I Am Revolution – a biography of Ernest Mandel

Ernest Mandel began earning his reputation at an anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialist thinker and militant almost from childhood. His family background helped. Henri Mandel helped set up first Soviet press bureau in Berlin during the German Revolution and even though the father dropped out of politics the son became a revolutionary aged 15 when he joined the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Belgium in 1938.The early pages of Jan Willem Stutje’s biography of Mandel have the makings of a film script. Following the German invasion of Belgium Mandel’s family allowed the resistance paper Het Vrije Woord to be produced in their home. This included issues in German for distribution to Wehrmacht troops. At the same time the young Mandel helped rebuild the Trotskyist organisation in Belgium under German occupation.

Following his arrest by the Gestapo in 1942 he escaped with his father’s help. The family was Jewish and already aware of the death camps. Mandel was arrested again in 1944 while leafleting in the street and sent to a forced labour camp where several guards were former social democrats. He engaged with them politically as workers, refusing to accept the idea that all Germans were Nazis. On his release he returned home emaciated and refused to discuss the experience again.

Stutje’s book is not a hagiography. He is not reluctant to draw attention to several of Mandel’s wrong and, with hindsight, overly optimistic predictions. Always looking for evidence that Stalinism’s grip over the most militant sections of the working class could be broken Mandel predicted at various points that the next congress of the revolutionary Marxist Fourth International would be held in Yugoslavia, Spain and Portugal as each of these societies rebelled against the old order.

One example in particular is referred to and while Stutje asks rhetorically if Mandel showed a failure of leadership he provides no answer. The Fourth International had been revitalised by the revolutionary upswing in 1968 and the French organisation in particular had grown rapidly in numbers, prestige and influence. Its new leaders Daniel Bensaid, Janette Habel and Alain Krivine were keen to express their political support for Che Guevara and revolutionaries in Uruguay, Peru, Mexico and Bolivia who had begun an armed struggle.

Rather than alienate the new militant generation by defending the Marxist position that armed struggle by itself cannot make a revolution and has to be rejected as a strategy, Mandel wavered. The results were predictable and all those groups which took up arms collapsed politically as their members were slaughtered in pointless adventures. When you ask a rhetorical question you already know the answer.

Any account of Mandel’s life has to be set against the political situations of which he was so often a part. Much of this will be unfamiliar to English speaking readers, or at least to those not intimately acquainted with the history of European Trotskyism. During the 1950s Trotskyists decided that one way to break out of their isolation was to enter larger working class parties. In France and Italy this meant joining the Communist Party while in Britain, Belgium and Germany they entered the social democratic parties.

Mandel was fully integrated into the life of the Belgian Socialist Party and was editor of La Gauche, a paper which brought together reformists and revolutionaries who were willing to be critical of the party leadership’s anti-working class measures. It was frequently criticised not just by government ministers and the Catholic parties but also the Communist Party.

By 1960, in an echo of recent events, people were saying that “European economies seemed to have learned the secret of eternal growth and prosperity”. In the winter of 1960/61 a few months later 700 000 Belgian workers went on strike for five weeks and miners were calling for the nationalisation of mines and the energy sector.

This massive strike helped Mandel develop his idea of what a revolution in a developed capitalist economy might look like and goes some way to explaining how he became so influential among the French revolutionaries of 1968. Rather than repeating what happened in Germany or Russia from 1917 Mandel argued that a future revolution might have more in common with France in 1936 when a leftist government was in power during a wave of strikes and factory occupations.

Mobilised and increasingly politicised workers, he suggested, would begin putting forward anti-capitalist demands for reforms. This could culminate in a general strike in which the workers took power or a situation of dual power obtained. Reflecting on the events of 1968 he noted that younger workers were the keenest to experiment and take radical action. It had nothing to do with them being immature or police agents as the Communist Party claimed. For him 1968 showed irrefutably that “the idea of gradual, institutionalised establishment of workers’ control or other anti-capitalist structural change was an illusion”.

Mandel’s other major connection with Latin America is noteworthy but little known. That is when he went to Cuba to discuss the economic direction of the revolution with its leaders and the relationship he developed with Che Guevara. Between 1962 and 1964 Guevara was in charge of the Ministry of Industry. Having disproved the Stalinist conception of creating a revolution by stages there was a current in the Cuban leadership which opposed both the growing influence of the Communist Party and the bureaucratisation of the process.

Unlike some of the Stalinist influenced economists, referred to as “Stalino-Kruschevites” in Cuba, Guevara rejected the use of material incentives and making value and profit the absolute economic measure.  He insisted that there had to be a human element in economic planning. This was an ongoing debate in the Cuban leadership at the time and Mandel cheekily intervened by sending Castro and Guevara copies of his recently published book Marxist Economic Theory. Mandel felt that while Guevara agreed with him on economics he lost the behind-the-scenes debate over the exercise of power by the working class in Cuba and undertook his adventures in Africa and Bolivia as a result.

A short review can only touch on some very selective moments in Mandel’s life. He was a prolific writer of books, pamphlets and internal documents and since these were dealing with politics, political organisation and economics almost every single idea he put in the public domain has caused a controversy somewhere. Despite its occasionally clunky prose Stutje’s biography, which is the first to be written about Mandel’s remarkable life, manages to condense the broad sweep of the years in which he lived and sketch out how his subject tried to use Marxism to understand what was happening.

Maybe even more importantly the book reminds us how small groups of Marxists sustained the idea of revolution under the hardest circumstances imaginable without yielding to its Stalinist corruption or to the comfortable fantasies of social democracy.

Ernest Mandel – A Rebel’s Dream Deferred (Verso)

Jan Willem Stutje

Reviewed by Liam Mac Uaid

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