Socialist scholar and activist Ernest Mandel was born one hundred years ago, on April 5, 1923. A 'Flemish internationalist of Jewish descent', he was a militant and scholar, writing some of the most significant works of Marxist theory of the second half of the twentieth century.
Mandel was born to a family of assimilated Polish Jews of German background in Antwerp, Belgium. His father Henri Mandel had left-wing sympathies, specifically for the ideas of Leon Trotsky. During the thirties, after the Nazis came to power in Germany, the Mandel house became a meeting place for left-wing refugees. Listening such refugees discuss socialism, developments in the Soviet Union and the rise of fascism, the young Ernest had an early introduction to radical politics.
In May 1940 the war came to Belgium as Nazi-Germany invaded the country. Large parts of the established left were unable to respond to the new situation. Many leaders of the Social-Democractic party and trade-unions fled the country. The Soviet-Germany non-aggression pact was still in force and the Belgian Communists proclaimed their 'purest and most complete neutrality'. Some weeks later, Trotsky was murdered in his Mexican exile by an assassin working on Soviet orders.
Amid this disarray, a group of independent leftists set out to publish the first underground Flemish language paper, produced in the Mandel home. Ernest and his father wrote many of the articles in the paper. In August 1942, Ernest Mandel went underground. At the end of that year, he was arrested but managed to escape when he was being transported for interrogation.i Undeterred, Mandel continued his resistance activities. By this time, he had become a member of the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). On 28 March 1944 Mandel was again arrested. Arrested because of his resistance activities, not because he was Jewish, Mandel was sent to different prisons and work camps. As a resistance member, a Jew, and a Trotskyist who was despised by his Stalinist fellow prisoners, his chances of survival were slim. Mandel later recalled that pure luck was one reason he managed to pull through. But he also credited his success in establishing ties with some of the German prison warders who had been supporters of the Social Democratic party before the Nazis took power: “That was the intelligent thing to do, even from the point of view of self-preservation.” The harsh conditions took their toll and Mandel was hospitalized in early 1944. On March 25, 1945, US forces liberated the camp in which he was being held.
Although Mandel's direct family survived the war, Henri's mother, sister, brother and their families were all killed in Auschwitz. Henri Mandel dreamt of an academic career for his son, but Ernest had other priorities. He wanted to continue the struggle against capitalism, the system that had produced the horrors of Nazism and the world war. Throughout his life, the war remained a political and moral reference point for Mandel.
Just before the war, in 1938, the Fourth International had been founded. Trotsky expected that coming war would discredit the Stalinist Communist Parties and hoped the Fourth International would develop into an alternative. But the important role of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazi-Germany and the participation of their members in resistance movements brought the Communist Parties unprecedented prestige and popularity. The small Fourth International had been decimated by war and repression. Mandel felt it was his duty to help build the movement and became a leading activist in the Fourth International. In part, he was driven by the memory of comrades who had been killed by the Nazis such as his close friend Abram Leon, author of The Jewish Question. A Marxist Interpretation. For the rest of his life, the Fourth International would be central to Mandel's thinking and activity.
After the war
Like many radicals, Mandel thought that the war would be followed by a wave of revolutions, as the First World War had been. Gradually, Mandel came to recognize that capitalism would not only continue, but was even able to develop further. He joined the Belgian Socialist Party, keeping his Trotskyist identity secret, and help found the weekly La Gauche, a paper that would become influential on the socialist left in Belgium.
In this period, Mandel became a socialist theoretician as well as a leader. In 1962, he published his first major work, Marxist Economic Theory. In the book's introduction, Mandel described his approach as 'genetico-evolutionary', by which he meant the study of the origin and the evolution of its topic. 'Marxist economic theory', wrote Mandel, ought to be regarded as 'a summation of a method, of the results obtained by using this method, and of results which are continually subject to re-examination'.ii The combination of history and theory, continuously trying to integrate new findings, is characteristic for Mandel's work. In a 1980 conversation with the German political scientist Johannes Agnoli, Mandel used the term 'open Marxism' that set itself 'a task of continuing development, of incorporating new facts and new scientific considerations'.iii
While working on Marxist Economic Theory, Mandel as part of the circle around La Gauche developed a strategy of 'anti-capitalist structural reforms'. By this he meant reforms that by themselves would not introduce socialism but would be 'steps towards this and give the working class the ability to decisively weaken big capital', such as state-planning to guarantee full employment, seizing public control over important corporations and nationalisation of the energy sector. Mandel emphasized that economic reforms could not be separated from the issue of political power.
