Tagged: Marxism

David Harvey Reviews Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Afterthoughts on Piketty’s Capital

By David Harvey

Retrieved 05/17/14 from http://davidharvey.org/2014/05/afterthoughts-pikettys-capital/

Thomas Piketty has written a book called Capital that has caused quite a stir. He advocates progressive taxation and a global wealth tax as the only way to counter the trend towards the creation of a “patrimonial” form of capitalism marked by what he dubs “terrifying” inequalities of wealth and income. He also documents in excruciating and hard to rebut detail how social inequality of both wealth and income has evolved over the last two centuries, with particular emphasis on the role of wealth. He demolishes the widely-held view that free market capitalism spreads the wealth around and that it is the great bulwark for the defense of individual liberties and freedoms. Free-market capitalism, in the absence of any major redistributive interventions on the part of the state, Piketty shows, produces anti-democratic oligarchies. This demonstration has given sustenance to liberal outrage as it drives the Wall Street Journal apoplectic.

The book has often been presented as a twenty-first century substitute for Karl Marx’s nineteenth century work of the same title. Piketty actually denies this was his intention, which is just as well since his is not a book about capital at all. It does not tell us why the crash of 2008 occurred and why it is taking so long for so many people to get out from under the dual burdens of prolonged unemployment and millions of houses lost to foreclosure. It does not help us understand why growth is currently so sluggish in the US as opposed to China and why Europe is locked down in a politics of austerity and an economy of stagnation. What Piketty does show statistically (and we should be indebted to him and his colleagues for this) is that capital has tended throughout its history to produce ever-greater levels of inequality. This is, for many of us, hardly news. It was, moreover, exactly Marx’s theoretical conclusion in Volume One of his version of Capital. Piketty fails to note this, which is not surprising since he has since claimed, in the face of accusations in the right wing press that he is a Marxist in disguise, not to have read Marx’s Capital.

Piketty assembles a lot of data to support his arguments. His account of the differences between income and wealth is persuasive and helpful. And he gives a thoughtful defense of inheritance taxes, progressive taxation and a global wealth tax as possible (though almost certainly not politically viable) antidotes to the further concentration of wealth and power.

But why does this trend towards greater inequality over time occur? From his data (spiced up with some neat literary allusions to Jane Austen and Balzac) he derives a mathematical law to explain what happens: the ever-increasing accumulation of wealth on the part of the famous one percent (a term popularized thanks of course to the “Occupy” movement) is due to the simple fact that the rate of return on capital (r) always exceeds the rate of growth of income (g). This, says Piketty, is and always has been “the central contradiction” of capital.

But a statistical regularity of this sort hardly constitutes an adequate explanation let alone a law. So what forces produce and sustain such a contradiction? Piketty does not say. The law is the law and that is that. Marx would obviously have attributed the existence of such a law to the imbalance of power between capital and labor. And that explanation still holds water. The steady decline in labor’s share of national income since the 1970s derived from the declining political and economic power of labor as capital mobilized technologies, unemployment, off-shoring and anti-labor politics (such as those of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan) to crush all opposition. As Alan Budd, an economic advisor to Margaret Thatcher confessed in an unguarded moment, anti-inflation policies of the 1980s turned out to be “a very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes…what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which recreated a reserve army of labour and has allowed capitalists to make high profits ever since.” The disparity in remuneration between average workers and CEO’s stood at around thirty to one in 1970. It now is well above three hundred to one and in the case of MacDonalds about 1200 to one.

But in Volume 2 of Marx’s Capital (which Piketty also has not read even as he cheerfully dismisses it) Marx pointed out that capital’s penchant for driving wages down would at some point restrict the capacity of the market to absorb capital’s product. Henry Ford recognized this dilemma long ago when he mandated the $5 eight-hour day for his workers in order, he said, to boost consumer demand. Many thought that lack of effective demand underpinned the Great Depression of the 1930s. This inspired Keynesian expansionary policies after World War Two and resulted in some reductions in inequalities of incomes (though not so much of wealth) in the midst of strong demand led growth. But this solution rested on the relative empowerment of labor and the construction of the “social state” (Piketty’s term) funded by progressive taxation. “All told,” he writes, “over the period 1932-1980, nearly half a century, the top federal income tax in the United States averaged 81 percent.” And this did not in any way dampen growth (another piece of Piketty’s evidence that rebuts right wing beliefs).

By the end of the 1960s it became clear to many capitalists that they needed to do something about the excessive power of labor. Hence the demotion of Keynes from the pantheon of respectable economists, the switch to the supply side thinking of Milton Friedman, the crusade to stabilize if not reduce taxation, to deconstruct the social state and to discipline the forces of labor. After 1980 top tax rates came down and capital gains – a major source of income for the ultra-wealthy – were taxed at a much lower rate in the US, hugely boosting the flow of wealth to the top one percent. But the impact on growth, Piketty shows, was negligible. So “trickle down” of benefits from the rich to the rest (another right wing favorite belief) does not work. None of this was dictated by any mathematical law. It was all about politics.

But then the wheel turned full circle and the more pressing question became: where is the demand? Piketty systematically ignores this question. The 1990s fudged the answer by a vast expansion of credit, including the extension of mortgage finance into sub-prime markets. But the resultant asset bubble was bound to go pop as it did in 2007-8 bringing down Lehman Brothers and the credit system with it. However, profit rates and the further concentration of private wealth recovered very quickly after 2009 while everything and everyone else did badly. Profit rates of businesses are now as high as they have ever been in the US. Businesses are sitting on oodles of cash and refuse to spend it because market conditions are not robust.

Piketty’s formulation of the mathematical law disguises more than it reveals about the class politics involved. As Warren Buffett has noted, “sure there is class war, and it is my class, the rich, who are making it and we are winning.” One key measure of their victory is the growing disparities in wealth and income of the top one percent relative to everyone else.

There is, however, a central difficulty with Piketty’s argument. It rests on a mistaken definition of capital. Capital is a process not a thing. It is a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power. Piketty defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being used or not. This includes land, real estate and intellectual property rights as well as my art and jewelry collection. How to determine the value of all of these things is a difficult technical problem that has no agreed upon solution. In order to calculate a meaningful rate of return, r, we have to have some way of valuing the initial capital. Unfortunately there is no way to value it independently of the value of the goods and services it is used to produce or how much it can be sold for in the market. The whole of neo-classical economic thought (which is the basis of Piketty’s thinking) is founded on a tautology. The rate of return on capital depends crucially on the rate of growth because capital is valued by way of that which it produces and not by what went into its production. Its value is heavily influenced by speculative conditions and can be seriously warped by the famous “irrational exuberance” that Greenspan spotted as characteristic of stock and housing markets. If we subtract housing and real estate – to say nothing of the value of the art collections of the hedge funders – from the definition of capital (and the rationale for their inclusion is rather weak) then Piketty’s explanation for increasing disparities in wealth and income would fall flat on its face, though his descriptions of the state of past and present inequalities would still stand.

Money, land, real estate and plant and equipment that are not being used productively are not capital. If the rate of return on the capital that is being used is high then this is because a part of capital is withdrawn from circulation and in effect goes on strike. Restricting the supply of capital to new investment (a phenomena we are now witnessing) ensures a high rate of return on that capital which is in circulation. The creation of such artificial scarcity is not only what the oil companies do to ensure their high rate of return: it is what all capital does when given the chance. This is what underpins the tendency for the rate of return on capital (no matter how it is defined and measured) to always exceed the rate of growth of income. This is how capital ensures its own reproduction, no matter how uncomfortable the consequences are for the rest of us. And this is how the capitalist class lives.

There is much that is valuable in Piketty’s data sets. But his explanation as to why the inequalities and oligarchic tendencies arise is seriously flawed. His proposals as to the remedies for the inequalities are naïve if not utopian. And he has certainly not produced a working model for capital of the twenty-first century. For that we still need Marx or his modern-day equivalent.

David Harvey is a Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His most recent book is Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism, published by Profile Press in London and Oxford University Press in New York.


Atheism and Human Development: The Political Economy of Secularization

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez 

Figure 1Introduction 

With “Political Economy of Secularization,” we refer to the analysis of the underlying economic processes embedded in the tendency of religiosity to decline across the world. The building blocks for this analysis are mainly found in Karl Marx’s understanding of religion. While contemporary secularization theory mainly rests upon Weber and Durkheim’s ideas on this subject, we argue that in Marx’s writings on the subject we also find important insights. The objective of this paper is to sketch a theory of secularization within a Marxian Political Economy framework, and support it with the most recent data on development and religiosity across the world. We argue this approach fills important theoretical voids in traditional secularization theory and contributes toward responding to the challenge of explaining the rise in religiosity in the world as a whole.

Religion as Human Estrangement

One of Marx’s earliest remarks on religion is found in a letter to Arnold Ruge, a German writer with whom he briefly co-edited a journal titled “The German-French Yearbooks.” In 1842, when he was 24 years old, Marx wrote that “religion in itself is without content, it owes its being not to heaven but to earth, and with the abolition of distorted reality of which it is the theory, it will collapse of itself” (1975). In this brief statement, we find Marx’s central thesis on religion and secularization. Religion is but the reflection of a distorted reality, or as he later on develops, of a society where humanity is alienated, or estranged.  With the transition to a society free of alienation, religion will eventually collapse. In 1843, he continued expanding on this idea in his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. There he argued that religion is “the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has lost himself again” (2008, p. 41) At this point, he writes one of his most memorable quotes on religion:


“Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions” (2008, p. 42).

“Real suffering,” may be of a mainly physiological nature, or a mainly psychological nature. Physiologically, human beings may suffer from hunger, disease, inadequate shelter or clothing, natural disasters, etc.; which all may lead to religious attitudes as explanatory or coping mechanisms. This is similar to Norris and Inglehart’s (2011) “existential security theory.” These authors sustain that “as societies transition from agrarian to industrial economies, and then develop into postindustrial societies, the conditions of growing security that usually accompany this process tend to reduce the importance of religious values. The main reason, [they] believe, is that the need for religious reassurance becomes less pressing under conditions of greater security” (2011, p. 18). On the other hand, Norris and Inglehart recognize that economic development, or greater “existential security,” do not necessarily ensure lower religiosity. We wish to stress this point even further, as it is crucial in Marx’s understanding of religiosity. As a result of what Marx called human estrangement, even people that are not living in the poorest conditions within their countries, and truly live in conditions of human security, might still find themselves in conditions that require sources of illusionary happiness. Therefore, to understand Marx’s theory of secularization, it is crucial to understand what he means with human estrangement, or the alienation of human labor. The objective in this section is not to provide a comprehensive analysis of the concept, but a brief introduction focusing on what is most pertinent to the subject of secularization. According to Marx, the source of alienation is found in the development of private property; that is, the transition from ancient communal modes of production toward modes characterized by private property over the means of production and the exploitation of human labor. Therefore, his concept of alienation is fundamentally related to the act of labor. As Erich Fromm (1992, p. 47) explained, work is “the active relatedness of man to nature, the creation of a new world, including the creation of man himself.” To illustrate Marx’s concept of alienation, it is best to juxtapose human labor in ancient communal modes of production, with labor within capitalism. In the first case, work was the expression of men and women’s power. The product of human labor, although primitive, was fundamentally linked to those who directly produced it, always based on their will and planning. In capitalism, workers are degraded into mere appendages of machines, destroying, as Marx described in Capital, every remnant of charm in work, and turning it into a hated toil. Aptly describing the work conditions of most laborers around the world today, Marx concluded that workers under capitalism find their work unfulfilling, miserable, and physically and mentally exhausting. Therefore, their work is experienced as something alien, and the worker becomes alienated from his or herself as a worker, as well as from the product of his or her work. For Marx, capitalism is the highest expression of alienated work since the origins of private property. Thus, alienated society fuels religion by creating diverse forms of suffering, ranging from physically brutal working conditions to menial and degrading work.

However, religiosity is also linked to our scientific knowledge. Taking this into account, we may conclude religion is a reflection of the relationship between human beings and nature in two distinct forms: how we transform nature and ourselves through labor, and our technical understanding of nature. Marx (2008, p. 36) argued that when the development of the productive power of labor is in a low stage, and the relations of humanity with itself and with nature are correspondingly constricted, this is “reflected in the ancient worship of nature, and in the other elements of the popular religions.” Similarly, Engels argued that as advances in natural sciences progress, “the more will men not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body” (2008, p. 188). Human religiosity therefore has inherent contradictory tendencies. While the development of our understanding and mastery over nature tends to undermine the belief in supernatural beings, the increasing alienation linked with this development enables religion. In contemporary terms, the latter translates into an issue of psychological or mental health. Under capitalism, scientific knowledge has exponentially grown to an extent arguably enough to have completely debunked religion. However, the negative effects on mental health brought upon by capitalism help religion persist.

In sum, Marxian secularization theory argues that religion is immersed in various processes that can both enable and disable it. First, the scientific and technical developments of human society tend to undermine religiosity through two processes: 1) an increasing understanding of nature eliminates the need of religion as an explanatory mechanism, while 2) increasing standards of living eliminate the need of religion as a coping mechanism. There has been a historic tendency of development in science and technology, which therefore translates into a historic tendency towards secularization. However, this same development in science and technology has gone hand in hand with the development of modes of production characterized by exploitation and alienation. This last process tends to serve as fuel for human religiosity. As we will show below, we understand that the most recent statistics on religion and human development support this theory.

We may now see a fundamental difference between the secularization theories of Marx and other 19th century thinkers such as Weber or Durkheim. While the latter argued that capitalism would ultimately destroy religion, Marx was clear that because capitalist industrialization represented a historical peak in human estrangement, it would do nothing of the sort. Humanity would have to transition to a post-capitalist mode of production, where men and women are self-realized and emancipated from alienation, in order for religion to disappear. Nonetheless, various processes could surely counteract alienation even within capitalism. Healthy workers, with access to education, and high living standards within egalitarian societies, will probably have less negative effects from estranged labor than workers with lower standards of living, lack of access to health and education, and living within highly unequal societies.

In other words, alienation is undermined by what recent theorists have termed human development. Human development generally refers to broadening the scope from strictly economic growth, so as to include elements such as education, health, and equality, which more aptly represent the conditions in which a population is living. Most Marxists would argue that although human development might be achieved in certain areas of the world economy, capitalism would ultimately undermine human development in the world as a whole. To discuss if global human development is achievable within capitalism would go beyond the scope of this paper. For our current objectives, it suffices to say that where human development is achieved, we should expect to find higher degrees of secularization, as it serves as a counteracting force to human estrangement. Thus, as Norris and Inglehart (2011, pp. 14-16) have also argued, developed countries should tend to show degrees of religiosity and secularization more proportional to human development rather than mere economic growth.

Lack of Secularization in the Third World

In the case of developing countries, their population growth rates and religious cultures have translated into a net rise in world religiosity that undermine the idea that religion will steadily decline. However, there is a tendency toward secularization, not an iron law of secularization. We argue that with all other things being held constant, religion would disappear as a result of economic and human development. Nonetheless, things are never constant, and sufficiently strong counteracting tendencies may undermine others. Two aspects contribute in explaining higher degrees of religiosity in the Third World: intense and highly exploitative working conditions, as well as problems related with hunger, sickness, and violence. In other words, processes related to alienation as well as low existential security plague developing countries. “Real suffering” in physiological and psychological terms translates into more people yearning for illusionary sources of happiness. As developing countries “catch up” to developed countries, increasing existential security enforces the tendency toward secularization. If their economic development were accompanied with human development, the tendency toward secularization would be reinforced even further. Capitalism tends to develop the forces of production on a global scale. In other words, it should tend to develop the “backward” regions of the world, developing countries should be catching up, and secularization should be rising. However, as stated above, sufficiently strong counteracting forces can nullify this tendency.

Many Marxian economists, such as Andre Gunder Frank (1978) and Samir Amin (1976), have studied why most poor developing countries remained poor during the 20th century. World capitalism took a particular imperialist character, dividing the world into two fundamental groups: core capitalist countries (the First World) and peripheral countries (the Third World). Their relation hampered the development of peripheral countries through a vast array of political and economic institutions and processes. While there is debate on the mechanisms, and the ways they may or may not be undermined, there is agreement on the fact that the relation between core countries and peripheral countries obstructed growth and development in the latter. Even when accounting for the so-called “emerging markets,” it is clear that growth and development are still difficult feats for most developing countries, and in great part because of their past and current relation with advanced developed countries. In other words, the tendency toward global secularization has been undermined by a particular counteracting force: economic imperialism and global inequality. This does not mean secularization theory is fundamentally flawed. On the contrary, with the analytical tools of Marxian Political Economy, we have a clearer understanding on why the tendency toward secularization was hampered, and the steps that may be taken in order to enable it.

Recent Statistics on Secularization

This understanding of secularization may be evidenced using recent statistics on development and secularization. In theory, secularization should not only rise with economic development, but it should rise at a higher rate where it is accompanied by human development. The utility of the proposed framework becomes evident when we focus on the United States. Previous assessments of secularization worldwide categorized the United States as an outlier, as it possessed both a highly religious population as well as high levels of development. However, when taking into account that US citizens have less access to health and education, and live within a more unequal society than most of their European counterparts, we actually expect to find higher degrees of religiosity. This idea is supported with Norris and Inglehart’s (2011, pp. 106-108) analysis of frequency of prayer and economic inequality in advanced capitalist countries. In addition, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has recently introduced a new measure, the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI), that, as we will show below, shows that the United States is not an outlier, but actually fits our theory.

