In place of a review (II)

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To recap: during 2013, the Socialist Workers Party had three conferences. Their real business was to do decide how the party should respond to complaints of rape and sexual harassment that had been made against Martin Smith, until recently the National Secretary of the SWP.

During that year, the SWP leadership faced a central difficulty that it had no decent explanation of what Smith had done, or why a group of present and previous co-workers with Smith, had exculpated him of the rape complaint, when on everything that the members of the SWP were told about his conduct, it seemed overwhelmingly clear that his behaviour was – at the very best – far below anything you would expect in a member, or still less a leader, of a socialist party.

In order to deal with the difficulty of a lack of explanation, Alex Callinicos, the main propagandist of the leadership of the SWP, tried with all his power to change the subject – insisting in a series of articles within the SWP’s magazine Socialist Review, that the SWP’s leadership’s critics were motivated by a secret and perhaps unconscious vice of “movementism”.

The SWP would be saved, he insisted, not by addressing the problem of its leader’s vile sexual conduct, but by him writing about capitalism. In an article entitled ‘Is Leninism Finished?’, he made this strategy explicit:

“What does continuing a tradition mean? There are plenty of sects, Stalinist as well as Trotskyist, who think this involves the mindless repetition of a few sacred formulas. But genuinely carrying on a tradition requires its continuous creative renewal. Marxism is about the unity of theory and practice so this process of renewal has both intellectual and political dimensions.”

He concluded: “The theoretical development of Marxism requires above all deepening and updating Marx’s critique of political economy.”

The book he was writing a year ago has now been published,

It has modest strengths – these can be found elsewhere on the web.

It has deeper weaknesses – first, for anyone versed in the events of the past 2 years, it is impossible to read the book without being conscious of its purpose to keep on keeping on changing the subject away from the leadership’s complicity and cover up of sexual violence. Those of us who were there will read the book, as Brecht once suggested we should read the ruins of Thebes’s seven gates, conscious of the bodies which lie buried beneath its every page.

Second, the argument is developed not through a reading of world historical events, still less through a statement of or analysis of Marx’s theory, but at a continuous third hand, along the lines of “Zizek suggest that Marx argued X, but Harvey interprets these same passages as meaning Y instead”.

This is not to reunite theory and practice, rather it is to express in a hyper-theoretical form the world of Plato’s cave, inhabited now by a whole tribe of day-blinded scholars, among whom Callinicos proceeds to allocate praise or blame, reserving for a few friends the highest praise of being “scholarly”.

Third – and simplifying for brevity – the book is based around an “Althusserian” approach to Marx, i.e. an idea that the purpose of criticism is to iron all the contradictions within Marx’s argument, to show that it is a seamless and perfect totality.

When Callinicos writes, for example, about Marx’s theory of crisis, he does repeatedly from the perspective of establishing that Marx had such a theory, that it was consistent, that the seeming contrasts between its expression at different stages of its development can be solved by understanding the logic and successive development of Marx’s argument.

In this approach – whether in its original, Althusserian expression, or in Callinicos’ updating – there is barely any interest at all in the economy as it is inhabited by people. In marked contrast to a previous generation of SWP’s economists, such as Chris Harman, for whom the final ascent from abstraction to reality was precious; there is no meaningful attempt to join the facts of the last 6 years’ crisis to the theory which is being expounded.

The point of theory is not to explain the world, but to explain someone else’s explanation of it.

That method may call itself Marxist. But if so, it was the method of exactly half of Marx – it was not the method of the Manifesto, the Eighteenth Brumaire, or The Civil War in France. It is a method without class, without agency, and without the breathing fire of struggle.

Walter Benjamin once wrote: “There has never been a document of culture, which is not simultaneously one of barbarism.” Few books illustrate the point better than this one.

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3 responses »

  1. A) “there is no meaningful attempt to join the facts of the last 6 years’ crisis to the theory which is being expounded.” Not surprising – it is a warmed over version of his PhD thesis written forty years ago.
    B) “at a continuous third hand, along the lines of “Zizek suggest that Marx argued X, but Harvey interprets these same passages as meaning Y instead”.” I have long maintained – long before the recent dispute – that Callinicos’s intellectual capacity consists essentially in being a very (and I stress very) talented book reviewer. All his books are in effect a long series of book reviews. Even The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx, which is by far his best book, is effectively an extended book review of the Collected Works.

  2. A) True, but it’s far from the central problem – as you read through it, most of the references are to books published in the past 10 years (there has been quite a lot of re-heating). When AC alludes to the publication schedule (present and future) of the MEGA – some of that is genuinely interesting

    B) Agree totally – both about the “reviewing” weakness and about TRIKM being his best book

    Incidentally, it is annoying having to address his book directly – I had hoped to make the points more effectively indirectly (https://livesrunning.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/in-place-of-a-review/), but some good friends who should know better seem to have lost the ability of reading a book in context

  3. My own thoughts at the time on that review (sadly I didn’t see this):

    One of the things with Callinicos texts is that they’re often very lucid summations of both a field and Marxist contributions to them. Hence generations of Marxist students engaged in seminar battles on the basis of reading his books (often because they were engaged in more interesting battles when others had time to read more widely). His work was also important in the defensive ideological trench warfare of the 1980s (Against Post-Modernism for example) and so in that sense Alex functioned as a kind of ideologue of the stalwart Marxist with one foot in the academy. He also, for those of us in the IS tradition, combined a kind of ideological United Front operation (lefties against post-modernism etc) with tantalizing references to elements of the IS tradition (although whether this excitement was ever more widely shared I’m unsure). Of course there was also the cachet of an academic Marxist who was involved in *real* politics etc (and indeed this was true).

    However I think there is room to ask whether the conservatism and bureaucratization of the SWP which led it all to come to grief was not reflected in this whole ‘diagram’ (well-I am discussing a Callinicos book). I have no objection at all to people reading or reviewing Callinicos’s book but it does seem to me that it is a) an injustice not to link a review of his theoretical work to his politics b) not to begin to unpick a little the slightly peculiar status of Callinicos’s texts discussed above. One (wholly complementary) comparison might be made with Aijaz Ahmed whose position as a kind of intellectual ornament of the CPI(M) gave rise to great popularity but at the same time covered a multitude of sins. For me there is something odd about continuing to behave as if Callinicos is a great Marxist theorist who just happens to be a member of a disintegrating tradition. Its actually irresponsible not to address this paradox.

    For what its worth I think we have to look at the damage we do to ourselves with theoretical conservatism. We were right to oppose the right wing ideological offensive but wrong to make a principle out of arguing that nothing much was changing etc, etc. One of the attractions of Callinicos was that the more intellectually curious could find out about some new social theories treated in a relatively open manner. But my suspicion is that this was a conservative recuperation which eventually became self mutilating (I get the sense that whilst there was engagement with new theory there was little renovation of our own). And I think these are serious matters both politically and intellectually for the broader community of Marxists, particularly in a situation where the far left is isolated from far left politics and may mistake maintaining positions with political engagement. I found myself reflecting on an old piece by MacIntyre where he spoke of the danger of Marxism being reduced to a different way of reading newspapers. …

    That’s my tuppence worth.

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