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Socialist Strategy in Western Europe: Ernest Mandel Debate with Monty Johnstone (1977)

Ernest Mandel12 September 2023

Socialist Strategy in Western Europe: Ernest Mandel Debate with Monty Johnstone (1977)

This transcript was originally published on on 28 August 2023.


In 1969, Ernest Mandel of the Fourth International debated with Monty Johnstone of the British Communist Party on socialist strategy, before an audience of thousands, in London. Mandel's contribution on this occasion has been republished many times, in pamphlet form, as a re-statement of the Trotskyist case in the immediate aftermath of the events of May 1968. 

Eight years later, the International Marxist Group’s Marxist Symposium weekend, held in September 1977, was the scene for a follow up debate, in an expanded format, between representatives of the IMG and the Fourth International and leading members of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Again, Mandel and Johnstone open for their respective traditions. Johnstone pointing to Mandel’s over-optimistic and largely unfulfilled predictions from 1969 and Mandel criticising the past record of the Communist Parties in Britain, France and Italy and their then current rightwards trajectory under the banner of Eurocommunism which meant making peace with social-democracy and abandoning any pretence of revolutionary aspirations.

These openers are followed by shorter prepared contributions from Bea Campbell and Sam Aaronovitch for the CPGB (a third CP contribution was made but not recorded and is now lost to the mists of time) and Dodie Weppler, Peter Gowan and Tariq Ali for the IMG…

Unusually for the time, the debate was video recorded by a young IMG member using equipment borrowed from his University Department. However, nothing was done with the footage at the time and the recordings went into storage. Then at the end of 2022, Richard Hatcher, who had made the original recordings, deposited four large and heavy video reels on my dining room table and asked if we could make use of them. 

Since they were recorded in an obsolete format, we had to find a commercial digitisation service to do the work. Only three companies in Britain appeared to have the necessary equipment, only two of those replied to my emails, so we went with the one which offered a free evaluation service. 

Then, having established that the tapes did contain what we thought, and the sound and video quality was sufficient, we raised enough money from donations to have them converted to a digital format (and then uploaded to YouTube).

We also used some of the remaining funds to pay for Mandel’s opening speech to be transcribed and we have made this text available under a title “Socialist Strategy in Western Europe” which also reflects the themes of the overall debate.

– Rob Marsden


This is a transcript of Mandel’s opening speech. See below for links to the videos.


Following directly from a 30 minute introduction by Monty Johnstone of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Ernest Mandel speaks:

…on the social crisis, the overall crisis of social relations. Not one word. A completely unscientific, un-Marxist, timeless analysis of strategies, as if the objective circumstances, the objective conditions, the economic, the social, and the political crises of the system were completely non-existent.

Second point: what about the actuality of revolution?

Is revolution just a daydream of the Trotskyists, or worse, even of Comrade Mandel? Something which some foolish people dream about?

Comrade Monty Johnstone had an extraordinary formula: only in those countries where there is no traditional representation of the working class inside the parliaments and universal franchise do Soviets come up.

Well, I ask you: the second Soviets which came up in Europe, after the Russian ones, and on which very little is talked, came up in Germany. Wasn’t that fifty years after universal franchise? Fifty years after universal franchise.

The third Soviets which came up on a rather broad scale were those of northern Italy, of our Comrade Gramsci, whom you are betraying in all the positive sides of his conquest. That was after thirty years of parliamentary representation of the Italian working class.

The fourth large-scale Soviet experience which we had in western Europe was in Spain in 1936, with a working class which was not represented in parliament?, which had no trade unions?, no massive force of representation? This is a complete falsification of history!

 As a matter of fact, we have seen the basic historic trend of the European working class, of setting up workers’ councils, of setting up huge, massive, self-representative organs of the masses in every single massive generalised struggle of that working class in a pre-revolutionary or revolutionary situation.

