Ernest Mandel’s Legacy

Against the Current, No. 93, July/August 2001

Kit Adam Wainer

The Legacy of Ernest Mandel
edited by Gilbert Achcar
(London: Verso 1999) 270 pages. $30 hardcover.

ERNEST MANDEL WAS perhaps the best known revolutionary Marxist of the second half of the twentieth century. As an activist and leader of the Fourth International for most of his adult life, Mandel became the living vessel of post-war Trotskyism. Noted for his intellectual versatility, Mandel ventured into the fields of economics, political theory, history, even literary criticism.

For his intellectual prowess and radical vision Mandel became a legendary figure on the international left and served as a mentor for a generation of revolutionaries schooled in the protest movements of the 1960s.

The Legacy of Ernest Mandel, a collection of essays edited by Gilbert Achcar, pays tribute to Mandel’s life and work. True to Mandel’s legacy, the contributors combine praise with critical re-evaluation.

The first essay of the collection is also the most out of place. Robin Blackburn’s “The Unexpected Dialectic of Structural Reforms” begins with a friendly appraisal of Mandel’s career, interspersed with personal memories and a reflection on Mandel’s contribution to New Left Review, of which Blackburn is an editor.

His final eight paragraphs, however, offer nothing less than a full-scale rejection of the revolutionary project to which Mandel dedicated his life. In one paragraph Blackburn reviews the legacy of workers’ struggles in Russia, western Europe, and Latin America and asserts that they prove the impossibility of transforming society on the basis of workers’ councils.

“I would argue,” Blackburn writes, “that `centrist’ proposals to reform and improve representative institutions by making them more genuinely democratic, by introducing checks on the executive and by stimulating forms of self-administration in civil society are more promising and necessary than the abstract `dual power’ conception.” (22)

Blackburn offers as an alternative to revolutionary struggle a quest to reform financial institutions — specifically pension funds<197>in such a way as to finance social reforms.

If Blackburn believed that his essay would trigger a critical re-examination of revolutionary theory he approached his task with insufficient seriousness. He shows that revolutionary workers’ movements have repeatedly failed, but not that they were doomed from their inception. Nor does he address himself to the dismal failures of social democratic reform projects in western Europe, or the adoption of neoliberalism by most Social Democratic parties.

In fact, while arguing for reforms in capital markets, he does not even hint at how the power of capitalists over capital can be broken. By limiting himself to fewer than three pages, Blackburn has guaranteed that his arguments will be convincing only to those who did not need to be convinced. Those interested in more serious explorations will find Blackburn’s contribution less satisfying.

Revolutionary Humanism and Catastrophe

Two sets of discussions make up the strongest parts of the collection. The first addresses the question of humanism and how Marxists should analyze inhumanity. This discussion consists of the essays by Michael Löwy (“Ernest Mandel’s Revolutionary Humanism”), Norman Geras (“Marxists Before the Holocaust: Trotsky, Deutscher, Mandel”) and the three essays by Mandel which make up the second section of the book.

Although these essays are scattered throughout the collection they should be read in conjunction with each other. Löwy’s essay is about Mandel, but like all the others making contributions to this book he is offering ideas he considers essential for modern Marxists. In that light Löwy offers both praise and critique of Mandel’s appreciation of the humanist dimension of revolutionary struggle.

Indeed, Mandel was far from a dry Marxist economist. Quite the contrary, his works were filled with a passionate hatred of the daily degradations and humiliations of life under capitalism. Mandel was also an unswerving optimist about the potential for humanity to live together harmoniously.

Löwy uncovers, however, a tension in Mandel’s work between his positive view of humanity’s capacities and his treatment of the extraordinary human crimes of the 20th century. Löwy criticizes Mandel for paying insufficient attention in his work to monstrous crimes such as the Nazi holocaust, Hiroshima, or the reign of Pol Pot.

While Mandel repeatedly mentioned these atrocities as part of a larger indictment of capitalist culture, he did not analyze them the way Löwy would: as disastrous turning points of the 20th century. Löwy conjectures that Mandel was perhaps too loyal to the heritage of the Enlightenment to see how such grand crimes necessarily shattered any positivist schema of human development.

Similarly, Norman Geras criticizes Mandel for not recognizing the singular importance of the Nazi holocaust in 20th century history. Mandel, he argued, tended to treat the holocaust as part of a series of crimes, all of which he reduced to the sickness of capitalism and imperialism.

While finding contradictory quotations from Mandel’s works, Geras notes that Mandel’s essay “Material, Social and Ideological Preconditions for the Nazi Genocide” (included in this collection) was one of his few serious treatments of the Shoah. Furthermore, the essay did not assign to the holocaust the unique importance Geras feels it deserves.

Both Löwy’s and Geras’ critiques share a certain elusiveness which undermine their poignancy: Neither makes sufficiently clear what Mandel would have had to have done, or what we would have to do today, to satisfy their concerns.

