Peter Sedgwick

Theory at the Hour of Wilson

(Autumn 1965)

Peter Sedgwick, Theory at the Hour of Wilson, International Socialism (1st series), No.22, Autumn 1965, p.19-21. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Socialist Register 1965, Ralph Miliband & John Saville (eds.), Merlin Press, 35s hardback, 15s paperback.

Towards Socialism, Perry Anderson & Robin Blackburn (eds.), Fontana 10s 6d.

These two books would be significant for socialism even if they contained nothing but blank pages. Most recent works by socialists have surfaced primarily because they were important contributions, in their own right, either to a recognised academic subject-matter or to a newsworthy social area. These, on the contrary, are undisguised collections of left-wing socialist analysis and theory. Their very appearance as a commercial proposition testifies to the growth of a serious and sizeable audience for socialist ideas. My local W.H. Smith’s displayed a table full of copies of Towards Socialism in its entrance; they were bought up in a matter of days. Last year’s Socialist Register is no longer in stock. Both pairs of editors should be congratulated on their contact with a real readership.

These books are important, though, for more substantial reasons. Both are excellently produced, thoroughly documented, extensively argued compilations presenting a cluster of viewpoints which merit the closest attention. From most of the thirty essays gathered here the IS reader will learn something fresh and politically relevant. The present review is intended only as a preliminary notice; much more will need to be said in our pages on particular arguments that have been put forward, and some essays can be expected to recur as major references in our own future thinking.

Most of the articles by ‘name’ contributors are rather light-weight. Lukacs has sent Socialist Register a very pleasant, humane and attentive examination of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which he tries to recruit as a harbinger of socialist realism. Balogh has permitted Towards Socialism to reproduce a paper ‘originally written for the occasion of Prof. Mahalanobis’s seventieth birthday’; he is at pains to add that he wrote it before he joined the Cabinet Office, and that ‘it in no way reflects official views’. Would this were so: it is all technocracy and the rhetoric of innovation, with not a squeak on public ownership, welfare, or even ‘structural reform’. Crossman, in the same volume, prints a face-saving account of what went wrong with the last Labour Government. Here he manages to lift a number of points that have been more consistently made by left-wingers, but turns them all inside out. Yes, the last Labour Administration was conned by the Civil Service; therefore sympathetic experts should be placed in top positions in Whitehall. Yes, Attlee lost his nerve: therefore we need better blueprints to keep legislation going. Yes, the government lost the confidence of the rank-and-file: therefore the party workers should be given ‘the feeling that they were needed by the leadership’. The content of Attlee’s policies is scarcely discussed, still less attacked; the argument is purely structural. And its whole tone is constructed so as to woo what Grossman calls ‘the disloyal intelligentsia’, whose criticism is seen as playing an important regulative function in providing ‘intellectual dynamic’ for the professional politicians.

One important mode of operation of the (loyally) disloyal intelligentsia is seen in certain contributions to Socialist Register which deal with state-capitalist countries. Isaac Deutscher on Kruschevism, K.S. Karol on Eastern Europe, J.M. Vincent on the GDR, all undertake to point out, often with the aid of excellent documentation, how very unreasonable, contradictory and dysfunctional are various manifestations of bureaucracy and nationalism in these territories. All end by virtually appealing to the governing regimes to adopt more enlightened and democratic policies in the larger interests of the society. Very different in emphasis is the agonised article by François Jeanson on Algeria; although giving full play to the identification with the FLN which he acquired during his years of illegal struggle with the movement, Jeanson expresses his ultimate loyalty to the Algerian masses, both in his political judgement and in the sharp honesty of his reportage. Although written and published when Ben Bella was still in the saddle, the discussion in this article enabled at least one of its readers to view the Boumedienne coup without much sense of surprise. This contrasts with the bulk of left-wing writing on Algeria (Richard Fletcher’s piece following Jeanson’s is an example) in which the line between ‘autogestion’ and autosuggestion is perilously blurred.

Other contributors to Socialist Register with an international bent are of profound interest. (Perhaps as a corrective to its earlier ‘Third World’ bias, NLR has incorporated a rather rhetorical section by André Gorz, on trade-union strategy, as its only voice from abroad.) Henry Magdoff offers a succinct and lucid analysis of the problems confronting United States capitalism. Into a few pages Magdoff packs a remarkable collection of significant indices: the decline of fixed capital investment, the role of military spending, unemployment and disproportionate credit, the extent of poverty and, finally, the position of the Negro masses. His conclusion is worth repeating:

‘If the goal of the society is Negro-white equality and the elimination of poverty, then the solution cannot be found in a new capitalism or through the adaptation of the Negro to the new capitalism ... the various proposals for even radical tinkering with the existing economic set-up are akin to the romantic and utopian socialist ideas of an earlier era.’

