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Obituary: Ernest Mandel (1923-1995)

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Hillel Ticktin Print
From Critique, 30-31, 1998, pp. 259-263

Ernest 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. 

Critique 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 12. 

We invited 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 “socialism.”  I 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. 


His Oratory

Trotsky 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 seventies.  His 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. 

His Written Work 

Mandel wrote two books which will go down in history.  The first was his textbook on Marxist Economics and his second was his doctoral thesis, Late Capitalism.  Both 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.

Mandel’s 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 phenomena.  Social 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 relations.  For 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.

His Late 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 capitalism.  His 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 Trotskyism.  They were monks defending the original texts.  Mandel threw off the cloak of the monk and dared to develop ideas with the Trotskyist tradition.

Ernest Mandel deserves to be remembered. 

The 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. 

Late Capitalism 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 democrats. 

His 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 approach.  His 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 States.

Rather 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 of democracy).

Mandel’s 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.

Ernest Mandel remained a Marxist to the end, even if he became deeply pessimistic.  Not 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.


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