Mandel is a renowned economic and political theorist.
A leading member of the united secretariat of the Fourth
International, Mandel has devoted his life to defending the
revolutionary legacy of Leon Trotsky.
He is the author of numerous books, the most recent in
English is Power and
Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (Verso).
During a recent visit to South Africa Mandel spoke to The
Communist: Cde Mandel, weíd like to plunge you directly into a
current debate within our country.
We are thinking of the demand for an Interim Government
Ė should we, or should we not advance such a demand?
We ask this question because there are forces on the
left, notably some trotskyist groupings, that are absolutely
opposed to transitional, power-sharing arrangements. Their opposition is certainly not groundless.
The regimeís agenda is precisely to detach the
leadership of the ANC-led alliance from its mass base.
One way of doing this would be to lure our formations
into co-responsibility for governing without any real power.
On the other
hand, all left forces in our country seem to agree on the demand
for a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly.
How do you hold elections for a CA with the present
regime acting as a major player and referee?
What executive authority exists during the period of the
CAís proceedings? It
is in this context that the ANC, SACP and our allies have been
putting forward the demand for an Interim Government.
what do you think?
On South Africa I am going to say nothing. But I will put the answer rather in an historical framework.
this debate has been with the international labour movement for
a long, long time. It started already in the 90s of the past century.
In order to answer this problem, which is a difficult
one, we have to approach it from exactly the opposite point of
view. We have to
approach it NOT from the point of view of: ďShould we or
shouldnít we try to occupy, get, grasp some elements of
my country, Vandervelde [Emile, 1866-1938], the leader of the
socialist party and once chairperson of the Second Socialist
International, used a formula which by and large expresses (he
was a clever lawyer) the philosophy underlying the wrong way of
approaching this issue. He
said we should strive for every little bit of power we can get
inside the state, but we should not confuse these bits of power
with state power as such.
That is more
or less the philosophy behind the wrong way of approaching the
question. That was
said nearly one hundred years ago, so you see itís nothing
reverse the whole question.
And reversing it is exactly what, in its best traditions,
the international labour movement did.
This is what it did in the periods when it was at its
strongest (and not by accident), in terms of its mass influence
and mass clout, first as mass socialist parties, and later as
mass communist parties. They
reversed the whole question.
from a number of key issues, which in the eyes of the masses,
were seen as capable of changing their lives for the better.
What these issues are at any particular time is, of
course, still a question of political analysis and judgement,
and itís possible to be disastrously wrong.
But generally speaking, if you are a mass party, if you
have enough roots, itís difficult to be wrong.
The right path is obvious.
words, they approached the question not by asking what will be
the effects on the power structure?
Not by asking will our demands best be realized before or
after we take power? No.
That will be left to practice to show.
Instead, their approach was to plunge directly into
struggle, for instance, in regard to the 8-hour working day.
in Germany and the throughout the International Socialist
movement in the 80s and 90s of the last century.
They didnít ask the question will we realize the 8-hour
working day only under a socialist government, only after the
overthrow of capitalism? Or
before that in the transition period of dual power? No.
fact you had different concrete variants in the world as to how
it was realized. It was a good issue, a legitimate demand, and it was seen as
such by millions of workers who went along.
in the 1930ís, under conditions of terrible misery and mass
unemployment, a similar fight was conducted with tremendous
success, at least in France, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Spain and,
to a lesser extent, in Britain and the United States. This time the struggle was for a further reduction of the
overall work-load, in order to get more people employed. Then again, the question was not posed would this be voted by
parliament in law, would it be imposed by class struggle, with a
were national variants. In
some cases it was major strike action.
In Spain it was imposed by the revolution, but never
mind, that was not the key question.
question is that these were legitimate goals, understood by
millions if not tens of millions of workers throughout the
world. The rule,
and Lenin quoted it many times, was coined by that genius
tactician Napoleon Bonaparte: ďOn síengage, puis on voitĒ
Ė ďYou start the struggle, and then you see.Ē
use having in advance some schema (for instance, of
power-sharing or not power-sharing) to which you subordinate the
You conduct the struggle, then you see under what
relation of forces and under what conditions your demands can be
So I would
say that is the real problem today, including in South Africa.
You see what are the key issues, which are the issues of
mass interest for millions of exploited and oppressed, you start
the struggle. From there the rest follows.
What you should not do is subordinate these struggles to
a specific schema.
I can give
you many examples of the disastrous effects of such an approach
in the history of the international labour movement.
this is now completely forgotten, in 1917 the REAL opposition
between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was not at all between those
who wanted dictatorship and those who wanted democracy, thatís
a total mystification of history. It was an opposition between a struggle oriented approach and
a schematic approach. In
Russia millions of workers, soldiers and peasants had very
specific goals. They
wanted to stop the war, immediately.
