The socialist crisis and the renewal of Marxism

Umbo (Otto Umbehr) (1902–1980), Street Mystery, 1928.

By Ernest Mandel*

Marxism can only stay alive if it does not become petrified dogma, so only if it is open and creative.

After the collapse of Stalinist and post-Stalinist dictatorships in Eastern Europe and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics [USSR], important sectors of the population, in these countries as in the rest of the world, came to the conclusion that socialism had failed as a model of society qualitatively superior.

Bureaucratic dictatorship was identified with communism and socialism under the effect of the parallel intoxication campaign of Stalinists and post-Stalinists, as well as bourgeois and pro-Western ideologues. As the masses resolutely rejected such dictatorship, they also rejected communism, Marxism and socialism, at least up to the present stage.

It is certain that this identification is wholly unfounded. Stalin and the nomenklatura Soviet society were not “utopians” committed to building a classless society. They were cynical supporters of the "Realpolitik”, clinging to the consolidation of their power and material privileges. For defenders of historical materialism, these processes developed as a result of struggles between particular social forces. If Stalinism proclaimed itself Marxist-Leninist, denying both in theory and in practice decisive parts of the elaborations and purposes of Marx and Lenin, this had a precise purpose.

Stalinism emerged as a political counterrevolution (Soviet Thermidor) in a country that was shaken [shaken] for a profound social revolution and in a party that was completely dedicated to socialism. Claiming historical continuity, with its traditions, made the consolidation of bureaucratic power easier. But the credibility crisis of socialism is not primarily the result of this claimed continuity.

If entire sectors of the population have rejected the Stalinist and post-Stalinist “model”, it is in the first place because such a “model” was opposed to their most elementary interests. He [the “model”] did not meet his expectations on the material plane. It denied their fundamental human rights. He committed terrible crimes, caused the death of millions of human beings, including one million communists. It betrayed the fundamental human aspiration for justice and equality. Since then, no bourgeois propaganda has been needed to arouse their hostility towards such a system. His everyday experience was enough to give birth to his opposition.

Social Democratic Responsibility

 There is a second source of the worldwide crisis in the credibility of a socialist project. It is the historic failure of social democracy. It is true that the latter needs to be described more precisely. The social-democratic labor movement (later in relation to the mass communist parties that underwent a de facto social-democratization process) extracted important concessions from the capitalist class, essentially during periods of mobilization and impetuous struggles of the pastas.

The most important among these gains were the reduction in working time per week from 72 hours to an average of 38 hours, universal suffrage for all men and women, and differentiated systems of protection against various dangers inherent to the proletarian condition. The set of these reforms significantly changed the world compared to that of 1800, 1850 or 1914. In this regard, we can only be proud of the achievements of socialist struggles, struggles in which Marxists played a key role.

But nowhere did the accumulation of these reforms lead to a qualitative change in society. Nowhere did they eliminate the constitutive traits of social order (disorder). This is not a semantic dispute. This has extremely practical implications. The fact that these reforms did not transcend the nature of capitalist economy and society implies that they did not prevent the cyclical emergence of economic crises, the repeated explosion of unemployment and mass poverty, the periodic restrictions or suppression of democratic freedoms as well as human rights, not to mention other catastrophes. As a result, the reforms themselves are constantly threatened, as long as the bourgeois class has the power to defeat them.

Finally, it turns out that the extent of these reforms is at least correlated with a certain level of economic development. Therefore, they are largely limited to a given number of countries. However, it is a historical fact that millions of wage-earners throughout the world were deeply convinced that these partial achievements would definitely lead towards a new, just society, towards socialism.

Today, in your eyes, it is clear that it was not so. The negative dimension of the social-democracy and neo-social-democracy balance is reinforced by the vast repertoire of crimes committed by the social-democratic leaderships: from colonial wars to the vigorous austerity offensives conducted against the living conditions of workers, to cite the most important examples.

Put an end to the arrogance of the “experts”

Thus, the two main historical projects for the realization of socialism failed in the eyes of the masses. To the extent that the revolutionary socialists acting to the left of the communist parties and social democracy are still too weak to represent a political alternative, there is no credible project for all wage-earners.

