Romance of Fire: The life of Ernest Mandel

Ernest Mandel

Aside from Tony Cliff (and the ‘old man’ himself) few can claim intellectual leadership of the Trotskyist movement like Ernest Mandel can. He was not only the pillar of the Fourth Internationale but also the most widely published Belgian author since Georges Simenon. He gave the prestigious Alfred Marshall lectures at Cambridge in 1967, and produced books, articles, and pamphlets at prodigious speed. His words introduced Penguin’s edition of Marx’s Capital for decades. Yet, Mandel’s personal life never did run smooth. Tariq Ali says that when it came to the choice between ‘perfecting the life and perfecting the work’; Mandel always chose the latter. Love took a backseat to the revolution.

Ironically, Mandel’s father made the opposite choice. He had worked with Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in the 1910s, but after seeing their brutal murder and the crushing of the Spartacus uprising, he became disillusioned and dropped out of active politics; devoting himself instead to family and friends. Fritz Besser, a family friend and a mentor of Mandel’s said that ‘of all the political animals I met in my life he [Henri] was the only human being’. Rosa, Mandel’s mother, became the cradle of Henri’s affection. He adored her lofty eyes, and free spirit. They were married in 1921, and two years later Ernest was born.

Mandel took after his mother’s looks, but bore his father’s temperament. Precocious and full of energy, he excelled in school. But sometimes made mistakes at home. For example, the ‘secret game’ he played with friends deliberately excluded his brother Michel. Big brother could be domineering and was sometimes insensitive. Still, Mandel was on the whole a caring boy. After watching Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables, he was so moved by the ethics of the Paris communards that he declared his ‘politics were determined for the rest of his life’. And later, when his grades got him into the Royal Athenaeum, he used his excellence as leverage against sadistic teachers who bullied (mostly Jewish) students.

Mandel’s schooling came to an end with the second world war. He had wanted to study history, but dropped out to join the Belgian resistance against Nazi occupation. By this time he’d been fully immersed in Marxism, thanks, not only to his father, but the steady stream of Eastern refugees – both from Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Russia (the Moscow show trials had begun) – that had loged in the Mandels’ home. The aforementioned Fritz Besser was among them, and he and Henri Mandel started up a publishing house for the Fourth International.

Father and son worked away on ‘The Free World’ a remarkably pluralist, anti-occupation paper until August of 1942, when Henri Mandel got word that the Gestapo was on their tail. Ernest was away on work, but got word that his family had gone underground. He moved to a safehouse near Brussels and made plans to rendezvous. But in September 1942, Ernest was arrested after having carelessly gone looking for left-behind groceries at an old safehouse. He found the Gestapo waiting for him. Sadly, this carelessness was typical of the Trotskyist movement at the time. Cells were in communication with each other, and were it not for old information, the entire Belgian leadership would have been arrested in operation Sipo.

Mandel would be arrested three times in total during the war. But such was his cavalier attitude that each time he would attempt a daring escape, and go right back to illegal activity. On his second arrest, Mandel noticed that the electric fence powered down when the gate opened, and jumped it in the face of snipers and guards. After a day of ‘exhilarating’ freedom in the woods, he was stopped at a traffic block and couldn’t produce papers, and so was taken back. Fortunately, he refused to give the name of his camp and had to be placed in a holding station. Had he been taken back immediately, he would ‘have been instantly hanged’.

Mandel reunited with his family once the war ended and dove straight into politics. His father wanted an academic career for him, but Mandel took a job as a journalist. He fell in love with a girl named Micky Tracks, a slender, sharp woman; also a member of the Fourth International. Things were going well until in quick succession; several of Mandel’s friends experienced mental breakdowns, his father died, and Micky Tracks finally rejected his love, stating ‘I am unfaithful, selfish, capricious. Even with great love you couldn’t stand all this together…I am not what you need, not even what you want […] Don’t worry; you can’t imagine what a terrible life you escape…’ (Stutje 2009, 64).

Thus, was planted the seed of fear in Mandel’s brave heart. A fear that others would not share his optimism. That they would abandon him and his ideals. Mandel started making compromises. He joined the reformist Belgian Socialist Party (BSP), where he tried establish a left-wing. A strategic move, but uncharacteristically tame compared to the wartime Mandel. And one that didn’t bear fruit. Labour leader Andre Renard crossed the picket line and followed the ABVV (Belgian General Trade Union Federation) into negotiations. The demands for structural reforms that Mandel had held so dear, as well as La Gauche, the left-wing tendency paper he helped found within the BSP, were both scrapped.

