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The revolutionary life and tumultuous times of Ernest Mandel

By Barry Healy

A Life for the Revolution, Documentary by Chris Den Hond, 90 minutes, 2005; A Man Called Ernest Mandel, Documentary by Frans Buyens, 40 minutes, 1972, available of two-disc DVD, available from http://www.iire.org

Ernest Mandel, said to be perhaps the most important Marxist theoretician of the second half of the 20th century, died aged 71 on July 20, 1995. These two documentaries reveal why he was so respected but also expose a great deal more.

A Life for the Revolution uses Mandel’s life as a lens to examine some of the most significant revolutionary developments of the last few generations, with stirring archival footage and interviews with participants. The 1972 “talking head” interview A Man Called Ernest Mandel, in which he explains important aspects of socialist democracy and workers’ control of the means of production, is packaged as an extra.

Born the child of Polish Jewish Communists in Germany, Mandel lived his life in Belgium. He was won to Trotskyism, his lifelong commitment, at age 13 when dissident communists, discussing the Moscow Trials, met in his family home. By 15 he was an activist.

The small Belgian Trotskyist grouping struggled hard against repression. When a coalmining community joined the Trotskyists, the bosses shut the pit. Mandel mentions that those workers lived the rest of their lives in unemployment.

Initially disoriented by the German invasion, the Belgian Trotskyists reorganised following Trotsky’s murder by Stalin’s assassin in 1940. They immediately won a hearing because the Belgian socialists capitulated to the Nazis and the communist party was compromised through the Stalin-Hitler pact (which even allowed the to publish a legal paper).

Mandel was arrested for his political activities in organising the underground trade union movement and twice escaped by politically winning over his guards. When he was finally dispatched to a German concentration camp he was overjoyed to be heading towards the centre of the German revolution! Not for nothing does French revolutionary Alain Krivine say: “His optimism knew no bounds.”

After WWII, Mandel helped reorganise the Trotskyist Fourth International and worked closely with Belgian union leader Andre Renard on developing a radical program for the Belgian trade union movement. This work contributed to the spectacular Belgian general strike of 1960-61, which created areas of advanced workers' control across the country.

It was during this period that he wrote his seminal work, Marxist Economic Theory, updating Marx’s ideas in Capital with modern statistics. The book influenced revolutionaries as diverse as Che Guevara, the Sandinistas and Palestinian militants.

In the late 1950s and early ’60s decisive struggles were occurring in the Third World, particularly the rise of Lumumba’s nationalist government in the Congo and the Algerian revolutionary war for independence.

The Fourth International’s European wing contributed concretely to the Algerian struggle in the early '60s through the work of Michel Pablo and his supporters. A Belgian steel worker who went to Morocco to build guns for the fighters recalls his experiences and makes telling political comments about the need to support national struggles without sectarian aloofness.

Mandel was invited to Cuba in 1963 and 1964, meeting Che Guevara and participating in debates on the Soviet Union, Stalinism and problems of the transition to socialism. A Life for the Revolution deals at length with Che, including a part of his famous 1965 Algiers speech, in which he specifically attacked the bureaucratism of the Soviet block.

Che’s determination to aid the Vietnamese revolution by splitting the forces of US imperialism through constructing a new Third World guerrilla front helped galvanise the huge Vietnam solidarity movement, in which the Fourth International played a major organising role. The film shows why, to this day, millions of people revere Che’s example.

Tariq Ali says of the revolutionary times that followed: “It suddenly appeared that the three sectors of the world revolution ... had all been combined into four, five months of frenetic activity. It appeared that the program of the Fourth International was being fulfilled on the streets, that reality and the program had come together.”

Mandel was involved in the highlight of those months of frenetic activity, the May/June ’68 French revolt - and for years was banned from re-entering France. Restricted in his movements (he was also banned by Australia, the United States, Switzerland and Germany) he threw his support behind the Belgian workers' control movement, which erupted into militant strikes in the early ’70s.

After witnessing from afar the demise of Chile’s Allende government in a violent US-backed coup on September 11, 1973, Mandel rushed to participate in the 1974 Portuguese revolutionary movement within three days of the overthrow of the fascist dictatorship. His observations there informed his writing of theses on socialist democracy in which he posited that if the armed repressive force of the capitalists can be dismantled then, in conditions of workers' control of industry, the workers' movement has no need to repress debate within a revolution, including reactionary points of view.

At the same time as participating in all these struggles Mandel also published his second major economic work, Late Capitalism in 1975, in which he analysed the economic crisis that enveloped capitalism in the early 1970s.

“Ernest Mandel reinterpreted and enriched Marxist theory, while transforming it into a far better tool for interpreting the modern capitalism of the 20th century”, says Franscisco Louca, of Portugual's Left Bloc. A Life for the Revolution interviews many activists recounting how Mandel taught that socialism is not limited to a narrow idea of the immediate interests of the working class.

It goes broader, he believed, opposing Third World oppression, women’s oppression and environmental destruction. Of great importance to him were the central role of abortion rights and an autonomous women’s movement to women’s liberation.

A Life for the Revolution is a wonderful film, but not without faults. The most glaring omission is a balanced account of debates within the Fourth International. It reflects the worldview of the European wing of the Trotskyist movement and simply passes over in silence important contrary ideas.

But shining through is Mandel’s integrity, his commitment to the work of human liberation. After decades of unceasing struggle, speaking in East Berlin shortly before the destruction of the Berlin Wall, Mandel explained that social science is based on constructive doubt, whereas moral commitment is not.

“Of course, I experience doubt, scientific doubt, but I have no moral doubt”, he said. “Moral commitment to be on the side of the exploited and the oppressed, that is a categorical imperative, as Marx said.”

The nearest thing anyone can come to as a criticism of Mandel in this film is his “exaggerated optimism”. As anti-colonialist activist Michel Warschawski explains, Mandel emphatically believed in “the emancipatory, creative and social potentialities of human beings.”

“But, I believe”, Warschawski goes on, “this is exactly what we should be passing along to the younger generations”.

[This article first appeared in Green Left Weekly issue #760, July 30 2008. Visit the Ernest Mandel Internet Archive for Mandel's writings at http://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/index.htm.]

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