“The Struggle for World Socialist Revolution”

The Spartacist League Debates Ernest Mandel

(11 November 1994)

From Spartacist, No. 52, November 1995, pp. 10–15.
Transcribed by Duncan Chapel.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We publish below the presentation of Ernest Mandel, at a debate in New York City on 11 November 1994.

Presentation by Ernest Mandel

The birth act of Marxism is the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The thing is to change it.” While a correct theoretical understanding of capitalism is indispensable for its overthrow, it is not enough. This task has to be realized in practice. Only the working class – as it is defined by the first program of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party written by Lenin and Plekhanov, all those who are under the economic compulsion to sell their labor power – only the working class is capable of breaking the hold of the bourgeoisie over the main means of production and exchange.

These expropriations cannot succeed without the destruction of the bourgeois state machine and its replacement by a workers’ state, by the dictatorship of the proletariat. The workers state is a state of a special type, described by Lenin’s classical book on the subject, The State and Revolution. It starts to wither away from its very inception. However, the rhythm of this withering away is conditioned by the existence of international threats to these workers states, the fact that the capitalist world market still holds sway, independently from any more precise, material military threats. This means that the process of withering away is limited and less precise than Lenin projected it.

The building of socialism is a process of trial and error, as Rosa Luxemburg so clearly made precise in her 1918 writings, and Trotsky further made clear in his polemics against Stalin and the Stalinists during the first five-year plan. The process of world revolution has been dominated by the law of uneven and combined development, the discovery of which is one of Trotsky’s main contributions to Marxist theory. From the Russian Revolution of 1905 onwards to today, it is characterized by an internationally desynchronized process. Revolutions have not broken out simultaneously in all countries in the world; they most probably never will. To a large extent, the key task for revolutionary Marxists is therefore to forge growing working-class unity and solidarity on a world scale.

Another basic theoretical step forward, realized by Karl Marx, was the definition of social classes as objective realities independently from how these classes see themselves. Slaves were a social class, even if no such thing as “slave ideology” existed. American workers are a working class in function of their being based upon wage labor, even if many of them consider themselves “middle class.”

In order to overthrow capitalism, it is not enough to have a correct program; you need also in addition sufficient organizational strength, sufficient implantation in the working class and other mass movements. Let us illustrate that thesis by the balance sheet of Trotsky’s political record from 1930 on. It is a magnificent achievement. Trotsky was 100 percent right in his struggle against the Soviet Thermidor, against the usurpation of power in the USSR by an anti-working-class bureaucratic caste. He was 100 percent right in his fight against the rise of fascism in Germany and the terrible threats this would present to the European working class and the USSR itself. He was 100 percent right in pointing out how it was possible to avoid a defeat of the Spanish Revolution. He was 100 percent right in his fight against the disastrous Popular Front policies in France and elsewhere. He was 100 percent right in his fight against Stalin’s bloody purges in the USSR from 1934 on, killing nearly one million Communists and the cream of the Red Army’s commanders.

But he lost all these fights. Why? Because in order to win, it was not enough to have these correct ideas. It was also necessary to have sufficient numerical strength, with sufficient roots among the masses. These the groups inspired by Lev Davidovich did not have. Therefore, they remained unable even to begin to realize the vital historical goals which I just enumerated.

The so-called “Russian question” involves a correct definition of the bureaucratized workers states and of the tasks for revolutionary Marxists evolving therefrom: the struggle to overthrow the bureaucratic dictatorship by a political revolution, the struggle to defend the remnants of the conquests of the October Revolution against attempts of imperialism to destroy them. It raises in addition the question of the correlation of these tasks and world revolution. This implies two questions. First, does the defense of the remaining conquests of October take precedence over tasks of revolutions in other parts of the world, like the Stalinists for a long time asserted, with their theory of the USSR being the central bastion of the world proletariat and proletarian internationalism equaling the defense of that bastion?

Second, can world revolution march forward and achieve victories outside of the so-called socialist camp, through its own momentum in given countries, provided there exists a leadership – not necessarily a genuinely revolutionary Marxist one – ready to lead such a process?

Those who answer “yes” to the first question, whether they are conscious of it or not, defend a pro-Stalinist, pro-Soviet bureaucracy position, with all its implications for current class struggles we have witnessed from the ’30s on. Those who answer “no” to the second question – again independently from the fact of whether they are conscious of it or not – in practice adopt a position parallel to the reactionary Utopia of socialism in one country. Advances of world revolution are supposed to be impossible without, the prior overthrow of the Soviet bureaucracy; everything depends upon what is happening inside the Soviet Union.