Using the 2005-2008 wave of The World Values Survey we may analyze the relation between human development and religiosity. Specifically, we may observe the relationship between the Inequality-Adjusted Human Development Index (IHDI) and the percentage of people in each country that consider religion is not important in their lives and the percentage of people who declare themselves as not religious or convinced atheist. In Figure 1 we may observe that the relationship between the percentage of convinced atheists in the population and the IHDI is not linear. Instead, we find a polynomial relation where the number of atheists begins to rise most significantly after the IHDI has surpassed a value of approximately 0.6. The UNDP categorizes countries as representing Very High Human Development (0.8<HDI), High Human Development (0.7<HDI<0.8), Medium Human Development (0.535<HDI<0.7), and Low Human Development (HDI<0.535). In other words, when countries enter a stage of Medium Human Development, the number of atheists begins to rise, and the rate at which they rise increases as they continue on to stages of High or Very High Human Development. The only outliers were South Korea, France, Germany, and Sweden. However, they showed percentages of atheists above what was expected, so they do not undermine our main thesis of increasing secularization. Another important aspect is the case of the United States. As previously mentioned, most studies found the United States as an outlier, with unexplainable high levels of religiosity given its stage of development. In our data, the United States is below the trend line, but it is nowhere near of being an outlier that undermines our thesis. Its levels of religiosity are explained with our theory and data as a result of lower human development and higher inequality.

This particular question in the World Values Survey provided three possible answers where those being surveyed should classify themselves: Religious Person, Not a Religious Person, Convinced Atheist. In theory, it is possible for the ‘Not a Religious Person’ group to be decreasing enough as to nullify the increase in atheists, so it is best to add the last two groups. This combined group of people that responded as not religious or atheists may be called the total of irreligious people. In Figure 2, we see the same trend observed in the case of atheists by themselves. As countries enter levels of Medium Human Development, the percentage of irreligious people begins to climb faster, and increasing even more in higher stages of human development. In this case, a new particular outlier stands out: Thailand. Even though this country has a very religious population of the Buddhist tradition, more than 60% of those surveyed answered they are not religious. This is probably a result of translation issues in phrasing the question, particularities of the branch of Buddhism and how it conceives itself as a religion, or a combination of both. In the case of the United States, once again, although below the trend line, it is not an outlier and does not contradict our theory.

Figure 2

Secularization may also be reflected in religion losing its importance in people’s lives, even though they are not necessarily outspokenly labeling themselves as irreligious. Thus, we also analyze the question in the survey where people state how important religious is in their lives (very, rather, not very, or not at all important). As in the previous exercise, first we will focus on those who answered not at all important, and then on the sum of those who answered not very and not at all important. In Figure 3, we find that the relation between the percent of the population that consider religion is not at all important in their lives and the IHDI follows the same trend as in the previous cases. The only outliers reflect higher secularization than expected, and the United States is not a problematic outlier.  Finally, in Figure 4, we do the same exercise but with the sum of those who answered religion was not very and not at all important in their lives, and also find the same pattern.

 Figure 3 Figure 4

What’s probably most interesting of this analysis is that, according to our theory and findings, if the world as a whole were to arrive at a level of human development and equality similar to that of Sweden or Norway, we would expect to find that religion stopped being of importance for more than half of the population, and openly irreligious people would be rapidly approaching becoming half of the population. In Marxian terms, our findings support the idea that as countries develop in terms of science and technology, secularization rises; but it increases most when human development and equality counteract the effects of alienation.

Concluding Remarks

Marx (2008, p. 42) stated “It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” This idea resonates with the discussion on secularization and development in the Third World. If we operate under the assumption that secularization is desirable because it translates into sexual liberalization, women’s equality, LGBT rights, etc.; then achieving economic and human development in the Third World becomes even more of an imperative. The criticism of rising religious extremism today must turn into the criticism of the vast array of political and economic processes that hinder development in the Third World. In other words, the criticism of religion today is fundamentally linked with the criticism of political and economic imperialism and global inequality. For Marx (2008, p. 136), humanity will never fully strip its veil of mysticism and vanquish its religious reflex, until production takes place through the free association of men and women, “it is consciously regulated by them in a settled plan,” and “the practical relations of every-day life offer to man none but perfectly intelligible and reasonable relations with regard to his fellowmen and to nature.”  The disappearance of religion is therefore a very long run process. Nonetheless, Marx’s theory provides insight into how we may undermine the negative effects of religiosity in the short and medium run as well.


Amin, S. (1976). Unequal Development: An Essay on the Social Formations of Peripheral Capitalism. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Engels, F. (2008). Dialectics of Nature. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 152-193). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Frank, A. G. (1978). Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Fromm, E. (1992). Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Continuum Publications.

Marx, K. (1975). Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge In Dresden. Karl Marx, Frederick Engels: Collected Works V.1 (pp. 393-395). New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K. (2008). Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 41-58). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Marx, K. (2008). Capital (Extracts). Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels On Religion (pp. 135-141). Mineola: Dover Publications.

Norris, P., & Inglehart, R. (2011). Sacred and secular: Religion and Politics Worldwide. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

World Values Survey Association. (2013). World Values Survey 2005-2008. Retrieved from http://www.wvsevsdb.com/wvs

United Nations Development Program. (2013). 2013 Human Development Report.

Retrieved from http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2013/

Selected Readings from José Carlos Mariátegui

In this pdf, you will find the readings Prologue to Tempest in the Andes, The Indigenous Question in Latin America, The Latin American Socialist Revolution, and The Anti-Imperialist Point of View by José Carlos Mariátegui. They were retrieved from an anthology titled Marxism in Latin America 1909 to the Present edited by Michael Lowy. Click here to download the pdf file

José Carlos Mariátegui La Chira (14 June 1894 – 16 April 1930) was a Peruvian journalist, political philosopher, and activist. A prolific writer before his early death at age 35, he is considered one of the most influential Latin American socialists of the 20th century. Mariátegui’s most famous work, Seven Interpretive Essays on Peruvian Reality (1928), is still widely read in South America. An avowed, self-taught Marxist, he insisted that a socialist revolution should evolve organically in Latin America on the basis of local conditions and practices, not the result of mechanically applying a European formula.” (Wikipedia)

Read a full biographical note on Mariátegui here. 

The voluntary selling of labor power and the profit-worthy entrepreneur: On the bourgeois denial of exploitation

By Ricardo R. Fuentes Ramirez

One of the many ideological barriers that undermine efforts to understand the origins of profits, or to understand the nature of the relationship between the capitalist and the worker, is the bourgeois ideal of commodity production and exchange as the universal and natural form of human economic life. The late American economist Paul Sweezy argued this point early on in his discussion of value theory in his classical text The Theory of Capitalist Development. Quoting Smith, he sums it up as the idea that the propensity to exchange is peculiar to humans, and thus is one of the pillars, along with the division of labor, of human civilization. However, the analytical tools of historical materialism shed light to the fact that this not the case. In Sweezy’s words, commodity production “is not the universal and inevitable from of economic life. It is rather one possible form of economic life… a historically conditioned form which can in no sense claim to be a direct manifestation of human nature.”  Therefore, continuing with Sweezy’s argument, we must direct our attention to “the character of the social relations which underlie the commodity form.”

For example, the view of commodity production as our universal and natural economic form, would lead many to simply disregard capitalist profits as a result of exchange, and the overpricing of final products above the sum of the prices of its inputs. Marx’s analysis clearly demonstrates that this, once again, is not the case. One of the clearest examples on this issue can be found in his discussion on the contradictions in the circuit of capital, where he explains that if an individual with £40 value worth in wine, exchanges them for £50 value worth in corn, the total amount of value continues being £90. Therefore, “if equivalents are exchanged, no surplus-value results, and if non-equivalents are exchanged, still no surplus value. Circulation, or the exchange of commodities, begets no value.” Another of Marx’s important points on the matter is summarized by Sweezy, arguing that if every capitalist “were to attempt to reap a profit by raising the price, let us say by 10 per cent, what each gained as a seller he would lose as a buyer, and the only result would be higher prices all around from which no one would benefit.” At this point, it is clear to us that labor-power must be the source from which the capitalist is extracting profits, or more precisely, surplus value.

As Marx explains, capitalists “must be so lucky as to find, within the sphere of circulation, in the market, a commodity, whose, use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labor, and, consequently, a creation of value.” In order to find this commodity, Marx mentions two prerequisites. The individual who possesses labor-power must be the “untrammeled owner of his capacity of labor,” and also must not be “in the position to sell commodities in which his labor is incorporated,” he should “be obliged to offer for sale as a commodity that very labor-power, which exists only in his living self.” As Michael Lebowitz explains, “Marx proposed, workers first must be free in a double sense. They must be free to sell their labor-power… and they must be “free” of means of production.”

Once these conditions are satisfied, the capitalist can buy labor-power and use it to produce use-values.  The value of these use-values would be equal to the socially necessary abstract labor time required to produce them. However, if the capitalist were to sell these commodities at a value equal to the sum of the value of labor-power and the value of the means of production required to produce them, he would make no profits. Nevertheless, if the laborer were to continue working, after having worked the amount of hours equal to the value of his labor-power, he would be adding value that would result in profits for the capitalist. Sweezy summarizes this process explaining, “In a day’s work the laborer produces more than a day’s means of subsistence. Consequently the working day can be divided into two parts, necessary labor and surplus labor…” where “the product of surplus labor is appropriated by the capitalist in the form of surplus value.”

This appropriation, for Marx, meant that the working class is being exploited. This leads us to the question, why would the working class voluntarily participate in a process that results in their exploitation? Is it merely an ideological apparatus that perpetuates a false consciousness, allowing the capitalist to exploit the worker with no need for coercion? Surely ideology has a role, but it is in the particular stage of the development of the forces and relations of production that we find the underlying process that explains this phenomenon. As mentioned above, it is with the tools of historical materialism that we can comprehend how the capitalist can extract surplus value from workers in what appears to be a voluntary agreement. Specifically, it is related to the “double freeing” of the worker.

In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, the two conditions of the free laborer were ensured. First, the decay of the feudal system meant the disintegration of the bonds between the serfs and the lords; setting the conditions for a mass of people that are “untrammeled owners of their capacity of labor.” Meanwhile, the enclosure movement ensured the second condition. As Ernest Mandel summarizes, “The economic changes which, between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, created a mass of producers separated from their means of production in the towns, were thus accompanied by changes which in practice deprived part of the peasantry of land as a means of producing their means of life. In this way the modern proletariat appeared… In other words, the separation of the producers from their means of production creates a class of proletarians who cannot live otherwise than by hiring out their strength, that is, by selling their labor-power, to the owners of capital, which enables the latter to secure for themselves the surplus-value produced by these producers.”

This leads to what I consider a fundamental question, is the labor process truly free of coercion toward the worker? Surely, legal processes such as indentured and bonded labor or peonage, which were common practice in late feudalism and early capitalism across different geographical areas, are no longer in place to ensure coercive rights to capitalists. However, the absence of official, state condoned, coercive mechanisms, does not imply there is a total absence of coercion. As Lebowitz argues, the buying and selling of labor-power “looks like a free transaction;” however, the workers are being “compelled to sell their power to produce in order to get the things they need… They can sell it to whomever they choose, but they cannot choose whether or not to sell their power to perform labor (if they are to survive).” I would argue that in addition, most areas in the capitalist world economy in reality offer very limited choices in terms of to whom workers can sell their labor-power, but the main point is this: workers must sell their labor-power or starve to death. This is the fundamental reality of the modern proletariat, and this can hardly be classified as a free and voluntary choice.

Modern capitalism obviously generates exceptions or alterations to this fundamental reality. Most advanced capitalist nations possess welfare systems or safety nets that would prevent the worker from actually starving to death. However, this does not change the main point. In this particular case, workers must sell their labor-power or instead live practically in poverty, in conditions that profoundly hamper the development of the individual’s potential or capabilities. Once again, it is hardly a choice free of coercive elements. Would the average individual willingly desire to live in such conditions? Others would surely argue that the modern proletariat actually has choices. He can choose to become self-employed or to become an employer instead of selling his labor-power. However, these practices are the exception, not the rule. These exceptions no doubt help promote the idea that capitalism is a system of voluntary and free choices. Nonetheless, the fact is that a variety of political, cultural, and economic mechanisms block most of the proletariat from following these alternate paths. As Marx says, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” In practice, the mass of dispossessed workers, or free workers from the bourgeois perspective, are in fact forced to sell their labor-power by the processes we have so far discussed.

In addition, once these social relations of production are set, ideological elements develop that secure their continuous operation. This particular process exemplifies the relevance of value theory along with historical materialism. The pertinence of these perspectives, among other reasons, stems from the fact that they are profoundly useful analytical tools to debunk the myths that surround the origin of capitalist profits or the overall workings of the capitalist economy.

Sweezy’s closing remarks on the transformation problem coincide with this point: “Under capitalist conditions, a part of this social output is appropriated by that group and community which owns the means of production. This is not an ethical judgment, but a method of describing the really basic economic relation between social groups. It finds its most clear theoretical formulation in the theory of surplus value. As long as we retain value calculation, there can be no obscuring of the origin and nature of profits as a deduction from the product of total social labor… In short, value calculation makes it possible to look beneath the surface phenomena of money and commodities to the underlying relations between people and classes.” For this reason, value theory and historical materialism are not only useful analytical or theoretical tools; they are fundamental and key tools for activists seeking to organize and recruit workers for the struggle toward a socialist society.



Lebowitz, M. A. (2006). Build it now: Socialism for the Twenty-first century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

Mandel, E. (1968). Marxist Economic Theory Volume One. London: Merlin Press.

Marx, K. (1967). Capital, Volume I. New York: International Publishers.

Marx, K., Engels, F., & Tucker, R. C. (1978). The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. The Marx-Engels Reader (pp. 594-617). New York: Norton. (Original work published 1972)

Sweezy, P. M. (1942). The Theory of Capitalist Development: Principles of Marxian     Political Economy. New York: Oxford University Press.

What Maoism Has Contributed by Samir Amin

The Second International’s Marxism, proletarian-and-European-centered, shared with the dominant ideology of that period a linear view of history—a view according to which all societies had first to pass through a stage of capitalist development (a stage whose seeds were being planted by colonialism which, by that very fact, was “historically positive”) before being able to aspire to socialism. The idea that the “development” of some (the dominating centers) and the “underdevelopment” of others (the dominated peripheries) were as inseparable as the two faces of a single coin, both being immanent outcomes of capitalism’s worldwide expansion, was completely alien to it.

But the polarization inherent to capitalist globalization—a major fact because of its worldwide social and political importance—challenges whatever vision we may have of how to surpass capitalism. This polarization is at the origin of the possibility for large portions of the working classes and above all of the middle classes of the dominant countries (whose development is itself favored by the position of the centers in the world system) to go over to social-colonialism. At the same time it transforms the peripheries into “storm zones” (according to the Chinese expression) in natural and permanent rebellion against the world capitalist order. Certainly, rebellion is not synonymous to revolution—only to the possibility of the latter. Meanwhile, reasons to reject the capitalist model in the center of the system are not lacking either, as 1968, among other things, has shown. To be sure, the formulation of the challenge advanced at a certain time by the Chinese Communist Party—“the countryside encircles the cities”— is by that very fact too extreme to be useful. A global strategy for transition beyond capitalism toward global socialism has to define the interrelationship between struggles in the centers and the peripheries of the system

At first, Lenin distanced himself somewhat from the dominant theory of the Second International and successfully led the revolution in the “weak link” (Russia), but always believing that this revolution would be followed by a wave of socialist revolutions in Europe. This hope was disappointed; Lenin then moved toward a view that gave more importance to the transformation of Eastern rebellions into revolutions. But it was up to the Chinese Communist Party and Mao to systematize that new perspective.

The Russian Revolution had been led by a Party well rooted in the working class and the radical intelligentsia. Its alliance with the peasantry in uniform (first represented by the Socialist Revolutionary Party) ensued naturally. The consequent radical agrarian reform finally fulfilled the old dream of the Russian peasants: to become landowners. But this historic compromise carried within itself the seeds of its own limits: the “market” was, by its own nature, fated, as always, to produce a growing differentiation within the peasantry (the well-known phenomenon of “kulakization”).

The Chinese Revolution, from its origin (or at least from the 1930′s), unfolded from other bases guaranteeing a solid alliance with the poor and middle peasantry. Meanwhile its national dimension—the war of resistance against Japanese aggression—likewise allowed the front led by the Communists to recruit broadly among the bourgeois classes disappointed by the weaknesses and betrayals of the Kuomintang. The Chinese revolution thus produced a new situation differing from that of post-revolutionary Russia. The radical peasant revolution suppressed the very idea of private property in farmland, and replaced it with a guarantee to all peasants of equal access to farmland. To this very day that decisive advantage, shared by no other country beside Vietnam, constitutes the major obstacle to a devastating expansion of agrarian capitalism. The current discussions in China largely center on this question. I refer the reader to the chapter on China in my book Pour un Monde Multipolaire (Paris, 2005) and my article “Théorie et pratique du projet chinois de socialisme de marché” (Alternatives Sud, vol VIII, N· 1, 2001). But in other respects the going-over of many bourgeois nationalists to the Communist Party would necessarily exert an ideological influence favorable to the support of the deviations of those who Mao termed partisans of the capitalist path (“capitalist-roaders”).

