Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History


Mandel and the War

Dear Editors,

Ken Tarbuck (Letters, Revolutionary History, Summer 1989) takes to task my review of Ernest Mandel’s Making of the Second World War, published in your Winter 1988-89 issue. He says that to call Mandel’s book an apology for Stalinism, and Mandel ‘a criminal’ is to engage in factional infighting unworthy of your journal. I am sorry that he deems polemics to be out of fashion, but hope that he’ll allow just one more.

Ken agrees that Mandel is wrong to attribute Soviet victory in 1945 to October 1917. Yet this for him does not mean that Mandel “defends by argument”, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it of apologists, the politics of Stalinism.

Ken’s recourse to the OED is quaint but not in the Bolshevik tradition. The review of Mandel’s book pointed out that it put the revival of Soviet war production after December 1941 down to “the economic and social superiority of a planned economy”. To anyone interested in the fate of the Soviet working class today, it should be clear that to celebrate Soviet “planning” in the War is to make a dangerous apology for an era – Stalin’s – that many still yearn for in the USSR.

The War marked the climax of the defeat of the Soviet working class. Either one accepts that, and refuses to ascribe any progressive content to a system which helped lose the USSR 20 million workers or, in terms of practical consequences, one upholds the Soviet social formation – then or now – as some kind of an example to the working class. Given that Revolutionary History no doubt hopes to attract young readers, it is a staggering complacency that Ken exhibits when he shrugs off the review as “a parade of iniquities” committed by Stalin, “most if not all” known “to anyone with some knowledge” of the USSR. For Ken, it seems, the facts and statistics of the defeat of the Soviet workers are but “a matter for legitimate debate” no more. They do not need parading, as he puts it, and they need have no implications for political activity or for the characterisation of figures like Ernest Mandel.

As it happens, the review did not call Mandel a ‘criminal’, as Ken makes out. It argued that Mandel’s half-paragraph coquetting with the problem of Russian nationalism was criminal, particularly as the impetus given to Russian nationalism by the War was not recognised as a defeat by Soviet workers. Ken, ever the liberal apologist for Mandel, admits that nationalism is something that has “probably been played down”; indeed, he is anxious to deny that Mandel is “above criticism”. But again he fails to engage in anything more than “factional infighting”. When millions of Soviet workers are today attracted to Russian nationalism, Ken wants to exonerate Mandel for his failure to grasp the origins of that movement in the War.

Does Ken agree with the review that Mandel’s paeans to the heroism of Soviet workers in the War are a dishonest attempt to dignify Soviet property relations with a progressive character? Does he agree that Soviet foreign policy was motivated after 1926 by the line of peaceful coexistence with imperialist powers? Ken calls for standards, clarification and respect, but won’t answer the substantive points made in the review. Does he follow Mandel in blaming the “passivity” of the workers of Eastern Europe for the tragedy of the mid- to late 1940s there, or does he hold Stalinism responsible? We are not told; yet once again these questions are of great contemporary importance.

Really what offends Ken is the tone of the review. Yet anyone familiar with the tone of Lenin’s polemics against even left wing centrists, let alone against apologists for Menshevism, will know how vitriolic the man’s language could be. Your reviewer is not Lenin, but she hopes that Revolutionary History will continue to uphold, in Leninist style, the right to call a spade a spade.

Gemma Forest

Updated by ETOL: 6.7.2003