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.