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Ernest Mandel, central leader of Fourth International, dies in Antwerp

Ernest Mandel - Internet Archive
Gerry Foley Print
From Socialist Action, August 1995, p. 13

Ernest Mandel, for decades the most widely known leader of the Fourth International (FI) – the World Party of Socialist Revolution founded by Leon Trotsky and his co-thinkers – died on July 20.

Mandel was in his early 70s, but his health had been deteriorating markedly for some years.  Nonetheless, he continued to participate in the life of the Fourth International and to work on book projects and public lectures.

More than any other FI leader since Leon Trotsky, Mandel established Trotskyism (revolutionary socialism) in the world of books and ideas.  His first major work, published in French in 1962 and subsequently translated into many languages, was his two-volume “Marxist Economic Theory.”

This book will probably be remembered as his central literary legacy.  Mandel’s work was a monumental rewriting of Marx’s Capital for the 20th century, using modern evidence to reinforce the Marxist explanation of economic laws and the evolution of society.

“Marxist Economic Theory” and subsequent works prepared the way for Mandel’s emergence as a culture-hero of the international youth radicalization of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Mandel joined the Trotskyist movement at the age of 16.  He was active in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of his native Belgium, and was captured by the Nazis and held in a concentration camp.  After he was imprisoned, the German authorities discovered his Jewish origin.  It was only because this occurred near the end of the war that avoided mistreatment or death.

After the war, Mandel played a leading role in rebuilding a new leadership of the Fourth International centered in Europe.  The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which was the strongest Fourth Internationalist party at the time, contributed importantly to this work.

Among the various Trotskyist parties and groups, the SWP was distinguished by its organizational professionalism and consistent work.  I remember Mandel telling me that he learned a lot about organization from the SWP in those days.

Mandel’s work as a Marxist scholar was prepared by his involvement and activity in Marxist politics, a fact overlooked by those who sought to imitate him as a scholar without going through the school of revolutionary struggle.

The immediate background to the publication of Mandel’s major work was his editorship of the revolutionary newspaper, La Gauche (The Left) during the Belgian general strike of 1961.  At its height, this newspaper had a circulation of 30,000 in a country with a population less than that of New York City.  It succeeded in becoming the organ of the left wing of the general strike movement.

Under Mandel’s editorship, La Gauche showed a remarkable effectiveness in translating revolutionary Marxism into slogans and symbols that could appeal to masses involved in one of the most powerful class struggles in recent times.  The newspaper also dealt sensitively with the complex nationalities question that arose in Belgium out of the uneven economic development between Flanders and the French-speaking Walloon country.

For many years, Mandel wrote analyses of the evolution of the world capitalist economy for La Gauche, which remained the newspaper of the Belgian section of the Fourth International.  In these articles he showed an extraordinary ability to seize the essence of complex developments and explain them in a clear and focused way.  They were translated into many languages and served the press of the Fourth International as a whole. 

The Fourth International fractures 

In a disastrous split that occurred in the Fourth International in 1952 – 1953, Mandel lined up with the leader of the Fourth International center in Europe, Michel Pablo, against the orthodox Trotskyist forces led by the Socialist Workers Party of James P. Cannon and Joseph Hansen.

Impressed by the spread of Stalinist regimes after World War II and the revolutions led by Stalinist parties in Yugoslavia and China, Pablo developed the theory that Stalinism had a dual nature, that it could play a revolutionary as well as a reactionary role.

Pablo developed a political strategy based on the theory that World War III was imminent and that its impact would push the mass reformist Social Democratic and Stalinist parties decisively to the left.  In order to participate in this process and not be marginalized, he argued that the sections of the Fourth International had to enter the mass parties without any definite project.  This was unlike the entry that Trotsky called for in the 1930s in order to capture the left wings that were then developing in the Socialist parties.

The Fourth International split when Pablo tried to use the authority of the international center to impose this policy on all sections, even those sections where the majority of the membership was against it.

In Belgium, however, the entry operation had some success.  The Trotskyist-led faction became a major force in the Socialist Party.  But after the Social Democratic leadership expelled the Trotskyists and their supporters in December 1964, the Belgian Fourth Internationalists failed to turn the forces that followed them into a strong revolutionary party.

