• Ernest Mandel Biography

  • Michael Löwy | 09 Nov 10 | Posted under: Reviews
  • Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel: A Rebel’s Dream Deferred, London: Verso 2009; translated by Christopher Beck and Peter Drucker, 392 pages.

    This is the first systematic biography of the main leader and theoretician of the Fourth International after 1945 and, as Tariq Ali mentions in his preface, one of the most creative and independent revolutionary thinkers of our time. The author is a Dutch historian, and the first edition of the book was published in Dutch in 2005. His research includes not only a huge bibliography, but also adds many records of personal meetings and interviews with old friends and comrades and, above all, documents from Ernest Mandel’s personal archives. This is a highly valuable work combining the historian’s precision with an obvious personal sympathy for the person while keeping a clear critical distance that prevents any drift into apology.

    In this review, we will follow the same order as the chapters, which in part follow chronological order and in part subject areas. Born in Antwerp in 1923 to a Jewish family that had emigrated from Poland – non believers – of German cultural background, the young Ezra (later known as Ernest) discovered socialism at the age of 13 through reading Victor Hugo’s novel Les Misérables. At a later date he declared “This was the moment that shaped my political thinking, definitively and for the rest of my life”. Already a left-winger, Henri Mandel – his father – drew closer to the circles of German Trotskyists who had fled to Belgium after the Moscow Trials. As for Ezra, in 1938, at the aged of 15, he joined the RSP (Revolutionary Socialist Party), which is the Belgian section of the Fourth International. War and Nazi occupation in Belgium did not cause him to lose heart; he joined the resistance and was arrested for the first time in January 1943. He took advantage of a momentary inattention on the part of his jail keepers to escape. He regularly wrote articles for the underground German-language paper Das Freie Wort [The Free Word], addressing German soldiers. Imprisoned a second time in March 1944, he was shifted around from one camp to the other. He escaped one more time in July 1944 but was caught shortly afterwards. It is only in March 1945 that he was finally released, freed by the US army. Mandel’s deeply rooted optimism, at times resting on a kind of blindness, finds its expression in his attitude at the moment of his deportation, as he expressed it later: “I was happy to be deported to Germany, because this enabled me be at the very centre of the German Revolution”! This persistent faith in the German Revolution, inherited from classical Marxism, always stayed with him until 1990.

    In the years from 1944 to 1946, Mandel was convinced that the European revolution was imminent: capitalism had reached its last phase; it was in its death throes, to use Trotsky’s 1938 formulation. Gradually, however, he had reluctantly to acknowledge that the revolutionary wave was receding.

    Following the entryism practised by the Fourth International, he became a member of the Belgian Socialist Party without revealing his identity as a Trotskyist leader; he wrote his brilliant articles published in the international press under the pseudonym “E. Germain”.

    Alongside his political activity in Belgium, “E. Germain” invested his effort in theoretical work. His first significant book, Le Traité d’économie Marxiste (1961) [Marxist Economic Theory] is an attempt, rare in those days, to integrate economic theory with history. Considering the inner fights behind the scenes of the Fourth International, it also supported Michel Pablo’s thesis, despite a certain critical distance from it: In the face of the “coming war”, we have to invest in the parties of the working masses (entryism), whether these are communist or socialist, depending on the countries. This overbearing attempt to force the French section to integrate into the French Communist Party, that prodigal champion of Stalinism, finally resulted in France breaking away from the International, which soon led to a general split of the whole International.1 Stutje, who is otherwise unobtrusive in his comments, cannot hide his surprise: “Why such an excessive centralism? Why coercion?“ To his mind, “Germain” chose to sacrifice his personal opinion for the sake of unity with Pablo. It is only in 1963, following a friendly meeting between Mandel and James P. Cannon, the old leader of the US-SWP, that the International was (in part) re-unified. During the re-unification congress, “Germain” presents a thesis on the three sectors of the world revolution – the proletarian revolution of the advanced capitalist countries, the colonial revolution and the political revolution of the Eastern countries – breaking the third-worldism professed by Pablo, who had moved to Algeria in 1962.2

    This does not mean that Mandel was not interested in the Third World, particularly in Latin America. In 1964 he was invited to Cuba where he met Che Guevara.

    In May 1968, Mandel was in Paris and took part, in the night of May 10, in the barricade of rue Gay Lussac, a street in the heart of the Latin Quarter. He is helped by his partner, Gisela Scholtz – a young militant of the German SDS he had married in 1966 – and also by his French comrades of the JCR Alain Krivine, Daniel Bensaïd, Henri Weber, Pierre Rousset, Janette Habel and by a visitor from South America who was just passing through: Robert Santucho, the principal leader of the PRT (Revolutionary Workers’ Party), the Argentinean section of the Fourth International.

    Shortly afterwards, in 1969, the 9th congress of the Fourth International opted by a majority resolution and with Mandel’s support, for the adoption of armed conflict in Latin America. Stutje speculates whether Mandel could have once more sacrificed his personal opinion for the sake of unity, this time with the young French members of the LCR and with the Latin Americans who were in favour of this new course. Having attended this event myself, I do not share the biographer’s analysis. Moreover, he quotes a declaration Mandel is supposed to have made in 1972, in response to the denunciation of German academics, whose sincerity can hardly be questioned: Once democratic rights have been abrogated, the right to armed self-defence is incontestable.3

