Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 5, 2007

Ernest Mandel

Filed under: economics,Film,revolutionary organizing — louisproyect @ 6:53 pm

Last night I watched two excellent documentaries about Ernest Mandel that are available in a 2-DVD package. Details, including pricing, can be obtained from mandeldvd@gmail.com. The first film, which runs for 40 minutes, is titled “A man called Ernest Mandel” and is directed by Frans Buyens. It consists of an interview given to Buyens in 1972, at a time when Mandel was at the height of his fame and his power. It is a remarkable display of his intellect and forceful personality. Directed by Chris Den Hond, the companion film is titled “A life for the revolution” and runs for 90 minutes. Alongside interviews with Mandel, we hear veterans of the Trotskyist movement like Tariq Ali, Michael Warschawski, Alain Krivine and Catherine Samary offering their views on his political legacy. It also includes commentary by academic leftists, who were unanimous in recognizing his contributions to Marxist economic and political theory. But most importantly, it contains stirring footage of class battles that Mandel responded to internationally over his remarkable career thus dramatizing his revolutionary activism. Despite his commitment to “intellectual work,” he was always ready to mount the barricades.

Although I now view the Fourth International as a project that was doomed at the outset, the film reminded me of why I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967. More than anybody, except for Peter Camejo, Mandel could make you feel that such a decision was the most important a human being could ever make. When Mandel was 13 years old, he made such a decision himself. His father, who was sympathetic to the Trotskyist movement, had invited a circle of like-minded people in Belgium to discuss how to respond to the Moscow trials, whose defendants included people he knew well. On the spot, Mandel decided that he too was a Trotskyist and only 3 years later became a militant in the movement.

Within 5 years, WWII would break out and Mandel became part of the resistance to Nazi occupation in Belgium. He tells an interviewer that he was arrested twice but managed to escape. He shrugs his shoulders and says that he was lucky not to have been executed. Although the film does not mention it, one of the escapes was facilitated by a German guard who responded to his socialist appeals, as Socialist Action member Barry Weisleder recounts:

Twice, early in his political career, Mandel came close to his demise. Both times he escaped incarceration by the Nazis. The first time he was arrested for distributing anti-fascist leaflets to the occupying German soldiers. As a revolutionary and a Jew, Mandel was sent to a transit camp for prisoners en route to Auschwitz. Ernest was a strong believer in his own capacity to convince anyone of the merits of socialism. On this basis he started talking to his jailers. The other Belgian and French prisoners regarded their captors as hopelessly reactionary, even sub-human. But Ernest talked to them, soon discovering that some of them had been members of now-banned Social Democratic and Communist parties. He impressed them so much that they helped him to escape. This experience also deepened Mandel’s internationalism. He refused to write off a whole nationality because of the crimes of its leaders.

As a Marxist economist, Mandel’s reputation was second to none. We learn that Che Guevara had read his “Marxist Economic Theory” and invited him to Cuba to discuss the “transition” problem. As someone who was particularly concerned about the problems of bureaucracy, Guevara (the film reveals that he proposed that government officials make no more than an ordinary worker), he sought out Mandel’s advice on how to fight it. This took a certain amount of nerve on Guevara’s part since the visit coincided with new initiatives by the Cuban government to cement ties with the USSR. There is extraordinary footage of Che Guevara in the film, including a speech to the UN in which he excoriates American imperialism. It is worth the price of the DVD just to hear Che tell it like it is.

We also learn that Sandinista leader Henry Ruiz kept one of Mandel’s books in his knapsack when he was a guerrilla operating in the mountains. Since survival in the mountains required carrying only that which is essential–like food, ammunition and medicine–this is a testament to Mandel’s authority on the left.

Mandel became a central leader of the Fourth International when it was a marginal tendency on the left. Den Hond’s documentary explains that whatever it lacked in numbers, it made up for in audacity. The Trotskyists decided to do everything they could to help the Algerian revolution, including sending the top leader Michel Raptis (Pablo) to work with Ben Bella after the triumph. Notwithstanding the importance of Mandel’s writings on workers control finding their way into the Algerian constitution, perhaps the largest contribution was made by a Belgian machinist and rank-and-file Trotskyist who traveled to North Africa to set up machine shops that turned out machine guns for the FLN. For its part, the French CP threatened expulsion if any party member took part in such activities. In an altogether enchanting interview, this militant realized that after arriving in Morocco he was in an entirely different world. Instead of hearing church bells in the morning, he heard the sounds of “Allah Akhbar” streaming from the minarets.

It was work on behalf of the FLN that inspired a number of French Communist youth to affiliate with the Trotskyists, including Alain Krivine, who would become a central leader and whose observations figure heavily in Den Hond’s film. Only a few years later, a new layer of radicalized youth–including me–would join on the same basis, as the Vietnam War forced one to take a stand. Perhaps the best known of them was Tariq Ali, a Pakistani intellectual who had become a leader of the British antiwar movement.

Although I am by no means in Tariq Ali’s league (just as well in many ways), I learned that we left the Trotskyist movement for exactly the same reasons. As the sixties radicalization was dying down, the American Trotskyists decided that something had to be done about the large number of “middle class” youth who had recently been recruited. In order to make sure that capitalist pressure would not turn them into a corrosive force within the proletarian vanguard, they would be transformed into proletarians by “colonizing industry.” Although political “openings” in the working class was the ostensible purpose of the “turn,” the real purpose was prophylactic so to speak.

