Revolutionary Strategy in the Imperialist Countries (1971)

By Ernest Mandel


A revolutionary strategy is possible only in a revolutionary epoch: this is a basic tenet of Marxism. A social revolution cannot be achieved until objective historical conditions have placed that revolution on the agenda. A social revolution cannot result simply from the desires, dreams, ideals of revolutionary-minded individuals. Its consummation requires a level of socioeconornic contradictions which makes the overthrow of the ruling class objectively possible. And it needs the presence of another social class which, as a result of its place in the process of production, its weight in society, and its political potential, can successfully achieve this overthrow.

A revolutionary strategy in the advanced industrial countries today only makes sense, from a Marxist point of view, if one affirmatively answers these two questions: Is there a historical structural crisis of the world capitalist system? Does the working class have a revolutionary potential?


All those who consider that world capitalism has been a system in full expansion for twenty-five years or longer and remains so, that in other words, the historical epoch of ascending capitalism is not yet over, cannot reasonably project a revolutionary strategy as a short or medium-range perspective. They can, in the best of cases, maintain a principled opposition to the capitalist system on grounds similar to that of Western social democracy in its best period prior to World War I through a combination of the struggle for immediate reforms with general socialist propaganda. That’s what the few reformists who call themselves Marxists in Europe — in the USA they seem to have disappeared — actually do.


There are also those who claim to be Marxists but assume that capitalism has gone through a period of tremendous worldwide expansion-Russia being capitalist, China being capitalist, and capitalism solving in one country after another the problem of socioeconomic underdevelopment. They, too, can remain consistent with their theoretical assumptions only by acting like reformists, i.e., by excluding any need for a revolutionary strategy as an immediate perspective in the West.


Revolutionary Marxists, on the other hand, have to prove that they are living in a historical epoch of crisis and disintegration of the world capitalist system, if they want to keep their search for a revolutionary strategy on the foundations of historical materialism. Evidence in that field is rather overwhelming. After all, nobody really believes that Presidents Johnson and Nixon have sent over half a million soldiers to Vietnam to prevent Ho Chi Minh from spreading capitalism to South Vietnam. What they want to stop is not capitalist competition by their competitors — who could seriously argue that the main economic competition which US imperialism meets today on a world scale comes from North Vietnam or China, or even the Soviet Union at that! — but a challenge by an opposing social system, a challenge from anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist forces on a world scale. This challenge, which has existed ever since the October Revolution, is bigger today than it ever was, having spread to all six continents. Nothing of the kind existed in that epoch of expanding and triumphant capitalism which lasted through the nineteenth century up to World War I.


It is sometimes alleged that the growth of the productive forces in Western imperialist countries since World War II — which is undeniable — disproves the existence of a historical crisis of decline and decomposition of world capitalism. This argument is not very convincing. It reflects a mechanistic conception of how a certain mode of production, how a certain set of relations of production, become fetters on a further development of the productive forces. A historical analogy will immediately clarify the point. Could one really argue that there was an absolute decline of the productive forces, say, in France during the fifty or twenty years prior to the Great French Revolution of 1789? Or, to take an even more striking example: Was the Russian Revolution of 1917 preceded by twenty years of stagnation and decline, or rather by twenty years of stormy expansion of the productive forces?


In his famous Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, written in January 1859, Marx specifies the necessary and sufficient preconditions for a historical epoch of social revolution in the most concise way possible: “At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production, these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.”

The keystone of Marx’s materialist theory of social revolution is therefore the concept of the contradiction between production and property relations on the one hand and the productive forces on the other hand. In today’s world this conflict expresses itself in three ways. First, by the inability of world capitalism to solve any basic economic problems of the masses within the framework of the imperialist system. This is most graphically demonstrated by its inability to eliminate centuries-old backwardness in the so-called third-world countries. Second, by the growing inability of the system to contain the growth of productive forces  — especially of the science-oriented third industrial revolution — within the framework of private property and the nation-state. Third, by a periodic large-scale revolt of masses of industrial and intellectual workers, as well as of youth in general, against the persistence of these capitalist relations of production, which mutilate their needs, their lives and their capacity for self-realisation, and totally thwart the tremendous potential of human freedom and human self-realisation up by contemporary industry, technology, and science.

