Ernest Mandel

Social Democracy and Social Movements

An interview

(April 1983)

From Thesis Eleven, No.7, 1983, pp.159-162.
Interviewed by Steve Warne of 3RRR and Peter Beilharz, on April 2, 1983 in Melbourne.
Thanks to Joseph Auciello.
Downloaded with thanks from the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Question: We’ve just had the election of a Labor Government in Australia, a landslide victory the likes of which hasn’t occurred for three or four decades. We’ve also seen the election of socialist governments in France, Spain and Greece and the corresponding decline of the Communist Parties in these countries. Simultaneously the British Labour Party seems to be tearing itself apart over the very question as to whether it can or should present a ‘revolutionary’ alternative. What do these developments mean for socialist politics and revolutionary tradition? Do these trends support an optimistic view, as the broad consensus moves leftward, or do these developments present an obstacle for socialist politics?

Mandel: The least one can say is that these trends are contradictory. I would leave the question of optimism and pessimism aside. What is the meaning of these votes? They are the first form of class reaction against the austerity offensive of the employers, of the bourgeois state and of the previous conservative governments. This is nothing surprising. If you systematically take money out of the pockets of the poor to put it in the portfolios of the rich, and you keep universal suffrage, one day or the other people will present you with the bill. This seems so obvious that it’s hard to believe that the shrewdest bourgeois politicians didn’t foresee it. We have had one election, a world record: in Mauritius where, under a conservative government and with a complete conservative control of the mass media, you had a general election last year in which 100% of the MPs were Left, not a single rightwing MP was elected. Of course it is a poor country: the decline in real wages means a decline towards hunger in the literal sense of the word. If you keep parliamentary democracy under these circumstances, the reaction is unavoidable.

What is the contradiction? The contradiction is that the people voted against austerity or, let me even say, for less austerity, but they are not going to get it from these social democratic governments. The social democratic governments are going to apply austerity policies. I don’t want to make any predictions for Australia; I don’t want to involve myself in Australian politics, but in France it is obvious, in Spain it is obvious, in Mauritius it’s obvious. These governments, inasmuch as they are not ready to break with the logic of capitalist economy, especially with their integration into the international capitalist economy, are absolutely going to repeat the austerity policies of the right. So there is the contradiction. If you pose the question of revolution from an ideological point of view, you pose it in a way which is insolvable. Revolutions which occur in real life do not come out of the realm of ideology, they come out of the field of sharpened, exacerbated social tensions, social conflicts. Revolutionaries play, then, a leading role if they are intelligent enough and don’t make too many mistakes, and if the relationship of forces is not too unfavourable for them, but that has nothing to do with the origin of the revolution. This question put that way cannot be solved, because nobody is a prophet and can say how far will the masses go in their explosive reaction in the next ten years against these austerity policies, but what one can predict with absolute certainty is that you cannot do away with austerity policies without trying to break with capitalism. Whether it is done in a revolutionary way or non-revolutionary way is another story. Any economic policy today which genuinely wants to defend standard of living, real wages, full employment, social security advantages which the working class has won during the previous twenty years has to break with the logic of profit and has to break with the logic of the international capitalist economy. If you stay within that logic you are going to apply austerity policies. You cannot defend full employment, real wages and social security advantages of the working class by accepting the logic of capitalist profit. It is impossible. To put it in an even more nasty way, I would say that consensus politics, Butskellism as it was called in England during the period of prosperity, is continuing under the period of recession but with, of course, a completely different content. Under the period of prosperity, it meant that the conservatives were ready to grant some reforms to the workers in order to keep the system stable. Under recession, crisis, it means that the social democrats are accepting cuts in the standards of living of the workers under the pretext of not breaking with the international economy as they call it – what they really mean is the capitalist economy on an international scale. But there is one serious limitation to this thesis. Everything you have asked and everything I have said up to now applies to the official leadership of these parties and these unions. What is going to happen inside these parties and inside these unions is an entirely different question. There, the recession and austerity offensive of the employers and of the state is having the effect of a process of differentiation, clarification, and we say there is a whole restructuration which has started inside the organized labor movement in Western Europe. It is going out of the bounds of Western Europe now; it is coming to North America. It will probably happen in Japan and Australia, too; in all the imperialist countries and even in the most industrialized dependent countries like Brazil where it also started; Argentina, Mexico and others. Parts of the organized working class movement will not accept austerity policies. Of that I am sure.

I am not so sure that in Britain it will experience the biggest extension, because in the last analysis, this process of polarization is not, I repeat, an ideological process, it is a social process, so it will be the strongest in the countries where the greatest number of workers is involved in real struggles. Unfortunately, in Britain we have had a period of decline of labor struggles and defeats of labor struggles, and it is not by accident that the right wing of the Labour Party has opened its offensive against the left in such a period, because that is the only period when they have a chance of success. I would rather look to countries like France, my own country: Belgium, Italy, Portugal, Spain, the countries with the militant traditions of struggle by the workers in the next years, and we might even have some surprises in Canada and the United States.

Question: What is the relation between social movements and socialist politics today? How do you see the social movements which now seem to dominate western radical politics?

