Ernest Mandel

The Reasons for Founding the Fourth International

VIII. Extent and limits of the recomposition of the workers’ movement

The case of the Castroist and Sandinista leaderships must be placed in a larger context: the ongoing recomposition of the workers’ movement in a growing number of countries. Historically this process began with the victory of the Cuban revolution, was brought to a brutal halt in Latin America with the defeats of the revolution in Venezuela, Brazil, Bolivia, and Chile, was relaunched with May 1968, the Italian “Hot Autumn” and the Portuguese revolution, and has continued since then, albeit at an uneven and spasmodic pace. It is the reflection of a rise in struggles partially escaping from the control of the traditional leaderships.

The most spectacular expressions of this are: the emergence of the Workers Party in Brazil, a mass-based, class-based socialist party with a programmatic orientation to the socialist revolution; the mass trade unionisation of black workers in South Africa; and the rallying of the majority of the Polish proletariat for a time within the ranks of the independent trade union Solidarnosc (and then, after its illegalisation by the Jaruzclski dictatorship, identifying with it). These three formations already influence millions of workers. One of their features is support for internal democracy and self-organisation qualitatively superior to that of the SPs and CPs. On a more modest scale a similar process is taking place in several Central American countries, in Mexico, the Philippines, Peru and Denmark. Although regroupments of the still small far-left forces which have a certain weight in the trade union movement and in the “new social movements” in certain European countries, do not come into the same category, they do indicate that something comparable is becoming possible in several countries. Everything indicates that countries like South Korea, several Eastern European countries, even Argentina could go through similar developments.

Of course, in most imperialist countries and in several dependent semi-industrialised countries the traditional bureaucratic apparatuses, whether political (reformist, neo-reformist, post-Stalinist) or trade union (particularly in the USA, Argentina, and Mexico) continue to be the main obstacles blocking mass struggles and the conquest of working-class political independence. Historical experience over the last fifty years confirms the lesson drawn from the revolutionary upsurge from 1917 to 1921 – this obstacle cannot be removed only through denunciation of the successive capitulations of these apparatuses to the bourgeoisie. These capitulations led to serious defeats of the working class. While such denunciation is correct and necessary it must be combined with a united front tactic intelligently applied by the revolutionary forces. In this way the revolutionaries will be seen as a resolutely unitary political tendency on all the questions and objectives of the masses’ central struggles – in fact it must be the most unitary of all currents.

We should understand that the continued control of the reformist apparatuses over the workers’ movements, not to speak of the working class, in the main imperialist countries is relative and not absolute. It is above all an electoral influence. Even here it is not as absolute as in the past, that is in 1945 or even in 1968 (apart from Britain where it has been maintained). [21] Furthermore, this electoral influence is rather a reflection of lesser evil options than a systematic opposition to fundamental social changes. Alongside this there is a growing scepticism seen particularly in the massive abstentionism of the American working class electorate, despite calls from the trade union bureaucrats each time for a vote for the Democratic Party presidential candidate. At the same time there is a real erosion in the traditional apparatuses’ control inside the trade unions. The most spectacular example is in France, In this country the social democrats have received the most votes in their history and yet their presence in the workplaces is marginal (sometimes even less in absolute figures than the revolutionary activists). It is in a minority in most of the trade unions.

In fact, if we look more closely we can detect a complex process of recomposition of the workers’ movement (the relations between working people and its old and new organisations) is underway in practically all countries even if it does not have the same form in every case. You have developments inside the trade unions, inside the traditional political parties, the emergence of new currents and formations and progressive differentiations inside these formations. These processes link together in different proportions in the various countries and change from stage to stage.

Once again we need to understand and approach this real movement without pre-established schemas that are claimed to be valid for every country. We should look at what develops in each concrete case in terms of the real forces and opportunities to go forward in the building of new revolutionary leaderships of the proletariat. We have to take into account the specificity of the workers’ movement, the mass movement and the class struggle in each country. No particular tactic should be rejected in advance – as long as the tactic does not disarm revolutionaries in their historic task of winning the majority of the working class to the fight to overthrow the bourgeois state and capitalism. [22]

While the level of real control of the traditional apparatuses over the working class and the mass movement is in the process of changing compared to the state of affairs after the Second World War, in the 1950s and even in 1968, there is yet no authentic mass revolutionary parties being built, parties consciously for the socialist revolution and preparing the masses for that end (the case of the Brazilian PT is probably the closest to that stage but even here the decisive test is still to come). This situation can be characterised as an intermediary situation characterised by a predominantly half-way political class-consciousness. Broad vanguards have emerged, having more advanced positions than the reformists and nee-reformists on a whole series of political questions, but they do not yet have an overall anti-capitalist political project.

