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Ernest Mandel (1923-1995): From Trotskyism to centrism

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Ernest Mandel, leader of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI), and one of the key figures of post-war Trotskyism, died on 20 July 1995 at the age of 72.

The lengthy obituaries that appeared in several major European newspapers such as Le Monde (France), Le Soir (Belgium), The Guardian (Britain), and the fact that his death was reported by the French Communist Party daily, l’Humanité, all indicate that Mandel had a far greater influence and was more widely known than any of the other post-war leaders of the Fourth International.

For many USFI members, Mandel represented the voice of orthodoxy, a living continuity with another, more radical period in the life of the International, a brilliant and solid base for the organisation’s leadership. He was, after all, the architect and principal founder of the USFI.

But although he was far more prolific than any of his contemporaries, and despite his contributions in the field of Marxist political economy which largely account for this relative fame, Mandel’s life work was marked by the same inability to grapple with the real problems of revolutionary Marxism that hampered the leaders of post-war centrist Trotskyism.

The revolutionary fight against Nazism

Mandel was raised in a left socialist household. His father had been a friend of the Polish revolutionary, Karl Radek, and bound volumes of Kautsky’s theoretical journal Die Neue Zeit were to be found in the family library.

The young Ernest Mandel joined the small Belgian section of the Fourth International in 1939 and became a close friend of the talented young Marxist, Abram Leon. At the age of 19 he became a Central Committee member of the underground Belgian section and three years later he participated in the 1944 clandestine European conference of the Fourth International. Shortly afterwards, he was arrested for the third time and spent the rest of the war in a Nazi labour camp.

After the end of the war, Mandel became a key element in the new International leadership that was being reconstructed by Michel Pablo and others. Mandel quickly showed himself to be a prolific writer, a tireless organiser and an able theoretician. In 1946, at the age of only 23, he was appointed to the International Secretariat. During this period he made significant contributions to two major questions that confronted the young International leadership: the Israel-Arab war in Palestine and the class nature of the post-war Eastern European states.

Basing himself on the work of Leon—who had been killed in Auschwitz—and on the original anti-imperialist positions of the Communist International, Mandel helped give the International a revolutionary response to the events in the Middle East in the years 1947-49. Writing under the pseudonym of “Walter” he insisted both on the need to defend the Palestinians’ right to self-determination while refusing any concessions to anti-semitism disguised as the ideology of national liberation.

The debate on post-war eastern Europe

His contribution to the debate on the nature of Stalinist-occupied Eastern Europe was equally important, but less successful.

The problem facing the International in 1948 was novel and far-reaching. What was the class nature of the buffer states? If they were capitalist states, how could revolutionaries explain the nature of the economies that were becoming increasingly identical to that of the USSR? If they were some form of workers’ state, how could that have happened without any kind of workers’ revolution, and what were the implications for an understanding of Stalinism?

Mandel’s starting-point was, understandably, to look for parallels in previous events. He found one in the shape of Trotsky’s analysis of potential developments following the Soviet invasion and occupation of Poland and Finland in 1939. According to Mandel the overthrow of capitalism in Eastern Europe would only be possible if these countries were to be “structurally assimilated”, that is if they were to become geographically and economically integrated into the Soviet Union.

Despite the occupation of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Armed Forces, structural assimilation had not occurred, therefore these were not workers’ states. The International adopted his analysis at the Second Congress in 1948.

Not only was this “orthodoxy” severely limited by its formal logic, it was also totally inadequate when faced with the realities of eastern Europe.

Here the Stalinists had indeed overthrown capitalism but in a counter-revolutionary fashion—having at the same time ensured the demobilisation, indeed crushing, of any independent working class organisation—and without carrying out any real form of “structural assimilation”. Mandel, and the FI, were left high and dry. As long as they clung to this analysis they ignored the economic reality of the destruction of capitalism due to the false analytical starting point.

The problems with Mandel’s position on Stalinism went even further. Following Mandel’s lead, the FI argued that Stalinist organisations were those that followed Moscow’s orders. Thus, any organisation that broke with the Kremlin had, of necessity, broken with Stalinism. This apparently “orthodox” idea, which completely ignored Trotsky’s prediction that Stalinism would break up along national lines, contained within it dangerous opportunist kernel that was to be revealed only a few months after the Second Congress, when the International was faced with the Tito-Stalin split.

Mandel was one of the last members of the international leadership to accept that capitalism had been overthrown in Yugoslavia, long after the more theoretically flexible and erratic Pablo. As late as April 1949—two years after the application of the first Five Year Plan by Tito—Mandel argued at the FI’s International Executive Committee that Yugoslavia was still capitalist because structural assimilation into the USSR had not taken place.

