Interview with Ernest Mandel

Society Is Polluted Too

by Carl Gardner & Mandy Merck

(June 1976)

From Time Out, 11 June 1976.
Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

In the midst of the deepening crisis, the economics faculty of Cambridge University has just appointed a Belgian revolutionary communist, already banned from the USA and three West European countries, to its highest honorary chair in 1977! The recipient, Ernest Mandel, journalist, Marxist economist and political activist, was recently in London, Carl Gardner and Mandy Merck talked to him.

Born in Belgium in 1923, educated at the University of Brussels and in Paris, Ernest Mandel joined the left wing of the Belgian resistance in 1940, about the same time as he became a supporter of Leon Trotsky (assassinated by Stalin’s agent in Mexico the same year) and the Fourth Communist International [sicMIA]. Captured three times by the Gestapo, he escaped twice, only to be caught again and kept in various German concentration camps until the end of the war. After the war he worked as a journalist for the Belgian weekly La Gauche and became its editor in 1956. He also served for seven years on the economic research commission of the Belgian TUC.

In 1968, Mandel took a prominent part in the May events in France, and since that time he has been banned in France, the USA, Switzerland and West Germany ‘not for carrying guns, or throwing bombs, but for defending my ideas’. Over 60 European MPs have protested at Mandel’s exclusion from the two Common Market countries.

He is now a lecturer in economics at Brussels University, though still a leading figure in the Trotskyist Fourth International. After the publication of his magnum opus on the forces shaping the current economic crisis, Late Capitalism, the economics faculty at Cambridge University appointed him the next Alfred Marshall Fellow. In 1977 he will take up the most prestigious economics post in Britain – if he isn’t banned from this country by then ...

Q: What would you say is the nature of the present world crisis?

It is a crisis which occurs at several levels. It is an economic crisis obviously. We have 17 million unemployed in the Western industrialised countries, which means that the long period of rapid growth and rising expectations, which we have known since the Second World War, is finished. It is a social crisis – a crisis of all social relations. And it is a political crisis, because under these new circumstances, the whole period when things were organised politically through parliament – governments of the so-called left of centre or right of centre – has come to an end.

We can also say that the big expansion of new industries – especially cars, plastics, chemicals, electronics – has also come to a halt. There have been many advances in technology, many new inventions and discoveries, which meant big profits. Now there are still many inventions and discoveries, but they are more and more costly, more and more risky. Look at Concorde – supersonic aeroplanes. No private firm is ready to take that kind of risk, and they become therefore less and less applied. So we can now say in a more general sense that all the forces which pushed towards expansion for a long period have now spent themselves.

Also for many years the strength of the working class prevented the employers from putting the burden of inflation on the workers. Prices went up, wages went up. Workers did not allow wages to rise less than prices. In that sense there has been a crisis of profit; as a result, less investment, as a result more unemployment. And without speaking of conspiracy, I would say that the present economic crisis is an attempt, by the employers on an international scale, to weaken the working class, through mass unemployment, and thereby enable them to put the burden of inflation essentially on the backs of the workers – to push down their wages.

In Britain, Germany and the USA, they have had an initial success in that policy – less so in Japan and absolutely none in the southern European countries – Spain, Italy, France – where the workers have fought back very strongly and violently, and also in some small European countries, like Belgium and Sweden. That means that we are in for hard times: hard times for capitalism and hard times for the workers. The easy times, the days of ‘we’ve never had it so good’, the times of great expectations, these days are over. So if I might use the Marxist jargon, it means that we get intensified class struggle and class conflict.

This can have different results. It can have good results, it can have bad results – it depends on the relationship of forces, and it depends on the leadership. I think that there is a strong chance that in some of the southern European countries, it will have very good results. The workers will defend themselves, move over onto the offensive, will shake present society, will try to solve the problems of this crisis through a change in the organisation of society, a break towards socialism. The danger exists that if this does not happen, then the working-class movement after many years of effort might lose its impetus and the offensive might come from the right, or even the extreme right.