Apparently Mandel agreed with the turn and urged the European Trotskyists to follow suit. This led to demoralization and the loss of thousands of cadre. Ali was so shocked at Mandel’s susceptibility to the “turn” especially in light of his supposed mastery of Marxist sociology and economics that he decided to resign.

All of those 60s veterans interviewed in Den Hond’s film who have remained politically active since Mandel’s death in 1995 seem quite a bit older and wiser. For the most part, Mandel’s career was tied up with the Soviet experience which shaped both the 1930s and 1960s radicalization that his career straddled. Those of us who live in a post-Soviet world are trying to feel our way through a new paradigm. If Mandel seems a bit overly “optimistic” looking back in retrospect, his passion for social justice will never be out of fashion. If for no other reasons, these two documentaries are must-viewing as a reminder of what it was like to be on the barricades because undoubtedly the contradictions of capitalism–particularly hastened by the latest brutal imperialist war–will call them into existence sooner or later.


  1. Thanks for the headsup, Louis, I’ll keep an eye out for both of these films. Along the same line, I’m wondering if you have any idea where I could find a copy of “To Storm the Heavens”, which was a documentary made about the life of Ramon Mercador that focused also on his mother, who apparently was a hot shot in the GPU. I saw this work during a film festival at Lincoln Center about ten years ago. It contains some interesting footage of Trotsky and his acolytes during his years of exile in Mexico, interviews with bodyguards Jake Cooper and a few others. Any leads on whether this is out there or available? I haven’t been able to trace it through the internet.—m.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — September 5, 2007 @ 10:44 pm

  2. I would love to see these films. Will they be distributed on a wider basis any time soon?

    Comment by praxenakis — September 6, 2007 @ 3:05 am

  3. Ernest Mandel was a brilliant speaker and formidable debater in several languages. I had the pleasure of seeing him in action on a couple of occasions during the 1980s. Veteran Communist and Trotskyist leader Peng Shu-tse had high praise for his talents, and from among the early Comintern leaders found that him similar to Bukharin – both in talent and, unfortunately, lack of political backbone.

    This became clear when Mandel capitulated to Pablo’s leadership at the crucial moment during the early 1950s resulting in the political destruction of Trotsky’s Fourth International. After 1953 the Pablo/Mandel/Frank leadership led the International Secretariat of the Fourth International ever further from Trotskyism. Despairing of the perspective of proletarian revolution under a class struggle leadership independent of all petty-bourgeois and bourgeois currents, Mandel and Co. embarked on a decades-long chase after various will-o-the-wisps, first to ‘entrism’ into the mass Stalinist parties and trade-union bureaucracies, later into the ‘student power’ movement, from there to other ‘new mass vanguards’ (feminism, gay liberation, Sandinismo, anti-fascism etc.) which came and went… somehow without ever drawing any clear programmatic conclusions.

    Inevitably, as the poliical climate moved sharply to the right, so did Mandel and his followers. Enraptured by Mitterand’s French Socialist government in 1980, Mandel and his followers took up the latter’s anti-communist crusades with a vengeance – denouncing the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and later becoming enthusiastic cheerleaders for Polish “Solidarnosc” (the only ‘trade union’ Reagan and Thatcher ever loved). Mandel called the clerical nationalist (and virulently anti-semitic) leadership of Lech Walesa & Co. “the best socialists in the world,” (presumably because they never had a single good word to say about Marxism, communism or socialism!).

    The destruction of the deformed workers states of Eastern Europe left Mandel and his followers in a fog of utter political and organisational incoherence … From there Mandel could only drift along on the grand reputation he enjoyed in the sad little munchkin-land of ‘academic Marxist’ mediocrities, one constitutency which truly never deserted him.

    To appreciate Mandel’s sheer eloquence, and his early promise as a Trotskyist thinker and leader, one need only read the afterword he wrote to his mentor Abram Leon’s landmark work “On the Jewish Question” and his encapsulated biography of Leon himself.



    Comment by Red Cloud — September 6, 2007 @ 3:54 pm

  4. I’ll admit to being a Mandel fan, I came across him initially in a pamphlet recording a debate between himself and Alec Nove in the 80’s about Market Socialism, really recommended reading IMO. Of course over at the Tomb they follow one of his critics Kidron, I remember being referred to Kidron in a debate about state capitalism and finding myself unimpressed with Kidron’s polemic against Mandel. I’ll admit certainly that he made some errors in his life, as well as being rather too friendly to Solidarnosc he was also very receptive to Tito’s Yugoslavia, later to revise his opinion of that though.

    Comment by SGuy — September 6, 2007 @ 8:37 pm

  5. An obituary of Mandel by Geoffrey M. Hodgson is available at the Economic Journal:

    Comment by Tanweer Akram — September 7, 2007 @ 1:04 am

  6. The citation for the above mentioned obituary is as follows:
    ‘Ernest Mandel: 1923-1995’, Economic Journal, 107(1), January 1997, pp. 159-64.

    Comment by Tanweer Akram — September 7, 2007 @ 1:15 am

  7. I read several Mandel!s works and I heard him too when he visited my country Colombia.He was an extraordinary writer and a great thinker.Of course,he made mistakes in his works and political life.For example,his point of view about (prt) in Argentina.Nevertheless,he was an exceptional marxist writer.

    Comment by Alfredo Botia — April 22, 2008 @ 9:57 pm

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