After the break with the BSP, Mandel focused on writing and international work. In 1962, he published his Marxist Economic Theory in French, and the book came out in English translation four years later; on the eve of ’68. Along with works like Arghiri Emmanuel’s Unequal Exchange and Samir Amin’s Accumulation on a World Scale, Marxist Economic Theory helped relaunch the debate on Marxian economics by extending the frame of analysis to the world scale. Mandel used Trotsky’s notion of ‘uneven and combined development’ to analyse ‘transitional’ societies; both peripheral nations, and ‘socialist’ countries in the eastern bloc. With regard to the former, Mandel argued, in agreeance with people like Amin and Emmanuel, that developing countries do not travel on the same unilinear path from feudalism, to capitalism, to socialism; hence, the successful socialist revolutions in the periphery. With regard to the latter, Mandel identified a contradiction between ‘non-capitalist modes of production’ and ‘bourgeois forms of distribution’. Bureaucratization, in other words, yielded an unstable social formation that could either fall left, towards socialism, or right; to restoration. On this point he differed from his more third-worldist counterparts like Amin. And Eurocentric critics pointed to Mandel’s neglect of crisis theory and the falling rate of profit, in favour of broadening out the analysis world-historically.

One of the most avid readers of Mandel’s great work was Che Guevara. As minister of Cuban industry, Che argued that central planning and moral incentives were on the agenda in Cuba. Contrawise, a bloc of pro-Soviet party elites ascribed to the Zhdanov doctrine on developing countries; Cuba, like the rest of the South, had to build up productive forces through capitalist means – material incentives and decentralized planning – before socializing the economy. In a hot Havana office bloc, Mandel and Che discussed their plan of attack in the upcoming debate with Charles Bettelheim, the French economist backing the party elite. Mandel argued that Bettelheim was searching for pure forms in concrete reality. Just because the Cuban state was too weak to own and manage all fixed capital, enough could be state owned for central planning to work. Ultimately it was the failure of revolutions elsewhere in Latin America that pushed Cuba into a corner and forced them to increase dependence on the USSR, ending the debate in favour of the pro-Soviet Zhdanov line.

In politics to questions were becoming global. The Korean war put a nuclear third world war on the agenda, and here Mandel backed the analysis of Michel Raptis; alias, Pablo; entry into established worker’s parties was necessary to prepare for a coming revolutionary situation. Later however, Mandel broke with Pablo when he took an extreme third-worldist line; arguing that all activity in the West should be halted in favour of direct support of national liberation movements. This was stimulated by the Algerian war and counterfeiting activity in support of the FLN (Front de Liberation Nationale) eventually got Pablo arrested, but even from prison he controlled finances and marshalled the support of Argentinian Juan Posadas against Mandel and the Western Europeans. Ultimately, Pablo and Posadas split, and Mandel’s successful rapprochement with the US SWP strengthened his prestige in the Internationale. The radical third-worldist slant of Pablo and Posadas was losing splendour just as the echoes of ’68 entered the scene.

Mandel spent much of ’68 on the barricades, with the students and academic adversaries. All were equal on the barricades! It was an exhilarating time, and Mandel’s faith in the Western working class appeared vindicated. Just prior – in 1967 – he had gotten close to Rudi Dutschke, the radical student leader of the German SDS. Mandel tried to convince him that entry into the biggest workers parties was the way to go since conditions were ripe for a revolutionary explosion in Europe. The failure of May 1968, Mandel later concluded, was due to a lack of implementation of precisely this policy in France. The students were too distant from the workers. Spontaneous actions failed to transcend into factory councils and concrete demands. Dual power – Mandel was never taken by the dream of an ‘October ‘68’ but ‘February ‘68’ he believed was possible – did not materialize. The Gaullist system consolidated power, and once again Mandel retreated to his study.

The failures of ’68 prompted a series of articles on the Trotskyist theory of organization. Mandel argued for two levels of organization; worker’s councils to provide spontaneity and flexibility, combined with a vanguard party to provide longevity and stability. He defended his position against Nicolas Krasso, a Hungarian Marxist, in the New Left Review. Shortly thereafter, the journal’s editor, Perry Andersson asked Mandel to write the introduction to Penguin’s new translation of Marx’s Capital. This, along with Mandel’s Late Capitalism, which came out in 1971 (building on his prior work in Marxist Economic Theory and adding in a multiplicity of factors and a theory of long waves) cemented Mandel’s reputation in the scholarly world. He was invited to give the Alfred Marshall lectures at Cambridge in 1978.