The post-revolutionary regime in China does not merely have to its credit many more-than-significant political, cultural, material and economic accomplishments (industrialization of the country, radicalization of its modern political culture, etc.). Maoist China solved the “peasant problem” that was at the heart of the tragic decline of the Central Empire over two decisive centuries (1750-1950).

I refer here to my book L’avenir du maoïsme (1981), p. 57. What is more, Maoist China reached these results while avoiding the most tragic deviations of the Soviet Union: collectivization was not imposed by murderous violence as was the case with Stalinism, oppositions within the Party did not give rise to the establishment of a Terror (Deng was put aside, he returned…). The aim of an unparalleled relative equality in income distribution both between the peasants and the workers and within each of those classes and between both and the ruling strata was pursued—of course with highs and lows—tenaciously, and was formalized by choices of development strategy contrasting to those of the U.S.S.R. (these choices were formulated in the “ten great relationships” at the start of the 1960′s). It is these successes that account for the later developmental successes of post-Maoist China since 1980. The contrast with India, precisely because India had no revolution, thus has the greatest significance not only in accounting for their different trajectories during the decades from 1950 to 1980 but still for those characterizing diverse probable (and/or possible) perspectives for the future. These successes are the explanation for why post-Maoist China, committing its development thenceforward to its “opening” within the new capitalist globalization, was able to avoid destructive shocks similar to those that followed the collapse if the U.S.S.R.

Just the same, Maoism’s successes did not settle “definitively” (in an “irreversible” fashion) whether China’s long-term perspectives would work out in a way favorable to socialism. First of all, because the development strategy of the 1950-1980 period had exhausted its potential so that, among other things, an opening (even though a controlled one) was indispensable (cf.L’avenir du maoïsme, pp 59-60), an opening which involved, as what ensued showed, the risk of reinforcing tendencies evolving toward capitalism. But also because China’s Maoist system combined contradictory tendencies—toward both the strengthening and weakening of socialist choices.

Aware of this contradiction, Mao tried to bend the stick in favor of socialism by means of a “Cultural Revolution” (from 1966 to 1974). “Bombard the Headquarters” (the Party’s Central Committee), seat of the bourgeois aspirations of the political class holding the dominant positions. Mao thought that, in order to carry out his course correction, he could base himself on the “Youth” (which, in part, broadly inspired the 1968 events in Europe—consider Godard’s movie La Chinoise). The course of events showed the error of this judgment. Once the Cultural Revolution had been left behind, the partisans of the capitalist path were encouraged to go over to the offensive.

The combat between the long and difficult socialist path and the capitalist choice now in operation is certainly not “definitively outlived.” As elsewhere in the world, the conflict between the pursuit of capitalist unfolding and the socialist perspective constitutes the true civilizational conflict of our epoch. But in this conflict the Chinese people hold several major assets inherited from the Revolution and from Maoism. These assets are at work in various domains of social life; they show up forcefully, for instance, in the peasantry’s defense of state property in farmland and of the guarantee that all should have access to farmland.

Maoism has contributed in decisive fashion to ascertaining exactly the stakes in and the challenge represented by globalized capitalist/imperialist expansion. It has allowed us to place in the center of our analysis of this challenge the center/peripheries contrast integral to the expansion, imperialist and polarizing by its very nature, of “really existing” capitalism; and from this to learn all the lessons that this implies for socialist combat both in the dominating centers and the dominated peripheries. These conclusions have been summed up in a fine “Chinese-style” formula: “States want independence, Nations want liberation, and Peoples want revolution.” States—that is, the ruling classes (of all countries in the world whenever they are something other than lackeys, transmission belts for external forces) try to expand their room for manoeuvre in the (capitalist) world system and to lift themselves from the position of passive objects (fated to submit to unilateral adjustment whenever demanded by a dominant imperialism) to that of active subjects participating in the formation of the world order. Nations—that is, historical blocs of potentially progressive classes—want liberation, meaning “development” and “modernization.” Peoples—that is, the dominated and exploited popular classes—aspire to socialism. This formula allows an understanding of the real world in all its complexity, and consequently, the formulation of effective strategies for action. Its place is in a perspective of a long—very long—global transition from capitalism to socialism. As such it breaks with the “short transition” conception of the Third International.

Essays in this series…

This essay was prepared for the June 9-10, 2006 Hong Kong Conference: “The Fortieth Anniversary: Rethinking the Genealogy and Legacy of the Cultural Revolution” sponsored by the China Study GroupMonthly Review, and the Contemporary China Research Center of City University of Hong Kong. It was translated from the French by Shane Mage.

The Marxist Theory of Imperialism and its Critics by Ernest Mandel

From Two Essays on Imperialism, New York 1966.
Transcribed by Joseph Auciello.

IntroductionSince the spring of 1916 when Lenin wrote his pamphlet Imperialism, that work has been a focal point of discussion by both Marxists and non-Marxist political economists. Many critics have attempted to prove that Lenin’s analysis of contemporary capitalism is essentially incorrect; others that it is partially incorrect, but not outdated. Lenin’s “official” defenders in Moscow have tried to prove that every word written in 1916 is still totally valid today, while Marxists have taken into account the developments and changes of the last 50 years, modifying and adding to Lenin’s theory in the light of these changes.

For the students of Lenin’s Imperialism, the two essays contained in this bulletin will serve as an introduction to the contemporary debate, indicating the questions which are being discussed and how they are being answered by both critics and defenders of the Marxist concept of imperialism.

The author of the first article, E. Germain, is one of the leading theoreticians of the Fourth International and the author of numerous essays on Marxist economics. The Theory of Imperialism and Its Critics was a lecture originally given more than ten years ago to a group of Marxist students already familiar with Lenin’s Imperialism. After discussing the historical development of the theory, Germain goes on to deal briefly with the most important contemporary critics.

Ernest Mandel, editor of the Belgian socialist weekly, La Gauche, and a leader of the Belgian Socialist Workers Confederation, is one of the world’s leading Marxist economists. His two volume Traité d’Economie Marxiste will soon be published in English by Monthly Review Press. The article reprinted here is a review of Michael Barratt Brown’s work After Imperialism, and first appeared in the June 1964 issue of the British periodical New Left Review.

Mary-Alice Styron
July 1966

To Marxists, “imperialism” is not simply the “trend towards expansion” or the “conquest of foreign lands,” as it is defined by most political scientists and sociologists. The word is used in a much more precise sense to describe the general changes which occurred in the political, economic and social activity of the big bourgeoisie of the advanced capitalist countries, beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century. These changes were closely related to alterations in the basic structure of this bourgeoisie.

Marx died too early to be able to analyze these changes. He did not see more than the preliminary signs. Nevertheless, he left some profound remarks in his last writings which later Marxists used as starting points for developing the theory of imperialism.

In studying the rapid development of limited liability corporations, Marx underlined, in the Third Volume of Capital (chap.23), that these companies represent a new form of the expropriation of a mass of capitalists by a small handful of capitalists. In this expropriation the legal owner of capital loses his function as entrepreneur and abandons his role in the process of production and his position of command over the productive forces and the labor force.

In fact, private property seems to be suppressed, says Marx elsewhere, it is suppressed not in favor of collective ownership but in favor of private ownership by a very small number.

Concentration of Capital

Marx foresaw the modern structure of capitalism as the final phase of capitalism resulting from the extreme concentration of capital. This was also the starting point taken by most Marxists, especially Hilferding and Lenin.

In a paragraph devoted to countertendencies to the trend toward a falling rate of profit (Capital, Volume III, chap.14), Marx also underlined the importance of the export of capital to backward countries. A little further on he generalized this idea by insisting that a capitalist society must continuously extend its base, its area of exploitation.

Engels added a more detailed elucidation to Marx’s comments. In his last writings, especially in his famous 1892 introduction to The Condition of the Working Class in England, he underlined other structural phenomena to which the theoreticians of imperialism attached great importance. Engels wrote that from the beginning of the industrial revolution until the 1870’s, England exercised practically an industrial monopoly over the world market. Thanks to that monopoly, in the second half of the 19th century, at the time of the rise of craft unions, English capitalism could grant important concessions to a section of the working class. But, towards the end of the 19th century the German, French, and American competition made inroads into this English monopoly, and inaugurated a period of sharp class struggle in Great Britain.

The correctness of Engels’ analysis was borne out as early as the first years of the 20th century. The trade union movement grew not only among the laborers and the masses of the unskilled, but also broke its half-century long alliance with petty-bourgeois radicalism (the Liberal Party) and founded the Labor Party, the mass workers’ party.

In two comments on the Third Volume of Capital, edited by Engels in 1894 (comments on the 31st and 32nd chapters), Engels emphasized how difficult it was going to be for capitalism to find a new basis for expansion after the final conquest of the world market. (Elsewhere he says “after the conquest of the Chinese market.”) Competition is limited internally by cartels and trusts, and externally by protectionism. All this he thought represented “the preparations for a general industrial war for the domination of the world market.”

Lenin began with these remarks by Engels in developing his theory of the imperialist struggle for the division and re-division of the world market, as well as his theory of the workers’ aristocracy.

The Theory of Imperialism by Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg

The most “obvious” phenomenon of the new period in the history of capitalism, which opened with the last quarter of the 19th century, was undoubtedly the series of wars and expeditions, the creation or the expansion of colonial empires: the French expeditions to Tonkin (now Vietnam), Tunisia and Morocco; the conquest of the Congo by Leopold II; the British expansion to the boundaries of India, Egypt and the Sudan, East and South Africa; the German and Italian expansions in Africa, etc.

This colonial expansion stimulated the first efforts by Marxists to interpret the development of this period of capitalism. Karl Kautsky emphasized the commercial reasons for imperialist expansion. According to him, industrial capital cannot sell the whole of its production within an industrialized country. In order to realize surplus value, it must provide itself with markets made up of non-industrialized countries, essentially agricultural countries. This was the purpose of the colonial wars of expansion and the reason for the creation of colonial empires.

Parvus, in the beginning of the 20th century, while underlining this phenomenon emphasized the role of heavy industry (above all the iron industry) in the transformation which was about to take place in the politics of the international capitalist class. He pointed out how iron played a more and more preponderant role in capitalist industry, and demonstrated that government orders, direct (armaments race) and indirect (competition in naval construction, building of railways and harbor installations in colonial countries, etc.), represented the main outlet for this industry.

It was Rosa Luxemburg who drew together in a complete theory all these concepts of an imperialism expanding to compensate for inadequate markets for the products of the biggest capitalist industries. Her theory is mainly one of crises, or to express it more correctly, a theory of the conditions of realization surplus value and of accumulation of capital. It is consistent with the theories of under-consumption worked out over the course of a century by numerous opponents of the capitalist system to show the inevitability of economic crises.

According to Rosa Luxemburg, the continual expansion of the capitalist mode of production is impossible within the bounds of a purely capitalist society. The expansion of the production of the means of production within capitalist society is only possible if it goes hand in hand with the expansion of the demand for consumer goods. Without this expansion of the latter demand, the capitalists will not buy any new machines, etc. It is not the expansion of the purchasing power of the working class which allows an adequate expansion of the demand for consumer goods. On the contrary, the more the capitalist system progresses, the more does the purchasing power of the workers represent a relatively smaller proportion of the national income.

In order for capitalist expansion to continue it is necessary to have non-capitalist classes which, with an income obtained outside the capitalist system, would be endowed with the additional purchasing power to buy industrial consumer goods. These non-capitalist classes originally are the landowners and farmers. In the countries where the industrial revolution first occurred, the capitalist mode of production developed and triumphed in a non-capitalist milieu, conquering the market which consisted above all of the mass of peasants.

Rosa Luxemburg concluded that after the conquest of the national non-capitalist markets, and the not yet industrialized markets the European and North American continents, capital had to throw itself into the conquest of a new non-capitalist sphere, that of the agricultural countries of Asia and Africa.

She tied this theory of imperialism to the importance of “compensating outlets” for the capitalist system, outlets presented above all by government purchases of armaments. She foresaw the mechanism which did not reveal its full functioning until the eve of the Second World War. Today, without this “compensating outlet,” which is created by the armaments and war economy, the capitalist system would be in danger of falling periodically into economic crises of the same gravity as that of 1929-33.

The Flaws in Luxemburg’s Views

It is beyond doubt that historically the development of capitalist industry came about in effect in a non-capitalist milieu and that the existence of the great agricultural markets, national and international, represented the essential safety-valve of the capitalist system during the entire 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

However, from the point of view of economic theory, the Luxemburgian conception of imperialism has certain flaws. It is important to underline them because they obscure certain long run trends in the development of capitalism as a whole.

For instance, Luxemburg argued that the capitalist class could not enrich itself by passing its own money from one pocket to another. However, this ignores the fact, illuminated by Marx, that the capitalist class taken as a whole represents a useful abstraction to unveil the laws of motion of capital, but that the phenomenon of periodic crises is understandable only in the framework of the competition of antagonistic capitals and the concentration resulting from that competition.

In such a framework it is quite logical that “the capitalist class” enriches itself “by itself,” that is, that certain layers of the capitalist class enrich themselves through the impoverishment of other capitalist layers. This is what has occurred for the last forty years in the United States, at first in relation to the American capitalists, then particularly in relation to the international capitalist classes (first of all the European). This will occur more and more as the purely agricultural markets disappear.

Within today’s capitalist world, exports are directed to a large extent to other industrialized countries, and only to a small extent to the markets of “non-capitalist” countries.

The fundamental weakness of Rosa Luxemburg’s theory is that it is based simply on the capitalist class’s need for markets to realize surplus value, and ignores the basic changes which have taken place in capitalist property and production.

These were the structural problems which Rudolf Hilferding and Lenin tackled.

The Theory of Imperialism by Hilferding and Lenin

Starting with the remarks made on this subject in the later works of Marx and Engels, Hilferding studied the structural changes of capitalism in the last quarter of the 19th century. He began with capitalist concentration, the concentration of banking and the preponderant part played by the banks in the launching of stock companies and the mergers of enterprises.

From this Hilferding defined what he called finance capital, that is, banking capital invested in industry and controlling it either directly (by the purchase of shares, the presence of bank representatives on the boards of directors, etc.), or indirectly (by the establishment of holding companies, concerns and “influence groups”).

Hilferding discovered the preponderant role played by banks in the development of heavy industry, especially in Germany, France, the United States, Belgium, Italy and Czarist Russia. He showed that these banks represented the most “aggressive” force in political matters, partly because of the risks involved in investments reaching billions of dollars.

In a brilliant conclusion to his work on finance capital, Hilferding predicted the rise of fascism, that is, a merciless and absolute political dictatorship, exercised in favor of big capital, corresponding to the new stage of capitalism as political liberalism corresponded to early competitive capitalism. Confronted with the threat of such a dictatorship, Hilferding concluded, the proletariat must engage in the struggle for its own dictatorship.

Lenin drew substantially on Hilferding’s work as well as on the works of some liberal economists like Hobson to produce his work on imperialism at the beginning of the First World War. Like Hilferding, he started from capitalist concentration – the establishment of trusts, cartels, holding companies, etc. – banking concentration, and the appearance of finance capital to characterize what is structurally new in this stage of capitalism.

Lenin extended and generalized this structural analysis, naming it monopoly capitalism, in contrast to 19th century competitive capitalism. He analyzed monopoly and monopoly profits, expanding a series of thoughts already begun in Hilferding’s idea that the expansionism of monopoly capitalism takes place primarily through the export of capital.

In contrast to competitive capitalism, which concentrated on the export of commodities and which was not interested in its clients, monopoly capitalism, exporter of capital, cannot be without interest in its debtors. It must assure “normal” conditions of solvency, without which its loans would transform themselves into losses: hence the tendency toward some form of political-economic control over the countries in which this capital is invested.

Lenin’s analysis of imperialism is completed with a very profound essay on the contradictory, dialectical nature of capitalist monopoly, which suppresses competition at one stage to reproduce it again on a higher level. Applying the law of uneven development both to the relations between the imperialist powers, Lenin showed that the division of the world among the imperialist powers can only be a temporary one, and is inevitably followed by struggles – imperialist war – to obtain a new division as the relationship of forces among these powers changes.

Lenin also integrated into his theory of imperialism Engels’ concept of the workers’ aristocracy. The colonial super profits, brought in by the capital exported to backward countries, permit the corruption of part of the working class, above all a reformist bureaucracy which cooperates with the bourgeois democratic regime and obtains great benefits from it.

The Theory of Imperialism Adapted to the Present Time

Combined with Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution – especially his analysis of the combined economic and social development of the colonial and semi-colonial countries under the impact of capital export and imperialist domination – Lenin’s theory has brilliantly withstood the test of time.

No social and economic analysis of bourgeois or reformist origin dating from before the First World War has retained today any validity whatsoever, while Lenin’s conception of monopoly capitalism, combined with the theory of the permanent revolution, remains the essential key for understanding present-day reality – the succession of world wars, the opening of an epoch of revolutions and counterrevolutions, the appearance of fascism, the triumph of the proletarian revolution in Russia, Yugoslavia and China, the increasing role of the armament and war industry in the capitalist world, and the importance of colonial revolutions, to name the more obvious.

This does not mean that every part of Lenin’s theory retains 100 percent validity and that, as in the Stalinist manner, Marxist theoretician and revolutionary leaders should content themselves today with paraphrasing or interpreting Lenin’s Imperialism to explain contemporary reality.

