Ernest Mandel (1923–1995), born Ezra, joined the Belgian section of the Fourth International in 1938 at age fifteen. He was a close comrade in arms of Abram Leon in the underground work of the Revolutionary Communist Party during World War II, when Belgium was occupied by the German army. Mandel’s parents...
Ernest Mandel (1923–1995), born Ezra, joined the Belgian section of the Fourth International in 1938 at age fifteen. He was a close comrade in arms of Abram Leon in the underground work of the Revolutionary Communist Party during World War II, when Belgium was occupied by the German army. Mandel’s parents were Jewish émigrés from Poland who settled in Antwerp, Belgium. During the post–World War I revolutionary upsurge that swept Germany in 1918, his father, Henri, traveled to Berlin, where he helped found the first Russian Soviet press bureau and came to know Communist leaders from Russia and Germany.
Ernest became active in working-class politics in 1936, while a high school student. He was deeply affected by the powerful upsurge of workers struggles in Belgium, as well as the mass working-class support for antifascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. That same year the Stalinist regime’s anti-Communist purge trials opened in Moscow, and Mandel’s father, who had worked with several of the defendants in Berlin in 1918, organized a committee of solidarity with them. He made contact with the small group of Trotskyists in Antwerp, who began meeting in the family’s home, and Ernest, then thirteen, became a sympathizer.
Following the May 1940 occupation of Belgium by the German Wehrmacht, the Belgian party reconstituted itself as the Revolutionary Communist Party. Mandel was elected to the party’s Central Committee and in June 1941 met Leon for the first time at a leadership meeting in Brussels. Among other responsibilities, Mandel helped edit and distribute the party’s monthly paper La Voie de Lénine and its Flemish edition Klassenstrijd (Class Struggle), as well as the German-language paper Das Freie Wort (Free Speech), which party members clandestinely circulated to occupying troops.
In February 1944, together with Abram Leon, he represented the RCP at an underground European conference of Fourth Internationalists in Europe, held in France.
Mandel was arrested twice during the occupation. The first time, in 1942, he escaped his captors. The second time, in March 1944, he was convicted by a military court of undermining the Wehrmacht, sentenced to two-and-a-half years hard labor, and deported to a prison camp in Germany. Alongside some sixty thousand others—prisoners from across Europe, as well as German civilians—he was put to work for chemical giant IG-Farben in a plant producing synthetic gasoline for tanks and aircraft. In August 1944 he managed to escape from the camp but was recaptured and held under brutal conditions until liberated by Allied forces in March 1945.
In the postwar years Mandel, who often wrote under the pseudonym Ernest Germain, became the most prominent public figure in Europe identified with one of the currents in the international Trotskyist movement. He was widely respected beyond the workers movement for his economic writings, especially Marxist Economic Theory, Late Capitalism, and introductions to each of the three volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital published in a new English translation by Penguin.