Many conditions which the employers could tolerate as long as there was prosperity, they cannot tolerate in crisis. In many traditionally parliamentary countries in Western Europe, there are now definite threats of repressive measures against the freedom of the press, the freedom of thought and the free operation of trade unions and of working-class organisations. These ugly threats might expand gravely – even in Britain you are not definitely protected against that by the so-called parliamentary tradition. Some of the ugly things that have often happened in the past in the colonies, currently happening in Ireland, might be reintroduced into Britain itself against the British workers and the British labour movement, if the present employers’ offensive is successful

Q: Do you think the relatively small size and fragmentation of the left is dangerous or could it be potentially positive?

Firstly I would say that the revolutionary left is still small but it is much bigger than it was in the past – probably ten times bigger than it was ten years ago – in the key countries of Western Europe. But I would strongly deny that the breakthrough towards socialism – a revolutionary development in Western Europe – depends essentially on initiatives of small, extreme left-wing groups. I do not believe you can have a socialist revolution made by a minority in industrialised countries like those of Western Europe. What I am most interested in is not the strength, or weakness, of the revolutionary groups, but what type of objectively revolutionary, or let us say, anti-capitalist initiatives, the mass of workers are ready to take, and there the change is tremendous. Everybody speaks in France about the long occupation of the Lip factory at Besançon, where the workers went against the employers’ decision to close it. They took over the factory and started to sell the watches that were produced there. The fact is that you’ve had 200 Lip situations in Europe in the last 15 to 16 months.

What is done by hundreds of thousands, if not millions of workers in Europe – that is what gives the indication of things to come. After all, the general strike in France in May 1968 involved 10 million people. I think that we will witness, in the coming months, a couple of years, in Spain, Portugal, France or Italy, bigger general strikes than May 68 – more radical demands, but especially more advanced forms of self-organisation – factory committees, strike committees, workers’ councils and so on. That’s how I see the possibility of revolutionary situations developing in Western Europe.

Q: What conclusions do you draw, particularly in Britain, about the attraction of young people to anti-rationalist ideas – the occult, astrology, mysticism, etc?

I think it has a rather ominous significance. In the second half of the 1960s, culminating around 1968, you had a tremendous wave of optimism, of feeling that youth – young students, young workers – could change the world, could change it quickly. That was very positive, but it had a big element of illusion. Positive, because it showed that the establishment view for a long period, that prosperity had killed the political interest of youth, was wrong. We saw tens of thousands of people demonstrating in support of the Vietnamese revolution in Berlin, Paris, London, Rome, Milan and many other European cities. We could see a real rebirth of political awareness, of political enthusiasm, in Western European youth.

However, students, young people alone, have a much too small political and social economic weight to be able to change the world by themselves. Lack of understanding of this question led to a big disappointment. And since the early 1970s, there has been a certain retreat from political activity in the youth, and with this retreat there has been a growing sense of frustration. Young people make big efforts to change things, and when they change, as the French say, the more they stay the same. The political scene in a country like Britain and a few other European countries strengthens this frustration. There is not very much difference between what the present Labour government is doing and what, for example, the Heath government would have done in similar circumstances. People feel there is no alternative in political life – they do not see or cannot see small extreme left-wing groups as an immediate credible alternative. So they lose hope, feeling that you can’t change society.

And this is the breeding ground for irrationalism, mysticism, individual or collective escapism. Because, of course, society’s not so nice, life is not so nice. Not only is the air and the water polluted, but society is polluted too. If you cannot make a collective and revolutionary change, then you want at least to find an individual escape, and that is what this irrationalism and mysticism is all about.

Now when we look at the history of political trends in the twentieth century, we can see in what I would call ‘late capitalism’ there runs an ugly, dual streak. On the one hand, you have the naive belief in technology, science, the capacity of experts to solve everything. On the other hand, you have this basic breeding-ground of irrationalism, rejection of humanism, rejection of belief in the future of man, rejection of the belief in constructive social change. This is, as I say, an ugly streak, because obviously under certain circumstances, this could help the reappearance of fascist or extremely right-wing tendencies, who breed on such beliefs.

