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1987: Ernest Mandel - On the potential of history

14 September 2020
Ernest Mandel at a meeting in New york

An excerpt from ‘The dialectic of productive forces, production behaviour and class struggle alongside categories of latency and parametric determinism in the materialist conception of history’.

This is the text of lecture given by Mandel in October 1987 in a series of lectures by different authors inspired by the work of Leo Kofler.  It was first published in a book gathering the texts of these lectures; Die Versteinerten Verhaltenisse zum tanzen Bringen. Beitrage zur Marxistischen Theorie Heute (Berlin, 1991), edited by Thomas Brüsemeister, Christian illian, Uwe Jakomeit, Christoph Jünke, Sivlia Lange, Jan van Lessen, René Reinshagen and Wolfhard Schwarz.

The class struggle as an objective fact

For a materialist conception of history, it is necessary to understand that the world cannot be consciously changed without understanding it correctly.

Attempts to change the world form a real movement. This real movement exists, whether we understand it or not. The Marxist sentence in the Communist Manifesto, ‘the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles’, makes no sense if one assumes that only conscious class struggles exist. The Marxist conception of class is an objective conception, the class struggle is an objectively given process. The question of how one relates to this real movement is subjective but the class struggle takes place, regardless whether one recognizes it as such or not.

Slaves waged class struggle without being conscious they were engaged in a class struggle. Serfs waged class struggle without conceiving of any world-historical goals for this class struggle. And the ruling classes as well waged their own class struggle without understanding themselves to be a class.

Parallel to this real movement of class struggle there is another one, that of science, of the creation of concepts and theory, the continuous attempts to understand what is really happening in history and science; the creation of a scientific view of society and history.

These two movements for a long time remained independent from each other. Obviously the first predates the latter. Marx and Marxists attempted to connect the two. Whether or not they were successful is a judgment that in the last instance will be rendered by history.

But they are two distinct movements and they are distinct for Marx, Engels and for all the classic Marxists. Significant statements from Marx, Engels and Lenin testify to this. Marx wrote he held nothing so deeply in contempt as a scientist who would forge the results of his own research in the service of any cause whatsoever, including that of the proletariat. It goes against the elementary tasks of science to modify, obfuscate, or repress research findings in the service of a political task.

Engels said, in a statement directed at the SPD, that the workers’ movement needs socialist science and that socialist science can only develop in complete freedom. It cannot be made subservient to any party leadership. Without a free development of science, there is no science.

Finally, there is a famous statement from Lenin. He said only the truth is revolutionary. At first glance that seems to be a banality, but it is not. It means that it is impossible to conceive of deceit or untruth as revolutionary instruments. That is why there is no bourgeois science and nor a proletarian one. There is only science as such. In as far as it is bourgeois, it is not scientific. In as far as it is scientific, it is not bourgeois.

Obviously this does not mean that scientific insights, especially in the fields of the humanities, cannot be interpreted on the basis of bourgeois ideology and interests. But then we are dealing with ideology, not with science.

Science corresponds to its own laws, laws that it needs to obey. Science does not serve the proletarian cause, the liberation of the working class or any other political task. Science is only of service to liberation insofar as it is science, in other words insofar as it gathers genuine knowledge and helps those who draw political conclusions to draw the right conclusions. Would science turn away from this logic, it would damage the cause of the proletariat and of revolution, not aid it.

There is another movement running parallel to it, one which is older than the movement of the self-liberation of the proletariat. This is the emancipation movement of all the oppressed and exploited, a movement that has existed since the end of prehistory. This movement results from fundamental aspects of human anthropology and of human nature; social labour, the social character of labour, the social origins of communication, and the impossibility to withdraw from these without considerable damage in terms of emotion and consciousness. All individuals have to choose how to position themselves in regard to this emancipation movement, a choice that is determined partially by social factors and partially by individual psychology. This choice is absolutely not the automatic consequence of scientific insight.

