Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1


The Paradoxes of Ernest Mandel, 1923–1995

‘The leadership oriented itself without any synthesised understanding of our epoch and its inner tendencies, only by groping (Stalin) and by supplementing the fragmentary conclusions thus obtained with scholastic schemas renovated for each occasion (Bukharin). The political line as a whole, therefore, represents a chain of zigzags. The ideological line is a kaleidoscope of schemas tending to push to absurdity every segment of the Stalinist zigzags. Blind empiricism multiplied by scholasticism – such is the course.’ (Leon Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, 1928)

ERNEST MANDEL was the pre-eminent post-Trotsky official ‘Trotskyist’. A central leader of the reorganised Trotskyist movement from the middle 1940s, for 50 years Mandel produced magisterial, super-objective commentaries on everything from the Jewish question to Stalinism. In history he – not James P. Cannon, Michel Raptis/Pablo or anyone else – is the representative leader of ‘official Trotskyism’. The prolific thesis-writer and polemicist of the organisational mainstream of the Fourth International, not rarely Mandel’s magisterial expositions would propound and defend ideas he had at first opposed, on Stalinism in Eastern Europe, for example. He was also a talented writer who tried to reach out to wider circles interested in Marxism, producing several studies, especially in economic theory, of lasting value. I deal here only with Mandel as a leader of post-Trotsky Trotskyism.

From about 1950, the majority of the would-be Trotskyists followed Mandel and his associates in analysing the Stalinist states as degenerated and deformed ‘workers’ states’, socially in advance of, and superior to, capitalism. The USSR, Eastern Europe and China were, they believed, ‘post-capitalist’, in transition between capitalism and Socialism.

Keeping Trotsky’s label for the USSR – ‘degenerated workers’ state’ – and adapting it to the whole cluster of Stalinist formations, the post–Trotsky official Trotskyists, assembled behind the ‘workers’ state’ label ideas and assessments starkly at variance with those that Trotsky expressed in the same terms. Trotsky’s label was retained; all his analyses, perspectives and definitions – all the ideas for him encapsulated in that term – were radically changed. The Marxist politics of honestly settling theoretical accounts with the past gave way to the ancient arts of palimpsestry, and to the survival techniques of the chameleon. This would be the cause of much obfuscation and confusion.

For Trotsky, the USSR was an unstable, transitional regime; the Stalinist bureaucracy was a ‘cancerous growth’ on the society created by October, not a necessary social organism capable of defending the USSR, or of creating the USSR’s post-World War Two empire of 90 million people. Trotsky admitted for the first time in The USSR in War (September 1939) the theoretical possibility that the USSR as it was, property remaining collectivised, might be assessed as a new form of class society. He believed that the USSR must in months, or in a year or two, give way either to capitalist restoration or to working class ‘political’ revolution. His belief in Stalinism’s short life expectancy was one of his central arguments for not yet (that is, 1939–40) accepting that it was a new form of class society.

In stark contrast to the views Trotsky expressed in the term ‘workers’ state’, Stalinism was now seen as stable; as an agency for accumulating and defending the gains of a continuing world revolution, which, tangibly, was identical with Stalinism itself. Changes could come only by way of reform (Yugoslavia, China) or political revolution (the USSR), not by regression. These were societies ‘in transition to Socialism’, not, as the USSR was for Trotsky, an aberrant, hybrid formation that could not possibly last. The Stalinist formations were progressive, post-capitalist, on the broad highway of history – unconditionally progressive, not, as Trotsky at the end said of Stalin’s nationalised property, ‘potentially progressive’, on condition that the workers overthrew Stalinism. Trotsky had in 1939–40 already recognised ‘elements of imperialism’ in Stalin’s foreign policy, and said: ‘We were and remain against the seizure of new territories by the Kremlin.’ Though the USSR had a vast empire, for Mandel and his friends it was not ‘imperialist’.