One source of inspiration was the Belgian strike of winter 1960. Also called 'the strike of the century', this was a general strike against a series of reforms proposed by the right-wing government. Lasting several weeks, the strike involved hundreds of thousands of workers. Mandel also cited the French strikes and factory occupations of June 1936, when the leftist Popular Front arrived to power, as inspiration for his ideas on strategy.
During the post-war period of economic growth in Europe, living conditions had improved for many but struggles such as the Belgian strike showed that capitalist development had not fully pacified the working class. Mandel recognized that workers' struggles were not only about economic conditions but were also driven by resistance against alienating and oppressive working conditions. Even relatively well-off workers experienced alienation and domination at the work place.
For Mandel struggles against injustice and for emancipation were a motive force in history. Mandel was a Marxist in the tradition of Gramsci's statement that 'one can “scientifically” foresee only the struggle, but not the concrete moments of the struggle, which cannot but be the results of opposing forces in continuous movement'.iv As history is partly the product of continuous struggles, its development is open. 'The struggle of the workers against capitalism', Mandel wrote in a balance sheet of the strike, 'differs from social struggles in the past in that it is not only a fight for essential, immediate interests' but it can become 'a conscious fight to restructure society'.v
The weakness of the Belgian strike, and the reason why Mandel considered it a lost opportunity, was that there had been no political leadership to propose such a restructuring. For revolutionary change, the struggle for economic reforms had to be extended to the question of political power. The struggle could only be victorious if 'the opponent was confronted not only in the factories but also in the streets'. History had shown the need to establish a revolutionary party that would 'tirelessly explain' to working people that to achieve their goals it was necessary to seize economic as well as political power.
Explosions such as the 'strike of the century' presented Mandel with a classic Marxist dilemma; if 'the dominant ideology of every society is the ideology of the dominant class', then how can the working class liberate itself? Mandel recognized that the dominance of ruling class ideology had deeper roots than ideological manipulation through media, propaganda, schools et cetera. This dominance drew strength from daily workings of capitalism in which working people are forced to compete with each-other and depend on the sale of their labour-power.
But exactly because it drew its strength from the internal working of capitalism, its dominance was not seamless. The inevitable contradictions and crises of capitalism resulting from the competition between the dominant monopolies led to fissures. The central question for socialists was how to go beyond the outbursts of discontent that were the unavoidable result of economic turbulence. To move from defensive struggles against attacks on living conditions and wages to demands for workers power required a 'conscious leap'.
In 'The Leninist Theory of Organisation', Mandel developed his ideas on what would make such a leap possible. He distinguished between three groups; the mass of the working class, a vanguard of this class that consisted of activist workers, and the members of revolutionary organisations, a group that partially overlapped with the second category. The 'vanguard' was not a self-appointed elite, but rather the most committed, energetic activists of the working class. Building a revolutionary organisation meant winning such activist workers over to socialist ideas, provide them with organisation and prevent that during the inevitable 'ebb' of social struggle they would withdraw from politics.
Radical change would be possible only during waves of unrest, when the contradictions of capitalism would generate mass anger and protest. During such periods, a revolutionary party should attempt to draw in ever larger groups into political action and propose anti-capitalist demands. A revolution was a process of interaction between organized action and spontaneous movement. Half-jokingly, Mandel called himself an 'orthodox Leninist with slight Luxemburgist deviations'.vi
During the sixties, Mandel developed the concept of what he initially called neo-capitalism before settling on 'late-capitalism' as the name for the post-war epoch of capitalist growth, technological innovation and increased state-intervention. In Late Capitalism, Mandel linked this period with a consideration of 'long waves'. Long waves were a concept used by both Marxist and non-Marxist economists, such as Trotsky, Schumpeter and Kondratieff, that saw capitalist development as moving through alternating long waves, periods of growth (long upswings) and relative decline (long downswings).
