From International, January-April 1983, Vol.8 No.1 & 2, pp.14-18.
Downloaded with thanks from the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Marx carried out a revolutionary transformation of all social sciences. He revolutionized conventional approaches to philosophy, society, history, political economy, politics and the prospects of human emancipation. These transformations can be subsumed under the general formula of ‘the theory of historical materialism’. Key to this theory, argues Ernest Mandel, is the centrality of the revolutionary potential of the working class.
Marx viewed history as determined by objective laws which science could uncover. These laws derive from the specific structure and dynamics of each particular mode of production. These objective laws have to be discovered for each particular society. Marx simultaneously stressed the social determination of history as a science and the historical determination of sociology (and economics) as a science. There are no ‘eternal’ economic laws. There are only particular economic laws for particular forms of social organization of the economy.
But while endeavouring to discover the laws of motion of each particular mode of production, concentrating on the laws of motion of bourgeois society dominated by the capitalist mode of production, Marx rejected the mechanically deterministic view of history, characteristic for the French materialists of the 18th century (later to be largely recuperated by the vulgar evolutionism which influenced socialist thinkers like Kautsky).
Marx stressed the active aspect in history, so typical for human versus purely animal behaviour (this stress can be found not only in the Theses on Feuerbach, but also in Vol. I of Capital, not to speak about the Grundrisse and various philosophical and historical comments by Marx and Engels). Marx’s philosophy of history – like his philosophy in general – is a philosophy of praxis. Historical materialism does not deny that humanity makes its own history, which is not imposed upon it through mysterious outside forces. To be sure, men and women don’t make it independently from the circumstances they encounter, in the first place the material possibilities given by the existing and potential level of development of the productive forces, and the resulting possibilities for the extension of enjoyment, and the self-realisation of the producers.
But they do make their history themselves. Their level of consciousness and awareness of their own conditions and future, their degree of objective (scientific) approach to reality, the degree of self-delusion they still suffer, all strongly react upon the way in which they will shape their own destiny. Marx believed in the possibility of humankind to do just that to shape its own destiny, not only through understanding the objective laws of motion of society, but also through its capacity to actively attain emancipatory goals. Through Marx’s writing, there remains the emancipatory purpose: to abolish all social conditions which make men and women into oppressed, exploited, mutilated, miserable beings; to realize a society in which the free development of each becomes a precondition for the free development of every individual.
Thus, Marx was not only a social scientist. He did not limit himself to revolutionizing the sciences of society, history, economics, and philosophy. He also revolutionized politics and the drive towards human emancipation (‘socialism’), which are much older than bourgeois society, in fact, as old as class society itself. While it is necessary to separate methodologically his revolutions in science (which have to be judged from a purely scientific and not a ‘class’ criterion), from his revolutions in politics and emancipatory endeavours, these revolutions in thought and action constantly interact upon each other. Only if we synthesise them can we understand and represent Marxism in its totality, in its majestic richness, as a totality in movement, which has nothing to do with dogma or religion.
For the epoch starting with the industrial revolution, the totality of the theory and practice involved in Marxism can best be summarized through the revolutionary potential of the working class as the only social force objectively and subjectively capable of replacing bourgeois society (the capitalist mode of production) with a higher form of civilization and of socio-economic organization: classless society, communism, of which socialism is the first or ‘lower’ stage. This does not mean that for Marx and Engels the victory of socialism was an inevitable product of the inner contradictions of capitalism. Quite the contrary: they often stressed that human societies can, throughout history, either progress or regress; they can even disappear.
There is nothing fatalistic in Marx’s view of history, which asserts as a result of a scientific understanding of bourgeois society, and in light of the lessons of 3,000 years of class struggle, that no other class than the contemporary working class, ie, wage labour, has the potential to replace capitalism by a socialist society. The fate of humankind is for that reason tied to the victory of the world working class (from the German Ideology till his death, Marx always viewed the possibility of socialism as an international one, having to be realized on a world scale).
The destructive potential of capitalism, flowing from its very progressive features, in the first place its capacity to develop the productive forces but in specific forms which cannot shed its ties to private property, commodity production, competition and disregard for global social rationality, leads humanity to the crossroads: either socialism or barbarism. The awareness of the potential self-destruction of humankind (ecological disaster, nuclear world war, etc.) is today growing. But Marx and Engels were conscious of that danger nearly one and a half centuries ago. For them, the dilemma ‘socialism or barbarism’ (the formula was first shaped in that precise way by Rosa Luxemburg) meant: either the victory in the real class struggle of the existing world working class, i.e., world socialist revolution, or the decline and fall of human civilization, if not the disappearance of the human race. What Lenin, the Communist International, Trotsky and later revolutionary Marxists would write on that subject is already present in the basic economic and political works of Marx, even if he was not able to include the imperialist stage of capitalism in his analysis, as it had not started before his death. For him this dilemma was not a result of a given historically limited phase of capitalism. It was a result of bourgeois society, of the capitalist mode of production as such.
