The life of Ernest Mandel and the impasse of orthodoxy

Submitted by martin on 1 September, 2017 - 12:12 Author: Martin Thomas

Ernest Mandel (1923-95) was the world's best-known Trotskyist for some decades; the interpreter and synthesiser for the "Orthodox Trotskyist" mainstream; and also a prolific writer many of whose books reached readerships far beyond circles sympathising with Trotskyism.

Jan Willem Stutje, a Dutch academic professing "a close affinity" to Mandel's ideas, has written a biography which is of great interest for the reasons that biographies are generally interesting, that they help us see how the subject's ideas intertwined with their life and times.

A biography might also provide instructive critical analysis of Mandel's ideas. Stutje's doesn't. He is critical. Arguably he is pedantic and sour in some of his discussion of Mandel's economic writings.

But, as we'll see, he offers no criticism at all of the overarching political concept to the elaboration of which Mandel devoted his energies and ingenuity from 1951 to his death: that the proletarian revolutionary upsurge which the Trotskyists had looked to after World War Two had in fact, contrary to appearances, developed, only in a "deformed" and first-stage way, through the expansion of Stalinism.

What takes the place of political scrutiny is an ungenerous and unconvincing critique of Mandel's personality, which Stutje describes as adolescent, "blind to the soul", unable to deal with emotional conflict, and consequently apt to lead him into harmful compromise.

As a child, writes Stutje, Mandel was "high-spirited yet also serious and caring... In energy and tenacity he resembled his father. He had a powerful imagination, learned fast...".

It is to Mandel's credit that he retained those youthful traits through life. And he developed determination and persistence. He remained active for what he saw as revolutionary socialism throughout his life, through huge hardships and disappointments, when Stutje's account makes it clear that at every point Mandel had easy and prosperous alternatives.

He also developed a range of "personal" talents valuable in political activity, not only skills at writing and speaking (in many languages), but also the ability to work and discuss patiently and in a friendly way with people of differing views while still maintaining his own ideas.

Mandel's faults were the faults of his politics, not a matter of an inability to acquire what the tired and jaded call "maturity".

He had good personal friends, as many older adults do not: Ernst Federn, Ernst Bloch, later François Vercammen, Charles-André Udry, and Janette Habel.

The mental illness of his first wife (from 1965), Gisela Scholtz, which led to such physical debilitation that she died in 1982, was established before he met her, and Stutje's book gives no evidence that Mandel was other than caring or helpful to her. His relations with his second wife, Anne Sprimont (from 1982), were on Stutje's account warm and loving.

Mandel looked after his mother Rosa after his father died in 1952, and into extreme old age. He dealt tactfully but firmly to her hostility to his wives. "He was never moody", writes Stutje. "As long as his work would not suffer, he agreed to anything". No, the problem with his politics was... the politics.

Mandel became interested in Trotskyist politics in 1936, when he was 13 - his father, though a prosperous diamond merchant, was an ex-member of Rosa Luxemburg's Spartacus League, had a large Marxist library, and was a Trotskyist sympathiser. Mandel formally joined the movement in 1939, when he was 16. Months later, the Nazis occupied his native Belgium.

Mandel was active in the underground resistance, was arrested three times (luckily, by the German army rather than the SS), escaped twice, and, though Jewish, survived a year in a Nazi labour camp.

In 1945 he returned to his parents' house (a "mansion", as Stutje describes it, where he would live until his death, though later he also had a flat in Paris), and returned to his university studies.

A year later he quit university - Stutje doesn't really explain why - and took up a variety of journalistic jobs which sustained him until 1970, when he acquired a university post. He was the editor of the Belgian Socialist Party daily Le Peuple from 1954 to 1957.

At the same time Mandel became the main writer for the leadership of the Orthodox Trotskyist Fourth International, as it was reassembled after the war around Michel Pablo (Raptis), an older, more experienced, and more forceful activist than Mandel, of Greek origin but resident in Switzerland or France since 1937.

