Barry Weisleder

The Life and Struggles of Ernest Mandel

(September 1995)

From the website of Socialist Action (Canada). [1]
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The powerful mind and indomitable spirit of Ernest Mandel was forged, not under revolutionary conditions, but in the darkest days of our epoch.

We who complain in the mid-1990s, and with complete justification, about the new rise of right wing populism and the supremacy of the global corporate agenda, can scarcely imagine life under the conditions of Europe of the 1930s, when Ernest Mandel first came to political consciousness. It was the triumph of fascism, the destruction of the European labour movement and left wing forces, the physical liquidation of millions of people, the dark and horrendous conditions of Nazi occupation. It was, as Victor Serge called it, “midnight of the century.”

But not just from the standpoint of such horrible material conditions of life. It was the darkest hour also in terms of the political defeat and moral decline of the European workers’ movement, especially the German working class, hitherto the most class conscious and politically sophisticated section of the international labour movement.

Class independence crumbled under the weight of bureaucracy and reformism. Sectarianism triumphed over reason. Stalinist and Social Democratic parties declared each other to be the “main enemy.” They allowed Hitler to take power without a fight.

Young Fighter

In Belgium, where Ernest Mandel grew up and was active in the Resistance to Nazi occupation, the leader of the Belgian Socialist Party, then the deputy Prime Minister, made a public appeal to collaborate with the Nazis and was supported by an important section of labour officials. The Communist Party published a legal newspaper under the occupation, basking in the deadly rays of the Stalin-Hitler Pact.

This treacherous spectacle disgusted the young Mandel, but it did not destroy his confidence in the working class or his resolve to fight for change. Why? Because he based himself on a scientific, materialist, class analysis. He was able to absorb, utilize and further develop Marxism. The Marxist method enabled Mandel and others to explain the cancerous trends inside the workers’ movement, to explain the incurable contradictions of world capitalism that would give rise to new waves of class struggle, and to project a programme and perspective necessary and capable of achieving human liberation. Ernest Mandel never flagged in the effort to advance that method, that perspective, and the organization required to lead the struggle to victory.

He was born in Frankfurt, Germany in April 1923. His parents sought refuge in Belgium in the 1930s, settling in Antwerp. The Mandel home was a safe haven and centre for German political refugees, most often Trotskyists. Ernest’s father, Henri Mandel, had been a member of the German CP, worked as a journalist for the Soviet Press Agency, and was a personal friend of Karl Radek, Lenin’s emissary to the German party.

Ernest Mandel learned quickly in this intense political environment, speaking German and Flemish at home, and later mastering English, French, and Spanish. At age 16, he joined the Belgian section of the Fourth International. The FI was founded by Leon Trotsky, co-leader of the Russian revolution, plus other leaders of the International Left Opposition who dedicated their lives to rehabilitating the world communist movement from the scourge of Stalinism.

A year later, in 1940, Leon Trotsky was assassinated by an agent of Stalin, one Ramon Mercador, at Trotsky’s fortress home in exile near Mexico City. Many other Trotskyist leaders, including Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, were killed by Stalinist agents, or captured, tortured and killed by the Nazis. These tragic losses placed a big question mark over the capacity of the Fourth International to survive. Demoralization was rampant. But Ernest Mandel made a huge contribution, perhaps the biggest one, towards answering that question in the affirmative. He worked with unparalleled brilliance and tenacity to ensure the survival of revolutionary Marxism.

At age 18, comrade Mandel was a member of the Central Committee of the Belgian FI section, working underground. At age 23, he became a member of the International Secretariat of the FI, and he continued for nearly half a century more, to play a leading role.

Self-Confident, Internationalist

Twice, early in his political career, Mandel came close to his demise. Both times he escaped incarceration by the Nazis. The first time he was arrested for distributing anti-fascist leaflets to the occupying German soldiers. As a revolutionary and a Jew, Mandel was sent to a transit camp for prisoners en route to Auschwitz. Ernest was a strong believer in his own capacity to convince anyone of the merits of socialism. On this basis he started talking to his jailers. The other Belgian and French prisoners regarded their captors as hopelessly reactionary, even sub-human. But Ernest talked to them, soon discovering that some of them had been members of now-banned Social Democratic and Communist parties. He impressed them so much that they helped him to escape. This experience also deepened Mandel’s internationalism. He refused to write off a whole nationality because of the crimes of its leaders.

This story is reminiscent of the tale of Trotsky who was arrested and temporarily held by the British navy at the Citadel in Halifax. Trotsky was making his way back to Russia, from his New York exile, to participate in the 1917 Russian Revolution. But after a month in the compound he had politically convinced and won the support of the other prisoners, most of them German navy men conscripted to fight in World War I. For fear of an uprising, as well as in response to international petitions, the British released Trotsky who kept his appointment with destiny.