Scientific socialism, i.e., the revolutionizing of politics and humanity’s emancipatory endeavours, involves a series of transformations of traditional social and political practices which are as radical and as fundamental as Marx’s revolutions in the social sciences:
But the revolutionary transformation of politics which Marx achieved was to try and reunify the self-organization of the working class and the revolutionary activity of individuals. This implied simultaneously a separate organization of communists (of the vanguard, those who are permanently active at the highest level of scientific understanding and class consciousness, different from the masses, which under capitalism can be active only periodically and at a level of consciousness influenced more strongly by the ideology of the ruling class) and their integration in the mass organization of the class as it is. Trade-unions and independent political mass parties of the working class are useful and necessary stepping stones of that self-organization. But since 1850, and especially since the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx and Engels understood that the highest forms of self-organization of the class are those of the ‘workers councils’ (soviets), as analyzed in detail by Lenin in State and Revolution and in many writings of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci (Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Bukharin, Korsch and to a lesser extent the left Austro-Marxist Max Adler, also made valuable contributions to that same understanding).
Socialism can only come about through a successful overthrow of capitalism by a self-organized working class, i.e., through universal workers’ councils (soviet power), because only through that form of self-organization of the producers, can a postcapitalist, transitional society become a society in which the state starts to wither away from the very inception of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in which the crystallization of new material social privileges by a special group of people ‘in power’ can be made impossible. Marx and Engels’ writings on the Paris Commune, Lenin’s in State and Revolution, were lucid and explicit on these preconditions in which the variants of basic economic options can be democratically decided by the masses themselves.
All of these revolutions in Marx’s concept of politics and emancipation not only involve a radical transformation of the existing doctrines. They are also ‘negations of the negation,’ i.e., they imply the conservation of the ‘rational kernel’ in what is being transcended: utopian socialists, conspiratorial revolutionists, organizations limited to the elementary massive proletarian class struggle. All these revolutions turn around the revolutionary potential of the modern working class.
We deliberately use the word ‘potential’ instead of the word ‘class struggle.’ It is obvious that the real class struggle of the working class is not always revolutionary. Even less does it lead automatically to an overthrow of the bourgeois state or of bourgeois society. Elsewhere we have explained the reasons for this historical fact-of-life.
What Marx meant was that in the modern proletariat a class was born which could periodically reach a point in its struggles, coinciding with a deep social, economical and political crisis of bourgeois society and its state, where capitalism could be overthrown and power conquered, under conditions which allowed the building of a classless society objectively and subjectively.
As Marx did not believe that a victorious socialist revolution, not to speak of a victorious building of world socialism, would be the unavoidable outcome of the proletarian class struggle, he never allowed scientific socialism to be completely subsumed by that class struggle. Science continues for Marx and Engels to occupy an autonomous place in history. It is meaningless, irrational and criminal to suppress certain scientific truths under the pretext that they would ‘discourage’ the proletariat. Without the maximum of scientific insight, the maximum of truth attainable (‘absolute’ truth is of course unrealizable for human beings; the ‘total identify’ of being and consciousness is a utopian daydream), the proletarian struggle for emancipation is hindered, not helped. That is not to mention the immediate effects of such an approach which usually results in one-sided and mechanical interpretations of the possible variants open for working class action and consciousness.
One of the greatest wisdoms humanity has ever formulated is part of Marx’s famous Thesis on Feurbach: ‘the educators need themselves to be educated.’ Only is one assumes absurdly the existence of a person, or of a group of persons (‘the central committee,’ ‘the party’) who are ‘always right,’ can one seriously challenge the wisdom of that statement.
It has, furthermore, not only an epistemological but also a social dimension. The concentrated expression of class exploitation is the division of the social product into a ‘necessary product,’ and a ‘social surplus product’ appropriated by the rulers of society. Through control of the social surplus product, these rulers impose a frozen social division of labor between those who exercise the functions of production and those who exercise the function of accumulation. A key precondition for the building of socialism is the transcendence of that social division of labor through the gradual generalization of real self-management, conditioned by a high level of development of the productive forces, a radical shortening of the workday, and a growing fusion of manual and intellectual labor. But this is a gigantic process of self-organization and self-education by huge masses of producers. You cannot ‘order’ or ‘command’ people to … lead themselves. You can only help them to do that. And you don’t know exactly how this can best be done before the process unfolds.
