Episodes in Socialist Culture: Mandel

Welcome to the Episodes in Socialist Culture Series!

Over break I found and parried with Ernest Mandel’s From Stalinism to Eurocommunism, a pretty trenchant, pretty quintessential document from right in the thick of Eurocommunism’s startling emergence post-68.

Mandel is a legendary Trot intellectual. He is the author of a work entitled Late Capitalism, to which not just Jameson but many other subsequent marxists, postmarxists and political economists owe a big old debt.

Here’s a glimpse into Mandel’s world. In short, Mandel believes that Eurocommunism is sort of a cute, limited but necessary foreshadowing of the rehabilitated communist movement that had been long stalled by Stalinism and its associated violent and bureaucratic  consequences.  I will save his Eurocommunist balance sheet – Trots love to use the term “balance sheet,” I don’t know why – for the forthcoming post. But as for now, here’s Mandel on Stalinism.

As we join in, Mandel is discussing the ramifications of an historic gathering of 29 communist parties in East Berlin (1977), in which a) several national parties openly flouted Soviet hegemony, and b) they got away with it. This sort of thing was unprecedented and very hopeful for many on the far Left – except for Mandel and his ilk, for whom this boon was an inevitable and overdue, always-already on deck moment:

Any correct interpretation of the East Berlin conference must befin from a phenomenon which has been developing since 1948 and which revolutionary Marxists (read: Trots – editor) call the crisis of Stalinism.  This crisis has been advancing, now at an accelerated pace, now more slowly and hesitantly, under the impact of a series of contradictions, partially independent, partially linked together by a system of interconnected compartments (note the very idealist brand of Hegelianism here, with all this teleological “progress” talk. – editor)  The crisis of Stalinism may be described as an ensemble of five crises:

    * The crisis of Russian conrol over those Communist parties that themselves hold state power, beginning with those powers that seized power in a manner independent of Soviet bureaucracy, atthe head of a genuine mass socialist revolution, evein if it was bureaucratically deformed from the outset (the Yugoslave, Chinese, Vietnamese Communist parties.)

    * The crisis of the Communist party over the toiling masses (especially the working class) in the capitlalist countries.  These masses are exhibiting rising combativity, anti-capitalist consciousness, and clear distrust of bureaucratic manipulation….

    * The crisis of control of the Communist parties in power in Eastern Europe and in China over the masses, whose political combativity and activity are in the process of awakening. (Manel cites October-November 1956 in Hungary, the 1968 Prague Spring in Czhechoslovakia, and, partially, the workers’ uprisings in Poland in 1956, 1970, and 1976.)

    * The crisis of control of the Soviet bureaucracy over Russian society…

    * The crisis of relations between the Communist parties of capitalist Europe and the Kremlin, which results from the manner in which theses parties have been compelled to assimilate de-Stalinization, the manner in which they are inserted into the political life of their countries, and the manner in which they are exposed to the contradictoory pressures of the imperialist bourgeoisie (and the general policy of peaceful coexistence) on the one hand and the rise of proletarian revolution on the other hand.  

Why is this interesting? Because Mandel is writing at a moment which, for non-Trots like me, the left can be said to have plateaued at its highest heights in the second half of the 20th Cent.

Think about it. Various explicitly socialist – and many more explicitly anti-imperialist – “Third World” nationalist projects were emergent and not so littered with terror, counterintelligence and death squads as they would be soon.  On the continent, more radical wings of the New Left were already dissatisfied with post-war Social Democratic gains… Epitomized by les evenements of May 1968, something less like a (fledgling) “vanguard” and more like a (fledgling)  “multitude” were demanding not just socialism, but radically democratic socialism.  At an institutional level, the coexistence of communist parties alongside the left-center-right pluralities suggested that communism, not just socialism, might have a limited place in future Western goings-on, however bourgeois and infuriatingly deliberative.

Again, non-Bolshevik that I am, I can be happy just feeling like the Left is allotted a (real) seat at the (real) table. That now many of us would settle – or indeed, get pretty revved up thinking about – even  the welfare state of the 1968 USA… well, that speaks to how drastic and horrible a fallout came right around the corner.  From a political economic point of view, “1973” had already happened….all the promising Eurosocialist and Eurocommunist states faced high, high stagflation and unemployment.  All of the fledgling postcolonial socialist states fell prey to the new-fangled, loansharking of the IMF and the World Bank…. and then there was that tiny oil crisis. Add to that the Soviet Union’s slow death, and subsequent rightist coups that enjoyed – let’s face it – overwhelming popular support…well, the subsequent union-busting, interest rate-raising, military adventuring, cocaine trading and death squad endorsing smackdown seem somehow fated in whatever grim hindsight this semi-very-resigned moment allows.

But this series of posts isn’t about that. It’s about hopeful moments in art and politiques and such – however fleeting they’ve turned out to be.  Mandel’s sci-fi, Trot’s-eye view on the brief life/death of Eurocommunism stirs me in the way that all great, deep, real, and socialist what if?s can. There’re more coming.

further reading:

here’s a long obituary of mandel that details his multitudinous works in and around the Fourth International. actually, the thing practically doubles as a thumbnail sketch of trotskyism as such.

– world systems theory badass andre gunder frank’s obituary of mandel.

mandel archive at marxists.org

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