Duncan Hallas

Essentially amorphous

(February 1983)

From Socialist Review, No.51, February 1983, pp.32-33.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialist Register 1982
Merlin Press, £5.50

A better than average Register this time.

The contents can most conveniently be summarised under four headings: Britain, the Stalinist societies, Marxist theory, miscellaneous. No doubt some, perhaps most, of the contributors would protest against being roughly shoved into these slots. Nonetheless, given limited space, some such characterisation is necessary if readers of this review are to be able to form a general notion of the shape of the thing.

Stuart Hall on The Battle for Socialist Ideas in the 1980s tells us that we need more socialist propaganda. Another article on Britain is Economic planning and workers’ control, a factually valuable and politically splendid survey by Ray Green and Andrew Wilson, which concludes its analysis of current left Labour shibboleths on the matter with Marx’s 1875 comment:

‘Despite its democratic clang, the whole programme is thoroughly infested with servile belief in the state, or, what is no better, by a democratic faith in miracles, or rather, it is a compromise between these two sorts of faith in miracles, both equally far removed from socialism.’

Then we have two useful, if far from revolutionary, items by members of the GLC Police Committee Support Unit, The myth of black criminality and Scarman: the police counter-attack, a criticism by Huw Beynon of the Seabrook school of ‘Woe, woe, what has become of us’ analysis (Jeremy Seabrook and the British Working Class) and John Saville’s interesting and characteristically inconclusive Reflections on recent Labour Historiography.

Here too, although it does not fit the categories at all well, mention must be made of Ralph Miliband’s passionate and transparently sincere obituary of Ruth First; a tribute and a reminder that socialist activists are sometimes murdered by agents of the boss class.

There are five pieces related to one or other aspect of Stalinist type societies – my definition, not that of the authors.

Twenty-five years after 1956: the heritage of the Hungarian Revolution by Bill Lomax; a good deal of interesting information here, but cast in the, to me, absurd framework that assumes the Hungarian regime has something to do with Bolshevism. Solidarity After the Coup by Denis McShane does not add a great deal to Colin Barker and Kara Weber’s Solidarnosc (IS 2:15) but it is lively, vigorously written and puts the central political questions very clearly. I quote the second sentence and the last three:

‘The workers, intellectuals and activists who formed Solidarity did not know how to convert the gains of August 1980 into permanent change ... Power cannot be shared. It can only be transferred. And Solidarity, like all trade unions, was not the instrument for securing in a decisive fashion, that transfer of power.’

Splendid Denis. And the Labour Party?

I am not competent to discuss the East German writer Christa Wolf’s Citadel of reason, a speech on Büchner, and so merely note it. Ernest Mandel’s China: the economic crisis is a very different matter. This is something that really ought to be read by anyone who is at all interested in the notion that there are, or can be, workers’ states not created by or controlled by any actual working class. It is a classic of its kind.

‘First, it is now clearer than ever that socialist revolution in China was necessary and historically justified.’ But in what sense was it a socialist revolution? Was it led by the working class? Or did the working class subsequently gain control? Ernest does not venture to suggest anything of the sort. On the contrary, he starts from the rulers who ‘have faced a series of strategic problems rooted in the country’s backwardness.’ The workers (and the peasant masses) feature as objects in the struggle with these problems in Mandel’s account.

‘What are the causes of China’s progress?’ asks Mandel, and he replies, ‘The main one is that China’s labour power is no longer a commodity, that there is no longer a labour market in China, that workers have job security ...’ Yet he also speaks of ‘the enormous mass of unemployed’, of the ‘twelve million urban young people who left school in 1979 and were looking for jobs, only seven million got them.’ He tells us that: ‘the threat of dismissal now hangs over the heads of 100 million wage earners in China’ and of ‘hidden rural unemployment, estimated at 50 percent of the 300 million agricultural producers.’ He tells us too that ‘as a result of retrenchment, thousands of factories are idle or shut down.’

Sounds familiar. So too does his remark that ‘inflation remained rampant’. Ah, but you see ‘China’s labour power is no longer a commodity’!

For those not bemused by Mandel’s metaphysics there is a good review by Paul Keleman of the (Mandelist) book on the Ethiopian revolution by Halliday and Molyneux.

‘“Revolution from above” write Halliday and Molyneux, “is not so much an alternative to revolution from below as an extension or fulfilment of a mass movement from below, where the latter is, for a variety of reasons, unable to go beyond the stage of creating an atmosphere of national dissidence and to overthrow the established regime.” Through its silences and misinterpretations, catalogued above,’ writes Keleman, ‘The Ethiopian Revolution suggests a contrary lesson: the lesson that the Eritrean and Tigrayan struggles continue to demonstrate in practice – the masses cannot be substituted for in history.’

Exactly so.

On theory, loosely defined, we have a reprint of Deutscher’s Tragedy of the Polish Communist Party (which first appeared in English in 1972) and a contentious piece, Marxism and the Jewish Question by David Ruben as well as some other items of interest.

The Register was intended, to quote the first (1964) issue, to be a journal devoted to ‘socialist analysis and discussion’, controlled by editors who hold ‘a definite and committed point of view’ but who ‘have no wish to imprison discussion within a narrow framework’ and so present ‘a wide range of ideas and arguments, including those with which they disagree.’

It can indeed be fairly claimed that it has presented a wide range of argument over the years.

The claim that the Register has as its axis, a definite and committed point of view is much harder to sustain. It is easy enough to say what it is not. Not Labourite, not Stalinist, not Eurocommunist (although with occasional leanings that way), not academic Marxist, not Third Worldist – and not revolutionary socialist either. There have been contributions from all (or nearly all) these positions, in accordance with the stated position of wide-ranging discussion, but where is the central core of ideas against which these various tendencies are to be assessed?

What actually, other than the provision of space for discussion, does Socialist Register stand for? Who can say? It is essentially amorphous and evasive.

Naturally, there are those who regard this characteristic as desirable. And to declare an interest, it has permitted the inclusion of occasional contributions from supporters of SWP politics (Nigel Harris, Dave Widgery, Ian Birchall, myself) which would not have been printed by other, ostensibly non-party, journals of the left.

Yet surely, after nearly twenty years of discussion, some definite conclusions ought to have emerged. Is there, for example, any ‘actually-existing socialism’ or is there not? Can socialism be achieved by the use of the existing military-bureaucratic state machine or can it not? What, at the end of the day, is the purpose of discussion if not to lead to decisions and so to action?

Last updated on 11 May 2010