Psycho-babble about Trots

Mike Macnair reviews Jan Willem Stutje’s Ernest Mandel: a rebel’s dream deferred Verso, 2009, pp600, £19.99

On August 1 Kathryn Hughes reviewed Hermione Lee’s Biography: a very short introduction (Oxford 2009) in The Guardian. The first point Hughes takes from Lee is that the biography is less straightforward than it appears. As a literary form it goes back to classical antiquity (if we are to disregard the self-congratulatory inscriptions of Egyptian pharaohs and Mesopotamian emperors, which would push it even further back); but it is also not quite entirely respectable as literature or history, because there is some sense that it can be a glorified form of the titbits that appear in gossip columns.

The question is, of course, what the biographer is trying to do, which in turn depends on the expected or target readership of the biography. Why should we care about - for example - The ingenious Mr Henry Care (1646-88)? The (perhaps overstated) answer given in the subtitle of the English edition of Lois G Schwoerer’s biography of him (Stroud, 2004) is that he was London’s first spin doctor.

Biography is, perhaps, a particularly problematic form for Marxist authors and Marxist subjects. It is true that Marxists recognise the real role of famous leading individuals as well as of the more obscure millions in making history; but the other side of this coin is that we recognise the existence of objective dynamics, composed of millions of small choices by obscure people. These operate behind all our backs and limit the choices which are actually open to anyone, however famous, innovative or at the centre of events they are.

As a result, common literary forms of biography are problematic for Marxists because of their implicit individualism. One such form is the individual triumph and tragedy, modelled ultimately on Plutarch. Another is the modern psychologising narrative of famous individuals’ adult motivations, as driven by childhood experience.

I begin with these general points about biography because it seems to me that Jan Willem Stutje’s biography of Ernest Mandel (1923-95) falls foul of more than one of them. The underlying question is: why should we want to read a biography of Ernest Mandel?

There are essentially two interconnected answers. The first is that after the appearance of Marxist economic theory in 1962 (English translation: 1968) Mandel was a prolific writer publishing in the borderlands of the academic left and the organised far left. Probably the books that had most impact and will continue to be most used, referred to and criticised are those on political economy - as well as Marxist economic theory, The formation of the economic thought of Karl Marx (1970; English translation: 1972), Late capitalism (1972; English translation: 1975), his introduction to the Penguin edition of volume 1 of Marx’s Capital (1976), and the edited collection Ricardo, Marx, Sraffa (1984).

The books going beyond political economy are more ephemeral, more immediately (or at least more obviously) connected to the shifting politics and tactics of the Fourth International, and do not have the same degree of intellectual depth. This is not to say that Mandel’s economic arguments were right, but simply to make the point that a useful biography of Mandel should probably place a high weight on the understanding and - so far as necessary - critique of his ideas in political economy.

The second reason for a biography of Mandel is that he was from 1946 a central leader of the Trotskyist (and, later, sub-Trotskyist) Fourth International (FI).1 Mandel was one of the principal intellectual producers of this organisation; it maintains a Mandel archive on its website, and it is possible, though not entirely accurate, to call the organisation ‘Mandelite’ as a sort of shorthand. It is common among Trotskyists, but pretty much useless, to call it ‘Pabloite’ after Michel Pablo (Michalis Raptis, 1911-96) who was more prominent than Mandel in the leadership between 1946 and 1961, but split from the organisation in 1965.

At its height in the 1970s the FI regrouped something over 10,000 members in 48 countries. This was still a very small organisation (though much larger than it had been in the late 1950s-60s). But it was also an organisation which had considerably wider influence. Trotskyists outside its ranks to a considerable extent defined their politics by opposition to the ‘Pabloites’, with the result that they de facto followed - if only in negation - the ideas of the ‘Pabloites’. For many of these organisations the end result was a collapse into worse versions of ‘Pabloism’. Meanwhile, the FI’s episodic engagement with critical elements coming from Maoism and ‘official communism’ (often moving rightwards) also meant some engagement of these writers and trends with the ideas of Mandel and his co-thinkers.

