Messengers of revolution are always welcome. Ernest Mandel’s thesis in ‘Where Is America Going?’ (NLR 54) that a socialist revolution within the United States is on the agenda of the next decade or two is an important corrective to the more gloomy theses being advanced from other quarters. Nevertheless, false hope is as wrong as false despair. The grounds for confidence which Mandel outlines are not tenable. They must be exposed to criticism so that those who occupy them do not fall into disillusion. Beyond hope and despair there are better premises. The most important of Mandel’s theses is contained in his points six and seven, in which he holds that the impact of European and Japanese competition on the world market will precipitate a major structural crisis in United States industry. This question will be discussed at length below. The article also commands attention, however, for its first five points, which
The experience and literature accumulated over the last decade regarding radicalization of blacks, students, technicians, state employees and the industrial working class are considerable. To a greater or lesser extent, each of these groups, categories or classes of people seems to have become radicalized spontaneously, and except for blacks and (white) students—where ties existed almost from the beginning—independently of one another. So, for example, the great majority of wildcat strikes or of intra-union protest waves have occurred and still occur without the knowledge or participation, much less initiative, of student radicals or of revolutionary black organizations; such radicalism as exists among technicians and scientists moves in virtual ignorance of the militancy of municipal employees; and so on.
Arriving in the us with more or less fresh eyes, Mandel’s view was not tied down, as can happen, within the horizon of one or the other sphere of specific movement work, nor (despite his position as leader of the Fourth International, with which the Young Socialist Alliance in the us is affiliated) was he a gut-level participant in the factional infighting of the last year. Ernest Mandel has almost naively—in the good sense—hit upon an important truth, namely that these five forces are—or ought to be—part of a single movement. He has omitted a couple of the strongest forces, the women’s movement and the movement within the Army, but has nevertheless drawn an unmistakable circle around a number of hitherto apparently separate phenomena and pointed out that they are in some way related to one another.
This is a step forward. Mandel’s often perceptive summary brings these forces together on paper in an easily accessible form. But anyone who has had the experience of making contact with radicals in a different segment, for example, a student trying to talk to workers, or a technician trying to talk to black revolutionaries, knows that bringing these forces together by listing them on paper one-two-three-four-five and actually making contact, even if only on the talking level, are very different things. Even so apparently simple a step as identifying a common enemy can prove difficult.
One usefulness of good theoretical writing is to make this process of making contact easier, by showing and explaining the common roots of separately experienced oppressions. Unless he gets drafted, and not necessarily even then, the college student doesn’t know from his own experience that the causes of his discontent and the causes of the
What are the common roots of these separately-experienced oppressions? In Mandel’s view, the first three (blacks, students, technicians) are jointly derived from ‘an accelerated process of technological change’ which he calls ‘the third industrial revolution.’ Thus he claims automation has thrown black workers out of unskilled jobs; it has further created a demand for more educated people and thus led to the use of industrial methods in education; and finally, it has led technicians into conflict with financiers. As for points four and five (industrial workers, government employees), their problems are rooted, he says, in ‘inflation’.
Not one common root, but two separate ones. And neither of them, unfortunately, extremely enlightening. For nearly a decade, the entire official spectrum of analysts, critics and columnists has been pointing to ‘technology’ and ‘inflation’ as the root causes of one or another troublesome phenomenon. These are the ‘ether’ and ‘phlogiston’ of contemporary socio-economic criticism, the residual, fictional categories into whose murky depths escape all those who fear the sunlight of critical, radical thought. There are a dozen analyses of ‘technology’ and its social and political effects; at least that many of ‘inflation’. They range from right to left. The problem with ‘technology and inflation’ is that as explanations they include too much; they can be used to explain everything, and therefore end up explaining nothing.