This weakness is especially acute in Geras’ treatment. He never specifies what it would mean to assign singular importance to the Holocaust. After all, both the Spanish conquest of the Americas and the Belgian massacres in the Congo were greater in scale than the Nazi holocaust, although it is of doubtful utility to rank such horrors by the numbers of corpses produced.

Understanding Genocide

Other aspects of Geras’ essay are both provocative and problematic. Geras credits Trotsky for recognizing a barbaric streak in human nature, which Mandel did not fully appreciate. Trotsky, Geras reminds us, warned the Jews of their impending destruction as early as 1938.

Geras insists that Trotsky’s prediction was not merely a flippant indictment of prewar capitalism but a genuine recognition of the monstrous potentialities of the coming period. Trotsky, Geras argues, developed that appreciation after watching a pogrom in prerevolutionary Russia.

“Already long before 1938 Trotsky had seen into the depths. He had seen the spirit of limitless excess, the exaltation people can feel in exercising a merciless power over others and the `total-ness’ there can be in a humiliation — both the horror and the joy that is taken in inflicting it, lethal couple in what is already an annihilation . . . In all of this he had seen part of what there would subsequently be in the Shoah, including the element of an irreducible choice. The preconditions and the surrounding context of this kind of choice can and always must be explored and described. But it remains in the end what it is: undetermined, a choice.” (204)

For Geras, Trotsky’s insight flowed from his ability to grasp the capacity of individuals for nearly-orgiastic barbarism. Geras documents the extent to which the Nazis indulged in the same hedonistic violence that animated the pogromists Trotsky witnessed.

The Nazis who carried out such unspeakable cruelties not only enjoyed their limitless inhumanity but believed they were pursuing an exalted and historic mission. Testimonies to such self-delusions emerged not only from the hooligans employed to carry out the barbarities but from leading Nazis such as Himmler.

Geras’ weakness, however, is that he fails to situate Nazi inhumanity into a larger analysis of the Holocaust. Consequently, his critique of Mandel’s reductionism is unconvincing. Geras fails to distinguish between why individuals act in barbaric ways and why states mobilize their vast resources for organized barbarism. After all, the documentary legacy of the Third Reich offers a picture more complex than that of simple, primitive blood lust.

The 1934 “Night of the Long Knives,” for example, was Hitler’s reassurance to the German bourgeoisie that the unbridled mass rage that Hitler had manipulated prior to 1933, would be held in check by the new Nazi state. Even Krystallnacht, the 1938 attack on the businesses and homes of Germany’s Jews, was highly regulated to avoid accidental victimization of non-Jews or provocations against foreign powers.

The State and Barbarism

Furthermore, an analysis of the Nazi holocaust must explain why the “Final Solution” was adopted fully nine years after Hitler’s ascendancy and three years into the second world war. Rather than an unproblematic continuation of previous Nazi barbarities, the Wannsee Conference of 1942, which set the course of the coming genocide, marked an important change in Nazi policy.

Auschwitz, the premier killing center in Nazi Europe, originally had been built as a series of slave labor camps designed to contract workers out to private German firms. The Final Solution necessitated expensive renovations as camps had to be dug up to make room for underground gas chambers.

The question therefore arises as to why the German state, while clearly capable of restraining bloodthirsty mobs at critical points in the 1930s, was sometimes willing not simply to let them loose but to organize their activity on a larger scale.

Comparable questions about the relationship between lusty barbarism and state policy arise throughout modern history. During the Vietnam war the United States army was willing to abide and even cover-up brutalities such as My Lai, without ever allowing military or political policies to be dictated by such irrational rage.

On the other hand, Nazi leaders had to deal with soldiers for whom such murderous rage did not come easily. Upon organizing the final solution, Eichmann reviewed numerous reports that ordering regular German soldiers to massacre the Jews of eastern Europe could create severe problems within the army. Soldiers who had been ordered to shoot defenseless victims hour after hour were suffering enormous psychological distress; some even refused the orders.

The Auschwitz death factory incorporated the heights of capitalist rationality by raising labor productivity to the point that a smaller number of SS thugs could inflict the cruelty for which conscript masses could not be relied upon.

Explorations into human cruelty can be useful in the study of the Holocaust, or ethnic cleansing campaigns such as those in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Perhaps Mandel’s historical works (chiefly The Meaning of the Second World War) can be faulted for not examining this dimension of the problem.

Nonetheless, explanations of why such barbarism transcends the random act of police or gang brutality to become state policy requires the kind of historic, political and socio-economic frameworks upon which Mandel relied so heavily.

The Problem of Bureaucracy

Also interesting and compelling are the essays by Charles Post (“Ernest Mandel and the Marxian Theory of the Bureaucracy”) and Catherine Samary (“Mandel’s Views on the Transition to Socialism”).

Post combs Mandel’s two essays “On Bureaucracy” and “The Leninist Theory of Organization,” as well as his final work Power and Money, to uncover Mandel’s thinking on the problem of bureaucracy and its significance for revolutionary praxis.