Instead, they formed three small centrist parties respectively in Flanders, the Walloon Country, and Brussels.  These groups – which were linked in the Socialist Workers Confederation, of which Mandel was the general secretary – withered away rapidly.  Later, a new, small section of the Fourth International was built, principally out of the youth radicalization of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Hero of the youth radicalization

Mandel became an international political personality essentially on the impulse of the May-June 1968 upsurge in France.  For rebelling students, he was the personification of the revolutionary intellectual.

Mandel had an impressive command of English and spoke German and Flemish with native fluency, as well as having a passable Spanish.  But French was the main language of his political life.  He was a central figure in the revolutionary ferment in the French universities during the 1968 events.

All over the world, whenever students occupied a campus or a building, their first thought was often to ring up Mandel at any time of the day or night to ask him for a message of support – a request he was always happy to meet.  In many countries, crowds of revolutionary minded youth came to his lectures and responded to them with enthusiasm.

I witnessed this during the heady days of the Portuguese Revolution in 1974 -1975.  Although I did not agree with the line Mandel proposed for the Portuguese Revolution, there was no denying that, for better or worse, he was broadcasting in the wave length of the radicalized youth.

In my opinion, that was a source of weakness as well as strength for Mandel.  The radicalization of the 1960s and early 1970s was a great outburst of moral indignation against capitalist society and imperialist brutality but it lacked practical organization and perspectives, as well as social depth.  It lived too much on the level of generalities.

In this atmosphere, Mandel tended also more and more to become detached from practical reality.  His authority among political cadres then waned along with the decline of the youth radicalization.

Defending the Fourth International

For all his political life, Mandel retained a fervent belief in the future of the Fourth International, even when his ideas for tactics or theoretical innovation led him dangerously away from programmatic clarity.  His authority was important to maintain the cohesiveness of the International.

Although Mandel went along with Pablo in the 1952-53 split, he and the other younger leaders of the FI center soon came into conflict with Pablo.  Mandel played a key role in bringing about the reunification of the FI in 1963 and reorienting it to the new era inaugurated by the victory of the Cuban Revolution.

At the end of the 1960s, a new division arose in the Fourth International.  Mandel sided with one wing of the FI, which had been influenced by ultraleft tendencies in the youth radicalization and by the ideas of the Cubans that revolutionary processes could be set in motion everywhere in Latin America by forming small guerrilla groups.  The experienced Trotskyist leadership of the SWP again resisted this lurch.

Once more the International came close to a split.  But, however much Mandel may have bent to the winds of the time, he remained committed to the unity of the International.  The SWP leadership was able to negotiate with him and his collaborators to avert a split and ultimately resolve the main issues of the dispute through debate and accepting the test of events.

However, just as the dispute was successfully resolved, a political struggle broke out in the SWP itself.  The party’s former proletarian leadership had died or had been set aside by a new young leadership.  Now, the majority of the SWP’s central leaders aimed to integrate themselves into what they termed the “World Communist Movement.”  SWP national secretary Jack Barnes proclaimed that by the end of the 1980s no one but sectarians would call themselves Trotskyists.

Mandel moved to defend the Fourth International against Barnes’s new political orientation.  He brought all of his influence to bear to get the Fourth International to start a new English-language international magazine in opposition to Intercontinental Press, the magazine founded on the 1963 reunification, which had been taken over by the Barnes leadership and now reflected their revisionist views.

When the leadership of the Australian Socialist Workers Party also decided to abandon Trotskyism, Mandel wrote a powerful answer to them in a special issue of the new FI magazine, International Viewpoint.

Mandel had a great belief in the power of books.  I remember once in the very large Paris bookstore of the French section of the Fourth International that he pointed out to me all the books the Marxist movement has produced.  “There are the great Marx and Engels – and the little Mandel,” he said.

It was almost as if he saw virtue being rewarded in the literary sphere even when it was not rewarded in practical life.  There is some truth to that, but the two spheres cannot really be separated.

The books produced by the Trotskyist movement are the best and most useful guides for revolutionists to interpret and intervene in the struggles of our time.  But they are rooted in the practical experience of our movement, and their range cannot extend much beyond the limitations of this experience.

The achievements of Mandel himself – the most widely known writer, after Trotsky, that the Fourth International has produced – have their roots in the struggle to build the World Party of the Socialist Revolution that Trotsky founded.

Mandel left an impressive literary heritage.  But his most important heritage for the Fourth International today is his confidence in the future of the World Party of the Socialist Revolution, his devotion to its unity, and his perspective that all but fundamental differences in the revolutionary movement can be overcome by discussion and by accepting the test of events.


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