Idealism

Jurriaan Bendien bendien at tomaatnet.nl
Tue Jul 8 07:25:39 MDT 2003


Hi Yves,

Thanks. There is no absolute rule about being proud of idealism, it just
depends on the context. I sometimes think Alain Krivine is idealistic, but
then I compare his idealism to my idealism, and really I would rather have
his idealism and I think nothing about my own idealism. Rosa Luxemburg was
appreciative of the Russian workers and their bolshevik leaders, saying
"they dared". Chairman Mao says: "dare to struggle, dare to win" and for
this, some idealism is necessary, since you may not win straightaway, you
must hope and believe that you will win in the future. You cannot always get
what you want, and if you do not get what you want, you may need some
idealism to carry you, until you get confirmation of validity. That is to
say, idealism is itself a source of revolutionary motivation.

In order to be a revolutionary at all, you must be striving to go beyond
what exists now, beyond the status quo, to go boldly where no man (or woman)
has gone before, perhaps. In his essay on Abram Leon, Mandel himself writes
very explicitly about this idealism, he says, we are people of integrity who
have a goal, an aspiration which is larger than we are ourselves, we strive
for something beyond ourselves, and we cast these ideas upon the world
defiantly, and we are prepared to take the brunt, and we will struggle till
the death for our belief in a socialist future. It is a bit like Che
Guevara's concept of exemplary practice. If that idealism was not there,
then you might as well think like Voltaire, and think "I will just go and
dig my garden" (Mandel mentions this Voltaire quote in his essay "The Case
for Revolutionary Marxism Today", in the journal Socialist Register - Geoff
and I had drawn Mandel's attention at this time to Mick Hume's RCP (UK)
critique of the social-democratisation or reformist backsliding of the
journal Socialist Register, and Ernest was stimulated to inject a
revolutionary article in Socialist Register). I had an experiment with this
dig-my-garden approach, but that was not really satisfactory either. Or you
might think like Diogenes (see on this Michel Onfray, "Cynismes", Editions
Grasset & Fasquelle, Paris 1990). I have experimented with that too, but
that is not satisfactory either. Time sorts out these things.

I cannot really say that Mandel's idealism is objectively superior to
Barnes's idealism, without relating this to some specific context or
criterion, but in general I would agree with you, that is my bias. I could
not really emphatize with Jack Barnes very much, because I saw what happened
to many people that followed his line, how they got burnt out, and how they
did not end up having much of a life at all in many instances, and did not
succeed politically. Theoretically, politically or scientifically, I did not
find him cogent and convincing. Lastly, I felt that Barnes's assessment of
the specifically Jewish striving for emancipation and liberation was not
really objective, and some of his candid utterances might indeed be
construed as anti-semitic in a crass sort of way. I do not recall the
details just now, but there are people who know what he said. I think,
basically, that if you have been trained and you are experienced for two
decades in a political movement, and then you decide to drop the theory and
practice of that movement, and you go looking in another country than your
own, for a completely new political tradition, in order to imitate that
political tradition in your own country back home, there must be a sense in
which you have to admit that you have "lost your way", politically and
personally.

I never really make ad hominem attacks on Ernest Mandel, he was not perfect,
nobody is, but I think he was a person of great integrity and I admired him
for his skills, knowledge and dedication. But as time went on, I disagreed
with him more and more about many political, epistemic and theoretical
questions, including the relationship of the personal and the political.
Comrade Tariq Ali would say exactly the same thing I guess. I think Ernest's
work remains a source of inspiration, but I am more careful now about how I
use that inspiration. I think it is perfectly legitimate to criticise
aspects of Mandel's life and work, but I think I have to bear in mind the
context in which I do that. I mean, who cares if some sectarian,
narrow-minded worm hates Ernest Mandel ? Why should I debate with him ? The
LCR would have nothing but contempt for me.
And so I end up agreeing with the Dutch Trotskyists that the assessment of
Mandel's life and work belongs to a bona fide and accredited historian of
the communist movement, who is currently working on that project with
approval of Ernest's second wife Anne. And I gave him my bibliographic
material which could be helpful, although he said he would use mainly the
archival papers. I am no longer involved with the FI, having reached
different conclusions, but I try to stay friendly with them. I owe a lot of
my insights to the FI, as do a lot of people, and if you are honest, you
must correctly acknowledge your debts in this way, and I am always striving
to acknowledge my sources better, knowing how bad socialists often are in
this sense from personal experience, including Ernest himself.

The actual quote from Andre Gunder Frank goes like this:
"I also recall standing on a street corner with him in Brussles waiting for
his first wife Gisela [Scholz, a German journalist] to get some film she had
left for developing at a photo shop. Ernest asked me "don't you agree that
we Trotskyists do the best analysis of what is going on in the world?" and I
answered, yes I do. Well, "then you have to also agree that we have the best
political practice," Ernest continued. NO, I answered, I do NOT agree; and I
do not have to, because what you say is a complete non-sequitur, which was
born, perhaps, more from his own great optimism and humanity than from his
analysis of the evidence, which has hardly supported his aspiration. Even
with all his humanism, I never understood how Ernest Mandel maintained his
inveterate optimism in the face of all the evidence; and yet, the more the
evidence comes in, the more do we need his optimism and humanism -- as well
as his analysis -- to get out of it. So we shall miss him -- and continue to
need him."

I have quoted part of this anecdote in the journal Historical Materialism
10/4, where I translated Mandel's article "Anticipation and Hope as
Categories of Historical Materialism". I think sometimes in his mature
years, Mandel might have thought of himself as a sort of Spinoza, who put
into words as best as he could something which was valid, but needed to be
elaborated more and made more exact, and would only be truly recognised for
its validity perhaps a hundred or more years later. I think Ernest had a
conception of the epoch in which he lived, and he decided after some initial
doubts, that he would be able to achieve this-and-this in his lifetime, and
he worked continuously very patiently and modestly to do it, with a great
sense of duty, a great sense of service, a positive, optimistic outlook on
life, and a determination to fight. In this, I think he displayed a lot of
idealistic enthusiasm and occasionally a certain amount of fanaticism. He
was never really so happy, you know, until he met his wife Gisela, and he
was terribly, terribly upset when she died, even although his political work
was always his priority. Luckily he met Anne after that. I think later he
would have liked to have a family of his own, like Marx and Trotsky, but
after what happened to Trotsky's kids, he was more careful, and he did not
have time for a family of his own. Even then, I suspect Mandel would have
reasoned that if he had raised some kids of his own, he would have provided
a better model for his movement.

Salut,

Jurriaan

> Very interesting post on Marxmail today, Jurriaan. I agree with you that
idealism is not something to be proud of, but at least, you ought to
recognize that Ernest Mandel's idealism is of a superior variety to Barnes'
one :-) Your point about the obituary at the end of your post is very good.
> Bye.
> Yves-Marie Quemener
>
>





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