The Japanese political economist Makoto Itoh summarised the debate on the nature of long waves as one between two streams.vii One stream explained long waves of about 50 years as driven by the internal, endogenous dynamics of capitalism. On the other side was the stream that explained long waves as driven by events which are exogenous to the capitalist economic system proper. The endogenous theory sees the 'economic system' as separate from social history. It was against this reified conception that Mandel argued for the role of 'superstructural' factors such as new markets, the discovery of natural resources, wars and revolutions as part of economic dynamics. In a letter to Makoto Itoh, Mandel summarised his view: 'I stand for a long wave theory which is not automatic but asymmetrical, i.e. while the expansive long wave turns automatically into a depressive long wave, the latter only leads to the former through ''systematic-shocks'', i.e. exogenic influences (wars, revolutions, counter-revolutions etc.)'.
After the crisis of 1929, the defeat suffered by the working class in the 1930s and 1940s enabled the ruling class to impose an increase in the rate of surplus value, bringing about a new expansive period.
But every attempt by capitalism to overcome its contradictions presented it with new problems. Two decades of post-war economic growth led to wage-increases and low unemployment figures, thereby strengthening the confidence of workers and creating new needs and desires. Backed by governments, banks extended cheap credits to industry, enabling rapid growth but also generating inflation. Such inflation hurt the large, long term investments that were central to competition between the major, capital-intensive firms. Attempts to fight inflation created problems of their own, throttling economic growth.
A characteristic of contemporary capitalism was the increased role of planning.
The rapid rates of technological innovation lead to a shortening life-span of fixed capital and an increased need for capitalist planning on behalf of large firms. And in order to avoid breakdowns like the 1929 crash, government intervention in the economy took on unprecedented scale. Mandel observed in 1964 that 'the State now guarantees, directly and indirectly, private profit in ways that range from concealed subsidies to the ''nationalization of losses'''.viii State-intervention in the economy enabled avoiding catastrophic crises and guaranteeing profits, but also made visible that 'the economy' was not a natural given. The possibility of radical change was based on the inevitable social explosions generated by such contradictions
In the turbulent sixties and seventies, as if carried along by the rising tide of class struggle, Mandel was extra-ordinarily productive. He published books such as The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (1970), Long Waves of Capitalist Development (1978) and Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of his Thought (1979). In 1972 he published his master work, Late Capitalism. During his life, Mandel published over two dozen books and hundreds of articles.
He also was a tireless agitator and debater. In 1964, he was invited to Cuba to participate in debates over socialist planning.ix Che Guevara had read Marxist Economic Theory with interest and extensively discussed with Mandel. After Guevara's death at the hands of counter-revolutionaries, Mandel published a passionate in memoriam for 'a great friend, an exemplary comrade, a heroic militant'. In 1969, Mandel was denied an entry the US, supposedly because during an earlier visit he had raised money for detained activists. The case that would become a precedent for Trump's 'Muslim ban'. In West-Germany, to prevent Mandel from being appointed at the university of Berlin, the government intervened and deported him from the country.
France was another country that would ban Mandel. In May 1968, Mandel was invited to speak at meetings of the Revolutionary Communist Youth (JCR), a group that had moved towards the Fourth International. The JCR was heavily involved in the riots and protests of May 68. In what must have been a satisfying opportunity to engage in some practical activity, Mandel helped build barricades in the Paris Latin Quarter during the 'night of the barricades' of May 9. The car he had come to Paris in was destroyed during the street fighting. A reporter overheard Mandel exclaim 'Oh! How beautiful! It's the revolution!'.
