Ernest Mandel's Theory

Conference in Amsterdam on Nov 10-11

Theory as History
Ernest Mandel's historical analysis of world capitalism

Conference at the International Institute of Social History
Amsterdam, November 10-11, 2003
For participants and papers see the programme
For more information contact Jan-Willem Stutje ([MAILTO][/MAILTO])

The Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel's (1923-1995) analysis of the development of world capitalism occupies an important place in his extensive work. His magna opera, Marxist Economic Theory (first published in French in 1962) and Late Capitalism (first published in German in 1972), bear witness to this fact. Both works have a historically oriented starting point. Mandel considered Marxist Economic Theory an attempt to demonstrate that 'only Marx's economic teaching makes possible the synthesis of the totality of human knowledge, and above all a synthesis of economic history and economic theory'. (Mandel 1968: 17) In Late Capitalism he reaffirmed this standpoint, and then posed the question: 'Why is there still no satisfactory history of capitalism as a function of the inner laws of capital ... and still less a satisfactory explanation of the new stage in the history of capitalism which clearly began after the Second World war?' (Mandel 1975: 23) Late Capitalism was above all Mandel's attempt to respond to the second of these two needs.

The Free University of Brussels, the International Institute for Social History and the Ernest Mandel Foundation are organizing a conference on Mandel's contribution to a 'satisfactory history of capitalism as a function of the inner laws of capital'. The organizers consider that a conference of this kind meets a real need. A consistent historical theory has been sorely lacking in discussions on the development of world capitalism. While we do have the world-systems approach of Immanuel Wallerstein and his co-thinkers at our disposal, this theory is limited to the sphere of circulation and does not give sufficient weight to social conflicts (Van der Linden 2001). Several authors, including Eric Wolf (1982: 297) and Kay Trimberger (1979-80), have maintained that a good alternative exists to Wallerstein's conceptualization of the modern world-system: Ernest Mandel's theory of the capitalist world economy as 'an articulated system of capitalist, semi-capitalist and pre-capitalist relations of production, linked to each other by capitalist relations of exchange and domination by the capitalist world market'. (Mandel 1975: 48-49) Mandel gives considerable weight to the historical importance of social struggles, and considers the growth of the capitalist mode of production since the late eighteenth century as 'a dialectical unity of three moments: (a) ongoing capital accumulation in the domain of already capitalist processes of production; (b) ongoing primitive accumulation of capital outside the domain of already capitalist processes of production; (c) determination and limitation of the second moment by the first, i.e. struggle and competition between the second and the first moment'. (Mandel 1975: 47)

The conference's aim is to subject Mandel's historical theory of world capitalism to a critical examination. The following five, closely interrelated questions are central to this critical examination.

  1. The concept of 'capitalism'. Widely divergent answers have been given in the Marxist tradition to the question of how the 'capitalist mode of production' should be defined. This was evident for example during the two so-called 'transition debates', in the 1950s (Sweezy versus Dobb) and the 1970s (the Brenner Debate), as well as in the prolonged controversy over the nature of Soviet society. Mandel always took a very clear standpoint of his own in this general debate. What are the merits and weaknesses of his standpoint?
  2. The origins of capitalism. Mandel pointed out in several different publications that primitive accumulation and the existence of a substantial agricultural surplus product were necessary but insufficient conditions for the transition to a capitalist society (1968, II, 443-445; 1969: 75-78). The quantity of money capital accumulated in Moghul India for instance was probably no less than in Europe during the same period (Mandel 1971). Yet it was in Europe, not in India, that capitalism made its breakthrough. Mandel explained this 'Europe first' pattern as a result of a different relationship of forces between the state and the bourgeoisie. The stronger the bourgeoisie was, the more continuous capitalist accumulation could be. 'In the last analysis the uneven development of capital in East and West results from the dissimilarity of the two regions' agricultures, from two different relationships between land, water and the masses of people, which led in the East to a greater centralization of the social surplus product thanks to an agriculture based on irrigation and led in the West to a dual economy and a greater decentralization of the social surplus product.' (Mandel 1969: 79) This position is controversial, as can be seen from the ongoing debate about the role that the colonies played in the industrialization of Europe (e.g. O´Brien 1982; Wallerstein 1983; O´Brien and Prados de la Escosura 1998) as well as in the so-called Brenner Debate.
  3. The periodization of capitalism. Mandel uses a 'periodization of capitalist development' in three phases: freely competitive capitalism, imperialism, and late capitalism. Critics have maintained that this division is inadequately grounded (e.g. Massarat 1976: 147-156). The question can also be raised whether 'merchant capitalism' might be considered a fourth (earliest) phase.
  4. Uneven and combined capitalist development. Following Trotsky (1977: 27-28), Mandel always defended the theory that the development of world capitalism is characterized by unevenness, to such an extent that latecomers can skip over stages that the pioneers were forced to go through (e.g. Mandel 1970). This theory seems at first sight fairly self-evident, but the question is what it actually contributes to our understanding of history. Elster (1986: 55) has claimed that the theory is 'rather vapid', inasmuch as it amounts to no more than 'a denial of the theory of unilinear development' and 'does not make any positive contribution'.
  5. The collapse of capitalism. If capitalism blocks of possibility of the concrete utopia of human community, how can this utopia be achieved? Mandel always opposed determinist theories, like those of Henryk Grossmann (Mandel 1968: 328) and Rosa Luxemburg (Mandel 1972: 29), which predicted capitalism's inevitable collapse, and opposed the dominant 'Communist' ideology, which also assumed that the system's end was a theoretical and historical certainty.

