Duncan Hallas

The proud tradition

(May 1987)

From Reviews, Socialist Worker Review, No.98. May 1987, p.30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A Proletarian science: Marxism in Britain 1917-34
Stuart MacIntyre
Lawrence and Wishart £6.95

According to one fairly influential school of thought, that of the New Left Review, there was no British Marxist tradition worth speaking of until 1962/3 when Perry Anderson, Tom Nairn and their associates took command of the journal of that name. Of course, that view was always nonsense: an absurdity. As E.P. Thompson, who was then still in some sense a Marxist, wrote sarcastically in 1965:

“We hold our breath in suspense as the first Marxist landfall is made upon this uncharted Northland. Amidst the tundra and sphagnum moss of British empiricism they are willing to build true conventicles to convert the poor trade unionist aboriginals from their corporative myths to the hegemonic light ... There is a sense of rising suspense as they – the first White Marxists – approach the astonished aborigines.”

There has, of course, been a “native” Marxist tradition in Britain since the 1880s. How then could the NLR thesis ever gain any credence at all? For four reasons.

Firstly, and understandably, intellectuals in revolt in the late fifties and early sixties identified British Marxism with British Stalinism, which they rightly rejected. Second, they were utterly remote from any involvement in any actual working class struggles (of which there was no lack). Third, and consequently, they were obsessively concerned with the well-funded, institutionalised cold-warriors who dominated British universities, the BBC and ITV, the National Union of Students and much else besides.

They reacted against all this, but they reacted only in terms of ideas, and their own ideas were heavily influenced by the nature of those of their chosen opponents. Fourth, by chance, their advent more or less coincided with a massive expansion of higher education in Britain which gave a material basis (theses, jobs and more jobs) to the “academic Marxism” which was and is their constituency.

It is a great merit of MacIntyre’s book that it cuts across all this. His starting point is 1917 but he rightly looks back to the “great unrest” (1909-14). This period, together with 1916-19, was one in which for the first time basic Marxist ideas gained currency among a significant layer of advanced workers. They were, of course, very much a minority – but a minority which, at crucial points, could influence the course of events.

It is no exaggeration to say that the whole ideology of labourism (which MacIntyre beautifully describes) could never have arisen in the form it did except as a reaction to working class Marxists who fought the TUC leaders (often Liberals for the most part) on the basis of class politics.

Of course, these predecessors of ours had many faults. Their Marxism was fairly primitive. Anyone who reads today Mark Starr’s A worker looks at history (1918), which was a most influential text (10,000 sold on first printing and nearly 30,000 before 1925) can pick holes in it. But why were so many sold? Because, between 1910 and the foundation of the CPGB in 1920, a layer of working class militants looked for and found, in Marxism, an alternative world view to the dominant Liberal-imperialist ideology of British capitalism (which the Labourites accepted, albeit critically).

They had practically no help from any bourgeois intellectuals. Why not? From around the time of Engels’ death “Marxism”, of some sort or another became the majority or a big minority in the workers’ movement of much of Europe. This, in turn, produced an important bourgeois intellectual reaction (Weber, Pareto, Saussure and so on). Why did this not happen in Britain?

For the obvious reason. The European bourgeois intellectual reaction against “Marxism” however defined, was a necessary reaction against the growth of working class movements which had a “Marxist” flavour.

To coin a phrase, without Kautsky, no Weber. But the British working class movement, for good, Marxist reasons, lacked that colouration. Hence, before 1917 it neither produced first class intellectual opponents nor many “renegade” bourgeois intellectuals (the only sort that, broadly speaking, existed).

And so Marxism in Britain was, as MacIntyre says, a “proletarian science”. Think of the outstanding theorists: John Maclean, James Connolly, J.T. Murphy, Tom Bell, Willie Paul and the rest. It is a

All of them passed the great test of 1914 – they opposed the imperialist war. All of them passed the test of 1919 (except Connolly who was shot by a British imperialist firing squad in 1916) and supported the Communist International. All, except Maclean, went into the CPGB in 1920 and sought to build a Leninist Party in Britain.

MacIntyre’s thesis is, in part a “myth of the golden past” – and he has written a very sympathetic account of proletarian Marxism in Britain up to 1924. Its weakness, an enormous and definitive one, is that he does not understand the impact of Stalinism. Amazingly, given the period he has chosen, he does not seriously discuss the CP and the General Strike. And the “Soviet Marxism” which replaced the “proletarian science” he lovingly describes was Stalinism.

His Eurocommunist politics prevent him from grappling with this central fact. As a guide to revolutionary politics from 1917 to 1934 this book is worthless. But as a quarry, a source of information and “feel” about the movement, it is well worth reading.


Last updated on 20.12.2004