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Ernest Ezra Mandel (Dutch: [manˈdɛl]; also known by various pseudonyms such as Ernest Germain, Pierre Gousset, Henri Vallin, Walter (5 April 1923 – 20 July 1995), was a Belgian Marxian economist, Trotskyist activist and theorist, and Holocaust survivor. He fought in the underground resistance against the Nazis during the occupation of Belgium.
Born in Frankfurt, Mandel was recruited to the Belgian section of the international Trotskyist movement, the Fourth International, in his youth in Antwerp. His parents, Henri and Rosa Mandel, were Jewish emigres from Poland, the former a member of Rosa Luxemburg's and Karl Liebknecht's Spartacist League. The beginning of Mandel's period at university was interrupted when the German occupying forces closed the university.
During World War II, while still a teenager, he joined the Belgian Trotskyist organisation alongside Abraham Leon and Martin Monath. He twice escaped after being arrested in the course of resistance activities, and survived imprisonment in the German concentration camp at Dora. After the war, he became the youngest member of the Fourth International secretariat, alongside Michel Pablo and others. He gained respect as a prolific journalist with a clear and lively style, as an orthodox Marxist theoretician, and as a talented debater. He wrote for numerous media outlets in the 1940s and 1950s including Het Parool, Le Peuple, l'Observateur and Agence France-Presse. At the height of the Cold War, he publicly defended the merits of Marxism in debates with the social democrat and future Dutch premier Joop den Uyl.
After the 1946 World Congress of the Fourth International, Mandel was elected into the leadership of the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. In line with its policy, he joined the Belgian Socialist Party where he was a leader of a militant socialist tendency, becoming editor of the socialist newspaper La Gauche (and writing for its Flemish sister publication, Links), a member of the economic studies commission of the General Federation of Belgian Labour and an associate of the Belgian syndicalist André Renard. He and his comrades were expelled from the Socialist Party not long after the Belgian general strike of 1960–61 for opposing its coalition with the Christian Democrats and its acceptance of anti-strike legislation.
He was one of the main initiators of the 1963 reunification between the International Secretariat, which he led along with Michel Pablo, Pierre Frank and Livio Maitan, and the majority of the International Committee of the Fourth International, a public faction led by James Cannon's Socialist Workers Party that had withdrawn from the FI in 1953. The regroupment formed the reunified Fourth International (also known as the USFI or USec). Until his death in 1995, Mandel remained the most prominent leader and theoretician of both the USFI and of its Belgian section, the Revolutionary Workers' League.
Until the publication of his massive book Marxist Economic Theory in French in 1962, Mandel's Marxist articles were written mainly under a variety of pseudonyms and his activities as Fourth Internationalist were little known outside the left. After publishing Marxist Economic Theory, Mandel travelled to Cuba and worked closely with Che Guevara on economic planning, after Guevara (who was fluent in French) had read the new book and encouraged Mandel's interventions.
He resumed his university studies and graduated from what is now the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris in 1967. Only from 1968 did Mandel become well known as a public figure and Marxist politician, touring student campuses in Europe and America giving talks on socialism, imperialism and revolution.
Although officially barred from West Germany (and several other countries at various times, including the United States, France, Switzerland, and Australia), he gained a PhD from the Free University of Berlin in 1972 (where he taught for some months), published as Late Capitalism, and he subsequently gained a lecturer position at the Free University of Brussels.
Mandel gained mainstream attention in the United States following the rejection of his visa by Attorney General John N. Mitchell against the suggestion of Secretary of State William P. Rogers in 1969. Attorney General Mitchell acted under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (also known as the McCarran–Walter Act). This act states that those who "advocate the economic, international and governmental doctrines of world Communism" and "who write or public any written or printed matter advocating or teaching the economic international and governmental doctrines of world Communism" can have their visas barred. Mandel had been granted visas in 1962 and 1968 but had violated the conditions of his second visit unknowingly by asking for donations for the defence in the legal cases of French demonstrators. As a result of his rejected visa, a number of American scholars came out to vouch for his right to visit the United States. They attempted to highlight that he did not affiliate with the Communist Party and had publicly spoken out against the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.