A few months later, however, Mandel accepted that his theory of structural assimilation did not fit the facts. But one wrong analysis was quickly substituted by another. For Mandel, Tito had broken with Stalinism and this regime, unlike the USSR, did not require a political revolution to bring the workers to power.

This moment was decisive for both Mandel and the whole of the International. Having espoused ultra-radical perspectives during the immediate post-war period, in which the rapid rise of the FI seemed assured, Mandel in particular, and the International generally, began to look for other social forces to play the role of the locomotive of the revolution. The man who had done so much to reconstruct the International during and after the war now made an important contribution to its political collapse.

Revolution as an objective process

Mandel’s method from 1949 onwards was characterised by a form of political “processism”. In both his theory and his practice, Mandel—and the International he led—repeatedly suggested that the “world revolution” would surge forward, as a sort of unconscious process.

The role of revolutionaries, according to this point of view, was to identify the political forces that expressed this process, adapt to them. and wait for them to do its work.

Tito was merely to be the first such expression of the “world revolution”. In the following years and decades it became embodied in various forces: from Mao’s “cultural revolution” through to Castroism; from the post-1968 student vanguard through to leftist military movements like the MFA in the Portuguese revolution; from the Islamic movement in Iran’s revolution to the Nicaraguan FSLN. And each time Mandel played his role in putting a “Trotskyist” gloss on the latest opportunist turn.

This objectivist method infected Mandel’s analysis of the Soviet Union. For example, throughout the 1950s, he considered that the development of the productive forces inside the USSR, linked with the “de-Stalinisation” process after 1953, would lead to far-reaching reforms of the bureaucracy.

In 1959 he described the USSR as “a society in transition between capitalism and socialism, but which is beginning to approach its goal as the growth of the productive forces, increasing living standards and cultural levels and the industrialisation of the countryside enable the resolution of the main contradictions of the current phase. It is unnecessary to add that the overthrow of the bureaucracy (albeit slightly liberalised) and the re-establishment of full and total soviet democracy are the condition sine qua non for the completion of the construction of a socialist society” (Quatrième Internationale, May 1959, p19)

This position sums up Mandel’s specific centrism. The orthodox Marxist flourish at the end, however “unnecessary” it might seem, is in fact gutted of its revolutionary content. Mandel was convinced that since the bureaucracy originated in conditions of material scarcity and economic backwardness, it would be undermined by further economic success. The political revolution would be no more than a puff of wind that would topple a redundant structure.

Of course, reality turned out somewhat differently. Rather than economic success undermining the ruling caste, this parasitic leadership undermined the foundations of planned economy. Of course, once again, in the 1970s and 1980s Mandel was clever enough to adjust his position to keep up with the evident stagnation in the USSR. But as he had done with Tito in Yugoslavia and Gomulka in Poland in an earlier period, Mandel looked to a “reform” wing of the Stalinist bureaucracy, under pressure from below, to enact crucial measures that would open the way for political revolution.

In the ten years since Gorbachev’s nomination in 1985, Mandel consistently failed to understand what was at stake in the collapse of Stalinism, or to advance a programme that would enable the workers to seize the enormous revolutionary opportunities that were thrown up.

In his writings, and in particular in his extremely weak book on Gorbachev, Mandel revealed the extent to which his orthodoxy had been rotted away by over 40 years of opportunism. Instead of a revolutionary programme for workers’ power, he put forward a series of reforms that he called on a “left” wing of the bureaucracy to carry out.

The revolutionary crisis in East Germany revealed all the more clearly the processist method with which Mandel had functioned for over four decades. In 1989, refusing to raise any other slogans than those of bourgeois democracy, Mandel insisted that there was no restorationist threat:

“The European bourgeoisie does not look favourably on this destabilisation. It has no hope of recovering Eastern Europe for capitalism . . . The main question in the political struggles underway is not the restoration of capitalism.”

In other words, restoration simply could not take place; the “superior” economic form of the degenerate workers’ state could not collapse under the weight of the capitalist challenge. The masses’ drive for political democracy would inevitably lead to a radicalisation.

Structural reforms

During the long economic boom in Europe the International had undertaken a strategic entryist orientation towards the mass reformist parties of the Second International as well as the Stalinist parties. In his native Belgium, from 1954 to 1963 Mandel was an advisor to the FGTB trade union, working closely with the left reformist André Renard. At the same time, his group carried out entry work in the Belgian Socialist Party.

