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Marxist Theory in Britain

(January 1978)

From International Socialism (1st series), No. 104, January 1978, pp. 23–24.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg, with thanks to Sally Kincaid.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Socialist Register 1977
edited by Ralph Miliband and John Saville
Merlin Press £3

This year’s Socialist Register is worth a read. This is so not simply because the opening section, The Future of the Left, includes contributions by two of the Socialist Workers Party’s best writers, Duncan Hallas and David Widgery. More than that, the collection of articles in this year’s issue offers an insight into the state of ‘Marxist theory’ in Britain (the reason for the quotation marks will soon become apparent).

There is now quite a large group of non-party Marxist intellectuals in this country. By ‘non-party intellectuals’ I mean those who are not affiliated to the Communist Party, the SWP or one of the small Trotskyist and Maoist groups. Most of these intellectuals were radicalised during the student movement of the late 1960s (some date back further, of course, like the ‘Old New Left’ – John Saville, Edward Thompson, etc., – which emerged out of the Communist Party after 1956). The bulk of them still reject the Communist Party, while those who were at one time actively involved in revolutionary politics have mostly dropped out in the last few years.

We have these non-party intellectuals to thank for the wealth of books written from a Marxist standpoint which have appeared in the last few years. Moreover, they have provided the impetus behind the various left-wing academic journals which have emerged during the same period – Radical Philosophy, History Workshop, Capital and Class, Critique and so on. And in this year’s Socialist Register the post-1968 generation of intellectuals are strongly represented.

Thanks to a number of factors – the economic and political crisis of British capitalism, the student movement, the struggles against the Heath government – the last ten years have seen a revival of socialist politics in Britain which has fed through even to publishing (look at the success of the recent Socialist Bookfair) and the universities (although the Gould report shows that the gains made are now under attack). The emergence of the unaffiliated Marxists I have described is part of this general phenomenon.

But the fact that these intellectuals are unaffiliated does not imply that they operate in a political vacuum. On the contrary, they are subject to powerful pressures arising from the environment – academic institutions – in which most of them operate. Of course, these pressures are resisted by the individuals concerned, but because they are not integrated into the organised political activity of a socialist party, the result is frequently compromise.

Politically this compromise can best be described as centrism. Unfortunately, this term is too often used merely for purposes of political abuse. However, it does, when properly used, describe a genuine political tendency, which involves the inability to make and stick to a choice between revolution and reform. The result is political inconsistency and vacillation which is often masked by obscure jargon which serves to cloud over the real issues.

Ralph Miliband’s piece in Socialist Register is a good illustration of this sort of position. Miliband undertakes to clarify the call he made in last year’s Socialist Register for a new socialist party. Yet very little clarification arises. Only three solid propositions emerge. One – that socialists should contest elections because ‘one of the conditions for achieving a firm implantation in local and national life ... is to work for the achievement of a solid and durable body of political and electoral support at the grassroots’ – is true but uninformative. The second – that ‘“ultra-left” groupings ... are here today and gone tomorrow. They don’t build for the future’ – is just a piece of cheap abuse for which Miliband offers no evidence.

The third proposition is not much more enlightening – Miliband tells us that his new socialist party would be ‘unmonolithic’ – ‘it would have a left, a right and a centre, co-existing and working together in a state of permanent tension and argument’.

Miliband believes that a party so organised would differ from the ‘“Bolshevik model”... of a “vanguard party” based on “democratic centralism”’. But anyone who has read the minutes of the Bolshevik Central Committee during 1917 knows that it was the least ‘monolithic’ body in existence – with a left (Lenin and Trotsky) warring constantly with a right (Zinoviev and Kamenev), even in the non-party press and at meetings of the Soviets.

The point about democratic centralism is not that it suppresses all debate, but that it gives the party the ability to intervene effectively in the outside world. This means that once a decision has been taken, those who lost the debate rather than perpetuating the debate at the price of intervention in the class struggle are prepared nonetheless to implement the decision. The trouble is that this sort of disciplined attitude to internal discussion involves a general consensus within the party about the nature of socialism. But this just would not exist in Miliband’s party. As Colin Barker showed in his review of Miliband’s recent book Marxism and Politics (Muscular Reformism, IS 102) the latter expects socialism to be brought about through the offices of a left reformist government, prepared to suppress the violent resistance of the bourgeoisie. Thus, despite all his strictures about the irredeemably reformist nature of the Labour Party (including its left wing), Miliband will rely on just these forces to overthrow capitalism.

Miliband’s call for a new socialist party independent of the existing ‘organisations of the “ultra-left”’ is therefore unlikely to be widely echoed. He apparently expects a party similar to the PSU in France or Il Manifesto, a party, that is, whose aim is to push the reformists leftwards, in Italy, to grow up around him from nothing, despite the fact that there are already two significant parties to the left of the Labour Party, the CP (with about 8,000 active members) and the SWP (with between 4,500 and 5,000 members).