For the new generation of revolutionaries, Mandel was a link to revolutionary history and experience. Marxist philosopher Daniel Bensaïd, then a leader of the JCR, recalled how Mandel led them to discover 'an open, cosmopolitan and militant Marxism'. He was 'a tutor in theory and a passer between two generations'.x
Class struggle and history
For Mandel 'the concrete historical process of capitalist development is always the result of an interaction between the system and the environment in which it develops; this environment is never 100 per cent capitalist.' The non-capitalist elements in its environment, as well as the results of pre-capitalist history, continue to have an impact. Although pre-capitalist 'anti-slavery revolts, peasant revolts in the old Asian mode of production, peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages' as well as 'the rebellious, machine-storming workers of early capitalism' were destined to failure, such struggles provided 'a tremendous tradition of forms of struggle and organisation as well as of revolutionary thoughts, ideals, dreams and hopes from which the proletarian struggle for emancipation draws nourishment'; without such predecessors, the development of the proletarian struggle would be much more difficult.xi The struggle against exploitation and oppression, according to Mandel, had its roots in human anthropology; in 'the social character of labour, the social origins of communication and the impossibility to withdraw from these without paying a high price'.xii
By combining the influence of non-capitalist elements, historical factors and the role of social struggles, Mandel formulated a vision of history that opposed determinism. Although the long-term laws of capitalist accumulation assert themselves 'behind the backs of the subject', its effects are influenced by them. In the long term developments in the class struggle are 'subordinated to the level of development of the productive forces, to the existing relations of production, and to the structures of major social classes'.xiii But 'historical necessity' does not provide actors with specific conclusions. Rather, the general law asserts itself in particular developments.xiv It is from within the changing, particular conditions that socialists need to make choices and act.xv
Looking back at his 1980 conversation with Mandel, Agnoli expressed admiration, as well as exasperation. Agnoli, whose radical democratic ideas had been a strong influence on the German student movement, wrote that Mandel was able to reply to his questions with 'precise and convinced answers'. Agnoli credited this to Mandel's 'political experience, his political activism, as well, and more essentially, the rigour of his thinking and his wide historical knowledge'. In Agnoli's eyes Mandel's orthodoxy was open in its recognition that the process of analysing the world remained unfinished, but stumbled when it failed to extend its critique to the 'parameters' of analysis themselves.xvi It is true that for Mandel classical Marxism seemed like an apparatus with which all new empirical data could be analysed and interpreted. In a critical introduction to a new edition of Mandel's 1974 Introduction to Marxism, Daniel Bensaïd pointed to 'certain silences' in the work where such parameters would have needed to be questioned.xvii
One of these was women's oppression and liberation. The 1970s saw a worldwide rise of the movements for women's emancipation. At its 11th world congress, in 1979 the Fourth International adopted an important programmatic document on the question. However, in Mandel's texts women's oppression often occupies at best a marginal place. The 1979 resolution, 'Socialist revolution and the struggle for women's liberation', discusses the essential role of women's unpaid domestic work in lowering wage costs, and how capitalism exploits divisions in the working class – especially during times when capital accumulation slows down.xviii In the preceding decade however, Mandel tended towards a conception of the working class that prioritized the position of (male) breadwinners. In a 1968 speech he defined the proletarian condition as a 'lack of access to means of production or means of subsistence', forcing the proletarian 'to sell his labour power', in exchange for which 'he receives a wage which then enables him to acquire the means of consumption necessary for satisfying his own needs and those of his family'.xix This definition implicitly separated those engaged in unpaid work, such as 'housewives', from the working class.
