Ernest Mandel and Gregor Gysi

Debate in East Berlin

(May 1990)

Originally published in La Gauche (Belgium), June 5, 1990.
Published in English in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, No.78, October 1990, pp.14-15.
Translated by Michael Frank.
Downloaded with thanks from the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

More than a thousand people attended a debate between Gregor Gysi, the president of the PDS (Party of Democratic Socialism) [1], and Ernest Mandel on May 25 in East Berlin. Many people had to be turned away because the room and the adjacent halls were too small to accommodate them.

A First

It was the first time that a leader of the Fourth International could freely debate with the president of a mass party coming out of the so-called “international communist movement.” The PDS has several hundred thousand members. It received 16 per cent of the votes in the free legislative elections that took place in the GDR, and more than 30 per cent in working class strongholds such as East Berlin, Eisenhüttenstadt (the steel industry town), Rostock, Schwerin, and Neubrandenburg in the municipal elections that followed.

The meeting was organized jointly by the PDS and the Trotskyist comrades of the GDR. The latter put up numerous posters that they had themselves printed and distributed numerous flyers announcing the meeting. While pasting up posters, they were assaulted by a group of fascists. One comrade was slightly injured. Our comrades had a literature table at the entrance to the meeting hall. They sold a hundred copies of works by Leon Trotsky, as well as numerous books of Mandel and other comrades of the Fourth International.

The theme of the debate was: “Does socialism still have a future?” By mutual agreement, the debate was divided into three sections; the causes of the collapse of 1989, the prospects for socialism, and the political space for socialists/communists in capitalist Europe (including in a Germany unified on a capitalist basis).


Ernest Mandel stressed the historical causes of the collapse of Stalinism in the GDR and in several countries of Eastern Europe. It is necessary, said our comrade, to offer a comprehensive and coherent explanation of the Stalinist phenomenon; despotic dictatorship of a bureaucracy, a privileged social layer that usurped the power of the working class and established a monopoly of political power to defend and extend its material privileges. The Stalinist bureaucracy then exported these forms of power to the GDR by military occupation and police power, against the will of the majority of the working population of the country.

These practices were tied to an ideology that broke with Marxism and substituted for the imperative that the emancipation of the workers can only be accomplished by the workers themselves the construction of pseudo-socialism by state decree, a hybrid semi planning, and a tutelage over the masses in all areas of social life.

These practices and theories went bankrupt. It is the bankruptcy of Stalinism, not of socialism. It is necessary to create political, economic, social, cultural, and moral conditions so that they are never reproduced. The future of socialism depends on it.

Only the self-activity and the free and democratic self-organization of the laboring masses, only workers self-management of the factories and the struggle of parties who consider themselves the vanguard in the framework of these organs of self-organization can assure the gradual construction of socialism, which can only be completed on a world scale.

Mandel stressed the fact that if the present conjuncture is unfavorable, if imperialism is on the offensive, if the workers are on the defensive, if the communists/socialists have to wage a long battle against the current, there is no reason to doubt the future and the historic chances of socialism.

These chances flow from the internal contradictions of capitalism that are leading and will inevitably lead to a series of explosive crises. They flow from the possibility that the Soviet proletariat, the largest in the world, will end up, after an inevitable interval, by triumphing both over the nomenklatura and the procapitalist restorationist forces, thanks to a victorious political revolution. They flow from the powerful militant energies that the fall of Stalinism and the crisis of social democracy are freeing and will free in numerous countries and in numerous mass movements.

Finally, Mandel emphasized that there is no place in capitalist Europe and in a Germany reunified on a capitalist basis for two social democratic parties and two variants of the same reformist strategy. He warned the comrades of the PDS that they will only have a political space in a reunified Germany if they position themselves clearly to the left of the SPD [Social Democratic Party] and the Greens, if they support, without reservations and without searching for some kind of consensus with the bourgeoisie, all the mass movements: those of the workers, including the trade union militants, those of the ecologists, the feminists, the antimilitarists, the partisans of radical, direct, grass-roots democracy , and the movements of solidarity with the liberation struggles of people of the third world.

It is only through the progress of such mass struggles that socialist education and propaganda, more necessary now than ever, will permit the overcoming of the crisis of credibility of the socialist project.