Historical experience of the last fifty years has proven that:

  1. An epoch of monopoly capitalism has followed the capitalism of free competition. Monopoly capitalism results from technical revolutions (internal combustion engine and electricity replacing steam as the essential motive power) and from structural changes in capitalism (concentration of capital resulting in giant enterprises predominating in heavy industry, establishment of cartels, trusts, holding companies, etc.).
  2. Monopoly capitalism does not overcome the fundamental contradictions of capitalism. It does not overcome competition but merely raises it to a higher level encompassing new and bigger competitors. It does not overcome crises but gives them a more convulsive character. Two rates of profit are substituted for the average rate of profit of the previous period: the average rate of monopolist profit; and the average rate of profit of the non-monopolized sectors.
  3. The suppression of free competition within certain bounds is essentially a reaction against the threats to monopolist rates of profit. For this reason it is tied up not only with the artificial limitation of production in certain sectors, but also with the frantic search for new fields of capital investment (new industries and new countries). Hence imperialist wars.

In this respect Lenin’s remarks on the tendency of monopoly capitalism to arrest technical progress should be slightly modified. It is true that the monopolies strive to monopolize research and suppress or retard the application of many technical discoveries; but it is equally true that monopoly capitalism also calls forth an increase in these technical discoveries. One reason for this is the monopolies themselves need to open new sectors of exploitation in order to have an outlet for their excess capital.

Experience has shown, especially in the chemical, iron, electronics and nuclear domains, that the last fifty years have at least been as fertile in technical progress as the preceding fifty years.

Beside these fundamental characteristics which remain valid, some secondary characteristics should be modified:

  1. Finance capital: The control and domination of industrial capital by finance capital has proved to be a passing phenomenon in numerous countries (United States, Great Britain, Japan, Belgium, Netherlands, etc.). Thanks to the accumulation of enormous super profits, the trusts are expanding more and more by self-financing and are freeing themselves of bank tutelage. Only in the weaker or more backward capitalist countries does finance capital remain predominant.
  2. apital export: The export of capital continues to represent a safety valve for the over-capitalized monopolist trusts, but this is no longer the main safety valve, at least in the United States (except in the oil industry). Government orders are the main safety valve. The increasing role of the State as guarantor of monopolist profit, and the increasing fusion of the monopolists with the State are today the main characteristics of declining capitalism. They spring as much from social and political as from economic causes (colonial revolution, industrialization of backward countries, narrowing of operational field of capital in the world, etc.).
  3. The layer of coupon-clippers unique to parasitic imperialism has been reduced rather than extended following the structural transformations mentioned above. The big trusts finance their investments more by self-financing than by issuing negotiable shares. There is a bureaucratization of monopolist capital, and the structure rests more and more on a hierarchy of big administrators (executives), who are most often themselves big or medium share-holders. The parasitic character of declining capitalism appears above all in the enormous extent of unproductive expenditures (in the first place armaments, but also the maintenance of the state apparatus), and in the enormous costs of distribution (valued at more than 30 percent of the national income in the United States).

Today, political factors – such as the rising colonial revolution – are increasingly combined with fundamental economic characteristics to give capitalism its particular outlines and behavior.

The Critics

Bourgeois (and reformist) theoreticians have generally been very tardy in contesting the Marxist conception of the new phenomena which appeared in the capitalist world of the 20th century. In fact, they have seemed hardly aware of the existence of these phenomena.

To be convinced of this it is sufficient to run through the main subjects with which they were preoccupied and which they discussed in the years preceding the First World War. While Kautsky, Hilferding, Luxemburg, Lenin Trotsky, Parvus, the Dutch Marxists grouped aroundDe Nieuwe Tijd, and the Austro-Marxists around the young Otto Bauer devoted their economic research to the phenomena connected with monopolist imperialism, the bourgeois economists, apart from a few outsiders, were discussing monetary phenomena, prolonging the polemic of the marginal utility school against the labor theory of value school, and concentrating on the development of the theory of market equilibrium under conditions of perfect competition.

Twenty years later bourgeois political economy became aware of the “fact” of monopoly, and began to seriously develop a theory of economic crises and cycles.

This lag continues to prevail: until about 1935 the capitalist theories of economic crises fed on crumbs falling from the table of the Marxists; the capitalist theories of the Soviet economy are even today exclusively inspired by old Marxists or pseudo-Marxists. All this confirms once again the correctness of the comment made by Marx some 80 years ago: after Ricardo bourgeois thought in economic matters became fundamentally sterile because apologetic.

The majority, if not all, the bourgeois conceptions of imperialism and monopoly capitalism possess this pronounced apologetic character. They constitute an ideology in the Marxist sense of the word: they are not theories elaborated to explain reality. They are conceptions formulated to justify (and partly conceal) the existing reality.

The Theory of “Super”-Imperialism

This apologetic character appeared most clearly in the reformist conceptions of monopoly capitalism as they were developed in the last years before the First World War (particularly by Kautsky) and put forward in the twenties (especially by Kautsky, Hilferding and Vandervelde). The barrenness of these conceptions is the most striking manifestation of the lamentable theoretical breakdown of Kautsky and Hilferding, a breakdown which followed their political betrayal.

Starting from the inevitability of a supreme concentration of capital, the reformist theoreticians approve this development and discover in it surprising virtues of economic and social harmony. Just as the cartels and trusts suppress competition to a very large extent, so also the anarchy of production and the crises which it provokes can be abolished by the monopolies. The latter are interested in completely reorganizing economic and social life to avoid needless expenses which costly conflicts incur (crashes, strikes, etc.).

Just as the great captains of industry learn to reach an understanding among themselves, so also they learn to reach an understanding with the labor unions. The labor movement should neither oppose the cartelization of industry nor defend small industry against big. On the contrary, they say, the labor movement should support all tendencies towards a maximum concentration of industry, towards the leadership of the trusts, towards the organized economy. Thus, the stage of monopoly capitalism can represent a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism during which the contradictions and conflicts can gradually be lessened.

The development of the last forty years has completely contradicted this analysis and these forecasts. Imperialism and Kautsky’s “super”-imperialism (complete predominance of one imperialist power because of the supreme concentration of capital), far from assuring universal peace, have caused the outbreak of two bloody world wars and are preparing a third one. Far from being able to avoid crises, monopolies precipitated the most violent crisis ever known by capitalism, that of 1929-1933. Far from lessening social conflicts, the trusts have opened an almost uninterrupted period of revolutions and counterrevolutions on a world scale.

The fundamental methodological error of these reformist conceptions is their blindness to the contradictory, dialectical character of capitalist evolution, to the concentration of capital. They draw completely mechanical conclusions.

It is true that modern capitalism’s tendency to set up trusts, cartels, and monopolies cannot be reversed. It would be completely utopian to want to return to the free competition of the 19th century. But there are two methods of fighting trusts: to substitute for them the small, scattered industry of the past; or to substitute for them the socialized industry of the future.

On the pretext that the first form of struggle is impossible, the reformists conveniently forget that the second one exists, and they conclude that it is necessary to defend the monopolies. When the European steel cartel was established, Vandervelde published an article celebrating the event as the guarantee of peace in Europe! On the pretext of not wanting to turn back, the reformists accept the existingreality and conceal the deep contradictions which periodically rend this reality asunder, contradictions which impose upon Marxists the duty to support the only forces which can prepare the future.

The reformists’ inability to comprehend the contradictory character of monopoly capitalism is above all an ignorance of uneven development. The simplified formula: “The more monopolies there are, the less competition there is, and the less conflict there is,” does not stand up to the test of facts. In reality, the more monopolies there are, the more a new form of competition – competition among monopolies, imperialist wars – replaces the old form of competition.

Beginning with the great 1929-1933 crisis, the majority of the reformist parties tacitly abandoned these propositions of mechanical, reformist Marxism. But this “progress” was accompanied by an even more pronounced theoretical retreat: the abandonment – in general equally tacit – of Marxism as a whole, and the adoption of the Keynesian economic theories. Today, in the reformist ranks, one no longer encounters tendencies which are openly apologetic of monopolies. Instead, the reformists now defend the directing role of the capitalist State.

Monopolies, “Duopolies” and “Oligopolies”

The apologetic character of bourgeois conceptions of contemporary capitalism is equally clear. The majority of economists and sociologists, describing the structure of capitalism, question the very existence of monopolies. However, only the most partial (or the most ignorant), lean on secondary features like the periodic increase in the number of retail shops, service stations and repair shops to defend the thesis that there is no considerable concentration of capital.

The more intelligent bourgeois ideologists no longer deny the preponderant part played by trusts, cartels, holding companies, etc., in contemporary capitalism. But they deny that we are dealing with monopolies here, for, so they say, in the majority of the great industrial sectors (steel, chemicals, motor cars, electrical equipment, aircraft, aluminum and non-ferrous metals are the main ones) there is not one company predominating in each country, but several (“duopolies”: predominance of two companies; “oligopolies”: predominance of a small number of companies).

First of all, this restrictive proposition is only partly true. There are important sectors in the big capitalist countries where two-thirds of the production, and even more, is carried on by one company which possesses a monopoly position in the literal sense of the word: chemicals in Great Britain; petroleum in Great Britain; aluminum in the United States; motor cars in Italy; before 1945, chemicals and steel in Germany; copper in the Congo; electrical equipment in Holland, etc.

Furthermore, this restrictive proposition is only a terminological artifice. In calling the structure of contemporary capitalism monopolist, Marxists have never pretended that there was only one firm producing all (or almost all) products in each industry. They have simply stated that the relationship of forces between the small firms, and one, two or three giant firms is such that the latter impose their law in the industry, that is, eliminate price competition.

This analysis conforms scrupulously with reality, and it is comical to see the great opponents of Marxism, the most enthusiastic advocates of “free competition,” state solemnly that competition holds sway in today’s capitalist economy – notwithstanding the absence of price competition.

Actually, official statistics published by governmental services (especially the US Federal Trade Commission) confirm not only the absence of price competition, but also the denomination of the majority of the industrial sectors of all capitalist countries by one, two or three companies, concentrating within their hands 66-90 percent of production.

“Democratization of Capital”

A favorite argument or apologists of monopoly capitalism is that the concentration of capital in the giant enterprises (“natural outcome of technical development” as they say) is more than neutralized by the diffusion of ownership due to the growth of share ownership.

They quote the examples of large trusts which have issued hundreds of thousands of shares (General Motors, the most powerful trust in the world, has issued more than one million), only a small number of which are in the hands of one family. Consequently, there must be hundreds of thousands, or at least thousands of “owners” of these trusts, and “everybody is on the road to becoming a capitalist.”

Recently this argument has been vigorously renewed in the United States, in Switzerland, in Belgium, in Germany and elsewhere, where the bourgeoisie has campaigned for the distribution of shares among the workers of the large enterprises.

Let’s begin by putting things back into place. Many trusts are effectively dominated by one single family: the Standard Oil petroleum trust by the Rockefeller family; the General Motors trust by the DuPont deNemours family; the steel trust of the Lorraine by the Wendel family, etc. It is true that in the majority of cases these families do not possess 50 percent of the shares of the companies in question. But this only proves that the flotation of large numbers of shares permits the control of these giant companies by minority shareholdings. Their dispersal effectively prevents the mass of the small shareholders from establishing their rights at the general meetings and in the daily administration of the company.

Further, it is false that the ownership of industrial shares is spread over large layers of the population. An enquiry made in the United States in 1951 by the Brookings Institute proved that 0.1 percent of the population possessed 55 percent of all the shares. To the extent that the monopolist trusts become more and more powerful and avoid the possibility of being controlled by a single family, it is characteristic that they progressively become collectively owned by the big capitalists.

The interpenetration of the interests of some dozens or hundreds of big capitalist families is such that it becomes impossible to say that such and such family “controls” such and such company. But the whole of these families control the whole of big industry which is directed by a kind of “administrative council of the capitalist class,” on which the representatives of all these families occupy key positions and succeed one another periodically in the positions of command.

The Theory of “Countervailing Power” and the State as Equalizer

The more intelligent bourgeois economists cannot deny these facts. Nevertheless, in order to justify capitalism they take refuge behind the State, the deus ex machina which is capable of neutralizing the bad effects of this extraordinary concentration of economic power. Among the principal representatives of this theory are the American professors John Kenneth Galbraith and Adolphe A. Berle, and the “Keynesian” group of the London School of Economics. There are numerous variations of this theory; it is sufficient to enumerate and refute some of them.

Galbraith and the adepts of the London School of Economics advance the theory that the democratic State of today is not the instrument of the domination of one class but a more or less independent apparatus, subjected to the mutually neutralizing influence of various “pressure groups.” These authors, by the way, never use the work “class” and always prefer to use “pressure group,” “sections of opinion,” “organized influence,” etc.

It is true, they say, that the “oligopolist” trusts exercise a very strong influence on economic life. But this influence is “neutralized” (held in check) by the no less formidable power of the mass trade unions, of farmers’ associations, of small and middle capitalists organized in Chambers of Commerce, etc. The interaction of these forces produces an economic equilibrium favorable to the community as a whole, a more or less proportional division of the “economic cake” among the different “pressure groups.”

These authors may be simply theorizing on the practice of “lobbying” prevalent in Washington, but their conclusions are absolutely unreal. Even a superficial study of the development of the economic and social policies of the United States makes clear that the “sixty families” exert an influence (even in the absence of particular “lobbies”) quite different from that exerted by the great trade unions with their 16 million members.

For nearly twenty years American capitalism has been passing through a period of increased profits and prosperity. From time to time the ruling layers of the bourgeoisie can permit themselves the luxury of dividing a considerably reduced portion of the cake among different social classes and different social layers of the capitalist class itself. In the interests of maintaining economic stability and “social peace,” the big capitalists have learned that it is more effective to avoid the destruction of certain layers which are particularly exposed to competition and the bad effects of the conjunctural swings of economic cycles (farmers and merchants, for example).

The government, acting as the “administrative council of the capitalist class” in its entirety, has at its disposal powerful means with which to satisfy, at any given time, this or that particularly dissatisfied layer of society. But all this takes place within the framework of a more and more absolute and open rule of the monopolist trusts within the economy and the State itself.

Examination of the figures on the concentration of capital which proceeds more rapidly than ever, on the difference between the rate of profit in the monopolist sector and that in the non-monopolized sectors, and on the greater and greater proportion of the total national income which these profits represent make strikingly clear that validity of Marx and Lenin’s analysis of monopoly capitalism.

The “Mixed Economy”

A “reformist” variety of the theories of “countervailing power” is the theory of the so-called “mixed economy,” represented by the social democratic followers of the Keynes school, such as Lerner. According to them, today’s economy lost its strictly capitalist character when the State, through huge taxes, concentrated within its hands an important part of the national income (from 25-30 percent in Great Britain and the United States) by its ownership of the public sector of the economy. They consider this the “objective” economic basis for a degree of independence and autonomy by the State apparatus in relation to the monopolist trusts. The American professors Sumner Slichter and Paul Samuelson defend a similar thesis, what they call a “labor” economy.

These reformists forget to answer the question, who directs, who controls the State? Who conducts this “public” sector of the economy? A concrete analysis of the question will confirm in each case that the nationalizations of sections of industry carried out in countries like Great Britain and France were nationalizations of basic industries running at a deficit, through which the industries of the key manufacturers have greatly profited, even though many of these had temporarily fought against nationalization for political reasons.

The same thing is true of public enterprises in the United States, for example the electrical industry and highway reconstruction. The redistribution of national income by really progressive rates of direct taxation in Western Europe and North America is to a large extent neutralized by no less exorbitant indirect taxation, borne above all by the workers. As already indicated, the State which directs the “public sector” of the economy is a State completely in the hands of the monopolists, and whose personnel is usually composed directly of the monopolists themselves.

Under these conditions, the appearance of a powerful “public sector” in the economy does not prove that the economy has lost its capitalist character. It merely confirms that fact that, in the period of accelerated decline, monopoly capitalism cannot survive on the basis of laissez faire, but needs growing intervention of the State in order to guarantee its monopoly profits.

There remains finally the more intelligent version of this theory, expounded by A.A. Berle in The American Revolution (a remarkable work on the distribution of shares of the big American companies), and by the publishers of Fortune magazine under the surprising title of The Permanent Revolution.

These authors acknowledge that one hundred monopolist trusts directly control almost half the industrial production of the United States, and indirectly determine the conditions of a large part of the other half. But, so they say, these trusts are like the great feudal lords of the Middle Ages. So great is their power, which can decide the fate of so many thousands of people, that the trusts cannot allow themselves to be guided in their decisions exclusively by economic imperatives, by the quest for profit.

If they decide to close their factories in one city and condemn a local community of 300,000 inhabitants to mass unemployment, this will have social and political as well as economic consequences. The very power of the trusts thus imposes a limit to their power, and represents the source of a “counter-balance” which is created in the form of a “public responsibility,” a “public right,” a “right to consider the public,” a “growing intervention of the public authorities,” etc. In order to avoid a direct attack upon them, the trusts have transformed themselves into some sort of “benevolent lords,” into “enlightened despots.” Berle himself uses this formulation!

Their great discovery is the development of a higher standard of living for the “new American middle class” of tens of millions of technicians, merchants, clerks, and skilled workers whose fate is intimately tied up with that of the trusts for whom they work.