And what has this to do with the existence or the absence of parliamentary democracy? With the existence or the absence of the representation of the working class in parliament? What has this to do with the absence of universal franchise? You cannot quote a single case outside the case of Russia where Soviets came up under conditions that there was no tradition of universal franchise. In every single other case where Soviets came up, there was a long, drawn-out tradition of universal franchise, and notwithstanding that, Soviets came up.

So, my prediction is, and history will see whether I am right or wrong, and my prediction is that you will see Soviets again, dear friend, in many, many countries of long-term tradition of universal franchise. You’ll see them in France. You’ll see them in Italy. You’ll see them in Spain. And God forbid, you’ll see them in Britain too!

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Now, what is the real problem of strategy? It’s not a question of insurrection. Insurrection is not a question of strategy. That’s the final stage of the conquest of power. It’s a question of technique and, to use a classical word, of art. That’s not a problem of strategy at all. One key question of strategy is the question of class unity and independent action of the working class, versus class collaboration.

Now, I’ve heard here many apologies this evening about what the Italian Communist Party is doing. Please, Comrade Monty Johnstone, explain two things to me. All the nice words about transformation of the state apparatus, all very nice. Two concrete things: when the Communist Party of Italy is today signing an agreement with the Catholic Party and with the employers applying an austerity policy, which is exactly the same thing which the right-wing Labour Party is applying Britain and exactly the same thing which the French conservatives are applying in France, what has that to do with a revolutionary strategy toward socialism?

Perhaps I am an economist. Perhaps I economistic, but I think it has something to do with a thing which is much lower down to Earth. It has something to do with the need to increase the rate of profit, and to increase the rate of profit at the expense of the workers, by firming down the living standard of the workers. Please explain that to us.

Please explain that to us and explain to use the scandalous — because it cannot be called otherwise: hardly any right-wing social democrat dare try and do things like that — the scandalous statement today by Berlinguer that austerity is the road toward socialism, and austerity is the road toward socialism because — listen — because it changes the pattern of consumption!

What does that mean concretely? He says what it means concretely. It takes the beefsteak away from the workers, because you know the Italian workers are eating too much beef and meat has to be imported, and when meat is imported you have a deficit in the balance of payment and you have to do away with the deficit in the balance of payment. So, workers eat less meat.

You can call that a revolutionary strategy toward socialism in Europe. I call that straightforward class collaboration in the service of the bosses. And try to explain that away. Try to explain that away to the Italian workers today, that it is not that. That when they get less meat, and when they get less consumption, and when they get a lowering of their standard of living, this has something to do with some far, far, far away strategy towards a democratic transformation of the bourgeois state into a workers’ state.

Second instance, which is even worse: the Italian Communist Party today openly supports repression by the bourgeois state apparatus. Openly supports repression. It has been written in as many words in the Italian press. They say the same forces of repression— the same forces of repression which were turned against the Italian workers in the 50s, today are defending what? They are defending the democratic constitution of the Republic coming out of the resistance movement. Excuse me. Excuse me. Again, I am perhaps an absolutely unreconstructed, economistic materialist, but I think the repressive forces are defending private property and are defending capitalist exploitation. And if you call, as a communist — nay, a “communist” between inverted commas — if you call in the tanks against demonstrators in the town of Bologna, you are allying yourself with the bourgeois state apparatus, never mind against ultra-left students or whatever you call them, or radicalised, marginalised workers.

But with whom are you allying? With whom? With the working class? Is the working class controlling the tanks today in Italy? Is the working class in power in the Ministry of the Interior or in the Ministry of the Army? With whom are you allying there? With whom are you fighting for this repression? So, we take the two points: we take the capitalist relations of production; we take the bourgeois nature of the state and the repressive apparatus; and we say a party which stands for collaboration on the basis of these two main props of the bourgeois regime, with the main bourgeois party of the country — not with some so-called petty bourgeois party, with the Tory party of Italy, because the Christian Democrats are the Tory party of Italy — a party which stands for that is a party of class collaboration. How can you deny a thing like that? I mean, that’s absolutely clear. Don’t tell me that they have the support of the workers. The German Social Democrats got a much higher vote, a much higher vote than the Italian Communist Party, notwithstanding their class collaborationist policy. That’s no proof. That’ not proof that there is no class collaboration, that they get big support of the workers. You have to analyse the contents of the policy. You have to see what social forces are allying with whom against whom. And, for me, the story is absolutely clear. Now, one can say this is tactical, conjunctural. This has nothing to do with strategy. Excuse me, it has something fundamental to do with strategy, because the ABC, and on that is the big dividing line between revolutionists and reformists for over sixty years, the ABC of any revolutionary strategy is to hammer out, to get into motion, to get strengthened, and to get, if you want, prevalent, hegemonic in the long run, the unity of the working class as an independent political and social force in society against capitalism.

