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Ernest Mandel and the Fourth International

Ernest Mandel - Internet Archive
Frank Lovell Print
LeBlanc and Barrett (eds), Revolutionary Labor Socialist: The Life, Ideas, and Comrades of Frank Lovell, Union City, NJ: Smyrna Press, 2000, pp. 330-341. Thanks to Joseph Auciello

When Ernest Mandel died of a heart attack at his home in Brussels on July 20 this year (1995) at age 71 he left behind many unfinished projects, some having to do with economic theory and others with the political situation throughout the world and the viability of the revolutionary working-class movement as embodied in the theory and organizational structure of the Fourth International. Although known and respected in academic circles as the outstanding postwar Marxist economist, the author of a two-volume work titled Marxist Economic Theory (1960) and the highly praised Late Capitalism (1972), among many other economic studies and books on the subject, Mandel was also the recognized theoretician and public representative of the Fourth International (FI), the mainstream of the world Trotskyist movement.

Ernest Mandel’s father had been a critical-minded member of the German Communist Party. (Although Ernest was born in Frankfurt, Germany, his awakening to political consciousness took place in Belgium, where his family was living after Hitler’s rise to power.) In his last book, Ernest tells us that he himself, as early as 1936, was pushed by events like the Moscow trials and the Spanish revolution in the direction of revolutionary Marxism: “It was under the influence of the Committee to Defend Trotsky, in Antwerp, as well as the influence of the Spanish Civil War, that I first began, at the age of 13, to sympathize with Trotskyism” (see Trotsky as Alternative, p. 58).

At age seventeen under the Nazi occupation during World War II, Mandel was already a Trotskyist and respected for his talent as a writer by his comrades in the Belgian underground section of the Fourth International. Joseph Hansen, who worked closely with Mandel in reunifying the Fourth International in the early 1960s, includes the following information about him in a footnote:

Ernest Mandel (1923- ) joined the Belgian section of the Fourth International during the German occupation at the beginning of World War II. He was elected to the Central Committee in July 1941 and worked in the underground during the war. He was captured three times by the Nazis, escaped twice and was deported to Germany shortly before the end of the war. (See The Leninist Strategy of Party-Building, New York: Pathfinder, 1979, pp. 539-540.)

Mandel’s mentor in the Belgian section was Abram Léon, author of the controversial book The Jewish Question – A Marxist Interpretation (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1970). In a biographical sketch of Léon (which first appeared in 1946 in the French edition of Léon’s work) Mandel wrote: “I met [Abram Léon] personally for the first time on the first central committee of the party which was reconstituted by his efforts in July 1941” (pp. 20-21).

Mandel went on to explain that although Léon was absorbed in the daily organizational tasks of their underground group,

he devoted himself to elaborating an exact Leninist conception of the problem which was at the time agitating all revolutionists in the occupied countries, namely: the national question and its relation to the strategy of the Fourth International (p. 21.)

This is introduced by Mandel as a bridge to polemicize against early postwar critics.

Let those who so readily incline to criticize the Trotskyist policy in Europe in relation to the national question read and study the documents which Léon elaborated during this period. Let them find out how preoccupied he was, as was the entire leadership of our party, with safeguarding, on the one hand,  the Leninist program from the virus of chauvinism while defending Leninist tactics, on the other hand, against the myopia of sectarians, and they will see how foolish are their accusations to the effect that we “underestimated” the national question (p. 21.)

“The Myopia of Sectarians”

The above quotation is typical of Mandel’s polemical style in the radical labor movement and to a lesser degree in the parlance of academia. He was a stickler for the facts as he was able to discern them in every situation, and in revolutionary politics his target remained – throughout his participation of more than half a century as one of the top leaders of the Trotskyist movement – “the myopia of sectarians.” Like all serious revolutionists he was uncomfortable in small-group existence and sought always to become part of the working-class movement and influence the course of political events. His last major polemical work was, in the tradition of Lenin, against ultraleft sectarianism. (See his feature article on “Sectarian vs. Revolutionary Marxism” in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, No. 125, May-June 1995, p. 35.) His basic contention was there clearly stated:

It remains an open question whether the FI will become the revolutionary mass International necessary for leading the international working class and allied mass movements to victory through simple linear progress. We very much doubt it. This was not the way the Third International was built in its best period either.