The net overall result is that ideas pioneered in the FI of the 1960s and 70s - often wrong ones - have become the common coin of the far left. This would make a serious study of the FI, and Mandel’s role in it in particular, worthwhile in order to understand modern far-left ideas better.

It is important not to overstate these points. In the first place, though the FI grew very dramatically between the late 1960s and the mid-to-late 1970s, this was equally true of pretty much all the far-left groups, whether Trotskyist, Maoist or something in between. And some of the political peculiarities of the FI - though violently different from other, ‘orthodox’, Trotskyist organisations - were the common coin of the post-1956 ‘new left’ revival of the ideas of 1920s ‘left communism’ and ‘council communism,’ and hence of the semi-spontaneist, radicalised student youth of 1968 and after.

Secondly, Mandel was the most prominent leader and intellectual producer of the Fourth International between the mid-1960s and his death. But he certainly did not play a role comparable to that of Tony Cliff (1917-2000) in the British International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party, Pierre Lambert (1920-2008) in the variously named organisations he led between the 1950s and his death, or any of the other guru-leaders of far-left groups. In some respects Mandel can be seen as playing for a (varying) collective leadership of the FI a role analogous to that played by Cliff Slaughter for Gerry Healy (1913-89) in the Socialist Labour League/Workers Revolutionary Party: that of providing Marxist and Trotskyist intellectual respectability for policies which were actually adopted for other reasons.

One of the distinctive features of the post-war FI has been a tailist form of unity-mongering which seeks a prominent ‘official left’ to follow and cling to. This can first be seen in the ‘replacement leadership theory’ in the entry of the British Trotskyists into the Labour Party in 1948, and the 50s Socialist Outlook headline “Bevan gives the lead the workers want”. It continues to the present day in the split of the Brazilian Fourth Internationalists over the Lula government and the very late turn of the Italian Sinistra Critica to open criticism of the leadership of Rifondazione Comunista. Is this tailism then the essence of ‘Mandelism’ or of ‘Pabloism’?

In fact, there is very little reason in the documentary record to attribute the invention of this tailist form of unity-mongering to either Mandel or Pablo, and there are good reasons to attribute it to Pierre Frank (1905-84). Frank had already promoted it in the 1930s, and was formally excluded from the Trotskyist international organisation over the issue in 1934, an exclusion maintained by the founding conference of the FI in 1938. But he was elevated to the international leadership - as one of the few pre-war survivors - in 1948, and remained in it until the 1970s.

So neither the influence of the FI nor the individual role of Mandel in forming its line should be overstated. Nonetheless a careful study of Mandel’s ideas and his tortuous path in the equally tortuous history of the FI and its rivals could be illuminating and educational in understanding how the far left has arrived at where it now is. Such a study would also throw light on Mandel’s political-economic ideas - which I said earlier were the first reason for a biography - since Mandel’s political-economic books were not written in any sense in isolation from his role as a leading militant of the FI.

Jan-Willem Stutje’s biography is, regrettably, not such a book. Though Stutje in his preface describes Mandel as “a Flemish revolutionary Marxist with whose ideas I feel a close affinity”, the book does not display a close engagement with those ideas. What it gives us instead is a ‘conventional’ individualistic biography of Mandel as a minor political figure on the Belgian, European and world stage.

The book is roughly, but not exactly, chronologically organised, with chapters concentrating to some extent on particular themes. It begins with Mandel’s family background, his childhood in a leftwing, middle class Jewish family and his experiences as a Trotskyist underground worker in World War II who had the good luck to survive arrest and deportation to Germany in 1944-45. It is perhaps significant to Mandel’s later dogged insistence on his formal Marxist and Trotskyist orthodoxy that his father, Henri Mandel, was involved in German communist politics in 1918-19 and a Trotskyist in the late 1930s, so that Mandel was a ‘child of the movement’ rather than one who had come to Marxism and Trotskyism from a background in other ideas. Beyond this point, however, Mandel’s family background and childhood are ‘colour’ rather than really telling us much about his ideas.