This same theory is at present fashionable in Great Britain where the Labor right wing explains, for example, that the demand for the nationalization of the ICI chemical trust has run up against the resistance of the workers at this plant. In West Germany the trusts have created privileged conditions of work for their permanent employees, in comparison with the conditions of work in the small and middle enterprises.

But there is nothing surprising in this. It is nothing but a repetition of the phenomenon of a workers’ aristocracy, made possible by temporary super profits. To see in this a structural transformation of the capitalist regime is to mistake the shadow for the substance.

The Ageing and Stagnation of Capitalism

It is among the supporters of Keynes and his continuers that some of the more serious non-Marxist conceptions of the nature of contemporary capitalism are found. Thus, the main American disciple of Keynes, Professor Alvin Hansen, has developed the notion of “ageing capitalism,” whose maturity is characterized by the fact that the already acquired stock of fixed capital takes on such huge proportions as to become more and more an obstacle to new productive investments.

This is simply the Marxist conception of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, caused by the increase in the organic composition of capital. In Great Britain, Joan Robinson, who oscillates between Keynes and Marx, has thrown light on the same phenomenon and has at the same time made sound studies of what she calls “monopolistic competition” (competition among monopolies).

However, these bourgeois authors following even this road arrive at reformist and apologetic conclusions: “ageing” capitalism is a capitalism which grows “wiser,” which has greater and greater recourse to (and need of!) a more equal redistribution of the national income to assure the satisfactory functioning of the economy, which permits a more and more efficient running of the economy by the State, etc.

Some of these disciples of Keynes state that, thanks to these tendencies, it is possible to eliminate (or to restrain to the utmost) the capitalist crises through the use of government expenditure which could be productive as much as unproductive. In the last analysis, all this represents nothing but a rationalization of the behavior of the American capitalist class in the Roosevelt era, a rationalization of the role of the armaments and war industry in today’s capitalist economy.

Because, in the long run, only government expenditure in the armament sector can absorb surplus production that threatens the economy. “Productive” expenditure inevitably absorbs purchasing power that would be used to buy the products of other productive sectors and does not constitute a compensating outlet.

The British economist Colin Clark has developed the idea of “ageing” society in a particular sense. According to him, the more capitalist society matures, the more labor power and economic resources are switched from the productive industries, in the true sense of the word, towards the “service” industries (essentially the sector of distribution).

There is in this idea a particle of truth. The huge increase in the cost of distribution is in effect a characteristic of declining capitalism. This does not alter the fact that Colin Clark’s “law” has not in the least the absolute value which he wants to give it. The growth of the so-called “tertiary” industries largely reflects the historical delay in the mechanization and automation of the distributive, banking and insurance trades, a delay which could be rapidly overcome, with striking consequences for the structure of the working population.

Industrialization of Underdeveloped Countries

There remains a last aspect of Marx and Lenin’s theory of imperialism, which is often criticized by capitalist, and particularly reformist economists: this is our conception of the impossibility of a serious industrialization of the colonial and semi-colonial countries under the aegis of imperialism and the “national” capitalist class.

As far as the past is concerned, no serious author dares to doubt the validity of this thesis for the facts speak far too eloquently. But, so they say, after 1945, and especially after the victory of the Chinese Revolution, capitalism, in particular American capitalism, has “thought things over.” It has understood that the misery of the underdeveloped countries favors the “growth of Communism.”

It is prepared to grant them very great help to build a “barrier against the Reds.” Imperialism is interested from another angle, since capital exports and new outlets thus created furnish it with the famous “compensating outlets” which it lacks. Some go so far as to speak of the possibility of “decades” of peaceful development based on the industrialization of backward countries thanks to foreign investments.

Unfortunately for them, the facts paint another picture. Since the end of the Second World War private exports are, to the majority of these countries, lower than they were in the period following the First World War. Particular exceptions (notably as far as the American oil industry is concerned) immediately indicate the limits of the phenomenon.

Responsible capitalist associations – notably the world conference of the Chambers of Commerce – have repeatedly explained quite frankly the reason for this state of affairs: the insecurity which reigns in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, and threat of revolutions, of confiscations, of nationalizations without compensation, etc. For the alluring prospects to be realized, it would be necessary to change completely the political and social climate in the backward countries; and as such a transformation is not at all foreseen.

Even where very favorable political conditions for imperialism exist, capital investments are concentrated in the extraction of raw materials, trade, transport, and banks, and not in the creation of an indigenous secondary industry. In connection with this subject the economic development of countries like the Philippines, South Korea, Formosa, Thailand, Turkey and the Central American republics in the clutches of Washington should be particularly studied.

In order to show the lack of realism of the partisans of these “harmonious” conceptions, let us quote two figures. In the midst of World War II, Colin Clark wrote a book entitled The Economy of 1960 in which he foresaw that the industrialization of India would absorb, between the end of the war and 1960, 60 billion dollars of British and American capital.

These are in effect the needs of this huge country if it is to become an industrialized society. Now, since the end of the war, that is, during the ten years 1945-54, India has received in all only 1.5 billion dollars of “Western” capital. Even if everything should proceed “normally” for capitalism, this country will not have received 10 percent of the capital foreseen by the optimistic economist by 1960.

This underlines the impotence of bourgeois economic and sociological thought to counterpose to Marxism anything but myths, illusions, or lies.

August 1955

The Marxist Case for Revolution Today by Ernest Mandel

Appeared originally in: Mandel, E., Revolutionary Marxism and social reality in the 20th century: collected essays, ed. and with an introd. by Steve Bloom, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994, pp. 179-206

I. What Is A Revolution?

Revolutions are historical facts of life. Almost all major states in today’s world are born from revolutions. Whether one likes it or not, our century has seen something like three dozen revolutions – some victorious, others defeated – and there is no sign that we have come to the end of the revolutionary experience.

Revolutions have been, and will remain, facts of life because of the structural nature of prevailing relations of production and relations of political power. Precisely because such relations are structural, because they do not just “fade away” – as well as because ruling classes resist the gradual elimination of these relations to the very end – revolutions emerge as the means whereby the overthrow of these relations is realized.

From the nature of revolutions as a sudden, radical overthrow of prevailing social and (or) political structures – leaps in the historical process – one should not draw the conclusion that an impenetrable Chinese wall separates evolution (or reforms) from revolution. Quantitative gradual social changes of course do occur in history, as do qualitative revolutionary ones. Very often the former prepare the latter especially in epochs of decay of a given mode of production. Prevailing economic and political power relations can be eroded, undermined, increasingly challenged or can even be slowly disintegrated, by new relations of production and the political strength of revolutionary classes (or major class fractions) rising in their midst. This is what generally characterizes periods of pre-revolutionary crises. But erosion and decay of a given social and/or political order remains basically different from its overthrow. Evolution is not identical with revolution. One transforms dialectics into sophism when, from the fact that there is no rigid absolute distinction between evolution and revolution, one draws the conclusion that there is no basic difference between them at all.

The sudden overthrow of ruling structures is, however, only one key characteristic of that social phenomenon. The other one is their overthrow through huge popular mobilization, through the sudden massive active intervention of large masses of ordinary people in political life and political struggle. [1]

One of the great mysteries of class society, based upon exploitation and oppression of the mass of direct producers by relatively small minorities, is why that mass in “normal” times by and large tolerates these conditions, be it with all kinds of periodic but limited reactions. Historical materialism tries, not without success, to explain that mystery. The explanation is many-dimensional, drawing upon a combination of economic compulsion, ideological manipulation, cultural socialization, political-juridical repression (including occasionally violence), psychological processes (interiorization, identification), etc.

Generally, as one revolutionary newspaper wrote at the beginning of the French revolution of 1789, oppressed people feel weak before their oppressors in spite of their numerical superiority, because they are on their knees. [2] A revolution can occur precisely when that feeling of weakness and helplessness is overcome, when the mass of the people suddenly thinks “We don’t take it any longer,” and acts accordingly. In his interesting book, The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, Barrington Moore has tried to prove that suffering and consciousness of injustice are not sufficient to induce large-scale revolts (revolutions) in broader masses. In his opinion, a decisive role is played by the conviction that suffered injustice is neither inevitable nor a “lesser evil,” i.e. that a better social set-up could be realized.[3] A concomitant brake upon direct challenges to a given social and/or political order, however, is the locally or regionally fragmented nature of revolts pure and simple. Revolts generally become revolutions when they are unified nation-wide.

Such challenges can be explained, among other things, by that basic truth about class societies formulated by Abraham Lincoln, empirically confirmed throughout history, and which is at least one reason for historical optimism (belief in the possibility of human progress) when all is said and done: “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time. But you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.”

When the majority of the people refuse to be fooled and intimidated any longer; when they refuse to stay on their knees; when they recognize the fundamental weakness of their oppressors, they can become transformed overnight from seemingly meek, subdued and helpless sheep into mighty lions. They strike, congregate, organize and especially demonstrate in the streets in increasing numbers, even in the face of massive, gruesome, bloody repression by the rulers, who still have a powerful armed apparatus at their disposal. They often show unheard of forms of heroism, self-sacrifice, obstinate endurance. [4] This may end in their getting the better of the repressive apparatus which starts to disintegrate. The first victory of every revolution is precisely such a disintegration. Its final victory calls for the substitution of the armed power of the revolutionary class (or of a major class fraction) to that of the former rulers. [5] Such a descriptive definition of revolutions has to be integrated into an analytical-casual one. Social revolutions occur when prevailing relations of production cannot contain any more the development of the productive forces, when they increasingly act as fetters upon them, when they cause a cancerous growth of destructiveness accompanying that development. Political revolutions occur when prevailing relations of political power (forms of state power) have likewise become fetters upon a further development of the productive forces within the framework of the prevailing relations of production, a development which is however still historically possible. That is why they generally consolidate a given social order, instead of undermining it.

This materialist explanation of revolutions offered by Marxism seems indispensable for answering the question: “why, and why just at the moment?” Revolutions have occurred in all types of class societies but not in a uniform way. It appears clearly illogical to attribute them either to permanently operating psychological factors (humanity’s allegedly inborn aggression, “destructiveness,” “envy,” “greed” or “stupidity”) or to accidental quirks of the political power structure: particularly inept, stupid, blind rulers, meeting increasingly self-confident and active opponents. According to the particular school of history concerned, one can see that blind ineptitude either in the excessive recourse to repression, or in the excessive amplitude of suddenly introduced reforms, or in a peculiar explosive combination of both. [6]

There are of course kernels of partial truth in such psychological and political analyses. But they cannot explain in a satisfying way the regular and discontinuous occurrence of revolutions, their cyclical nature so to speak. Why do “inept” rulers at regular intervals succeed “adequate” ones, so many times in so many countries? This can surely not be caused by some mysterious genetical mutation cycle. The big advantage of the materialist interpretation of history is to explain that occurrence by deeper socio-economic causes. It is not the ineptness of the rulers which produces the pre-revolutionary crisis. It is the paralysis engendered by an underlying social-structural crisis which makes rulers increasingly inept. In that sense Trotsky was absolutely right when he stressed that “revolutions are nothing but the final blow and coup de grâce given to a paralytic.”

Lenin summarized the underlying analysis in a classical way by stating that revolutions occur when those below do not accept any longer as before. The inability of a ruling class or major fractions to continue to rule has basically objective causes. These reflect themselves in increasingly paralyzing internal divisions among the rulers, especially around the question about how to get out of the mess visible to the naked eye. It intertwines with growing self-doubt, a loss of faith in its own future, an irrational search for peculiar culprits (“conspiracy theories”) substituting for a realistic objective analysis of social contradictions. It is this combination which precisely produces political ineptitude and counterproductive actions and reactions, if not sheer passivity. The basic cause always remains the rotting away of the system, not the peculiar psychology of a group of rulers.

One has obviously to distinguish the basic historical causes of revolutions from the factors (events) triggering them off. The first ones are structural, the second ones conjunctural. [7] But it is important to emphasize that even as regards the structural causes, the Marxist explication of revolutions is by no means monocausally “economistic.” The conflict between the productive forces and the prevailing relations of production and/or political power relations isn’t all purely economic. It is basically socio-economic. It involves all main spheres of social relations. It even eventually finds its concentrated expression in the political and not in the economic sphere. The refusal of soldiers to shoot at demonstrators is a political-moral and not an economic act. It is only by digging farther below the surface of that refusal that one discovers its material roots. These roots don’t transform the political-moral decision into a pure “appearance,” or a manifestation of mere shadow boxing. It has a clear reality of its own. But that substantial reality in its turn doesn’t make the digging for the deeper material roots irrelevant, an exercise in “dogmatism” or an “abstract” analysis of only secondary interest. [8]

In any case, the inability of the rulers to continue to rule is not only a socio-political fact, with its inevitable concomitant of an ideological moral-crisis (a crisis of the prevailing “social values system”). It has also a precise technical-material aspect. To rule also means to control a material network of communications and a centralized repressive apparatus. When that network breaks down, the rule collapses in the immediate sense of the word. [9] We must never, therefore, underestimate the technical aspect of successful revolutions. But the Marxist theory of revolution also supersedes a peculiar variant of the conspiracy theory of history, which tends to substitute for an explanation of victorious revolutions an exclusive reference to the technical mechanism of successful insurrections or coups d’état. [10]Instead, it is the material interests of key social forces and their self-perception which provide the basic explanation of turning points of history. 

II. Revolutions and Counter-revolutions

While revolutions are historical facts of life, counter-revolutions are likewise undeniable realities. Indeed, counter-revolutions seem regularly to follow revolutions as night follows day. Etymology confirms this paradox. The very concept of “revolution” originates from the sciences of astronomy. The movements of planets evolve in an orbital manner, returning to the point of departure. Hence the suggested analogical conclusion: the role of revolutions as great accelerators, as locomotives of history, is just an optical illusion of short-sighted and superficial observers, not to say utopian day-dreamers. It is precisely such an interpretation (denigration) of revolutions which is compatible with the great Italian historian Vico’s cyclical conception of world history.

Under the influence of the victorious counter-revolution in England in 1660, the great political philosophers of the 17th century, above all Hobbes and Spinoza, developed a basically pessimistic view of human destiny. Revolutions are doomed to fail: “Plus ça change, plus ça reste la même chose.” Two thousand years earlier, Greek and Chinese political philosophers had arrived at similar conclusions. There is supposedly no way out for human destiny but the search for individual happiness under inevitably bad social conditions, be it happiness through self-discipline (Stoics, Confucians, Spinoza) or through hedonism (the Epicureans). [11]

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment questioned both the empirical and the theoretical roots of dogmatic skeptical pessimism. [12] The belief in the perfectibility of humankind (only sophists or dishonest critics identify perfectibility with actually attaining a final state of perfection, be it said in passing), in historical progress, and thus likewise in the progressive turns of revolutions, re-emerged. Revolution indeed looked beautiful in times of reaction. But already before the outbreak of the revolution of 1789, the camp of the Englightenment had split between the basically skeptical and socially cautious, if not outright conservative, bourgeois like Voltaire (“cultivez votre jardin”)[13] and the more radical petty-bourgeois ideologues like J.J. Rousseau, who would inspire the Jacobin revolutionists. This split deepened in the course of the revolution itself. After the successive stages of counter-revolution (Thermidor, the Bonapartist Consulate, the Empire, the Bourbon restoration) the reversal to 17th century skepticism became general including erstwhile enthusiasts for revolution, exemplified by the English poet Wordsworth (but not Shelley). Only a tiny minority continued to pin their hopes on future revolutions and to work for them. [14] The near-consensus was: the overhead of revolution is too large, especially given the fact that they achieve very little. [15]

The Russian revolution’s Thermidor and its tragic aftermath, the horrors of Stalinism, reproduced the same revulsion towards revolutions, first in the late nineteen-thirties and the forties, then, after a temporary reprieve in the sixties and the early seventies, on a generalized scale from the middle seventies on. The Soviet military intervention in Czechoslovakia and especially Cambodia and Afghanistan, but more generally the reflux of the revolutionary wave 1968-1975 in Europe, from France through Czechoslovakia, Italy, Portugal, strengthened this political retreat. The near-consensus can again be summarized in the formula: revolutions are both useless and harmful from every point of view, including that of progress towards a more humane society. Indeed, this is one of the key platitudes of today’s prevailing neo-conservative, neo-liberal and neo-reformist ideologies.

It is, however, based upon obvious half-truths, if not outright mystifications. The idea that revolutions revert to these historical points of departure, if not to situations worse than the pre-revolutionary ones, is generally based upon a confusion between social and political counter-revolutions. While a few social counter-revolutions have indeed occurred, they are the exception, not the rule. Neither Napoleon nor Louis XVIII restored semi-feudal socio-economic conditions in the French countryside, nor the political rule of the semi-feudal nobility. Stalin did not restore capitalism in Russia, nor did Deng Xiaoping in China. [16] The restoration in England was quickly followed by the Glorious Revolution. The compromise of the American constitution did not lead eventually to the generalization of slave labor but to its suppression, after the civil war. The list can be extended ad libitum.