Capitalist development means that an increasing share of the total population shared the proletarian condition of depending on the sale of labour power. Mandel thought the working class in this sense was growing in size, as new layers were integrated into the working class while petty-bourgeois layers such as artisans and peasant declined, and in 1968 he was of the opinion that the mass of wage and salary earners were 'turning into an increasingly homogeneous proletariat'.xx He at times seemed beholden to a belief in progress that conflated economic and political struggles and saw the proletariat's sociological development as flowing into the proletariat's liberation. Their 'objective conditions' in 'the long run' would drive 'wage-earners towards collective awareness of the unremitting alienation to which they are subjected'.xxi
But the tendency to homogenisation in the 1960s and early 1970s, Daniel Bensaïd pointed out, was far from irreversible, as was shown by the neoliberal offensive; 'the tendency to homogenisation was undermined by the policies of dispersal of work units, intensification of competition on the world labour market, individualisation of wages and labour time, privatisation of leisure and lifestyles, the methodical demolition of social solidarity and protection.'xxii The extension of commodification into all fields of life, the logic of commodity fetishism and the reification of social relations, processes just as structural as the extension of the 'proletarian condition' led to fragmentation, and the division of society into antagonistic identities.xxiii
Although Mandel had underestimated such dynamics, he was not unaware of counter-tendencies to homogenisation. In Late Capitalism he argued 'that the concentration and centralisation of capital, the constant increase in labour productivity and the displacement of living labour from the production process as a predominant tendency is mediated by constant revivals of dispersion, new creation of smaller units and therefore also of producing with lower labour productivity in sub-sectors.'xxiv
Another 'silence' mentioned by Bensaïd is the issue of ecology. Mandel's 1973 essay on 'The dialectic of growth' was actually a pioneering Marxist consideration of the contradiction between capitalism and ecology. Mandel pointed out how capitalism, with its strictly time-limited frame of reference imposed a logic that ignores long-term consequences, treats natural assets that have not been turned into property as ‘free’ and disposable, and does not take into account the consequences of pollution.
However, the article also posited the need for the growth of productive forces and the productivity of labour. Bensaïd remarked it is 'necessary, under pain of falling into blind productivism and ecological insouciance, to subject these productive forces themselves to a critical examination.' Mandel formulated three principles as a starting point for such a critical examination; the 'primary needs of all people must be met; new and different forms of technology which save and replenish the reserves of scarce natural resources must be sought; and the intellectual abilities of all must be developed.'xxv
A new epoch
During the seventies, Mandel was hopeful about possible revolutionary developments in Spain and especially Portugal. The Portuguese revolution of 1974/75 probably came closest to Mandel's vision for socialist revolution.xxvi During periods of rising class struggle and movement 'from below', Mandel was confident, the working class would develop its own forms of self-organisation. As the working class would abandon or possibly remake the bureaucratic structures of the workers' movement, it would learn to incorporate new experiences and formulate new answers. In Mandel's vision, a small revolutionary group could 'surf' on such a rising wave and grow in strength.xxvii Mandel's most creative period followed the radicalisation of 1968. His famous optimism during those times was partially the product of a contradiction he had noted in Trotsky, between the task of the analyst, and that of the organisational and political leader. Whereas the former is static, the work of the latter is a 'dynamic attempt to unblock and change the situation'.xxviii
Mandel had difficulty adapting to the decline of social struggles from the late seventies on. Briefly, the mass protests in the German Democratic Republic in 1989 provided new hopes. But the protests ended with the GDR being swallowed by West-Germany. As the carrier of Mandel's revolutionary hopes, the classical workers' movement, entered into decline, he struggled to retain his optimism and warned against the dangers if capitalism was not overcome: ecological collapse, mass hunger and starvation, nuclear war, a collapse into barbarism. The historical choice was barbarism or socialism, and socialism was not guaranteed.
There is something tragic in that Mandel, who had fought so hard for socialist change, passed away in 1995, during the height of neo-liberal hegemony. Five years earlier, Mandel wrote the crisis of socialism was 'above all a crisis of credibility of socialist ideas. Five generations of socialists and three generations of workers were driven by the deep, unshakeable conviction that socialism [was] possible and necessary'; 'the current generation is no longer convinced that it is possible.'xxix
This was for Mandel in essence the outcome of a crisis in 'the praxis of socialists', of the failures and crimes committed in the name of socialism. Mandel argued in 1992 at a meeting of the São Paulo Forum that 'the practice of socialists and communists must be totally consistent with their principles. We must not justify any alienating or oppressive practices whatsoever. We must, in practice, realise what Karl Marx called the categorical imperative: to struggle against all conditions in which human beings are alienated and humiliated. If our practice is consistent with this imperative, socialism will once again become a political force that will be invincible.'xxx
Mandel always upheld a classic interpretation of socialism, 'as a society based on the ''direct association of producers'' who would use their own judgment in organising production and distribution.'xxxi His vision of socialism was a humanist one, of a society that would allow the full development of 'the human personality of all, considering people simultaneously as individuals and as social beings'.xxxii
Mandel's hope for such a future is based on what he called 'the spark of rebellion' that has always made people rebel against oppressive and alienating conditions.xxxiii The task of socialists is to let the spark grow into a flame by supporting all such rebellions and presenting a way forward to an alternative. That task has not changed. In a different historical period, Mandel's legacy in writing and activism helps us in the search for a new way forward.