Journalist, Labour Economist, Revolutionary Agitator

Mandel was guided by the same principles of proletarian internationalism. His internationalism was not of the romantic or touristic variety; it was solidly grounded in class struggle and party building activity in his own country. In the 1950s he took the fight for socialist ideas into the Socialist Party, and worked closely with the Belgian trade union federation, of whose Economic Commission he was a member from 1954 to 1962. Mandel played a major role in the general strike (mainly in the Walloon region) in Belgium in 1961, for which he came under heavy attack from the establishment. He was the editor of the weekly newspaper of the SP left wing, La Gauche/Links, until his expulsion from the SP in 1964. For many more years he edited and contributed enormously to the Trotskyist press, and to many, many other publications. For example, Mandel was part of the initial editorial team of the French left wing paper l’Observateur. It was in the 1960s that Mandel became world renown as a leading Marxist economist and political analyst. He has written literally dozens of books, some of which we are proud to carry in this small bookroom. His seminal works, Marxist Economic Theory, was first published in 1962, Late Capitalism in 1978, The Long Waves of Capitalist Development, and The Second Slump, both in 1980, right up to his latest works, Power and Money, 1992, and Trotsky as Alternative, 1995, continue to have major influence on activists, radical intellectuals and academics the world over. Mandel’s Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, a small book based on lectures published in 1967, has a circulation of more than two million copies in about a dozen languages.

Personally, I can say that two of his pamphlets had a profound impact on my political development. I encountered them as a high school students’ rights and anti-war activist in the late 1960s: Revolutionary Student Movement: Theory and Practice and The Leninist Theory of Organization. The first one explained to me how student struggles could, and should, link up with the struggles of the working class movement. The second explained the differentiation of sectors of the working class by origin, by political experience and capacity to act, and the indispensable need for a revolutionary leadership and party to generalize the understanding of the vanguard and to galvanize the class for the seizure of power, against those who would block or sell-out that possibility of a break with bourgeois society.

Mandel spoke in Toronto in 1972 and had a big impact on activists in the left wing of the NDP and student movements. He came again in the early 1980s, bearing signs of fatigue. I had the privilege of attending his lectures at the FI leadership school in Amsterdam in 1987. Again he seemed more tired, more reserved. Two years ago he suffered a heart attack. At the fourteenth world congress of the FI, in June in Belgium where I took the photo of comrade Ernest on display tonight, he was frail, barely able to walk without assistance.

Still he intervened in the discussions. He argued for further elaboration of our programme, especially in light of the continuing dangers of the arms race, nuclear power, and the threat to the environment posed by capitalist greed and irrationality. He also made the case for a stronger commitment to what he called “international democratic centralism”–that is, the need for the FI to stand in solidarity and unity and to make common campaigns against war and inter-ethnic and racial conflicts that divide the working class and prolong the existence of a sick, anti-human social and economic system.

Stalinists Slander Mandel, Again

After he passed away on July 20, Ernest Mandel was eulogized by media around the world, not just the radical press. Le Monde, the Manchester Guardian, Time magazine, just to name a few. What ever their political standpoint, almost all were respectful of his dedication and brilliance. There is, unfortunately one very dishonourable exception. Not surprisingly, perhaps, it comes from the Stalinist tradition, now a shrivelled, dying political current. In the latest edition of the Peoples Voice, newspaper of the Communist Party of Canada, there is an article, one-third of a page, devoted to slandering Ernest Mandel. The CP writer accuses Mandel, among other things, of defending the views of Russian mystic and monarchist Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and of being a booster of a Vatican/CIA plot to undermine the “socialist” Poland. The best that Peoples Voice can say about Mandel is the following: “Yet there is no direct evidence that Mandel was a paid agent of imperialism. He probably was not.”

Thanks very much, comrades, for that clarification. It says a lot more about the source, than it does about the accused. It also helps us to understand a small part of what Ernest Mandel and his co-thinkers had to struggle against throughout his lifetime. Hopefully we can now move well beyond that sad chapter of the struggle for basic honesty and democracy in the workers’ movement.

A Party Builder, With a Mass Orientation

Comrade Mandel had weaknesses. He made mistakes. But he had a great capacity to admit his errors and to take the necessary steps towards correcting them. He was dedicated to building the revolutionary party, no matter how modest its starting point, because of, as he taught us, the essential importance of programme and revolutionary method. But he was also and at the same time oriented to the masses, to the big struggles of our century. He had no patience for sidelined commentators, for abstract critics, for sectarians of any stripe. His last work is a polemic against sectarianism, which you can read in BIDOM.

I will quote only the closing paragraph, a stanza that is really more about empowerment and socialist humanism, in the face of difficult obstacles. And I appeal to each person here. If you agree with these words, join us. Your place is with us, in Socialist Action and the FI, in the fight for a better world.

Ernest Mandel wrote these words: “Do not succumb to despair, resignation, or cynicism, given the terrible odds we all have to face. Do not retreat into “individual solutions” (the flesh pots of the consumer society are still open for some, be it on a much more restricted basis than before) ... Never forget the moral commitment of all those who claim to be Marxists: the intransigent defense of the interests of the exploited and the oppressed on a world scale, everywhere, all the time.

“Never content yourself with pure propaganda activities. Never forget the initial and final commitment of Marx: The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”



1. This presentation by Barry Weisleder was made on September 10, 1995, at a forum held in Toronto to honour the memory of outstanding Marxist theoretician and central leader of the Fourth International, Ernest Mandel.


Last updated on 24.7.2004