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International Socialism, July 1977




From International Socialism (1st series), No.100, July 1977, pp.1-3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


International Socialism first appeared in the spring of 1960, subtitled “journal for socialist theory”. Michael Kidron, the founding editor, defined its role early on:

“What is needed is an analysis of contemporary capitalism in terms of its impact on working-class consciousness, prescriptions tailored to the weakness and strength of class consciousness today; in fact the recognition that class consciousness is the material with which we deal as socialists with a view to transforming it into a material force in its own right. Without this at its centre, socialist analysis loses its coherence and socialist programmes their reality.” [1]

Or, as the editorial in the first issue put it:

“The job we envisage for International Socialism is to bring together original contemporary social and political analysis that has special relevance to the waging of the class struggle and the deepening of working-class consciousness”.

From the first, then, IS sought to bring together two elements: Marxist theory, whose task is to decipher the workings of the capitalist system; and the consciousness and struggles of the working class, the agency of capitalism’s destruction.

The world on which IS sought to bring Marxist theory to bear was one in which capitalism appeared to have stabilised itself and to be able to offer the workers of Western Europe and North America a steady increase in living standards – the world of the long boom of the 1950s and 1960s.

It was a frustrating world for Marxists, who found themselves subject to two temptations. One was to surrender to the claims poured out of by the system’s apologists that capitalism had solved its problems and that the path of gradual reform offered a sure road to socialism. The other was to deny the obvious signs of stability and prosperity and to assert that capitalism was on the verge of imminent, catastrophic collapse. Sometimes there seemed little difference between the two positions, as when the proponents of catastrophe discovered friends in the strangest places and a succession of strongmen in the Third World – Nasser, Castro, Nkrumah, Ben Bella – were proclaimed the agents of socialist revolution. The two sides of Marxism – its scientific realism and its identification with the self-emancipation of the working class vanished.

Deciphering the Boom

International Socialism set out to avoid both temptations. Its explanation of the boom, developed primarily by Kidron and known as the theory of the permanent arms economy [2], had two aspects. First, it recognised the fact that the system had stabilised itself and set out to find out why. The answer it came up with was that the diversion of a large portion of the total surplus-value extracted from workers into spending on arms offset the basic problem that Marx had identified at the root of capitalist crises: the tendency of the system to overaccumulate capital and so bring down the rate of profit.

Second, the theory argued that the permanent arms economy represented only a temporary stabilisation of the system:

“Whatever the future holds”, Kidron wrote in 1961, “it is one of irreparable instability, of crises whose violence is such as to question the continued existence of capitalism as a world system at best, or at worst of civilisation itself.’ [3]

It was a theory with powerful implications. It predicted the decline of the arms economy and the return of the boom-slump cycle of pre-war capitalism. It knitted together the explanation of the boom and the theory of state capitalism in Russia developed by the Socialist Review group, from which the journal’s main contributors were drawn and from which the International Socialists and then the Socialist Workers Party developed. The dynamic which enforces the priorities of exploitation and capital accumulation upon the Soviet Union and the other “socialist” countries is military competition with the West; Kidron now showed how the same dynamic underlay the boom.

The theory also provided an insight into how the newly independent states of Africa, Asia and Latin America fitted in to the world system. The boom concentrated international trade and investment in the technologically advanced industries of the Western capitalist bloc. The former colonies found themselves excluded from this pattern, minor cogs of a system to which they were no longer indispensable as markets, sources of raw materials and outlets for surplus capital. At the same time, the attempt of individual Third World countries to break out of the system offered no alternative, as these states found themselves forced by the pressures of international competition to impose the priorities of capital accumulation upon their own workers and peasants. The only way out was the destruction of the system as a whole by the revolutionary action of the international working class.

The final consequence of the theory was to throw light on the position on the most powerful section of the world working class in the heartlands of western capitalism. It showed how the boom had shifted the struggle for reforms by these workers away from its traditional arena in Parliament. Instead, quite small sections of workers were able to win significant increases in real wages as well as improvements in hours and conditions on the factory floor, exploiting the bargaining power they enjoyed in conditions of rapid growth and full employment.

