Wadi’h Halabi
Original publication: conservancy.umn.edu

The Material Basis for Revolutionary Optimism (2000)

19 minutes | English

Published in Nature, Society, and Thought Vol. 13, No. 2.

Wadi’h Halabi immigrated to the United Sates as a refugee from Palestine in 1948. He worked as a bicycle mechanic and as a factory worker before joining the CPUSA in 1993. He visited Nanchang University in east China in 2014, which gave him “optimism about the future for China, and all of humanity.” [1]



What will determine the future of philosophy? More than anything else, it is the success of the struggles of the working class. Marxist philosophy, in turn, is essential for guiding those struggles.

In the past hundred years, the working class has achieved some great victories over capitalism. Most important were the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the overthrow of capitalist rule in more than a dozen additional countries, from Albania to Vietnam.

The past twenty-five years, however, have witnessed numerous setbacks for the working class. These have included failures to seize power despite revolutionary opportunities, such as in Lebanon in 1975-76 and Nicaragua in 1979. The great British miners’ strike of 1984-85 was defeated. And most serious, between 1989 and 1991, capitalist counterrevolution brought down workers’ rule in Albania, Yugoslavia, the Warsaw Pact states, and above all in the Soviet Union itself. In addition, unemployment, poverty, inequality, national oppression, environmental degradation, and war have all grown across the capitalist world. Only in China and Vietnam-products of socialist revolutions — has there been a significant decline in poverty and hunger. Pessimism has infected some “socialists.” A few have even proclaimed the “triumph of Western capitalism” and asserted that “the Marxist project for revolution launched by the Communist Manifesto is dead.” [2]

But has capitalism triumphed? Our pessimists appear unaware of the profound if indirect connection between a deepening crisis of world capitalism and the collapse of the Soviet Union and allied states. Furthermore, they ignore or dismiss the continued existence of five states created by socialist revolutions — namely, China, Vietnam, Laos, North Korea, and Cuba. Our pessimists have not even understood the Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto did not launch a “Marxist project.” It is a correct reading of the forward march of history; it, like all Marxist philosophy, provides scientific, revolutionary direction to the working class.

Nevertheless, recent defeats raise a legitimate question: What is the material basis for revolutionary optimism in the twentyfirst century? The working class is fundamental for a scientific answer. Why?

Five reasons for the historical role of the working class

One of the great scientific discoveries of Marxism is the reason the working class, rather than the toiling classes in general, would be the primary historical agent in the transition from capitalism to socialism.

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia summarizes basic Marxist studies on the working class. [3] It lists five reasons, paraphrased here, for the historical role of the working class:

  1. Capitalist exploitation appropriation of the surplus value created by the working class imparts a permanent, inalienable character to the antagonism between labor and capital. In exploitation lies the profound material basis for the working class’s revolutionary interests. These interests direct the class to the only effective resolution of the contradiction between the growth of the productive forces and capitalist forms.
  2. Capitalism has greatly reduced the economic importance of other toiling classes.
  3. The conditions of production shape the working class as the one most capable of organization, discipline, class consciousness, and solidarity.
  4. Many ties link the working class and the nonproletarian oppressed, whose interests largely coincide with those of the working class. As a result, the working class’s role in the class struggle is larger than its share of the total population.
  5. The international character of modern production provides the working class a crucial position in the struggle against the world bourgeoisie. This is the basis for the organizational unity of the workers of the world.

Role of the industrial proletariat

Furthermore, Marxism has historically emphasized the importance of the industrial proletariat. Despite changes in society and the work force, there is a material basis for maintaining this emphasis. Why?

  1. Creation of surplus value, and exploitation by the capitalists, are greatest in industry. This is true even though higher profit rates are found in other sectors, such as some services in imperialist countries. These are the results of unequal exchange, debt service, outright looting, and other monopoly manipulations.
  2. Conditions in industry promote the greatest organization, discipline, class consciousness, and solidarity. The concentration of workers in industry is rarely found in other sectors.
  3. The international division of labor is most pronounced in industry.

The industrial working class can be compared to the driveshaft of a motor: it may be small compared to the gears with which it connects, but it provides motive force to the class as a whole. [4]

Methodological approach

How can we assess the basis for revolutionary optimism?

The approach followed here weighs the relationship of forces between the fundamentally antagonistic classes, the world capitalist class and the world working class. Each class can be viewed as a single “organism” worldwide, because class interests are stronger than national borders and other divisions.