To this objective balance-sheet, the problems of subjective choice are closely related. They confront the skeptics and the pessimists with a real dilemma. Counter-revolutions are not simply “natural” reactions to revolutions, the product of an inevitable mechanical yo-yo movement so to speak. They originate from the same exacerbation of a system’s inner contradictions which give rise to the revolution, but with a specific shift in socio-political relations of forces. They reflect the relative decline of political mass activity and efficiency. There is indeed a “natural law” operating here. As genuine popular revolutions generally imply a qualitatively increased level of political mass activity, this cannot be sustained indefinitely, for obvious material and psychological reasons. You have to produce in order to eat, and when you demonstrate and participate in mass meetings, you don’t produce. Also, great masses of people cannot live permanently at a high level of excitement and expenditure of nervous energy. [17]

To this relative decline in mass activity corresponds a relative rise of activity and efficiency of the old ruling classes or strata and their various supporters and hangers-on. The initiative shifts from the “left” to the “right,” at least momentarily (and not necessarily with total success: there have been defeated counter-revolutions as there have been defeated revolutions). [18] There are likewise preventive counter-revolutions: Indonesia 1965 and Chile 1973 may be taken as examples. But precisely these preventive counter-revolutions clearly reveal the pessimistic skeptic’s dilemma. They are generally very costly in terms of human lives and human happiness – much more costly than revolutions. It stands to reason that much more repression, much more bloodletting, much more cruelty, including torture, is needed to suppress a highly active, broad mass of ordinary people than to neutralize a small group of rulers. So by abstaining from active intervention against a rising counter-revolution – on the pretext that revolution itself is useless and bad – one actually becomes a passive if not active accomplice of bloody counter-revolution and large-scale mass suffering.

This is morally revolting, as it means tolerating, aiding and abetting the violence and exploitation of the oppressors, while finding all kinds of rationalizations for refusing to assist the oppressed in their self-defence and attempted emancipation. And it is political counter-productive as well as obnoxious. In the end, it often proves to be suicidal from the point of view of the skeptics’ alleged devotion to the defence of democratic institutions and reforms. The most tragic example in that respect was that of German social-democracy at the end of World War One. Under the alleged motive of “saving democracy”, Ebert and Noske kept the Imperial army’s hierarchy and the Prussian officers’ corps intact. They conspired with it against the workers – first in Berlin itself, then in the whole country. They made the generals of the Reichswehr into the political arbiters of the Weimar Republic. They permitted them to create and consolidate the Freikorps from which a good part of the later SA and SS cadres were recruited. They thereby paved the way of the rise and eventual conquest of power by the Nazis, which in turn led to the social-democrats’ destruction. They thought they could contain regression and reaction in the framework of a democratic counter-revolution. [19] History taught the bitter lesson that democratic counter-revolutions in the end often lead to much more authoritarian and violent ones, when the sharpening of the socio-economic contradictions makes a total instead of a partial suppression of the mass movement into an immediate goal of the ruling class.

This again is not accidental but corresponds to a deeper historical logic. The essence of revolution is often identified with a widespread explosion of violence and mass killings. This is of course not true. The essence of revolution is not the use of violence in politics but a radical, qualitative challenge – and eventually the overthrow – of prevailing economic or political power structures. The larger the number of people involved in mass actions targeting these structures, the more favorable the relationship of forces between revolutions and reaction, the greater the self-confidence of the first and the moral-ideological paralysis of the second, and the less the masses are inclined to use violence. Indeed, widespread use of violence is counter-productive for the revolution at that precise phase of the historical process.

But what does occur most often, if not always, at some point of the revolutionary process, is the desperate recourse to violence by the most radical and the most resolute sectors of the rulers’ camp, intent on risking everything before it is too late, because they still have human and material resources left to act in that way. At some culminating point, the confrontation between revolution and counter-revolution thus generally does assume a violent character, although the degree of violence largely depends upon the overall relationship of forces. In answer to reaction’s violence, the masses will tend towards armed self-defence. Disintegration, paralysis and disarming of the counter-revolution paves the way towards revolutionary victory. Victory of counter-revolution depends upon disarming the mass. [20]

When the chips are down, when power relations are stripped of all mediations and are nakedly reduced to bare essentials, Friedrich Engels’ formula is then borne out by empirical evidence: in the final analysis, the state is indeed a gang of armed people. The class or layer which has the monopoly of armed force possesses (either keeps or conquers) state power. And that again is what revolution, and counter-revolution, are all about. Sitting on the sidelines cannot prevent this confrontation. Nor can it contribute to delaying for ever the day of reckoning. In the last analysis the skeptics’ and reformists’ revulsion from revolution covers an implicit choice: the conservation of the status quo is at best a lesser evil compared to the costs and consequences of its revolutionary overthrow. This choice reflects social conservatism, not a rational judgment of empirically verifiable balance-sheets of “costs” of historical, i.e. real, revolutions and counter-revolutions.

No normal human being prefers to achieve social goals through the use of violence. To reduce violence to the utmost in political life should be a common endeavor for all progressive and socialist currents. Only profoundly sick persons – totally unable to contribute to the building of a real classless society – can actually enjoy advocating and practicing violence on a significant scale. Indeed, the increasing rejection of violence in a growing number of countries is a clear indicator that at least some moral-ideological progress has occurred in the last 70-75 years. One has just to compare the wild and brazen justification of war by nearly all the leading Western intellectuals and politicians in the 1914-1918 period to the near universal revulsion towards war today in the same milieu to note that progress.

Double moral standards still reign supreme in inter-class and inter-state relations, but the legitimacy of widespread use of violence by the rulers is at least increasingly questioned in a systematic and consistent way by a much greater number of people than in 1914-1918 or 1939-1945. The future, indeed the very physical survival of humankind, depends upon the outcome of this race between increasing consciousness about the necessary rejection of armed confrontation on the one hand, and increasing de facto destructiveness of existing and future weapons on the other. If the first does not eliminate the second through successful political action, the second will eventually destroy not only the first but all human life on earth.

But such a political action can only be revolutionary and thus implies the use of at least limited armed force. To believe otherwise is to believe that the rulers will let themselves be disarmed utterly peacefully, without using the arms they still control. This is to deny the threat of any violent counter-revolution, which is utterly utopian in the light of actual historical experience. It is to assume that ruling classes and strata are exclusively and always represented by mild well-meaning liberals. Go tell that to the prisoners of the Warsaw ghetto and of Auschwitz, to the million victims of Djakarta, to the oppressed non-white population of South Africa, to the Indochinese peoples, to the Chilean and Salvadoran workers and peasants, to the murdered participants of the Intifada, to the millions and millions of victims of reaction and counter-revolution throughout the world since the colonial wars of the 19th century and the Paris Commune. The elementary human moral duty in the face of that terrifying record is to refuse any retreat into (re)privatization and to assist by any means necessary the oppressed, the exploited, the humiliated, the downtrodden, to struggle for their emancipation. In the long run, this makes also the individual participant a more human, i.e. happier person, provided he does not make any pseudo-Real political concessions and observes unrestrictedly the rule: fight everywhere and always against any and every social and political condition which exploits and oppresses human beings. 

III. The Possibility of Revolution in the West

Revolutions and counter-revolutions, being real historical processes, always occur in really existing social-economic formations which are always specific. No two countries in the world are exactly alike, if only because their basic social classes and the major fractions of these classes are products of the specific history of each of these countries. Hence the character of each revolution reflects a unique combination of the general and the specific. The first derives from the logic of revolutions as sketched before. The second derives from the specificity of each particular set of prevailing relations of production and relations of political power in a given country, at a given moment, with its specific inner contradictions and a specific dynamic of their exacerbation.

A revolutionary strategy [21] represents the conscious attempt by revolutionists to influence by their political actions the outcome of objectively revolutionary processes in favor of a victory of the exploited and the oppressed, in today’s world essentially the wage-earning proletariat, its allies and the poor peasantry. It has therefore in turn to be specific to have a minimum chance of success. This means that it has to be attuned to the differentiated social reality which prevails in today’s world. We can use the formula of the “three sectors of world revolution” to designate significantly different strategic tasks, that is, roughly: the proletarian revolution in the imperialist countries; the combined national-democratic, anti-imperialist and socialist revolution in the so-called “third world countries”; the political revolution in the post-capitalist social formations. [22] We shall consider each of these in turn.

Regarding the industrialized metropolises of capitalism, a formidable objection is raised with regard to the possible effectiveness of revolutionary strategy. Many skeptics and reformists do not limit themselves to allege that revolutions are useless and harmful. They add that revolutions are impossible in these countries, that they won’t occur anyway, that to hope for them or expect them is utterly utopian; that to try to prepare for them or to further them is a total waste of time and energy.

This line of reasoning is based on two different – and basically contradictory – assumptions. The first one (which is still true) states that no victorious revolution has ever occurred in a purely imperialist country up till now. The case of 1917 Russia is seen as an exceptional case, a unique combination of under-development and imperialism. But it is irrational, even childish, to recognize as revolutions only those that have been successful. Once one accepts that revolutionary processes did occur in 20th century imperialist countries, surely the logical conclusion for a revolutionist is to study them carefully so as to be able to map out a course which will make defeat unlikely when they occur again in the future.

The second assumption is that whatever in the past triggered revolutions [23] (revolutionary crises and processes) will never happen again. Bourgeois society – the capitalist economy and parliamentary democracy – are supposed to have achieved such a degree of stability and “integrated” the mass of wage earners to such an extent that they won’t be seriously challenged in any foreseeable future.[24] This assumption, which already prevailed during the postwar boom (in obvious function of the undeniable increase in standard of living and social security which was its by-product for the Western proletariat) was seriously challenged in May 1968 and its immediate aftermath, at least in Southern Europe (and partially in Britain in the early seventies). It regained a powerful credibility in the wake of the retreat of the proletariat in the metropolitan countries towards essentially defensive struggles after 1974-1975.

We should understand the nub of the question. The seemingly a-prioristic assumption is in reality a prediction which will be historically either verified or falsified. It is in no way a final truth. It is nothing but a working hypothesis. It assumes a given variant of the basic trends of development of capitalism in the latter part of the 20th century: the variant of declining contradictions, of the ability of the system to avoid explosive crises, not to say catastrophes. In that sense, it is strikingly similar to the working hypothesis of the classical version of reformism, i.e. of rejection of a revolutionary perspective and revolutionary strategy: that of Eduard Bernstein. In his book which launched the famous “revisionism debate,” he clearly posited a growing objective decline in acuity of inner contradictions of the system as premises for his reformist conclusions: less and less capitalist crises; less and less tendencies towards war; less and less authoritarian governments; less and less violent conflicts in the world. [25] Rosa Luxemburg answered him succinctly that precisely the opposite would be the case. And when under the influence of the Russian revolution of 1905, Kautsky came the nearest to revolutionary Marxism and was the undisputed mentor of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Trotsky [26], he also explicitly identified the perspective of inevitable catastrophes to which capitalism was leading as one of the main pillars of Marxism’s revolutionary perspectives. [27] When he moved away from revolutionary Marxism, he started to consider these catastrophes as becoming more and more unlikely, i.e. he started to share Bernstein’s euphoric working hypothesis. [28]

What does the historical record reveal? Two world wars; the economic crisis of 1929 and onwards; fascism; Hiroshima; innumerable colonial wars; hunger and disease in the third world; the ongoing ecological catastrophe; the new long economic depression. They leave out that it has been Rosa Luxemburg who has been proven more right than Bernstein; and that it was the Kautsky of 1907 who has been proven right by history and not the Kautsky of the 1914 “ultra-imperialism” theory. Today it seems truer than ever, to paraphrase a famous formula of Jean Jaurès, that late capitalism carries within itself a succession of grave crises and catastrophes like clouds carry storms. [29]

One transforms that obvious truth – obvious in the sense that is borne out by solid historical evidence for three-quarters of a century – into a meaningless caricature when one insinuates that revolutionary Marxists except or predict permanent catastrophes, every year in every in imperialist country, so to speak. Leaving aside the lunatic fringe, serious Marxists have never taken that stand, which doesn’t mean that they have never been guilty of false analysis and erroneous evaluations regarding particular countries. If one soberly analyses the ups and downs of economic, social and political crisis in the West and Japan since 1914, what emerges is a pattern of periodic upsurges of mass struggles in some metropolitan countries which have at times put revolutionary processes on the agenda. In our view, the mechanisms leading in that direction remain operative today as they were since the period of historical decline of the capitalist mode of production was first posited by Marxists. The burden of proving that this is no longer the case is upon those who argue that today’s bourgeois society is somehow basically different from that of 1936, not to say that of 1968. We haven’t yet seen any persuasive argumentation of that nature.

The concept of periodically and not permanently possible revolutionary explosions in imperialist countries logically leads to a typology of possible revolutions in the West, which sees these revolutions essentially as a qualitative “transcroissance” of mass struggles and mass experiences of non-revolutionary times. We have often sketched this process of “overgrowing,” based not upon speculation or wishful thinking but on the experience of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary explosions which have really occurred in the West. [30] We can therefore limit ourselves to summarizing the process in the following chain of events: mass strikes; political mass strikes; a general strike; a general sit-down strike; coordination and centralization of democratically elected strike committees; transformation of the “passive” into an “active” general strike, in which strike committees assume a beginning of state functions, in the first place in the public and the financial sector. (Public transport regulation, access to telecommunications, access to saving and bank accounts limited to strikers, free hospital services under that same authority, “parallel” teaching in schools by teachers under strikers’ authority, are examples of such inroads into the realm of the exercise of quasi-state functioning growing out of an “active” general strike.) This leads to the emergence of a de facto generalized dual power situation with emerging self-defence bodies of the masses.

Such a chain of events generalizes trends already visible at high points of mass struggles in the West: Northern Italy, 1920; July 1927 in Austria; June 1936 in France; July 1948 in Italy; May 1968 in France; the “hot autumn” of 1969 in Italy; and the high points of the Portuguese revolution 1974-1975. Other general strike experiences [31] involving a similar chain of events were those of Germany 1920 and Spain (especially Catalonia) 1936-1937. (Albeit in a very different social context, the tendency of the industrial proletariat to operate in the same general sense in revolutionary situations can also be seen in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia, 1968-1969, and Poland 1980-1981.) Such a view of proletarian revolutionary behavior in the imperialist countries makes it easier to solve a problem which has haunted revolutionary Marxists since the beginning of the 20th century: the relation between the struggle for reforms (economic as well as political-democratic ones) and the preparation for revolution. The answer given to that problem by Rosa Luxemburg already in the beginning of the debate remains as valid today as it was at that time. [32] The difference between the reformists and revolutionists does not at all lie in the rejection of reforms by the latter and the struggle for reforms by the former. On the contrary: serious revolutionists will be the most resolute and efficient fighters for all reforms which correspond to the needs and the recognizable preoccupations of the masses. The real difference between reformists and revolutionary Marxists can be thus summarized:

  1. Without rejecting or marginalizing legislative initiatives, revolutionary socialists prioritize the struggle for reforms through broad, direct extra-parliamentary mass actions.
  2. Without negating the need to take into consideration real social-political relations of forces, revolutionary socialists refuse to limited the struggle for reforms to those which are acceptable to the bourgeoisie or, worse, which don’t upset the basic social and political relations of power. For that reason, reformists tend to fight less and less for serious reforms whenever the system is in crisis because, like the capitalists, they understand the “destabilizing” tendency of these struggles. For the revolutionists, the priority is the struggle for the masses’ needs and interests, and not the defence of the system’s needs or logic, nor the conservation of any consensus with capitalists.
  3. Reformists see the limitation or elimination of capitalism’s ills as a process of gradual progress. Revolutionists, on the contrary, educate the masses in the inevitability of crises which will interrupt the gradual accumulation of reforms, and which will periodically lead to a threat of suppression of conquests of the past, or to their actual suppression.
  4. Reformists will tend to brake, oppose or even repress all forms of direct mass actions which transcend or threaten bourgeois state institutions. Revolutionists, on the contrary, will systematically favor and try to develop self-activity and self-organization of the masses, even in daily struggles for immediate reforms, regardless of “destabilizing” consequences, thereby creating a tradition, an experience of broader and broader mass struggle, which facilitates the emergence of a dual power situation when generalized mass struggles – a general strike – actually occur. Thereby, proletarian revolutions of the type sketched above can be seen as an organic product – or climax – of broader and broader mass struggles for reforms in pre-revolutionary or even non-revolutionary times.
  5. Reformists will generally limit themselves to propagating reform. Revolutionary Marxists will combine a struggle for reforms with constant and systematic anti-capitalist propaganda. They will educate the masses in the system’s ills, and advocate its revolutionary overthrow. The formulation and struggle for transitional demands which, while corresponding to the masses’ needs, cannot be realized within the framework of the system, plays a key role here.

Doesn’t such a view of “really feasible revolution” in the west seriously underestimate the obstacle which the Western proletariat’s obvious attachment to parliamentary democracy constitutes on the road towards the overthrow of bourgeois institutions, without which no victorious revolution is possible? We don’t think so.

In the first place, many aspects of the legitimate attachment of the masses to democratic rights and freedom is not at all an attachment to bourgeois state institutions. It expresses, to use a clarifying formula of Trotsky, the presence of nuclei of proletarian democracy inside of the bourgeois state. [33] The larger the masses’ self-activity, self-mobilization and self-organization, the more the butterfly of democratic workers’ power tends to appear out of its “bourgeois” chrysalis. The fundamental issue will be one of growing confrontation between the “naked core” of bourgeois state power (the central government, the repressive apparatus, etc.) and the masses’ attachment to democratic institutions which they themselves control.

