Gilbert Achcar (ed) The legacy of Ernest Mandel Verso, London 1999, pp270, $45
This book is a comprehensive attempt to describe Mandel's theoretical work, especially his analysis of Marxist political economy and Stalinism. But the book has an important methodological problem: it abstracts Mandel's theoretical studies from his political role in leading the United Secretariat of the Fourth International.
Achcar maintains that Mandel's theory can be evaluated in a terms of distinct autonomy from his political practice: "Our goal was to emphasise those aspects of Mandel's contribution to Marxism which can be acknowledged and appraised regardless of any judgement on the specific political and organisational choices through which he attempted to translate his Marxist convictions, being a firm believer in the inseparability of revolutionary theory from revolutionary praxis. Mandel's theoretical production cannot be separated from his commitment to revolutionary class struggle, to be sure, but it can be assessed independently of the concrete ways through which he channelled his revolutionary praxis" (p12 - all quotes from Achcar, unless otherwise stated). Thus this work does not provide any independent criteria to help us comprehend the political nature of Mandel's theoretical output.
However, unintentionally, Robin Blackburn indicates an important political flaw in Mandel's political perspectives. To Mandel there was an "inherent logic of workers' struggle and workers' organisations in a direction of a challenge to the logic of capitalism" (p21). In his work Revolutionary Marxism today Mandel outlines a schema of how the working class can acquire revolutionary consciousness through the united front policy of putting demands upon the bourgeois workers' governments of social democracy. This approach acquires its own logic of self-mobilisation and confidence of the working class to challenge the power of capital. Hence Mandel has an emphasis upon the objective imperatives and self-developing logic of class struggle, which means the role of the revolutionary party becomes minimised (see E Mandel Revolutionary Marxism today London 1979, p43).
Michel Lowy maintains that despite Mandel's over-optimistic predictions about world revolution he does not have an inevitable conception of historical progress (pp28,34). Certainly Mandel does formally reject a one-dimensional and linear progression of history moving towards communism (p242). Formally, Mandel accepts the centrality of the unity of party and class in order to develop the consciousness necessary for revolution. But despite continual setbacks there is still certainty of victory in the struggle for world socialism (pp253-255). This fatalistic approach of history moving in the direction of socialism is located within Mandel's conception of Stalinism (see below).
Albarracin and Montes argue that Mandel tried to overcome the neglect of Marxist political economy in the post-World War II period, and he attempted to connect Marx's economic analysis of capitalism with important structural changes, such as technological development and the changing role of the state (pp38-74). Mandel uses Krondratieff's conception of long-wave (50 years of boom and slump) cycles to explain the post-war expansion of capitalism. The defeat of the working class in the 1930s and 1940s facilitated increased investment and an increased extraction of surplus value from the working class. A technological revolution increased the productivity of labour, and the supply of cheap raw materials from the oppressed nations also facilitated economic boom. But the increased strength of the working class in full employment conditions facilitated a fall in the rate of profit, or a product of the increased organic composition of capital. The state used inflation to try and overcome the increased economic problems of the mid-1970s.
Mandel shows that the destabilising role of money is expressed by almost permanent inflation, since money no longer has a commodity (socially necessary labour time) value expressed by gold, and instead money becomes an important problematical aspect of currency instability. He also indicates that an increase or decrease in wage levels are not reductively dependent upon the size of the reserve army of labour (unemployment). The level of class organisation also influences wage levels. Despite attacks on the working class's standard of living there have been no sustained periods of economic recovery since the mid 1970s.
Mandel's conception of long waves for understanding modern recession has been vindicated, according to Albarracin and Montes. "Mandel always insisted that profound social and economic changes were necessary for capitalism to overcome the recessive long wave. The fact that after a quarter-century capitalism does not seem to be recovering from the depressive long wave gives credit to his contributions and to Marxist analysis. Despite the hegemony of neo-liberalism, an examination of the different aspects of the 'new world order' hardly warrants confidence in the system's stability. Decisive economic events and profound class conflicts loom over the horizon" (p72).
Husson makes an important specific methodological criticism of Mandel's economic approach (pp75-103). Mandel has a rigid conception that the increased organic composition of capital (caused by the increased ratio of constant capital to variable capital) will lead to a fall in the rate of profit. For an increase in the technical composition of capital (the relation of constant capital to variable capital) may not lead to a fall in the rate of profit if there has been an increased productivity of labour, which results in the increase in surplus value extracted from the working class in relative terms. Therefore the rate of surplus value extraction increases despite an increase in constant capital.
This is why there has not been a rigid fall in the rate of profit despite the technological revolution: "The passage from technical composition of capital to organic composition of capital depends on the development of productivity and of real wages. Given a constant rate of surplus value, the organic composition of capital increases only if the technical composition of capital grows more quickly than the productivity of labour. In other words an identity between a rising technical composition of capital and a rising composition of capital in value terms cannot be posited as a general rule" (p86).
Before evaluating the discussion on Mandel and Soviet Stalinism, it is necessary to outline his views on the subject. These are outlined most concisely in Revolutionary Marxism today (pp114-161). The USSR was an isolated society in transition between capitalism and socialism. Capitalist counterrevolution had not occurred and there is no generalised capitalist commodity production, but there is also no control by the producers over the economy. This is a hybrid society with socialist relations of production, which is in transition between two fundamental modes of production, from capitalism to socialism. There is not the stability of a self-reproducing socialist mode of production, and so the social relations are still fragile.