Thus the world capitalist “organism” responded to socialist revolution in Russia with hostile invasions, economic sanctions, denial of markets and access to technology, diplomatic isolation, etc. The international working class, on the other hand, responded to the same development with solidarity efforts; the formation of Communist parties and of the International; general strikes, including one in Seattle; and struggles to seize power. Similar opposed international responses can be seen after the Chinese, Cuban, and other socialist revolutions.

Capitalism’s fundamental contradiction

Let us examine the weaknesses and strengths of the capitalist class, both of which, in the last analysis, flow from capitalism’s fundamental contradiction. This is the conflict between the growth of productive forces and capitalist forms, which are too narrow for those developing forces.

These forms include private ownership and also capitalist methods of rule, such as top-down command without bottom-up control, both in society and in enterprises. It is true that centralization is absolutely necessary in modern economies, but bottom-up control is also necessary. And that is not possible under capitalism. The continued division of the economy into more and more countries (that are more and more unequal) is another capitalist form incompatible with the development of productive forces.

As labor productivity grows, these conflicts render the bourgeoisie less and less capable of preventing economic imbalances from multiplying, and less and less capable of recovering from the resulting crises. [5]

“Common sense,” for example, would lead us to expect that growing productivity would be accompanied by a rise in the standard of living. But Marx’s work shows why under capitalism the reverse becomes true. An extraordinary statistic: by a bourgeois economist’s calculations, income per person in 144 capitalist countries has been falling 0.8 percent per year since 1973. [6] The reality is almost certainly worse.

Income per person in the United States rose in the same period, but all gains went to the exploiting layers of society; workers’ wages fell. Capitalism’s fundamental contradiction manifests itself in the economy as growing imbalances (disproportionalities) leading to crises. For the capitalists, these imbalances appear as “overproduction” — that is, too much is produced to achieve maximum profitability.

Capitalism’s weaknesses

As “overproduction” rises, the capitalist response is to cheapen labor, to plunder, and to destroy productive capacity (preferably belonging to others). Since 1990, not only have wages fallen across the capitalist world, but some 22 percent of productive capacity under capitalist rule worldwide has been idled or destroyed. [7] Bad debts and corporate losses also reflect overproduction. Bad debts held by Japanese banks climbed from fifty billion dollars in 1990 to fourteen hundred billion by 1996, as markets dried up and capacity use fell.

For the masses, disproportionalities in capitalist economy manifest themselves as unemployment and immiseration. The number of unemployed and underemployed worldwide, by the estimates of the International Labor Organization, roughly tripled between the early 1970s and the mid-1990s, and now exceeds one billion.

The insecurity of life under capitalism is a profound revolutionary factor. Yet the capitalist class, not only too weak to alleviate this insecurity, is pushed by internal contradictions into worsening it. Even in the United States, currently in the longest economic expansion in its history, the proportion of the labor force in extremely insecure employment grew from one out of four in the early 1980s to one out of three in 1999.

“Overproduction” and losses

Except for occasional worries about revolution, the capitalists do not care that the masses are hungry, unemployed, or insecure. Their system could even survive — if only they could increase their profits, or at least maintain them. The problem, and a fatal weakness for capitalism, is that the same disproportionalities that leave the masses jobless and hungry also result in losses for the capitalists. These the exploiters care passionately about.

It is possible that corporate losses and bad debts worldwide will equal or exceed monopolies’ profits in 2000, with profound implications for the world economy and society.

The capitalist class’s numerical insignificance

Monopolization, crises, wars, and social revolutions in the last century have reduced the capitalist class to numerical insignificance. Crises impel the wealthiest capitalists into looting their own already-narrow social base, smaller capitalists and exploiting layers of the petty bourgeoisie.

In the United States, ownership of capital today is overwhelmingly concentrated among the top one quarter of one percent. Because of the dominance of U.S. capital, the proportion of capitalists in the world population is even smaller. A frustrated British coal miner and union president once said, “If we’d just spit together, we could drown ‘em!”

The combination of the capitalist class’s economic and numerical weakness, its constant violations even of bourgeois-democratic rights, the huge gap between what is under its rule and what can be and will be — all points to a profound social weakness. Imperialism has the capacity to destroy the world many times over, and naturally we do not ignore this destructive power. But this only underlines its profound economic and social weakness.