From 1956 into the 1960s, Mandel edited La Gauche, a left social-democratic weekly which he himself had urged into existence in line with the Orthodox Trotskyists' policy at the time of working to prepare the conditions for broad new left wings which would eventually split from the established social-democratic or Communist Parties. La Gauche drew contributions from a range of more or less left-ish journalists: its British correspondents were Michael Foot and Ralph Miliband.

The Belgian Fourth International organisation had had 750 members when Mandel joined in 1939, but quickly dwindled on the outbreak of war, and remained only some dozens strong until the late 1960s. Stutje suggests it operated mostly as a more-or-less clandestine network of initiates within broader enterprises like La Gauche.

In 1962, Mandel had long been one of the world's best-known Trotskyist leaders, under the pen-name Ernest Germain. Yet when Jacques Yerna, the trade-union official who had been Mandel's leading ally on La Gauche since 1956, was accused by the right wing of being a Trotskyist, Mandel went to Yerna's office: "I need to tell you the truth. I am a member of the Fourth International". Yerna was taken aback and responded that Mandel should have told him sooner: "Perhaps I might have joined you".

Mandel's verdict on the experience, reports Stutje, is that he and his comrades should have focused on cadre-building from the early 1950s, and that would have enabled them to glean more from their work in the Socialist Party.

Mandel, it seems, had long had ambitions to write at greater length and in greater depth. In 1962, after three years of cajoling publishers, Mandel got out his thousand-page Traité d'Economie Marxiste (English translation, 1967: Marxist Economic Theory). Its weaknesses, in my view, were great, but at the time it was the only contemporary large-scale Marxist text on economics in a landscape where all other current "Marxist economics" was Stalinist dreck.

It got Mandel known, not just as a journalist in one life and an activist and writer of theses for a still scarcely-visible Fourth International in another, but as a theorist and scholar. By 1970 he was able to get a full-time academic post at the Free University of Brussels; he retained that until the 1990s, and also gained several visiting-professor gigs over the years.

He had remedied his lack of university certificates by using his Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (1967: a valuable book, in my view) to acquire a master's degree from the Sorbonne, and in 1972 he would use his Late Capitalism to get a Ph D from Berlin University.

The Orthodox Trotskyists had split in 1952-3. Mandel, despite misgivings, went with Michel Pablo when James P Cannon of the SWP-USA and others tried to swing the movement back from Pablo's extravagant extrapolations on Stalinist-led revolution.

But Mandel kept contact with the SWP, notably through Peter Bloch (referred to in Stutje's book as "Karl Manfred").

Through most of the 1950s, it seems, the "centre" of the Fourth International was pretty much identical with Pablo's flat in Paris, and then in Amsterdam, and its finances with the inherited wealth of Pablo's companion Hélène Diovoniotis, which also freed Pablo to be politically active full-time. Mandel and others were convened to meetings once a month and forcefully urged into activities; international congresses were convened in 1954 and 1957; a French-language magazine was put out every few months

But, Stutje reports, all contacts, correspondence, and financial matters were kept in the hands of Pablo, Diovoniotis, and Pablo's close comrade Sal Santen.

In the 1940s and the very early 1950s, Pablo tried to make the Fourth International "centre" a strong interventionist force in the various national Trotskyist groups. Stutje's book suggests that Pablo largely gave up on that after 1953, and turned his energies mostly to being active as an individual. His focus was, increasingly, aid to the Algerian national liberation struggle: publishing illegal materials, forging identity papers, and so on for the FLN.

After De Gaulle's coup in France in 1958, Pablo saw few prospects in the European labour movement. Mandel's resistance to that drift was strengthened by the great Belgian general strike of 1960-1.

When Pablo was jailed, in 1960, for counterfeiting money to help the FLN, and later went into exile in Algeria, Mandel stepped up efforts to renew links with the SWP-USA. He visited James P Cannon in California, and eventually got the Orthodox Trotskyists reunified in 1963.

From the mid-60s to the late 1970s would be Mandel's glory days. The Orthodox Trotskyist groups had thousands or at least hundred of new young recruits where previously they had numbered only dozens. Mandel became famous in quite wide left-wing circles. He published prolifically and spoke and debated to large audiences.

