On Mandel and ‚Capitalist Breakdown‘ – some remarks

By Klaus Dräger 

George Kerevan pays tribute to the great Marxist thinker Ernest Mandel, who died some 25 years ago in 1995 – and rightly so. I agree with almost everything that Kerevan wrote about Mandel‘s life and work, characterizing him as an ‘Enlightenment intellectual polymath’, who revived and modernized Marx’ analysis (thus considered as a New Left ‘Neo-Marxist’ at the time), and who had a ‘better track record of economic prediction than most economists’ of his time. Very good, and true.

In my personal view, Mandel’s ‘Late Capitalism’ is one of his most outstanding works. What it could still tell us in the late 1990ies Alan Freeman described very well: http://www.ernestmandel.org/en/aboutlife/txt/freeman.htm

By the way, I also agree with Freeman’s judgment on the approach of the late Mandel concerning the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites.

‘Capitalist breakdown’?

However, the important issue for me is what Kerevan writes about Marx (and implicitly Mandel) as ‘prophets of capitalist breakdown’. According to Kerevan: “At the heart of Marx’s original theoretical framework lies the notion of “zusammenbruch” – the ultimate breakdown of capitalist reproduction through accumulation (though it must be stressed Marx never completed his detailed analysis of these tendencies). Breakdown not in the sense of a single cataclysmic day but rather the cumulative decay and ultimate non-functioning of the system caused by its internal contradictions.”

That Marx was predicting capitalist breakdown (‘Zusammenbruchs-Theorie’), is the interpretation of most (Neo-classical) economists of his monumental ‘Capital’ since centuries. But this interpretation has been rejected (and in my view falsified with good arguments relating to what Marx & Engels wrote) by many Marxian economists and intellectuals of quite different strands and ‘schools’. To cut it short on this item: I agree in particular with the interpretation of David Harvey, that Marx’ ‘Capital Volume I’ was intended to show that the (abstract) ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism would lead to a social dystopia – contrary to what e.g. Adam Smith had expected. But not to some kind of ‘breakdown’ by default at some stage.

On the contrary: I remember some discussions with Mandel which I attended at seminars of the Fourth International in the second half of the 1970ies on this item. Ernest told us that he shared the same view as Lenin: that despite all of its inherent structural crises, capitalism could always find some ‘way out’ to continue.  If the system was not challenged by the self-organization of the broad working population, breaking the mold and overcoming the capitalist mode of production with a view to erect a socialist economy and society, capitalism could survive with this or that ‘mutation’ (most likely with ‘barbarism’, as Rosa Luxemburg put it). In my view, history (remember World War I and II, ‘Fordism’, neo-liberalism, globalization & financialization) proved this quite right.

And Kerevan himself reminds us of all this at the end of his piece: “Neoliberalism has tried to corner the market in ideas, essentially claiming no other world order is possible except liberal democracy, private ownership of production, absolute free trade in goods and services, and free movement of capital and labour. The result is actually zero gains in productivity despite new technology; the creation of bogus consumer demand while the southern hemisphere starves and the northern hemisphere dies of obesity; everywhere the lengthening of the working week despite the invention of robots and artificial intelligence that could free human beings from toil; and the rise of authoritarian populism and surveillance capitalism.” Currently, there is no perspective of some ‘automatic’ breakdown of capitalism (whatever authors such as Paul Mason and others write about ‘Post-Capitalism’).

Politics, the State, Revolution?

Kerevan focuses very much on Mandel as an economist and his achievements in that regard (rightly so). But less on his writings about socialist strategy and the like (which are equally important to understand Mandel’s general approach). Readers interested in those aspects may consider these texts from Mandel from the 1980ies:

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on ‘revolutionary strategy in the West’

and on ‘Historical Materialism and the Capitalist State’

Whatever contemporary leftist readers might think about this nowadays, in my view this also belongs to an assessment of Mandel’s thought as an Enlightenment intellectual polymath and original thinker.

Brenner & the capitalism of global turbulence

What Kerevan writes about the ‘noted American Marxist historian Robert Brenner’, is in my view quite one sided. He is not recognizing the complexity of Brenner’s analysis as made e.g. in his work on ‘The Economics of Global Turbulence’ (2006).

Kerevan accuses Brenner of having abandoned ‘Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit’. This is only half true. Brenner rejected the notion that there is a ‘law of the falling rate of profit’. Marx and Engels coined this term at their time, sure. This was possibly due to their admiration for the advent of the ‘natural sciences’ with Darwin etc.,. Thus, for ‘scientific socialism’ to gain credibility,  everything had to be put in that language of discovering ‘laws’ also in economics and the emerging social sciences. All ‘economists’ of the time did this – not just Marx & Engels.