There are quite a lot of reasons for this intermediary class consciousness of the (new) working class vanguards:

All this burden of negative experiences is not yet compensated by pilot experiences comparable to the October revolution or even the 1936 Spanish revolution, which could really sustain hope on a historic scale for the world proletariat.

But underlying this explanation which emphasises the weight of the subjective factor, there is also an objective materialist explanation. The building of mass revolutionary parties can in the last analysis only result from the real working-class movement, combined with an adequate intervention by revolutionaries. Now while there have been big class struggle movements at different times over the last decades involving the key sectors of the working class of some important countries (France, Italy, Great Britain, Brazil, Spain, Poland, Argentina, partially Mexico, just to list the main ones), some of the main armies of the world working class are absent from the political scene: in the USA, USSR, China, India, and to a large extent Germany and Japan. If the proletariat of these key countries either developed an independent political movement or even engaged in strong mass struggles – which in present conditions could scarcely be safely channelled by the traditional apparatuses – it would turn upside down the scope, pace, and content of the process of recomposition of the international workers’ movement.

Meanwhile, revolutionary Marxists must continue to act while recognising the fact that the crisis of the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat is not yet resolved in any of the imperialist or dependent semi-industrialised countries. Mass revolutionary parties still have to be built even if the conditions for their construction have become clearer and more realistic and if real progress has been made in several of these countries.

Revolutionary Marxists take their full place in the ongoing process of recomposition where it is happening and in ways relating to the specific situation of each country, with all the enthusiasm and loyalty that such a renewal requires. But nowhere in carrying out such tasks do they sacrifice the intransigent defence of their programme. This refusal to drop their programme is not sentimental faith or routinism and even less sectarian self-assertion. It reflects their deep conviction that if essential elements of the program are not assimilated then it certainly will lead the workers’ movement into disastrous defeats. This does not mean in any way that this program should be considered already finished or that it does not require periodic enrichment in function of new objective demands and new experiences of the mass movement.

In the same way, while participating in the tasks required for the recomposition of the workers’ movement, revolutionary Marxists do not sacrifice the building of their own current as a specific political-organisational task at all levels:

This sort of approach is in turn justified by our opinion that a revolutionary leadership will only be built over a long period – at least in the industrialised countries and especially where the bourgeoisie and the proletariat have a long political experience.

Paradoxically, it is during non-revolutionary situations and phases that the essential contribution to building revolutionary leaderships and parties must be made. When the revolution starts there is too little time to go through certain stages of party-building. These tasks have to be well on the way to completion in the previous period.


21. Even if we leave on one side West Germany, where the Green Party gets 7% of the vote and is generally seen as being to the left of the social democracy we can look at Denmark where the SF party, clearly to the left of social democracy, has just won 13% of the votes nationally. In the proletarian capital of Copenhagen it nearly gets 25%, which added to the votes of the two smaller far left parties is more than the SP gets. We can also mention that even in France the three far left presidential candidates, according to a poll in Le Monde newspaper, received together (despite their division) 7% of the workers’ votes. This is a new phenomenon.

22. Under the heading The new epoch requires a new International the Open Letter for the Fourth International drawn up by Trotsky in 1935, includes the following passage: “It would be a fatal mistake to prescribe a single path forward for all countries. In function of the national conditions, of the degree of decomposition of the old workers’ organisations and finally of the state of their own forces at any given moment, Marxists (revolutionary socialists, internationalists, Bolshevik-Leninists) can operate sometimes as an independent organisation, sometimes as a faction inside one of the old parties or trade unions. Of course in every place this faction work is never anything else but a stage towards the creation of new parties of the Fourth International, parties which can be formed either as a regroupment of revolutionary elements from the old organisations or from the action of independent political groups.” Leon Trotsky, Oeuvres, vol.5, p.355.


Last updated on 16.8.2004