I don’t say that that is easy. I don’t say that that promises quick successes. I don’t say that the victory is around the corner. But I say one thing, which seems rather obvious. That’s the only way to overthrow capitalism. You will never, never, not in a thousand years, overthrow capitalism in another way. Perhaps it’s long. Perhaps it’s difficult. But it’s the only way.

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The other strategy, the strategy of class collaboration, divides the working class deeply and establishes another type of alliance. An alliance of the apparatuses of the big bureaucratised working-class organisations supported by parts of the working class — I don’t deny that at all — with the bourgeoisie against other parts of the working class. You will never get a situation, in any advanced capitalist country, where all the workers will say yes to that type of treacherous policy which is today put forward by the Italian Communist Party. Never. For that, happily enough, there is enough working class consciousness and there is enough awareness amongst the workers, and we have seen in Italy, we have the Teatro Lyric, we have seen the representatives in the final result. The shop stewards of 600 large Italian factories rejecting the policy of the austerity programme which Berlinguer and Lama tried to push down their throats.

So, in the best of cases what you are doing is the same which the Social Democrats did after the First World War. You are deeply dividing the working class between the more radical, more militant wing and, let us say, the less-developed, less-backward way. No, I entirely agree that a divided working class is bad for socialism, entirely agree. I am entirely in favour of a policy of the united front, for a policy of unity of action. I believe that without a great amount of unitary impetus inside the working class, you’ll never get capitalism overthrown. But you’ll never get that unity on the basis of a policy of class collaboration and capitulation before the interests of the class enemy. Never. For that, I repeat, there is too much awareness in the Western European working class. There is too much understanding and consciousness, and there is already too large a vanguard, on that I will come back in a minute.

When we say that there is a big structural crisis of capitalism. When we say that you have to put the problem of a revolutionary strategy in the framework of perspective, we say concretely one thing: that under certain circumstances, it is unavoidable that you have an increase, a stepped-up tempo, of elementary class struggle. That under these circumstances it is unavoidable that periodically — not permanently, not every day, and not in every country, but periodically — this crescendo of class struggle shatters the stability of the bourgeois relations of production, shatters the stability of social bourgeois relations, and shatters also the stability of the bourgeois state. We only have to look throughout the history of Europe since 1940 to see the regular recurrence of this type of pre-revolutionary and revolutionary crisis.

Again, I say, what Monty Johnstone is defending here is a totally ahistoric view of history, of the development of the European Labour movement. I mean, you cannot deny this recurrence. I didn’t invent them, and certainly we didn’t bring them about artificially, or no agitators or conspirators brought them about artificially. They occurred. And if you have the lack of taste — if I can use that word — to use the example of May ’68, well, goodness. Ten million workers occupied factories. Is that business as usual? Wouldn’t you say that is rather a little shaking — perhaps only momentary, but a little shaking of the bourgeois order? What do you do in these circumstances?