Be this as it may: numerous intellectuals who studied Marx’s writings on the falling rate of profit found out that already Marx wrote about counter-tendencies to this ‘law’. So later on there emerged a discussion among Marxian scholars about whether there is a ‘law’ or rather a ‘tendency of the falling profit rate’ – a discussion which still continues up to today.

For an illustrating reflection by Michel Husson on this debate on the rate of profit, see here:

This is a highly specialized item among Marxian theorists (and also other strands of ‘heterodox economists’, e.g. the ‘regulation school’). But what should follow from such analysis in terms of strategy and politics?  Even those agreeing more or less on the same theoretical approaches and theories on the ‘rate of profit’ differ quite widely on ‘what is to be done’. My point is: there is no direct link from forming a ‘common theoretical framework’ analyzing the development of capitalism towards developing and agreeing on a socialist (or ‘progressive’) strategy and tactics for societal change.

By the way, similar things can be said about the ‘law’ of uneven and combined development (associated to Trotsky’s analysis of world capitalism at his time, and very prominently discussed by proponents of ‘Political Marxism’ to this day):

Returning back to Brenner: Unlike Mandel, he restricted himself as an historian to analysis of capitalist development. He did not write about possible socialist or other alternatives etc..

However, on this Brenner shares (in my view) a good deal with Mandel’s earlier analysis. Wage suppression, global manufacturing over-capacities, over-accumulation of capital, the ‘important ancillary role played by competition between the triad of the US, the Common Market (later EU) and Japan’  (Kerevan)– this is at the core of Brenner’s analysis. And much more (e.g. the role of the exchange regime between the triad, Plaza-Accord, Reverse Plaza Accord, and much more other items).

So readers may be interested in Brenner as well, to make up their minds. In his prologue to the Spanish edition (available in English as a pdf download for free) you will find his main explanations on the ‘Capitalism of Global Turbulence’, see here:

And related to the U.S. economic rescue response to the Covid-19 pandemic, see here:

Some (e.g. David Harvey) accused Brenner as an advocate of ‘no-bullshit Marxism’ – so be it. In my view, lefties can learn a lot from Brenner’s analyses. In my personal view ‘no-bullshit Marxism’ provides perhaps more insights understandable to contemporary younger readers than let’s say the books and essays of Althusser, Foucault and the like in the 1970ies and 1980ies. Perhaps something to think about.

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Long Wave Theory and its limits

Kerevan also addresses the ‘Long Wave’ Theory of Mandel. Above all questioning it on the economics: “Who knows but a resilient capitalism may survive well into the 21st century on a tide of green investments (the next investment upswing?) aided by a workforce newly discipled through the precarious gig economy and internet surveillance? In which event – short of a deus ex machina from outwith the system – the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism seems a dim prospect.” May be, we do not know much about the future.

In any case – and on this I think that Kerevan could agree: the current concepts of ‘progressives’ or even the ‘radical left’ in Europe on this simply boil down to some ‘adaptation/transformation’ proposals to save ‘capitalism from itself’. ‘Green New Deal’, ‘Red-Red-Green New Deal’ – whatever. But not much about profound ‘system change’. On this Kerevan is right in my view: the current ‘radical left’, Greens, and social democracy are ‘political lackers’ in offering a more coherent societal vision on the future and about strategies how to implement these.

But: Mandel did not shy away from this, his approach to ‘Long Waves’ was always ‘societal’.  His research about ‘Long Waves’ was not only economically motivated (as e.g. concentrating on the Kondratiev  cycles), but also on the ‘broader field’ of how class struggle, social movements, cultural and other societal change impacted on this. So far, Mandel’s research program on the long waves was very innovative, going much beyond purely ‘economic modeling’. Regrettably, he could not carry this research further onward (because of lack of resources).

Others tried, such as e.g. Francisco Louçã, His studies and those of his colleagues provided further insights  on a number of items. But in my view they mostly went back to the economic/econometric modeling coming from former times on ‘long wave theory’– with a focus on technological change & fixes very much at the heart of it. So I can agree about the critical attitude of Kerevan on all this. But I remind of Mandel’s efforts to overcome those limits of mere economic analysis in the style of Kondratiev.