Stalinism destroyed labour movements and imposed totalitarian regimes on the working class of Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Poland, etc., regimes like that of the USSR which Trotsky in 1938 had rightly described as differing from Hitler’s regime ‘only in its more unbridled savagery’, but this was still the – deformed – workers’ revolution.

According to every criterion by which the labour movement throughout its history had measured its progress – civil liberties, political democracy, the free existence of labour movements, free press, speech, sexuality – the USSR, China, etc, were at least as much of a regression as Nazism had been. But, because the – totalitarian – state monopolised property, these systems, vis-à-vis capitalism were, for Mandel, unconditionally progressive.

Stalinist bureaucratic formations, independent of the USSR – Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam – had made their own revolutions, but for the post-Trotsky ‘Trotskyists’ these were no new ruling classes. Does the bureaucracy play a necessary rôle in production? You could not, on the facts, continue to give Trotsky’s negative answer, not even for the USSR. If these were workers’ states, it was not according to Trotsky.

Mandel and others reinterpreted the ideas of Trotskyism so as to present the expansion of Stalinism and the creation of totalitarian states in large parts of the world as the first stage of the Socialist revolution. Despite the crushing of the working class in the Stalinist states, and its quietness in the big capitalist countries, the ‘world revolution’ was continuing to ‘develop’ – albeit, said Mandel and company, in a deformed way.

Mandel became the word-spinning high priest of the vast, unstable and inchoate ideological edifice which grew up around the Stalinist bloc in the 40 years before the USSR collapsed. Ernest Mandel and his friends accepted on their rulers’ terms, ‘critically’, of course, such systems as Mao’s China and Tito’s Yugoslavia, and for decades adopted the rôle of loyal critic, adopting for these Stalinist states the ‘reform’ politics which the Brandlerites, Lovestonites, ILPers, etc, had in the later 1930s counterposed to Trotsky’s call for a new ‘political’ revolution to overthrow the bureaucratic caste in the USSR. It was 20 years after Mao’s victory before he came out for a working class ‘political’ revolution in China.

For the post-Trotsky official Trotskyists, the workers’ state label expressed new ideas, not what it had expressed in Trotsky. Whose ideas did the term now express? Bruno Rizzi’s! Trotsky had polemicised with Bruno Rizzi’s acceptance of Stalinism as a stable system of post-capitalist rule by a collectivist new class. In fact, Rizzi – mimicking Fabians such as Bernard Shaw – believed that Stalinism and Fascism were essentially the same, and that – though Trotsky’s polemic ignored this aspect of his thought – both were progressive, both transitional between capitalism and Socialism, evolving towards Socialism; he saw their horrible features – such as Nazi anti-Semitism – as mere kinks in an immature but sufficient anti-capitalist consciousness. By the end of the 1940s official Trotskyism was expressing not Trotsky’s but, essentially, Rizzi’s – and Shaw’s – ideas about Stalinism in the terminology Trotsky had used to express his radically different ideas.

Mandel proclaimed that the survival and expansion of Stalinism meant defeat for Stalin’s ‘Socialism In One Country’, and posthumous triumph for Trotsky and his Permanent Revolution. Mao and Ho were Trotsky’s legatees, not Stalin’s. In fact, this assessment of the Stalinist states and the Stalinist-led world revolution implied acceptance of the essentials of Socialism In One Country.

The point for Trotsky and his comrades, as for all earlier Marxists, was that socialism had to come after advanced capitalism, and could not come otherwise. Though the workers might take power in a backward country, Socialism could not be built in backwardness. If the revolution did not spread to countries ripe for Socialism, it would be doomed. The idea of stable, evolving Socialist growth from peripheral backwardness to Socialism, in competition with advanced capitalism, was a revival on a gigantic scale of the pre-Marx colony-building utopian Socialism of people like Étienne Cabet, who built small Socialist colonies, parallel worlds, in the American wilderness in the 1840s. Mandel in World Congress documents (The Rise and Decline of Stalinism (1954), and The Decline and Fall of Stalinism (1957)) vainly chopped logic to hide this. One country? No longer one country! Socialism in isolation? Not isolated now! Etc., etc.