Just as the speaking invitations began pouring in, Mandel became a persona non grata in several countries. This was linked to his support of violent liberation struggles in South America, not least among them Roberto Santucho’s in Argentina. Santucho’s men kidnapped Fiat Argentina’s CEO and executed him when the ransom – 50 comrades released, 500 workers reinstated, $1million in assistance to the poor – went unpaid. Mandel refused to condemn the execution and was labelled a ‘theoretician of terror’. He defended himself by citing partisan resistance against the Nazis to no avail. Had he come out more strongly against ultra-leftism within the Internationale, things might have been different. But Mandel feared losing the radical French section that had swelled in the wake of ’68.

Mandel’s wife, Gisela, was a stronger supporter of the ultra-left than Mandel. They’d met in spring of ’65. Gisela was married and dissatisfied. In Mandel she found a synthesis of love and revolution. Of stability and independence. He adored her energy and piercing eyes. But emotionally, he was unavailable. More and more Gisela found herself pigeonholed as ‘Ernest’s woman’ inside the very left-milieu she’d hoped would set her free. She struggled with all her might to get out from under Ernest’s shadow, and this drove her to ever more extremes of overwork, requiring ever higher doses of medication to support. Combined with a predisposition to bipolarity, her condition steadily worsened throughout the 70s, as the South European struggles – Spain 1971; Portugal 1974 – also waned.

Only in the 80s did Mandel recognize that the wind of ’68 had petered out. It was a bitter time for him. Rudi Dutschke died in 1979, and Gisela joined him in the afterlife in 1982. Mandel was overcome with grief. He could not speak at the funeral. He confided in his friend Charles Andre Udry of his guilt. In the Internationale to, things were on the wane. Full-timers were losing confidence. The IIRE (international institute for research and education) was established to counteract this tendency, but the cadre training school could not undo the collapse of the Italian section and similar malaise elsewhere. Add to this Mandel’s declining health; a check-up in Lausanne revealed that Mandel’s body was almost twice as old as it should be, due to a combination of overeating, overwork, and a lack of exercise.

Were it not for his meeting Anne Spirmont, his future wife, in the summer of 1982, and the Solidarity strikes in Poland, Mandel may have fell into despair. Unlike Gisela, Anne was her own person; a schoolteacher and a pianist. She adored the laughter in his eyes, and would play him his favourite composers on her grand piano. It was on holiday with Anne that Mandel penned the long essay that would become Delightful Murder; a history of detective stories, and the only of Mandel’s works (up to that time) to be published in Russian. What relief. And what hope when 10 million workers joined hands in ‘active strikes’ and formed worker’s councils in Poland! Perhaps a hope too precious however, as Mandel’s strongarming the doubtful wing of the Internationale – Samaray, Krivine, Gowan, and Wolf – demonstrates.

Not only did Poland divide the already fractured leadership, it led to a scam that cost the Internationale money. Out of the blue a ‘Coordinating Committee of the Worker’s Opposition’ (POR-S) made contact with the Internationale through Jan Kowalewski, a Polish labour leader and friend of the Internationale. Mandel ignored the warnings of people like the pseudonymous Simon, who had extensive experience in underground political work regarding the committee’s credibility, and when the hucksters made off with the money; accusations were opened up against Kowalewski, further dividing the leadership.

With the organizational continuity of the Internationale threatened, Mandel doubled the number of full timers in 1990. But political developments – particularly the collapse of the USSR and the rightward swing of the East German uprisings – flew in the face of Mandel’s optimistic rhetoric. More comrades left, but some remained; and it can be argued that were it not for Mandel’s efforts, the only thing worse than defeat would have befallen the Trotskyist tradition; surrender.

By this time Mandel was too weak to walk except with great difficulty. He brought a folding stool with him to lectures, and read off of notes; unusual for the fiery orator who could move crowds to their feet in five languages. One day, Anne decided to get the morning paper instead of Mandel and when she returned to an eery silence, she found him unconscious upstairs. Mandel never woke. His funeral was a lively procession in honour of his lifelong optimism in ‘homo spernas’ (‘aspiring man’). His ashes were placed – with Gisela’s – at the foot of the Mur de Federes; he’d come to rest besides the heroes he so admired in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables as a boy.


Stutje, J.W. (2009). Ernest Mandel: A Rebel’s Dream Deferred. Verso.

Justin Theodra is a masters student at SOAS, University of London interested in intellectual biography; Marxist political economy; and the life and work of Samir Amin. He runs the facebook feeds ‘lives on the left’ and ‘songs of revolution’.




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