Ernest Mandel

The Reasons for Founding the Fourth International

V. Without anti-capitalist theory and practice no anti-capitalist victory is possible

The fact that broadly-based mass struggles strong enough to put on the agenda the objective possibility of overthrowing the capitalist regime only break out periodically presents Marxists with the problem of day-to-day activity. In the long term you cannot be involved in revolutionary activity cut off from mass actions and activity having at least objectively revolutionary effects. Any attempt at revolutionary activity isolated from the masses, incomprehensible to them, even has, by and large, counterproductive consequences. Furthermore, any activity exclusively focused on reforms, limited to what is immediately achievable (if not brazenly reformist, limited to what is acceptable to the bourgeoisie [14]) has three disastrous effects.

It tends to mis-educate the masses, not preparing them for sharp turns in the situation, inevitable in our epoch. [15] So it means the masses approach pre-revolutionary and revolutionary crises without understanding what is necessary and possible. In the same way it tends to objectively hold back and fragment, even consciously break up mass struggles which threaten the consensus with the bourgeoisie, which go beyond the framework of the bourgeois state. It also tends to deform those organisations which follow such a line, making them less and less capable of understanding the future of capitalism [16] and of moving into revolutionary action when this becomes possible.

Various solutions have been proposed to this real difficulty. Retreating into (revolutionary) propaganda activity alone is obviously not a solution, An organisation which abandons any intervention into the real class struggle other than a propagandist one degenerates almost automatically into a Jehovah’s Witness-type sect.

Retreating into an exclusive identification with actual ongoing revolution elsewhere in the world – following the practice of the Comintern when it was controlled by the Stalinist faction or that of the Maoists – is also counterproductive. Such identification is useful and necessary as an indispensable feature of proletarian internationalism. But in no way can it replace an intervention into the class struggle of each country, starting from the objective needs and the real concerns of the masses, independently of what is happening in other countries.

Systematic and prioritised activity in the mass organisations and in the working class does not provide an adequate answer to the question. Certainly it is indispensable. But we come back to our starting point – intervention to do what, to carry out what activity?

If we combine everything that is positive about these three approaches (which are insufficient precisely because they are partial) we get closer to a satisfactory solution. It is summarised in what Trotsky and the Fourth International has called the strategy of transitional demands.

Starting from the immediate concerns of the masses, which in non-revolutionary situations remain by the force of things focused on economic, social, political, democratic, cultural reforms and on opposition to war and the tendency towards a strong repressive state, etc., revolutionaries show in practice they are the best organisers of these struggles, both in formulating their objectives and in action and organisational proposals. They try to ensure the maximum of success. But they combine this activity with systematic anti-capitalist propaganda, which constantly puts the masses on their guard against the illusion of continuous progress within the framework of’ the system. They warn them of the inevitable risk that these partial conquests will be cancelled out totally or principally and prepare them for the crises and inevitable reactions of the capitalists and its “democratic” state. Finally they outline the necessary responses to these reactions and crises. These alternative responses are crowned with proposals about power, working-class power against that of the bourgeoisie.

This is not a purely pedagogical/literary task, although this aspect of the overall strategy must not in any way be undervalued. It has an impact on the real class struggle insofar as it tends to constantly promote mass self-organisation, strike committees, neighbourhood committees, committees centralising these organs and national co-ordinating structures in the mass movements. These are the indispensable schools of experience for the masses, without which no overall transformation of these struggles into generalised dual power and (this is even more the case) towards the seizure of power, is possible in the industrialised countries. These are possible and necessary experiences even before the outbreak of pre-revolutionary crises.

Here is where the reformist conception and the revolutionary conception of politics constantly come into conflict, at least in the framework of bourgeois-parliamentary democracy and independently of the precise conjuncture. For the reformists (and the neo-reformists of all shades) politics equals elections and activity inside the institutions of the bourgeois state. Strikes are considered to be fundamentally “economic” and therefore outside politics, indeed apolitical. The same comment applies to their attitude to other forms of direct mass action (to the extent that the reformists and neo-reformists do not reject them entirely). So they have to be subordinated to electoral and parliamentary needs. This is the fundamental basis of reformist electoralism.