It was the work of a religious zealot, reasoning around daft, unquestionable, fixed ideas, not Marxism. The need for it arose because all the ‘revolutionary’ perspectives and hopes of Mandel’s ‘official’ post-Trotsky Trotskyism were spun from the survival, expansion and likely continuing success of ‘Socialism In One Country’, that is, of the USSR, a world power ‘in transition to Socialism’.

Worse than that. In Lenin and Trotsky, as in Marx and Engels, the historical protagonist of the anti-capitalist revolution is the proletariat. The Trotskyism of Trotsky was the revolutionary working class politics and perspectives of the early Communist International minus, deprived of, the working class armies assembled by the Communist International to make the revolution. Stalinism had ‘captured’ and perverted them. Thus the terrible combination in 1930s Trotskyism of acute awareness, accuracy in understanding and prediction – in pre-Hitler Germany, and in Spain for example – combined with an incapacity to affect events of tiny, tiny groups whose natural identity, like their ‘constituency’, had been stolen.

All Trotsky’s ‘optimistic’ hopes and perspectives were premised on the shifts and regroupments in the proletariat and its parties which he worked to bring about. There would be working class self-clarification, self-regeneration and political regroupment in the heat of class struggle. Wrong, certainly. Fantastic, possibly. But Trotsky’s was a perspective in which ends – democratic workers’ power – and means – working class risings, the creation of soviets – were appropriate to each other.

By contrast, in post-Trotsky official Trotskyism – ‘Mandelism’ – the identification of Stalinism and Stalinist expansion as the ‘actually existing’ unfolding, albeit deformed, workers’ revolution led ineluctably to the destruction of all rational notion of ends and means. The ‘official Trotskyist’ fetish of nationalised property – which for Marxists is a means, not an end, and by no means a self-sufficient means – took the central question out of rational assessment: Stalinist statification and its alleged working class character was a ‘given’, something to reason from, not about.

When the ‘Trotskyists’ transformed themselves into an epiphenomenon – critical, of course – of Stalinism, they thereby became millenarians. Christian, primitive millenarian sects, often Communistic in their desires, have looked to supernatural events like the second coming of Christ, to transform the world into an ideal place. They had no notion of ends and means such as the labour movement would develop – action by named human forces for specific goals. In practice, they would look to some bandit, warlord or lunatic to begin the designated change. Central for our purposes here was their lack of a rational notion of ends and means.

In post-Trotsky Trotskyism, circa 1950, both the ends and means of the proletarian revolution in the original Trotskyism, as in traditional Marxism, disappear – or are pushed to the far horizon of history. The ‘world revolutionary perspectives’, which Mandel wrote and refurbished for successive world congresses were, though dressed up in the husks of ideas taken from Trotsky and Lenin, now spun around the USSR, not around the proletariat or its methods or its old Socialist goals. The protagonist in ‘the workers’ revolution’ is, for now, the Stalinist bloc – Mandel’s mentor Raptis-Pablo once speculated that Stalinism would last for centuries – not, as in Trotsky, the working class, self-clarified and politically regrouped. The protagonist is the Stalinist state, the ‘Red’ Army, the Chinese peasant army. Though ‘Perspectives’ and hopes for bureaucratic reform and for working class democracy are plentiful in Mandel, they are just tagged on.

The proletariat may be crushed under regimes akin to Fascism, but despite such ‘details’ this, nevertheless, is the proletarian revolution. ‘Nationalised economy’ conditions and defines all. How could a Chinese peasant army, led by declassed intellectuals, be seen as a workers’ party? By circular logic: only a workers’ party could do what the Maoists did, replicating Stalin’s USSR. Ergo, this is a workers’ party. Rationalising the Stalinist phenomenon, Mandel’s Marxism became arid, eyeless scholasticism. Trotsky’s ideas of 1940 were turned into their opposite.