Marx’s famous prediction of a hundred years ago, that the productive forces would transform themselves more and more into destructive forces if they were not in time liberated from the fetters of private property and profit orientation, hits the nail squarely on the head. This does not imply an absolute decline in production but a much more frightful form of decay: a qualitative transformation of the results of increased output which threatens to destroy the last remnants of freedom of choice for the individual, the material biosphere of mankind, if not the very existence of the human race. The output of an ever-increasing mass of increasingly meaningless commodities of increasingly doubtful quality; the pollution of the atmosphere, land and water; and the threat of nuclear and biological warfare resulting from the growth of tremendous permanent war expenditures all testify to the realism of Marx’s prediction.

If we approach the problem in this way, we will likewise have a key to judge the revolutionary potential of the working class. This is not primarily a question of gauging what workers think — going around with an electronic counter, measuring the number of workers reading capitalist or reformist newspapers and those reading revolutionary ones; comparing the affiliations to trade unions led by labor lieutenants of capitalism or to reformist working-class parties with the number of working-class members and sympathisers of revolutionary organisations, and then reaching the obvious conclusion that the overwhelming majority of the Western working class is not yet under the political influence or leadership of revolutionists. This is essentially a problem of analysing the workers’ force in reality and what they do, of ascertaining what the objective significance of their actions is.

In order to prove that the working class has lost its revolutionary potential, it would be necessary to prove that all the periodic explosions of working-class discontent — whose reality nobody can deny — are centered exclusively around problems of higher wages and shorter working hours, to enable them to have more time to consume capitalist commodities and enjoy the services of the capitalist leisure industries. But this image does not correspond to the reality of Western European workers’ discontent; it does not correspond to the reality of the discontent of Japanese and Australian workers; it does not correspond to the reality of discontent in such an industrialised country of Latin America as Argentina; nor will it correspond to the future explosions of discontent in the United States since the politically advanced countries simply show the politically more backward one the image of its own future.

Any analysis of the May 1968 revolutionary upsurge in France cannot but arrive at the conclusion that its main thrust, on behalf of the working class, went far beyond questions of higher wages and shorter working hours. And since May 1968, we have had an uninterrupted series of examples reflecting this main thrust in all the main industrial countries of Western Europe: Italy, Britain, and even that supposed bulwark of conservatism and social conformism, Western Germany.

When workers challenge the basic organisation of labor at plant level as they have done in many Italian factories (in one case, that of the Candy washing machine plant, even raising the problem of eliminating the basic division of labor between manual workers and white-collar employees by a job-rotation system); when they challenge the employers’ right to lay off workers, close factories, or transfer equipment to other, factories, as they are starting to do in Britain, when they raise at plant level the slogan of “Open the Books” in response to employers’ refusal to grant demands, as they did during several recent wildcat strikes in Western Germany; when they seize and occupy a factory in answer to an employer’s lockout, as they recently did at the Le Mans Renault plant in France, they thereby express their instinctive urge to raise the level of class struggle and of class confrontation from the elementary union level of the redistribution of income between profits and wages to the highest level prior to the struggle for power. This is the level of challenging Capital’s right to dispose as it wills of workers and machines.

Such is the basic trend of the new working-class initiatives in Western Europe today. It is a clear challenge to the continuance of capitalist relations of production. This provides a striking illustration of the revolutionary potential of the working class. And this is why a revolutionary strategy in the Marxist sense of the word is both possible and indispensable, if the new upsurge of working class militancy which is now in full swing in Europe is not to end in defeat as it did in the previous three main periods of upsurge: that at the end of World War I; that during the mid-thirties; and that at the end of World War II.

To state that an analysis of the working class as an agency of social change should start from how the workers act and not from what they think does not at all imply that the question of their thinking — of their level of consciousness — is irrelevant to the processes of social change in the West. On the contrary: it is a basic thesis of Marxism that a socialist revolution, at least in an advanced industrial country, needs a high level of consciousness of the working class to be successful.