In 1971, a Federal Court in New York voted to void Mitchell's decision, stating that the United States could not bar a visitor, but on 29 June 1972, the Supreme Court ruled, 6 to 3, that Mitchell had acted within his job description in rejecting the visa. In 1972, his exclusion from the United States was upheld in the US Supreme Court case Kleindienst v. Mandel.
In 1978, he delivered the Alfred Marshall Lectures at the University of Cambridge, on the topic of the long waves of capitalist development.
Mandel campaigned on behalf of numerous dissident left-wing intellectuals suffering political repression, advocated for the cancellation of the Third World debt, and, in the Mikhail Gorbachev era, spearheaded a petition for the rehabilitation of the accused in the Moscow Trials of 1936–1938. When in his seventies, he travelled to Russia to defend his vision of democratic socialism and continued to support the idea of Revolution in the West until his death.
In total, he published approximately 2,000 articles and around 30 books during his life in German, Dutch, French, English and other languages, which were in turn translated into many more languages. During the Second World War, he was one of the editors of the underground newspaper, Het Vrije Woord. In addition, he edited or contributed to many books, maintained a voluminous correspondence, and was booked for speaking engagements worldwide. He considered it his mission to transmit the heritage of classical Marxist thought, deformed by the experience of Stalinism and the Cold War, to a new generation. And to a large extent he did influence a generation of scholars and activists in their understanding of important Marxist concepts. In his writings, perhaps most striking is the tension between creative independent thinking and the desire for a strict adherence to Marxist doctrinal orthodoxy. Due to his commitment to socialist democracy, he has even been characterised as "Luxemburgist".
Parametric determinism is a Marxist interpretation of the course of history. It was formulated by Ernest Mandel and can be viewed as one variant of Karl Marx's historical materialism or as a philosophy of history.
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In an article critical of the analytical Marxism of Jon Elster, Mandel explains the idea as follows:
Dialectical determinism as opposed to mechanical, or formal-logical determinism, is also parametric determinism; it permits the adherent of historical materialism to understand the real place of human action in the way the historical process unfolds and the way the outcome of social crises is decided. Men and women indeed make their own history. The outcome of their actions is not mechanically predetermined. Most, if not all, historical crises have several possible outcomes, not innumerable fortuitous or arbitrary ones; that is why we use the expression 'parametric determinism' indicating several possibilities within a given set of parameters.
In formal-logical determinism, human action is considered either rational, and hence logically explicable, or else arbitrary and random (in which case human actions can be comprehended at best only as patterns of statistical distributions, i.e. as degrees of variability relative to some constants). But in dialectical determinism, human action may be non-arbitrary and determinate, hence reasonable, even although it is not explicable exclusively in terms of deductive inference. The action selected by people from a limited range of options may not be the "most logical" or "most optimal" one, but it can be shown to be non-arbitrary and reasonable under the circumstances, if the total context is considered.
What this means is that in human situations typically several "logics" are operating at the same time which together determine the outcomes of those situations:
If one considered only one of these aspects, one might judge people's actions "irrational", but if all three aspects are taken into account, what people do may appear "very reasonable". Dialectical theory aims to demonstrate this, by linking different "logical levels" together as a total picture, in a non-arbitrary way. "Different logical levels" means that particular determinants regarded as irrelevant at one level of analysis are excluded, but are relevant and included at another level of analysis with a somewhat different (or enlarged) set of assumptions depending on the kind of problem being investigated.
For example, faced with a situation, the language which people use to talk about it, reveals that they can jump very quickly from one context to another related context, knowing very well that at least some of the inferences that can be drawn in the one context are not operative in the other context. That's because they know that the assumptions in one context differ to some degree from the other. Nevertheless, the two contexts can coexist, and can be contained in the same situation, which we can demonstrate by identifying the mediating links. This is difficult to formalize precisely, yet people do it all the time, and think it perfectly "reasonable". For another example, people will say "you can only understand this if you are in the situation yourself" or "on the ground." What they mean is that the meaning of the totality of interacting factors involved can only be understood by experiencing them. Standing outside the situation, things seem irrational, but being there, they appear very reasonable.