We reject both these grave theoretical political errors. And to do that, we can base ourselves on solid historical evidence to prove it. It is just impossible to deny that the subordination of the interests and the movements of the exploited and the oppressed, in various countries at various ‘ moments, to the maneuvers of Stalinist diplomacy have had catastrophic consequences both for world revolution and for the USSR itself. The Trotskyist analysis of the bureaucratized – bureaucratically deformed and degenerated if you want, it is all the same – Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, implies understanding the double historical function of the Stalinist bureaucracies.

On the one hand, in the long run, historically, they further the restoration of capitalism. But during a concrete, shorter: term period, roughly from 1930 till the late ’80s, they basically opposed such a restoration in the USSR and abolished capitalism in Eastern Europe and in China. Anybody who denies this, like the “state cap” sects do, defends the preposterous position that there was no structural difference between Mao’s China and Chiang Kai-shek’s China, be; tween East Germany and West Germany, between Eastern ; Europe before and after 1949, between North Korea and South Korea. You will not find a single capitalist anywhere in the world who believes such nonsense. For sure, the bureaucracy abolished capitalism in these countries not, because it was in any way pro-socialist in the real historical sense of the word. To use Trotsky’s classical formula in that respect, it abolished capitalism in order to expand its own power and privileges at the expense both of the workers and of the capitalists.

One of the most important contributions of Trotsky to the development of Marxist theory is his concept of the Stalinist bureaucracy as a specific social layer, with particular material interests to defend. An important practical conclusion has to be drawn from this analysis. It is particularly relevant today for the ex-USSR and Eastern Europe, as well as for the People’s Republic of China. Only the working class can prevent a full restoration of capitalism j, in these countries. This means that the working class has 5 to reconquer its class independence and its class consciousness. After the disastrous results of Stalinist experience – mistakenly, but it is a fact of life – this working class today tends to identify Stalinism with communism, with Marxism, with socialism, all of which they reject out of hand.

Therefore, revolutionary Marxists in these countries have to help the working class to fight on two fronts: against the reprivatization of industry and suppression of many social advantages on the one hand; for the full development of democratic rights, freedom of organization, freedom of the press, the right to strike, and all other trade-union freedoms on the other hand. More generally, after the traumatic experience with fascism, Stalinism, various military dictatorships, the international working class as well as the Soviet and Eastern European and Chinese working classes are in favor of universal human rights, of unrestrained political freedom. This is nothing new in the history of communism. The illegal [Italian] Communist Party, after the beginning of the fascist dictatorship, expressed this idea in the final sentence it added to its traditional song, Bandiera Rossa: “Evviva il comunismo e la liberta.” Long live communism and freedom.

The young Communist Party of the United States, under the impulse of our comrade Jim Cannon, applied the same orientation in an admirable way when it organized a worldwide defense campaign for Sacco and Vanzetti. These two anarchists were resolute opponents of communism and of Soviet Russia. But they were workers victimized by U.S. business and its political personnel. Under these circumstances, Jim was absolutely right to organize such a defense campaign which brought millions of people into action throughout the world. Class solidarity should not know any ideological restraints, except in a situation of real – not of so-called “potential” – civil war.

We are facing here a deeper problem. You cannot organize an efficient strike committee without involving all the workers, independently from their often-reactionary ideas – with the obvious exclusion of real scabs, not of so-called “potential” scabs. You cannot organize an efficient soviet without involving all the toilers – indeed, practically all citizens – in it, with the exclusion of outright pogromists, fascists. Indeed, the second Russian Soviet Congress, which decided on the transfer of power to the Soviets, had in its ranks even bourgeois parties like the Cadets. They were not expelled; they left the Soviets by their own volition.

We are dealing here with the dialectics of the united front. Its main task is not to unmask the labor lieutenants of capital, as the American Marxist Daniel De Leon so aptly called them. That educational task of course remains present, is important, but it is a propaganda task. The main task of the united front is to implement the united front, to realize it, in the interests of the wage-earners in their totality. So, when we propose a united front from below and from the top, we mean it. What happens when this line is not applied can be studied in the light of the German disaster of 1933.

Like all similar sects, the Spartacists have tied themselves into an inextricable knot of contradictions. These hit them as so many boomerangs. First contradiction: the international Trotskyist movement has existed from 1930 onwards. During the 64 years of its existence, there have been innumerable mass strikes and general strikes throughout the world. There have been a great number of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary explosions, as well as a series of real revolutions. If, after more than half a century of revolutions and counterrevolutions, real Trotskyism (which the Spartacists claim to be the only ones to represent) is reduced to a couple of hundred people in the whole world, with no real implantation in the working class of any country, this would prove the basic historical failure of Trotskyism as a political movement, independently of the intrinsic value its theoretical contributions.

