Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Unfair criticism?

Dear Comrades,

I was left somewhat puzzled by Gemma Forest’s review of Ernest Mandel’s book The Meaning of the Second World War in issue No.4. The tone of the review was sharp, one might even say hostile, yet on the substantive issues of the book very little seemed to be said. From what can be gleaned from the review it seems that Forest disagrees with Mandel on two points: (a) Mandel’s interpretation of the nature of Stalinist Russia, and (b) the character of the post-1945 period, i.e. the dimension of the defeat of the working class in that period. Admittedly, both topics are contingent to the subject of Mandel’s book but they are not central to the theme of the work. Mandel made the point that “... the meaning of the Second World War, like that of its predecessor, can be grasped only in the context of the imperialist drive for world domination ...” (p.17), and that unless this central issue is understood much of what happened seems to be meaningless.

I most certainly agree with Forest that it is somewhat spurious to suggest that the military victories of Stalinist Russia in World War Two were due to the legacy of the October 1917 revolution. This form of historiography is highly selective, since it attributes all that is ‘good’ to nationalised property plus ‘planning’ and all that is ‘bad’ to Stalinist bureaucratic incompetence. Such a method fails to conceive of the society in question as a dialectical unity. This failure by Mandel stems from his clinging to the idea that the Soviet Union is a degenerated workers’ state. Thus far I would go along with Forest, but I cannot agree that the book is an “apology for Stalinism”. To categorise Mandel’s work in such a manner is to misuse language. One can disagree with Mandel, disagree with his characterisation of the Soviet Union, disagree with his estimation of the significance of various events, etc., etc., but it is pushing matters beyond the bounds of credibility when he is labelled as an apologist for Stalinism. The Oxford Dictionary defines an apologist as someone who “defends by argument”, and I found nothing in Mandel’s book that would fit such a description. Perhaps one could argue that, because Mandel has a particular view of the nature of the Soviet Union, he is not critical enough, or that he fails to understand certain questions. That, however, is quite different from being an apologist.

Much of Forest's ‘review’ is taken up with a parade of iniquities perpetrated by the Stalinist regime. Most of them – if not all – would be known to anyone with some knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union. I doubt if Mandel would doubt the veracity of Forest’s case, since he has over the years used many similar instances and arguments in attacking the Stalinist regime. In this case it seems that Forest was kicking an open door. However, Mandel is accused of dishonesty, dishonesty by omission; and that seems to be the reason for Forest’s tirade. It is implied that Mandel has attempted to suppress the facts that Forest brings forward. Such a case could only be made if she can prove that Mandel has consciously chosen to omit evidence that would run contrary to his own case. To accuse someone of dishonesty one needs chapter and verse evidence, not speculative accusations. Forest fails to provide such evidence.

Forest pours scorn on Mandel (and some unspecified bourgeois critics, but the suggestion here is that Mandel falls into the same category) for his pointing to Stalin’s refusal to accept the abundant evidence that Hitler was preparing to attack the Soviet Union in 1941. The existence of this evidence, and Stalin’s refusal to accept it, is now well documented and was first acknowledged in the Soviet Union by Khrushchev in 1956 at the 20th Congress of the CPSU. She is broadly correct in her resume of Stalin’s foreign policy from the early 1930s as being an attempt to exploit interimperialist rivalries. But this does not thereby disprove Stalin’s myopic conduct regarding Hitler’s plans for attack. On the contrary; Stalin’s conduct in this respect indicated his own naive self-confidence in assuming that he had deflected Hitler with the 1939 Soviet-German Pact. I found nothing in Mandel’s account which would indicate anything else. Therefore, I am at a loss as to why he is accused of dishonesty.

Our credulity is stretched when Forest says “Although the Cold War meant a temporary collapse in East-West links, the 1941-46 period gave the Soviet Union ‘superpower’ status ...” This “temporary collapse” lasted nearly 30 years, which I suppose is temporary on the scales of history, but it seemed a hell of a long time to those who endured it. Forest seems able to paint history with a very wide brush stroke when it suits her. The talk of “temporary collapse” in this manner enables her to sweep under the carpet 30 years or so of history, and thus it needs no explanation.

This brings me to the second point that Forest seems to hold against Mandel, ie the depth of the defeat of the working class inflicted by the Second World War. This is undoubtedly a matter for legitimate debate and has a bearing upon how one interprets the post-war development of capitalism and the Soviet Bloc. Few, if any, Marxists or bourgeois pundits foresaw just how capitalism would develop in the post-war era. In this respect Mandel erred at the time (with most others) in assuming that any recovery would be short-lived. Since then, however, he seems to have adjusted his views, hardly surprising in view of what actually happened. The part played in this defeat of the working class and the subsequent long wave of capitalist prosperity by the injection of national chauvinism is something that has probably been played down. However, that is a matter of historical judgement, not of ‘criminal’ intent, or ‘criminal’ activity. The use of such a label in a discussion between socialists is completely out of place. Even Forest has to admit that the ‘criminal’ Mandel played a ‘principled and heroic’ role during the Second World War. I see no evidence that Mandel has substantially changed today from that same person pre-1945.

This is, of course, not to say that Mandel and the work under consideration is above criticism. My own view is that the book is more in the nature of an extended essay rather than a full treatment of the subject, and this is its main defect. The very brevity of the work – brevity in relation to the topic – means that Mandel only deals in summary fashion with many of the crucial events. The defect of this method is highlighted by the manner in which Forest is able to accuse Mandel of omissions and make much more of them than is justified by what is actually in the book. However, even allowing for the defects in the book, I still remain puzzled as to what exactly Forest is criticising. Does she disagree with the main conclusion that Mandel draws? Personally, I do not dissent from Mandel’s main proposition that the 1939-45 war was fundamentally an inter-imperialist conflict for world domination, but also had other dimensions, the nature of which Mandel explores. Nor, for example, would I disagree with Mandel when he argues that the roots of the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews were nurtured by the racist and imperialist ideology of capitalist imperialism. That campaign by the Nazis was not some sudden aberration, but the result of a long historical process. But I feel that Mandel fails to understand that the ‘final solution’ represented a qualitative leap, not a mere continuation. Nearly all other previous racist or colonialist campaigns of mass murder had some sort of insane logic. The campaign of extinction against the American Red Indians had a very precise purpose, i.e. the clearing of land for settlement. Many other instances could be given of such methods. But in the case of the Nazi extermination campaign against the Jews there was no such ‘logic’ which might have ‘justified’ it. On the contrary, the whole campaign diverted materials and labour away from the war effort of Germany. In this respect Mandel fails to come to terms with this most gruesome episode. Certainly racism is a part of the armoury of the ruling class even today, but what the Nazi episode indicates is that it can become dysfunctional for that class once it is unleashed in the manner of Hitler. Ideology does indeed become a material force once it grips large sections of the population, but not always in the manner required or hoped for.

So, I do not object to criticism of Mandel; rather I question the wisdom of the methods used by Gemma Forest. To say that Mandel is ‘soft on Stalinism’ or is a ‘criminal’ doesn’t take us one inch forward. The use of such epithets may relieve the spleen, but it teaches us nothing. This method of ‘polemic’ has been used far too often as a substitute for argument, and it only muddles the issues instead of clarifying them. So far the standard of discussion in Revolutionary History has been on a different level, and I hope the Editors will ensure that this standard is maintained in the future. I assume that discussions in the pages of the journal are among comrades, whom we may not agree with, but who are prepared to respect different points of view honestly held. The place for factional in-fighting is in other journals, not in these pages.

Ken Tarbuck

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003