Socialism is the first social system in the history of mankind to be introduced by the conscious action of its collective creators and not, so to speak, behind the backs of the actors in history’s drama. But once we understand that, in the last analysis, it is not consciousness which determines social existence, but social existence which determines social consciousness, it is in the realm of the conditions of production, of contradictions between human needs and capitalist relations of production, and of the inner contradictions of that capitalist mode of production itself that we have to discover the reasons for the dialectical development of working-class consciousness in its successive phases. Under normal conditions, the ruling ideology of society and the ruling pattern of behavior of workers cannot but be determined by the ideology, the values and patterns created and promoted by the ruling class. Then, under conditions of growing social crisis, a growing part of that same working class cannot but liberate itself progressively from that same ideology and pattern of behavior inspired by the ruling class.

Marcuse’s main mistake is the assumption that, because the capitalist class can undoubtedly largely shape the consumer behavior and ideas of a majority of workers, it can thereby erase the acute awareness of alienation in the field of production. Alienation of the consumer and of the citizen is allegedly an efficient and sufficient means to suppress awareness of being alienated as producer. But this flies in the face of historical experience, of theoretical analysis, and simple common sense. After all, what a man does during his work; the frustrations he undergoes eight to ten hours a day-when one also counts the time spent going to and from the place of work-cannot but periodically influence his behavior at least as much, and very likely more than, the manipulated “satisfactions” he can “enjoy” four hours a day and during weekends.

It is true that a whole series of conjunctural factors is required to bring this reflection of the structural ills of capitalism to the threshold of the workers’ consciousness. Conjunctural shifts in the trends of income and employment (a slight decrease of real wages after a long period of increases; a sudden increase in unemployment after a long period of full employment; a sudden threat of technological unemployment and mass layoffs in some key sector of industry, etc.); a crisis of leadership in the ruling class; a deep-going political crisis as a result of foreign imperialist adventures; a sudden upsurge of militancy and anti-capitalist activity in “marginal” sectors of society, like the students or the teachers: all these factors and many others can create a favorable climate for a growing awareness by the workers of their alienation as producers, and for a sudden shift of the class struggle to questioning the employer’s authority in the shops, factories, and offices themselves. We are unlikely ever to find two large countries where an identical combination of circumstances will produce the general result we have described.

It is also true that purely spontaneous struggles challenging capital’s right and power to command men and machines cannot go beyond a certain level. We are here confronted with one of the most complicated problems of Marxism and of sociology or contemporary history in general: the interaction between the spontaneous struggles of the workers, the role of the vanguard organisations, and the growth of working-class consciousness.

As a revolutionary Marxist,. I do not believe that you can abolish an army or militarism by shortening guns millimeter by millimeter. Capitalism is a structure which can absorb and integrate many reforms (e.g., wage increases) and which automatically rejects all those reforms which run counter to the logic of the system (such as completely free public services which completely cover social needs). You can abolish the structure only by overthrowing it, not by reforming it out of existence.

But the understanding of the objectives of that revolutionary process, which can only take the form of social ownership of all the means of production and of conquering political power for the mass of the toiling people, must go hand in hand with an understanding of the dialectical unity between the struggle for reforms and the diffusion of revolutionary consciousness. Without the practical experience and partial victories acquired by the workers in their struggle for immediate demands-both economic and political ones-a rise of consciousness in the working class, a rise in its self-confidence, is impossible. And without such a rising self-confidence, the revolutionary insolence involved in challenging the rule of the most powerful, richest and best-armed ruling class which has ever existed on earth-the Western bourgeoisie-is just not imaginable.

The credibility of any plan for taking power, what Lenin called a revolutionary strategy, would in such cases be very low indeed in the eyes of broader masses. Gradual, molecular, nearly invisible processes of accumulating self-confidence, consciousness of the potential power of one’s own class, are therefore of the utmost importance in preparing class explosions like May 1968 in France and the one which is now being prepared in Italy.

Objective contradictions in the system make periodic explosions of working-class discontent inevitable. But let me remind you of Lenin’s statement that what distinguished a true revolutionist from a reformist was the fact that the former kept on spreading revolutionary propaganda even though the period was not-or not yet-revolutionary or prerevolutionary. Multiple skirmishes, together with continuous socialist revolutionary propaganda, prepare the working class for entering these explosions with a growing awareness of the need to challenge the system as a whole, of the need for a general struggle, a general strike, a challenge against the political as well as the social and economic power of the ruling class.

