Ernest Mandel, a revolutionary life

June 29, 2009

Ernest Mandel, A Rebel's Dream Deferred

By Jan Willem Stutje

Verso, 2009

392 pp., $60.30 (hb)

Ernest Mandel was one of the most outstanding anti-Stalinist leaders and intellectuals of the 20th century. As a Trotskyist, he personified much of the best of that tradition: an unfailing commitment to the working class, staunch defence of democracy in the radical movement and unswerving internationalism.

Jan Willem Stutje's biography Ernest Mandel, A Rebel's Dream Deferred draws upon his personal papers, the Fourth International (FI) archives and interviews with his associates and comrades. It is scholarly rather than politically committed — there are 120 pages of footnotes and bibliography alone.

Mandel wrote major works enlarging the Marxist economic heritage. He updated it in Marxist Economic Theory, analysed the end of the post-WWII boom in Late Capitalism and published many articles. Now, at the beginning of the biggest capitalist slump since the Great Depression, his absence is keenly felt.

The fact is, love him or hate him (and his polemical jousts were plentiful) his stunning intellectual breadth illuminated the thinking of radicals well outside the orbit of the FI, of which he was a leader for decades. Intellectually and morally, he was a role model for revolutionaries.

Born in 1923 in Germany of Polish Jewish parents and raised in Belgium, Mandel "was able to join seamlessly his identities as internationalist, Jew and Flemish rebel", writes Stutje. He was a cosmopolitan in the grand European tradition in which a love of learning complemented a devotion to humanity.

Drawn into the Trotskyist underground movement in Nazi-occupied Belgium, he demonstrated daring and a supreme confidence in working class struggles. Like his comrade Abram Leon, the author of The Jewish Question, a Marxist Analysis (for which Mandel wrote a foreword), he was captured.

The Auschwitz gas chambers were Leon's fate, but Mandel, demonstrating his characteristic optimism, politically swayed his guards and escaped.

However, he wasn't free for long and nearly died toiling in German slave-labour factories. For the rest of his life, Mandel enjoyed a hearty appetite for rich food, which he attributed to the starvation he experienced under the Nazis.

After the war, Mandel plunged into the debates that were to split the Trotskyists for decades, over the question of the class nature of the Soviet satellite states and ultimately, the class nature of the Soviet Union. Mandel always defended Trotsky's formulation that the Soviet Union was a deformed workers state, in transition either forward to democratic socialism or backwards to capitalism.

It is to humanity's detriment that Trotsky's thesis was to be proven right with the collapse of Soviet Stalinism and the imposition of unrestrained capitalist barbarity in Russia, in 1991.

Mandel also took part in the early '50s FI debates over the best method of building revolutionary parties, supporting Michel Pablo's strategy of "deep entry" into social-democratic and Stalinist parties.

In the detailed retelling of FI debates, Stutje unselfconsciously reveals one of the great failures of the Trotskyist movement (as distinct from Trotsky and his ideas) — the egotism of many of its leaders.

Many individuals, famous within the Trotskyist movement but largely unknown outside it, feature in this book.

There is the near-maniacal Juan Posadas, whose erratic ideas caused endless mischief; the thuggish slanderer Gerry Healy, who made a mockery of Trotskyist criticisms of Stalinism by using violence; the English arch-sectarian Tony Cliff; and Pablo, whose adventurism (he tried to fund the Algerian independence movement through a forgery operation) nearly destroyed the FI.

Mandel worked with and against all of these and more, not always showing the necessary strength of character or political acumen. However, it is to Mandel's credit that, despite his strengths and weaknesses, he never demonstrated any of the personality cultism that corrupted other Trotskyist leaders.

Whatever criticisms may be raised against Mandel, a lack of integrity is not one. After the Cuban revolution opened a new road in socialist politics, Mandel worked to reunite shards of the FI.

He travelled to Cuba and worked closely with Che Guevara on economic planning. Guevara had read Marxist Economic Theory and encouraged Mandel's interventions.

Mandel flowered during the European radical youth uprisings from 1968 onwards. He worked closely with Rudi Dutschke, leader of the German student movement and also with the leaders of the French Revolutionary Communists Youth. For his troubles he was banned from France, Germany, the United States and Australia.

With the slow settling of the radical turbulence, the European FI leadership became enamoured of armed revolutionary movements in Latin America. Mandel was a leading supporter of a guerilla warfare strategy, which nearly split the FI when the US Trotskyists argued that it was a suicidal proposition.

It is a weakness of Stutje's scholarship that non-European Trotskyist thinking, especially on this extremely rich debate, is not fully represented.

Later, Mandel warmly welcomed the Gorbachev-era reforms of the Stalinist system. He threw whatever weight he had into pushing the perestroika process towards a revolutionary outcome. He published books, took part in debates and travelled to Eastern Europe to argue the case.

Mandel was ceaselessly active all his life, to the detriment of his emotional life. Stutje paints a sad portrait of his first marriage, in which his wife, Gisela, suffered self-destructive depression from what Stutje says was Mandel's neglect. He found happiness in his second marriage to Anne Sprimont.

Stutje is freely critical of Mandel's personal life and politics. He especially attacks Mandel's economic writings. An academic historian, who previously published a life of the Dutch Communist party leader Paul de Groot, Stutje appears to need to demonstrate his intellectual independence.

But this book will be a good resource for a future, fully rounded, political assessment of Mandel, who never lived to see the revolution he so sincerely worked towards. His life was one of truthful loyalty to the socialist movement.

Ernest Mandel died at home on July 20, 1995. Twelve hundred revolutionaries from around the world attended the interment of his ashes in Paris two months later at the foot of the Mur des Federes, where the last combatants of the Paris Commune were executed in 1871.

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