They wanted land to be distributed, immediately.
And they wanted to end the economic sabotage of the
capitalists, and therefore they wanted workersí control.
Bolsheviks won essentially because they followed the wishes and
needs of these millions of people.
And the Mensheviks, completely the opposite of Lenin,
said the popular demands were politically impossible and
asserted that you cannot stop the war immediately because, if
you do, international capital will withdraw from Russia and you
will have economic chaos; you will have to continue some kind of
collaboration with international capital.
They argued that Russia was not ready for socialism.
They argued that the great mass of workers didnít
understand the need for the development of the productive
forces, that the objective conditions were not ripe, etc., etc.
abstract questions were not the issue.
The issue was that people wanted peace, land and no
lay-offs in the factories.
That was the issue.
So there you
have two completely different strategic approaches.
On the one hand you give precedence to supporting
struggles for the immediate needs of the masses as
they see them. Or,
on the other hand, you go from pre-conceived schema.
for me, is similar to Stalinism and many social-democrats and
neo-social democrats. They try to make people happy against their own wishes.
But you canít. You canít push the porridge down their throats, because
theyíll spit it out sooner or later.
They have to move from their own experience, and you have
to convince them. If
it takes a lot of time, well, it canít be helped.
There is no other way.
Thatís why we have to be for socialist democracy,
basically, because you canít make people happy against their
own will. Any
attempt to impose something on people, including the way to
socialism, will lead to failure.
If you were to single out the greatest weakness of
socialism today, what would it be
Perhaps it would be the question of moral authority.
If you look back to previous decades, you will understand
to what extent things have deteriorated in the present.
Vanzetti in the United States were two comrades condemned to the
electric chair and later executed (in 1927) by the American
were two anarchists, who had nothing to do with communism, in
fact they were hostile to communism.
But the communist movement at the time, and without a
momentís hesitation, organized a world-wide, a splendid
defence campaign. There
was no problem whether they were anarchists or not.
They were just victims of injustice.
The movement identified with the struggle against
destroyed that, and that has been a terrible retreat.
But the social democrats were co-responsible for the
moral retreat of socialism.
It was a general retreat.
A general decline of the moral authority of socialism.
Thatís probably the one single greatest weakness of the
socialist movement during the last decade.
The masses are skeptical, they think socialists and
communists are dishonest, that they donít apply their
principles in practice. Of
course, soviet bureaucracy is the worst example.
But some of the west European socialist democratic
bureaucracies are not much better.
If anything, because of the bigger resources they have
had in their capitalist countries, they have been more corrupt
than the soviet bureaucracy.
not the point, I mean, generally there is no moral authority
anymore. In fact
itís worse than a loss of moral authority, the masses consider
socialists to be self-seeking, dishonest people.
So the one big, big, big change we have to apply (itís
not easy, but itís easier than all the other things, because
this depends on us) is to bring our political practice and even
our personal practice into strict conformity with our
take people for fools, they notice.
If this effort is undertaken in one country, two, three,
four countries, the element of moral authority will come back to
the labour movement.
Think of Che
Guevara. You can
say anything you want against his strategy of rural guerrilla
warfare on a continental scale, really itís a wrong strategy.
But nobody, nobody, nobody in the world doubts the
personal integrity and the extraordinary moral standard of Che.
You canít hide these facts, hmm?
donít say you should have many Che Guevaras.
Thatís not the point.
You can be much more modest, on a much smaller level, but
live up to your principles.
Letís have a left movement that says: Look at what we
are DOING (not what we are saying Ė that doesnít convince
What is the balance sheet of trotskyism itself?
Have there not been many negative tendencies?
Perhaps these tendencies are themselves the result of
Stalinist persecution, the natural reaction of forces that feel
themselves to be isolated and besieged.
particular we ask this question because much of what you have
been saying would seem very ďuntrotskyistĒ to the readers of
The African Communist.
For instance, you have invoked Bonaparteís famous
maxim: ďEngage in struggle, and THEN see.Ē
approach is absolutely at variance with the practice of many
self-proclaimed followers of Trotsky here in our country.
Our experience of Trotskyism has been almost exactly the
of engagement there has been continuous disengagement from the
terrain of mass struggle. And
the justification given for this disengagement has tended to be
(to use your own terms again) ďabstract schemaĒ of all
kinds. What, if
anything, in trotskyism might account for this?
worldwide Trotskyís movement is small, but stronger than at
any time in its history. I
donít want to abuse the opportunity you give me to advance a
lot of details about membership and so on, thatís neither here
nor there. But in a
whole series of countries in the world, some fifteen (itís not
important the exact figure), we are now a recognized component
of the labour movement and of the new social movements.