But this awareness in turn is not in itself sufficient. It does not guide the working class to the next immediate step forward, once it has engaged in a general struggle. It does not answer the question: What do we do when we have occupied the factories? It is lack of consciousness of this decisive next step forward which again and again has stopped the working class in its tracks. This happened in the first years after World War I in Germany; in 1920 and 1948 in Italy; in 1936 and 1968 in France.

Two answers can be given to that question. The first one insists on the key role played by the building of a revolutionary party, which centralises experience, consciousness, and assures its continuity. I shall come back to this question in a minute. It is obviously an essential part of the answer, but it is not the only one. Without a certain level of working-class consciousness and revolutionary self-activity, a revolutionary party cannot transform a struggle for immediate demands into a struggle challenging the very existence of the capitalist system. Even more so: without such a consciousness in at least part of the working class, such a revolutionary party cannot really become a mass party.

This is today the heart of the problem of revolutionary strategy in the Western industrialised countries. As I do not believe that capitalism will suddenly collapse as a result of its inner contradictions; as I do not believe that the main task of revolutionary socialists is just to sit on the sidelines and interpret current events, hoping for some miracle to bring about a revolution; as I firmly believe in the virtue of conscious intervention, in the key pedagogic role of struggle and experience drawn from struggle for the working class, my conclusion is the following: only by trying to expand actual living working-class struggles toward an incipient challenge against the authority of the employers, of the capitalist system, and of the bourgeois state inside the factories (and incidentally also in the neighborhoods, the living quarters of the working class) can a qualitative rise in working-class consciousness be achieved. This gives struggles for workers’ control today in imperialist countries key strategic importance.

Through such struggles, and only through such struggles, can the workers achieve the understanding that what the overthrow of capitalism is all about in the last analysis is, to use Marx’s famous formula, for the associated producers to take over the factories and the whole industrial system and run it for the common benefit of mankind, instead of having it run for accumulating profit and capital for a few giant financial groupings locked in deadly competition with each other. Through such struggles, and only through such struggles, can the workers build the actual organisation through which they can, tomorrow, themselves take over the administration of the economy and the state: freely elected workers’ committees at shop level, which will federate themselves afterwards locally, regionally, and internationally. That’s what the conquest of power by the working class really means.

It is highly significant that one of the main demands born from the present upsurge in militancy of the Italian working class is the demand for free election of shop stewards at all levels of plant organisation, including each conveyor belt, and the conception of these delegati di reparto as people who constantly challenge the chiefs, bosses, and foremen, the whole hierarchy which presses down on the worker in the capitalist plant. It is significant because in some giant factories, like the FIAT plant in Turin with 80,000 workers, the workers have already started to implement this demand even before they have conquered the “legal” right to do so. This is a historical step forward compared to the May 1968 revolt in France where, through an inability to set up organs of self-representation of this type, the workers were unable to prevent the Communist Party and union bureaucracy from re-absorbing their powerful upsurge through a combination of wage increases and new parliamentary elections.

A strategy of workers’ control — a strategy of transitional demands, as they were called by the Communist International during its first years of existence, and later by Leon Trotsky and by the Fourth International — has, of course, many pitfalls. Any attempt by the workers to actually run a few factories isolated from the rest of the economy is doomed to failure, because they’ll have to enter into competition with capitalist firms and submit to the inexorable imperatives of that competition. From this situation flow all the famous “laws of motion” of capitalism — as producers’ cooperatives have found out again and again to their sorrow. But revolutionary socialists, while understanding all these pitfalls and dangers, will not be inhibited by them to the point of abstaining from attempts to broaden the class struggle through these challenges to capitalist authority. There is no other way to develop anti-capitalist consciousness among hundreds of thousands and millions of workers than along this road. Propaganda through the written or spoken word can convince individuals by the hundreds and, in the best of cases, by the thousands. Millions will be convinced only by action. And only by actions for transitional demands, for workers’ control of production, which is the transitional demand par excellence in our epoch, will these millions see their understanding and consciousness rise to the level necessary for a revolutionary change in Western society.

