Ernest Mandel

“Don’t push porridge down throats!”

An Interview


From African Communist, No.130, 3rd Quarter 1992, pp.59-64.
Thanks to Joseph Auciello.
Downloaded with thanks from the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Ernest Mandel is a renowned economic and political theorist. A leading member of the united secretariat of the Fourth International, Mandel has devoted his life to defending the revolutionary legacy of Leon Trotsky. He is the author of numerous books, the most recent in English is Power and Money: A Marxist Theory of Bureaucracy (Verso). During a recent visit to South Africa Mandel spoke to The African Communist.

The African Communist: Cde Mandel, we’d like to plunge you directly into a current debate within our country. We are thinking of the demand for an Interim Government – should we, or should we not advance such a demand? We ask this question because there are forces on the left, notably some trotskyist groupings, that are absolutely opposed to transitional, power-sharing arrangements. Their opposition is certainly not groundless. The regime’s agenda is precisely to detach the leadership of the ANC-led alliance from its mass base. One way of doing this would be to lure our formations into co-responsibility for governing without any real power.

On the other hand, all left forces in our country seem to agree on the demand for a democratically-elected Constituent Assembly. How do you hold elections for a CA with the present regime acting as a major player and referee? What executive authority exists during the period of the CA’s proceedings? It is in this context that the ANC, SACP and our allies have been putting forward the demand for an Interim Government.

So what do you think?

Mandel: On South Africa I am going to say nothing. But I will put the answer rather in an historical framework.

First point, this debate has been with the international labour movement for a long, long time. It started already in the 90s of the past century. In order to answer this problem, which is a difficult one, we have to approach it from exactly the opposite point of view. We have to approach it NOT from the point of view of: “Should we or shouldn’t we try to occupy, get, grasp some elements of power?”

In Belgium, my country, Vandervelde [Emile, 1866-1938], the leader of the socialist party and once chairperson of the Second Socialist International, used a formula which by and large expresses (he was a clever lawyer) the philosophy underlying the wrong way of approaching this issue. He said we should strive for every little bit of power we can get inside the state, but we should not confuse these bits of power with state power as such.

That is more or less the philosophy behind the wrong way of approaching the question. That was said nearly one hundred years ago, so you see it’s nothing really new.

I would reverse the whole question. And reversing it is exactly what, in its best traditions, the international labour movement did. This is what it did in the periods when it was at its strongest (and not by accident), in terms of its mass influence and mass clout, first as mass socialist parties, and later as mass communist parties. They reversed the whole question.

They began from a number of key issues, which in the eyes of the masses, were seen as capable of changing their lives for the better. What these issues are at any particular time is, of course, still a question of political analysis and judgement, and it’s possible to be disastrously wrong. But generally speaking, if you are a mass party, if you have enough roots, it’s difficult to be wrong. The right path is obvious.

In other words, they approached the question not by asking what will be the effects on the power structure? Not by asking will our demands best be realized before or after we take power? No. That will be left to practice to show. Instead, their approach was to plunge directly into struggle, for instance, in regard to the 8-hour working day.

It started in Germany and the throughout the International Socialist movement in the 80s and 90s of the last century. They didn’t ask the question will we realize the 8-hour working day only under a socialist government, only after the overthrow of capitalism? Or before that in the transition period of dual power? No.

In actual fact you had different concrete variants in the world as to how it was realized. It was a good issue, a legitimate demand, and it was seen as such by millions of workers who went along.

Then again in the 1930’s, under conditions of terrible misery and mass unemployment, a similar fight was conducted with tremendous success, at least in France, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Spain and, to a lesser extent, in Britain and the United States. This time the struggle was for a further reduction of the overall work-load, in order to get more people employed. Then again, the question was not posed would this be voted by parliament in law, would it be imposed by class struggle, with a general strike?

Again there were national variants. In some cases it was major strike action. In Spain it was imposed by the revolution, but never mind, that was not the key question.

They key question is that these were legitimate goals, understood by millions if not tens of millions of workers throughout the world. The rule, and Lenin quoted it many times, was coined by that genius tactician Napoleon Bonaparte: “On s’engage, puis on voit” – “You start the struggle, and then you see.”

It’s no use having in advance some schema (for instance, of power-sharing or not power-sharing) to which you subordinate the struggle. No. You conduct the struggle, then you see under what relation of forces and under what conditions your demands can be realized.

So I would say that is the real problem today, including in South Africa. You see what are the key issues, which are the issues of mass interest for millions of exploited and oppressed, you start the struggle. From there the rest follows. What you should not do is subordinate these struggles to a specific schema.

I can give you many examples of the disastrous effects of such an approach in the history of the international labour movement.