Second contradiction: the Spartacists themselves have existed for many years, yet they have completely failed to build the revolutionary party which, following Trotsky, they correctly claim to be indispensable for solving the burning problems of mankind. Why this obvious failure?

Third: the obsession with correct formulas leads to the pretense of popish infallibility. This in turn implies a break with the Marxist-Leninist tradition of complete freedom of thought. Engels wrote to the leadership of the German Social Democracy when that party was more than a thousand times stronger than the Spartacists are today: the party needs socialist science, which cannot develop under other conditions than those of full freedom of action.

Fourth contradiction: the Spartacists have increasingly been reversing the classical Marxist distinction between objectively progressive mass movements and their treacherous or wavering leaderships. Trotsky gave full support to China’s struggle for national independence against Japanese imperialism, even when the struggle was led by the fiercely anti-working-class criminal gang of Chiang Kai-shek. It will be hard to argue that the leadership of the Algerian mass struggle for national independence, the FLN, was worse than the Chiang Kai-shek gang. It would be even more difficult to argue that the mass resistance movements against German and Italian imperialists over exploitation and oppression in countries like Poland, Greece, France, Denmark, Belgium, were not totally progressive and did not merit full support by revolutionary Marxists irrespective of the class-collaborationist policies of their national leaderships. The same remark applies to the national uprisings of the Indian, the Indochinese, the Indonesian, the Filipino peoples, against British, French, Japanese, Dutch, U.S. imperialism.

In that respect, there is a terrible blot on the record of the so-called International Committee of the Fourth International of Healyite/Lambertiste inspiration to which the Spartacist leaders give allegiance to this very day. This blot is not a minor peccadillo. The Lambertistes organized a military operation under one Bellounis in direct cooperation with French imperialism against the FLN. Lambert publicly boasted that these operations were planned in his Paris headquarters by his central committee. We have never seen any self-criticism or correction by the Spartacists of this terrible crime. Lambert, as for him, fell all over himself to correct that crime when Messali Hadj – supposedly the leader of the proletarian wing of the Algerian national movement, as against the petty-bourgeois wing of the FLN – ended up by openly supporting de Gaulle and the Gaullist regime.

Fifth contradiction: there is another grave blot on the Spartacists’ record. Under the pretext of defending the Polish bureaucratized workers state against capitalist restoration, the Spartacists supported General Jaruzelski’s military coup d’état of December 1981. They supported the Stalinist repression of the Polish working class. Jaruzelski banned the trade union Solidarność, he suppressed the right to strike, he dismissed tens of thousands of trade unionists from their jobs, he clapped thousands of them into jail. Comrades of the Spartacist League, you will have a hard time defending this anti-working-class repression.

Sixth contradiction: as in Poland, the Spartacists relativize the anti-working-class measures of the post-Stalinist regimes and the terrible consequences of economic stagnation under Brezhnev and Chernenko for the daily lives of female and male workers. The Stalinist labor code was the harshest ever known in the twentieth century. It is sufficient to cite the example of the so-called ukazniks. Hundreds of thousands of women workers were deported to labor camps for having stayed away from work for 24 hours because either they themselves or their children were ill, and the doctor had not shown up in time to give them a certificate. They had no possibility of justifying or defending themselves. They were just automatically deported. But even worse were the objective consequences of economic stagnation and decline for the Soviet working class. Coal miners did not receive soap; women workers did not receive sanitary napkins. Only when, under Yeltsin, at the beginning of restoration of capitalism, their situation deteriorated even more, a limited, but largely unpolitical, reaction set in.

The Spartacists try to cover up for this shameful apology by claiming that they after all stand for political revolution, whereas we are supposed to have abandoned that traditional Trotskyist position in favor of supporting self-reform of the bureaucracy. It is a complete distortion of the historical record. Since 1946, in every single one of our writings on the Russian question we clearly rejected the idea of possible self-reform of the bureaucracy. A whole chapter of our book, Beyond Perestroika, has as a title, No Self-Reform of the Bureaucracy Is Possible. We clearly came out in favor of political anti-bureaucratic revolution. We supported every single working-class action against the bureaucracy, from the East German uprising of 1953, to the Hungarian Revolution, to the Prague Spring of 1968–69, to the workers’ actions of Tiananmen Square against the post-Maoist dictatorship in the People’s Republic of China.