Regroupments and fusions will most probably occur, not necessarily from the start on a world scale. There is nothing wrong with that, provided they occur on the basis of a correct program and fully respect internal democracy, the right of tendency, and the non-prohibition of factions (factions which we ourselves consider bad, but their banning is a cure worse than the illness).

Mergers and Fusions: a Guiding Principle for Mandel

This was a guiding principle for Mandel from his earliest days in the leadership of the European Trotskyist movement at the end of World War II. Always the decisive question was the Marxist principle that only the working class can reorganize society and eliminate the evils of capitalism, that to accomplish its historical mission the working class must organize its own vanguard political party, the party that proclaims socialism its goal. This is easy to say, summarizing what Marx taught. But to do it (or to devise ways to do it and help do it) is another matter. Mandel’s contention that it will be done through mergers and fusions of political tendencies within the working-class movement is based on the history of the Russian Revolution and the Bolshevik party prior to the rise of Stalinism; and the history of the Trotskyist Left Opposition in its struggle against Stalinism in the USSR and elsewhere, and of the Fourth International after the Stalinist capitulation to Hitler in 1933.

Fusions and mergers do not occur in the abstract, but depend for success on finding the right answer to the key question: joining forces with whom and for what? And under what circumstances? This is what must be decided by revolutionary political tendencies within the working class in the course of struggle against the employing class, it political representatives and institutions.

The Anti-Nazi Resistance Movement in Europe

Mandel reviewed his own experiences and later evaluation of Trotskyist participation in the European resistance to Nazi occupation in World War II at a 1976 study class in London, sponsored by the International Marxist Group. He explained the resistance movement of 1941-45 in detail because, he said, “comrades from Lutte Ouvrière group in France have made it their special point of honor to raise this question against the Fourth International” (Ernest Mandel, “Trotskyists and the Resistance in World War II,” in Pierre Frank, The Fourth International: TheLong March of the Trotskyists, Ink Links: London, 1979). Mandel explained:

The correct revolutionary Marxist position… should have been as follows: to support fully all mass struggles and uprisings, whether armed or unarmed, against Nazi imperialism in occupied Europe, in order to fight to transform them into a victorious socialist revolution – that is, to fight to oust from the leadership of the struggles those who were linking them up with the Western imperialists, and who wanted in reality to maintain capitalism at the end of the war as in fact happened (page 177.)

Possibility of Revolution in Western Europe

Reading these words today, 19 years after they were spoken, contemporary students may wonder if scattered groups of Trotskyists in several European countries could have accomplished what the numerically small (but well-organized) Yugoslav Communist Party, with some material support from the Soviet army and Western Allies, was able to do. In retrospect it must be recognized, as Mandel reminded his audience nearly two decades ago, that history did not unfold as proletarian revolutionists in the war years had hoped it would, although they fought valiantly to change the course of events in the direction of socialist revolution.

Months before the surrender of Hitler’s armies in 1945, Italian workers overthrew the fascist regime in their country, hanged Mussolini by his heels, and seemed ready to establish their own government, the first such development in war-torn Europe. News of these events in Italy (and shortly thereafter a similar uprising in Greece) inspired the Trotskyist underground in Belgium and France with new confidence and hope that workers in their countries would soon rise up against the dispirited Nazi occupation forces. As Mandel later testified (in his biographical sketch of A. Léon) they sensed that they were part of a revolutionary wave that would sweep across the European continent. It did not happen. But the social forces that could have made it happen were at work at that moment in history, and the young Trotskyists felt in their bones that they were in tune with those forces.
This sense of destiny, acquired only through first-hand experience in powerful social upheavals, distinguished the wartime generation of European working-class radicals. Mandel was one of the few who never lost his sense of historic destiny.