Again, we have two basic lines in the history of the Labour movement. Some people, when that happens, get scared out of their wits. Generally, they are called ‘opportunists’, and some even call them ‘traitors’, but we don’t use labels and we just say certain people get scared out of their wits. We have received from Comrade Garaudy, who was at that time a member of the political bureau of the French Communist Party, reports on the daily meetings of the French Communist Party during the May ’68 general strike. Every day, poor Séguy — I will say in a minute why I say ‘poor Séguy’ — every day, poor Séguy was attacked by these bastards, who told him ‘Stop that goddamn strike! Stop that goddamn strike, it’s leading us to a catastrophe. Don’t go on. Don’t go on.’ I say ‘poor Séguy’, because poor Séguy answered them, ‘Well, try. Try. Go to the factories and try!’ He did his best. In the end, he succeeded, but it was not easy. It was not easy. When you have ten million workers occupying factories, it’s not easy to bring them back to business as usual.

Why are these comrades scared out of their wits? I think Comrade Monty Johnstone is very, very, very unjust to his great-great-great-great-parents, who are called Bernstein and Kautsky, because they were much more articulate, much more consistent, and much more deliberate in their thinking than he is. They were scared out of their wits because they were convinced first that the working class is too weak to take power and it will be crushed in any confrontation with the bourgeoisie — unavoidable — and second, because they were afraid of what would emerge even from a victorious revolution.

Okay. The Eurocommunists today, and Comrade Monty Johnstone as their fateful echo, are in little bit of a more complex situation, because they try to defend the preposterous position that this same strategy of class collaboration and the same strategy of capitulation before the bourgeois order has to be explained by the strength of the working class — not by the weakness but by the strength. Berlinguer has the real — I mean, I don’t know, you get angry sometimes and there is reason to be, and it’s difficult to use the correct word. He has the audacity to say, even to write, that after all the Italian working class is already the ruling force in Italy. So, of course, when you are already the ruling force, what’s the need of making revolution? You have it already. You have it good. Frankly speaking, frankly speaking, amongst people who refer themselves to Marxism, not to speak about communism and Leninism, how can one accept such type of preposterous statements? If really the working class is so strong, if really it is so hegemonic already, what’s the big cost of giving a little push, and pushing the class enemy out of his position of power? What’s the difficulty then? What’s the difficulty of taking power in a situation like that of May ’68? What’s the difficulty of setting up Soviets?

I have nothing against universal franchise. You can have universal suffrage. You have the wrong idea about what the Russian Soviets were, my dear friend. If you read the first Russian constitution, you will see that the Soviets were elected on a territorial basis. There were no factory committees. Factory committees were something entirely different. That’s not a difference between parliament and Soviets, that the one are factory committees and the other are territorial committees. The difference is very different, in another field, as you know very well. The difference is first that they have, at the same time, executive and legislative organs and functions; second, that all the delegates are recallable on vote of the electors; third, that they are a force in which, through the change of the relations of production, to the change in the social relations, the weight of capital, of wealth, of private property, has been removed from the situation.

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Okay. That’s not the point. The point is when you such a strength of the working class, why don’t you use it to overthrow the class rule of the bourgeois? Why don’t you use it to break the bourgeois state. Why do you use it only to compromise, vacillate, conciliate, and which has, as the result — ‘cause the big accusation we have to address against you — which has, as a result, to divide, demoralise, make retreat, the working class, and then prepare bloody, bloody defeats. Because you have the audacity here of saying to the Trotskyists, ‘Where have you taken power? Where is your big strength?’ I will come back to that in a minute, but I turn this accusation against you. You have these strengths. Yes, you have it. You have these big mass parties. What have you done with this strength? What has come out of the application of the Eurocommunist strategy? Which is nothing new. There’s nothing new in this, basically. This strategy is 40 years old. What has come out of it?

The bloody defeat of Spain. The bloody defeat of Indonesia. The bloody defeat of Brazil. The bloody defeat of Chile. All these defeats. Hundreds of thousands of deaths, including the loss of your holy representative democracy, has been the result of the application of this strategy. And it’s unavoidable, because you don’t take into consideration the clash of social forces. When you have a big amount of working-class militancy and enthusiasm, and you don’t use it in its upside, when it goes up, when you have a big unitary trend in the working class and you break it deliberately in the service of a policy of class collaboration, then you prepare demoralisation, fragmentation, and defeat. And then you have the responsibility for these millions of deaths, and that’s a responsibility which I wouldn’t like to take in your place, outside of all the other responsibilities of Stalinism.