Dialectical theory does not mean that, in analyzing the complexity of human action, inconvenient facts are simply and arbitrarily set aside. It means, rather, that those facets of the subject matter which are not logically required at a given stage of the analysis are set aside. Yet, and this is the point, as the analysis progresses, the previously disregarded aspects are integrated step by step into the analysis, in a consistent way. The proof of the validity of the procedure is that, at the end, the theory has made the subject matter fully self-explanatory, since all salient aspects have been given their appropriate place in the theory, so that all of it becomes comprehensible, without resort to shallow tautologies. This result can obviously be achieved only after the research has already been done, and the findings can be arranged in a convincing way. A synthesis cannot be achieved without a preceding analysis. So dialectical analysis is not a "philosopher's stone" that provides a quick short-cut to the "fount of wisdom", but a mode of presenting findings of the analysis after knowledge has been obtained through inquiry and research, and dialectical relationships have been verified. Because only then does it become clear where the story should begin and end, so that all facets are truly explained. According to Ernest Mandel, "Marx's method is much richer than the procedures of ' successive concretization' or 'approximation' typical of academic science."
In mainstream social theory, the problem of "several logics" in human action is dealt with by game theory, a kind of modelling which specifies the choices and options which actors have within a defined setting, and what the effects are of their decisions. The main limitation of that approach is, that the model is only as good as the assumptions on which it is based, while the choice of assumptions is often eclectic or fairly arbitrary. Dialectical theory attempts to overcome this problem, by paying attention to the sources of assumptions, and by integrating the assumptions in a consistent way.
One common problem in historical analysis is to understand to what extent the results of human actions can be attributed to free choices and decisions people made (or free will), and to what extent they are a product of social or natural forces beyond their control.
To solve this problem theoretically, Mandel suggests that in almost any human situation, some factors ("parameters") are beyond the control of individuals, while some other conditions are under their control (arguably, one group of people could "impose parameters" on another, analogous to parents imposing constraints on children). Some things can under the circumstances be changed by human action, according to choice, but others cannot or will not be, and can thus be regarded as constants. A variable can vary, yet it cannot vary in any direction whatever but only within the given parameters. In a general sense, a "parameter" is a given condition imposed on a situation, or a controlled variable, but more specifically it refers to a condition which, in some way, limits the amount and type of variability there can be.
Those given, objective parameters which are beyond people's control (and thus cannot normally be changed by them) limit the realm of possibilities in the future; they rule out some conceivable future developments or alternatively make them more likely to happen. In that sense human action is "determined" and "determinate". If that wasn't so, then it would be impossible to predict anything much about human behaviour.
Some of these parameters refer to limits imposed by the physical world, others to limits imposed by the social set-up or social structure that individuals and groups operate within. The dominant ideology or religion could also be a given parameter. If for example most people follow a certain faith, this shapes their whole cultural life, and is something to be reckoned with that isn't easily changed.
At the same time, however, the given parameters cannot usually determine in total what an individual or group will do, because they have at least some (and sometimes a great deal) of personal or behavioural autonomy. They can think about their situation, and make some free choices and decisions about what they will do, within the framework of what is objectively possible for them (the choices need not be rational or fully conscious ones, they could just be non-arbitrary choices influenced by emotions and desires). Sentient (self-aware) organisms, of which human beings are the most evolved sort, are able to vary their own response to given situations according to internally evaluated and decided options. In this sense, Karl Marx had written:
People make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.
"The past" (what really happened before, as distinct from its results in the present) is not something which can be changed at all in the present, only reinterpreted, and therefore the past is a given constant which delimits what can possibly happen in the present and in the future. If the future seems relatively "open-ended" that is just because in the time-interval between now and the future, new options and actions could significantly alter what exactly the future will be. Yet the variability of possible outcomes in the future is not infinite, but delimited by what happened before.