After this, we get chapters on ‘The power of the will’ (the FI and its debates in the immediate aftermath of World War II); ‘La Gauche and the social democrats’ (Mandel’s more or less leading role in the Belgian Trotskyists’ entry into the Socialist Party and its involvement with the broad left in that party between 1951 and 1964; ‘Marxist economic theory: a book about the world’; ‘In the Fourth International’ (Mandel in the history of the FI between the early 1950s and 1963); ‘The world of politics and scholarship: an odyssey’ on Mandel’s writings in the 1960s, and the genesis of Late capitalism; ‘Love and revolution’ on Latin America in the 1960s, the beginning of Mandel’s relationship with Gisela Scholtz (1935-82), and 1968 in Berlin and Paris; ‘Hope and despair’ on the 1970s and Gisela’s illness and death; ‘Revolution deferred’ on the 1980s and Mandel’s new relationship with Anne Sprimont; and ‘Socialism or death’ on the later 1980s and down to Mandel’s death in 1995.

Throughout the book there is a movement to and fro between extremely brief expository accounts of Mandel’s arguments, with occasionally even briefer accounts of his critics’ views, with information of the type of houses, cafes, etc, where meetings took place and the personalities of Mandel’s allies and interlocutors: for example, on Raptis/Pablo: “The charming young Greek with his fluent French bore no resemblance then to the authoritarian figure with whom Mandel would later clash” (p99). A running thread through the book is information about Mandel’s personal life; at p66 Stutje comments that “His relationships were always somewhat one-sided, whether in sunny times or sad.” Interesting to know, of course, as it is to know that Mandel’s character as a political workaholic affected his health (pp219-21); but it is not clear how much this tells us about Mandel the writer or Mandel the Fourth Internationalist.

Phil Hearse in his review of the book for International Viewpoint (July 2009) makes a couple of comments which are worth quoting in a generally positive review: “… amazingly the long fight in the 1980s with the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is absent from the book. This was fundamental because it involved an analysis of the whole state of the modern Marxist movement, the theory of permanent revolution and the role of the Fourth International” (the SWP was moving from Trotskyism to a sectarian variant of ‘official communism’). And, on the other side, “Astonishingly, however, there are pages and pages on the mid-1980s psycho-drama in the FI leadership over the organisation’s Polish work. This, Stutje claims, damaged Mandel’s reputation, damage that his reputation ‘never recovered from’. This is nonsense. Most people who knew, or knew of, Mandel didn’t know anything about this incident, in which he was not anyway a central actor.”2

Hearse correctly identifies Stutje’s comments on Mandel’s personal life as “biographer as psychoanalyst”. But he does not, as he should, go on to make two related points. The first is that - as I said above - “biographer as psychoanalyst” is one of the normal modern forms of individualist biography. The second is that this is not merely a matter of Stutje’s use of Mandel’s personal life. It informs the whole structure and character of the book. It is for this reason that we get little outline summaries of Mandel’s arguments and almost nothing of their context; instead being treated to the “charming young Greek” Pablo and such-like comments.

At the end of the day, Stutje’s conclusions are equally individualistic and psychologising. Mandel was “an optimist, a dreamer of the revolution” (p253). And “In this study I have frequently mentioned Mandel’s hesitations, and sought an explanation of his unwillingness - if not incapacity - to defend the integrity of his convictions, his tendency to compromise at crucial moments” (p257). Stutje proceeds to dilate for a couple of pages on Mandel’s excessive optimism, “not always comprehensible in light of the facts” (p260) (these ‘facts’ turn out to be standard Eurocommunist discourse about the decline of working class identification), ending: “the more longingly we recall his optimism and his humanism and miss his analyses, his hopes of finding a way out” (p260).

But Stutje has at no stage in the book actually engaged in depth with Mandel’s analyses which he “misses” or with their systematic critics. The book’s individualistic psychologising approach to its subject ends up with biography as glorified gossip.