Ernest Mandel

The Trotskyite view of Soviet Reforms


From New Times, No.39, September 25-October 1, 1990, pp.37-39.
Thanks to Joseph Auciello.
Downloaded with thanks from the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Today it pays to take an unbiased look at the ideological and political creed of those who regard themselves as the followers of Leo Trotsky. This will not only give one a better idea of today’s varied ideological and political scene, but afford one deeper insight into the tradition identified with the names of Marx and Lenin. If approached without preconceived notions, many Trotskyite slogans and tenets will turn out to be quite recognizable. For instance, the anti-bureaucratic motives in the Trotskyites’ creed are perfectly consonant with the relevant views voiced by radical democrats in the CPSU and by their opponents – representatives of the Marxist Platform. Trotskyite revolutionary slogans, on the other hand, are much like those of this platform and of the United Working People’s Front. The best way to acquaint oneself with modern Trotskyism is to interview its representatives.

Our correspondent met with Ernst Mandel, one of the leaders of the International Trotskyite Union which has its organizations in almost 50 countries across the world. E. Mandel is the author of about 15 books.

Ernest Mandel, a leader and a top theoretician of the Fourth International founded by Leo Trotsky, interviewed by Mark Neimark, D.Sc. (History)

New Times: What is the basic strategic concept of the Fourth International today?

Ernest Mandel: It boils down to the following points.

We are revolutionaries, i.e, we are convinced that reforms which we are certainly working on so far as they serve the interests of working people and their allies, are inadequate to resolve the fundamental contradictions now tearing the world apart. There is a need for radical revolutionary changes, which can be carried out through the involvement of the masses, through extensive and massive action and through the promotion of bodies of self-organization (People’s Councils). Simply speaking, we single out three revolutionary processes going on in the world: the process of the proletarian revolution in imperialist “parent states”; the process of the permanent revolution which combines the completion of the national-democratic and socialist revolutions (the winning of power by the proletariat allied with the working peasantry), in Third World countries; and the process of the political anti-bureaucratic revolution in the countries usually referred to as “socialist.”

We are staunch supporters of socialist democracy. This means that we insist on the working class movement, trade union organizations, mass parties and the state institutions of post-capitalist societies exercising the right to follow any trend, that we stand for political and cultural pluralism, object to a one-party system, support free elections, universal suffrage, with many candidates to choose from, demand freedom of the press, associations, etc.

We are internationalists. We are convinced that the key problems in today’s world can be solved only by joint efforts of working people, their allies, nations and many countries. We have raised successive generations of internationalists who are fighting, above all, against chauvinism at home, as Lenin taught us. What we mean is following an independent line, not imposed by some “higher-ups” and irrespective of the interests of any “leader state.” We take pride in the fact that our French comrades were in the vanguard of the struggle against the dirty war in Algeria, that our British comrades were at the forefront of the struggle against the Falkland war.

N.T. It seems to me that you underestimate capitalism’s ability to adapt itself to new circumstances, to change, and the importance of the global problems facing mankind.

E.M. This is the gist of the debates between reformists (be it Left-wing Liberals, Social Democrats or Eurocommunists of the West or the East), on the one hand, and revolutionaries, on the other. When Mikhail Gorbachev speaks about the objective “globalization” of a number of problems, he certainly makes a step forward from the traditional Stalinist concept that socialism can be built in one individual country. We have always opposed this utopian view. We have always maintained that as it starts building socialism in one or several countries, the working class will meet with ever greater obstacles in its path until the revolutionary process spreads to the world’s leading industrial countries.

Today mankind is faced with vital problems which can be solved on a worldwide scale only; the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological war, the ecological problem, famine, disease and poverty in Third World countries. These problems put the very existence of humankind at stake, Mikhail Gorbachev says, and we share his view. We think that any Communist, Socialist and any humanist should give top priority to the solution of these problems.

The question is how to remove the threat of all these disasters once and for all. Gorbachev’s entire “new thinking” approach consists in an attempt to deal with these problems in ever closer cooperation with international Big Business.

But it is sheer illusion to think that in time the internal contradictions of the capitalist world, the internal contradictions of bourgeois society, the contradictions between the “parent states” and the Third World will ever diminish and smooth themselves out. On the contrary, we think that explosive crises will follow one another in succession irrespective of what reformists and revolutionaries want or do.

