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Charles Van Gelderen

Ernest Mandel: Revolutionary Socialist
in Theory and Practice

(Winter 1995/96)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 6 No. 1, Winter 1995/96, pp. 159–61.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE DEATH of Ernest Mandel on 20 July 1995 deprived the Fourth International of its foremost leader and thinker. As a writer, speaker and teacher, he was by far the most widely known Trotskyist in the world. Even those who did not agree with him respected his views and the courage with which he defended them.

For Ernest, Trotskyism was synonymous with Marxism. His two-volume Marxist Economic Theory and his introduction to the Penguin Capital placed Marx’s economic theories firmly in the present epoch, and marked him as one of the foremost exponents and champions of Marx’s thought.

His literary output was formidable, but Mandel was more than a theoretician. As a Marxist, for him theory and practice were indivisible. That is why the building and strengthening of the Fourth International were central to his life. Like Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky before him, he knew that the working class could not carry out its historic task without a party, and that that party had to be international, not only in outlook, making mere genuflections to internationalism, but organisationally. Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach – ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point, however, is to change it’ – was the foundation of his political life. That is why, since the age of 15, he devoted himself to what he regarded as the central task for today – the building of the Fourth International.

He was severely critical of those whom he characterised as suffering from the disease of ‘national Communism’, who subordinated the interests of parts of the world proletariat to what they considered to be the priorities flowing from the needs of party building in their own country. He regarded the argument of the British Socialist Workers Party, that you first had to build the basement and the floor before you can build the roof (the International), as a crude sophism. What architect or group of workers, he asked, could ever build a roof without knowing from the beginning of the building process, what it is going to be and how it is going to be built, not just through a blueprint, but through the current experience of building?

‘National Communism’, even when proclaimed by the best of comrades with the best of intentions, is but a variant of the reactionary utopia of ‘Socialism in one country’. Those who believe that it would be easier to build a strong International with a minimum of discipline on key international issues, as was the practice in the Fourth International, when you first have strong national parties, were totally wrong.

For Ernest, to be a Marxist, a proletarian revolutionary, was, first of all, to be an internationalist. This he was with every fibre of his being. When dedicating one of his books to comrades who had died, the highest praise he could bestow on them was that they were internationalists. Some of the intellectuals, some of them erstwhile members of the Fourth International, who rushed into print with obituaries after Mandel’s death, were scornful of his revolutionary optimism. Typical of this was Tariq Ali’s piece in the Independent (21 July). These people, overcome by the current situation, the temporary success of capitalism in pushing back the frontiers of Socialism and curbing the militancy of the working class, have retreated into reformist politics, or to their ivory towers. They take the doomsday scenario which they survey as permanent, or, at best, existing for the foreseeable future. Tariq accuses him of hiding the truth, of ‘masking the fact with heady rhetoric’. This shows how little he knows of Mandel, whom he probably confuses with the nasty sexist caricature, Ezra Einstein, in his tasteless fictional satire Redemption. ‘One would have to be blind and deaf’, he wrote, ‘not to see that the world situation is still very bad for the wage-earning class, that capital is still clearly on the offensive the world over ...’ (World Socialism Today, In Defense of Marxism, May–June 1995)

In contrast to these intellectuals, who were drawn to the Fourth International in the heady days of May 1968 and the Vietnam campaign, and who now believe that the working class no longer has a rôle to play on the political stage, Mandel, the dialectical materialist, took the long view of history. From that longer-term point of view, ‘several important factors are operating in our favour. On a world scale, the wage-earning class is still growing, and growing in an impressive way, although not in all countries and all sectors at the same pace. Internationally, it has long passed the billion mark. If you add to this the semi-proletariat of landless peasants in important Third World countries, you will probably reach the figure of two billion.’ (Ibid.)

Whilst the pessimists and back-sliders could see only retreats and defeat, like Marx after the collapse of the First International, like Lenin after the betrayal of August 1914, and like Trotsky in the dark days after Hitler came to power, Ernest Mandel, in the best Marxist traditions, analysed the current situation, and came to quite a different prognosis: ‘We believe that we have passed the lowest point of the working class and mass movements’ retreat. The fightback is now rising.’ (Ibid.) He based this optimistic outlook on the growth of those layers of the wage-earning class in sectors like telecommunications, banking and the so-called service industries, as well as those in semi-automated industrial plants. Strike action in these sectors could paralyse the capitalist economy more effectively than the ‘classical’ strikes in mines, steel or auto plants. The incompetence and corruption in the top echelons of these concerns is already affecting the mental outlook of those who live only on their salaries.

For Ernest, the building of the Fourth International was the primary purpose of his life. Of all the groupings that claim allegiance to Trotskyism, the Fourth International is the only one which has succeeded in establishing itself as a genuinely internationalist, world-wide movement, with sections in 50 countries and sympathetic associations in many more. None of the sects which claim Trotskyist orthodoxy can equal this. As he had written many times, it is during non-revolutionary conjunctural phases of the class struggle that revolutionaries develop the capacity to lead their class when the possibility of revolution begins to appear. It was in the period 1912–14 that the Bolsheviks gained the capacity to lead the revolution of 1917.

Ernest Mandel, Marxist, revolutionary, internationalist, fought all his life to change the world, but to change it with a specific purpose to eliminate all social conditions in which human beings are debased, downtrodden and mutilated in their possibility of developing all their human potential. This is what he fought for when he joined the resistance in Belgium during the Second World War. It was to remain his goal right up to the moment when that fatal heart attack struck.

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