John Molyneux

Contradictory states

(Ernest Mandel – Obituary)

(September 1995)

From Socialist Review, No.189, September 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review
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Ernest Mandel died last month at the age of 72. For more than 30 years he was the main political leader and theoretician of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, the most significant of the various organisations laying claim to the mantle of the Fourth International founded by Trotsky in 1938.

Mandel’s lifelong commitment to revolutionary Marxism was forged in his youth. Born in Belgium in 1923, he became a revolutionary at the age of 16 and a Trotskyist at the age of 17. Actively involved in the resistance to the Nazi occupation, he was twice arrested. On the first occasion he was sent to Auschwitz but escaped. On the second he was ‘tried’ before a Nazi court and sent to a prison camp in Germany in 1944.

Managing to survive the war, he immediately devoted himself to rebuilding the Trotskyist movement and in 1946 was elected to the leadership of the Fourth International.

Mandel had exceptional intellectual talents and in the decades that followed he established himself as the premier theorist of what is sometimes called ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism. His knowledge of the Marxist tradition, of the history of the revolutionary movement and of contemporary world affairs was encyclopaedic and his theoretical output was vast.

Mandel’s most ambitious and important works were his Marxist Economic Theory (1968) and Late Capitalism (1975). These were backed up by a number of other economic studies such as Europe Versus America (1970), the Second Slump (1978) and Long Waves of Capitalist Development (1979). Together these works (despite, I would argue, their failure to analyse correctly the dynamic of the capitalist crisis) gained Mandel an intellectual influence stretching far beyond the ranks of organised Trotskyists. For example he became for a whole period the intellectual guru of the New Left Review editorial board.

However, and this is greatly to his credit, Mandel never forsook practice for the comforts of the academic world or armchair Marxism. In addition to the books on economic theory he edited a left wing paper, La Gauche, and produced valuable educational pamphlets such as his Introduction to Marxist Economics which it is claimed sold over 400,000 copies world wide. Nor did Mandel ever abandon the active struggle to build revolutionary socialist organisation.

However, we in the SWP have always had profound political differences with Mandel and it would be false to the spirit of Marxism (and the spirit of Mandel – he was an inveterate polemicist) to gloss over these now.

Our most important difference was over the nature of Russia and the other Stalinist states. Mandel held the view that despite their Stalinist degeneration, which he opposed, they remained workers’ states. We took the view that they were state capitalist. This is not just a difference of terminology, it had far reaching effects on political perspectives and practice.

In the late 1930s Trotsky had bequeathed to his movement two positions: first, that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force, alien to socialism, both in the USSR and internationally; second, that despite this the USSR – for the time being at least – remained a workers’ state by virtue of state ownership of the means of production.

After 1945 these positions came into sharp conflict with one another. Stalinism – carried by the Red Army – spread across Eastern Europe and so did state ownership. If Stalinism was counter-revolutionary, state ownership could not be the key criterion for distinguishing between capitalism and a workers’ state. If state ownership signified a workers’ state, Stalinism could not be counter-revolutionary, for it had brought the revolution to no less than seven countries (and later to China, Cuba and Vietnam).

Tony Cliff, the founder of our tendency, resolved the dilemma, by abandoning the criterion of state ownership and insisting that what really counted was whether or not the working class actually controlled the economy and the state. Mandel, after some vacillation, opted to cling to the state ownership criterion while also trying to remain anti-Stalinist. For more than 40 years he continued to wrestle with this problem and it led him into ever more convoluted arguments.

The workers’ state position also led Mandel further and further away from the working class as the agent of socialism. If workers’ states could be established in Eastern Europe by Stalin’s armies, in China by a Stalinist led peasant army, and in Cuba by a small guerrilla band, then clearly the revolutionary action of the working class was not necessary for the socialist revolution. Marx’s doctrine that the ‘emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class itself, was effectively abandoned.

A second major difference between our tradition and Mandel’s concerned the Fourth International as an organisation. For revolutionary Marxists internationalism and the building of an international are matters of principle. We have, however, always argued that there was a distinction between these principles and the idea that it was essential at all times to have a formal international organisation regardless of whether or not it had a serious base in the working class. But for Mandel the existence and the maintenance of the FI became a matter of principle even though most of the sections were the tiniest of sects.

The result of this fetish was an international ‘leadership’ devoid of authority. Tariq Ali, in his rather shabby obituary in the Guardian, says that whenever he spoke to Mandel he was always busy writing a polemic against some ‘crazy sectarians’ or ‘crazy opportunists’ somewhere in the world. In so doing he wasted a good deal of his considerable abilities.

None of these differences, however, puts into question the sincerity of Ernest Mandel’s commitment to socialism and revolution. Anyone who maintains that commitment intact for more than 55 years in the face of all the pressures and inducements of capitalism merits respect. One who does that and makes the contribution that Mandel made merits it doubly.


Last updated on 24.7.2004