For revolutionaries, on the other hand, however important electoral-parliamentary activity maybe [17], it remains subordinated to the masses’ self- activity and self-organisation, which is the real practice preparing the emancipation of working people. The emancipation of the workers can only be the work of the workers themselves and not that of parties or trade unions, whatever their indispensable role in this – not to mention that of parliaments or local councils. That is what Marxism is all about.

Reformist strategy and revolutionary strategy are not only opposed to each other because the first writes off the inevitability, indeed even the possibility of revolutionary crises. They are in opposite corners when it comes to day-to-day activity in the class struggle even in a non-revolutionary conjuncture. Reformists more and more subordinate the defence of workers’ interests to “safeguarding the institutions” and “social equilibrium,” in other words, to class collaboration. Revolutionaries defend at all times and against all forces the interests of working people and the political independence of the proletariat, not only from bourgeois parties but also with respect to the institutions of the bourgeois state.

The intransigent defence of socialist revolutions underway anywhere in the world is an integral part of the strategy of transitional demands. Above all it is a practical task since these revolutions generally are subject to many forms of aggression by imperialism. Their resistance and survival as well as their later trajectory depends in good part on the size of the international solidarity movement which responds to this aggression. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was even more right than we understood at the time when he lamented the insufficient solidarity given to the Vietnamese revolution when it was under such severe pressure from imperialism in the l960s (and this continued to be the case in the 1970s after Che’s assassination). Even if the Vietnamese revolution finally ended in victory it did so in such conditions and at such a price that its whole future was heavily “mortgaged.” The understandable psychological/ideological reactions from people on the left faced with the Cambodian catastrophe and the way things turned out in Vietnam would have been much more sober if the world workers’ and anti-imperialist movements’ co-responsibility in the Indochinese tragedy had been included in their understanding of these events.

It is also one aspect of the general struggle to raise the level of class consciousness. Internationalism cannot be learned in books (except for a relative minority of individuals). For the masses it is gained through repeated activity. Solidarity action with unfolding revolutions is not the only practical form of proletarian Internationalism. But as long as the masses are not deeply involved in revolutionary activity in their own country it is the only way of raising consciousness to the understanding of revolution as a fundamental historical reality for the broadest layers. It is of key importance for their own future.

Given the enormous political experience of the bourgeoisie of the imperialist countries and the economic reserves available to them it seems ruled out that the proletariat can seize power without a level of class consciousness and a leadership that has been prepared years beforehand. So the anti-capitalist component in the activity of the workers’ movement is vital for the future. If there is no coherent anti-capitalist theory, no systematic anti-capitalist education, and no anti-capitalist activity by revolutionary organisations, then no victorious proletarian victory is possible in the imperialist countries and therefore there will be no solution to humanity’s crisis, no future.


14. This is indeed the infernal logic of reformism: taking the dangerous step between what is immediately obtainable (cf. Bernstein: “the movement is everything, the end is nothing”) and what is compatible with the institutions of the bourgeois-parliamentary state, that is with the maintenance of a basic consensus with the bourgeoisie.

15. “The revolutionary character of the epoch does not lie in being able at every moment to achieve the revolution, that is, to take power. This revolutionary character is ensured by deep, sharp turns and frequent, unexpected changes in the situation ...” Trotsky, Criticism of the Comintern Program in The Communist International After Lenin, vol.1 PUF 1969, p.179 (translated from the French).

16. Here are two classic examples: Kautsky claimed in an article written for Die Neue Zeit that ultra-imperialism would make wars impossible. The article was published just after the outbreak of the First World War. The unfortunate Rudolf Hilferding stated in an article written for the SPD magazine Die Gesellschaft that thanks to an intelligent and wise tactic this party had prevented the alliance between the state apparatus and the Nazis and thereby stopped Hitler from coming to power. The article was published just after President von Hindenberg had chosen Hitler as Chancellor.

17. Following Karl Marx’s approach revolutionaries assess the precise value of any social legislation in terms of how far it extends to the whole of the working class and notably to its weakest sectors, the less well organised, the most exploited layers, those conquests which only the best organised and generally the best paid can win through direct action.


Last updated on 22.7.2004