To initiate, broaden, and generalise these experiences, you need a revolutionary vanguard organisation. Without such an organisation, isolated experiences or initiatives of groups of vanguard workers will remain just that: isolated experiences. The role of the centralisation of consciousness, of generalisation of experience, of continuous transmission of knowledge, as against the inevitably discontinuous character of rnass struggles, can be played only by such a vanguard organisation. Just as imperialism is a world system and the multinational corporation the most typical organisational unit of capital today, so labor needs an international organisation to realise that most difficult and most exalting of tasks: to derive a maximum of revolutionary understanding and consciousness from a maximum of worldwide revolutionary activity.

Individuals who adhere to a revolutionary vanguard organisation can he motivated in the most variegated ways; they can come from very different social backgrounds. The impact which two decades of revolutionary upsurge of the peoples of Asia, Latin America, and Africa has had on the revival of revolutionary consciousness in the West has been incommensurably more important than the actual economic damage it has done to the functioning of the capitalist world system up to now. The impact which the revolutionary student movement, and revolutionary youth movement in general, has had upon a reawakening of the working class in Western Europe and Japan cannot be overestimated. Even in Western Germany, in the first wave of large-scale wildcat strikes for nearly forty years, one found thousands of essentially still unpolitical and unsocialist steelworkers in Dortmund imitating in their large demonstrations all the new forms of struggle introduced in Western German society by the revolutionary student movement during the previous two years.

But only if there exists a political leadership which can coordinate all these various forms of emergent revolutionary consciousness and direct them towards a central goal — the overthrow of capitalism, the conquest of political power — can the full momentum of the upsurge be maintained and the reawakened working class fully deploy its revolutionary potential. This of course includes a tremendous potential of spontaneous initiative. Actions by students and scientists; rent strikes and movements for women’s liberation; revolts against disintegrating public services and uninhabitable cities; the taking over of hospitals and factories: all these multiple manifestations of revolt by all the creative layers of society against the capitalist relations of production, against oppression and exploitation in all their forms, can come into their own and avoid being co-opted by bourgeois society or ending in defeat only if they lead to a decisive showdown with the bourgeois class. In the last analysis, all these movements are political, because they pose the question of which class exercises power in society as a whole and in the state, and not merely the question: Who commands the machines in one plant? Who is to dictate the organisation of one university? Who is to determine where one park should be located? Who is to run the buses in one city and in whose interest?

The unique unity of spontaneous mass revolt and mass organisation in the full flowering of workers’ democracy, on the one hand; and the concentrated consciousness, the distilled lessons of four centuries of modern revolutions and a hundred and fifty years of working-class struggles which is represented by a revolutionary party, on the other hand: this dialectical unity is embodied in the system of workers’ councils which is the key answer to all the contemporary problems of mankind. For this system is a unique combination of free expression with dissent and unity of action, of liberty and efficiency, of individual self-expression and freely accepted collective solidarity. In such a system you can have, as you had in Russia in the first year of the revolution, ten, fifteen political tendencies coexisting and contending with one another for political hegemony, but at the same time bound together by a common concern to preserve and develop the revolution and fight against the common enemy. The inklings of a similar system became visible in the summer days of 1936 in Spain, when the workers with nearly naked hands broke the onslaught of the fascist army in practically every important industrial city of the country.

The inklings of a similar system are slowly emerging today in the revolutionary upsurge which has been maturing in Western Europe since May 1968 in France. It is history’s answer to the central question of our epoch, whether freedom and democracy can flourish and coincide with the tremendous objective surge towards the national and international centralisation of power initiated by contemporary technology. My answer is, yes, it can, in a system of democratically centralised and planned self-management of workers and toiling people.

This conclusion brings us back to the starting point. What are the agencies of social change in the West today? It is the basic thrust of the productive forces themselves, undermining, eroding, and shaking periodically in a violent way private property, the nation-state, and generalised market economy. It is the inevitable periodic explosions of labor’s discontent against its alienation as producer, against the capitalist relations of production at plant level, locally, regionally, or nationally. It is the re-emergence of revolutionary consciousness in the youth through the transmission belts of the colonial revolution, the student revolt, the rise of a new generation of revolutionary teachers, scientists, technicians, and intellectuals. It is the potential fusion of that revolutionary consciousness with large masses of workers through campaigns and actions for transitional demands, culminating in workers’ control of production. And it is the building of the revolutionary party and the revolutionary international. The better we succeed in combining all these elements, the closer we shall be to a socialist world and to the emancipation of labor and of all mankind!