This does not mean that the latter accept capitalism with all its evils or that they will not fight to defend their interests as they conceive them. On the contrary, certain mass struggles taking place today are broader than in the past. But they are struggles over single issues, which are not inscribed in an orientation aimed at constituting an overall social and political alternative to capitalism. So these mobilizations tend to be discontinuous and fragmented.

In order to overcome this crisis of credibility of the socialist project, it is necessary to eliminate from socialist practice and theory every form of substitutionism and thus return to Marx's essential contribution to socialist theory: namely, that the emancipation of the working masses can only be their own work.

If the Stalinists and post-Stalinists were responsible for the most extreme forms of substitutionism, they are by far not the only ones to blame. Social democrats, reformists of all kinds, fundamentalist ecologists belong, in fact, to the same current. In the name of all sorts of priorities, such as economic efficiency, the “open” economy, protecting the environment, containing the “population explosion”, they want to impose policies that the masses are not ready to accept.

Thus, such policies can only be applied by organizations and institutions that intend to replace, themselves, the self-activity and self-organization of wage earners as the main instruments of progress and emancipation. This substitutionism is based on a technocratic arrogance according to which the “experts” and the ideologues know best, not to say that they are infallible.

Replacementism is the ideology of the labor bureaucracy. This is what I tried to demonstrate in my book “Power and Money” [power and money] (1992). This approach is alien to Marxism and the interest of wage earners. Furthermore, it is, in the long run, fundamentally ineffective. If there is a lesson to be drawn from the collapse of Stalinism and the crisis of social democracy, we could put it this way: you cannot make the masses happy against their will; you can't force them to swallow a “bright future”; sooner or later they will spit it in your face.

The re-appropriation of the practice and theory of self-activity and self-organization of wage-earners as a driving element of emancipation – unions, parties and governments are indispensable instruments, but they must be subordinated to the self-activity and self-organization of the proletariat [1] – must go hand in hand with unwavering support for the mass struggle on an international scale, regardless of “higher order priorities” such as anti-imperialism, protection “of the competitive capacity of the national economy in the world market”, etc.

Likewise, it must go hand in hand with an unrestricted defense of democratic freedoms and the rights of the human person. It is not one of the minor crimes of the Stalinists, Maoists or Social Democrats to have broken the primary unity between socialism and freedom. This freedom is expressed symbolically in the traditional chant of the Italian labor movement “Red flag”, when, after the arrival of Mussolini to power, the Italian communist workers and intellectuals added as a final sentence: “And long live communism and freedom".

Today, as tomorrow, socialism will regain its credibility in the eyes of large sectors of the population if experience teaches them that socialists are more radically in favor of freedom than bourgeois liberals, that the socialist goal we aim at will guarantee much more freedom than than bourgeois society.

A priority research program

Thousands of books, magazines and an incalculable number of press articles proclaim: “Marx is dead” and “Marxism is dead”. It is not necessary to adhere to dialectical thinking to understand that this campaign proves the exact opposite of what it intends to establish. We don't see hundreds of doctors flock day after day to the cemetery to prove that a given coffin contains a body. Indeed, if this relentless onslaught tends to demonstrate anything, it is that Marx and Marxism are alive and bothersome.

But Marxism can only remain alive if it does not become petrified dogma, so only if it is open and creative. The crisis of Stalinism and post-Stalinism, since the Hungarian revolution of 1956, has already given rise to the first flowering of a creative Marxism, breaking with sterile scholasticism, neopositivism and vulgar pragmatism.

Today, the gates can open again. Marxists must integrate into their fundamental theories – which are working hypotheses and not axioms or truths revealed for eternity – the results accumulated by current scientific research. They must examine to what extent such results can be integrated into their theoretical set, taking into account their internal coherence.

Without intending to be exhaustive, I would like to raise, in a provisional way, the list of priorities for a “theoretical practice”:

(1) Explain the fundamental trend towards “globalization” of economic and social developments, evidently in relation to the internationalization of the productive forces of capital, and draw conclusions with regard to the increasing internationalization of class struggle.

(2) Integrating the essential aspects of the ecological crisis into the struggle for socialism and our model of socialism and discovering its modalities, allowing the quantification of ecological costs and combining this calculation with those of labor costs.