Ten implications of this view are as follows:
According to the theory of parametric determinism, the "human problem" in this context is usually not that human beings lack free choice or free will, or that they cannot in principle change their situation (at least to some extent), but rather is their awareness of the options open to them, and their belief in their own ability to act on them—influenced as they may be, by their ideology, experience and emotions.
Perceptions of what people can change or act upon may vary a great deal, they might overestimate it, or underestimate it. Thus it may take scientific inquiry to find out what perceptions are realistic. By discovering what the determinism is, we can learn better how we can be free. Simply put, we could "bang our head against a wall", but we could also go over the wall, through a door in the wall, or around the wall. At crucial points, humans can "make history" actively with a high awareness of what they are doing, changing the course of history, but they can also "be made by history" to the extent that they passively conform to (or are forced to conform to) a situation which is mostly not of their own making and which they may not understand.
As regards the latter, Mandel referred to the condition of alienation in the sense of a diminished belief in the ability to have control over one's own life, or feeling estranged from one's real nature and purpose in life. People might reify aspects of their situation. They might regard something as inevitable ("God's will") or judge "nothing could be done to prevent it" when the real point is that, for specific reasons, nobody was prepared to do anything about it—something could have been done, but it wasn't. Thus "historical inevitability" can also be twisted into a convenient apology to justify a course of events.
In this process of making choices within a given objective framework of realistic options, plenty of illusions are also possible, insofar as humans may have all kinds of gradations of (maybe false) awareness about their true situation. They may, as Mandel argues, not even be fully aware of what motivates their own actions, quite aside from not knowing fully what the consequences of their actions will be. A revolutionary seeking to overthrow the old order to make way for a new one obviously faces many "unknowns".
Therefore, human action can have unintended consequences, including effects which are completely opposite to what was intended. This means that popular illusions can also shape the outcomes of historical events. If most people believe something to be the case, even although it is not true, this fact can also become a parameter limiting what can happen or influencing what will happen.
Because terrible illusions can occur, some historians are skeptical about the ability of people to change the world for the better in any real and lasting way. Postmodernism casts doubt on the existence of progress in history as such—if e.g. Egyptians built the Great Pyramid of Giza in 2500 BC, and Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong landed on the moon in 1969, this represents no progress for humanity.
However, Mandel argued that this skepticism is itself based on perceptions of what people are able to know about their situation and their history. Ultimately, the skeptic believes that it is impossible for people to have sufficient knowledge of a kind that they can really change the human condition for the better, except perhaps in very small ways. It just is what it is. This skeptical view does not necessarily imply a very "deterministic" view of history however; history could also be viewed as an unpredictable chaos or too complex to fathom.
However, most politicians and political activists (including Mandel himself) at least do not believe that history generally is an unpredictable chaos, because in that case their own standpoints would be purely arbitrary and be perceived as purely arbitrary. Usually, they would argue, the chaos is limited in space and time, because in perpetual chaos, human life can hardly continue anyway; in that case, people become reactive beasts. Since people mostly do want to survive, they need some order and predictability. One can understand what really happened in history reasonably well, if one tries. Human beings can understand human experience because they are human, and the more relevant experience they obtain, the better they can understand it.
Conscious human action, Mandel argues, is mainly non-arbitrary and practical, it has a certain "logic" to it even if people are not (yet) fully aware of this. The reality they face is ordered in basic ways, and therefore can be meaningfully understood. Masses of people might go into a "mad frenzy" sometimes that might be difficult to explain in rational terms, but this is the exception, not the rule. What is true is that a situation of chaos and disorder (when nothing in society seems to work properly anymore) can powerfully accentuate the irrational and non-rational aspects of human behaviour. In such situations, people with very unreasonable ideas can rise to power. This is, according to Mandel, part of the explanation of fascism.
The concept of parametric determinism has as its corollary the concept of historical latency. It is not just that different historical outcomes are possible, but that each epoch of human history contains quite a few different developmental potentials. The indications of these potentials can be empirically identified, and are not simply a speculation about "what could conceivably happen".
