Peter Sedgwick

Thoughts in a Dry Season

(Winter 1967/68)

Peter Sedgwick, Thoughts in a Dry Season, International Socialism (1st series), No.31, Winter 1967/68, p.37 (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Socialist Register 1967
Ed. Ralph Miliband and John Saville
Merlin Press, 15s

1967 New Left May Day Manifesto
Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, Edward Thompson
60 St Ervans Road, London W10, 2s 6d

Intriguing are the adaptations and rationalisations of the radical intelligentsia. The avoidance of activity has become a major imperative in the breasts of those who spurn Wilson and LBJ but are unable for personal or theoretical (i.e. personal) reasons to involve themselves in any movement outside the charmed circle of the middle classes. At its most absurd, the phenomenon of avoidance may be found in those study-circles whose membership devotes itself to poring over works written, in the heat of the march, by revolutionaries in underdeveloped lands; On Practice, Oppose Book-Worship and similar apt texts.

But the great advantage of the educated classes is that they do not ever have to assemble in face-to-face gatherings in order to form satisfying groups. Groups which never meet (called ‘reference-groups’ by the learned) will do just as well, if not better. If a sectarian may be said to be one who is incapable of separating the interests of his group (a part) from the interests of the movement (the whole), then we are witnessing the presence today of many, many reference-sectarians (whose sect is a reference-group). Reference-sects are extraordinarily easy to manufacture; they need little of the energy and toil required in instituting and maintaining actual organisations. All that is needed is some type of common in-language; an odd phrase or two will do provided that the rest of the ref-sect’s talk can be centred around these. A badge occasionally helps, though even these need not be worn on the lapel; really keen ref-sectarians will pin their badge discreetly inside the brain, disclosing it in a sudden movement of confidence when they encounter somebody they know to be in the same ref-sect.

Ref-sectarians are in certain ways easily distinguished from the other type of sectist. The ordinary sectarian, when confronted with a question or other challenge for which a personal response is appropriate (e.g., if he is asked his views on a topic or course of action) will reply: ‘We.’ (Sectarians are failed royalists.) The ref-sectarian, by contrast, when asked to respond in a matter befitting collective action (e.g., when asked to take some practical responsibility to co-operate with some working group), will say: ‘I.’ (Ref-sectarians are failed individualists.) To the ref-sectist, moreover, any ‘political’ collective that actually meets, plans and works, is to be termed a sect, and its members by definition are sectarians: QED.

The 1967 edition of the Socialist Register is, in part, the latest instance of another form of adaptation; that of the left academic who is trying to ride the horse of his specialism at the same time as he sports Karl Marx’s colours. The first noticeable feature of the volumes of this annual is the slightly prissy, subdued flavour of nearly all the titles of the essays. This arises because the considerable time and energy spent in writing them may have to be justified to departmental colleagues or seniors, and their names may well be included in a list of published works submitted in application for a research grant or a job. (How do I know? Guess.) Titles like Smashing Capitalism or Sukarno: the Last Betrayal are therefore out. (In view of current vogues, however, such variants as Smashing Capitalism, Towards a Conspectus of the Consensus or Bargaining and Betrayal in Elite Formation, Some Indonesian Instances might well be considered.) The articles in Socialist Register are, as a rule, thoroughly researched and well written. The comprehensive study by Monty Johnstone (formerly a full-time worker for the YCL in King Street), on Marx, Engels and the Concept of the Party (Marx, Engels and the Party might have sounded too, well, militant) has 281 footnotes, many with several separate references. Jitendra Mohan’s detailed rehearsal of the vices of Nkrumah’s Party-State in Ghana has 71, some of them very juicy. It is all the more unfortunate that he did not include any of this material in his Varieties of African Socialism (122 references) in the Socialist Register last year. The 1966 piece ended with a paean to the African ‘national party,’ in which Nkrumah’s CPP was specifically included, which was said to eschew tribalism, to have revolutionary aims, to seek mass mobilisation for the complete transformation and reconstruction of colonial structures, etc; all the things, in fact, which Mohan now tells us the CPP did not do. Of course, the 1966 essay was written when Osagyefo was still in the saddle. As always, those socialists who said it first will never be forgiven for having done so.

For the rest, there are some first-class articles. Monty Johnstone’s is, I imagine, definitive. Maurice Godelier’s neat ‘structuralist’ essay on contradiction in Capital is unexpectedly illuminating, even though I think it is largely misguided; Godelier wants to say that ‘contradiction’ in Marx’s theory of crisis means the incompatibility between two objective structures within capitalism, namely the social character of the productive forces and the private ownership of the means of production, rather than the clash of contending social groups. But if it didn’t mean the latter (if there weren’t some relationship between the economic cycle and the state of peoples’ needs, frustrations, self-organisation and consciousness) why should the structural type of contradiction have any effects in the real world of men? According to Godelier, ‘Marx’s procedure ... marks a break with any historicism or reliance on events.’ It must be comforting not to have to rely on events; personally, I just can’t give up the damn things. I’m hooked.

May Day Manifesto, it seems, is relying on events or happenings of some description. At the time when it first came out, last May Day, its commitment to activity (‘To be a socialist, now, is to be out in the streets, in the rush of society, demanding attention for what is happening ...’) seemed to sound a fresh note in the thousands of words of mainly unexceptionable, if occasionally centrist, analysis of present ills which forms the bulk of the pamphlet. It is a little early yet to make any definite assessment, but my feeling is that this is one more doomed initiative. The old round of seminars, study-circles and similar suffocating trash is starting up again. I hope I will be proved wrong, but so far the Manifesto Campaign does not appear to be on its way to selecting revolutionaries, or possible revolutionaries. Several of the sponsors I know to be zombies or faint-hearts who have no intention whatsoever of carrying through the manifesto’s purported aims. Whatever the future of its ambitions, however, the Manifesto will remain the most readily available and on the whole best-written summary of Wilsonism’s crimes. It deserves its excellent sale.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 27.12.2007