In the second place, there is no reason to counterpose in an absolute and dogmatic way organs of direct workers and popular power, and organs resulting from undifferentiated universal franchise. Workers and popular councils and their centralized coordination (local, regional, national, international council congresses) can be more efficient and democratic forms of making possible the direct exercise of political, economic and social power by millions of toilers. But if it is necessary to reject parliamentary cretinism, it is likewise necessary to reject anti-parliamentary cretinism. Whenever and wherever the masses clearly express their wish to have parliamentary-type power organs elected by universal franchise – the cases of Hungary, Poland and Nicaragua are clear in that sense – revolutionists should accept that verdict. These organs need not supercede the power of soviets insofar as the masses have learned through their own experiences that their councils can give them more democratic rights and more real power than the broadest parliamentary democracy alone; and insofar as the precise functional division of labor between soviet-type and parliamentary-type organs is elaborated into a constitution under conditions of workers power.

Of course, soviet institutions can and should also be elected on the basis of universal franchise. The fundamental difference between parliamentary and soviet democracy is not the mode of election but the mode of functioning. Parliamentary democracy is essentially representative, i.e. indirect democracy, and to a large extent limited to the legislative field. Soviet democracy contains much higher doses of direct democracy, including the instrument of “binding mandates” of the electors for their representative and the right to instant recall of these by their electors. In addition, it implies a large-scale instant recall of these by their electors. In addition, it implies a large-scale unification of legislative and executive functions which, combined with the principle of rotation, actually enables the majority of the citizens to exercise state functions.

The multiplication of functional assemblies with a division of competence serves the same purpose. A key specificity of soviet democracy is also that it is producers’ democracy, i.e. that it ties economic decision-taking to work places and federated work places (at local, regional and branch levels etc.), giving those who work the right to decide on their workload and the allocation of their products and services. Why should workers make sacrifices in spending time, nerves and physical strength for increasing output, when they generally feel that the results of these additional efforts don’t benefit them, and they have no way of deciding about the distribution of its fruits? Producers’ democracy appears more and more as the only way to overcome the declining motivation (sense of responsibility) for production, not to say the economy in its totality, which characterizes both the capitalist market economy and the bureaucratic command economy. 

IV. The Lessons of Third World Revolutions

The revolutionary processes in the Third World since World War II have confirmed the validity of the strategy of permanent revolution. Wherever these processes have climaxed in a full break with the old ruling classes and with international capital the historical tasks of the national-democratic revolution (national unification, independence from imperialism) have been realized. This was the case of Yugoslavia, Indochina, China, Cuba, Nicaragua. Wherever the revolutionary process did not culminate in such a full break, key tasks of the national-democratic revolution remain unfulfilled. This was the case of Indonesia, Bolivia, Egypt, Algeria, Chile, Iran.

The theory (strategy) of permanent revolution is counterposed to the traditional Comintern/CP strategy since the middle nineteen twenties, to wit that of the “revolution by stages,” in which a first phase of “bloc of four classes” (the so-called “national” bourgeoisie; the peasantry; the urban petty-bourgeoisie and the proletariat) is supposed to eliminate by a common political struggle the semi-feudal and oligarchic power structures, including foreign imperialist ones. Only in a second phase is the proletarian struggle for power supposed to come to the forefront. This strategy first led to disaster in China in 1927. It has led to grave defeats ever since. It is increasingly challenged inside many CPs themselves.

It is of no avail to avoid making this fundamental choice by the use of abstract formulas. The formulas, “workers and farmers government” or, worse, “people’s power” or “broad popular alliance under the hegemony of the working class,” just evade the issue. What revolutions are all about is state power. The class nature of state power – and/or of the question which major fraction of a given class exercises state power – is decisive. Either the formulas just cited are synonymous with the overthrow of the bourgeois-oligarchic state, its army and its repressive apparatus, and with the establishment of a workers state; or the formulas imply that the existing state apparatus is not to be “immediately” destroyed – in which case the class nature of the state remains bourgeois-oligarchic and the revolution will be defeated.

When it is said that without the conquest of power by the working class, without overthrow of the state of the former ruling classes, the historical tasks of the national-democratic revolution will not be fully realized, this does not mean that none of these tasks can be initiated under bourgeois or petty-bourgeois governments. After World War II, most of the previously colonial countries did after all achieve political national independence without overthrowing the capitalist order. In some cases at least, India being the most striking one, this was not purely formal but also implied a degree of economic autonomy from imperialism which made at least initial industrialization under national bourgeois ownership possible. Starting with the late sixties, a series of semi-colonial countries succeeded in launching a process of semi-industrialization which went much farther (South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Mexico, Singapore, Hong Kong are the most important cases), often supported by substantial land reforms as indispensable launching pads for these take-offs. The famous controversy of the nineteen fifties and the nineteen sixties on the so-called “dependencia” theory – the impossibility of any serious degree of industrialization without a total break with imperialism – has thus been settled by history.

It is likewise incorrect to interpret the theory of the permanent revolution as implying that the overthrow of the old state order and the radical agrarian revolution must perforce coincide with the complete destruction of capitalist private property in industry. It is true that the working class can hardly be supposed to tolerate its own exploitation at factory level while it is busy, or has already succeeded in, disarming the capitalists and eliminating their political power. But from this flows only that the victorious socialist revolution in underdeveloped countries will start making “despotic inroads” into the realm of capitalist private property, to quote a famous sentence of the Communist Manifesto. The rhythm and the extent of these inroads will depend on the political and social correlation of forces and on the pressure of economic priorities. No general formula is applicable here for all countries at all moments. The question of the rhythm and the extent of expropriation of the bourgeoisie is in turn tied to the question of the workers – peasants alliance, a key question of political strategy in most of the third world countries. Keeping capitalist property intact to the extent of not fulfilling the poor peasants’ thirst for land is obviously counter-productive. Hitting private property to the extent of arousing fear among the middle peasants that they too will lose their property is counter-productive from an economic point of view (it could become also counter-productive politically).

On balance, however, experience confirms what the theory suggests. It is impossible to achieve genuine independence from imperialism and genuinely to motivate the working class for the task of socialist reconstruction of the nation without the expropriation of big capital in industry, banking, agriculture, trade and transportation, be it international or national capital. The real difficulties only arise when the borderline between that expropriation and the tolerance of small and medium-sized capital (with all its implications for economic growth, social equality and direct producers’ motivation) has to be determined.

The historical record shows that a peculiar form of dual power of confrontation between the old and the new state order has appeared during all victorious socialist revolutions in underdeveloped countries: dual power reflecting a territorial division of the country into liberated zones in which the new state is emerging, and the rest of the country where the old state still reigns. This peculiar form of dual power expresses in turn the peculiar form of the revolutionary (and counter-revolutionary) processes themselves, in which armed struggle (guerrilla warfare, people’s war) occupied a central place. In the cases of China, Yugoslavia, and Vietnam, this resulted from the fact that the revolution started as a movement of national liberation against a foreign imperialist aggressor/invader, while becoming increasingly intertwined with civil war between the poor and the well-to-do, i.e. with social revolution. In the cases of Cuba and Nicaragua, the revolution started likewise as armed struggle against a viciously repressive and universally hated and despised dictatorship, again growing over into a social revolution.

One should of course not simplify the pattern emerging from these experiences. At least in Cuba and in Nicaragua (to some extent also in the beginnings of the Indochinese revolution and in several stages of the Yugoslav revolution) urban insurrections played an important role. A successful general strike and a successful urban insurrection decided the outcome of the Cuban and the Nicaraguan revolutions. The proponents of the strategy of armed struggle today generally adopt a more sophisticated and complex strategy then in the sixties, combining guerrilla warfare, the creation of liberated zones and the mobilization of mass organizations in urban zones (including forms of armed self-defence) in order to lead the revolution to victory. This combination seems reasonable in many semi-colonial countries, where state repression under pre-revolutionary conditions leaves no other alternative to revolutionary strategy. We believe, however, that this pattern should not be considered unavoidable once and for all in all Third World countries, regardless of specific circumstances and particular social-political relationships of forces at given moments. 

V. Political Revolution in So-called Socialist Societies

The concept of political (anti-bureaucratic) revolution in the bureaucratized societies in transition between capitalism and socialism (bureaucratized workers states) was first launched by Trotsky in 1933. It resulted from the diagnosis of the growing contradictions of Soviet society and from the prediction that these contradictions could no longer be removed through reforms; and it was related, therefore to the prediction that a self-reform of the bureaucracy was impossible. [34] Most left tendencies considered this concept, and the premises on which it was based, as either a fantasy, or objectively a call for counter-revolution. The overthrow of the bureaucratic dictatorship could only lead to a restoration of capitalism: that was the assumption.

These objections were unfounded. Trotsky’s prognosis of political revolution, like his analysis of the contradictions of Soviet society, appear as one of his most brilliant contributions to Marxism. Since 1953, we have witnessed a chain of revolutionary crises in Eastern Europe: GDR June 1953; Hungary 1956; Czechoslovakia 1968; Poland 1980-1981. One can discuss whether similar crises didn’t also occur in China, both in the nineteen sixties and the nineteen seventies. (Mikhail Gorbachev himself calls his perestroika a revolution and compares it with the political revolutions which occurred in France in 1830, 1848 and 1870.) [35] In all these concrete revolutionary processes, there was no prevalent tendency to restore capitalism. This did not only result from the objective fact that the overwhelming majority of the combatants were workers who have no interest in restoring capitalism. It was subjectively determined by the very demands of these combatants, which in Hungary set up workers’ councils with the Central Workers Council of Budapest leading the struggle. Similar development occurred in Czechoslovakia and in Poland. The line of march of the political revolution in the USSR will be quite similar.

On the other hand, it cannot be denied that attempts at self-reform of the bureaucracy have been many – the most spectacular of them being the introduction of workers’ self-management at factory level in Yugoslavia in 1950. While often instrumental in triggering off a “thaw” of the bureaucracy’s stranglehold on society and enabling a revival of mass activity and mass politization at various degrees, these attempts have always failed to solve the basic ills of these societies. This was especially true for the historically most important of these attempts, the one initiated by N.S. Khrushchev in the USSR. Indeed, today most of the “liberal” and “left” Soviet historians and intellectuals agree that the reason for the failure of Khrushchev was insufficient activity from below. This, incidentally, is also Gorbachev’s official version of the Khrushchev experience.

So the historical balance-sheet is again clear: attempts at self-reform can start a movement of change in the bureaucratized workers’ state. They can even facilitate the beginning of a genuine mass movement. But they cannot bring about a successful culmination of such change and movement. For this, a genuine popular revolution is indispensable. Self-reform of the enlightened wing of the bureaucracy cannot be a substitute for such a revolution. The bureaucracy is a hardened social layer, enjoying huge material privileges which depend fundamentally on its monopoly on the exercises of political power. But that same bureaucracy does not play any indispensable or useful role in society. Its role is essentially parasitic. Hence its rule is more and more wasteful. It tends to become the source of a succession of specific economic, social, political, ideological-more crises. Hence the need to remove it from its ruling position is an objective necessity for unblocking the march forward towards socialism. For this, a revival of mass activity, in the first place political activity of the working class, in needed. While a revolution will have many implications in the field of the economy, it will basically consolidate and strengthen the system of collective ownership of the means of production and of socialized planning, far from overthrowing it. That is why we speak of a “political revolution” instead of a “social revolution.” [36]

To a large extent, the bureaucracy rules in function of the political passivity of the working class; Trotsky even said through passive “tolerance” by the working class. The historical-social origins of that passivity are well-known: the defeats of the international revolution; the pressure of scarcity of consumer goods and of lack of culture born from the relative backwardness of Russia; the consequences of the Stalinist terror; a disappointment of historical dimensions, leading to a lack of historical alternatives to the bureaucracy’s rule. But the very progress of Soviet society during the last half century, achieved on the basis of the remaining conquests of the October revolution and in spite of the bureaucracy’s misrule, slowly undermines the basis of that passivity. The stronger, more skilled and more cultivated becomes the working class, the greater its resentments and expectations clash with the slow-down of economic growth and the manifold social crises which the bureaucracy’s misrule and waste provoke. So conditions emerge which tend to revive the working classes’ activity.

Timothy Garton Ash quotes a remarkable memorandum by the new Polish Prime Minister, Mieczyslaw F. Rakowski, which concludes with the prediction that if the “socialist formation” does not find the strength to reform itself, “the further history of our formation will be marked by shocks and revolutionary explosions, initiated by an increasingly enlightened people.” Indeed. But as Ash himself clearly indicates, in spite of his favoring reforms moving towards a restoration of capitalism tempered by a “liberal” democracy, the difficulty lies precisely in the social correlation of forces: the working class is not ready to pay the price for a return to capitalism, i.e. massive unemployment and inequality. So you can’t have generalized market economy plus political democracy. You can only have partial market economy plus political repression. So you can’t have radical reforms. So the likelihood that you’ll have a political revolution is growing. Ash himself rather cynically concludes: “It seems reasonable to suggest that the reform has a rather higher chance of minimal success – that is, of averting revolution – if only because of the further diversification of social interests which it will promote. The freeing of the private sector, in particular, means that Hungary might yet have an entrepreneurial bourgeoisie that will go to the barricades – against the revolting workers. Capitalists and Communists, shoulder to shoulder against the proletariat: a suitably Central European outcome for socialism. To estimate the percentage chance of peaceful transformation, by contrast requires only the fingers of one hand. [37]

Yet, precisely because the bureaucracy is not a new ruling class but a parasitic cancer on the working class and society as a whole, its removal through a political revolution by the workers does not require the type of armed conflict which until now has accompanied revolutions in class societies, including modern capitalist ones. It is more in the nature of a surgical operation. This was confirmed in the case of Hungary 1956 which went the farthest towards a victorious political revolution. A significant part of the CP apparatus and practically the whole army went over to the camp of the workers (of the people). Only a tiny handful of secret police agents opposed arms to the victorious masses in open provocations, thereby provoking an overt conflict (and their own sad fate) which otherwise could have been avoided. In Czechoslovakia 1968 a similar trend was set in motion. In fact, in all cases of such political revolutions witnesses up till now, only foreign military intervention could prevent it from becoming victorious nearly without bloodshed. One does not see what force could replace such a foreign intervention in the case of the USSR, probably not the Soviet army. And the capacity of the KGB to repress 265 million people seems dubious to say the least.

History has also confirmed the utopian character of the idea that the construction of socialism could be fully achieved in a single country or a small number of countries. It has confirmed that the USSR (and the so-called “socialist camp”) cannot escape the pressure of the world market (or international capitalism): the pressure of wars and of the permanent arms race: the pressure of constant technological innovations; and the pressure of changing consumption patterns for the mass of the producers. But far from being an unavoidable result of that pressure, the bureaucratic dictatorship undermines the revolution’s objective revolution in the USSR and Eastern Europe would strengthen considerably that resistance. It would make new advances towards socialism possible. But we should not fall into the illusion that it could even so, actually achieve a classless society of its own, independently of revolutionary developments elsewhere. 

VI. World Revolution Today

The concept of the three sectors of the world revolution refers to the different strategic-historical tasks with which the revolutionary process is confronted today. But this only represents the first step towards a concretization of the concept of world revolution today. The question of these sectors and their interaction, and hence their growing unity, has also to be raised.

For decades, the apologists of the Stalinist dictatorship used to say that revealing the dark side of the Soviet (the Eastern European, the Chinese) reality discourages the workers in the West from fighting to overthrow capitalism. But history has fully confirmed that it is impossible to conduct a fight for a good cause on the basis of lies, half-truths or the hiding of truth. As it was impossible, in the long run, to hide the revolting aspects of Soviet reality, the mass of the workers in the West and Japan (including those adhering to or voting for Communist Parties) ended by assimilating them. What really discouraged and demoralized them was not the revelation of these facts but the facts themselves – including their decade-long suppression by the Communist Parties and their fellow travellers. One of the biggest subjective obstacles to a new development of revolutionary consciousness among the Western working class is the repulsive mask which Stalinism has put on socialism (communism). By contributing to tearing off that mask, a victorious political revolution in the East greatly advances the cause of socialism the world over. It strengthens the struggle against capitalism and imperialism instead of weakening it.

The idea that such a revolution would at least weaken the USSR (or the “socialist camp”) at state level and thereby change the military relationship of forces in favor of imperialism is likewise unfounded. It is an undeniable fact that the existence of the USSR in spite of the bureaucratic dictatorship and theory of “peaceful coexistence,” objectively contributed to the victory and eventually the consolidation of the Chinese revolution and the downfall of the colonial empires in the subsequent decades. But parallel to that objective reality must be seen the fact that the Soviet bureaucracy tried to obstruct the progress of the Chinese revolution through the strategy it advocated, and played a key role in the post World War II consolidation of capitalism in Western Europe.

Furthermore, it is wrong to disconnect military strength from its economic and social base and from the political nature of governments. A Soviet Union, not to say a “socialist camp,” governed through a pluralistic socialist democracy and a broad consensus of the majority of the toilers, would be much more efficient economically, far more influential in the world, and thereby much stronger militarily than the USSR of today. [38]

The concept of interrelationship between the three sectors of the world revolution is supported by the fact that while victorious revolutions in the Third World countries can weaken imperialism, they cannot overthrow it. In the epoch of nuclear weapons it is obvious that imperialism can only be overthrown inside the metropolis itself. But the main obstacle to that overthrow is not the objective strength of imperialism or the bourgeois state, nor the absence of periodically expressed demonstrations inside the metropolis. The main obstacle is subjective: the level of Western (and Japanese) working class consciousness and the political quality of its leadership. Precisely for that reason, new qualitative advances towards socialism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and the removal of the bureaucratic dictatorships, would greatly assist in the solution of the problem.

