Ernest Mandel



Preface to the just-published book by Manuel Kellner

Ernest Mandel (1923-1995) was not only the main leader of the Fourth International in the second half of the XNUMXth century and a world-renowned economist, but he also rejuvenated Marxist theory with a revolutionary humanist perspective. Unlike many other leaders who claim to inherit Leon Trotsky's legacy, Ernest Mandel never turned this heritage into a dogmatic body of work or a set of universal recipes. His excessive optimism led him to be wrong in some of his predictions, yet he produced analyzes that remain necessary reference points for revolutionary Marxists today.

There is a collection of essays honoring Mandel, The Legacy of Ernest Mandel, edited by Gilbert Achcar (London: Verso, 2000), and an excellent biography written by Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel: a Rebel's Dream Deferred (London: Verse, 2009). But Manuel Kellner's book is the first substantial exercise to systematically present Ernest Mandel's economic and political thought. The work was originally prepared as a thesis for the University of Marburg (Germany). Manuel Kellner is one of the main leaders of the German section of the Fourth International, as well as an activist in the party. Die Linke and the union IG Metall.

This landmark book is a rigorous and precise study of the ideas of one of the most influential Marxist intellectuals of his time. Manuel Kellner defines himself as a disciple of Ernest Mandel who gradually took the necessary distance from his mentor to write about him. This is reflected in the structure of the book. First, Manuel Kellner presents, summarizes, and explains Ernest Mandel's positions, and then critically discusses them in the final chapter. This is a shame, as it would have been so much better if critical distance had been present throughout the book.

Manuel Kellner briefly reviews the main moments of Ernest Mandel's life: his participation in the resistance in Belgium, his detention in Nazi camps, his role as leader of the socialist left in Belgium and his contribution to the development of the Fourth International. The author does this by looking at the relationship between “theory and practice”. But what really interests him is Ernest Mandel's contribution to a critique of contemporary capitalism: the historical/organic method of analysis, crisis theory, late capitalism, long wave economics. Manuel Kellner highlights what is essential: Ernest Mandel's analyzes were not academic exercises, but were directly linked to his struggle as an anti-capitalist thinker and militant!

Kellner also analyzes what he calls “Mandel's utopian dimension”, that is, his conception of socialism as the ultimate goal of the proletarian struggle. Ernest Mandel gave the concept of “utopia” a somewhat pejorative meaning, but Kellner is right to give it a more positive dimension. Ernest Mandel's definition of socialism remained, on the whole, within the October 1917 model, that is, a republic of workers' councils. When the Fourth International adopted the resolution "Socialist Democracy and Dictatorship of the Proletariat" at its Congress in 1984, he distanced himself somewhat from the Bolshevik experience and was inspired by the democratic revolutionary ideas of Rosa Luxemburg. This was also the case in his fight against the Stalinist bureaucracy and in his critique of the “dark years” of Lenin and Trotsky, which were marked by a “replacementist” temptation – a temptation that also affected social democracy and Austro-Marxism. by Otto Bauer.

The discussion of socialist strategy is the most important aspect of Manuel Kellner's book. He revisits Ernest Mandel's conceptions of the mass strike, transitory claims, the dual nature of trade unions, class consciousness and the revolutionary party, the united front and, of course, permanent revolution and internationalism. His main thread of strategy, which is woven through these themes, is that of self-organization “from below” by the subordinate classes.

In other sections of the book, Manuel Kellner discusses Ernest Mandel's work on Leon Trotsky's theory of fascism and his writings on the Holocaust. While the former is arguably among Ernest Mandel's richest and most interesting contributions, the latter are far more problematic. Manuel Kellner recognizes that Ernest Mandel had great difficulty considering the “specific” character of the genocide of Jews and he did not always escape a tendency to “relativize” the crime as one of several atrocities committed by imperialism and colonialism.

The final chapter, “Evaluation and Perspectives”, is one of the most interesting in the book because Manuel Kellner distances himself from his master's work and outlines a series of criticisms. They relate in particular to the problematic concept of a bureaucratized workers' state, which Ernest Mandel believed could be applied even to Pol Pot's Cambodia! But Ernest Mandel was an incorrigible optimist in his predictions, whether about the revolutionary potential of Western Europe (since 1946!) or about the improbability of a capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe after the fall of the Wall in 1989. Manuel Kellner mentions it here, without fully agree with her, the distinction I made in my own contribution to the The Legacy of Ernest Mandel between the legitimate anthropological optimism of Ernest Mandel and the optimism that was not based on historical predictions.

However, Manuel Kellner shows very well that the common thread that runs through the writings of Ernest Mandel and his conception of revolutionary strategy was the self-determination and self-activity of the working class as the touchstones of the process of universal human emancipation. .

Mandel's last text is a polemic against the North American "Spartacist" sect. He was already suffering from a heart condition, but he decided to travel to New York for this debate, against the advice of his friends (including the author of this foreword). In this text, Ernest Mandel recognizes two important gaps in the theoretical baggage of revolutionary Marxism: the ecological crisis and the oppression of women. Manuel Kellner soberly observes that these tasks are largely before us.

In his later years, Ernest Mandel began to significantly integrate the ecological crisis into his thinking. But it was only in the 2000s that the Fourth International adopted an ecosocialist perspective – that is, an ecological refoundation of socialism – in its program and strategy.

*Michael Lowy is director of research in sociology at Center nationale de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). Author, among other books, of What is Ecosocialism?Cortez).

Translation: Pedro barbosa.


Manuel Kellner. Against capitalism and bureaucracy: Ernest Mandel's theoretical contributions. Leiden, Brill, 2023, 476 pages.

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