Hamza Alavi’s long essay in the Register on Peasants and Revolution is of permanent importance. His thesis, roughly, is that the middle peasant (viz., the independent smallholder) plays a crucial initiating role in revolutionary movements in the countryside, and that the poor peasant of Leninist and Maoist hagiography is, to begin with, the least militant element until the power of the landlord is actually broken. I am not sure that Alavi’s historical material – drawn from the course of peasant movements in Russia, China and India – is well suited to prove this case; but it is certainly fascinating in its own right, and forms an important step towards a clear-headed Marxist sociology of the peasantry. The tendency of left-wing writers to speak of ‘the peasantry’ as though it were a homogeneous splodge, or of ‘the poor peasantry’ as the consistent ally of (or substitute for) the proletariat, is centrally challenged by Alavi’s analysis.

Both collections are at their strongest in studies of the Welfare, State and modern British society. The best contributions here are by two professional sociologists who evidently combine thorough knowledge with strong socialist convictions: in Socialist Register, Dorothy Wedderburn on theories of the Welfare State; in Towards Socialism, J.H. Westergaard on myths of classlessness. Both essays offer a fine integration of political theory with empirical sense, and perform a first-rate job of socialist education and de-bunking. Points are also well made in this area by Raymond Williams, Professor Titmuss, Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn and John Saville. At times it looks as if, in this broad field of welfare politics and descriptive sociology, a sort of consensus politics of the Left might arise, in which neo-Marxists and reformist radicals could pitch in together and even have some hope of influencing Labour’s ideas and policies. Socialists have recently, indeed, tended to justify their allegiance to Labour in terms deriving from these two areas: the political presence of the Labour Party is part of the specification of class in modern Britain, and the welfare features of its programme prove its continuing nature as a working-class benefit association.

However, as is becoming starkly obvious from the progress of the Labour Party in office, and particularly from the latest deflationary measures, it is impossible to maintain this limited commitment in isolation from the rest of politics, which insists on having its say. Imperialist financial and military commitments overseas pre-empt the welfare programme; the demands of capitalist rationalisation at home press Labour’s ministers into an attack on trade-union negotiating power. Among the present writers, Tony Topham on incomes policy, David Jones on Britain’s role in Arabia, and Ralph Miliband on the state of the Left do convey some sense of the urgent pressure of these larger, determining questions. But the fact is that the reactionary foreign and economic policies of the Wilson administration compel the Left into an immediate stance of revulsion and defence, in which even the best domestic sociology it can produce enters into the formation of its culture and morale rather than of its central field of action. It can be argued that the pre-occupation of this journal with international economics, the relationships of military to political strategy, and the impact of planning and modernisation on the working class, has been amply justified by the nature of the issues now confronting the movement. But though our theorising may have been more relevant, it has not spared us from the general frustration and impotence of the Left.

In this sense we have to confirm the enduring truth of Edward Thompson’s riposte:

‘The “oppositional” mentality of the British Left is certainly a limiting outlook; but it has grown up simply because our Left has had so bloody much to oppose.’

He is replying, in the last fifty pages of Socialist Register, to the schematising theorists of the new New Left; most of the original essays that provoked the polemic are reprinted in Towards Socialism, so both sides can be followed in detail. This exchange has all the fascination of the classic intra-Marxist debates of Die Neue Zeit and the better bulletins of world Trotskyism. It should be borne in mind that some of the most signal advances in socialist theory have been won in the course of involuted and even obsessive polemic inside the Left, and this is as good an example as any. On style and points, Thompson wins hands down. Despite some oversimplification of the Anderson-Nairn case in the discussion on aristocracy and bourgeoisie, his article is a mine of insights and a model of historical-materialist writing. Anyone who wants to know how Marxism can do justice to the nuances of evidence, of art and of human contingency should be referred here. (Another essay in the same book, Victor Kiernan’s careful critique of Ernst Fischer, has something of the same beauty of range and concreteness, and should possess an exemplary force in the development of a materialist aesthetics.)

In the conjunction of these books, we can trace a further stage in the history of the British New Left, which somewhat nullifies the intermediate report I attempted in IS17. Then, the narrowly intellectual focus of the later New Left was seen as offering a kind of strength, a concentration on what could profitably be managed by a few writers, as well as an evident weakness. Towards Socialism signals the renewal of a public, ‘responsible’ posture by the New Left, which as a result is already marked by the same vice of intellectual substitutionism (in a very much more explicit and damaging form) as was the case with its predecessors. Edward Thompson shows vividly how Anderson and Nairn devalue the activity of the working class in history. For them, the reformist institutions of the labour movement and the closed culture of the older industrial areas are blended into the notion of the ‘subordinate’, ‘corporate’ character of the British working class. The ‘hegemonic’, ‘universal’ language of socialism can be transmitted only by an intellectual stratum within the party which develops an alternative ‘global’ model of civilisation:

‘the relationship between the working class and culture, decisive for its consciousness and ideology, is inevitably mediated through intellectuals, the only full tenants of culture in a capitalist society’ (Anderson; his emphasis).