(3) Deepen our understanding of the dialectic of work, free time (leisure) and continuing education and training, integrating these elements into a broader understanding of the hierarchy of human needs. Nothing can justify a vision of the world and its future in which this is not taken into account, as priority urgencies, the need to feed the hungry, to provide a roof over the homeless, to treat the sick, to eliminate torture and to fight against the main forms of discrimination, inequality and injustice.

(4) To develop a theory of the political institutions necessary for radical emancipation, including direct and representative democracy, using as a springboard the writings of Marx and Engels on the Paris Commune, the writings of Rosa Luxemburg in 1918, those of Gramsci at the "l'Ordine Nuovo”, those of Trotsky throughout the 30s and the last contributions of the Fourth International.

(5) Expand our understanding of the dialectical impact of the media revolution (image culture as different from print culture) on cultural consumption and production. Analyze, from this angle, the crisis of the proletarian counterculture and its repercussions on the relative decline of class consciousness and thus identify the ways to go against this trend.

(6) Deepen our understanding of the origins of women's oppression, the means to overcome it, the dialectic of the crisis of the nuclear family, and integrate this understanding into that of the broader crisis of human communities.

(7) To better explore our apprehension of the social and individual dialectic of emancipation and freedom.

This agenda of priorities of a “theoretical practice” cannot, for epistemological reasons, be separated from an effort to build a better world. After all, there is no other world but practice to test the validity of any theory.

Praxis and moral imperative

Likewise, this agenda cannot be separated from moral imperatives. Marxism has two roots that are independent of each other, despite all their obvious interconnections. It has a scientific basis that must respond to the “laws of science” and this cannot be subordinated in a utilitarian way to any political objective. It also has a moral foundation, clearly formulated by the young Marx and reaffirmed at the end of his life: the categorical imperative to fight to subvert all conditions in which human beings are exploited, oppressed, humiliated and alienated.

This categorical imperative remains as valid today as it was in the past. And by letting it guide our actions and our lives, we are the heirs of a noble tradition of more than three and a half thousand years of rebellion, revolt and revolution. May our enemies spread their cries: "Dangerous Utopians!" History speaks against them. Essentially, we do away with slavery, feudalism, the Inquisition, and the burning of heretics at the stake. We stormed multiple strongholds. We will thus overcome the condition of salaried work.

But we will only win if our own political and social practice is in strict accordance with our principles: if we refuse to approve – even if we close our eyes – any policy contrary to these principles, even if such a policy is applied in the name of socialism and the progress, by self-proclaimed socialists.

In this sense, if we manage to convince ever larger sectors of our real and honest will, we will assert a moral superiority over all other social and political forces that will make us truly invincible.

*Ernest Mandel (1923-1995) was an economist, writer and politician. Author, among other books, of late capitalism (New Culture).

Translation: Joao Vicente Alfaya dos Santos e Pedro barbosa.

Selected excerpts from the chapter written by Mandel for the collective book Marxism in the Postmodern Age (The Guilford Press, 1995). Available in


[1] We use the concept of the proletariat in the classic Marxist sense: all those who are constrained by economic constraint to sell their

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Impasses and solutions for the political momentjose dirceu 12/06/2024 By JOSÉ DIRCEU: The development program must be the basis of a political commitment from the democratic front
  • Strengthen PROIFESclassroom 54mf 15/06/2024 By GIL VICENTE REIS DE FIGUEIREDO: The attempt to cancel PROIFES and, at the same time, turn a blind eye to the errors of ANDES management is a disservice to the construction of a new representation scenario
  • Introduction to “Capital” by Karl Marxred triangular culture 02/06/2024 By ELEUTÉRIO FS PRADO: Commentary on the book by Michael Heinrich
  • Hélio Pellegrino, 100 years oldHelio Pellegrino 14/06/2024 By FERNANDA CANAVÊZ & FERNANDA PACHECO-FERREIRA: In the vast elaboration of the psychoanalyst and writer, there is still an aspect little explored: the class struggle in psychoanalysis
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table
  • Volodymyr Zelensky's trapstar wars 15/06/2024 By HUGO DIONÍSIO: Whether Zelensky gets his glass full – the US entry into the war – or his glass half full – Europe’s entry into the war – either solution is devastating for our lives
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank