Obituary: Ernest Mandel

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Ernest Mandel, economist: born Frankfurt 5 April 1923; books include Late Capitalism 1972, The Second Slump 1978, Power and Money 1983; twice married; died Brussels 20 July 1995.

It would be difficult to find anyone more intimately involved with the socialist tradition in Europe than Ernest Mandel. A dedicated revolutionist, he also spent much of his life trying to influence reformist parties. An original dissident in Communism, he never stopped engaging the social democratic tradition.

Mandel was born in 1923 in Germany, where his father had moved after the Russian Revolution to help the German Communists establish a branch of the Soviet Press Agency. In the tumultuous events which followed, Henri Mandel decided to leave for Antwerp, which is where young Ernest spent his childhood.

Ernest was 16 years old when the Second World War broke out, and had already enrolled himself as an active socialist. By the following year he was working in the Resistance. He had come under the influence of a small Trotskyist group led by Abram Leon. He took part in the distribution of a clandestine bulletin aimed at the German Army, with the intention of fomenting unrest. Three times he was arrested, and once he was consigned to Auschwitz. He escaped, with the help of former socialists among the prison guards.

By the end of the Second World War, the European Trotskyists were a beleaguered group. They had survived persecution by Communists and Nazis, and their point of view was not very welcome in the democracies. Always a fissiparous lot, no doubt their natural attraction to doctrinal disputation was aggravated by agents provocateurs of various kinds. Evidently the Russians were not anxious to leave them unobserved: but other intelligence agencies also maintained constant fishing expeditions.

In self-defence, Ernest Mandel and his comrades opted for a complex style of life. All embraced pseudonyms, sometimes more than one. Mandel became famous under the name Germain. He produced a constant stream of polemics, often esoteric, usually with other far-left groupings. These were syndicated all around the world in every language in which his tiny group could muster adherents. These articles triggered speaking invitations, and, as a very young man, Mandel found himself lecturing in many different countries.

He made himself fluent in all the European languages. He polished his English by regular visits to the cinema. But he won a great deal of practice by reading the economic press, world-wide. By the late 1950s, he had an encyclopaedic knowledge, not only of labour and social history, but also of economic affairs, in Europe and globally.

It was at this point that Mandel began his career as a spellbinder of European students. I invited him to speak to the Labour Party Students' summer camp in Kessingland, in Suffolk, in 1959. British students were entering a period of heightened interest in socialist dogmatics, back to and including the momentous split between Stalin and Trotsky. But had Mandel stuck to ritual apologetics, his influence would have been marginal indeed. What electrified his audience was a combination of great erudition worn with simplicity and modesty; transparent idealism, not to say romanticism; and curiosity. Everywhere he went, he listened. The British students responded with enthusiasm, as did Germans, Italians, French and later Portuguese and Spaniards.

Young people who enter politics sometimes do so in search of a career. Not many such people sat at Mandel's feet. But those who are not prematurely aged commonly seek ways to remake the world in a kinder and more sympathetic way. A surprisingly large proportion of Europe's rebels found their way, sooner or later, to Mandel's meetings.

Their questions and arguments provoked a stream of books, many of which remain significant. Mandel's first important work was a two- volume treatise on Marxist Economics (1962). It ranged widely outside and around the field, and enriched students in anthropology and sociology as much as those in politics and economics. I tried to persuade various British publishers to issue a translation, and the job was finally done by the Merlin Press.

By now, the taste for polemic was undimmed, but Mandel had larger adversaries in his sights. There followed a magisterial work on the Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx (1967). Under the influence of Roman Rosdolsky, Mandel then went on to produce a comprehensive study of Late Capitalism (1972). A string of other works followed, mostly published in English under the imprint of New Left Books, or Verso. The latest addition to that publisher's catalogue is Mandel's update of his Cambridge Lectures, on Long Waves of Capitalist Development. This remarkable work developed out of and beyond the theses of the Russian economist Nikolai Kondratiev who had earlier in the century registered the fact that as well as being ups and downs in trade cycles, there were longer movements that ran over periods of 20 to 30 years.

This body of work was worthy of a distinguished professor, and indeed Mandel held his Chairs, and at Cambridge delivered his Marshall lectures. But all the time he was seeking to promote the revolution which was so long in coming. Most of his bright young students did not tarry for long in his organisation, which seemed to invert all his vital curiosity, sterilising his most exciting ideas in a thick stodge of bigotry.

Mandel preserved the affection of many, perhaps most of those he influenced: but his organisation grew fitfully and split frequently. He sought continuously to relate to other movements, if they were doing anything of interest to him.

In 1967 I visited Fidel Castro on behalf of Bertrand Russell. Mandel asked me if I could secure an invitation for him to meet the Cuban leader. Castro agreed without demure, but he was too fly to keep his promise. Instead, Mandel and his young wife were entertained, and invited to discussions with many different Cuban officials. One of them subsequently told me: "The professor was very clever, but he could not shoot at all. But his wife: she could have been a crack shot!"

Romantic idealists sometimes make very bad politicians. They are often impatient of criticism. But Mandel was the soul of democratic patience. Of course, he was profoundly influenced and shaped by Trotsky. Of course, Trotsky's was a remarkable character, containing many tributary streams. Mandel approached this complex heritage with a Cartesian lucidity. He unerringly emphasised the democratic commitments of Trotsky, and the pluralism which he learnt, so late, from his life's tormented experience.

Perhaps Mandel's own obituary should be sought in the concluding chapter of his own book on Trotsky. There are as many Trotskys as there are authors who are moved to write about the man. But Mandel's Trotsky "fought for all of us who love human civilisation, for whom this civilisation is our nationality".

Although, from time to time, all the civilised countries were prone to exclude him, Ernest Mandel contributed richly to the development of that civilisation he wanted them all to share.