But they are latent factors in the situation, insofar as they will not necessarily be realised or actualised. Their realisation depends on human action, on the recognition of the potential that is there, and the decision to do something about it. Thus, Mandel argues that both socialism and barbarism exist as broad "latent" developmental possibilities within modern capitalist society, even if they are not realised, and whether and which of these will be realised, depends on human choices and human actions.
Effective action to change society, he argues, has to set out from the real possibilities there are for an alternative way of doing things, not from abstract speculations about a better world. Some things are realistically possible, but not just "anything" is possible. The analytical challenge—often very difficult—is therefore to understand correctly what the real possibilities are, and which course of action would have the most fruitful effect. One can do only what one is able to do and no more, but much depends on choices about how to spend one's energies.
Typically in wars and revolutions, when people exert themselves to the maximum and have to improvise, it is discovered that people can accomplish far more than they previously thought they could do (also captured in the saying "necessity is the mother of invention"). The whole way people think is suddenly changed. But in times of cultural pessimism, general exhaustion prevails and people are generally skeptical or cynical about their ability to achieve or change very much at all. If the bourgeoisie beats down the workers and constrains their freedom, so that workers have to work more and harder for less and less pay, pessimistic moods can prevail for quite some time. If, on the other hand, the bourgeois economy is expanding, the mood of society can become euphoric, and people believe that just about anything is possible. A famous leftwing slogan in May 1968 was "tout est possible" ("anything is possible"). Similarly, in the boom of the later 1990s, many people in rich countries believed that all human problems could finally be resolved.
That is just to say that what is possible to achieve can be both pessimistically underestimated and optimistically exaggerated at any time. Truly conservative people will emphasize how little potential there is for change, while rebels, visionaries, progressives and revolutionaries will emphasize how much could be changed. An important role for social scientific inquiry and historiography is therefore to relativise all this, and place it in a more objective perspective by looking at the relevant facts.
While Mandel himself made some successful predictions about the future of world society (for instance, he is famous for predicting at the beginning of the 1960s, like Milton Friedman did, that the postwar economic boom would end at the close of the decade), his Trotskyist critics (including his biographer Jan Willem Stutje) argue, with the benefit of hindsight, that he was far too optimistic and hopeful about the possibility of a workers' revolution in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union during the Mikhail Gorbachev era and after—and more generally, that his historical optimism distorted his political perspectives, so that he became too "certain" about a future that he could not be so certain about, or else crucially ambivalent.
This is arguably a rather shallow criticism insofar as the situation could well have developed in different directions, which is precisely what Mandel himself argued; in politics, one could only try to make the most of the situation at the time, and here pessimism was not conducive to action. But the more substantive criticism is that many of Mandel's future scenarios were simply not realistic, and that in reality things turned out rather differently from what he thought. This raises several questions:
In answering these criticisms, Mandel himself would probably have referred to what he often called the "laboratory of history". That is, we can check the historical record, to see who predicted what, the grounds given for the prediction, and the results. On that basis, we can verify empirically what kind of thinking (and what kind of people) will produce the most accurate predictions, and what we can really predict with "usable accuracy". One reason why he favoured Marxism was because he believed it provided the best intellectual tools for predicting the future of society. He often cited Leon Trotsky as an example of a good Marxist able to predict the future. In 1925, Trotsky wrote:
The essence of Marxism consists in this, that it approaches society concretely, as a subject for objective research, and analyzes human history as one would a colossal laboratory record. Marxism appraises ideology as a subordinate integral element of the material social structure. Marxism examines the class structure of society as a historically conditioned form of the development of the productive forces; Marxism deduces from the productive forces of society the inter-relations between human society and surrounding nature, and these, in turn are determined at each historical stage by man’s technology, his instruments and weapons, his capacities and methods for struggle with nature. Precisely this objective approach arms Marxism with the insuperable power of historical foresight.