Revival of Fourth International after World War II

After the war European Trotskyists regrouped. Many prewar leaders of the movement were gone, killed by Nazi occupation regimes or by Stalinist agents in the underground resistance.

Among the missing were some of the most experienced and best qualified, including Trotsky (assassinated in Mexico), Marcel Hic in France, Pierre Tresso in Italy (former member of the Political Bureau of the Italian CP), Leon Lesoil and Abram Léon in Belgium, Pouliopoulos in Greece, Widelin in Germany, and many more. Those listed here are only a few of the top leaders of the prewar Trotskyist movement. Their legacy served to reinforce and sustain those who met in Europe in the spring of 1946 to elect a new International Executive Committee, and to begin preparing for a World Congress. The young Ernest Mandel was elected to the top leadership body.

The 1948 World Congress (called the Second, the 1938 founding congress being the first) met in April and May. Twenty-two organizations from 19 countries were represented. Most of the discussion at the congress was about a document entitled “The USSR and Stalinism,” presented by Ernest Mandel in the name of the International Executive Committee majority. Events following the war and positions formulated on the eve of the war (the theories of “state capitalism” and “bureaucratic collectivism” as alternate explanations to Trotsky’s about the form of governmental control in the USSR) made the subject highly controversial. In some respects the debate was a replay of the 1939-40 faction struggle in the U.S. section against positions on the class character of the Soviet Union formulated by James Burnham and Max Shachtman (disputing that it remained a degenerated workers state).
The Second World Congress endorsed the document presented by Mandel, which was a reaffirmation of Trotsky’s 1940 analysis that the Soviet Union remained a degenerated workers state, unchanged in this respect by the war. Thus, the 1948 Congress effectively ended debate on that question inside the Fourth International.

New questions had arisen, however, as a result of the overthrow of the old prewar capitalist regimes in Eastern Europe and the creation of new governments under the aegis of the Soviet bureaucracy. Mandel argued that the East European states, then occupied by Soviet troops (except Yugoslavia), were in fact being used as “buffer states” by the Soviet government, and that economic forms of capitalist production remained unchanged. He also noted that the European Communist parties had become more reformist than prior to the war. These positions were adopted by the Congress. But the world’s rapidly changing political situation (especially the emerging outlines of the Cold War, capped by the 1949 victorious Chinese revolution) fueled almost continuous review of these questions, and a host of unexpected new developments and issues.

Third World Congress (1951)

The Third World Congress was held in August 1951. Again discussion and debate centered on the Soviet Union and the crisis of Stalinism, and Ernest Mandel was in the middle of this discussion. By this time world-shaking new events were negating previously adopted analyses and contradicting anticipated developments. Nothing was turning out as expected. It wasn’t only the Chinese revolution. The break between the Kremlin and Yugoslavia in 1948 (shortly after the conclusion of the Second FI Congress) had exposed weaknesses and limitations of Stalin’s regime. Moscow was unable to isolate the Yugoslav leadership, to find serious opposition to Tito in the ranks of the Yugoslav CP, to attempt a coup, or to mount a military invasion. Then came the “police action” against North Korea in 1950, launched by U.S. imperialism under cover of the United Nations. Meantime the “buffer states” of Eastern Europe had been absorbed into the Soviet economic system, and a third world war seemed in the making.

The Congress adopted an omnibus document, “Theses on the International Perspectives and the Orientation of the Fourth International.” These theses stressed the ominous threats of war, not dismissing the possibility of temporary compromises between the U.S. and the Soviet Union; and weighed the political consequences of the Chinese revolution, concluding that the global relationship of class forces had shifted to the disadvantage of world capitalism, in favor of socialism. They foresaw the strong possibility of war in the near future, but of a new kind described as “war-revolution.” In such a war an imperialist victory would be “problematic.”

Another aspect of these theses had to do with how the sections the Fourth International should prepare in their respective countries for the coming global conflict, suggesting merger with (or “deep entry” into) the numerically large Stalinist parties in certain situations. All this was couched in speculative terms, depending on conjunctural twists and turns of world events, so that the precise meaning of exactly what should be done became ambiguous. In general the document seemed to be optimistic about the future and to hold out the prospect of revolutionary opportunity. It was adopted almost unanimously by the Third World Congress.