Rather it is, as Marx said, a categorical imperative to fight all social conditions in which the human being is an oppressed, enslaved being. This means to side with the oppressed and the exploited in all political and social conflicts.

Today, in bourgeois societies, it means siding with the working class and other oppressed layers of the population, poor peasants in the Third World, oppressed women and youth, and so on. That is a moral duty, and does not follow from a scientific certainty that socialism will triumph.

It is possible to be convinced that barbarism will be victorious, and still not for a second abandon this moral categorical imperative. And vice versa, it is possible to be convinced, based on scientific considerations, that socialism will be victorious and to act like a pig in moral terms. When the socialist movement is led by people who treat parts of the working class or other oppressed layers and segments with contempt, they usually do so out of considerations of Realpolitik. But the consequences are real political disasters. From the perspective of the working class and the really existing emancipation movements, it is not beneficial to behave like immoral pigs.

That is the lesson we can draw from, among other things, the terrible history of Stalinist repression and the Moscow trials, the great purges of the thirties during which Stalin killed more communists than Hitler did. Fifty years later, these events are still not forgotten, and the Soviet leadership is still forced to take a position on them. And this when, for the first time in the history of the Soviet Union, a generation is in power that had personally nothing to do with these terrible crimes – at the time they were hardly born.

This shows the categorical imperative formulated by the young Marx has a profound real political meaning, contrary to what many unrealistic pseudo-Realpolitikers believe. It shows there are no great crimes in the history of humanity, and especially not in the history of the workers’ movement, that not return to the attention of new generations, generations who raise urgent questions that demand answers.

Accordingly, for those who belong to my political current it is no great surprise, but rather a source of satisfaction, that today in the Soviet Union especially the younger generation demand justice for the victims of Stalin and the full and uncompromised application of the principle of glasnost, of openness and transparency in looking at history, meaning the introduction of honest and scientific historical study of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and of the Soviet Union as a state.

This is a precondition for the most modest beginnings of a democratization of daily life. Without knowing the truth regarding the past, knowledge of the truth of the present impossible.

It is also a valuable lesson for the acolytes and followers of Stalin and Mao, and a lesson in true Realpolitik, to acknowledge what is the real connection in history, in people’s minds and in daily life; the real movement of the class struggle and the real movement of science, the real emancipation movement and the real movement of the emancipatory historical, categorical imperative.


Latency in history

The reader might wonder what all this has to do with the subject of the materialist conception of history, whether or not this is not a sectarian diversion into some secondary area.

I believe however that here we touch upon the core of the issue, because we are trying to clarify the category of latency, a category that has been neglected in the study of historical materialism.

Latency, that means the not-yet-realized possibility, the realization of which is already present in the existing relations and which is gradually beginning to unfold.

We mean by this the relative contingency of short and medium-term historical developments, the multiple possible outcomes of class struggles, the influence of the subjective factor in history and the different outcomes, which, depending on these fluctuations, determine in the short term the outcome of the process.
Here is an example that illustrates the role of Stalin and the Soviet bureaucracy in history: the non-aggression pact signed at the end of August 1939 between Hitler Germany and the Soviet Union. There is a lot of literature about the reasons that led the Soviet government to make this pact. One can argue about it, but in my opinion the Soviet government in this particular historical situation had hardly any other choice. But there were side effects of this treaty that had nothing to do with any historical fatality nor were they in any way determined by objective conditions.

I would just like to focus on two aspects: during the final session in the Kremlin, at the signing of the treaty, Stalin made a toast to Hitler, the text of which was widely distributed in the German press. It had a devastating effect on Communists, especially on those in the prisons and concentration-camps. This toast began with the words: ‘I know how much the German nation loves its Führer, and I should therefore like to drink to his health.’ That it was necessary to save the Soviet Union or to rescue the Ukrainian and Jewish inhabitants of eastern Poland from the Nazi attack no one can, in good conscience, doubt. But the treaty would also have been signed without this toast. Stalin’s speech was pure opportunism, pseudo-Realpolitik that only lead to the confusion, disorientation and demoralization of hundreds of thousands of people.