There are additional elements which favour such a turn. We are living at the moment in which great expectations created by the capitalists themselves – expectation of full employment, rising standard of living, continuous economic growth, continuous technological progress, have been very rudely and radically contradicted by events. People don’t believe, as they did in the early 1960s, that things will just continue to get bigger and better. There is even a big scientific offensive. The Meadows report, the Club of Rome Report, say that if things continue as they are, we will reach a catastrophe; there will be a great scarcity of raw materials, pollution of the whole human environment – you have to stop growth.

I don’t agree with that. I find that a very backward and reactionary idea that you have to stop growth. You have to stop anarchic growth, unorganised growth, wasteful growth. You have to replace it by planned growth, growth which is not a goal in itself, but subordinated to human happiness. To stop growth means condemning two-thirds of mankind to a life of unbelievable misery, as they are still experiencing it today. It is very easy to say you have to stop growth, if you have two motor-cars and two television sets in your apartment. If you live on the dole, it is not so nice.

We have to understand the dangers of all this for the future, and we have to oppose to it our absolutely unshakeable belief that man is capable of changing his own nature, and his own environment, that he is capable of creating a better society.

The one key question is to change the structure of society. As long as you have this mad society, where everything is subordinated to the race for individual enrichment, or individual competition – not growth of happiness, growth of real human wealth, growth of human relations, of love – but growth only of private fortunes, private profit, then you have terribly destructive forces: economically, psychologically, militarily destructive, which threaten us with total annihilation. It is not easy for intelligence to accept that type of thing. It is easier to close the eyes or believe in a higher spirit which will free us.

It is not easy to say, yes, mankind could be destroyed. Because that is the truth. It could be, and not in the so distant future. Our freedom could be destroyed, or we could have everywhere in the world governments which introduce torture as a normal form of rule – that is absolutely possible. The trend is already there. So escapism is also the refusal to accept reality. That is also a childish approach, of course – if these dangers are there, you have to fight against them, not just capitulate before them, by escaping into some private dream or into some private retreat.

Q: As one who has been around the left for a long time, what do you think of a new grouping which in certain senses identifies itself with the revolutionary left – the women’s liberation movement?

Women are more than half the human race and they are a half which has been socially and economically oppressed and exploited for thousands and thousands of years. It is much older than capitalism and goes back to the origins of class society. Under these circumstances, of course, there is in the women’s liberation movement, a tremendous potential for human liberation, of emancipation and revolutionary reorganisation of society, which goes far beyond the reorganisation of sexual relations.

It is hard for us today to predict how, in a socialist society, women will live free – but one thing we can predict with great confidence, is that it will be completely different from the way they live in this society. It will be much more radical than changes in ownership or the reorganisation of assembly-plants. All attempts at starting to organise that liberation now should be encouraged but without creating the illusion that essentially this is a problem of individuals. It is a social problem, which means that the bridges between the women’s movement and the labour movement, the emancipation of women of the working class, must be multiplied.

If we succeed in integrating in the movement for socialism, the tremendous explosive potential of the women’s liberation movement, then I think we will have taken a tremendous step towards achieving our goal.

Q: What about May 68 in France? That must have been a tremendous vindication of revolutionary Marxists, after 25 years of isolation and ‘class peace’?

I was very happy – they were certainly some of the happiest days of my life, but I am rather confident that I will see happier ones in Spain very soon, because the Spanish revolutionary movement will enter similar conditions as May 68 with a much bigger organised strength, ten times as big. That makes people like myself even more happy, when you don’t only see spontaneous uprisings but also the possibility of intervening efficiently and preventing the thing from being lost and betrayed by reformist fakers of all types.

Last updated on 3 October 2014