    In those years, Mandel wrote two of his most important works: La Formation de la pensée économique de Marx [The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx] (1967) and Le Troisième Âge du capitalisme [Late capitalism] (1974). The latter might even be his most influential book in spite of some defects – a needed synthetic view that could have gone beyond the brilliant chapters on the different aspects of contemporary capitalism, as some of his friends deplore. Other important writings published at that time were the debate on Trotsky with Nicolas Krasso in New Left Review, which very much influenced the editors to move closer to a revolutionary Marxism, and Les Ondes longues du développement capitaliste. Une interprétation marxiste [Long Waves of Capitalist Development. A Marxist Interpretation, 1980, based on legendary talks held two years before at the University of Cambridge. Mandel’s influence on rebellious youth was now at its peek, and he was officially barred from five countries, France, the USA and West Germany among others. The German chancellor, the “liberal” Genscher, justified the ban as follows: “In his teachings, Professor Mandel not only supports the doctrine of a Permanent Revolution, but actively acts on behalf of it”. At this point, Karola and Ernst Bloch – the famous German Marxist philosopher – very close friends of Ernest and Gisela – wrote him: “You must really be a giant if they are that afraid of you! You are the number one enemy of the ruling classes”. It must be mentioned that this still did not prevent him from secretly going to France several times, as in 1971, when he delivered an unforgettable speech to 20,000 people at a meeting of the Fourth International held in front of Père Lachaise cemetery to commemorate the centenary of the Paris Commune.

    The death of his friend Rudi Dutschke in 1979, and above all, the death of his partner Gisela in tragic circumstances in 1982 both hit him very hard personally. Stutje does not hide his criticism of Mandel incerpacity to communicate with Gisela and help her come to terms with her emotional crisis. One year later he marries Anne Sprimont, 30 years younger than him, whose firmness and independence of mind were always a great help to him.

    Mandel always wanted to be a historian – it is Michel Pablo who convinced him to turn to political economy. However, it is only in 1986 that he brings out his first historical publication: La signification de la Deuxième Guerre Mondiale [The Meaning of the Second World War]. It is surely a bright and innovative work; however, unlike Stutje, I don’t believe he accounts for the specificity of the Final Solution. It is only after he faces criticism on this point that he publishes an important essay in 1990, which he finally adds to the German version of his book on the Prémisses matérielles, sociales et idéologiques du génocide nazi [Material, Social and Ideological Assumptions on the Nazi Genocide].

    Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union made Mandel very hopeful and led him to expect an imminent “political revolution”; he did not consider the eventuality of a restoration of capitalism. He showed even greater enthusiasm during the huge rallies in East Berlin in November 1989, in which he took part, and which finally led to the fall of the Wall. He believed this was the awakening of the real German revolution that had been defeated through the murder of Rosa Luxemburg and in any case, “the greatest movement in Europe since May 1968, if not since the Spanish revolution”. He became disillusioned after 1990, with German Re-unification and the return of capitalism to East Germany.

    Despite this disappointment, Mandel still published a few important books: Pouvoir et Argent [Power and Money], an analysis of the social origins of bureaucracy and Trotsky comme alternative [Trotsky as Alternative]. Both works acknowledge the legitimacy of Rosa Luxemburg’s criticisms of the Bolsheviks (in the latter book’s chapter on democracy) and Trotsky’s “substitutional” drift during the “dark years” of 1920-1921. In the last years, Mandel had shifted emphasis from the classical dilemma of “socialism or barbarism” to the apocalyptic socialism or death; capitalism is leading to the destruction of mankind through nuclear war or through ecological destruction, as he stressed. In contrast to Stutje, I do not believe that this was a kind of “furious messianism” but rather a conscious evaluation of the dangers.

    Stutje indicates, correctly, that Mandel tended to a mind-body split resulting in a very unhealthy lifestyle: too much food, not enough exercise. Following a heart attack in 1993, he had to reduce his activities; however, defying the advice of friends, he still agreed to take part in a debate in New York in November 1994 with a “Trotskyist” sect, the Spartacist League, whose main activity was to campaign against the Fourth International. He also published his long argument against their diatribes. Stutje mentions a letter I had sent to Mandel just then: “This obscure American sect will only remain in the memory of the worker’s movement because of your polemic against them”. He makes his last public appearance in June 1995 at the 14th congress of the Fourth International. Shortly after that, in July, he dies of another heart attack. His funeral is held at Père Lachaise Cemetery in the form of a militant action with crowds of people flocking from all over the world.

    In his conclusion, Stutje pays tribute to Mandel’s exceptional intellectual and literary qualities and his limitless trust in human creativity and solidarity. He quotes my own comments concerning Mandel’s “anthropological optimism”, his trust in the potential of human beings to resist injustice. However, it seems to me that the biographer did not understand my statement that followed: Mandel’s optimism inherent to his willpower was not always compensated by the pessimism inherent to reason.4

    In any case, thanks to the author of this excellent piece of work, Mandel will continue to serve as an example to future generations because of his persistent non-acceptance of fatalism and resignation.



    1. Michel Lequenne’s book Le Trotskysme, une histoire sans fard, Paris [Unvarnished Trotskyism], offers valuable information on this history. Syllepse, 2005. 
    2. Pablo had spent two years in an Amsterdam jail on a charge of attempted forgery of banknotes as a means of supporting the FLN! 
    3. It should be realised that as of 1974, he also distanced himself from the illusions of such a strategy. I can remember an informal discussion with him at the occasion of the 10th World Congress in which I was fervently defending the political-military orientation of our comrades of the “Red Fraction of the PRT” that Santucho had banned because of Trotskyism, while Ernest was considering them as doomed to fail. Of course, he was right.
    4. See Michael Löwy, “E. Mandel’s Revolutionary Humanism”, in Gilbert Achcar, The Legacy of Ernest Mandel, London, Verso, 1999.

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