This may all seem a trivial "academic" or "scholastic" debate, similar to retrospective speculations about "what could have been different", but it has very important implications for the socialist idea of a planned economy. Obviously, if it is not possible to predict much about human behaviour with usable accuracy, then not much economic planning is feasible either—since a plan requires at least some expectation that its result can and will be realised in the future, even if the plan is regularly adjusted for new (and unanticipated) circumstances. In general, Mandel believed that the degree of predictability in human life was very much dependent on the way society itself was organised. If e.g. many producers competed with each other for profits and markets, based on privatized knowledge and business secrets, there was much unpredictability in what would happen. If the producers coordinated their efforts co-operatively, much would be predictable.
A deeper problem, to which Mandel alludes with his book Trotsky: A study in the dynamic of his thought, is that if we regard certain conditions as possible to change for the better, we might be able to change them, even if currently people believe it is impossible—whereas if we regard them as unchangeable, we are unlikely to change them at all, even although they could possibly be changed ( a similar insight occurs in pragmatism). That is, we make things possible, by doing something about them rather than do nothing. This, however, implies that even when we try our best to be objective and realistic about history or anything else, we remain subjects influenced by subjective perceptions or elements of fear, hope, will or faith that defy reason or practicality.
Simply put, it is very difficult to bring scientific truths and political action together, as Marxists aim to do, in such a way that we really change the things we can change for the better to the maximum, and do not try to change things we really cannot change anyway (Marxists call this "the unity of theory and practice"). In other words, the will to change things can involve subjective perceptions of a kind for which even the best historical knowledge may offer no assistance or guide. And all perceptions of "history-making" may inescapably involve ideology, thus—according to skeptics—casting some doubt on the very ability of people to distinguish objectively between what can be changed, and what cannot. The boundary between the two might be rather blurry. This is the basis of Karl Popper's famous philosophy of social change by "small steps" only.
Mandel's reply to this skepticism essentially was to agree that there were always "unknowns" or "fuzzy" areas in human experience; for people to accomplish anything at all or "make their own history", required taking a risk, calculated or otherwise. One could indeed see one's life as a "wager" ultimately staked on a belief, scientifically grounded or otherwise. However, he argued it was one thing to realise all that, but another to say that the "unknowns" are "unknowable". Thus, for good or for ill, "you don't know, what you haven't tried" and more specifically "you don't know, what you haven't tried to obtain knowledge about". The limits of knowledge and human possibilities could not be fixed in advance by philosophy; they had to be discovered through the test of practice. This attitude recalls Marx's famous comment that "All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice, and in the comprehension of this practice.". Mandel believed, with Marx, that "ignorance never helped anybody" except those who profited from its existence ("never underestimate human gullibility, including your own").
The general task of revolutionary science was to overcome ignorance about human life, and this could not very well be done by reconciling people with their allegedly "predetermined" fate at every opportunity. We all know we will die eventually, but that says little yet about what we can achieve before that point. Skepticism has its uses, but what those uses are, can only be verified from experience; a universal skepticism would be just as arbitrary as the belief that "anything is possible"—it did not lead to any new experience from which something could be learnt, including learning about the possibilities of human freedom. And such learning could only occur through making conscious choices and decisions within given parameters, i.e. in a non-arbitrary (non-chaotic) environment, permitting at least some predictability and allowing definite experiential conclusions.
Mandel often reiterated that most people do not learn all that much from texts or from history, they learn from their own experience. They might be affected by history without knowing it. But anybody concerned with large-scale social change was almost automatically confronted with the need to place matters in broader historical perspective. One had to understand deeply the limits, consequences and implications of human action. Likewise, politicians making decisions affecting large numbers of people could hardly do without a profound sense of history
Mandel died at his home in Brussels in 1995 after suffering from a heart attack.
Mandel is probably best remembered for being a populariser of basic Marxist ideas, for his books on late capitalism and Long-Wave theory, and for his moral-intellectual leadership in the Trotskyist movement. Despite critics claiming that he was 'too soft on Stalinism', Mandel remained a classic rather than a conservative Trotskyist: writing about the Soviet bureaucracy but also why capitalism had not suffered a death agony. His late capitalism was late in the sense of delayed rather than near-death. He still believed though that this system hadn't overcome its tendency to crises. A leading German Marxist, Elmar Altvater, stated that Mandel had done much for the survival of Marxism in the German Federal Republic.