One of the leaders of the Fourth International and an author of parts of these theses on world revolution, Pierre Frank, wrote in retrospect: “Nobody at the time imagined that we were about to enter a period of economic prosperity in the capitalist world, the like of which had never been seen in scope or in duration, a prosperity interrupted only by short, mild recessions.” (The Fourth International: Long March of the Trotskyists, p. 90) This prosperity, of course, affected the social consciousness of the working-class masses in the capitalist countries and profoundly influenced that historic period, planting the unresolved economic contradictions and social frustrations now plaguing the world.

Soon after this Third World Congress, when national sections of the Trotskyist movement undertook to implement the decisions taken, under the directives of the “international leadership” (residing in Paris), it became clear that very deep differences existed on the “dual nature of Stalinism” and the composition and political role of Communist parties in the major imperialist countries. The result was an organizational split, led on the one side by the American and British sections and on the other by the majority in Europe, lasting ten years (1953-1963).

Mandel and Breitman: Bridging the Split of 1953-63

During this period factional differences developed within the opposing organizational formations, and the majorities on each side reached clearer political understanding of the big issues of the day. They found themselves in general agreement on the mass uprisings in East Germany in 1953 and in Poland and Hungary in 1956 against the oppressive Stalinist regimes in those countries. Besides this, a slim thread of unofficial communication was maintained intermittently between the two organizations during the split, in the form of letters between George Breitman for the Americans and Ernest Mandel for the Europeans. When Breitman died in 1986, Mandel was reminded of their political association and affinity in the early years of that split, and wrote about it in his message to the Breitman memorial meeting in New York, as follows:

I first met George when he was in Europe in the aftermath of World War II and assisted , as an observer, in rebuilding a functioning center for our world movement. As the youngest participant in that effort, I learned a lot from him. In fact, if I would want to single out the persons from whom I learned most during the years following the war, I would name two SWP leaders: Morris Stein and George Breitman. This collaboration established the basis for a friendship which would last nearly forty years.

It was interrupted once, after the 1953 split in our movement. George and I were in the opposite camps of that split. But right after the split we exchanged a series of letters which became public, the only correspondence which maintained a dialogue between the two sectors of the split movement. For sure we both hotly argued for our – at the time different – causes. But if one rereads these letters today, one cannot fail to feel that behind the arguments there was a sincere, even desperate wish to prevent all bridges from being burned, to keep open an avenue for healing the split. That’s why the blind factionalists in both camps disapproved of that correspondence. That’s why we both were so happy when the split was healed in 1962-63, and felt that in a modest way we had prepared that reunification through our initial dialogue. (Naomi Allen and Sarah Lovell, eds., A Tribute to George Breitman: Writer, Organizer, Revolutionary, New York: Fourth International Tendency, 1987, p. 71.)

Reunification of Fourth International – and Debate on Guerrilla Warfare

The Reunification Congress of the Fourth International was held in June 1963 and adopted a document entitled, “The Dynamics of World Revolution Today,” a document mainly written by Ernest Mandel, but influenced by an earlier document of the American SWP, mainly written by Joseph Hansen and entitled “For Early Reunification of the Fourth International.” (For these documents, see the book Dynamics of World Revolution Today, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1978.) Mandel’s “Dynamics of World Revolution Today” gives a wide-ranging analysis of the three sectors of the world revolution and their interaction at that time – the proletarian revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, the colonial revolution in the so-called Third World, and the political revolution in the Soviet Union and other workers states. This remained the guideline for all sections of the Fourth International through most of the 1960s and 1970s.

Fundamental programmatic differences developed within the leading bodies of the Fourth International in 1968 and at the Ninth World Congress in 1969 over the question of guerrilla warfare in Latin America. The debate continued for ten years, until 1978. It did not lead to an organizational split. The contenders constituted antagonistic camps, essentially the same as those in the 1953-63 split, the American Socialist Workers Party vs. the European Secretariat. But the debate was conducted within the organizational framework of the united Trotskyist movement and in accordance with its democratic norms.

