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Ian Birchall

Michael Kidron (1930–2003)


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 3, 2003, pp.281–85.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE death of Michael Kidron, so soon after the loss of Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas and Jim Higgins, robs us of yet another of the older generation who built and educated the International Socialists (subsequently the Socialist Workers Party) in the 1960s.

I first heard Kidron speak at a student meeting in Oxford in the autumn of 1962. I was a CND supporter sympathising with the Labour left, but unimpressed by the theoretical standards of the Tribunites. As I listened to Kidron analyse the current state of capitalism, I was dazzled. This man really understood how the world worked, and I grasped that it was possible to be a revolutionary and intellectually rigorous at the same time. His concluding challenge has remained lodged in my skull for over 40 years — historically revolutions have followed wars; in the nuclear age we must reverse the order.

Kidron was above all associated with the theory of the ‘permanent arms economy’, which claimed that arms production was waste or luxury production and therefore, for a time, retarded the fall in the rate of profit, and made possible the long postwar boom. (For the genesis of the theory and the respective contributions of Vance/Oakes, Cliff and Kidron, see C. Harman, Explaining the Crisis, London 1984, pp. 77–8, 165–6). The theory has been much criticised, but on the essentials Kidron was proved right. In the early 1960s, the overwhelming majority of the left believed capitalism had overcome its contradictions, and that mass unemployment was gone for ever. Meanwhile, some benighted elements still talked of ‘absolute pauperisation’ and ‘impending slumps’. Against both, Kidron insisted that the boom was indeed real, but would not last forever. His prediction from 1961 has been amply justified by subsequent history: ‘Whatever the future holds, 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.’ (International Socialism, no. 7)

For Young Socialists and students radicalised by CND, the theory linked the struggle against nuclear weapons to the fight against capitalism — a link summed up in the IS slogan ‘The fight against the Bomb is a fight against the Boss’. In its most extended version (Western Capitalism Since the War, London 1968; revised Penguin edition, 1970) Kidron’s theory encompassed planning, inflation, the decline of reformism and changing patterns of working-class struggle.

Almost equally important was his critique of Lenin’s theory of imperialism Imperialism. Highest Stage but One (International Socialism, no. 9). He characterised Lenin’s pamphlet as ‘supremely good theory’ for its own time, but showed that it no longer fitted the facts of the world four decades later. The follow-up, International Capitalism (International Socialism, no. 20), used the analysis to attack the Third Worldism so widespread on the 1960s left. He concluded:

To believe nowadays that the short route to revolution in London, New York or Paris lies through Calcutta, Havana, or Algiers, is to pass the buck to where it has no currency … The greatest service we can render international socialism is to help stoke up the fires at home.

(Interestingly, he noted that Portugal was still ‘old-model imperialist’; 10 years later colonial revolt was to bring this imperialist country to the edge of revolution.)

Kidron’s work as theoretician was paralleled by his activity as editor. In the late 1950s, he editedSocialist Review, the organ of the tiny group of the same name. Though the paper had only a few dozen members behind it, Kidron used it to debate with the mainstream left, for example in a vigorous discussion on the subject of wages policy — which he had already spotted would become a key issue in the 1960s — involving himself, Eric Heffer, John Hughes and Ken Alexander (Socialist Review, April 1959 to February 1960).

But his great editorial achievement was the first 20 issues of International Socialism (1960–65). The journal was founded as an explicitly Marxist rival toNew Left Review, also launched in 1960. In 1961, in his article Revolution Again! (NLR 6), Edward Thompson took Kidron to task for excessive invocation of the working class. Kidron responded with a letter in which he argued: ‘to my mindIS is geared to action;NLR is not’ (NLR 7).

The journal initially attempted to regroup the non-Healyite currents of the Trotskyist-derived left. The Editorial Board included at various times Ken Coates of the Fourth International, ‘Martin Grainger’ ofSolidarity, the Dunayevskayaite Harry McShane, and even a proto-Posadist (Theo Melville). The alliance could not hold together in the factionalised atmosphere of the period, and from 1963International Socialism became simply the theoretical journal of the IS group. (The group changed its name from Socialist Review to International Socialism in December 1962, apparently recognising that the journal, rather than agitational publications, was the most attractive public face of the organisation.)

The wealth of material in the first 20 issues ofInternational Socialism provided a splendid education for anyone new to Marxism. There were core articles designed to arm comrades for the arguments in the Young Socialists — an extended debate on Revolution and Left Reformism (involving Kidron, Alasdair MacIntyre and the historian Henry Collins), Cliff on ‘substitutionism’, permanent revolution, the Sino-Soviet split and Deutscher, and Kidron himself on Imperialism and International Capitalism, while Ken Coates and Sergio Junco (Sam Farber) presented alternative views of the Cuban Revolution. There were articles introducing us to hitherto unknown territory — Peter Sedgwick on Victor Serge, Erich Gerlach on Korsch, Jim Higgins on British Trotskyism, and Hal Draper’s magnificent Two Souls of Socialism. Although — indeed because —International Socialism had no truck with ‘international secretariats’ of any provenance, there were many international contributors: Jean-Jacques Marie on Gaullism, Paul Cardan (Castoriadis) on Socialism and Capitalism, Jean -François Lyotard on Algeria, Kan-ichi Kuroda on the Japanese revolutionary left, George Rawick on the American Negro Movement, and documents from the Socialist League of Africa written by Baruch Hirson.