But nonetheless Miliband’s call does represent one powerful element in the political make-up of the non-party intellectuals of whom he is a spokesman. This is a feeling of distaste for the organised left. The reasons for this feeling vary – in the case of the SWP it is largely a product of our strategy of ‘steering left’ during the period of the Social Contract, a strategy which is paying dividends now that significant numbers of workers have been drawn into struggle in defiance of the Labour government, but which, when the mass of workers acquiesced in the pay policy, appeared to be ‘ultra-left’ and ‘sectarian’. (So strong is this feeling among many survivors of the 1960s that the International Marxist Group has based an entire political strategy on exploiting it via Socialist Challenge and Socialist Unity).

Another element that connects many of the unaffiliated Marxists we are discussing is a renewed involvement in the Labour Party. This arises partly from changes in the Labour Party – its shift to the left during the last Tory government, culminating in the 1973 Manifesto and Tony Benn’s brief and inglorious stay at the Department of Industry. The drift back into the Labour Party also reflects its decline as a mass workers’ party – the result of this is that Constituency Labour Parties are largely controlled by small groups of activists, many of whom work in better-paid public sector white-collar jobs which make them susceptible to the appeal of the mixture of more state intervention plus opposition to spending cuts served up by the ‘new’ Labour left (Benn, Alan Fisher, Stuart Holland).

Another of the Labour Party’s attractions, is, of course, that membership is not very demanding. ‘Activism’ amounts to canvassing at election-time and moving resolutions in the ward and General Management Committee. At the same time there is the comforting, albeit largely illusory, feeling of being part of the ‘Labour Movement’. No arguments in your workplace about wage restraint, or racism, no paper-selling outside Woolworth’s on cold and wet Saturday mornings.

At the same time, there is a marked tendency for these ‘new’ Labour Marxists (see Peter Jenkins article The Labour Party and the Struggle for Transition) to converge politically with the right wing of the Communist Party (represented in this collection by George Bridges on The Communist Party and the Struggle for Hegemony). The two groups have much in common – for one thing social position, since both tend to be drawn from college lecturers. Both see the Labour Party as the avenue for social change. And both draw as their point of theoretical reference revolutionary thinkers like Gramsci and even Trotsky (the CP right wing have even formed a ‘Trotskyism Study Group’ and a number of them, like David Purdy and John Bloomfield are former members of the SWP)

To return to our starting point, what sort of theory do the intellectual currents I have been describing produce? Some indication is provided in the section of Socialist Register devoted to ‘Marxist Economic Theory’. This consists of a debate between Geoff Hodgson (another former revolutionary now in the Labour Party) and Ben Fine and Lawrence Harris. Now, Fine and Harris provide quite an effective defence of Marx’s theory of value from the attack mounted on it by Hodgson, who is a follower of the neo-Ricardian Piero Sraffa. However, nowhere are the political implications of the theoretical differences spelled out. Worse, we know, from an article Harris recently wrote in the CP journal Marxism Today, that his orthodox theoretical position is used to justify the CP’s ‘alternative economic strategy’ of state direction of investment, import controls, etc. The same is true of another vehement CP critic of ‘neo-Ricardianism’, Bob Rowthorn. One is reminded of Kautsky, who used to produce impeccably Marxist reasons to justify the reformist practice of the German Social Democratic Party.

This comparison with Kautsky does not spring from any desire on my part to make cheap sectarian jibes. The point is that for these non-party intellectuals (and the same is true of many of the younger CP intellectuals, whose origins and social position are broadly similar) theoretical activity and political practice have become disjoined, quite separate activities. A formally consistent and ‘orthodox’ theoretical position is compatible with a variety of reformist or centrist political positions.

This is not to say that the ‘orthodox’ Marxists among these intellectuals necessarily produce good theory. On the contrary – the separation of theory from practice means that their ‘Marxism’ tends to revolve around attempts to apply ready-made categories drawn from the classics of historical materialism to contemporary capitalism without any thought to analysing anew the dynamics of the system.


It is not surprising that this sort of formalistic Marxism gives rise to its opposite – attempts to revise the fundamental propositions of Marxism – just as the ‘orthodox Marxist’ Kautsky gave birth to revisionist Bernstein Marxist theory becomes so sterile that nothing in it seems worth saving. So, in recent years ‘Neo-Ricardianism’ which involves the rejection of the labour theory of value, has become fashionable among academic Marxists – especially the CP right wing.

This places a heavy responsibility on those who believe that Marxism is nothing if it is not a revolutionary and creative theory. One task we in the SWP must set ourselves is to develop intellectuals whose theoretical activity is not opposed to, but part of, their political practice. It is in this way that a genuine renovation of Marxism in Britain is likely to take place.

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