Guerrilla fronts, seeking to imitate the success of the Cuban revolution, had been established by the mid-1960s in Guatemala, Venezuela, Columbia, and Peru, followed shortly by “urban guerrilla” movements in Uruguay and Argentina. They seemed to be inspired rather than deterred by the defeat in 1967 of an expeditionary guerrilla force in Bolivia led by the legendary hero of the Cuban revolution, Che Guevara, who was captured by the Bolivian army and assassinated with the participation of an agency of the U.S. government, the CIA.

The debate within the Fourth International was in some ways reminiscent of earlier debates in the 19th-century Marxist movement, led by Marx and Engels against the anarchist Bakunin and by Lenin and Trotsky against Russian expressions of anarchism and individual terrorism. So it could have served an educational purpose, but the post-World War II generation of radicals (and especially those of the youth radicalization of the 1960s) showed little interest in lessons of history. They were motivated by lessons of the moment. Their heroes were Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Ho Chi Minh, Mao Zedong, and other “revolutionists of action.”

Mandel Helps End the Debate on Guerrilla Warfare

As the debate unfolded over the ten years of its duration, the failure of the guerrilla movement (in all its various forms and manifestations) finally convinced its supporters and sympathizers and would-be imitators that it had no future. By the time of the 1979 World Congress all the steam of this debate had been vented. Earlier the steering committee of the International Majority Tendency (which had argued for the continent-wide strategy of guerrilla warfare in Latin America) had issued a “self-criticism on Latin America” in which it acknowledged that “a self-critical balance sheet of our orientation in Latin America as it was defined by the resolution adopted by the Ninth World Congress (1969) has long been necessary” (see Joseph Hansen, The Leninist Strategy of Party Building, p. 485). This paved the way to dissolving the factions and reconciling the differences. In this process Ernest Mandel, as a leader of the former majority tendency, played a crucial role. Life had overtaken and resolved the “guerrilla warfare debate” ahead of the factions. And Mandel helped everyone recognize that this was so.

At this juncture the crisis of leadership in the Fourth International was deeper and more deadly than anyone suspected. The Socialist Workers Party of the United States was then the best organized and wealthiest section in the international movement. Financially and professionally (in terms of a trained, full-time paid staff of at least 200) it was the envy of the international movement. It had maintained representatives in Paris throughout most of the 1970s, consulting with and contributing to the work of the FI’s center.

Polemics with the SWP’s “New Leadership” over Their Break with Trotskyism

But by the end of the decade the “young leadership” in the SWP (consisting entirely of recruits from the student radicalization of the 1960s) had replaced the leadership of an earlier generation which had sustained the continuity of Trotskyism from the prewar era of working-class struggles. This “young leadership,” under the direction of its most able member, Jack Barnes, began systematically in 1979 to prepare the SWP membership for the repudiation of Trotskyism and the abandonment of the Fourth International.

This preparation took the form of a sustained attack in SWP publications against the history of Trotskyism, seeking to show that Lenin as the recognized leader of the Bolshevik party had little or nothing in common with Trotsky’s role in the organization and defense of the 1917 Russian revolution. In many ways this attack borrowed from and repeated earlier Stalinist slanders (preceding the infamous Moscow trials) against Trotsky and the Left Opposition in Russia. The purpose behind this, as later became clear, was to curry favor with the Castro regime in Cuba.

At about this same time the Socialist Workers Party of Australia (patterned after the U.S. party but lacking its experience and tradition) decided that Trotskyism provided no tools for further growth, left the Fourth International, and merged with a Stalinist group in Australia.

Ernest Mandel was one of those in the Fourth International who argued publicly against this backsliding from Trotskyism. See his polemic against Barnes’s lieutenant Doug Jenness, “Debate over the Character and Goals of the Russian Revolution,” in International Socialist Review (monthly supplement to The Militant newspaper), April 1982; Mandel’s polemic against the Australian SWP appeared in the Fourth International’s publication International Viewpoint in 1985.