The capitalist class’s strength

So what strength does the world bourgeoisie have? Only one stands out: the extraordinary centralization of its resources, economic and military. This too is a result of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction, and the resulting crises, wars, and monopolization.

This centralization is evident in U.S. dominance of international organizations such as NATO, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. It was evident in the Pentagon’s command of the armies of more than twenty-five countries in the 1990-91 Gulf War, and again in the NATO aggression (led by the United States) in Yugoslavia.

Needless to say, centralization is of enormous importance, indeed an outright necessity, in waging a global class conflict. And that is precisely what the world bourgeoisie is compelled by its crises into waging. At the same time, because this centralization is under the flag of individual gain, it is necessarily filled with internal contradictions. So even this strength contains the makings of severe weaknesses.

What about the working class?

The international working class made enormous gains in the past century — in strength, numbers, concentration, literacy, and culture. But the distribution of gains has been uneven, and mixed with decay and decomposition.

For example, there were just 3 million industrial workers in all of Russia in 1917, out of a total population of 140 million. By the 1980s, there were nearly 40 million workers in Soviet industry out of a total population of 280 million, with 50 million more in support positions. Even ten years after the counterrevolution, the Russian working class remains one of the largest and most concentrated in the world. Its life remains organized around factories and industrial complexes. According to recent calculations by Stanislav Menshikov, it is now as exploited as the U.S. working class. [8] Workers across former Soviet republics are presently waging struggles, insufficiently publicized, of great historical potential. These include not only occupying factories, but running them and deciding what to do with the production. Lately, signs have appeared of growing militancy among workers in the energy sector across the former USSR.

In China, the number of industrial workers fluctuated between 2.5 and 3.5 million from 1919 until 1949. By 1958 the number had grown to 25 million, and by 1997 to over 100 million. Similar growth of the working class occurred in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia until 1989-90.

What the Soviet Union, China, Bulgaria, Romania, etc. share, of course, is that in them capitalist rule was overthrown in the twentieth century. And this is where the greatest development of the working class took place. Why?

Decomposition and recomposition under imperialism

The shortest definition of imperialism is: capitalism in historical decay. The same factors weakening the capitalist class — in the final analysis, its contradictions and crises — also result, short of revolution, in decomposition of the working class, and recomposition on an unfavorable basis.

In some oppressed capitalist countries, imperialism has so devastated the economy that there remains little of a working class. In Congo (Zaire), for example, industry collapsed in 1992, almost eliminating the working class. It has not recovered. Even in imperialist countries, there has been a significant decline in the number and concentration of industrial workers. In Britain, for example, 25 percent of industrial jobs were eliminated in less than five years in the early 1980s, and have not been replaced. In the United States, the absolute number of industrial jobs has remained relatively constant over the past four decades, while the labor force doubled. But industrial employment is extraordinarily insecure; factories constantly close or move, technology changes, workers frustrated by conditions move to selfemployment, etc.

Most serious of decomposition factors is the rise in world unemployment. In addition, there has been a significant decline in big concentrations of industrial workers. For example, since 1970, all U.S. steel works that once employed 10,000 or more workers have closed or suffered sharp cuts in their employment; very few remain with even 5,000 workers, while “minimills,” sometimes with fewer than 500 employees, replace them. Secondary factors of decomposition include rising inequality among workers even as overall wages decline; growing insecurity and turnover in employment; exclusion of youth, the energy of the revolution, particularly from heavy industry, and from steady employment in general. The various economic and social changes under imperialism can be summarized as making socialist revolution at once more necessary and more difficult. On a world scale, nonetheless, the gains made by the working class in states that experienced socialist revolutions in the twentieth century greatly outweigh the losses under imperialist rule, even in most countries that later suffered capitalist restoration.

Working-class weaknesses

What working-class weaknesses stand out? First, insufficient clarity continues on major economic and political developments, such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and allied states and the deepening crisis of world capitalism, as well as the profound, albeit indirect, connection between the two. Second is insufficient organization and centralization of working-class resources internationally — insufficient, that is, for successful struggle against attacks by centralized world capitalism. As Lenin demonstrates in State and Revolution, effective organization and centralization are possible only with maximum internal democracy. [9] Both weaknesses are of a primarily subjective nature. With initiative and leadership, they can therefore be corrected relatively quickly.