In Russia, this is now completely forgotten, in 1917 the REAL opposition between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks was not at all between those who wanted dictatorship and those who wanted democracy, that’s a total mystification of history. It was an opposition between a struggle oriented approach and a schematic approach. In Russia millions of workers, soldiers and peasants had very specific goals. They wanted to stop the war, immediately. They wanted land to be distributed, immediately. And they wanted to end the economic sabotage of the capitalists, and therefore they wanted workers’ control.

The Bolsheviks won essentially because they followed the wishes and needs of these millions of people. And the Mensheviks, completely the opposite of Lenin, said the popular demands were politically impossible and undesirable. They asserted that you cannot stop the war immediately because, if you do, international capital will withdraw from Russia and you will have economic chaos; you will have to continue some kind of collaboration with international capital. They argued that Russia was not ready for socialism. They argued that the great mass of workers didn’t understand the need for the development of the productive forces, that the objective conditions were not ripe, etc., etc.

But these abstract questions were not the issue. The issue was that people wanted peace, land and no lay-offs in the factories. That was the issue.

So there you have two completely different strategic approaches. On the one hand you give precedence to supporting struggles for the immediate needs of the masses as they see them. Or, on the other hand, you go from pre-conceived schema.

The latter, for me, is similar to Stalinism and many social-democrats and neo-social democrats. They try to make people happy against their own wishes. But you can’t. You can’t push the porridge down their throats, because they’ll spit it out sooner or later. They have to move from their own experience, and you have to convince them. If it takes a lot of time, well, it can’t be helped. There is no other way. That’s why we have to be for socialist democracy, basically, because you can’t make people happy against their own will. Any attempt to impose something on people, including the way to socialism, will lead to failure.

AC: If you were to single out the greatest weakness of socialism today, what would it be?

Mandel: Perhaps it would be the question of moral authority. If you look back to previous decades, you will understand to what extent things have deteriorated in the present.

Sacco and Vanzetti in the United States were two comrades condemned to the electric chair and later executed (in 1927) by the American bourgeoisie. They were two anarchists, who had nothing to do with communism, in fact they were hostile to communism. But the communist movement at the time, and without a moment’s hesitation, organized a world-wide, a splendid defence campaign. There was no problem whether they were anarchists or not. They were just victims of injustice. The movement identified with the struggle against injustice.

Stalinism destroyed that, and that has been a terrible retreat. But the social democrats were co-responsible for the moral retreat of socialism. It was a general retreat. A general decline of the moral authority of socialism. That’s probably the one single greatest weakness of the socialist movement during the last decade. The masses are skeptical, they think socialists and communists are dishonest, that they don’t apply their principles in practice. Of course, soviet bureaucracy is the worst example. But some of the west European socialist democratic bureaucracies are not much better. If anything, because of the bigger resources they have had in their capitalist countries, they have been more corrupt than the soviet bureaucracy.

But that’s not the point, I mean, generally there is no moral authority anymore. In fact it’s worse than a loss of moral authority, the masses consider socialists to be self-seeking, dishonest people. So the one big, big, big change we have to apply (it’s not easy, but it’s easier than all the other things, because this depends on us) is to bring our political practice and even our personal practice into strict conformity with our principles. Don’t take people for fools, they notice. If this effort is undertaken in one country, two, three, four countries, the element of moral authority will come back to the labour movement.

Think of Che Guevara. You can say anything you want against his strategy of rural guerrilla warfare on a continental scale, really it’s a wrong strategy. But nobody, nobody, nobody in the world doubts the personal integrity and the extraordinary moral standard of Che. You can’t hide these facts, hmm?

So, I don’t say you should have many Che Guevaras. That’s not the point. You can be much more modest, on a much smaller level, but live up to your principles. Let’s have a left movement that says: Look at what we are DOING (not what we are saying – that doesn’t convince anybody).

AC: What is the balance sheet of Trotskyism itself? Have there not been many negative tendencies? Perhaps these tendencies are themselves the result of Stalinist persecution, the natural reaction of forces that feel themselves to be isolated and besieged.

In particular we ask this question because much of what you have been saying would seem very “un-Trotskyist” to the readers of The African Communist. For instance, you have invoked Bonaparte’s famous maxim: “Engage in struggle, and THEN see.”

This approach is absolutely at variance with the practice of many self-proclaimed followers of Trotsky here in our country. Our experience of Trotskyism has been almost exactly the opposite. Instead of engagement there has been continuous disengagement from the terrain of mass struggle. And the justification given for this disengagement has tended to be (to use your own terms again) “abstract schema” of all kinds. What, if anything, in trotskyism might account for this?