These material pressures pushed Mandel and his co-thinkers into “developing” Marxism in such a way that softened the edges between it and reformism. A good example of this is Mandel’s theory of “neo-capitalism”. First elaborated in 1964, Mandel was to say in 1968 that neo-capitalism was a “third stage of development of capitalism”, “as different from monopoly capitalism or imperialism described by Lenin, Hilferding and others as monopoly capitalism was different from classical 19th century laissez-faire capitalism.” (International Socialist Review Nov/Dec 1968 p2).

This new stage of capitalism was immune to a 1929-33 type slump or economic catastrophe, according to Mandel, due to the ability of governments to intervene to regulate the business cycle after the second world war. Crisis would occur in the form of “short-term fluctuations”. This type of capitalism, being a new stage, would naturally require a modified programme. Effectively surrendering to those, like the Cliffites, who argued that the Transitional Programme was only of any use in revolutionary crises, Mandel elaborated a programme of “structural reforms”. The worst example of this was his pamphlet, A Socialist Strategy for Western Europe, published in the early 1970s by the Institute for Workers’ Control.

This programme included various isolated transitional demands. But these were gutted of their revolutionary content. They were not to be imposed from below by new organisations of struggle, nor did they culminate in the goal of overthrowing the capitalist state.

The end of the 1960s and beginning of the 1970s forced Mandel into another U-turn. “Short-term fluctuations” gave way to a period of generalised recessions. Mandel soon buried his theory of neo-capitalism and by 1972 had arrived at a theory of “late capitalism”.

In a complete turnaround Mandel argued that “The era of late capitalism is not a new epoch of capitalist development. It is merely a further development of the imperialist, monopoly-capitalist epoch” (Late Capitalism, p9). Whereas four years earlier, neo-capitalism was completely different to Lenin’s imperialist stage, now “the characteristics of the imperialist epoch enumerated by Lenin . . . remain fully valid for late capitalism.”

Typically, Mandel never accounted for the change but it did allow for a more leftist presentation of the transitional programme in the more radical climate of the 1970s in western Europe.

Marxist economic theory

It was as a “Marxist economist” that Mandel was able to break out of the ghetto of Trotskyist politics and establish a global reputation within the academic world and amongst social science publishing houses. Marxist Economic Theory (1962) broke the monopoly that Stalinists had on Marxist critiques of capitalism in the post-war period.

His Introduction to Marxist Economics (1963) sold hundreds of thousands of copies in over a dozen languages. Late Capitalism (1975) and The Second Slump (1978) were considered major contributions to the study of the course of capitalism after the end of the long boom.

Much of this work was an ambitious attempt to synthesise the classical work of Marx with a host of contemporary post-war economic trends: the third technological revolution; permanent inflation and credit expansion; the end of empire. Mandel was concerned to demonstrate the enduring relevance of Marx’s critique of capitalism as an economic system that is ephemeral, crisis wracked and doomed. This was its progressive, anti-reformist and anti-Stalinist thrust. Unlike some “Trotskyists” he did not write as though little of substance had changed in the course of post-war capitalist developments.

But Mandel’s intellectual appetite for reconciling reform with revolution in politics means that his economic work can justifiably be accused of eclecticism.

On the one hand, he went to great lengths to refute alien theories of capitalist development and crisis—Keynesianism, permanent arms economy, unequal exchange between imperialism and the third world, for example.

On the other, he loaded his work with “insights” drawn from other theoretical traditions on the left and in academic life.

This is nowhere clearer than in his theory of capitalist crisis itself, where he rejects “monocausal” theories of crisis (i.e. the over-accumulation of capital) and opts for an explanation based on underconsumption, over-accumulation and disproportionality—acting as a series of relatively “independent variables”.

What results is an unstructured hierarchy of questionable analytical rigour and dubious predictive power: who can forget Mandel’s strident prediction of immediate economic slump in the wake of the October 1987 stock market crash? Nevertheless, Mandel’s rivals in this sphere have scarcely a better record and indeed to an important extent the elaboration of a scientific Marxist theory of capitalist development (and hence at the same time of crisis) remains to be done and will be achieved in part through a critique of Mandel‘s work.

The USFI, Castro and beyond

Abstract re-statements of Marxist basics, coupled with opportunist adaptations was the hallmark of the USFI and of Mandel’s leadership. This was particularly clear in the enthusiastic treatment given to Castro and the Cuban CP who were treated to the same kind of favours as those reserved for Tito in the period 1948-1951.

In the founding document of the USFI (1963), Mandel wrote: “The victory in Cuba marked the beginning of a new epoch in the history of the world revolution; for, aside from the Soviet Union, this is the first workers’ state established outside the bounds of the Stalinist apparatus.”

