[Marxism] Mandel's writings

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Tue Dec 14 09:30:14 MST 2004

> hello jurriaan. i have noticed that you mention ernest mandel quite often
> in your mails, and i wonder if you could recommend anything by him..? and
> could you also offer a few qualifications as to why you think this or that
> book or other piece of work is of worth
> also a big thanks for your reply to tom on state cap, i found that very
> enlightening
> --
> jjonas @ nic.fi

As a student interested in classical Marxist thought, I met Ernest Mandel 
(1923-1995) several times in 1984 and a close friend of mine from New 
Zealand studied with him. At the time, having previously met Andre Gunder 
Frank (who was talking about globalisation ten years before it became a 
fashion), we thought, might as well try to go for the top of the field, why 
settle for less. And Mandel seemed to us, rightly or wrongly, to be there at 
the centre of it.

At that time, I collected a lot of his writings for research purposes, to 
help us assess his way of thinking, and he did write an awful lot, in mainly 
English, French, Dutch/Flemish, Spanish and German (over twenty books and 
about 2,000 articles and pamphlets). Some of what I think are his most 
interesting articles haven't been translated into English yet. A Dutch 
scholar is now working on a biography of his life. 

Being a journalist, Ernest learnt to read and write incredibly fast, in fact 
one Belgian socialist said to me he could hold a conversation and write an 
article at the same time! The main strength of his writing lay in his 
ability to expound basic Marxian ideas in clear language, without sectarian 
innuendo, and his willingness to enter into dialogue with the most diverse 
people (more than I would). He was a humanist and Luxemburgist in 
orientation, who was interested in people. He excelled as theoretician and 
debater, but I think he wasn't a great politician himself, although he 
worked very hard at it for many years, as trainer and team leader. Many of 
his students became leading socialist politicians and scholars though; one 
of them became a successful banker.  I think myself Mandel had somewhat 
restricted view of what politics and radicalisation is about, and didn't 
really come to grips with the culture of postmodernity, that's my bias. 
Tariq Ali covers some of these issues in his satirical novel "Redemption", 
which offended quite a few Trotskyists.

Ernest was always under great pressure to be very "orthodox", but actually 
he was really quite innovative, and he knew a lot more than he wrote about. 
On the other hand, because he was a political activist, often he did not 
have the opportunity to pursue topics systematically in greater depth. So, 
often he provides only an approach or introduction to the topic, showing the 
main elements involved, and putting them in context. That is pedagogically 
useful, but obviously more work is necessary to obtain a full answer. A 
scholar like Anwar Shaikh publishes much less, but is much more thorough and 

If you're interested in Mandel's work, the best place to start is with the 
preface to his two-volume book Marxist Economic Theory, which outlines his 
basic approach. It was very controversial at the time, because he argued you 
had to actually develop Marx's theory, using the new findings of the modern 
sciences, like Marx himself did. This did not sit well with those who 
preferred to conserve and cherish comfortable dogmas, and regarded any 
independent thinking as a revisionist sin.

Mandel finished that book in 1960, before he returned to university studies 
in Paris, and it's now a bit old, but actually many of his insights in that 
book still need to be developed further and haven't really been taken up by 
scholars very much. It contains a lot of good chapters showing real breadth 
of vision. Isaac Deutscher considered it the best effort since world war 2 
"to bring the Marxist economic doctrine up to date". Prof. Anwar Shaikh 
suggested that even if Mandel had written nothing else, that would have been 
enough. But really it was just the beginning of a stream of books.

Mandel's book "The Formation of the Economic Thought of Karl Marx" is still 
used, as a readable academic introduction on the topic. The sprawling book 
"Late Capitalism" is regarded as Mandel's magnum opus - it shows both the 
strengths and weaknesses of his approach - rich in insight, great breadth of 
vision, but at the expense of thoroughly working through the topics in 

Basically, Ernest burned himself out in the end, and wound up with 
Parkinsons disease. His brother, a kind gentleman (lecturer in chemistry) 
whom I've also met, led a healthier life. The Trotskyists had this "small 
group, big world" syndrome - their breadth of vision and aspiration by far 
exceeded what they could actually realize in their lives. But perhaps that 
is a problem affecting all revolutionaries seeking to go beyond the status 
quo. I translated Mandel's article "Why I am a Marxist", which was published 
in Gilbert Achcar (ed.), The Legacy of Ernest Mandel (Verso). Never got my 
complimentary copy of that book though, had to buy it. I've also translated 
his article "Anticipation and Hope as categories of historical materialism", 
published in the journal Historical Materialism 10/4 (they did send me 
complimentary copies). I guess one of the things characteristic of Mandel 
was that he was an eternal optimist.

Some basic writings by Mandel which are useful starters are available here:
More texts are here: http://www.marxists.org/archive/mandel/ and here: 
For bibliography, see Wolfgang Lubitz's site http://www.trotskyana.net/
For a symposium, see http://www.iisg.nl/research/mandel.html
Obituary at: http://rrojasdatabank.info/agfrank/mandel_tribute.html

Hope this helps,


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