Mandel: Today worldwide Trotsky’s movement is small, but stronger than at any time in its history. I don’t want to abuse the opportunity you give me to advance a lot of details about membership and so on, that’s neither here nor there. But in a whole series of countries in the world, some fifteen (it’s not important the exact figure), we are now a recognized component of the labour movement and of the new social movements. In these countries we have a capacity of intervening in mass struggles, or taking initiatives.

But that is not what we want to be. We feel the need for something much bigger than ever before. Because of the internationalization of capital, there is the need for a workers’ MASS international. And WE are not a mass international. We are most probably one of the components of such a future formation. So we strive for the regrouping of revolutionists on a national and international scale. We support all initiatives in that direction. And we take some of the initiatives ourselves – although we don’t believe that our own efforts will cut too much ice, hmm? But we do what we can.

At the same time we notice, because that is also a fact of life, that today as things are (I don’t gloat over this, I regret it), but today we are the only existing international working class political formation capable of taking up international issues.

As long as there is no other organization operating on this field we will continue as the Fourth International, because we don’t give up a small tool as long as you don’t have a better one in your hand. When it exists, wonderful. But today no better exists.

Did Trotsky’s movement make mistakes? Yes. Obviously it has. Has Trotsky made mistakes? Yes, he has. Everybody makes mistakes. There are no infallible popes in this world. We are critical of some of the mistakes of Trotsky, which more or less coincided with those of Lenin in that period. We consider the years between the end of 1919 through 1921 bleak years in the history of communism, bleak years in the history of Lenin, bleak years in the history of Trotsky.

These were years in which, contrary to his own tradition, Trotsky espoused the theory and practice of substitutionism [substituting the party for the working class].

The practice of substitutionism perhaps one can even excuse it, hmm? The working class of Russia was reduced drastically at the time by death, famine and economic dislocation due to the civil war. But the theoretical justification was awful, and it has had disastrous, long-term effects. It was corrected, first by Lenin I must say. Contrary to a legend, Lenin was quicker than Trotsky to realize the terrible consequences of bureaucratization in Soviet Russia. Trotsky came around a little bit later.

So, these were bleak years. The justification of substitutionism by the theory that the working class is corrupt, déclassé, or unable to exercise power, because that’s what it really amounts to, was completely contrary to the marxist tradition, completely contrary to what Lenin or Trotsky themselves wrote before and after these years.

It has created havoc and we have to make a complete break with all the elements of that deviation.

We have also had in Trotsky’s movement a strange thing. The history of Trotskyism and the Fourth International is very clear and it has been marked by its origins. It is true that, as a result of isolation, there has been dogmatism and some of the things you have mentioned. But that’s not the main point.

The main point is that, in the historical development of Trotskyism, there was an ongoing reaction to what we considered to be the basic mistakes of the official communist parties. If you look at the history of the successive stages of that criticism, you will see that one period, and here the chronology is decisive, played a key role.

Most of the trotskyist cadres, there were some exceptions, rose as a reaction to what I would call roughly the post-1935, the fourth period of Stalinism, the People’s Front opportunist deviation of the communist parties.

This means that, contrary to Trotsky himself, they did not make a thorough and complete break with the practice and theory of third period Stalinism, of ultra-left Stalinism, of the period 1929 to 1934.

And that particular origin has moulded a certain type of trotskyist cadre and trotskyist approach to working class politics. It is a tendency to consider the right-wing deviation as much worse than the ultra-left deviation.

Now, if I were to make the historical balance sheet, I would say that both the right-wing and ultra-left deviations are equally harmful.

I wouldn’t say one is more harmful than the other. It depends on the practical circumstances and issues. Of course, in many countries the third, ultra-left period of Stalinism had no impact because the communist parties were weak. But if you look at the most formidable challenge of the time, which was the fight against Hitler in Germany, you cannot say this ultra-leftism had no impact. Historically it had a disastrous impact, disastrous.

If you look at the Soviet Union, the same thing is true. The period of the ultra-left deviation was the period of forced collectivization of agriculture, whose horror was absolutely without equal in what followed, except for the mass purges.

So I would place both the right-wing and ultra-left deviations on the same level. I would not say that the third period was better than the fourth period.

We should fight a parallel struggle against both sectarianism and opportunism. Those are two sides of the same medal.

But I would like to end on an optimistic note. In the last 20 or 25 years, in many (many but not the majority) of countries in the world, we have overcome the effects of our origins.

We have overcome these tendencies by moderate growth, by better social composition (it’s just not true, as some people still say, that we are essentially a student or petty bourgeois movement) and, above all, by strong and permanent involvement in mass struggle.

Mass struggle, that’s the essential.


Last updated on 5.8.2007