Mandel and ‘Eco-socialism’

‘Ecology’ seems to be an issue not worth considering in Kerevan’s tribute to the work of Mandel. In the 1950ies and early 1960ies, Mandel was a staunch supporter of the ‘civil use of nuclear energy’. But in the late 1960ies/early 1970ies he changed his mind on this. He became befriended to Barry Commoner, promoter of ‘radical energy policies’ in the U.S., and a socialist. From then on, Mandel also tried to convince his friends in the Fourth International about an eco-socialist perspective (e.g. based on a solar strategy, wind energy, etc.). But at the time his efforts on this were not to much avail. There were strong ‘workerist’ currents inside the FI’s sections, focused on ‘blue collar’ items and eventually the need for a ‘turn to industry’ of the organization. Already at that time,  ‘industry’ employing a mass of blue collars (the manufacturing sector) was already decaying. So the opportunity to forge links between the defensive actions of workers against declining employment in the ‘blue collar’ industrial sectors, the rising de-regulated ‘service economy’ and the ‘alternative movements’ (eg. against nuclear energy and so on) – it was wasted. The failures of the 1970ies/1980ies Marxians to forge such links, or at least to theorize and conceptualize an alternative along eco-socialist lines (which emerged very lately) – that falls on our foots today.

Again, be this as it may: here something (very cautiously written) from Mandel on ecology and the dialectic of growth 1973:

It is interesting to see that authors such as J.B. Foster from Monthly Review (in the theoretical tradition of Baran & Sweezy’s ‘Monopoly capitalism’ much criticized by Mandel at his time) have taken up the torch of propagating eco-socialism. Consider e.g. the latest analysis on the connection between pandemics, climate change, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity etc. as an illuminating example here:

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and more generally on ‘Marx & Nature’ here:

I suppose that Kerevan could agree also to such analysis.

However, the question of ‘What is to be done’ (posed by Lenin) is in our times very open and remains unanswered by many Marxians. Also, the current ‘radical Left’ in Europe and elsewhere neither has a conception of ‘eco-socialism’ proper (perhaps apart from some thinkers on its fringes). It is also not able to ‘break this down’ to transitional steps leading towards such a shift more concretly. The major discourse on this left is about a ‘Green New Deal’ – meaning a ‘new compromise’ with capital about a ‘better capitalism for the 21st Century’.

‘Mandel held the conviction that human beings would eventually revolt against such an irrational system (as ‘capitalism’, K.D.), so Kerevan asserts us. This is certainly true for Mandel and whole generations of activists following in the footsteps of 1968 to the mid 1980ies.  Nowadays it may be encouraging to hear the slogans of e.g- Fridays for Future proclaiming: ‘Burn Capitalism, not Coal’. But from such slogans to move towards appropriate building of broad societal alliances and actions along such thinking is very complicated – in particular under ‘pandemic emergency conditions’. So we shall see …

Contemporary China

Perhaps a last remark on the DDP editors note on this. It stated: “We doubt very much that Mandel would characterize modern China as a capitalist country, if he was alive.” Ok, but Mandel is dead. We do not know what he would say about China today. Nor do we know what Marx, Engels, Liebknecht or Luxemburg and others would have said on the Soviet Union and ‘real existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe after World War II. Such statements are very futile. Because it is up to ‘epigones’ (from left, centre or right) to make up their mind and providing their analysis, insights, hypotheses etc. on this – and it is solely these that can be held accountable on what they wrote or said. Not the dead.

On China, I agree with Kerevan that this is a capitalist country. Of some sort: perhaps best described as some ‘sui generis’ form of state monopoly capitalism run by a nominally Communist Party in charge. I know, that is quite eclectic and perhaps only descriptive.

However, if the notion of ‘socialism’ should have any meaning, it encompasses liberty, democracy, (socialist) rule of law, and in particular workers rights, feminism, anti-discrimination of all sorts etc. On workers rights and most of the other issues mentioned by me – where is ‘progress’ on that regarding China?

OK – some could argue that China currently is coping with an ‘absolutist stage’ towards a ‘better’ socialist transition coming in some future times. In a similar perspective, the very intelligent playwriter and disciple of Bertolt Brecht, Peter Hacks  , once characterized the GDR as an ‘absolutist socialist state’, and defended it critically.

However, I recommend to read also this by Walden Bello and Victor Shih:

Whatever readers may think about these pieces, make up your mind. In my view it is advisable to have friendly discussions on all these items based on rational arguments and mutual respect. The pandemic – as bad as it is – also provides us on the left with the opportunity for a ‘period of reflection’.