In these countries we have a capacity of intervening in
mass struggles, or taking initiatives.
But that is
not what we want to be. We
feel the need for something much bigger than ever before.
Because of the internationalization of capital, there is
the need for a workersí MASS international.
And WE are not a mass international.
We are most probably one of the components of such a
future formation. So
we strive for the regrouping of revolutionists on a national and
international scale. We
support all initiatives in that direction.
And we take some of the initiatives ourselves Ė
although we donít believe that our own efforts will cut too
much ice, hmm? But
we do what we can.
At the same
time we notice, because that is also a fact of life, that today
as things are (I donít gloat over this, I regret it), but
today we are the only existing international working class
political formation capable of taking up international issues.
As long as
there is no other organization operating on this field we will
continue as the Fourth International, because we donít give up
a small tool as long as you donít have a better one in your
hand. When it
exists, wonderful. But
today no better exists.
Trotskyís movement make mistakes?
it has. Has Trotsky
made mistakes? Yes,
he has. Everybody
makes mistakes. There
are no infallible popes in this world.
We are critical of some of the mistakes of Trotsky, which
more or less coincided with those of Lenin in that period.
We consider the years between the end of 1919 through
1921 bleak years in the history of communism, bleak years in the
history of Lenin, bleak years in the history of Trotsky.
years in which, contrary to his own tradition, Trotsky espoused
the theory and practice of substitutionism [substituting the
party for the working class].
of substitutionism perhaps one can even excuse it, hmm?
The working class of Russia was reduced drastically at
the time by death, famine and economic dislocation due to the
civil war. But the theoretical justification was awful, and it has had disastrous,
long-term effects. It
was corrected, first by Lenin I must say.
Contrary to a legend, Lenin was quicker than Trotsky to
realize the terrible consequences of bureaucratization in Soviet
came around a little bit later.
were bleak years. The
justification of substitutionism by the theory that the working
class is corrupt, dťclassť, or unable to exercise power,
because thatís what it really amounts to, was completely
contrary to the marxist tradition, completely contrary to what
Lenin or Trotsky themselves wrote before and after these years.
created havoc and we have to make a complete break with all the
elements of that deviation.
We have also
had in Trotskyís movement a strange thing.
The history of Trotskyism and the Fourth International is
very clear and it has been marked by its origins.
It is true that, as a result of isolation, there has been
dogmatism and some of the things you have mentioned.
But thatís not the main point.
point is that, in the historical development of Trotskyism,
there was an ongoing reaction to what we considered to be the
basic mistakes of the official communist parties.
If you look at the history of the successive stages of
that criticism, you will see that one period, and here the
chronology is decisive, played a key role.
Most of the
trotskyist cadres, there were some exceptions, rose as a
reaction to what I would call roughly the post-1935, the fourth
period of Stalinism, the Peopleís Front opportunist deviation
of the communist parties.
that, contrary to Trotsky himself, they did not make a thorough
and complete break with the practice and theory of third period
Stalinism, of ultra-left Stalinism, of the period 1929 to 1934.
particular origin has moulded a certain type of trotskyist cadre
and trotskyist approach to working class politics.
It is a tendency to consider the right-wing deviation as
much worse than the ultra-left deviation.
Now, if I
were to make the historical balance sheet, I would say that both
the right-wing and ultra-left deviations are equally harmful.
say one is more harmful than the other.
It depends on the practical circumstances and issues.
Of course, in many countries the third, ultra-left period
of Stalinism had no impact because the communist parties were
weak. But if you
look at the most formidable challenge of the time, which was the
fight against Hitler in Germany, you cannot say this
ultra-leftism had no impact.
Historically it had a disastrous impact, disastrous.
If you look
at the Soviet Union, the same thing is true.
The period of the ultra-left deviation was the period of
forced collectivization of agriculture, whose horror was
absolutely without equal in what followed, except for the mass
So I would
place both the right-wing and ultra-left deviations on the same
level. I would not
say that the third period was better than the fourth period.
fight a parallel struggle against both sectarianism and
are two sides of the same medal.
But I would
like to end on an optimistic note.
In the last 20 or 25 years, in many (many but not the
majority) of countries in the world, we have overcome the
effects of our origins.
overcome these tendencies by moderate growth, by better social
composition (itís just not true, as some people still say,
that we are essentially a student or petty bourgeois movement)
and, above all, by strong and permanent involvement in mass
struggle, thatís the essential.