On the other hand, any leap forward towards a victorious proletarian revolution in the West and the most advanced semi-industrialized Third World countries (like Brazil), which will occur under immeasurably more favorable objective and subjective conditions than the Russian October Revolution, will usher in material advantages which will operate as a powerful stimulant for the toilers of all countries, beginning with the Soviet toilers if they have not yet overthrown the bureaucracy’s yoke at that moment. To mention just one key aspect of an already victorious proletarian revolution in an economically advanced country: the slogan of the half-work day would play the same role as the slogan of “Land, Bread, Peace” played in the Russian revolution. And if that were realized no sector of the working class the world over could stay impervious to the reality.

The potential relationship – we say potential because it is obviously not yet a fact today – between the three sectors of world revolution is premised on historical/social unity of the world working class and the strength of the forces operating towards the development of conscious awareness of that unity. We know perfectly well how strong the obstacles are on the road towards that political consciousness. They have been enumerated and analyzed a thousand times. What we want to stress is that they can be overcome by the operation of still stronger objective trends. The unity of the process of world revolution is related to the growing internationalization of the productive forces and of capital – exemplified in the emergence of the transnational corporation as the typical late capitalist firm predominant in the world market – which leads unavoidably to a growing internationalization of the class struggle. Hard material reality will teach the international working class that retreating toward purely national defensive strategies (exemplified by protectionism) leaves all the advantages to capital and increasingly paralyzes even the defence of a given standard of living and of political rights. The only efficient answer to an internationalization of capital’s strength and maneuvers is international coordination, solidarity and organization of the working class. During the last decades, the objective need for world revolution as a unity of the three world sectors of revolution has received a new and frightening dimension through the growth of the destructive potential of contemporary technological and economic trends, resulting from the survival of capitalism beyond the period of its historical legitimacy. The accumulation of huge arsenals of nuclear and chemical weapons; the extension of nuclear power; the destruction of tropical forests; the pollution of air and water the world over; the destruction of the ozone layer; the desertification of large tracts of Africa; the growing famine in the Third World: all these trends threaten disasters which put a question mark on the physical survival of human-kind. None of these disasters can be stopped or prevented at national or even continental level. They all call for solutions on a worldwide scale. The consciousness about the global nature of humanity’s crisis and the need for global solutions, largely overlapping nation-states, has been rapidly growing.

Mikhail Gorbachev and his main advisers and intellectual supporters tend to draw from a correct perception of the globalization of problems and of the absolute necessity to prevent a nuclear war the conclusion that progressively, these global problems will be solved through an increased collaboration between imperialist and “socialist” states. They base themselves on two assumptions in that regard. First they believe that a course towards world revolution exacerbate inter-state relations to the point where the outbreak of a world war would become more likely, if not unavoidable. Second, they tactily presume that the inner contradictions of capitalism will tend to decrease, that the real class struggle will become less explosive, that trends towards increased class collaboration will prevail in the 21st century. Both these assumptions are utterly unrealistic. They are of the same type as the hope to achieve the building of a really socialist society in a single country, of which they represent in a certain sense the logical continuation. The fact is that while victorious or even unfolding revolutions have undoubtedly led to counter-revolutionary interventions by imperialist powers, they have on several occasions prevented larger wars from occurring. Without the German revolution of 1918-1919, and the revolutionary general strike in that country in 1920, the preparations for a general strike in Britain that same year, a major war of all imperialist powers against Soviet Russia would probably have occurred. Without the victory of the October revolution, the first World War would probably have been prolonged at least for one if not for more years. The revolutionary upsurge in Spain, France and Czechoslovakia in 1936 significantly slowed down the march toward World War II. If it would have been victorious even only in Spain, not to say in France and Czechoslovakia as well, World War II could have been prevented. So to identify revolutions with unavoidable war is just a misreading of the historical record. In fact, a victorious revolution in France and Britain today, not to say in the USA, would be the surest way to make world war impossible.

The real reasoning of the neo-reformist Gorbachev version of “globalization” is based on the classical reformist illusion of a decline in the explosiveness and intensity of the inner contradictions of capitalism and of bourgeois society. We have already dealt with the unrealistic character of that assumption. It errs especially by not taking into account the structural link between the destructive uses of technology and economic resources on the one hand, and competitive attitudes, competitive strife, private property and market economy on the other hand. Bourgeois society can never lead and will never lead towards a world without weapons and without technological innovations applied regardless of their costs to the natural and human ecology. You need socialism to achieve these goals. And you have to achieve these goals if humanity is to survive. The strongest justification for world revolution today is that humankind is literally faced with the long-term dilemma: either a World Socialist Federation or Death.


1. Precisely because the Marxist conception of revolution encompasses the necessary dimension of mass action, the concept of “revolution from above” is not strictly accurate, although it was used by Engels and has, of course, a well circumscribed significance. Joseph II’s reforms in Austria; Tsar Alexander II’s abolition of serfdom; Bismarck’s unification of Germany; the Meiji “revolution” in Japan, were historical attempts to pre-empt revolutions from below through radical reforms from above. To what extent they were successful or failed in that historical purpose must be analyzed in each specific case. The same applied mutatis mutandis to Gorbachev’s reform course in the Soviet Union today.

2. This was the epigram of the weekly Révolutions de Paris, which started to appear from the end of August 1789 in Paris.

3. See Barrington Moore Jr., The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt, M.E. Sharpe, White Plains, N.Y. 1978.

4. This was the case during the days preceding the downfall of the Shah in the streets of Teheran, a spectacle largely forgotten because of the subsequent developments in that country.

5. This does not automatically flow from the disintegration and disarmament of the former army. The ruling class can make an attempt to substitute a new bourgeois army to the old one, as it did in Cuba after the downfall of Batista and in Nicaragua after the fall of Somoza, but without success.

6. This is the currently prevailing explanation of the reasons for the Shah’s downfall: the combination of the “white revolution” destabilizing traditional Iranian society and the savagery of SAVAK.

7. In Russia, the cause of the February-March 1917 revolution was the rottenness of tsarism and the tremendous parasitical weight of the peasants’ exploitation upon the overall economic development of the country. The triggering factors of that revolution were hunger riots of the Petrograd women workers which the cossacks refused to repress. This expressed the emergence of a de facto alliance between the working class and the peasantry, contrary to what had occurred in the repression of the 1905 revolution. There is, however, also a deeper dialectical mediation between structure and conjuncture. The specific social-political order in Tsarist Russia determined both its participation in the first world war, and its increasing incapacity to cope with the material and political prerequisites of successful warfare. This incapacity in turn deepened the social crisis in a dramatic way – leading to chronic food shortages, to hunger riots and hence to the decisive days of outbreak of the February-March 1917 revolution. A similarly multi-layered analysis is needed to understand contemporary revolutionary moments – including unsuccessful ones, such as May 1968 in France. What went on in France during the climax of the mass upsurge and the general strike deserves to be seen as a revolution, although it was defeated. And the triggering factor of the student revolt in Paris must itself be seen in the context of a deeper structural crisis of social and political relations. Useful here is the remarkable study by the Soviet sociologist, Alex D. Khlopin, New Social Movements in the West: Their causes and prospects of developments, which complements Western Marxist analyses.

8. In Russia, the material interests of the cossacks as sons of peasants, the connections of these interest to political awareness on the one hand, and to the explosive crisis of the relations of production in the countryside on the other hand, all converge to explain the cossacks’ peculiar shift in behavior, at a given moment, in a given place.

9. It is, of course, possible that this breakdown is only temporary and only lasts some weeks or months. But this doesn’t make the collapse less real. In Germany – not only, but of course especially in Berlin – this is what occurred in November-December 1918. In France, this is what occurred at the climax of May 1968. Indeed, it was recently confirmed that, at that moment, General de Gaulle couldn’t phone General Massu, the commander of the French army in Germany: he had lost control of the whole telecommunication system in Paris as a result of an effective general strike. An anonymous woman telephone operator whom he finally succeeded in speaking to personally, refused to obey his order. The decision of the strike committee prevailed. These are the unknown heroines and heroes of revolution. This is the stuff proletarian revolutions are made of.

10. See Edward Luttwack, Technique of the Coup d’État (1968); cf. interview with Stampa-Sera, August 8, 1988.

11. Nevertheless Spinoza, who was himself skeptical about the outcome of revolutions, explicitly proclaimed the people’s right to revolution, more than a century before that same right was ensconced in the Preamble of the American Declaration of Independence first, in the French Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizens afterwards. To our knowledge, the Yugoslav Constitution is today the only one which not only contains explicitly that right, but even adds to it the duty to make a revolution under specific conditions.

12. The dogma of the basic “evil” of humankind is based in the West on the superstition of Original Sin. Of late, it has received a pseudo-scientific veneer with the Konrad Lorenz school of the alleged universal agressivity of human beings, which some psychologists then tend to generalize into a human trend towards self-destruction. Better psychologists, in the first place Sigmund Freud, pointed out that the human psyche combines both a trend towards cooperation and a trend towards self-destruction, Eros and Thanatos, to love and to kill. If only the second one would have prevailed, humankind would have disappeared a long time ago instead of showing an impressive demographic-biological expansion.

13. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish philosopher Hillel expressed the contradictions of individual skepticism in a succinct way: “If I am not for myself, who is for me? And if I am for myself alone, what then am I? and if not now, then when?” Kant tried to escape that dilemma through his categorical imperative, but failed to apply it convincingly to social conflicts (see his attitude towards the French revolution). Marx found the solution in his categorical imperative to struggle against all social conditions in which human beings are debased, oppressed, and alienated.

14. Revolutionary continuity was maintained by a handful of followers of Babeuf who, through the person of Buonarotti, helped to inspire Auguste Blanqui’s Société des Saisons, which gave rise to anew revolutionary organization in the 1830s. But for nearly forty years, there were very few organized revolutionaries in the country which witnessed five revolutions in the course of a century.

15. The debate goes on, of course. René Sedillot (Le coût de la révolution française, Paris, Perrin, 1987) is the most brazen of the latter-day dragon-killers, who continue the good fight against the French revolution after two centuries. The sophisms on which he bases his argumentations are revealed by the fact that he adds the victims of counter-revolution, in the first place of Napoleon’s wars, to the cost of the revolution. But he does not compare these “costs” to those of the Ancien Régime’s dynastic wars: the devastation of a quarter of Germany, the big famine in France at the beginning of the 18th century, etc.

16. The inclusion of Deng Xiaoping in this list is of course open to serious challenge. Mao was not Lenin; he was rather a unique combination of given traits of both Lenin and Stalin. Hence, Deng Xiaoping, in spite of many right-wing tendencies in his politics, cannot be considered the Thermidorian equivalent of Stalin of the Chinese revolution.

17. Incidentally, this is one of the objective bases for the second “law of permanent revolution” formulated by Trotsky. For the revolutionary process to continue after it starts to recede in a given country, its center of gravity must shift to another one.

18. Classical examples of defeated counter-revolutionary coups are the Kornilov one in Russia, August 1917, the Kapp-von Luttwitz putsch in Germany, 1920 and the Spanish military-fascist uprising in July 1936 in Catalonia, Madrid, Valencia, Málaga, the Basque country, etc.

19. A democratic counter-revolution is a counter-revolution which seeks to maintain essential features of bourgeois democracy, including the legal mass labor movement, universal franchise and a broadly free press, after having beaten back the workers’ attempts to conquer power and to arm themselves. Of course, while engaged in suppressing the German revolution, Ebert, Noske an Co. systematically curtailed democratic freedoms, forbade political parties, suspended newspapers, requisitioned strikers and even outlawed strikes, to preserve the bourgeois state. Moreover, Ebert cynically lied before the All-German Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils (December 1918) when he denied having brought soldiers to Berlin for repressive purposes. He had actually done so, in direct connection with the Imperial Army’s High Command, behind the back of his fellow “people’s commissars” (ministers) of the Independent Socialist Party. The repression started a few days later.

20. This occurred in Germany throughout the country starting with January 1919 in Berlin. It occurred in Barcelona after the May days in 1937, in Greece starting with December 1944, in Indonesia in 1965, just to quote some examples. Courageous left socialists like the prewar Austrian social-democrats and Salvador Allende in Chile did not refuse to fight counter-revolution arms in hand, but they refused to organize and prepare the masses systematically for this unavoidable showdown and deliberately left the initiative to the enemy, which meant courting disaster.

21. Revolutionists cannot “cause revolutions,” nor can they “provoke” them artificially (this is the basic difference between a revolution and a putsch). Engels even went further and stated: “Die Leute die sich ruhmen, eine Revolution gemacht zu haben, haben immer noch am Tage darauf gesehen, dass sie nicht wussten, was sie taten, dass die ‘gemachte’ Revolution, jener die sie hatten machen wollen, durchaus nicht ähnlich sah” (letter to Vera Sassulitch of April 23, 1885, MEW, Band 36, p.307). [“The people who boast of having made a revolution have always seen only the next day that they hadn’t know what they were doing, that the revolution they had ‘made’ didn’t look like the one they had wanted to make.” – Translation by MIA]

22. The concept of “combined revolution” is also applicable to some imperialist countries, but with a different ponderation of the combined elements from that of third world countries. E.g. the combination of proletarian revolution and self-determination of oppressed national minorities in Spain; the combination of proletarian revolution and Black and Hispanic liberation in the USA.

23. E.g. in Finland 1917-1918; in Austria 1918-1919, 1927, 1934; in Germany 1918-1923; in Italy 1919-1920, 1944-1945, 1969; in Spain 1931-1937; in France 1936, 1968; in Portugal 1974-1975.

24. Some argue that the impossibility of escaping “technology compulsion” (technologischer Sachzwang) constitutes today an unsurpassable obstacle on the road to proletarian revolution and “Marxian socialism.” This is an unproven assumption, based upon the petitio principii that technology somehow develops and is applied independently from the social interests of those who have the means (under large scale commodity production: the capital) to apply it.

25. See Eduard Bernstein: Die Voraussetzungen des Sozialismus und die Aufgaben der Sozialdemokratie (1899). [published in English under the title Evolutionary Socialism. – Note by MIA]

26. On Kautsky’s evolutions away from revolutionary Marxism in 1909-1910, its turning point (his capitulation to the Parteivorstand on the censorship that body applied to his bookletThe Road to Power) and its political outcome in his opposition to Rosa Luxemburg’s campaign in favor of political mass strikes, see Massimo Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution, NLB, London 1979, pp.123 ff.

27. Karl Kautsky, Les Trois Sources du Marxisme (1907), ed. française, Spartacus, Paris 1969, pp.12-13.

28. Kautsky’s articles on ultra-imperialism in which he considered inter-imperialist wars more and more unlikely, started to appear from 1912 on. The final one had the unfortunate fate of appearing in Die Neue Zeit on the aftermath of the actual outbreak of World War I.

29. We have developed this idea further in our article The reasons for founding the Fourth International and why they remain valid todayInternational Marxist Review, Summer-Autumn 1988.

30. Ernest Mandel, Revolutionary Marxism To-day, New Left Books, London 1979.

31. The case of the German workers’ answer to the Kapp-Luttwitz coup of 1920 and of the Spanish workers’ answer to the fascist-military uprising of July 1936 – in a more limited way also the Italian workers’ uprising of 1948 – helps to integrate into this typology the question of the proletariat’s capacity to answer massively counter-revolutionary initiatives of the bourgeoisie. This will remain on the agenda in the West in the future as it was in the past. But this does not justify any refusal to recognize that the process of proletarian revolutions likely to occur in the West and in Japan will most probably be quite different from these particular examples, as well as from the revolutionary processes which we witnessed in Yugoslavia, China, Indochina, Cuba, Nicaragua during and after World War II.

32. See Norma Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (New Left Books, London, 1976) on this, and on Rosa being one of the founders, together with Trotsky, of a theory of dual power emerging from workers’ mass strikes.

33. Trotsky, Was Nun? Schicksalsfragen des deutschen Proletariats, January 1932.

34. Leon Trotsky first formulated that conclusion in 1933 in his article The Class Nature of the Soviet State (October 1, 1933), Writings of Leon Trotsky 1933-1934, p.101f.

35. On the question of how far that characterization is legitimate, see Ernest Mandel, Beyond Perestroika, Verso, London 1988.

36. On the theoretical foundations of the definition of “political revolution” and the analysis which leads to it, see Ernest Mandel, Bureaucratie et production marchandeQuatrième Internationale, No.24, April 1987.

37. The New York Review of Books, October 27, 1988.

38. The Mexican sociologist Pablo Gonzales Casanova has tried to refute the legitimacy of the political revolution in the bureaucratized workers states on the basis of a hierarchy of revolutionary tasks on a world scale. As long as imperialism survives, revolutionists (socialists, anti-imperialists) everywhere in the world should give priority to the fight against that monster over and above all other struggles. (See his La Penetración metafísica en el Marxismo europeo, in isabado, supplemento de Unomasuno, 8/1/1983). Underlying that reasoning is the hypothesis that an ongoing, not to say a victorious, political revolution in a bureaucratized workers’ state somehow weakens the fight against imperialism. But that supposition is completely unfounded, for the reason we have advanced.