The postwar years saw, therefore, the growth of shopfloor organisation often outside the control of national trade union leaderships and the decay of the traditional reformist parties. The theory predicted that, with the decline of the arms economy and intensified international competition, the capitalist class would find itself forced to take on, and try to tame, these shopfloor organisations. The task of revolutionary socialists was to connect their politics with the workers’ struggles that this clash would produce. [4]

The theory developed in the pages of International Socialism during the 1960s met the demand that Kidron had made of it – “an analysis of contemporary capitalism in terms of its impact on working class consciousness”. It also reasserted a tradition, the central core of Marxism, embracing Marx and Engels themselves, Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the early years of the Communist International, and Trotsky in his lonely struggle against Stalinism, a tradition based upon Marx’s “battle-cry: the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself.” [5]

Events since 1968 have vindicated this stress on the role of the working class – the development of mass workers’ struggles in Western Europe (the French general strike of 1968, the Italian hot autumn of 1969, the battle against the 1970-4 Heath government in Britain, the Portuguese revolution, the confrontation between the workers’ movement in Spain and Franco’s heirs) and their eruption both in the Eastern bloc (Czechoslovakia 1968 and Poland 1970 and 1976) and, after the outbreak of the world economic crisis in 1973, in the “Third World” (as Nigel Harris shows in this issue). We are present at the rebirth of the world working class on which the Communist International in its first five years based the strategy of global revolution.

The tasks of theory today

There is no room for complacency, however. For one thing, our theory left out a lot. Above all, it neglected the massive reality of the oppression of women and everything it involved – the nature of the family, the struggles of women workers, the position of housewives, the repression of gays, the whole gamut of sexual politics. In this we were little better or worse than the rest of the left – but that is no excuse Certainly, there is no excuse for ignoring today the oppression of women and the issues it raises. Only consistent coverage of these issues can fill the gap. Joan Smith’s article in this number of the journal is a step in that direction.

But it is not simply a matter of what the theory left out. It centred, as we have seen, around an explanation of the boom. But the boom is well behind us now, and the world of the late 1970s presents new problems. Faced with them our theory is a bit like an old snapshot, yellowing and curling at the edges. It needs updating. We need to decipher the dynamics of the crisis, just as we did those of the boom. There are a number of trends which the crisis has brought into sharp relief. One is the tendency for the state and private capital to fuse into a single national capital. Michael Kidron in his article in this issue argues that this tendency necessitates a radical rethinking of some of the central concepts of Marxist political economy as well as the theory of the permanent arms economy and the political strategy developed from it. Some of his conclusions are controversial – for example, he now claims that the permanent arms economy cannot explain the post-war boom. Chris Harman’s reply challenges these conclusions and the analysis from which they are drawn.

Even if we share Harman’s disagreements with Kidron, it is clear that the trend towards state capitalism even in the Western capitalist bloc has many implications – for example, for explaining the mechanisms underlying the endemic inflation that has accompanied the crisis, and for the theory of productive and unproductive labour, which Marx developed on the assumption that productive capital was almost wholly private capital. These and other questions need to be explored in future issues of this journal.

The world-wide impact of the crisis has brought into play other tendencies. The Eastern bloc has been drawn ever closer into the workings of international capitalism. [6] The attempts by some Third World countries to develop strong state-controlled economies independent of the Western bloc have foundered – for example, in Egypt and Zambia. [7] Nigel Harris in an overview of the crisis in this issue analyses some of the trends, which seem to reproduce features of the “classical” imperialism analysed by Lenin – for example, th increased importance of raw materials produced by the the less developed countries and the growing power on an international scale of the Western banks.

But there are many problems that fall outside the scope of economic theory. Over the last few years, Western Europe has seen the greatest class battles since the Spanish revolution of 1936-7. There is the prospect of reformist governments of some hue taking office in the near future in France, Italy and, perhaps, Spain. The problems that revolutionary socialists face are different from those they faced when IS first appeared, at the height of the boom. In many countries, including Britain, the revolutionary left has succeeded in breaking out of its sectarian isolation and implanting itself to some degree in the working class. In the next few years the politics of revolutionary organisations is likely to be put to the test in the heat of the class struggle. The Portuguese experience suggests some of the problems that will be faced.

