Ernest Mandel, who died at the age of seventy-two on July 20th, was possessed of outstanding talents as thinker, speaker and political leader, in a combination that has become rarer as the century has progressed. He was one of the world’s leading Marxist economists, and author of more than twenty books published in as many languages, yet never pursued an academic career. He was an inspiring speaker in half-a-dozen languages and an indefatigable campaigner and organizer. He passionately defended the ideas of Leon Trotsky at a time when this was both unpopular and dangerous and he was a leading member of the Fourth International for over four decades. Yet, in contrast to many leaders of groupuscules, he was possessed of a lofty outlook and commanded affection, respect and admiration from wide layers of the Left. Perhaps more than any other single person he was the educator of the new generation recruited to Marxism and revolutionary politics by the student revolts of the sixties, especially in Europe and the Americas. For several years the United States, France, West Germany, Switzerland and Australia denied him entry, deeming his very presence a threat to ‘national security’. His Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory (1968) sold half a million copies worldwide. For over thirty years Ernest Mandel was a regular contributor to New Left Review and Verso was proud to be the publisher of many of his books. His friendly admonitions and irrepressible optimism will be sorely missed.

Ernest Mandel was born to Belgian Jewish parents who had emigrated from Poland at the turn of the century. In the remarkable extract from an interview which we publish here Mandel describes his early contact with a Trotskyist group before the outbreak of war and his experiences in the Resistance and in a German prison camp. Following the end of the war he studied at the University of Brussels and the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris. His first major work was a two volume Treatise on Marxist Economics (published in French in 1962 and in English in 1967) though he had already made his mark as a gifted polemicist, contributing, under the name Ernest Germaine, both to Trotskyist disputes and to the debate in Les Temps Modernes aroused by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Les Communistes et la Paix.

Mandel’s Marxism was attractive to the new team at NLR in the early sixties because it was focused on current politics and informed by wide reading of anthropology, history and economics. Mandel was asked to write on Belgium. The resulting article, published in nlr 20, started from the revolution in the Low Countries in the sixteenth century, showed why nineteenth-century Belgium had been ‘the classic European bourgeois state’, analysed the Belgian general strike of 1960–1 and concluded with a sketch of the ‘structural reforms’ needed to take matters forward.footnote1 This essay was to furnish one of the models for nlr’s subsequent series of country studies. His Treatise was reviewed in nlr 21 by the eminent economist H.D. Dickenson.

Mandel’s two most distinctive and widely noticed contributions to the nlr of the Sixties were a vindication of Trotsky in debate with Nicholas Krasso and a much reprinted lecture entitled ‘Where is America Going?’. Krasso was a former student of Lukács who had played a role in the establishment of the Budapest Workers’ Council in 1956. His article in nlr criticised what he saw as the ‘sociological’ reductionism of Trotsky’s concept of ‘permanent revolution’ and the workers’ state. Mandel’s two lengthy replies ranged widely over the history of the century, defending the necessity of building a Marxist alternative to Stalinism and arguing that Stalinism was not merely a wrong and dangerous theory but also the expression of ‘an autonomous social layer’, namely the bureaucracy. Krasso and Mandel were both too inclined to judge Trotsky by a Leninist yardstick, Krasso criticising Trotsky for not having displayed Lenin’s political skills in his battle against Stalin and Mandel being over-cautious in differentiating Trotsky’s legacy from Leninist orthodoxy. When I taxed him with this once he referred me to his pamphlet on ‘The Leninist Theory of Organization’ (1976) where he had been more forthright: ‘Lenin, in his first debate with the Mensheviks, very much underestimated the danger of the apparatus becoming autonomous and of the bureaucratization of the workers parties. . .Trotsky and Luxemburg recognized this danger more accurately and earlier than Lenin.’footnote2

While many prominent writers influenced by Trotsky became historians, like Trotsky himself—Isaac Deutscher, C.L.R.James, Daniel Guerin, Pierre Broué—Mandel’s writings are more redolent of Rosa Luxemburg’s influence, with their sinewy analysis of capitalism and thorough-going commitment to Marxist universalism. Despite his attachment to Lenin’s memory, he was also committed to a rather Luxemburgist view of the creativity of the workers’ movement in action. It could also be said that his own creativity often flourished in contexts where he was not preoccupied by the reaction of the less enlightened wing of the Trotskyist movement—when addressing a public rally or writing for the Frankfurter Rundschau.

Re-reading ‘Where is America Going?’ (1969) it is striking how accurately it forecast the consequences for the us of intensifying competition and declining profitability. The future would see stagnant or declining wages, growing public squalor and financial speculation divorced from productive investment.footnote3 Mandel was at this time engaged on writing his single most important work, Late Capitalism, with its sustained analysis of the dynamic and limitations of the postwar boom. At this time the leading mainstream economists and commentators all wrote as if capitalism had successfully and permanently dampened the trade cycle and ensured conditions of constant growth and full employment. On the Left those who subscribed to the notion of state monopoly capitalism asserted that a managed capitalist system now reigned under us hegemony, in which inter-capitalist competition was of minor importance. Late Capitalism published in 1972 in Germany and 1975 in Britain offered a very different, and as it turned out immensely prescient, analysis. In an original redeployment of Kondratiev’s theory of ‘long waves’ of capitalist development Mandel argued that the postwar boom had run out of steam and that the conditions had been created for lower profits, the erosion of real wages in the us and the re-emergence of mass unemployment in the advanced countries. It can fairly be said that Late Capitalism still ranks as the commanding Marxist work on the subject, combining a general theory of the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism with specific analysis of its postwar development.

Ernest Mandel earned his living from writing and political work. He advised the Belgian trade unions on economic matters and, towards the end of his life, taught some classes at the University of Brussels. His contacts with the academic world were few. However in 1978 he was invited by the University of Cambridge to give the Alfred Marshall Lectures. The book which resulted, Long Waves in Capitalist Development, has just been republished with two new chapters surveying the course of global recession over the last two decades and responding to other students of world economy. While Mandel analyses the inexorable structural tendencies underlying the capitalist trade cycle he also argues that the preconditions for an upturn are essentially political and social in character.