Mandel posited the existence of bureaucratic strata, particularly in the trade unions and Socialist parties, who were products of working class mobilizations but who had developed material and social interests separate and apart from those of the working class. Such bureaucracies sacrifice militant mobilizations to the goal of preserving the organizations which are the sources of their privileges.

Mandel’s conception of self-organization of the working class, therefore, flowed not merely from his belief in proletarian struggle against capitalism. He also considered workers’ democracy to be essential to the ability of revolutionary workers to control their leaders and organizations and curb the growth of bureaucracy.

Like Post, Samary takes off from the problem of bureaucracy in general to explore the more specific forces which drove the Soviet bureaucracy. While both authors engage in the older intra-Trotskyist debate over the character of the Soviet bureaucracy and Soviet state, both do so in a forward-looking manner, hoping to salvage from earlier debates some insights into the logic of bureaucracies and to modern debates about the transition to socialism.

After a stimulating discussion of the problems of the transition to capitalism in post-Soviet Russia, Samary concludes her essay with a recapitulation of the “Plan vs. Market” debate Mandel carried on with Alec Nove in the pages of New Left Review in the 1980s. While much closer to Mandel, she offers a critique of his insistence that there could be no role for money under socialism.

Samary argues that market mechanisms may be utilized under social conditions in which workers control production and in which markets do not rule. She also asserts that Mandel was beginning to come to that conclusion toward the end of his life.

Muddled Economics

Unfortunately, the weakest section of the book consists of the three essays on the subject to which Mandel devoted the bulk of his intellectual energies: economics.

Jesús Albarracín and Pedro Montes (“Late Capitalism: Mandel’s Interpretation of Contemporary Capitalism”) credit Mandel for integrating an understanding of capitalism’s laws of motion with analyses of specific historical factors in his study of post-war capitalism. However, Albarracín and Montes fail to achieve such a synthesis in their own review of the same period.

While insisting that capitalism’s inner logic plays a major role in shaping the long waves of growth and crises, the authors place primary emphasis on a series of postwar Keynesian state policies in their analyses of both the recovery of the 1940s through the 1960’s and the crisis phase that began in the 1970s.

Thus, rather than genuinely integrating economic theory and economic history, they pay homage to the first and rely primarily on the latter. Their conclusion highlights the weakness of their approach:

“Mandel always insisted that profound social and economic changes were necessary for capitalism to overcome the recessive long wave. The fact that after a quarter-century capitalism does not seem to be recovering from the depressive long wave gives credit to his contributions and to Marxist analysis. Despite the hegemony of neoliberalism, an examination of the different aspects of the `new world order’ hardly warrants confidence in the system’s stability. Decisive economic events and profound class conflicts loom over the horizon.” (72)

First, the authors seem unaware of the enormous growth in capitalist profitability in the 1990s. In fact, in their essay they refer to no economic events since Mandel’s death in 1995. More importantly, they give no sense of what would be required for capitalism to recover (if it has not already done so).

Thus they do not themselves integrate historical analyses with a discussion of the system’s inner workings. In fact they fail to heed Mandel’s warning:

“To be sure, each of the twenty generalized economic crises which have occurred in the history of the capitalist world market up till now also featured special characteristics, which are tied to special aspects of the development of the world market (witness the partial `triggering’ role of the raw materials boom and the oil shocks for the 1974-75 recession). But it would be unconscientious and unscientific to `explain’ a phenomenon recurring twenty times within a span of 150 years mainly or exclusively by reference to `special’ factors, which could at best explain only this or that specific crisis each time, and to refuse to explain the general causes of capitalist economic crises inherent in the system.” (239)

The essays by Francisco Loucá (“Ernest Mandel and the Pulsation of History”) and Michel Husson (“After the Golden Age: On Late Capitalism”) have comparable problems.

Both insist that historical (“exogenous”) factors must be incorporated into an analysis of the workings of capitalism. Both, however, fail to meld exogenous and endogenous factors into an integrated analysis. Furthermore, both authors utilize an academic prose that is anything but user-friendly, hardly consistent with the tradition of Mandel.

Ironically, Husson’s work is particularly light on empirical evidence. What he does offer is questionable.

In an effort to show that patterns of accumulation are not necessarily driven by profit rates, Husson provides a chart showing the two trends diverging wildly in the 1980s and 1990s. However, he does not tell us how he is measuring accumulation and profits, how he is defining those terms, or the data upon which he is relying. Thus it is difficult to evaluate one of the few pieces of specific evidence he cites.

Despite some weaknesses The Legacy of Ernest Mandel is a welcome continuation of Mandel’s ideas. Bracketed at the beginning by a thoughtful review of Mandel’s work (Achcar’s introduction) and at the end by three rarely seen essays by Mandel, this collection provides a useful summary of some of Mandel’s key contributions and some food for thought for the generation to come.

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)