Alex De Jong is Co-Director of the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam. This article originally appeared on fourth.international.
i Mandel's biographer Jan Willem Stutje writes that Henri Mandel paid a ransom and that Ernest's 'daring flight may well have been staged by agents anxious to avoid being questioned'. Jan Willem Stutje, A rebel's dream deferred (London, 2009), p. 31.
ii Ernest Mandel, Marxist Economic Theory (London, 1977), p. 18.
iii Ernest Mandel, Johannes Agnoli, Offener Marxismus. Ein Gespräch über Dogmen, Orthodoxie und die Häresie der Realität (Frankfurt, 1980), p. 7.
iv Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (London, 1978), p. 438.
vi Manuel Kellner, Gegen Kapitalismus und Bürokratie – zur sozialistische Strategie bei Ernest Mandel (Köln, 2009), p. 152.
vii Makoto Itoh, 'Ernest Mandel on long waves and socialism', Review of International Political Economy, Vol. 4, No. 1 (Spring, 1997), pp. 248-255, there p. 249.
x Daniel Bensaïd, An impatient life (London, 2013), p. 79, 259.
xii Ernest Mandel, 'Die Dialektik von Produktivkräften, Produktionverhaltnissen und Klassenkampf neber Kategorien der Latenz und dus parametrischen Determinismus in der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung', in Die Versteinerten Verhältnisse zum Tanzen bringen (Berlin, 1991), p. 101.
xiii Ernest Mandel, 'Die Dialektik von Produktivkräften, Produktionverhaltnissen und Klassenkampf', p. 104.
xiv Daniel Bensaïd, La discordance des temps: Essais sur les crises, les classes, l'histoire (Paris, 1995), p. 60.
xv Mandel, 'Die Dialektik von Produktivkräften, Produktionverhaltnissen und Klassenkampf', p. 101.
xvi Mandel, Agnoli, Offener Marxismus, p. 148.
xvii Daniel Bensaïd, 'Thirty years after: A critical introduction to the Marxism of Ernest Mandel', in Bensaïd, Strategies of Resistance & Who are the Trotskyists? (London, 2009), p. 156.
xviii Penelope Duggan (ed.), Women's Liberation and Socialist Revolution: Documents of the Fourth International (Amsterdam, 2001), pp. 20-95.
xix Ernest Mandel, 'Workers under neo-capitalism', in: Mandel, The Revolutionary Potential of the Working Class (New York, 1974), pp. 13 -29, there p. 13.
xx Mandel, 'Workers under neo-capitalism', p 20.
xxi Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism (London, 1972), p. 586.
xxii Bensaïd, Thirty Years After, p. 164.
xxiii Daniel Bensaïd, Le Sourire du spectre: Nouvel esprit du communisme (Paris, 2000) chapter 3.
xxiv Kellner, Gegen Kapitalismus und Bürokratie, p. 433.
xxvi Kellner, Gegen Kapitalismus und Bürokratie, p. 434.
xxvii Kellner, Gegen Kapitalismus und Bürokratie, pp. 405-6. The metaphor of a revolutionary group 'surfing' on the waves of class struggle comes from François Vercammen, 'Ernest Mandel en de revolutionaire capaciteit van de arbeidersklasse', online at [www.marxists.o…].
xxviii Mandel, Revolutionary Marxism Today (London, 1979), p. 11.
xxix Ernest Mandel, 'Zur Lage und Zukunft des Sozialismus', in Gilbert Achcar (ed.) Gerechtigkeit und Solidarität. Ernest Mandels Beitrag zum Marxismus (Köln, 2003), p. 235.
xxxi Catherine Samary, 'Mandel's views on the transition to socialism', in Gilbert Achcar (ed.) The Legacy of Ernest Mandel (London, 1999), p. 153.