Eventually the SWP leadership under Barnes took a route similar to the Australians, but more deliberately and with a more specifically defined aim. This took more time. In the summer of 1990 they formally notified the Fourth International of their departure. Since then they have tried to maintain an informal group of like-minded “communists” in a few other countries, the main purpose being to provide support to Cuba. At the 38th convention of the SWP in Oberlin, Ohio, in July this year [1995] the most important directive to the delegates and guests was “build the broadest possible delegation from the United States to the Cuba Lives International Youth Festival, which will be held in Havana and other Cuban provinces August 1-7” (The Militant, p. 1, August 7, 1995).

These breakaways from the Trotskyist movement were symptomatic of a general malaise among radicals in the industrialized countries during the 1980s, resulting from increased political arrogance on the part of the ruling class and lack of militancy in the institutions of the working class, especially the unions.

Analyzing World Changes in the 1980s

Throughout these years the leadership of the Fourth International, with Ernest Mandel as its most prolific writer and best-known representative, continued to analyze and explain the rightward political drift in the imperialist countries and the economic pressures that were creating new social divisions in the semicolonial countries. In early 1984 Mandel did an exhaustive survey of economic changes and new social forces at work in the so-called Third World, changes leading to class restructuring in that sector of the world. His study was titled “Semi-colonial Countries and Semi-industrialized Dependent Countries.” He argued that

to take account of world reality today, Marxists should introduce new differentiation in the characterization of capitalist countries, that of semi-industrialized dependent countries, countries that preserve only some of the classical characteristics of semicolonial countries but no longer all of them, and should not be called so any more. They are no longer characterized by a fundamental economic stagnation. They are no longer countries with a preponderant agricultural structure. They are no longer confined to the production and export of agricultural and raw materials, nor to the production of a single crop or product. (see Quatrieme Internationale, April 1984 and Socialist Unity, Vol. 1, No. 1, August-September 1985.)

Radical Influence Declines

Such observations at that time were perceptive and contributed to a better understanding of economic and social changes then under way, but they could not directly influence the conservatizing drift in political consciousness nor arouse the working class to mass actions in the industrial countries. Radical influence continued to decline in Europe and America throughout the decade of the 1980s, and to the present. This was reflected in the structure and composition of the Fourth International as well as in its leadership.

The 1995 World Congress

The Fourteenth World Congress, meeting in June this year, was noticeably smaller than the previous one, its decisions more cautious and tentative. As reported in International Viewpoint (the monthly publication of the Fourth International):

The Congress had four major debates. The first was a general discussion on the global situation organized around three themes – globalization and the crisis of capitalism, the major political tendencies of the current period, and the restoration of capitalism in Eastern Europe. The second debate represented an evaluation of the current situation and the perspectives in Latin America, with special attention to the evolution of the Castroist regime in Cuba. The third debate covered the general tendencies of the socio-political situation in Western Europe, with special attention on the state of the left and the response to the European Union. The fourth and final debate concerned the strategies and problems of construction of revolutionary parties and an international in the new global period.

This was the last Congress attended by Ernest Mandel. Although frail and in ill health, he continued to play an active role, participating in debate and voting on issues. He remained optimistic about the future of the International, as in the days of his youth. In a letter after the Congress he wrote:

There were votes on the world political situation, on Eastern Europe, on Latin America, on reorganization of the leading bodies of the International and their functioning, on finances, on some organizational disputes (commission reports), as well as on the document on building the International today.

On that last document I had also some misgivings and presented amendments which were rejected by a small majority. I’m quite certain that this vote will be changed, probably already at the next IEC [International Executive Committee of the Fourth International] and that when the sections will understand what it is all about, there will be a large majority in favor of my position. I’m fully confident about the maturity of the main section of our leading cadre.

An Irreplaceable Loss

Ernest Mandel will be sorely missed in the councils of the Fourth International. His contributions to the working-class movement since the end of World War II are unsurpassed.

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