I must note that since 1945, hardly a year passed without a war going on in some part of the world. Eighty wars have been fought over the period. I agree that efforts must be made to avoid attempts to resolve this or that conflict through a suicidal war. But how is the military-industrial complex to be persuaded of that? How are we to persuade repressive dictatorships like those of El Salvador or Guatemala, which exterminate tens of thousands of workers, peasants and intellectuals? I think, social explosions will keep growing in number. And I think that under the circumstance, Communists (Socialists) should seek to make them victorious.

N.T. In your works, you often refer to bureaucracy as a social force. What do you mean by that?

E.M. We include in our concept of bureaucracy all those who exercise power over society (be it those in control in the state, in the economy, in “mass organizations,” in the field of production and consumption of “cultural values”) monopolistically, i.e., with the popular masses having no share in it.

Such a monopoly of power inevitably involves material privileges. These privileges are modest for petty bureaucrats, although one should not underestimate the negative results of the excessive stability of their position and the innumerable “little advantages” and abuses all this leads to. These privileges are obviously excessive for the members of the bureaucratic upper crust, with their exclusive shops, country residences, hospital wards specially set aside for them, with exclusive schools for their “gilded youth,” with their privileged access to the best health resorts and their unrestricted freedom to travel abroad ...

The monopoly on power and the consumer privileges ensuing therefrom constitute a single whole and are inter-conditional. One cannot be destroyed without the other. “Command policy” looms over the “command economy.” Under the circumstances, the slogan of “all power to the Soviets” means a radical destruction of the bureaucrats’ monopoly on power, and a radical elimination of their material privileges.

N.T. Aren’t the CPSU and Mikhail Gorbachev trying to do just that?

E.M. Indisputably, Mikhail Gorbachev, just a certain number of scientists, ideologists and party leaders who support him are exposing the abuses and privileges of bureaucracy in an ever more radical form. This is a positive fact, of course.

Let us face facts, though: little if any progress has been made in actually taking power and privileges away from the bureaucrats; we can speak only about limited progress in the political sphere rather than in the sphere of material privileges. This corroborates the most general law of history which says that structures (and bureaucratic dictatorship is a structure) cannot be destroyed gradually, step by step. It takes a revolution to destroy them.

Our movement has upheld this premise for 55 years and has been labeled “counter-revolutionary” for that. Now most people in the USSR and in the international communist movement as a whole know better than to mistake real counterrevolutionaries for real revolutionaries.

But there exists an enormous gap between talk and action – a gap which is causing the Soviet people ever growing discontent, if my information is correct. As a matter of fact, bureaucracy keeps its privileges and persists in its abuses of power.

The cause of that is clear. What Gorbachev calls “revolution” and what many Western observers refer to as “revolution from above” actually amounts to reforms intended to make the bureaucratic regime more rational rather than to eliminate it. This regime can only be swept away by a “revolution from below,” by the resolute action of tens and tens of millions of Soviet citizens, and the working people above all.

N.T. But don’t you think that by going too fast and thus destabilizing the situation, those bent on mass uncontrolled action will cause anarchy which the internal and external opponents of the current reforms will lose no time taking advantage of?

E.M. Concerning apprehensions of “anarchy,” “destabilization” and the return of neo-Stalinist conservatives, this is certainly only partly true. However, the ensuing calls for “moderation,” addressed to “radicals” and to the working masses are misdirected. These calls are not in line with the fundamental logic of what is going on in your country today. The real risk of neo-Stalinist conservatives opposed to genuine democratization and to taking privileges away from the bureaucratic upper crust comes from as yet insufficient rather than excessive activity of the masses. In the face of tens of millions of working people taking vigorous and independent action in society, bureaucrats and neo-Stalinists will be powerless.

At the same time, procrastinations in carrying out reforms and the limitations of the latter (there is no genuine workers’ control over economic management) are fraught with the danger of the masses getting disappointed and demoralized. This danger is very real, another risk factor being your failure to bring about an appreciable rise in the masses’ standard of living. The masses may lose heart as a result, and this is what neo-Stalinists bank upon.

Our attitude towards Gorbachev and his policy can be described as criticism from the Left, not from the Right. I regard neo-Stalinist conservatives as a right-wing political force of the greatest danger to the Soviet people, to the Soviet working class and to the international working class as part of the international communist movement. Its activity consists mainly in reiterating pseudo-orthodoxal doctrinaire incantations which have nothing altogether to do with Marxism and Lenin’s teaching. This force opts for restricting and suppressing the masses’ freedom of action, seeks to ban industrial action, to suppress demonstrations, to smother the freedom of the press, to restrict political, scientific and cultural pluralism.

Any gains scored by this force in these fields would be as disastrous to the Soviet Union as Stalin’s coming to power was in the twenties.

N.T. You still haven’t made yourself clear on the key issue – whether you support perestroika.

