Ernest Mandel (1923–1995):
The Importance of Being Ernest
THE DEATH on 20 July of Ernest Mandel, foremost Marxist thinker and leader of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, triggered off a spate of predictable obituaries. For his supporters, his was an irreparable loss. For his opponents, it was a last opportunity to make an attack on him, or, like Keith Flett in The Independent, to advertise somebody else they would rather talk about. For others it was simply an opportunity to display their ignorance, such as the anonymous writer in The Times, who had Trotsky founding the Fourth International in 1937, or Tariq Ali in The Guardian, who had Mandel carted off to Auschwitz in 1939. For all his faults, Mandel deserves a better send-off than this.
Mandel was a man of unfailing courtesy, outstanding gifts and an attractive personality. He was a brilliant linguist, an incisive debater, and a witty and convincing speaker. His appetite for work and his zest for life never flagged. His contribution to the general literature of Marxism was enormous. His Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory (1964) trained an entire generation of beginners in basic Socialist understanding. Of his major works, Marxist Economic Theory (1962) gathered together an immense range of material to support the broad lines of Marxist analysis, and The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (1967) can still hold its ground in a field where it does not lack competition. Late Capitalism (1972) and The Second Slump (1977), on the other hand, showed that Mandel was not afraid to innovate, whatever his opponents thought or said. His confident command of the facts and the freshness of his insight in The Meaning of the Second World War (1986) make it one of the outstanding contributions to this subject. Space forbids a longer account of his monumental labours. Even those of us who opposed him cannot deny that Mandel must be regarded as the major defender and populariser of general Marxist ideas in the second half of our century.
However, Mandel did not limit himself to writing about Marxism in general terms, but was one of the major leaders of the postwar Fourth International, and here his position was an unhappy one. For when he descended from the general to the particular, from ideas to concrete reality, his touch was far from sure. Unlike the usual situation in the labour movement, where leaders generally stand on the right of their organisations, Mandel always stood to the left of his rank and file, providing them with the rationale they needed for policies that moved further and further away from the concerns of the working class as time wore on. Third World Stalinism, peasant guerrilla warfare, pacifism, foquismo, the student revolution and red bases in the universities, ecology, feminism, animal rights – you name it, they trailed after it. They were, of course, not leaders of anything, but ‘dedicated followers of fashion’, and Mandel was always on hand to provide them with the Marxist-sounding rationalisation they required. As Peng Shuzi remarked when he first came to Europe: ‘He reminds me of Bukharin.’ For, as did Bukharin with Stalin’s Comintern, he justified every wretched opportunist turn of his international organisation. And at every such turn, more of the organisation splintered, as Trotsky prophesied it would if they abandoned the working class: ‘The Opposition is threatened with becoming a sect – or rather, a series of sects.’ And since neither the programme nor the organisation of Trotsky’s Fourth International survived the Second World War, the burden of maintaining the elaborate pretence that it existed down to our own day fell mainly upon Mandel.
It is impossible not to sympathise with a man of such immense ability trapped in such a system, but it has to be admitted that the system was largely of his own making. Without the pen of Ernest Mandel, people would have realised that his Fourth International was a corpse long ago. We have all been enriched from the treasury of his major works, but as for the rest, the words of Sam Bornstein keep coming back to me: ‘The trouble with Mandel is, he writes more than he reads.’