In addition, there was another, worse aspect of the treaty: its secret protocols. This secret part of the treaty meant the partition of Poland and the annexation of eastern Poland by the Soviet Union. It contains the incredible sentence that the Soviet government demands of the German government, i.e. of Adolf Hitler, that any agitation for the restoration of the Polish State would be banned. No one today can say anything in favour of this formula, but the negative effects can be clearly identified: nationalism and hostility towards the Soviet Union that are deeply rooted in the consciousness of the Polish masses, including the working class, and for understandable reasons.

The importance of these processes is that the entire concrete historical trajectory after 1939 resulted in a specific consciousness of the ten million Polish workers who triggered the Solidarnosc movement in 1980. These events also show that this historical process did not necessarily have to take place in this way, and that relatively small fluctuations in the class struggle, in the role of the subjective factor and the leadership, could have led to completely different results, to a completely different constellation of social and political forces ten, twenty or thirty years later.

In the long term, these fluctuations may well be subordinate to the great historical trends, which are determined by the level of development of the productive forces, the existing production relations, class structures, the structure of the large social classes as well as their formation in class fractions.

But this is a way of looking at history as if looking at earth from outer space. It does not help us. We are standing in the middle of the historical process. For us and for those who come immediately coming after us, it is critical whether Hitler came to power, whether Stalin came to power, whether the Second World War ended in this or that way, whether the attempt to destroy capitalism succeeded as it did in Yugoslavia and China, or failed as it did in Italy, Greece and Indonesia. In the German case, it cost eighty million lives. In Indonesia, the failure cost the Indonesian people one million dead. Those are not insignificant historical details. It is in this sense that the relative contingency of the historical process, the possibility that the class struggles during a period of crisis can have different outcomes, is of decisive political importance.

An infamous, endlessly repeated and essentially meaningless petty bourgeois cliché is that politics is ‘the art of the possible’. But who determines what is possible and what its limits are? Exactly that brings us back to the problem of latent possibility, to possibilities that have already become possible but are not yet realized.

No society can jump over its own shadow and realize relations of production without an appropriate basis, without the necessary development of the forces of production. Accordingly, neither the October revolution nor the Chinese revolution, much less the Chinese cultural revolution, created purely socialist relations of production. For this, those countries were too poor.

Even with the best of intentions and the most ardent revolutionary convictions, the social division of labour between producers and administrators (a euphemism for bureaucrats) would be unavoidable. To overcome this division of labour, a level of development of the productive forces is necessary that allows for the realization of the socially necessary product in a four-hour working day. Only under such circumstances can the fundamental social division of labour that, as Engels explained, is at the basis of the development of the state, be overcome. As long as this material precondition does not exist, this social division of labour cannot artificially be abolished. One can at most, as the Maoists attempted, make the administrators work in material production for a day per week. But when one works one day per week in material production and the other days as an administrator, one remains separated from the production process and a bureaucrat. This is objectively unavoidable.

But this does not mean that only one social configuration, only one version of production relations and relations of rule is possible on this basis. The opposite can be shown with a historical example.

Existing forces of production can lead to different relations of production

At the end of the 18th century there was no basic qualitative difference in the degree of development of productive forces, technology and material wealth between France on the one hand, Sweden and Northern Italy on the other side. England and Belgium, however were much more industrialized. And yet there was a successful bourgeois revolution in France and none in Sweden or northern Italy. At the same time, with the same degree of development of the productive forces, the same technology, the same handful of modern factories, on the basis of the same infrastructure, different forms of domination and different variants of relations of production relations emerged.

Today we are witnessing the third, technological revolution, and advanced industrial technology in different countries. On the basis of this same technology, capitalist relations of production continue to exist. But on the basis of the same technology we could tomorrow achieve a successful socialist revolution. By this I do not mean a breakthrough to purely socialist relations of production, but to much more advanced, post-capitalist ones.