The point at which millenarianism triumphed can be dated: the Korean War and the belief that the seemingly inevitable Third World War would be a war-revolution, an international civil war. The nuclear Armageddon – albeit with early nuclear weapons – would also be the revolution. The ‘Red’ Army and its Communist Party allies in Western Europe would bring working class victory in the looming war-revolution. You could not go much further from the idea of the Socialist revolution – protagonist, ends, means – in Trotsky, and in all previous Marxism. When, a decade later, the Posadas wing of Mandel’s organisation took to advocating that ‘the Russian workers’ state’ start the Third World War, because this would accelerate the world revolution, it only brought out the crazy other-worldly millenarian logic with which Mandel’s group had replaced the Trotskyism of Trotsky at the time of the so-called Third World Congress of the Fourth International.

The tight millenarianist scenario of 1951-53 centred on Stalinism and war as the agency. Eventually that gave place to a looser millenarianism, promiscuous in its ever-changing choice of saviours. Various nationalist forces, plausibly and implausibly assessed, were anointed – though Stalinism always would be central to Mandel’s perspective of world revolution. Trotsky’s tradition and Trotsky’s political terminology were thus reduced to mere building blocks in scholastic constructions. Ernest Mandel was from his youth the pre-eminent master in this work.

Of course Mandel’s adaptation to Stalinism was never uncritical adaptation – those who ceased to be critical ceased to be even nominally Trotskyist – never inner acceptance of it, never a surrender of the idea that the Stalinist states had to be democratised and transformed. But Mandel used his erudition and his intellectual talents to weave, from the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky, ideological clothing which could be draped on Stalinism to identify it as part of the world revolution of the proletariat. Directly and indirectly, Mandel and his organisation over the years tied large numbers of anti-Stalinist militants into accepting, tolerating or justifying, ‘critically’, Stalinist regimes and aspects of Russian Stalinist imperialism.

He played a rôle similar to that of Karl Kautsky two generations earlier, who rationalised, from the point of view of a hollow ‘orthodox Marxism’, what the leaders of the German Social Democracy and trade unions did. Here Mandel was worse than Kautsky. Kautsky devised ideological schemes to depict the time-serving activities of a bureaucratised labour movement as an effective drive for working class liberation; Mandel produced similar rationalisations for totalitarian Stalinist machines, convinced that they embodied the spirit of history, and that it was his job to interpret and rationalise it. Mandel was the Kautsky of ‘the historic process’ itself.

And then, 50 years after Trotsky’s death, Stalinism collapsed in Europe. It was revealed as nearer to being pre-capitalist than post-capitalist. Far from ‘defending and extending, in its own distorted way, the gains of the 1917 workers’ revolution’, Stalinism must be judged historically to have had no relationship to Socialism and working class emancipation, but that of a destroyer of labour movements and an enslaver of working classes.

Had he died four years earlier, Ernest Mandel would possibly have died happier, for that would have been before the collapse of the USSR – the event which showed conclusively that his version of ‘Trotskyism’ was radically wrong, and that it had been wrong for 50 years.

Mandel’s personal tragedy here epitomises the tragedy of unknown millions throughout the world who to one degree or another saw Stalinism as a stage – a grotesquely distorted one, maybe, but still a stage – on the road to the emancipation of humanity from class society. Mandel leaves his followers orphaned, trying to come to terms with the collapse of the alien systems around which they had woven fantasies for five or six decades.

Ernest Mandel leaves them and all of us one thing to learn from: the courage and tenacity which made him as a lad of 16 defy all ordinary prudence and all narrow self-interestedness to join the Trotskyist movement. It kept him actively loyal to the best notion of revolutionary Socialism all the rest of his life, through terrible disappointments and setbacks. Those of us who are committed to Trotsky’s politics will, as we go forward, have to criticise and reject most of what Ernest Mandel, for 50 years, misrepresented as Trotskyism.

Sean Matgamna

Updated by ETOL: 28.9.2011