Next contradiction: the Spartacists underestimate the gravity of the current long depressive wave of capitalism. They write: “The present period is marked, above all, by the impact of the counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and the other deformed workers states of Eastern Europe.” This is wrong. The principal feature of the world situation is the worldwide offensive of capital against labor, with its main concomitants – the rise of mass unemployment; the development of a growing layer of casual, marginalized, unprotected workers; the development of a growing union: busting offensive; the rise of xenophobia, racism and ‘ extreme right-wing tendencies, to which the established parties make constant concessions; the reappearance of openly fascist tendencies; the threats deriving therefrom for the working class’ political rights and freedoms.

There is nothing “reformist” in recognizing that under such conditions the workers’ struggles are mainly defensive ones, and revolutionary Marxists have to give priority to this, as Trotsky did in Germany from 1929 on. Like at that moment, what is on the immediate agenda today is not the struggle for revolutionary conquest of power by the workers, but the need to eliminate unemployment in a radical way in the West and the East and in a substantial way in the South. It is true that, contrary to the early ’30s, the working class of several capitalist countries have launched massive and impressive defensive struggles against the employers’ offensive and the state, especially in Brazil, in Italy, in France, and to a lesser extent in Argentina, Greece and Belgium. We shall see what will happen in Germany. But how far these movements have been successful in stopping the capitalist offensive remains an open question.

It is also true that there is an obvious interaction between what we call the worldwide crisis of credibility of socialism, which is a function of a growing number of workers understanding the historical bankruptcy of Stalinism and Social Democracy on the one hand, and on the other hand not seeing any credible alternative for radical, overall social change. The absence of such an alternative gives all defensive workers’ struggles a discontinuous and fragmented character; it leaves the historical initiative in the hands of the employers and their states. Revolutionary Marxists try to overcome that handicap; they struggle for the reappearance of class self-confidence and hope in a new socialist society. But at this stage, this is still a long-term process, still essentially a propaganda task.

Next contradiction: the Spartacists do not seem to understand the qualitative grave threats which the survival of decaying capitalism poses for the working class, all the exploited and oppressed, nay, all humankind in its totality. Rosa Luxemburg had coined the formula, either “socialism or barbarism.” This formula is now bypassed. The real problem is either socialism or the destruction of all life on earth. The main trends leading in that direction are the growing ecological disasters and the existence of nuclear weapons, nuclear power stations, as well as chemical, biological and other mass destructive weapons.

A change in one of the basic strategies of communism derives therefrom. You cannot turn nuclear weapons against the class enemy. You have to break totally with the demented Marshall Grechko/Mao concept of trying to win an atomic war. The strategic goal should become the one of avoiding at all costs a nuclear war and suppressing all nuclear power stations. You cannot build socialism with atomic ashes. The Spartacists have never spoken out on this issue. We challenge them to do so now.

Such a view of the new world reality – yes, it is new, compared to the time the Transitional Program was written – is in no way defeatist, demoralizing, or demobilizing for the exploited and the oppressed. Neither was Trotsky’s view of the terrible dangers of fascism when he raised the banner of immediate priority to be granted to the struggle against that danger from 1929 on. It does not pay to play hide and seek with objective reality. One has to reverse the argument. The existence of these threats for the very survival of human life gives a new and powerful stimulus to the struggle for socialism. Capitalism and the disintegrating bureaucratic dictatorships are utterly unable to eliminate these threats. The building of socialism, the exercise of power by the working class, could.

The world situation remains historically characterized by what you could call, in language of chess, a situation of pat [stalemate]. Both basic classes of bourgeois society remain for the time being unable to gain decisive victories. The capitalist class is objectively too weak to inflict crushing defeats upon the world working class and the exploited and oppressed in general. While these have witnessed serious defeats, they have nowhere been crushed like they were in the ’30s and the early ’40s in most of the countries. On the other hand, the world working class has not yet overcome its crisis of class consciousness and revolutionary leadership. And it does not seem on the point of overcoming it. So, the crisis of mankind, of human civilization, will last for a long time.

The objection has been raised: why hasn’t the Fourth International itself up to now solved the crisis of revolutionary leadership? Why hasn’t it built revolutionary mass parties and a revolutionary mass international capable of leading the world proletariat toward decisive victories? In order to give an adequate answer to that question, one has to make a distinction between what should have been achieved and what has been achieved. We leave aside the slanderous argument that somehow we did not want to build revolutionary parties and a revolutionary international upon the Marxist program. Since the age of 15, I have devoted my whole life to that purpose. To argue otherwise is to take a leaf out of what Trotsky aptly called “The Stalin School of Falsification.”

