engels, Basic Writings, Ed. L. Feuer, New York 1959. Also see the famous last paragraph of the preface to Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, on the long term provisional and self-critical character of proletarian revolutions.


Last updated on 22.7.2004