Dissident Marxism isn’t finished

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Nine years ago, I published a book “Dissident Marxism” which was intended to point a path for the left to take post-Seattle, reminding everyone that Marxism is not a closed tradition, and using various lives of the post-1917 left (Karl Korsch, Dona Torr, E. P. Thompson, Georges Henein, Dave Widgery and others) to explore certain positive features of Marxist history and theory.

A message of the book was that the key task facing Marxism (“the acid test of dissidence”) between 1917 and 1989 had been to develop an explanation of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution which – honestly and convincingly – excused “Marxism” of the blame for the revolution’s defeat.

Implicitly, I located this break-through in Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism (although I only refer to him directly at four pages), blaming other (non-IS) Marxists’s failure to maintain their politics on equivocations in the face of “really existing socialism”.

Yet having taken that stance, I also expressly argued against a “Cliff-good, everyone else-bad” approach, insisting that other Marxisms had at least tried to sustain a non-Stalinist politics; and that because they were more deeply rooted in different moments of dissidence they often responded to a particular crisis with more creative urgency. The chapter in particular on EP Thompson and the New Left’s revolt in 1956 against Stalinism was intended to be unambiguously positive.

The book ended with my essay on Widgery (a version of which is on line here; http://www.dkrenton.co.uk/anl/widgery.html), using his life as an example of the reconnection of theory and practice which the demise of Stalinism had enabled after a long period of defeats, and which (the book argued) would be easier in future.

The book enjoyed mixed reviews. Martyn Everett (ex of Solidarity) enjoyed it, writing that the book fruitfully made us of, without ever resolving, a tension between Marxism and anarchism. Dougal Macneill, in Socialist Alternative complained that I passed over the crucial question of organisation. “To really learn the lessons of these figures, this inspiring book needs to be read alongside a work by another “dissident” Marxist: Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin.”

Mike Fitzpatrick gave me a kicking in Spiked. Ian Birchall complained that the two women chosen Alexandra Kollontai and Dona Torr were two few, and unrepresentative of the main themes of the book.

Neil Davidson complained that a healthy Marxist party should itself be dissident and required no internal dissidents; “This is why, enjoyable though the chapter on Widgery is, I think that it is wrong to describe him as a dissident within the IS/SWP tradition; he seems rather to have been one of its best representatives.”

Dissident Marxism suffered from various weaknesses, some of which have only become apparent to me over time.

One that I could see even in 2004 was that it was pitched at an audience of self-described anti-capitalists who had been reducing in number from 9/11 onwards and were almost invisible by 2004. There was of course a huge anti-war movement in 2004, international in reach and ambition, but the relationship between one phase of activism and the next was considerably more complex than we told ourselves at the time (“the anti-capitalist generation have become the anti-war generation”).

Many of the reviewers came from similar political or theoretical backgrounds to me. Those that didn’t found the book empiricist, historicist, and shamelessly naïve about the International Socialism tradition.

Alex Law, writing in Critique suggested that the book was uninterested in clarifying what a theoretical tradition is composed of. He was right, the book does not define a “Dissident Marxist tradition” in any way except retrospectively (ie “methodologically eclectically”), and it would be interesting to reflect what other traditions have a problem of fruitful definition (where, this week, do John Rees or Lindsey German, or for that matter Christopher Hitchens, or Roger Rosewell, or “Comrade Delta” fit into “the IS tradition”, anyone?).

Law pointed out that I gave exaggerated meaning to individuals’ lives at the expense of concepts such as “recession”, “impoverishment”, “alienation”, “exploitation”, “consciousness”, “protest” (in an awkward passage, I argued that biography might explain these concepts better than theory). The emphasis on a historical rather than a philosophical method had the result that I tended to excuse (he argued) the political mistakes of historians while failing to offer the same clemency to philosophers: “…It is on the basis of a biographical reading that Renton reserves the most trenchant critique for Marxist theorists like Braverman and Korsch and exhibits the most indulgence towards historians like Torr, Thompson and Rodney.” Was Law right? In retrospect I can see that he was.

Again: “Renton displays an antipathy to fore-fronting the explanatory capacity of Marxist theory. Lost in his immediate acquaintance with all the known details of historical fact is the need to confront philosophy and theory rather than dismissing the realism of ideas with a dose of historical realism or activist zeal.”

And again: “Philosophy is reduced by Renton to the lifeless, abstract systems of academic formalism while ‘history’ is chock full of real human content.”

Perhaps un-consciously I was reflecting on the people I knew in the movement who were philosophers and the people I knew who were historians?

I can see now there was a deeper problem; and one that was more widespread on the left than I liked to acknowledge. For 20 years and more the British left has been dominated by a small number of very “big beasts”, who succeeded in reserving to themselves the task of “writing theory”, and consciously or not made it clear to everyone else that their contributions were footling. Theory did not necessarily just mean big books proving or disproving Althusser or Lukacs or Foucault. Theory meant any attempt to peer beneath the surface arguments of philosophy or economics or of the political conjuncture at all.

There were all sorts of sanctions, express or implied, for those of us who were seen to be trespassing on the territory marked out for the thought-leaders. Of the fourteen biographical essays (of various length) in Dissident Marxism, almost all were written with the intention of being offered as the definitive “IS” guide to the strengths or weaknesses of a particular author. Three at least were offered first to the then editor of the International Socialism Journal (John Rees) for publication, one at the editor’s express invitation. None received so much of a letter of acknowledgment in reply.

There was a period of 9 years in which that journal agree to publish just one book review of mine; it was not for want of making offers, nor for lack of writing. In the same period, non-SWP publishers brought out 13 of my books.

I am not complaining about my own treatment. In life you make your choices and you ride the blows. Many others in the organisation have been treated far worse.

My point is a general one; that when reformers have in recent years argued for example that the number of women contributing to the International Socialism Journal was woefully low (which it has been), people have erred in thinking that you could just push forward selected members of a younger generation of women, without dealing with the broader problem that the organisation has manifested practices of monopolisation and control with regards to its own internal life.

Those of us who spent time in the company of these self-declared “big beasts” knew that we were allowed to express ourselves, minutely, in a semi-theoretical fashion. We could write about culture for example (unless you were Andy Wilson or Ben Watson). We could write about history, save that 1917 or1923 were off-limits.

The crucial point on which we were not allowed to express an opinion was the general nature of the domestic or international period we were in (”the conjuncture”). We could watch, but we were not supposed to generalise (i.e. to think).

Strangest to relate: so many of us, even among the writers, accepted our subordinate position.

Hence the historicism of ‘Dissident Marxism’: this was not just a personal affectation (although, in my case, I would plead guilty to elements of that!); nor was it just the influence of the British intellectual culture of empiricism; part of it also was a sense that by de-theorising our Marxism, we would make our lives easier.

This, for me, is the meaning of our last few weeks’ crisis. There is no longer a monopoly within the party or the tendency, of the means of communication. There is no longer anyone in the leadership of the party who can speak authoritatively about the nature of the crisis and can assume they will be listened to. There are voices, of course, but all of us are partial or tainted. Each of us, to a considerable extent, will have to forge our own audience. From now on, we shall all have to think for ourselves, draw up our own tactics, strategy and theory.

It is a daunting prospect; but we do (as ever) have a world to win

(Originally published, with thread, here).

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