But let’s say a word on why the Trotskyists have not yet won a revolution. I’m not an idealist. And as I said in the symposium of this afternoon, I base myself on historical materialism, and not on the fourth gospel, on the Gospel of John. I don’t believe in the absolute power of the Word. And the programme is not enough. The programme is not enough. You need a programme. You need cadres, you need organisational strength, you need the relationship of forces. When you only have a correct programme, well, you’re a marginal force. When you have a correct programme and a strong enough cadre implanted in the working class, you have got some chance. Only when you have a correct programme, a cadre 20.33 trained in that programme and implanted in the working class, and a change in the relationship of forces inside the labour movement, only then can you have a real chance of winning the majority of the working class for your strategic project, and these circumstances have not yet occurred.

In that sense, Trotsky was wrong in his predictions on what would happen after 1945, because he underestimated the long-term results of your betrayals; because he underestimated the long-term effects inside the working class in a downturn of working-class consciousness, of 25 years of constant uninterrupted defeats caused by reformism and by Stalinism. Today, I don’t see we are at the eve of victory. Things are a little bit different. And your balance sheet is a bit childish, because you first know that it is not true, and second you should be the last in Britain, of all places, to talk about figures. Let’s talk about figures. Let’s compare the organised strengths of the British Communist Party and British Trotskyists in the middle of the ’50s and today. The Communist Party has lost more than half of its members and probably two-thirds if not four-fifths of its activists. The Trotskyists have multiplied their forces by at least ten, if not fifteen times. The general trend is exactly not the one which you indicate. Your references to French elections were especially unfortunate, because first you left out the fact that in the second presidential elections there were two Trotskyist candidates and not one, and if you add the votes of the two Trotskyist candidates you come to nearly one million votes, which the British Communist Party never dreams of getting in its history, and secondly you forgot another small detail is to say the municipal elections which took place in this year and where a slate of two Trotskyists and one semi-Trotskyist organisation got between 3 and 8% of the popular vote. I repeat, between 3 and 8% of the popular vote, which is a thing we could not dream of ten years ago, and you certainly cannot dream of even in fifty years in Britain, if you continue with your present strategy. So, it’s rather unwise to quote figures, and it’s rather unwise to base yourself on numerical projections in that field.

But I want to end on what is the other striking, absolutely striking, flabbergasting gap in what Comrade Monty Johnstone told us here, and which, again, indicates how clearly today Leninism, as embodied by the Fourth International and by Trotskyism and reformism of the British Communist Party and the European communist parties, the so-called Eurocommunist parties, are at two completely different roads of working class — let us say — strategy and projection.

The very word ‘internationalism’ was completely absent from Comrade Monty Johnstone’s speech. Complete absent. That there has been a communist international. That that Communist International came about as a result of a reaction against the big betrayal of the social patriots in 1914, which enabled a war to break out in which 20 million workers were killed for the sake of capital. 20 million workers were killed for the sake of capital. That this communist tradition was an internationalist tradition, and a tradition of international solidarity, of workers of all countries in a common cause and that they had to build a common organisation in order to embody that common cause. This ABC which no member of the communist party from its inception until, let us say, the recent past, would have dared at any time to forget in a statement on strategy. This was totally absent from what Comrade Monty Johnstone told us here.

And, of course, in certain sense it’s a tragedy what has happened, and a tragedy which was foreseen by Trotsky. When you had the nature of the Communist International transformed by the adoption of the theory of Socialism in One Country and the subordination of the communist parties to the specific and particular interests of the Soviet bureaucracy, you put a time bomb on the proletarian internationalism. That was absolutely unavoidable. And the time bomb has now exploded. And no, it’s not anymore a question of building socialism or going towards socialism in the service of the Soviet bureaucracy. Now it has just become a question of each for his own, and God will then at some time in the future try to bring the brethren together.