The book reviews helped to develop a new generation of IS writers, among them Chris Harman and Nigel Harris. Kidron contributed frequently, often under the name David Breen. But there were also names which subsequently cropped up in a variety of places on the political and intellectual spectrum — Barry Hindess, Hilary Rose, Ian Taylor, John Corina, Mary-Kay Wilmers, J.P. Nettl and Richard Hyman. There were drawings by Abu, a collection of Songs with Teeth edited by Bobby Campbell (including Eric Morse’s immortal Workers’ Bomb), a short story by H. Orlando Patterson, and magnificent covers by Reuben Fior (two of which were included in an exhibition of Design and Art Direction at the Hilton Hotel). It was a team effort, but without Kidron the team would not have existed. And the editor’s whimsical sense of humour was always present — who but Kidron could have written a piece on drug company profits and the arms economy, and called it Arms Drugs and Booms-a-Daisy?

The editorials helped to steer comrades through a difficult period. The Labour Party Conference voted in 1960 against Hugh Gaitskell for unilateral nuclear disarmament. Amid the general euphoria of the Left, Kidron’s editorial struck a sour note, warning that it was ‘easy to exaggerate the extent of victory’, and arguing that if the victory were not to be reversed, the Left must learn to break down ‘the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle’. (Labour and the Bomb, International Socialism, no. 3) This may have seemed pessimistic, but after the Right’s success in 1961 it offered the best logic for continuing the struggle.

Kidron was not infallible. Sometimes his desire to grasp the wood as a totality led him to regard mere trees as an unnecessary distraction. In 1963 or 1964, as a very junior member of the Editorial Board, I suggested an editorial on Vietnam. Kidron looked at me with withering scorn and said: ‘You mean that little war! That silly … little … war!’ Vietnam always perplexed him; his own intelligence was so powerful that he found it hard to understand why ruling classes should act so stupidly.

In 1965, Kidron contributed a column to the fortnightlyLabour Worker under the name Frat Cain, in which he attempted to orient a new generation recruited through the Young Socialists to the novel experience of a Labour government. In his first piece, he argued thatTribune might be renamedThe Weekly Whisper, and concluded: ‘I would hate to see the Government topple meaninglessly or because business becomes restive. But if it falls because workers organize against wage-freeze and refuse the business-backed policies Labour is handing out, I should welcome it.’

He produced a document opposing Cliff’s organisational proposals during the debate on democratic centralism in 1968, entitled We Are Not Peasants (reproduced in Jim Higgins,More Years for the Locust, London 1997, pp. 145–6). He did not oppose democratic centralism in principle, but rather suggested an intermediate organisational form to fit the changing needs of IS.

He continued to provoke controversy. In 1968, Kidron reviewed Mandel’sMarxist Economic Theory under the title Maginot Marxism (International Socialism, no. 36), arguing that Mandel was ‘more concerned with defending Marx’s categories of analysis than with applying them’. Mandel responded with a pamphlet entitledThe Inconsistencies of State Capitalism (IMG, 1969). Inside IS, the undeclared faction around David Yaffe (later the Revolutionary Communist Group) made Kidron’s economics a particular target of their polemics. Kidron replied acidly: ‘As every Torah has its Talmud, so every Program has its Yaffe.’ (IS Bulletin, March 1973)

There was always a degree of tension between Kidron and his brother-in-law Tony Cliff. By the side of Cliff’s relentless focus on the unity of theory and practice, Kidron’s more relaxed style and broader culture could seem somewhat dilettante. Yet between 1955 and 1968, they worked closely together on the basis of mutual respect. As Cliff told me: ‘I have had many rows with Mike, because he is worth it.’ Kidron became somewhat less central to the organisation after 1968, though he continued to speak and write for it. Early in 1973, Cliff and Jim Higgins proposed to bring him back as editor ofInternational Socialism, now a monthly. (I was summoned to Cliff’s home and harangued for an hour about why I must vote for Mike. I didn’t.) He was appointed, but a deep split in the leadership now emerged, and he was replaced before taking office.

Though he did some speaking for a year or two more, this was really the end of the road. It is unclear exactly when Kidron left IS. Nothing was more alien to his nature than the classic Trotskyist procedure of the noisy split followed by denunciation of former comrades. By now he was increasingly involved, alongside Richard Kuper, in Pluto Press. Pluto had originally been established as a semi-autonomous publishing house for IS. But as the 1970s unfolded, the political priorities of a small revolutionary organisation seeking influence in the working class increasingly diverged from those of a left-wing publishing house trying to ensure commercial survival. There were failures to liaise and faults on both sides; by the end of the 1970s there was complete divorce between Pluto and the SWP.

In 1977, Kidron contributed a critique of some of his earlier positions to the hundredth issue of the journal he had founded, entitled Two Insights Don’t Make A Theory (International Socialism, no. 100). He now argued that the postwar boom had happened ‘despite the arms economy, not because of it’. More seriously, he claimed the rôle of trade unions had changed so much that ‘a political strategy structured around them is bound to fail’. This implied rejection of the rank-and-file strategy pursued by the SWP.

Thus ended Kidron’s 20 years in the organised revolutionary movement. (For an overview of his whole life, see Richard Kuper’s excellent obituary in theGuardian, 27 March 2003.) But in his published writings and his unpublished work (he left behind a 750,000-word manuscript) he continued to pursue the understanding of capitalism as a total system.

Last year, he contributed a final article to the SWP journal (Falling Growth and Rampant Costs: Two Ghosts in the Machine of Modern Capitalism, International Socialism, 2/96). He examined the rôle of waste in modern capitalism; here were still the same penetrating intelligence, the same playful humour and the same indignation at the irrational system we live in. He ended with the delightful — and utterly Kidronesque — image of a married couple, he a tax inspector, she a tax avoidance accountant, whose endless labours are ‘mutually cancelling’; their son, neglected by his hard-working parents, becomes a vandal. Death prevented further collaboration, but all of us who learned some of our Marxism from Mike Kidron will continue to be indebted to him.

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Last updated: 21 May 2021