There is a conflict between planning and the law of value that expresses the bourgeois nature of distribution and consumption, according to Mandel. The bureaucracy is not a class presiding over a stable mode of production because its parasitic and privileged nature undermines the economic growth of the productive forces. Despite these economic problems caused by the bureaucracy there is still real planning based upon the social ownership of the means of production.
The possibility of capitalist restoration is in the interests of a section of the bureaucracy who want to increase their material privileges, but this process would lead to resistance from other sections of the bureaucracy and the working class. Hence there can be no gradual and peaceful restoration of capitalism: "But before all these tendencies could lead to an actual restoration of capitalism, they would have to overcome the resistance of the key sectors of the state apparatus that oppose the whole trend. This, incidentally, is the objective justification for our use of the scientific formula 'degenerated workers state' to describe the USSR, in spite of all the anti-working class measures and the total lack of direct working class power, or even political rights. "Even more important, though they would have to overcome the resistance of the proletariat itself, which has a lot to lose through such a process of capitalist restoration, particularly what is undoubtedly the major remaining conquest of October from the standpoint of the workers: a qualitative higher degree of job security than exists under capitalism"( E Mandel Revolutionary Marxism today London 1979, p150).
Charles Post argues that Mandel's defence of the conception of the degenerated workers' state is problematic (p119-151). Firstly, the material privileges of the bureaucracy cannot be restricted to bourgeois norms of distribution, but are an expression of the economic and political domination of the bureaucracy: "Much of the bureaucracy's substantially higher standard of living compared to the working class was not derived from their superior incomes and market access to commodities. It was instead based upon their political power, derived from their command of the state apparatus and the state-owned means of production, to gain preferential non-market, non-commodity access to consumer goods through special stores and 'jumping the queue' for relatively scarce consumer goods like cars, housing, and so forth" (p140).
Secondly, various modes of production, including feudalism, have had commodity production for the market, and so have expressed unequal bourgeois norms of distribution, but they are still not the capitalist mode of production. This means it could be possible that market types of inequalities could be present within a post-capitalist and bureaucratic mode of production. The increased role of the market within command economies has possibly expressed the antagonism and inequality of a bureaucratic economy that does not represent a degenerated workers' state.
Thirdly, both Trotsky and Mandel define a degenerated workers' state through nationalisation, planning, and the monopoly of foreign trade. The political structure is dominated by a Bonapartist elite, so the working class rules, but does not govern. But the outcome of proletarian revolution should be the self-emancipation of the producers, and so a degenerated workers' state is a contradiction in terms: "The analogy with feudal absolutism and capitalist dictatorships tends to obscure the differentia specifica of the transition to socialism. First, neither the feudal nor capitalist modes of production emerged from the struggles of classes self-consciously attempting to create new forms of society. Instead, feudalism and capitalism arose out of the struggles of already propertied classes to consolidate and extend their class domination.
"Socialism, by contrast, is the first form of society created in a conscious struggle by a propertyless social class, the working class. Further, both feudalism and capitalism are reproduced through a 'blind economic logic' that operates 'behind the back' of both the economically dominant classes and the direct producers. The feudal aristocracy and the bourgeoisie can remain socially dominant without directly dominating the state. Socialism is the first form of society based on conscious and deliberate planning of economic development" (p143).
Fourthly, to Mandel the character of the degenerated workers' state is connected to the rapid social mobility of the USSR, but this social phenomenon does not alter the actuality of exploitative relations of production. However, Post is unable to define the exploiting character of Stalinist societies, and instead he is content to describe the fluid and changing nature of the USSR (p145-146).
Catherine Samary outlines how to Mandel the conflict between the parasitic nature of the bureaucracy and the need to develop the productive forces will be resolved through either political revolution or capitalist restoration (p152-190). The actual demise of Stalinism and the victory of bourgeois elites has not made the process of capitalist restoration very easy. This is because of the lack of capital to facilitate capitalist restoration. The theory of state capitalism does not explain how and why USSR was insulated from the market and is now open to market forces. The bureaucracy did not have proper control of factories, and this is why they now support privatisation because it increases economic power for the ruling elite. But Mandel's degenerated workers' state theory does not indicate why the bureaucracy wanted to introduce market mechanisms, which was connected to the increasing inefficiency of the economy. Mandel did not place enough emphasis upon the increasing anti-working class and pro-capitalist nature of the bureaucracy. He also underestimated the difficulty in developing working class resistance to the bureaucracy, which was because the working class had no real alternative to the aims of the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy has been able to establish fragile bourgeois states, even if it has not been successful at realising capitalist restoration. In other words, Mandel does not explain why most of the bureaucracy ended up supporting capitalist restoration when this particular conception of the degenerated workers' state suggests that the bureaucracy would oppose capitalism.
In general the various supporters of Mandel have outlined the theoretical merits and limitations of Mandel's political economy and his conception of Stalinism. Specifically they have shown that Mandel was unprepared for the political developments of the 1989-91 period, and they connect this theoretical and political problem to Mandel's adherence to the degenerated workers state theory. Unfortunately this critical evaluation of Mandel's approach towards Stalinism is not connected to providing an alternative, and so the necessity to go beyond the limitations of Mandel's politics is posed, but not articulated. Therefore it still a necessary task for revolutionary Marxists to carry out a more extensive and searching critique of Mandel's theory of history and Stalinism, and of his political perspectives.