Ignoring both the decisive lack of real workers’ democracy and the Stalinist nature of Castro’s rule, Mandel gave a succinct description of his view of the role of the Fourth International:

“The appearance of more workers’ states through further development of the colonial revolution, particularly in countries like Algeria, would help strengthen and enrich the international current of Castroism, give it longer range perspectives and help bring it closer to understanding the necessity for a new revolutionary Marxist international of mass parties.

Fulfilment of this historic possibility depends in part on the role which the Fourth International plays in the colonial revolution and the capacity of sections of the Fourth International to help win fresh victories.”

Following the method established with Tito in 1948, the newly re-unified “world party of socialist revolution” was a cheerleader for petit-bourgeois revolutions, be they Stalinist or nationalist in inspiration. Thus to the end of his life, Mandel opposed calls for political revolution in Vietnam and Cuba, and, for much of the time, in China as well.

Still using his mistaken method of the 1940s, Mandel argued that because these parties had carried out revolutions against the will of the Kremlin, they were not Stalinist. Permanent revolution, argued Mandel, was still on the agenda. However, it would not be the working class led by revolutionaries who would consciously put this into practice, but rather a “blunted instrument” which would express the “dynamic of the world revolution”. Once again, orthodoxy was put at the service of opportunism.

The “new vanguard”

The events of May 1968 in France, the student revolt and general strike, were to push the USFI rapidly to the left as they chased the “new vanguard”.

The students appeared far to the left of the stuffy reformist bureaucrats and Stalinist fellow-travellers Mandel and his co-thinkers had been orienting to. “Structural anti-capitalist reforms” were thrown out of the window in favour of an ultra-left denial of the hold of reformism on the working class, and calls for guerrilla struggle.

Mandel broke from his strategic entrist orientation and called for the creation of new revolutionary parties in the imperialist heartlands, arguing that the “centre of the world revolution” had shifted back to Europe and the USA.

This “new leftism” made little difference to Mandel and the USFI’s opportunist politics. They repeatedly abandoned programmatic positions in order to link up with “new” political forces. Most notable of these was the PRT(C), political wing of the Argentine ERP urban guerrillas, which was welcomed into the international despite being pro-Maoist, pro-Korean and distinctly anti-Trotskyist.

The defeat of the Portuguese revolution in the mid-70s and the wane of the post-68 revolutionary wave found Mandel justifying the new turn of the USFI, back towards the forces of the anti-imperialist revolution—the FSLN in Nicaragua and even the Khomeini movement in Iran.

Mandel vs Barnes on “permanent revolution”

When the US section of the USFI, under Jack Barnes, drew the logical conclusions of Mandel’s politics and openly attacked Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, once again Mandel defended “orthodoxy”.

A special issue of International Viewpoint “In Defence of Permanent Revolution” carried Mandel’s reply. It is extremely revealing of the nature and the limits of Mandel’s talents. His abstract description of the nature of permanent revolution is correct and in many respects a repetition of Trotsky’s position.

However the Trotsky Mandel really defended was not the revolutionary Trotsky of 1917, but the centrist Trotsky before he joined the Bolsheviks, the brilliant theoretician who mistook potential for process, who opposed Lenin’s fight for a revolutionary programme and party, arguing that objective tendencies would accomplish the tasks of the revolution.

This processism, which Trotsky only finally broke with in 1917, was the essence of Mandel’s objectivist centrism. Again it was a defence of Trotskyism which gutted the theory of its revolutionary content. In practice Mandel was at one with Barnes in having no use for such a perspective in actual revolutionary situations.

The Nicaraguan Sandinistas were hailed as having created a healthy workers’ state, despite the complete lack of workers’ democracy, the continuing existence of capitalism and the anti-working class attacks that were increasingly carried out by the FSLN leadership after 1985.

When as a result the masses deserted the FSLN, resulting in its ignominious electoral defeat, neither Mandel nor his organisation attempted to draw a balance sheet of the FSLN’s practice, or of their own political adaptations to it.

“Socialist democracy”

The 1970s also saw the growing fragmentation of Stalinism with strong social democratic trends increasingly dominating the Italian and Spanish CPs Once again Mandel was to the fore courting the Eurocommunists, defending the “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” as only he knew how, by painting it in social democratic colours as a multi-party democracy for all parties whether they were pro-capitalist or not.

During the Polish revolutionary events of 1980-81, Mandel developed this USFI view on “socialist democracy”, arguing not for soviet democracy, rule by workers councils, but for the “combining” of workers’ and bourgeois democracy through the election of a second, workers council chamber of the Polish parliament!

By adapting to left-reformist currents in Solidarnosc and covering up their criticism of the restorationist Walesa leadership, the USFI failed in the first of what was to be a decade of stern tests with regard to Stalinism.