Gregor Gysi began his intervention by apologizing to comrade Mandel for the repression of which he had been the victim in the GDR; forbidden entry (Mandel is the only personality of the European workers’ movement, he recalled, who was forbidden entry both to the GDR and the FRG), slanderous and lying attacks in publications, etc. He extended these apologies to all the victims of Stalinist repression in the heart of the German and international workers’ movement. This opening intervention received prolonged applause.

Then, following upon the analysis and proposals of Mandel, Gysi noted his agreements and disagreements. He declared himself, like Mandel, against the restoration of capitalism in the GDR, but considered that this was practically inevitable given the relation of forces. It is necessary then to wage defensive struggles so that the workers in the GDR and the FRG do not pay the costs of the capitalist reunification.

Gysi gave, like Mandel, priority to the struggle for the demilitarization of Germany and for the dismantling of all the police apparatuses. He also approved most of the slogans advanced by Mandel, but was much more hesitant on the question of solidarity with the third world liberation movements, without opposing it as such.

Two important differences then emerged.

Contrary to Mandel, Gysi is if the opinion that the socialists, in order to determine their strategy, must base themselves above all on global phenomena and the threats that bear down on the human species, rather than on the internal contradictions of the capitalist system.

Next, Gysi assessed that the possibilities of revolution were practically excluded for a long period, at least in the principal countries of the world, and above all in Europe. In these conditions, according to him, priority goes to the struggle for reforms. He outlined several examples, including aid to localities and fiscal policy.

And in this regard, he said, it is necessary to reevaluate the role of social democracy. It has realized a series of important reforms benefiting the workers and the masses in general. It is necessary to recognize the capital importance of this and the necessity of being inspired by it under the present conditions. Gysi reproached Mandel for an excessively negative attitude in regard to the social democracy. He put in doubt the responsibility of the failure of the German revolution of 1918-1919 for the ascension of Stalinism.


In his reply, Mandel denounced a series of historic crimes committed by the social democracy, crimes which are not less grave than the crimes committed by the Stalinists: responsibility in the massacre of more than 10,000 German workers in 1919, including co responsibility for the murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, responsibility for bloody colonial wars and for an antiworker policy of austerity in numerous European countries.

But he stressed the fact that these severe criticisms, and the equally severe criticisms in regard to the Stalinist and post-Stalinist Cps of capitalist Europe, do not prevent in any way a policy of united workers’ front, which implies a permanent debate and dialogue, at the summit and at the base, in a climate of tolerance, that is to say, an opposition to all attempts to exclude any current of the workers’ movement. He recalled on this occasion the exemplary struggle led by Trotsky and the International Left Opposition for the united front in Germany between 1929 and 1933, a united front that would have saved the German working class from the historic disaster of the Nazi seizure of power and the creation of the Third Reich.

He launched an appeal to the German social democracy to break with the practice of Berufsverbote (the law forbidding dissidents from entering certain professions) in regard to the CP (tomorrow without a doubt also in regard to the PDS), to abandon all attempts to criminalize the PDS which would inevitably turn against the entire workers’ movement, and to remember in this regard what a terrible price the entire American left paid for McCarthyism.

He recalled that one of the high points of the Communist International before its Stalinization was the international campaign of solidarity with two anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, adversaries of communism. This campaign, the organization of which our American comrade James P. Cannon played an eminent role, should inspire all organizations like the PDS which are breaking with Stalinism to return to the class principles: against the common enemy, one for all, all for one.

Gregor Gysi fully supported this appeal.

The International

After the president had adjourned the meeting, comrade Mandel asked those present to sing the International and immediately began singing. The audience, surprised, hesitated a moment, then in unison, standing, sang our anthem, the anthem of the world workers’ movement.

The next day, the newspaper of the PDS, Neues Deutschland (New Germany), published on the front page an account of the debate and printed a long interview with Mandel on the origins, the current implantation, and the politics of the Fourth International.


1. Gysi’s party, Party of Democratic Socialism, was formerly the ruling Stalinist party in East Germany, the Socialist Unity Party (SED).


Last updated on 5.8.2007