Mandel, who died on 20th July 1995, dominated the far
left. He was a
magnificent speaker and a prolific author. As general secretary of his organisation, the United
Secretariat of the Fourth International, he played a crucial
political role on the world stage, even if many outside the far
left do not know it.
and my Contact with Mandel
He was also
an advisory editor of Critique
from its inception. He
supported the journal when it was formed and spoke at its
founding conference at Imperial College in London in 1972.
We printed a number of his articles on the Soviet Union.
In 1978, I had an all day debate with him at Conway Hall,
London, on the subject of the nature of the USSR.
I also replied to his article on the USSR in Critique
him again to speak, this time in Glasgow, to the conference of
the Centre for Socialist Theory and Movements in 1985 and I
encountered him a number of times, thereafter, at various
conferences, the last but one in Moscow at the end of 1992.
Over the course of twenty years I had not a few
discussions with Mandel but our differences grew greater over
the years. Whereas
Mandel was more open and talked of a transitional society rather
than a workers’ state during the seventies, in his later years
he was more insistent on the workers’ state viewpoint.
He took a more favourable attitude to Gorbachev and to
the reformers in Eastern Europe than I could.
In my view, he held illusions on the nature of the Soviet
Union, illusions on the nature of reformers like Sakharov, over
whom I had a heated argument with him, and illusions on the
nature of other countries, which have laid claim to the term
never agreed with him at any stage on the nature of the Soviet
Union but we appeared to move further apart over the years on
practically all questions.
On the last occasion, when I publicly criticized him, at
the Socialist Scholars Conference in New York in 1993, I was
surprised by his deep pessimism, which was such a contrast with
the super-optimism that he had displayed in his prime.
pointed out how the workers’ struggles developed and raised
the quality of their leaders.
Mandel too was made by the struggles of the sixties and
oratory was unsurpassed on the left and certainly on the right. He had the rare facility of emotionally affecting his
audience to such a degree that they found themselves being drawn
into his argument, whatever their viewpoint.
I often watched the way Mandel would win over the
audience and defeat his opponent with consummate rhetorical
skill. Not many
learned Marxists today possess the wide linguistic skills of
Ernest Mandel. He
spoke all over the world to audiences, often in their native
tongues and always with a rare skill.
two books which will go down in history.
The first was his textbook on Marxist Economics and his
second was his doctoral thesis, Late
have had an enormous influence.
It matters little whether they are good books.
The fact is that to this day, Marxists wishing to learn
Marxist Economics use his textbook.
It has not been replaced as one of the major textbooks on
the subject. The
Stalinist textbooks became increasingly repugnant and other
attempts at textbooks lacked his overall sweep.
They were usually too academic and non-political.
textbook, nonetheless, is deeply flawed.
It is superficial and indeed so superficial that Paul
Sweezy’s Stalinist book, The Theory of Capitalist Development, is often better.
The mark of a profound Marxist lies in his ability to
discover unexplored or conflicted areas of Marxist work and
explicate and develop them.
Mandel knew that but he applied it to the present rather
than to the heart of Marxism itself.
One does not have to revise or change Marxism at all in
order to develop it. Instead
his textbook leaves any theoretical reader deeply unsatisfied.
He saw crisis, for instance, in a functionalist way i.e.
as a regular cycle which tends to renew the capitalist system.
Crisis has taken the form of a cycle but it is not one
similar to the regular cycle of the seasons or other natural
relations cannot be governed by simple cycles.
Crises, on the contrary, occur because there is a
breakdown in those social relations.
The poles of the contradiction between use value and
exchange value cease to interpenetrate and stand in antagonistic
Mandel, on the other hand, the crisis was solved, technically,
when wages, means of production and stocks were used up or
devalued. For a
Marxist, on the other hand, crisis ends when one or other class
establishes its temporary dominance.
This ambiguity between technique and social relations ran
right through all his work.
Capitalism is the major Marxist Political Economic work
since the end of the Second World War.
There are not many Marxist economists but most have
lacked the courage and ability to investigate the nature of
world capitalism. Some
have jumped in where fools fear to tread and have written texts
which are closer to mumbo jumbo than Marxism.
Mandel’s work is not clear.