In order to meet these demands, theory can draw upon a rich tradition. The early years of the Communist International provides a store of experience of revolutionary class struggle – work in the trade unions (for example, the British Communist Party’s experience in building the Minority Movement), the united front, all the problems of strategy and tactics that the German Communist Party (KPD) faced between 1919and 1923. Obviously there are many differences between the situation of the early Communist Parties and our own – no European revolutionary organisation is anywhere near becoming a mass party like the KPD, and there are new problems posed by the decay of the reformist political parties at their roots and the phenomenon of Eurocommunism. Nonetheless, as Tony Cliff showed in his articles on Portugal, the experience of the Bolsheviks and the early Comintern has a direct relevance for revolutionaries in Western Europe today. [8]

In the present issue Duncan Hallas assesses one of the central figures in our tradition, Trotsky, to discover what is living and what is dead in his thought.

Finally, in the 1960s IS developed a powerful and original analysis of the British labour movement and its problems. Not all the expectations founded on it have been fulfilled and the crisis has, here as elsewhere, given rise to new trends. Alastair Hatchett devotes his article in this issue to exploring some of these trends.


IS 100 represents, therefore, an attempt both to examine and to develop our theory in the light of what it left out and the ways in which life has left it behind. We hope that it will stimulate debate on the issues it deals with, and that our readers will contribute their own views.

We believe that in doing so we are making a political contribution. The revival of interest in Marxist theory over the last few years has too often taken the form of abstruse speculation isolated from the problems of revolutionary practice. The result can be seen in the various schools of Marxism that have grown up, whose members find it impossible to break out of the academic world and influence the real struggles of workers.

IS has always set its face against this type of “theory”. From the beginning, its pages were filled, not only with theoretical articles, but with pieces devoted to the practical problems confronting socialists, from the struggles within CND and the Labour Party in the early 1960s to the mass strikes against the Heath government in the early 1970s. Our theoretical contributions are geared to offering practical guidance to socialists, while part of our coverage is devoted to providing them with the armoury of arguments, information and analysis needed in their day-to-day work (for example, the Notes of the Month and the regular Briefings.)

The changes in the level of struggle have brought changes in the role of the journal. The editorial in our fiftieth issue (January-March 1972) is still relevant:

“During most of its existence International Socialism represented, mainly, a tendency struggling for influence with the existing socialist circles. It is now one of the publications of a growing revolutionary organisation which is beginning to implant itself in the working class. Inevitably the journal must reflect this change”.

Today IS is the monthly journal of the Socialist Workers Party. For some this is a fall from grace. Such criticisms reflect the belief that somehow Marxist theory develop in isolation from the class struggle. The opposite is true. Today the prospects for building a revolutionary workers’ party in Britain are better than they have been for half a century. Unless theory relates itself to the problems of building such a party it condemns itself either to sterility or to the academicism and eclecticism of so many left journals today.

Nonetheless, theory cannot develop without critical and open debate. The exchange between Kidron and Harman in the present issue is an example. Nor should controversy in IS be confined to the members and supporters of the SWP. The debate between Geoff Roberts and Alex Callinicos on The British Road to Socialism in the last issue is an example of how we hope to develop IS into a forum for discussion on the left. For this to succeed contributions from our readers are essential.

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1. M. Kidron, Review of E.P. Thompson Out of Apathy, International Socialism 2, Autumn 1960.

2. See the essays in M. Kidron, Capitalism and Theory, London 1974.

3. M. Kidron, Rejoinder to Left Reformism II, International Socialism 7, Winter 1961.

4. C. Barker, The British Labour Movement: Aspects of Current Experience, International Socialism 28, Spring 1967 (reprinted in No.61) and T. Cliff, On Perspectives, International Socialism 36, April/May 1969, summarise this analysis.

5. Circular Letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke, in K. Marx, The First International and After, Harmondsworth 1974, p.375.

6. See C. Harman, Poland and the Crisis of State Capitalism, International Socialism 93 and 94, November/December 1976 and January 1977.

7. Notes of the Month, International Socialism 96, March 1977, and A. Callinicos and J. Rogers, Southern Africa after Soweto, London 1977, Chapter 5.

8. T. Cliff, Portugal at the Crossroads, International Socialism 81/82, September 1975, (with Robin Peterson) Portugal: The last three months, International Socialism 87, March/April 1976, and Portugal at the Impasse, International Socialism 95, February 1977.

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