Can there be something more disastrous, from a communist point of view, than this total elimination of internationalism, internationalist strategy, internationalist perspective, internationalist sensitivity, and internationalist organisation, from a communist strategy? There is not even a Eurocommunist strategy. It is true. I agree with Santiago Carillo because each single one of them have only their own national tactics and their own national interests. They don’t even want to collaborate with each other beyond just some consultations and agreeing to scratch each other’s backs. They have no common project, not even for Western Europe, abstraction made of the fact that it is a bit thick to have a common project for Western Europe which takes out of the (indistinct) Eastern Europe, the countries of the colonial revolution, the American working class, the Japanese working class, and all the rest of the world.

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But even that is absent. Even on the point of the view, there is not even a strategy towards a Socialist United States of Western Europe, which already would be a big step backward from the idea of Socialist United States of Europe, full-stop. But even that is absent. We are living in what world? In what world? Aren’t we living in the world of internationalisation of capital, internationalisation of the productive forces, internationalisation of the class struggle, international wars? Has there been a single revolution since 1914 which has not been met by an international attempt at intervention of capital? Isn’t that absolutely unavoidable under the present circumstances. And what you oppose to that? Nil. Void. Nothing. Not one word. Internationalism has disappeared. It is a sad day. A sad day that this end result of Stalinist degeneration has come to us in that most outspoken form of not national communism, but social patriotism with a little pseudo-communist tinge. As a representative of what still is a massive force in the Western European working class movement, we are absolutely convinced that the Eurocommunist strategy as it is today is a strategy of defeat for the working class, but we are also convinced that it is a strategy of crisis of the communist parties; that these parties will go to one crisis after another, because they are trying to apply that strategy under circumstances of where, at least in many European countries — I don’t say in all — there is a big upsurge of working-class militancy, of working-class awareness, of working-class consciousness. The one positive thing — the one positive thing — about this whole right-wing turn of Eurocommunism, is that for the reasons of their own, which we know very well, because otherwise they cannot get their democratic legitimacy in the eyes of the social democrats to which they direct themselves essentially, for reasons of their own, they have to take a more independent attitude towards the Soviet bureaucracy that we say ‘bravo’ for.

Of course. We are not going to align with the Stalinists against the Eurocommunists. It would be absolutely crazy. And that as a result of that, there will be a growing climate of democratic debate inside the communist parties and inside the trade unions controlled by the communist parties, which is an unavoidable by-product of the combination of Eurocommunism and the upsurge of the working-class movement in Western Europe. And we will try to have debates like this one. Not only in Britain, but in many other countries, we have challenged Santiago Carillo for  a similar debate in Spain. We will challenge the Italian Communist Party, and we will challenge the Belgian Communist Party, and we will challenge the French Communist Party, for similar debates. We will challenge them again and again, to apply their big credo of pluralism inside their own parties, to readmit the right of tendency, to readmit the right of tendencies inside the trade unions, to readmit the right of tendencies inside the communist parties, to readmit real democratic debates without the world communist movement, to publish documents, to publish the book of Comrade Bahro, to publish the books of all the communists murdered by Stalin, again. Sell them again in the communist bookshops everywhere. Export them to the Soviet Union. Export them to Czechoslovakia. Export them to Poland. Export them to Eastern Germany.

In that way, there will be something positive. In that way, there will be something positive for the rebuilding of a communist movement in the world, but it will be a rebuilding on the basis of the programme of Leninism, on the basis of the programme of the Fourth International, and with all those cadres which have been trained in that programme and to which, yes, Comrade Monty Johnstone, more than ever, I am convinced of that. Thousands and thousands of communist workers will flock tomorrow.

Links to the various segment, in order, as follows:

Monty Johnstone opening speech

Mandel opening speech

Sam Aaronovitch for CPGB 10 minutes

Dodie Weppler for IMG 10 minutes

Bea Campbell for CPGB 10 minutes

Peter Gowan for IMG 10 minutes

Tariq Ali for IMG 10 minutes

Mandel summation

Monty Johnstone summation

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