International rescue

Issue: 124

Ian Birchall

Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel: A Rebel’s Dream Deferred (Verso, 2007), £19.99

Ernest Mandel was a tireless socialist activist over five decades. He wrote prolifically on economics, history and contemporary politics, and was an impressive lecturer and debater in several languages. He was one of the most influential figures on the revolutionary left in the second half of the 20th century, and certainly deserves an intelligent biography. Stutje has done him justice with this account, which is both readable and scholarly, based on over 40 interviews with those who knew Mandel and on the 20 metres of Mandel archives stored in Amsterdam. (There are a few slips, such as the bizarre claim that British publisher Victor Gollancz was in Buchenwald.)

So Stutje’s account can be recommended, both to those who remember Mandel and to those who do not. Stutje achieves a good balance between the personal, the political and the intellectual. The story of Mandel’s love life—two marriages and an unrequited youthful passion—is sometimes touching but not sensational. The revelation that he might have lived ten years longer but for overeating and indulgence in diet pills is a warning to us all.

However, the dour readers of International Socialism will doubtless be mainly interested in Mandel’s political evolution. The most inspiring part of the story is the opening section devoted to Mandel in the Second World War. Though only 16 at the outbreak of war, he was involved in the Trotskyist movement from the outset (his father was a Trotskyist activist). The essence of the Trotskyist position was to reject the nationalism which contaminated all other sections of the left, and to insist that German soldiers were “workers in uniform”, to be approached on a class basis.

Mandel worked closely with Abram Leon, author of The Jewish Question, and with Paul Widelin, who produced the journal Arbeiter und Soldat (Worker and Soldier), distributed to occupying German troops in France. Mandel was the only one of the three to survive the war. He was himself involved in producing a pamphlet in German, which told soldiers: “You are being sacrificed as cannon fodder while your masters negotiate to save their possessions.” He also showed great personal courage, escaping from a German work camp by climbing over the fence during the few moments when the electricity was switched off. This section confirms the view that the Second World War was the golden age of the Fourth International, when its militants combined heroic actions with theoretical clarity.

Internationalism was always central to Mandel’s politics. Not only was he, in Isaac Deutscher’s phrase, a “non-Jewish Jew”, he was also a “non-Belgian Belgian”—born in Germany with a Polish father, he obtained Belgian citizenship only in 1956. He was a Fleming in a country where most militant workers were French speaking Walloons. He also—unlike the “Western Marxists” beloved of Perry Anderson—believed passionately in the unity of theory and practice, and he knew well that such unity could only be achieved through organisation. This explains his lifelong commitment to the Fourth International. And that is where the problems start.

Stutje writes from a stance of “critical admiration” for Mandel. His account is far from hagiography, and provides the information needed for a serious assessment of Mandel’s politics. This needs to be done in a measured fashion. In the 1960s and 1970s Mandel inspired a generation of activists in several countries, and was undoubtedly an asset to the socialist cause, whatever tactical differences we might have had with him. And since none of us have made the revolution, there can be no question of counterposing Mandel’s “errors” to the allegedly “correct” line followed by someone else. Nonetheless Stutje’s account suggests certain reservations from which there may be lessons to be learned.

The first paradox that strikes a reader is that while Mandel was totally committed to Marxism, a theory of working class self-emancipation, there is relatively little in the narrative about actual workers. There are “workers’ states” and “workers’ parties” aplenty, but few actual workers in mines, factories or offices. Certainly Mandel enthused about the great explosions of mass working class struggle in the Belgian General Strike of 1960-1, France 1968 and Portugal 1974-5—he participated in all of them. But his orientation was generally towards radicalised youth, especially students.

As he said in Paris on 9 May 1968, “When this universal struggle succeeds in enlisting the adult workers, then we can remake today’s vanguard into a powerful revolutionary party that can take its place at the forefront of the masses.” The implication was clear: students today, workers tomorrow.

In 1956 Mandel took the initiative in launching the weekly paper La Gauche (Left), which represented the broad left within the Belgian Socialist Party—though Stutje records that during the 1960-1 General Strike it had “no decisive influence”. But even here we hear far more about Mandel’s relations with senior party figures and trade union leaders such as André Renard than about building in the working class rank and file of the party.

Likewise Mandel maintained close links with a number of the most important left intellectuals of his day—Ernst Bloch, Roman Rosdolsky, Lucien Goldmann, and among the younger generation Perry Anderson, Tariq Ali, Robin Blackburn, Rudi Dutschke, Michael Löwy, and Daniel Bensaïd. These are figures of some importance, and it is certainly to be hoped that parts of his voluminous correspondence with such people will eventually be published. But there is no indication of any similar contacts with worker militants.