After the fall of the First, Second, and Third Internationals, as after the fall of the Soviet Union, the capitalist class proclaimed its eternal victory and the death of Marxism and of working-class struggle. Each time, the working class and Marxism recovered. Today, there are efforts worldwide to correct present weaknesses. This important International Symposium, organized by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, represents such an effort. Recent meetings of Communist and workers’ parties from around the world, hosted by the Communist Party of Greece, represent another. Communist Parties worldwide are working to reach clarity on developments such as globalization or the real reasons behind the U.S.-led aggression in Yugoslavia, to correct previous errors (such as idealization of the USSR or China), and to build organizational unity.


A scientific assessment of the relationship of forces between the international working class and the capitalist class favors the working class. The capitalist class has been greatly weakened, economically, socially, and numerically, in the past century. The working class has made major, if uneven, gains in numbers, culture, and strength in the same period. Herein lies the profound material basis for revolutionary optimism in the twenty-first century. But the forces of the international capitalist class are more centralized than ever, while those of the working class are not. Correction of the working class’s weaknesses, which are primarily subjective and organizational, will lead to major victories, ending exploitation, inequality, national oppression, poverty, and wars. This will also bring huge advances in philosophy based on dialectical materialism — in other words, in philosophy to further change the world.


  • Burbach, Roger, Orlando Nunez, and Boris Kagarlitsky. 1997. Globalization and its discontents: The rise of postmodern socialisms. Chicago: Pluto Press.
  • Great Soviet encyclopedia. 1973-1983. English translation. New York: Macmillan.
  • Hall, Gus. 1987. Working class USA. New York: International Publishers.
  • Lenin, Vladimir I. 1964 [1917]. The state and revolution. In vol. 25 of V. I. Lenin: Collected works, 385-539. Moscow: Progress Publishers.
  • Menshikov, Stanislav. 1999. Russian capitalism today. Monthly Review 51 (July-August): 81-99.

[1] 2018-05-02. “Feature: From Palestinian refugee to communist fighter in U.S.”, Xinhua. [web] 

[2] Burbach et al. 1997. 

[3] The 1976 edition of the Encyclopedia was translated into English by Macmillan Publishers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The Encyclopedia is an outstanding materialist reference work of the twentieth century. It reflects the Soviet Union as the product of the Russian Revolution, its strengths and weaknesses. 

[4] This analogy is taken from Hall (1987). From 1959 until his death in October 2000, Gus Hall was leader of the Communist Party USA, which has maintained a correct emphasis on industrial workers, while seeking to address the great changes in U.S. employment patterns. At the Beijing symposium sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, numerous questions and comments focused on the issue of “knowledge workers.” [10] 

[5] This paper builds on analysis by the author in an earlier paper, “The Communist Manifesto and the World Economy after World War II,” Nature, Society, and Thought 10, no. 4 (1997), 489-501. Reasons for the relative and purely temporary stability in the world and U.S. economy between 1950 and 1990 are discussed in this paper. Suffice it to say here that the working class, through the states where it seized power, has been the only source of stability in the world economy. There is no sign that capitalism has learned to regulate its cycles. 

[6] Study by economic historian Angus Madison, Wall Street Journal, 11 January 1999. 

[7] For a breakdown of the idling and destruction of productive capacity under capitalism in the 1990s, see my paper, “On the Real Causes of the Longest Economic Expansion in U.S. History,” prepared for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, June 2000; a slightly expanded version of this paper was also published in the November 2000 issue of Political Affairs, theoretical journal of the Communist Party USA. Much of this idling has taken place in former Warsaw Pact states now under capitalist rule, but a significant portion is evident in Japan, Indonesia, and other countries hit by crisis in the 1990s, and in Iraq, Yugoslavia, and others as a result of war and sanctions. 

[8] 1999, 86-91. 

[9] 1964 [1917] 

[10] Atomized conditions of employment for many knowledge workers often make it difficult to achieve organization, discipline, and class solidarity. In capitalist countries, knowledge workers frequently shift back and forth, from employment to selfemployment to managerial positions, or even ownership of enterprises. An extreme example is Bill Gates, the head of Microsoft, once a computer programmer and now one of the wealthiest capitalists in the world. The opposition between intellectual and manual labor, which has historical roots in exploitation and which Marxism is committed to end, must also be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, we can be sure that knowledge workers will contribute to coming victories of the working class.