There is no unavoidable, direct automatic determination. In our analysis, an intermediate link must be introduced, and that is the outcome of historical stages of the class struggle. To return to the example once again: the victory of the Yugoslav revolution and the defeat of the revolutions in Greece and Italy at the end of the Second World War cannot be explained by the fact that the productive forces in Yugoslavia were more developed than in Greece or Italy. Rather, there was a very different historical development based on similar productive forces, with a revolution in the relations of production in Yugoslavia and no revolution in Greece.

On the basis of a given technical infrastructure, material development of forces of production, material wealth and poverty, a society can go in different directions. Similarly, the development of the class struggle can go in different directions and remain within the framework of existing relations of production, at least in the short and medium term.

The distinct, in my opinion long-term historically decisive, tendency is the modern proletariat's capacity for self-organization, self-determination and self-liberation, which is summarized in the sentence ‘the liberation of the working class can only be the work of the working class itself’. This tendency is not something inherent in the sphere of consciousness but in the capitalist relations of production. Its basic historical roots, as the Italian Marxist Gramsci most clearly recognized, are in the large-scale capitalist enterprise.

In contrast to a totally wrong view of history still held by some pseudo-Marxists as well as by bourgeois historians, this elementary tendency has nothing to do with the original nineteenth century workers’ movement, which by and large, as the English word ‘trade union’ and the Flemish word ‘vakorganisatie’ (professional organization) clearly express, is of guild origin, i.e. it has partly pre-capitalist origins.

Only in the twentieth century, with the concentration of thousands and later tens of thousands of workers in large companies, arises the tradition and tendency towards industrial organizing - alongside and against the tradition and tendency towards craft organization. Thus the historical potency or latency of the organization of workers’ councils is achieved. This the self-organization of the working masses, who try to fight not only for higher wages and shorter working hours, but also to take over the means of production under their own administration and control. The masses learn from experience that as long as they are not the ruler of the means of production and of the social surplus product, of what is produced and how it is distributed, all other gains remain at best partial. In the end such gains do not change anything about situation of workers as an oppressed, dependent social class.

If we recognize this sociological explanation of the council movement and self-organization, if we understand how this historical tendency is rooted in the capitalist relations of production, then it is possible to make a prediction that can be seen as provocation, especially West Germany: that this tendency will be stronger in the future than it was in the past.

With regard to the development in Europe from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century, there is a beautiful poem by the Protestant poet Lenau (nineteenth century), called The Albigensians, which describes the historical movements very aptly and ends with the beautiful words: ‘HuB and Ziska were followed by Luther [a little error; E.M] and Hutten [that is correct; E.M], the Anabaptists, the Camisards, those who stormed the Bastille, and so on’

Today, it is hardly necessary to debate that this line can be extended: the revolution of 1848-49, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the German revolution of 1918, the Austrian revolution of 1918-19, the Hungarian revolution of 1919, the Italian factory occupation movement of 1919/20, the Chinese revolution, the Spanish Revolution, the attempted French Revolution of 1936, the Yugoslav revolution, the attempted Greek and Italian revolutions of 1944/45, the new Chinese revolution, the Vietnamese revolution, the Cuban revolution, the revolution in Nicaragua, we could go on. And in between there was May 68, the Italian ‘hot autumn’ of 1969, the Portuguese revolution of 1973-74, the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the Prague Spring of 1968, the movement in Poland in 1980-81, and so on, and so on.

Attempts to explain this pattern as the result of conspiracies by intelligence services or by purely subjective factors are unscientific. To repeat: the existing technology, the existing development of the forces of production, the existing position of the working class in major industrial firms, result in a real, periodic emancipation-movement of wage-earners, involving tens of millions.

There are no reasons to believe this will end in the foreseeable future, although the question when this will spread to the Ruhr area is food for thought. But we are considering the development from a world-historical perspective. And we should be prepared for surprises.

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