Peter Sedgwick

Too Much, Too Soon

(Spring 1967)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.28, Spring 1967, p.29.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Marxism in Modern France
George Lichtheim
Columbia UP 50s.

Marxism Today
Special issue of Survey, January 1967, 10s.<</p>

Contemporary French Political Thought
Roy Pierce
Oxford 50s.

Lichtheim has missed a fantastic opportunity. He was given enough in the way of academic cash and leisure to enable a total immersion in the torrent of Marxian writing that has gushed past the Left Bank in the last decade and more. He has read up all the important theoretical, historical and journalistic texts dealing with Marxism, Marxology, Hegelianism, Left Catholicism and the politics of the French CP and PSU. But he is simply not interested in confronting any of the problems that present themselves to people who are interested in helping to change society. He has some fairly undigested ideas about the rise of a technological stratum independent of the classes, the incapacity of the workers to take power, and the splendid impartiality of modern planning methods; with little more than this as a framework, he undertakes rapid, fluent portrayals of the current state of play in the institutions and Publications of the French Left. Lichtheim is convinced that the choices available for Socialists amount to either some species of syndicalism or some species of technocracy. He plumps firmly for the latter, advocating a sort of Popular Front between planners and trade-unionists, but in a manner even less connected with political activism than the PSU academics that he borrows from. The book gives you a rough idea of what has been going on in French Socialist theorising, but none of the issues are presented with enough love or curiosity to start you thinking.

It is flattering for the ego of the Marxist Left to find its ideas discussed seriously in respectable print; at least, it is reassuring to feel that work like that of Ernest Mandel or of the journal Socialisme ou Barbarie can impress itself on an intelligent (if not very sympathetic) writer like Lichtheim. Cynically, one could offer the hypothesis that the vein of Sovietology being now practically exhausted, those writers who want to make a name by pimping off Socialist theory and practice have little alternative but to turn to contemporary Marxist movements in the West, small as these may be. The special issue of Survey devoted to Marxism Today reflects this trend: from Preobrazhensky to Perry Anderson, so to speak. It is a rum collection, in which two American professors harp and nag at the student New Left in the United States, seemingly unable to forgive the radical young for being either young or radical. There is an article on the British New Left, cliché-ridden and partially lifted (without any acknowledgement) from my own article on the same subject in IS17. Two learned SPGB comrades have written a very interesting historical retrospect on the theory of State Capitalism as it has been applied to Russia; it is a pity that they do not deal more than sketchily with Tony Cliff’s version of the theory, the most developed of all the variants that they quote. Alasdair MacIntyre’s essay on Marcuse is the only other serious piece in the issue; but it is sad to see Socialist talents wasted in this predominantly murky company.

Far too much is being written far too soon in this type of politico-philosophical reviewing. Pierce’s book takes six prominent French political theorists, summarising and cross-comparing their ideas. It is a very useful guide to the thought of the Catholic Socialists Simone Weil and Emmanuel Mounier; less good on Sartre and Camus because it fails to integrate their novels and plays with their more explicit political writing; and least satisfactory on Raymond Aron and Bertrand de Jouvenel. Aron is a discursive ‘Western’ commentator, articulating a polite, conformist despair like so many dolls and poodles; de Jouvenel is an abstracted and rather tedious aristocrat, whose past as a French Nazi is the most lively thing about him. To bracket these two within the same covers as the other four, whose lives at least show a genuinely radical passion and commitment, is somewhat indecent.

Peter Sedgwick


Last updated on 3.1.2008