In order to understand the zigzags in the history of capitalism, Mandel relied on the theory of 'long waves'. The fact that he himself had mistakenly clung to the idea, not borne out by the facts, of an irreversible stagnation of the economy shortly after the Second World War contributed to his later theoretical position. His mistake convinced him that a third type of rhythm, alongside the short-term industrial cycle and the system's overall life cycle, must be studied in order to grasp capitalism's dynamics. Critics point to the central role assigned to the tendential fall of the rate of profit in 'long wave' theory. Is this the only factor that determines the dynamics of capitalism, or is it only one of many? Even if the fall of the rate of profit gives rise to counteracting tendencies, are these enduring or does the theory lead once more to a scenario of so-called collapse? Mandel himself emphasized the importance of this set of issues (Mandel 1995: 8).


Elster, Jon (1986), 'The Theory of Combined and Uneven Development: A Critique', in: John Roemer (ed.), Analytical Marxism (Cambridge [etc.]: Cambridge University Press, and Paris: Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l´Homme), 54-63.
Mandel, Ernest (1968), Marxist Economic Theory (New York: Monthly Review Press). Originally Traité d´économie marxiste (Paris: Julliard, 1962).
Mandel, Ernest (1969), 'Die Marxsche Theorie der ursprünglichen Akkumulation und die Industrialisierung der Dritten Welt', in: Ernst Theodor Mohl (ed.), Folgen einer Theorie. Essays über 'Das Kapital' von Karl Marx (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp), 71-93.
Mandel, Ernest (1970), 'The Laws of Uneven Development', New Left Review, 59 (January-February), 19-38
Mandel, Ernest (1971), 'Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution', in: A.R. Desai (ed.), Essays on Modernization of Underdeveloped Societies, Vol. 1, (Bombay: Thacker & Co.). Reprint as: 'Agricultural Revolution and Industrial Revolution', International Socialist Review, vol. 34, No. 2 (February 1973), 6-13.
Mandel, Ernest (1975), Late Capitalism. Trans. Joris de Bres (London: NLB). Originally: Der Spätkapitalismus (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1972).
Massarat, Mohsen (1976), Hauptentwicklungsstadien der kapitalistischen Weltwirtschaft (Lollar: Verlag Andreas Achenbach).
Mandel, Ernest, Long Waves of Capitalist Development: A Marxist Interpretation (revised edition), London 1995, ( first ed. 1980).
O'Brien, Patrick (1982) 'European Economic Development: The Contribution of the Periphery', Economic History Review, 35, 1-18;
O'Brien, Patrick and Leandro Prados de la Escosura (1998), 'The Costs and Benefits of European Imperialism from the Conquest of Ceuta, 1415 to the Treaty of Lusaka, 1974', in: Debates and Controversies in Economic History (Madrid, 9-69.
Trimberger, Ellen Kay (1979-80), 'World Systems Analysis: The Problem of Unequal Development', Theory and Society, 8, 127-137.
Trotsky, Leon (1977), The History of the Russian Revolution (London: Pluto Press).
Van Der Linden, Marcel (2001), 'Global Labor History and `the Modern World System´. Thoughts at the twenty-Fifth Anniversary of the Fernand-Braudel-Center', International Review of Social History, 423-459.
Wallerstein, Immanuel (1983), 'A Comment on O'Brien', Economic History Review, 36, 580-583.
Wolf, Eric R. (1982), Europe and the People Without History (Berkeley [etc.]: University of California Press), p. 297.