The historical balance-sheet of all socialist revolutions since 1917 should lead revolutionists to modesty on that account. We know more today than Lenin and Trotsky did in 1917, not because we are wiser or more intelligent, but because we have had the advantage of much richer concrete historical experiences than those on which they could base themselves. But even what we do know today on the basis of that concrete historical experience is still pretty limited, be it only because the process of world revolution is far from having matured. It has not yet involved victories in the key countries, those where the proletariat has already become the absolute majority of the population before revolutionary victory. So the ‘educators need to be educated’ not only because they know too little, but also because they have to be involved themselves in a process of gigantic self-education by the masses, which has already started.
This means that the relation between a revolutionary vanguard organization, which is absolutely necessary for the victory of the socialist revolution and the building of socialism, and the self-organization of the mass of workers, which is likewise indispensable to achieve these goals, is a dialectical one, in which no part can achieve anything durable without the other.
For that very same reason, while the elementary class struggle of the wage earners is insufficient for the overthrow of capitalism, it is absolutely indispensable for achieving the level of self-organization without which a real social revolution in an industrially developed country is unrealizable. Great masses learn above all from experience, not through literary or oral education (which does not mean that such education is not vital for obtaining class independence on the ideological field). The only way in which they can assemble such experience is through the actual class struggle. So how they act currently will strongly influence how they think in the next ten or twenty years. That is why specific forms of current class struggles (large strikes, even ‘only’ for democratic demands, and so on) have so much importance for the development of revolutionary potential, i.e., for the capacity to react in a special way when circumstances are ripe for a revolutionary crisis.
If revolutionists do not know how to intervene efficiently in these actual struggles (e.g., under the pretext that they are ‘economistic’ or ‘reformist,’ or that the consciousness of the masses is inadequate or ‘wrong’): if they do not conquer credibility through this intervention, they will not succeed in fusing with the real movement of the class. But if they see their intervention as limited only to adapting to the given level of the class struggle, if they do not strive to elevate the level of class consciousness and self-organization through their interventions, they will not succeed in building a revolutionary vanguard party; they will not only become one of the innumerable factors in bourgeois society tending to prevent the working class from transcending the level of its elementary struggles.
Finally, while breaking with utopian socialism, Marx and Engels also stuck to its ‘rational kernel’ (they never stopped from having the greatest respect and admiration for Charles Fourier, who formulated one of the greatest and most radical critiques of class society of all times). They never narrowed down the purpose of the overthrow of capitalism and building of socialism to a simply ‘workerite’ project.
For them, the emancipation of humanity had to be total and global. A relentless struggle had to be conducted against all forms of oppression and exploitation of men by men (in the anthropological and not the ‘sexist’ sense of the word). That is why the emancipation of oppressed races and nationalities, the emancipation of over-exploited colonial and semi-colonial nations, the emancipation of women, the emancipation of youth, all have such an important weight in their political project – even if they themselves were limited by the social conditions under which they lived to understand all the dimensions of these struggles. The overthrow of capitalism, of private property, commodity production, and wage labour, is a necessary precondition for the successful achievement of these various forms of human emancipation. But it is not a sufficient one. Autonomous struggles of women, of oppressed nationalities and races, of oppressed youth, against innumerable prejudices, will continue long after the victory of the international socialist revolution in order to assist the birth of a really classless society, which roots out all forms of social inequality.
For Marx, the radical revolutionary potential of the working class flows from its specific place in the capitalist mode of production and from the consequences of the latter’s laws of motion for that class. Capital’s relentless drive to accumulate more capital leads to efforts to constantly expand the production of surplus-value. For there is no other final source of capital accumulation than the production of surplus-value in the process of production, e.g. through ‘unequal exchange,’ can only redistribute what has been previously produced. Therefore, the self-expansion of capital implies the constant expansion of wage labour. The modern proletariat is the only class in contemporary society which has the tendency to grow absolutely and relatively as a function of the very laws of motion of capitalism.
