Albert Archar (ed), The Legacy of Ernest Mandel, Verso, London, 1999, pp270


HIS book is based on papers presented at the first seminar organised by the Ernest Mandel Study Centre in July 1996. It consists of four main themes. The first consists of articles relating to Ernest Mandel’s theory of ‘Long Waves’, the second relates to his critique of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, followed by his opinions on the transition to Socialism, and the second part of the book contains interviews with Mandel, along with some of his unpublished articles.

This review does not cover Mandel as a political activist, nor does it present an appreciation or critique of the tactics he proposed. Rather it concentrates on his theoretical achievements and contributions to Marxian economic thought. This is particularly apposite as the capitalist world economy slides into recession.

In the European context, Mandel must be considered the most outstanding intellectual authority on the world economy since the Second World War. Credit must be given to his struggle to enrich Marxian analysis and rescue it from the stifling grasp of Stalinism. He researched and used extensive sources of empirical data to extend our knowledge of the laws of motion of modern capitalism.

The eight articles presented are by no means uncritical of Mandel. They are uneven, with the outstanding one being the fifth, by Mitchel Husson, entitled ‘After the Golden Age: On Late Capitalism’. A combined reading of these articles gives a view of the scope and depth of Mandel’s thought, and is therefore a useful introduction for any Marxist seeking an entrance into Mandel’s work. From this perspective, this book is worth reading.

This reviewer is not of the ‘Long Wave’ school. Capitalist evolution needs concrete analysis, and does not correspond to either ‘Long Waves’ or ‘Short Waves’. While it is true that the postwar boom lasted nearly 25 years, the downturn that followed it did not correspond to a pattern. For example, Japan only went into recession in 1991. The United States economy expanded from 1984, and Europe considerably later. In fact, the last 20 years have been characterised by a lack of synchronisation amongst the large three economic blocks. This lack of synchronisation was primarily due to the balance of class forces existing amongst them. If the USA powered ahead, it was due to the dominance of the bourgeoisie there, and if Europe lagged that was in turn due to the lingering strength of organised labour.

A brief explanation of waves is as follows: an upturn is characterised by rising rates of profit propelling rising rates of investment (accumulation), while a downturn is characterised by falling rates of profit dragging down rates of investment. By these definitions, 1996 should have marked a turning point in the world economy, an end to the downturn. For it was at this time that steadily-rising rates of profit finally began to encourage rising rates of investment. And indeed, for four years we saw an acceleration of economic growth and productivity. Some called it a new technological revolution, the information age in full bloom.

Yet four years later, the world economy is sliding into recession. What makes this recession unique is that unlike in 1980 and 1990, it is a classical recession based on over-accumulation of capital resulting in an absolute fall in the rate of profit, something which Mandel, incidentally, was wrong to dismiss. Phase one of the recession is in full flight, that is to say, a fall in investment. Phase two, the consequence of over-indebted consumers, is yet to occur. When it does, it is likely that we will experience a recession deeper than any that has occurred since 1974, a recession of sufficient magnitude to generate political consequences, especially in the Pacific Rim.

On the other hand, should this recession prove to be a temporary blip, a temporary correction of the upturn begun in 1996, then it will prove to be a vindication of the theory of Long Waves. This author thinks not. Despite the favourable balance of class forces from the point of view of the bourgeoisie, this recession will be sufficiently deep to remind us that there is no substitute for rigorous and extensive research of the present anatomy of the capitalist economy.

Brian Green