After the Cuban Revolution, Mandel believed that its “revolutionary leaders have unconsciously resorted to Trotskyism”. So in 1964 he was pleased to be invited to visit Cuba, where he stayed for seven weeks and had a long discussion with Che Guevara. In the economic debates then taking place between Che’s friends and the more Stalinist elements, Mandel advocated “a management by the workers at the workplace, subject to strict discipline on the part of a central authority that is directly chosen by workers’ councils”. There is something decidedly odd about this. Historically workers’ councils have been the product of working class struggle, not of the decrees of governments, however left their rhetoric. Mandel’s enthusiasm for the Cuban Revolution seems to have led him into advocacy of socialism from above.

Mandel’s whole life was bound up with the tangled history of the Fourth International. The many polemics and interminable splits may seem marginal to serious politics. Yet often the issues raised were of great importance. As Stutje notes briefly, in 1947 Mandel first came into conflict with Tony Cliff. Mandel was arguing that amid capitalist decadence an economic revival was impossible; Cliff argued the contrary. Of course neither man had as yet the remotest idea of how long the post-war boom was to last, but Cliff certainly seems to have had a superior ability to look the facts in the face.

Mandel was initially resistant to the idea that the Russian satellite states in Eastern Europe had become workers’ states themselves despite the absence of working class self-activity and independent revolutionary parties. Only in 1951 did he finally give way on this question, probably more out of concern to hold the Fourth International together than from any conviction that the basic principles had changed. But it was a slippery slope.

In the early 1950s Michel Pablo argued that since world war was impending there was no time to build revolutionary parties and that the Trotskyists should therefore “enter” the mass Communist parties to intervene in a new situation in which the class struggle would acquire the form of a conflict between blocs of states. Mandel clearly had serious reservations about this but apparently told a comrade he would “rather serve unity than get his own way”. The fact that the leaders of the opposing camp contained at least one unprincipled thug (Gerry Healy) was doubtless a factor in the argument.

In the early 1970s some of the Latin American sections, backed by the more Guevarist elements in Europe, launched a strategy of guerrilla warfare, which led to defeat and the death of numerous militants. Mandel seems to have had reservations about this disastrous course, but not to have fought for his position so as not to fall out with the pro-guerrilla comrades, especially in France.

The upsurge in struggle that began in 1968 gave the Fourth International a new lease of life. On Stutje’s figures, which seem plausible, the International had about 10,000 members by the early 1980s, the bulk of them in France, Spain, Mexico and the US. Mandel now devoted his attention to building an international leadership team. (Britain was represented by John Ross who was later to enthuse about the contribution of hedge funds to London’s economy.) A Paris office was opened with some 20 full timers. Wasn’t this somewhat top-heavy—an attempt to build the International from the summit downwards rather than by the patient construction of local sections with real roots in the class?

For Mandel it meant that he was required to pronounce on the situation in countries around the world, often on the basis of secondhand information. I recall a meeting in 1986 where I ventured to criticise the Fourth International position on the Labour Party. Mandel howled at me scornfully that the Labour Party had ten million members. (Neil Kinnock would have been delighted at the news.)

By the early 1980s it was clear to many that the upturn in struggle begun in 1968 had come to an end. But Mandel refused to face the facts, insisting that the movement was still going forward. As Tariq Ali puts it in his foreword, Mandel’s motto was “Optimism of the will, optimism of the intellect”. The result could only be serious tensions within the International. Here it seems fair to contrast Mandel with Cliff, who, in 1979, argued that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) must face up to a period of “downturn”. Certainly the SWP suffered losses but Cliff was far more successful than Mandel in holding his organisation together.

Mandel rightly identified Trotskyism as embodying the healthy essence of Marxism and of Leninism. But this led to the attitude that anything that called itself “Trotskyist” deserved to be taken seriously. One of the saddest episodes in this story occurred in 1994 when Mandel, old and in declining health, took part, against the advice of his own comrades, in a public debate in New York with the Spartacist League, a bunch of buffoonish provocateurs. Would he have debated with Screaming Lord Sutch if he had called himself a Trotskyist?

Yet perhaps all this is too harsh. Since 1945 it has been a hard task to keep the flame of revolutionary socialism alight in a world system that has become progressively more rotten, corrupt, violent and self-destructive. Mandel was one of those who tried to do so, and he deserves to be remembered.