Of course, to understand this one has to define the proletariat in a correct way. It is by no means limited to manual labour in industry. That segment of the proletariat has long stopped growing and will tend to become weaker. Scientists or political militants who narrowly limit the definition of the proletariat to that segment of the class will sooner or later conclude that the possibilities for the proletariat to change society will tend to decline rather than to grow. For Marx, however, the proletariat was the Gesamtarbeiter, the ‘total worker,’ thus including white collar workers, technicians and even some managers, certainly also state employees, except the top managerial and functionary layers: in other words all those who remain under the economic compulsion to sell their labour power, whose income does not allow them on an individual basis normally to accumulate capital or to emancipate themselves from that proletarian condition.
The proletariat thus defined has not stopped growing throughout the history of capitalism. Today it encompasses half or more than half of the active population in practically every large country of the world (with the exception of Indonesia and possibly Pakistan). Even in India, this is already the case, for there is a tremendous agrarian proletariat or semi-proletariat of landless labourers (peasants) in the Indian village, besides the urban proletariat. In most of the developed industrial countries (including the so-called socialist ones) it has passed 75 per cent of the active population. In at least three countries – the USA, Great Britain and Sweden – it has passed the threshold of 90 per cent.
While this is clearly a case of quantity turning into a new quality, it is by no means only that. The development of capitalism creates in the modern proletariat not only a numerically predominant social force. It also creates a social force of tremendous potential economic power.
The proletariat is the only substantial human creator of wealth (independent peasants and handicraftsmen do create wealth, too, but on a world scale this is probably not more than 15-20 per cent of the totally annually created new product). The impressive material infrastructure of humankind – the mines, the factories, the railways, the airports, the airplanes, the road network, the machines, the automobiles, the power stations, the other sources of energy, the canals, the harbours, the cities, domestic equipment, the shops, storehouses and the huge mountains of commodities they contain, have all or nearly all, been created by yesterday’s and today’s wage labour. Inasmuch as intellectual labour becomes more and more proletarianised, an increasing segment of humankind’s knowledge, blueprints, patents, inventions, are likewise the product of the proletariat. If workers in that global sense of the word stop working through collective action, no power on earth can substitute for them and prevent all economic and social life coming to a standstill. Far from ‘emancipating’ society from the proletariat, the higher and higher mechanization and semi-automisation prevalent today makes more and not less vulnerable to real successful mass strikes, as we witnessed in France and Italy in 1968-69 and in Poland in 1980-81.
This would of course not be true in a ‘completely robotised’ society. But a ‘completely robotised’ society would be a society without surplus value production and without commodity production. It could never be approached, let alone reached, under capitalism.
All other classes in society, independent farmers, including in the Third World, independent handicraftsmen, independent professional people, ‘free-floating’ (freischwebende) intelligentsia, independent entrepreneurs, are condemned to see their relative and absolute weight in production and society tendencially and historically to decline and not grow, as the result of the operation of the very laws of motion of capitalism. Of course, this is not a mechanical, linear movement; there are medium-term conjunctural ups and downs; there are big differences between countries and even continents. But the basic secular historical trend is clear and unequivocal. The law of concentration and centralization of capital has been operating too long and with too clear an outcome for this thesis of the central weight of the proletariat in bourgeois society to be scientifically questioned (unscientific, impressionistic prejudices and straightforward ‘false consciousness,’ are, of course, another matter altogether).
Finally, through the very development of capitalism, the working class gradually acquires a revolutionary potential in the positive economic sense of the word. In the beginning of the ‘purely’ capitalistic production of surplus-value, the production of relative surplus value, i.e., mechanization, the worker is nearly completely subsumed under the machine: a slave of the machine as a slave of capital; and capital develops a peculiar type of machinery oriented towards the maximum extraction of surplus-value (quite other forms of technology and of machinery are possible, and were indeed experimented with but not widely applied, because they did not serve the capitalist’s goal of separate firms’ profit maximization).
But the very development of capitalist technology, after having reached a certain point, starts to operate in the opposite direction. Fragmentation of labour cannot continue infinitely, without beginning to decrease rather than increasing profits. In a highly technicised economic system, the human producers, as the least perfected ‘pieces of the mechanism,’ make the operation of the whole system more vulnerable. Capitalism itself cannot rely on more and more unskilled, brutalized, indifferent labour, operating with more and more sophisticated and expensive machinery. The costs of maintaining the value of existing fixed capital becomes outrageous, if everything is sacrificed to the production of new surplus-value (new capital).
So capitalism itself, especially late capitalism, has to start overcoming the fragmentation and atomization of labour. New labour skills are sought after more than unskilled labour. The reunification of intellectual labour and manual labour is not only the result of the massive reintroduction of intellectual labour into the direct process of production. It is also the result of the higher and higher training of a section of the working class. While the number of ‘drop-outs’ constantly grows (they constitute the new layer of the sub-proletariat) the number of highly skilled workers, of worker technicians, grows parallel to the first phenomenon.