E.M. I am not at all trying to evade answering this question. Our attitude to it – and to Stalin’s or Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, for that matter – cannot be simplistically reduced either to enthusiastic approval, or to vehement censure.

I am neither a “Kremlinologist,” nor a self-styled “expert on Soviet affairs.” It would be inappropriate and immodest on the part of a foreigner – even an enthusiastic supporter of communism and an adherent to the traditions of the October Revolution – to pronounce categorical and peremptory judgements on what is going on in a vast country like the Soviet Union. The most I can do is attempt some working hypotheses, leaving it to subsequent development to confirm or refute them.

In light of the above, our position can be set forth, in a nutshell, as follows: an enthusiastic “yes” to glasnost, and no less enthusiastic approval for the Soviet government’s disarmament initiatives and proposals, for the Soviet troops’ withdrawal from Afghanistan, for the renunciation of the Brezhnev’s doctrine of the East European countries’ “limited sovereignty,” for the restoration of normal interstate relations with the People’s Republic of China.

An emphatic “no” to regional agreement with imperialism , which would be to the detriment of the struggle, freedom of action and interests of the popular masses in Central America, South Africa and other regions. An emphatic “no” to any restrictions on aid to Cuba and Nicaragua. A no less emphatic “no” to the spread of the illusion that imperialism can become “peaceful” and “sensible,” that it is possible to solve mankind’s vital problems by cooperating with it.

A restrained, temporizing and hopeful “yes” to the dismantling of the overcentralized “command economy.” A restrained and temporizing “yes” to the use of market mechanisms in the spheres of distribution, services, small-scale light industry and agriculture.

An emphatic “no” to all the options of economic development which intensify social inequality, detract from the social security of the lowest-paid working people, the “new poor.” An emphatic “no” to any threat to full employment, to the creation of unemployment with a view to “disciplining” the workers. A resolute “no” to the illusion that the logic of the market can eliminate all the shortages and make up for all the failures of the command economy. We are for a systematic spread of the idea of a democratic, decentralized planning as the third way opposed both to the command economy and to the market-dominated economy. Consumer-controlled producers (incidentally, production and consumption often overlap in the USSR) ought to be their own sovereign masters and make their own decisions on what to produce, when to send their products and how, and where these products are to be consumed.

This self-government is to presuppose a certain flexibility, i.e., the masses should have a chance to make their own decisions, to choose from among the alternative projects, and decide on their own on the proportions of output to be distributed at the national, republic, city and village industry and enterprise level.

Therefore decentralized planning is inseparably connected with democracy and political pluralism. Without this connection there is neither free choice of working people nor real motivation to practice worker self-government.

N.T. The collapse of Stalinism, of what you call the “command economy,” is identified in the West and in certain East European countries with the demise of socialism in general. Do you share this view?

E.M. First of all, while the “command economy” failed to meet consumer demand in the USSR and Eastern European countries at the level this is done in imperialist countries, it still succeeded in bringing about an improvement of living and cultural standards in those countries thanks to the advantages of the planned economy. The standard of living enjoyed by the average Soviet citizen, the Polish or Hungarian peasant, today is beyond comparison with what was the case before the revolutions in the relevant countries. In China, the progress is still more striking. These changes for the better are accompanied by real inequality which, however, is less glaring than that in the West and especially in Third World countries. A concomitant of these positive changes is restricted political freedom, which merits unqualified condemnation, of course, and which has nothing to do with the logic of planning.

Second, – and this, to my mind, is the most substantial thing – the rise of the socialist movement did not depend on any “economic achievements” or “management efficiency” of nations and governments. Neither is it to depend on these factors in the future.

The rise of socialism is inevitable as long as exploitation, oppression and injustice persist in existing bourgeois society, and as long as there remains the conviction that this society has to be replaced by another, entirely different one. This conviction results – periodically at any rate – in practical liberating action by the social class which has the economic potential and the organizing ability required to build up a new society based on solidarity, cooperation and equality, rather than on competition, lust for money and the struggle for all against all. By this social class I mean the proletariat in a broad sense of the word, i.e., all hired labour.

I am convinced that today these factors have gained greater momentum than ever before. This makes me confident that socialism and communism have a future.

Marx said that it was necessary to eliminate any social conditions under which human beings are humiliated, enslaved, left to the mercy of fate and despised. Stalin and his ilk committed the crime of sacrificing the principles of socialism to cynical and suppressive “Realpolitik.” If socialism and communism go back to the original ideas which have given them birth, they will be invincible.


Last updated on 5.8.2007