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Making the Classless Society

In response to:

Communist Myths from the April 17, 1980 issue

To the Editors:

Professor Schapiro is perfectly entitled to disagree with my assessment of Trotsky’s ideas and role in history [NYR, April 17]. He is equally entitled to reject my friends’ and my own concepts about the need to over-throw capitalism, as traditionally defended by Marx and his followers, in order to solve the world crisis and build a classless society without oppression or exploitation. But he is not entitled to grossly misrepresent these concepts.

That is, however, what he has done in his review of my book Trotsky, A Study in the Dynamic of His Thought. He therein attributes to me the following idea: “Faced with the obvious lack of revolutionary fervor among the prosperous workers of the developed industrial countries, the Trotskyists including Mandel have sought support for revolution wherever it could be found—in national liberation movements, among radical students, among supporters of women’s liberation or from minority groups…. But it is difficult to see the connection between an anarchical revolution of students or oppressed minorities with anything that Marx envisaged—unless you believe, as many Trotskyists presumably do, that the destruction of capitalism is desirable at any price, and in any manner.”

Nothing could be further from my convictions, as clearly expressed in the above-mentioned book and many other writings. While there seems to me nothing wrong with giving support to movements in favor of defending any sector of the oppressed, my friends and myself have stubbornly clung to the basic concept of Marx, that only the working class, i.e. the mass of all those forced to sell their labor power in exchange of wages, unites the objective and subjective conditions for building a socialist, i.e. classless society. We have defended that idea throughout the long postwar boom, when it was even less fashionable than it is today. We have been, and continue to be heavily attacked for this “archeo-marxism,” even in left circles. As early as 1964 I wrote that “even under conditions of exceptional prosperity, revolutionary explosions in Western Europe remain possible,” because, among else. Capital can never “integrate” the workers as producers, at the work place. The general strike of ten million wage earners in May 1968 in France, the tremendous strike wave in Italy in 1969, which involved twelve million workers, the Portuguese revolution of 1974-1975, and the regional political strikes in spain in 1976—which all occurred before the turning of the economic tide in these respective countries—rather confirmed these predictions.

During a lecture tour in the US in 1968, I made a speech to the Socialist Scholars Conference with the subject: “On the revolutionary potential of the working class,” which I repeated in many universities. One might or might not agree with my assessment that events since 1968 have borne out these concepts. But it serves no useful purpose to polemicize not with an opponent’s ideas but with ideas which are arbitrarily attributed to him.

Ernest Mandel

Brussels, Belgium

Leonard Schapiro replies:

I have no doubt that Mr. Mandel, like other Trotskyists, continues to believe in the leading role of the proletariat in a coming revolution. Nor is there anything in my review which suggests the contrary. Whether such a belief is realistic in the case of the advanced industrial countries is another matter—unless, of course, by “proletariat” is meant the Trotskyist trade union officials and their agents among the rank and file. What I was concerned to assert was that the groups which support the Fourth International, knowing that their support in the mass of the working class of advanced industrial countries is non-existent, in practice seek support for the revolution which they are seeking to promote among the minority protest movements. I should have thought this fact was pretty obvious to anyone acquainted with the tactics of the Fourth International in countries like Britain, for example.

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