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Marxism Analysed

Ernest Mandel - Internet Archive
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Socialist Outlook, No. 3, September/October 1987

Review of: Ernest Mandel, “The Place of Marxism in History” (Notebooks for Study and Research, Number 1, 1986) 

This new series of brochures published by the Amsterdam-based International Institute for Research and Education is inaugurated by a remarkable text from Ernest Mandel.  Rejecting the abstract, academic and positivistic view of Marxism as a ‘pure science’ unconnected to the social movement, he sets out to apply the materialist interpretation of history to Marxism itself: in other words, to situate it in its general historical context and dialectical relation – at once integration, critique and supercession – with the social sciences of his time, with utopian socialism and with the workers movement.

In 30 clear, precise and coherent pages, Mandel presents the genesis of Marxism, its fundamental features, the personal itinerary of Marx and Engels, and the reception of their ideas in the world.

The place of Marxism in history must be understood at two levels: as the conscious expression of the real movement for self-emancipation of workers in the capitalist system.  Marxism is a modern phenomenon; but it is also the heir and executor of thousands of years of emancipatory efforts by toiling humanity, the continuation of an old tradition of dreams and fights by poor people, the exploited and the oppressed.

One of the main contributions of this brochure is its critique of the linear, economistic and mechanistic interpretations of Marxism – to which it counterposes a truly dialectical conception of the contradictions of historical progress.  Along with the spread of the capitalist mode of production – particularly in colonized countries – came the ambiguities of the social and economic progress embodied in bourgeois society.  ‘The violent, disruptive, destructive and inhuman impact of capitalism on precapitalist societies in the Americas, Asia and Africa was far worse than its impact on pre-capitalist societies in western, southern, central and eastern Europe.  Marx and Engels were too rigorous scientists and too passionate humanists not to notice this, to be indignant about it and to revolt against these abominable crimes.’

It was precisely a linear view of progress which was the main weakness of Second International Marxism.  The supercession of capitalism by socialism was more or less inevitable, as a result of economic evolution, and these Marxists paid only scant attention to the decisive importance of political initiative.  Often this implied downplaying and even disparaging of direct action by the masses, a theme which remained confined to anarcho-syndicalist circles until 1905 (when the international current represented by Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky emerged).

This concise work of Mandel is not only an exceptionally valuable educational tool – as an initiation to Marxism from a committed and activist standpoint – but also an original contribution that enriches and renews the debate on the place of Marxism in history.


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