Having been proved decisively wrong by the restoration of capitalism in East Germany in 1990, Mandel, with the USFI following his lead, went into a tail-spin of demoralisation in the 1990s. He became profoundly pessimistic for the future of his International and his brand of politics, despite the enormous opportunities for revolutionaries that exist following the collapse of Stalinism.

Whilst recognising in 1992 that “what is at stake today is dramatic: it is literally a question of the physical survival of humanity”, Mandel argued that his International no longer had the “pretension” of being the World Party of Socialist Revolution, but was instead merely a tributary of the “world revolutionary movement” in which the decisive differences between reformism and revolution were no longer applicable.

Strategic demoralisation

This analysis—Mandel’s analysis—was that which triumphed at the recent 14th Congress of the USFI, held shortly before his death, and at which he made the opening declaration. The demoralised opportunist had decisively replaced the orthodox Marxist.

The reason for this demoralisation is not hard to find: it lay in the collapse of Stalinism and in the failure of his strategic prognoses on the development of the political revolution to be realised.

Stalinist economic development did not lead towards socialism. No left wing was thrown up by the bureaucracy. Capitalism is being restored in the former Warsaw Pact countries.

Mandel’s failed illusions in Stalinism undermined what remained of his revolutionary orthodoxy.

In his obituary of Kautsky, Trotsky argued that the pre-1914 “pope of Marxism” was “a propagandist and populariser of Marxism (who) saw his principal theoretical mission as the reconciling of reform and revolution”.

Formed in a different epoch, nevertheless the same can be said of Mandel, with whom the parallels with Kautsky are striking.

Talented intellectuals, both men made valuable contributions to defending elements of the Marxism they inherited.

But they both failed ultimately to develop that theory, to be able to apply it in a living, revolutionary fashion when faced with decisive developments in the class struggle. Instead they offered revolutionary workers a centrist parody of Marxism.

Mandel’s legacy

What will remain of Mandel’s legacy in ten years time? Certainly his economic writings will continue to be read and no doubt stimulate others to produce a genuine Marxist understanding of capitalism today. But Mandel’s legacy has to be judged by what he undoubtedly regarded as his life’s work: being the principal leader and theoretician of the post-war Fourth International and its principal successor, the USFI.

In virtually every respect, Mandel’s life paralleled that of his organisation. For over half a century he fought to maintain the unity of the International, whatever the political cost. As he wrote in 1953 in a letter to US Trotskyist George Breitman, shortly after the SWP-led International Committee split from the International:

“It is well known that a common programme has never prevented a periodic appearance of tactical differences and will never do so. Therefore, there is only one basic loyalty possible to keep our movement together: the loyalty to the International! One has to penetrate oneself in one’s most intimate consciousness with the conviction that the International, not only as a program or a body of ideas but as an organisation with a given structure, represents all hopes of mankind in our epoch . . . To split the International before it has demonstrated its inadequacy in events of colossal historical scope is a real crime against the labour movement.”

Mandel hated splits. He was prepared to tolerate the grossest opportunism inside the USFI, on condition that it could be dressed up or defended in the name of Trotskyism.

It pained him when sections or factions pursued the logic of the USFIs opportunist politics and broke with Trotskyism’s basic building blocs.

Mandel found himself in this predicament on more than one occasion. A whole period of opportunism, sanctioned by the leadership of the International, often led to unintended, if entirely predictable results: one section or faction would throw the whole Trotskyist baggage overboard in pursuit of some centrist goal.

The LSSP in Sri Lanka ended up entering a bourgeois government. The SWP (US) broke with the International and Trotskyism to draw closer to Castro. Basque supporters of the USFI disappeared into ETA.

Each time Mandel, with heavy heart, would disassociate the USFI from the results of its earlier phase of leadership, even at the same time doubting whether an open split was in reality justified.

That sums the man up. He argued consistently that because the USFI had not led the masses to defeat and betrayal like the Second or Third International all revolutionaries should be in its ranks.

This argument gave his organisation a blank cheque to carry out any number of opportunist twists and turns, none of which would appear to matter as long as the International remained essentially impotent.

The question of programme was thus secondary, way behind loyalty to “an organisation with a given structure”—in other words, the USFI.

Today the USFI is weaker that at any time since the 1960s and, under Mandel’s guidance, signed a collective suicide note at its last Congress (see Workers Power 192). Will the final act of self-destruction follow?

It would be a brave observer who would predict that the USFI will still exist as an organisation a decade after the death of its founder. In an important sense to write the obituary of Ernest Mandel is to write the obituary of the USFI as a living centrist organisation.

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