This transformation is accompanied by a succession of political, social and economic crises of the system. So the basic attitude of the working class towards the ruling class starts to change as a result of the very operation of the long term laws of motion of the given mode of production. Till the post-first world war period, and to a large extent throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the workers respected the employers, even when they hated them. They thought, by and large, that you couldn’t run factories and the economy without bosses and ‘experts.’ But now, seeing the mess into which the employers and ‘experts’ have worked themselves (and all of us), they increasingly challenge the capacity and the right of ‘those on top’ to make things work. At least at factory level, and at the level of the cities, they increasingly feel that they have the capacity of making things run better (we don’t say in an ideal way, but better) than those on top. Again these sentiments, which were expressed very powerfully in the big strike wave of 1968-1975 throughout the capitalist world (and in Poland 1980-81 too!) might conjuncturally recede a bit under the impact of the present crisis. But if a first wave of that crisis has reduced somewhat the self-confidence of the working class, a second and harsher wave will make it rise again with a vengeance.
To this objective potential must be added a subjective one which is as important for the building of socialism as is the first. This subjective potential is likewise, for Marx, the very product of the specific place the working class occupies in the capitalist mode of production.
Capitalism not only increases the number of wage earners, their economic potential, and later their skills and levels of culture (the conquests of working class struggles of course contribute more to these latter achievements). Capitalism also concentrates these wage earners in huge work places (mines, factories, office buildings) where they are assembled by the thousands if not the tens of thousands. There, after long painful experiences with the opposite patterns of behaviour, which periodically still break towards the surface because they are ‘pure’ products of bourgeois society, the working class goes through a permanent practical school of social behaviour based upon co-operation, solidarity and collectively organized action, seeking collective as opposed to individual solutions to the ‘social questions.’
No other class can systematically achieve over a long period these patterns of behaviour as a result of its practical day-to-day experience and its overall social interests, as does the class of wage earners, certainly not independent peasants or intellectuals. Lenin can hardly be accused of having ‘underestimated the peasantry.’ But Lenin was clearer than any other Marxist as to the basic difference between the peasant’s and the worker’s attitude towards competition, commodity production, and therefore social behaviour based upon co-operation and solidarity.
Again, this is not an absolute rule, but a general historical tendency. It can be interrupted by the results of great shocking defeats of the working class, or huge historical disappointments, of extremely unfavourable material conditions (unemployment rates higher than 30, 50 or 75 per cent). But it reappears again and again, like the Hydra’s head, because it is rooted in the very socio-economic nature of capital and wage labour.
This social preparation of the working class to base its collective behaviour, its intervention in society, on the non-bourgeois ‘values’ of collective co-operation, solidarity and organization – the very antithesis of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois competition – gives it a powerful potential for social revolution. And gives it a powerful potential for rebuilding society on the basis of collective ownership of the means of production, of solidarity between all producers, of planned conscious co-operation substituting itself to ‘market laws’ as the basis of economic life, of the withering away of commodity production, money, economic inequality and the state, all of which are social preconditions for the successful achievement of a classless society, as is a high level of development of the productive forces.
The point is not that the working class is sure to accomplish all that. Nothing is sure in the bad world in which we live. Socialism is a possibility, nothing more. But it happens to be the only possible alternative to a collapse of human civilization if not to a disappearance of the human race. The working class is the only potential social force which could, under a given complex set of favourable circumstances, realize socialism. To deny the revolutionary role of the working class means to make a giant historical leap backward, i.e., to condemn socialism to become utopian, to become again a nice dream which will never be realized and which will therefore not prevent humankind from disappearing in a nuclear holocaust.
No proof can be offered, nor ever has been offered that other social forces – an association of intelligent individuals, third world peasants, marginalized sub-proletarians in the imperialist ghettos, ‘socialist state armies’ – have the social and economic power to take the fate of society out of the hands of Big Capital and to reshape that society on the basis of world-wide massive solidarity and co-operation between the producers. For that reason alone, it would be wise not to revise Marx’s concept of the centrality of the revolutionary potential of the working class for emancipating humanity as long as history has not presented us with definite proof of such a capacity. It would be equally wise to devote all one’s power and energy to helping the working class to realize that potential.
ERNEST MANDEL is the author of Late Capitalism, The Second Slump, Marxist Economic Theory, and many other works on Marxism. He is also secretary of the Fourth International.
Last updated on 5.8.2007