It is not well written and it has many other faults but
he tackled the issues which had to be tackled and gave his
readers the possibility of grappling with the real problems of
work was the first time that a Trotskyist had produced a work of
Political Economy of importance.
Up to that time Trotskyists had been experts on
were monks defending the original texts. Mandel threw off the cloak of the monk and dared to develop
ideas with the Trotskyist tradition.
Mandel deserves to be remembered.
Ambiguity of Ernest Mandel
At the same
time, Ernest Mandel was wrong on the nature of the USSR and
Eastern Europe and he consequently misunderstood Stalinism.
This meant that he was unable to fully come to terms with
the nature of the epoch itself and hence could not fully
understand capitalism either.
His super-optimism in the sixties and seventies was based
on his misjudgment of the power of Stalinism and consequently
the depth of the defeat which the working class had suffered in
the twenties in the Soviet Union.
Equally his pessimism in the nineties was based on the
same misjudgment. He
could not see that the end of the Soviet Union and Eastern
Europe and hence of Stalinism removed the blocks to real change.
Mandel was a
Marxist. He had
read Marx, unlike many Marxists.
That is why his mistakes are inexcusable.
He was always ambiguous, whatever the question.
He was ambiguous on the nature of the Soviet Union, but
he was also ambiguous on Marxist method.
The first chapter of his work on Late
Capitalism is on Marxist method.
He there rejects any single cause of capitalist decline,
crisis or difficulty and then enumerates a number, without
exploring their obvious interconnection. He does not discuss the nature of contradiction, the nature
of law, the nature of category or of form.
The non superficial reader is left with the impression
that Mandel rejects both superficiality and profundity.
is important because it is the beginning of theory but it is not
theory itself. He
did not work any view through to its conclusion.
He took the theory of the long wave from Trotsky and made
it his own but he stressed the technological aspect far more
than Trotsky ever did. As
a result his theory of the long wave stands poised between the
political economy of Trotsky and the economics of social
magnificent oratory was not always used to best effect.
He was not above employing it in order to ensure that he
won the debate, even though he lost the real argument.
Mandel was a child of his times.
The Machiavellian nature of the modern epoch penetrated
the left sects and many groups have used methods better suited
to the mafia than the left.
He wanted to build a powerful Marxist party and this
sometimes meant that the truth became a victim.
It is true that he stood for democracy in the left but it
was democracy in which he remained the supreme leader.
He never wavered in his loyalty to the workers’ state
doctrine and hence maintained a dogmatism which seemed to be at
odds with his self-proclaimed openness and non sectarian
pessimism toward the end of his life was a complete contrast to
his much criticised but wonderful optimism.
He has had a
number of obituaries. Tariq
Ali wrote a detailed but odd obituary in the British daily, The
Independent, in which he justifies himself in satirising the
left and Mandel most of all.
He concludes that Mandel ought to have realised, with
Ali, that the game was up for 50 or more years.
The New York Times
spoke of Mandel’s struggle to be admitted to the United
interestingly, Tariq Ali attributes Mandel’s optimism, in
dealing with people, to the way in which he persuaded his
gaolers in the last World War to help him escape. I was certainly amazed when he told me in 1988 that we had
only to wait for him to address the workers of the USSR for them
to rise. (That was
at a conference in Oxford in which the organisers refused to
allow me on the platform or even to speak from the floor in the
plenary sessions. To
his credit he argued against the organisers, the New Left Review, and his own comrades, excluding me on the grounds
optimism has deeper roots.
Anyone who comes from an oppressed group must be
optimistic to survive, especially when he has survived
extinction in a concentration camp.
The persecution, the pogroms and the prejudice which the
Jews suffered over the years compelled them develop a
universalism which enabled Marxists to develop.
Mandel drew from the best of that tradition and like Marx
and Trotsky recast it into the necessary optimism of the
Marxist. He was an
internationalist – opposed to nationalism and a man who looked
forward to the day when oppression ended.
Mandel remained a Marxist to the end, even if he became deeply
many Marxists do the same.
Many succumb to the temptations of academia, power and
the lure of money. He
did not use everyday language to the exclusion of Marxist
concepts, unlike all too many speakers and writers.
He was in the tradition of revolutionaries who dedicated
their lives to the cause of the working class.
He was a Marxist in the tradition of Marx and Trotsky.