Mandel: The social movements are in general progressive as single issue movements, in the sense that they raise genuine issues of emancipation for the working class and for mankind in general, humankind. They objectively challenge basic tenets and basic pillars of bourgeois society. There are single issue movements because of the default of the traditional labor movement. In a normal social framework, let us say in the situation as we had it before the First World War in Europe, in the twenties in some European countries like Germany, in the early twenties in Italy and later Spain, it would have been the organized labor movement which would have taken up these issues, which would have mobilized massively for women’s liberation, against the war drive, and so on. It is the default of the labor movement which has left the void which was then filled by these social movements. The weakness of the social movements is not is not in their single-issue dynamic – that is positive – their weakness is in their incapacity to integrate the concrete progressive goals they generally fight for into an overall social solution. You can fight against the war drive but you cannot close your eyes to the general rightwing offensive against democratic freedoms. You can fight for the right to free abortion paid by social security, but you cannot close your eyes to the expanding police state. When parts of the women’s liberation movement raise, for instance, the question of increased penalties against rapists, increased penalties by the bourgeois state, and turn to the bourgeois courts, we tell them, “You are wrong, your cause is just, we understand your problem, but you must understand that the more power you give to the judiciary and to the police at this moment in this society, the more you will be yourselves oppressed – not to speak about other sectors of society.” We are in the beginning of a drive towards a strong state, an authoritarian state, and if you strengthen police and judiciary you are going in the opposite direction to that which you need. You have to fight against the judiciary; you have to fight against the police; you have to fight against the strengthening of the bourgeois state and not try to strengthen it. That is the weakness of these social movements: they do not have an overall view of the social crisis, and they do not give an overall solution, and this is extremely dangerous for them because this gives them an ambiguous position in society, where they combine leftwing and rightwing motivations amongst the people who join them. In some countries, of course, this is not accidental, but in some countries – France, Germany and Austria – you have genuine rightwing people in these movements. In Germany it was just discovered that one of the MPs elected by the Green Party, who was to give the inaugural speech at the opening of parliament, is an ex-Nazi, an ex-SA leader. That is not to say the Green Party is influenced by fascism. That is stupid, of course. The Greens behaved correctly; they immediately removed him when they discovered that. They have a very good rule, which is a rule of Marxist, of Leninist origin: that the elected can be recalled at any moment. That is very positive, but the fact that he could pass through screening and still rise to that position would have been unthinkable in any leftwing party. This shows that the screening was not done on a very profound way, and that they were not particularly pre-occupied by the question of neo-fascism.

Question: How would you explain the phenomenon and success of the Greens: do they represent a more effective agency for radical politics than the traditional parties?

Mandel: I would turn the question the other way around. I would say that the electoral successes and the successes in mass mobilization in certain countries is the reflection of the more general trend of forces independent from the traditional working class parties, gaining qualitatively more weight in political life in these countries than before. In France, in Italy and in Portugal, I would claim that the organized revolutionary left has practically the same electoral weight or a very similar electoral weight as the Greens have in Germany and some other countries. And I would say the participation of parts of the left wing of the trade union movement of the revolutionists in the anti-war mobilizations in Britain, in Italy, is at least as big, if not bigger, than that of the Greens in Germany. In the movements for the 35 hour week against the austerity drive, the left wing of the labor movement has a qualitatively bigger weight than that of the Greens, so it’s a more complex picture. I would say that if there is an element of political savvy, of correct political tactics today in practically every single European country, it is with the left wing forces (not necessarily revolutionary, you could call them centrists or left-reformists) who represent potentially more than 5% of the popular vote and in certain countries 10%. In Denmark, for instance, a little known and rather moderate country not at the forefront of revolutionary struggle, at the last general elections the two left socialist parties who stand far to the left of the Communist Party, not to speak about the Social Democratic Party, got 10% of the popular vote. That is the potential today in most of the European countries. The fact that it is not realized in every single one of them has something to do with mistakes in tactics or just lack of political intelligence of some of the currents who play a leading role in the left, but the potential is there. The German Greens are just one expression of that potential which is much larger. It has nothing to do with Greens as such; they just occupy a void, because in Germany for historical reasons the revolutionary left organizations were much weaker than in France, Britain, Scandinavia or in Italy. Ok – they occupy that void. In other countries other forces occupy that same space.

Question: What effects do these developments in radical politics have on the status of Marxist theory? How does Marxism need to be developed and/or complemented by radical theories which focus on non-class forms of domination?

Mandel: To give you a full answer would take much more time than is left here. Just to make an historical point: nearly one hundred years ago it was self-evident for the then leading Marxists, the left Marxists of the German Social Democratic Party, Lenin in the Russian Social Democracy, that you cannot have a fight for a classless society – that is what socialism is about, and what Marxism is about; it is not a theory about class, it’s a struggle for a classless society – you cannot have a struggle for a classless society without a struggle against any form of exploitation and oppression. Lenin stressed that question twenty times in his basic writings, especially in What is to be Done? Kautsky, Bebel, Engels, stressed that question twenty times (not to speak about Rosa Luxemburg) in their writings of the 1890s and the beginning of the twentieth century. What we have here is not a default of Marxism, neither Marxism as a theoretical system nor Marxism as a guide to practice. What we have is a default of bureaucratised labor organizations, or the bureaucratic leadership of these labor organizations, which have thrown overboard elementary elements of Marxist theory and practice for basic reasons of class collaboration. Just to give you one example: the example of chauvinism, of nationalism in the imperialist epoch. The traditional Marxist movement stood on the slogan, and it was not just a slogan but one of its basic programmatic positions, Workers of all countries, unite! Then came August 4, 1914, and as Rosa Luxemburg said, this programmatic position was replaced by another one: Workers of all countries unite in time of peace and cut each others’ throats in time of war. When that happens, of course, an independent pacifist movement will arise. The issue of war and peace is so important for so many people in the world that when the workers movement does not play its role as it should have done and as it did for decades, other forces will then come to the forefront which will eventually be re-integrated in more or less radical forms of the labour movement (that depends on circumstances and relationship of forces). The same thing which happened on this question has happened in many other areas. This is not a default of Marxism; it is not a lack of the theory; it is a default of concrete organizations which have at least partially changed their class functions.


Last updated on 5.8.2007