William Mandel and the issues he poses
walterlx at earthlink.net
Mon Dec 30 10:29:48 MST 2002
William Mandel points to real problems in the
construction of a socialist society. I wrote in
reviewing his lengthy but fascinating memoir,
my sense is that he threw out the socialist
baby with the Stalinist bathwater. To date
Cuba has made various mistakes, corrected
many, and is struggling against incredible
odds to build a society based on socialism
This is very, very, very difficult in a world
where such ideas are considered passe by
the dominant capitalist media. It's purpose
is to bludgeon all of us into submission to the
private property, private-individualistic and
dog-eat-dog ethos it wants us to accept.
I'm glad that Mandel's words, those of a
disillusioned former Stalinist but one who,
unlike other former leftists, hasn't moved
whole-hog to the right. Mandel continues
to fight to defend black and democratic
rights. In his comments which I shared,
he points to many genuine problems the
Marxism movement cannot avoid unless
it wants to repeat prior bad experiences.
The market plays its role in Cuba, too.
The troubles we're having on the island
with petroleum is one exemple and if
you go to the agro-pecuario markets
here on the island you can easly see
the laws of supply and demand at work.
Fortunately for me, I never had to shuck
off the Stalinist training he had, though
I've had to shuck off other kinds of stuff.
Most of the contributions to the Marxism
list seem to be based on theoretical
considerations. They're just fine and I'm
pleased to read them. I wish there were
more direct experience-based comments
posted to the list to complement those
based on theoretical considerations.
Mark Jones comments were very much
in tune with my own thinking, only he
spelled them out in much greater detail
than I had thought to do...Thanks, Mark!
Below is my review of Mandel's memoir.
SAYING NO TO POWER
By William Mandel
Reviewed by Walter Lippmann
Change-Links newspaper, June 2001
walterlx at earthlink.net
Must greed, violence, racism and sexism forever be driving
forces in society, or is an alternative possible? Are they
inherent features in capitalism, or just very bad beliefs
and practices, which people of good will can ultimately
overcome? These questions have long challenged thinking
Capitalism, though unstable, remains dominant in most of the
world. SAYING NO TO POWER (Creative Arts, Berkeley, 1999) is
William Mandel's account of over seventy years of activism
for social justice within the pre-eminent capitalist power
on earth. I found Mandel's account an enthralling read.
I first heard of Mandel when seeing OPERATION ABOLITION, a
propaganda movie created by the House Un-American Activities
Committee (HUAC) to defend itself against public protests. A
talented speaker, Mandel told the committee and the world,
that he would simply not cooperate with its investigations
into legal political activity. His words echo to this day,
and can still be heard on Mandel's website. Such public
defiance contributed to the ultimate demise of HUAC.
SAYING NO TO POWER is a fascinating, if somewhat overlong
narrative. 83-year-old Mandel is the author of several books
and innumerable academic and popular articles on the former
Soviet Union and other subjects. He's already working on his
next book. Mandel will be speaking and signing at Skylight
and Midnight Special this month (see calendar for June 10
Born to parents who supported the Russian Revolution and the
Communist Party, USA, Mandel spent a year in the Soviet
Union as a child, became fluent in Russian, and later a
self-educated expert in Soviet affairs. He visited the
Soviet Union numerous times, and has returned since the
USSR's collapse. Without formal academic credentials, and
holding very positive views of the USSR, Mandel was excluded
from academic life, during the Cold war and since, though
he's highly knowledgeable.
He joined the Communist Party USA in the early, with which
his relations were at times stormy. Expelled at one point
(for maintaining contact with his mother-in-law, whose
politics differed from the CP), he defended himself
vigorously, but was never told the outcome of his political
trial. They simply didn't take his dues or allow him to
attend meetings. No one would explain it to him. His
politics hadn't changed.
Some years later, the CP invited him to rejoin. He made a
half-hearted effort at seeing through a reform process after
the Khrushchev revelations of the crimes of Stalin. When the
CP didn't reform as he hoped, he left permanently in 1957.
Mandel remained an independent activist, very sympathetic
to, but not uncritical of, the USSR until the early 1990s.
For most of his adult life, Mandel considered himself a
Marxist. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Mandel longer
considered himself a Marxist or even a socialist.
Today he calls himself a "pragmatic humanist". But he hasn't
moved to the right. Unlike others who've made such a
transition, Mandel doesn't repudiate his past. He mostly
celebrates it, (without nostalgia). He just no longer
believes a higher form of society is possible.
And an amazing life it has been. This review can barely
suggest a fraction of Mandel's experiences. He's a fine
narrator, describing activities, struggles and people he's
met. It's easy to see how his popular 37-year career in
You can see how his gifts for public speaking and advocacy
could have gained him a successful career in business,
academia or even mainstream politics, had he chosen it.
Mandel, however, committed his entire life to struggles for
free speech and social justice. We're all enriched by his
Most striking are his relentless opposition to racism and
sexism, and an ability to learn from people he's involved
with. He fought for the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s, Paul
Robeson in the 1940s, W.E.B. DuBois in the 1950s, the Black
Panthers in the 1970s to Mumia Abu-Jamal today.
Mandel's disillusion with socialism and Marxism flowed from
his belief that the Soviet Union was a socialist society.
Had he not mistook a flawed experiment, a contradictory mix
of positive and negative features, for the real thing, he
might not have given up the socialist goal.
To be a real alternative to capitalism, socialism requires
material abundance superior to capitalism, AND, an
internally democratic political system. It can't be achieved
in one or a few backward countries, as many believed.
The USSR, for all its economic achievements, never reached
these. When it collapsed, it took the socialist convictions
of people like Mandel with it. Essentially, he threw out the
socialist baby with the Stalinist bathwater. Scholars and
activists debated this hotly.
Yet it hasn't reduced his passion for social justice at all.
He's fighting just as hard as ever against injustice, but no
longer proposes a systemic answer to society's problems.
Mandel's stubborn, often single-handed struggles for his
beliefs resulted in many attacks on him. A certain
defensiveness is reflected in the assaults he documents and
the support he's garnered. Many are documented voluminously.
Personal and family relationships today are often frail.
Half of all marriages end in divorce. Mandel's tender,
loving description of his successful 60-year marriage, and
his few eloquent words of advice on how to build stable and
mutually sustaining relationships are touching and
practical. I felt both awe and envy reading them.
Today when the exaltation of private and individual over
social concerns is very high, and the media celebrate the
"end of history". William Mandel's story shows how much one
person can do toward making the world a better place for all
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