What we have achieved is not insignificant. While we still are nowhere in the leadership of the working class in its majority, while we still have not led any successful general strikes or successful revolutions, we have already successfully led important partial struggles. A comrade of our French section led the recent Air France strike, which badly bruised the conservative government. A comrade of our Italian section was co-organizer of the best income guarantee for redundant workers anywhere in the world, the famous cassa di integrazione, at Europe’s largest car factory, the Turin plant. Our comrade Jakob Moneta has been an elected member of the central committee of the PDS [Party of Democratic Socialism] in the ex-GDR, in charge of trade union work. In that function, he has started to assemble a small but very militant group of independent shop stewards, the first of its kind in Germany since the mid-’20s.

We have two MPs elected in Europe. One of them, comrade Søren in Denmark, is a member of the United Secretariat. A third one will possibly be elected in the coming days in Austria. Comrade Winfried Wolf has been elected MP in Germany as an independent candidate on the PDS slate. Although he has formally resigned from the FI, he promised full cooperation on issues of common concern, above all the struggle against the cities being choked by gas-driven automobiles. We have dozens of municipal regional councilors, among them two in my hometown of Antwerp. We have many MPs in Brazil, and a series of comrades in Third World countries.

The books published by leading spokespersons of our movement, by no ways only myself, have passed a circulation figure of two million, and are heading toward three million. They have been published in more than 30 languages throughout the world. With the exception of comrade Winfried Wolf, all the comrades of which I have quoted here publicly, openly, frankly state their membership in the Fourth International. Is this boasting? I do not think so.

We have many weaknesses, of which we are as conscious as other comrades, if not more so than they are. But we have a series of important assets. Our movement is the product of a tough selection process. Here what our opponents considered our weakness has turned out to be our main source of strength. We do not have state power, we do not have mass unions, we do not have mass parties to back us up. Comrades join us not for material advantages, not for careerism, not for positions of power or prestige. They join us just out of deeply felt convictions and unlimited devotion to the cause of the working class and of all the exploited and oppressed. This positive selection turns out to be a basic source of strength. It has created a granite basis on which our opponents will break their teeth.

We have just scored a victory of truly historical dimensions. The Stalinist bureaucracy mounted the most powerful machine of falsification of all times against Leon Trotsky, his followers, and the Russian Old Bolsheviks. But now the tides have turned. The Supreme Military Tribunal of the USSR completely rehabilitated all the accused of the infamous Moscow Trials, declared them all, including comrade Trotsky, not guilty of the crimes they had been accused of. At the eve of the 50th anniversary of the assassination of our Old Man, there then came a complete political rehabilitation. The official government newspaper of the USSR, Izvestia, published an article stating that Trotsky had been a great and honest revolutionary, second only to Lenin as builder of the Soviet state, undisputed founder and leader of the Red Army, the one person who led that army to victory in the Civil War, thereby assuring the survival of the Soviet state.

In the wake of these publications, I was invited by the Dietz East Berlin publishing house of the ex-CP to write a book with, as title, Trotsky as Alternative. Without any question marks. I wrote the book; it has already appeared in German, it will appear next spring in English, at Verso Press in London, and we will make every effort to have it appear in Russia, too.

There are many other forces operating in our favor. On a worldwide scale, the working class is still growing, although not in all countries and in all sectors at the same pace. Internationally it has passed the one billion mark. If you add the semi-proletariat of landless peasants in important Third World countries, you will probably reach the figure of 2 billion.

The great globalization of capital imposes upon militant unionists increasing reactions of worldwide cooperation. It will not be easy to realize them. We have a key role to play in order to go in that direction. Already today, in several important countries, our weight in the mass movement of political initiatives is such that it is increasingly difficult to bypass us. Furthermore, we have attracted substantial personalities to our movement. Dr. Georg Motved, member of the central committee of the Danish Communist Party, worldwide renowned specialist on Lenin. Comrade Axelrod, longtime editor of the Brazilian CP’s newspaper, then co-editor of our own paper, Em Tempo, and a staunch Fourth Internationalist. Above all, the most brilliant revolutionary intellectual and mass leader in Eastern Europe, comrade Josip Pinior of Poland, one of the historic leaders of the ten million workers working at the first Solidarność congress for a self-managed Poland – not a capitalist Poland, a self-managed Poland.

I believe we have passed the lowest point of retreat of the world working class. Things will be very different in the coming years from what they are today. I have never felt as proud and as confident of that remarkable movement which I contributed to building. Comrades, the future is ours, for the future is with the international working class, j! Long live the Fourth International! Long live world revolution! To the world socialist federation which will safeguard the physical survival of humankind and open up the new and higher civilization of socialism. Forward! Vperyod!

Last updated on 22 July 2020