Stutje scarcely mentions the conflict within the reunified Orthodox Trotskyist movement which first set the SWP-USA against what it saw (rightly) as the ultra-leftism and wild over-optimism of the Europeans (what the French Mandelites later called "triumphalism"). Later the conflict would see the SWP-USA break from Trotskyism in the early 1980s and veer off into a congealed sect-like form of Castroism. In fact Mandel was a chief writer in that conflict.

By the early 1980s, the Orthodox Trotskyist groups were sagging. The rebound from "triumphalism" often brought demoralisation. Mandel's Fourth International had at the peak assembled an office staff of twenty in Paris, but most of them - including those whom Mandel had looked to as his successors, Udry and Vercammen - drifted away into lower-key activity. Vercammen died in 2015, and Udry is old and sick.

Mandel resisted the sagging with a "revolutionary optimism" which would appear, even to his closest comrades such as Vercammen, as more and more delusionary. By the 1980s, according to Stutje, Mandel was already suffering serious health problems, the consequence of decades of relentless overwork. He continued to write, but less on current political issues; his condition deteriorated until he died in 1995.

The one thing in Stutje's narrative which gives some shine to his prissy criticism of Mandel's personality is his depiction of the role of Gisela Scholtz in Mandel's costly adaptation to the ultra-left swing of the Orthodox Trotskyists in the late 1960s and early 70s.

Scholtz, young, with little political experience (she joined the Trotskyists only after hitching up with Mandel), and erratic in her activity even after she joined the movement, was deep into the ultra-leftism. Stutje reports her efforts to convert a small-ish and routine demonstration in Brussels for nuclear disarmament into an attempt to storm NATO headquarters, and her satisfaction after the event: there had been good fights with the police, and only 40 comrades had been injured.

Mandel seems to have whisked Scholtz into the leading circles of the movement, deferred to her, lent his authority to her ideas. Whether that was just a political mistake, I don't know.

Stutje's discussion, or lack of discussion, on Mandel's chief and determining political lapse is instructive.

Like all Trotskyists - the Heterodox around Max Shachtman and others, as well as the Orthodox - Mandel found it difficult to adjust to the dashing of their hopes for buoyant socialist mobilisations after World War Two. Like many, he was reluctant to admit that the hopes had been dashed, not just postponed briefly. Worse than most, he resorted to scholastic constructions and ingenious casuistry to prop up his reluctance. The feature of his temperament most damaging to his politics seems to have been an inability to say "I don't know", a drive always to have everything fitted into a scheme.

Yet until 1951 he resisted Pablo's theory that the socialist mobilisations had happened, and would continue to happen, in the form of Stalinist expansion; that this was really a sort of socialist expansion, deformed, incomplete, but real, and making it mandatory for Trotskyists to get in the flow.

Stutje's account: "He continued to described the... buffer countries [Eastern Europe] as bourgeois states...Only in 1951 would he accept reality and admit that these countries... were post-capitalist... In the end [Mandel] was forced to recognise Michel Raptis as his superior in political intuition... He was more of a politician that Mandel, who had difficulty putting aside key Marxist concepts and who held onto his facts with the tenacity of a positivist".

And again: "More strongly than Pablo, Mandel held to such key concepts of Marxism as the working class, the bureaucracy and the political revolution. Pablo was more impressionistic intellectually... Sometimes this had remarkable results, as with his analysis of the Yugoslav revolution".

Stutje seems unaware that anyone could doubt that it was "reality" that Tito's Yugoslavia was a "workers' state", despite the workers having no say in public affairs. For him the "political intuition" which led Pablo to accredit Tito - and Stalin! - with creating new workers' states ranks higher than "key Marxist concepts" and "holding on to the facts".

In fact the eventual submission to Pablo (and others) which left Mandel spending his life massaging Marxist concepts and facts to accommodate that "intuition" was the great tragedy which vitiated so much of his commitment, his industry, and his talents.