To this schema, a number of correctives must be applied. The economic struggle of the workers has a primitive importance for socialists just because its language is not ‘universalistic’ but ‘sectional’, defining a collective egoism which springs from the irreducible clash of interests over the ownership and division of the product. Since the working class negates capitalism in the factory even when it lacks any broader political consciousness, it is misleading to describe its role as ‘corporate’, with the implication that its claim is only that of an estate within the social order. Perry Anderson allows ‘negativity’ to the working class only when it is at a pitch of revolutionary passion, and ascribes to British labour little more than a monumental ‘proletarian positivity’, manifested in the range of its institutions (vide Rayond Williams) and in its ‘dense, object-invested universe’ of living (vide Hoggart). In fact, it is impossible to understand trade unions, co-ups and even the Labour Party except as partial contradictions (in intention at least) of capitalism: what else were they founded for? (This ingrained and unreconciled opposition among workers is well conveyed in Ken Coates’ article Democracy and Workers’ Control in the NLR volume itself.) On the other hand, as Westergaard ably points out in his essay, the Hoggartian, Community-Studies culture-pattern of jam butties and extended kinship is of limited significance in the working class as a whole and has very little to do with militant class consciousness. A number of writers in Towards Socialism (including Anderson himself) acknowledge the growth of an apparently new ‘instrumental collectivism’ among workers, based on ‘rationalist calculation of interest’. For Anderson this represents ‘for the first time the penetration of reason, of rationality into this closed, affective universe’, ‘the incursion of rationalism into the hermetic world of the English working class’. This concept rather seems to mark the penetration of a long-standing reality into the closed hermetic universe of certain English socialists and sociologists.

The new New Left equally mistakes the nature of the modern intelligentsia in Britain. The further-educational system of advanced capitalism does not turn out ‘full tenants of culture’ whatever these might be) but, in tens of thousands annually, future administrators, specialists and trainers. Equipped with labour permits stamped by their college, they sell their mental power to hierarchically integrated corporations for whom they perform subdivided, compartmentalised tasks for the rest of their working lives. Many of them serve as adjutants in the real normative bureaucracies of education and communication that make it increasingly difficult to draw a line (as Anderson does) between ‘civil society’ and ‘the State’ in our economy. Usually, the objects in which their labour-power is embodied are at least as alien from any free creativity as the bits and pieces on a factory conveyor belt. To regard this stratum as ‘the sectors of the society’s explicit ideas and values’ is to carry flattery too far.

It is, however, a form of flattery which the New Left has been prone to exercise upon itself. There they are, vecting away at the explicit ideas and values of socialism. The ‘hegemonic party’ has to lead ‘the historic bloc’ in an ‘ascending integration’ of demands, ‘entering and inhabiting civil society at every point’, rearing a ‘rich and complex cultural synthesis’, a ‘philosophical anthropology’. Like the Old New Left, this one is always opening up new areas. The next and most urgent one, it seems, is that of sexuality – in all its multiple dimensions and implications’; we have already had welfare, income distribution, social priorities, work and culture, which have in turn dominated debates, come to the forefront, begun to be ventilated, and entered the arena. Some of the vecting has to be farmed out, of course. There used to be the odd socially-minded poet or film director who could be given a department to handle; now it tends to be a Sartrean mystagogue or a Wilsonite planner. The mentalistic toy soldiers still wheel up and down, though in less permissive formation. Society is still divided into two parts, of which one is superior to society: the superior bit is just a little more self-consciously so.

The pity is that so much intellectual effort should be wasted in structural pirouetting, at the expense of discussing the content of socialist ideas. The weakness of both books lies above all in the programmatic sphere. Disconnected bright ideas are offered which in the main have little significance for the future of the labour movement, and at times sound forced and precious: make May Day a public holiday, make election day a public holiday, elect Parliament every two years, open the books, start a National Labour Women’s Federation (NB: there is one already). It is hard to become enthusiastic about any alternative which would consist in a lot of left-wing blueprints and detailed policy reports; that would only be to repeat the error of intellectualism, which supposes that a Fabian model can be developed for the Left instead of for the Right. The connection with action could come through indicating key areas of resistance and struggle in which the movement should take a firm socialist line. No general work of socialist theory or research in the next period which fails to oppose the practice of the Wilson government is going to be of the least interest. The staggering failure of most of the present essays to anticipate the Wilson debacle deprives their intelligence of much of its force.


Last updated on 19.10.2006