Past imperfect: a reply to Dave Renton

Dave Renton is writing again: the comrade is notable, perhaps, for having the most consistent record of continuous publication of anyone in the SWP opposition over the recent period of wanton unpleasantness. We suspect he has probably suffered more than his fair share of unpleasantness on his own account, for precisely that reason, which makes it all the more remarkable that this material remains thoughtful and required reading for anyone in the midst of the SWP crisis, or biting their nails on the sidelines.

A gaggle of leftist trainspotters as hardened as we in the CPGB, however, couldn’t miss the target of one particular bit of faint praise:

On the existing British Left there are of course many examples of Marxist groups which prosper on the basis of a similar idea that the age of interpretation is over. One of the most effective of the Marxist websites (and the least effective of our parties) turns out on close inspection to be a project for the recreation of 1895-era Social Democracy, i.e. the moment when Engels died, before Marxism suffered its first crises (imperialism, syndicalism, the first world war) and had for the first time to be rethought in order to make itself relevant again.

Let’s be honest: the comrade is not talking about the Spartacist League here. It’s us, the CPGB; I could quibble over ‘least effective’ (and, of course, we are not a ‘party’) – I mean, if a crew our size can publish to the same schedule as Socialist Worker the best English-language paper on the left, I’d call that pretty effective. Why, you could almost confuse us with one of those nimble Shoreditch start-ups that are supposed to save the British economy (provided you don’t ever observe the editorial process at work).

It’s the 1895 thing that gets me. My comrade Ben Lewis doesn’t help matters with his taste in tweed waistcoats, of course, but that’s more of a 1900s affectation. The comrade has missed the point of our intellectual obsession with revolutionary social democracy – a historical epoch in the workers movement stretching from the 1870s to the end of the First World War, with its mortal blow struck in 1914.

Dave’s concern in his piece is the absolute intolerance of the SWP’s ruling clique for ‘endogenous development’ in the IS tradition. “The age of ideas is over, having ended in approximately 1979,” he notes acerbically, the significance of the date being the theory of the ‘downturn’ propagated by Tony Cliff in preparation for a significant ‘turn inward’. Instead of this ossified sectism, we should return to the iconoclastic spirit of ‘classic’ Cliffism, the febrile unorthodox post-Trotskyism that bequeathed Alex Callinicos the ideas which he now subjects to the strictures of the revolutionary priesthood.

What he identifies as valuable in the work of Cliff and his comrades is their willingness, amid the total theoretical disorientation of post-war Trotskyism, to at least attempt to face reality squarely.

But there’s a sleight of hand in his argument. Wikipedia tells me that Ygael Gluckstein “probably” first assumed the nom de guerre of Tony Cliff in 1959. The occasion was his short book on … Rosa Luxemburg. Not Nasser, or Gaitskell, or any other figure of Cliff’s own time – a German revolutionary whose corpse was dumped in a Berlin canal forty years earlier. ‘Prelapsarian’ Cliffism was itself an archaeological project – there was something that, as the canon hardened into Marx-Engels-Lenin-Trotsky, had been lost somewhere, and it was necessary to dig it out.

It gets ‘worse’! A full year before its author finally relented and allowed a full and official translation,  the first English renditions of any of Georg Lukács’s History and class consciousness appeared in International Socialism. Lukács himself may have been alive; but he had buried his classic work, whatever its faults (which are legion), for decades.

So what the hell are we up to? We face a problem – similar in some respects to that faced by Cliff, Mike Kidron and co, as well as the other variants of heterodox leftism of the post-war era – today, which is the loss of our historical memory. This memory is lost in two ways. Version one: today’s conditions are so vastly different from yesterday’s that confronting the deep history of our movement is a waste of time. This is an obviously philistine position, beloved of sub-anarchist types whom, in the best instances, one must call naive. Version two: the exact problem identified by Renton in the case of Professor Callinicos – the history of ideas is over, the canon is complete, it is merely our duty to soldier on in the one true cause. This is a far more insidious problem: if Callinicos is asked why the German revolution failed, after all, he has piles of dead trees with Chris Harman’s name on them; Lenin and Russia are ‘covered’ by Tony Cliff, of course, and so forth.

Both of these debilitations are stubborn things to treat. The first version because capitalism itself engenders a systematic ‘short memory syndrome’; the more things change, the better hidden is the fact that they stay the same! The writers in various ‘libertarian’ theoretical journals who believe the end of the 1970s changed the world absolutely forever are simply among the snottier ranks of the offspring of Thatcher. It’s nonsense, but a story told far outside our ranks.

The second, because – how easy it makes things! If only the collapse of the Second International in 1914 was down to something as straightforward as Kautsky’s incorrect grasp of the dialectic, or some specific timeless recipe of party organisation being observed only by Lenin and his comrades… For that matter, if only the descent of the USSR into hunger, slaughter and barbarism was attributable to that same ‘recipe’… Things would be incredibly simple. “The solution of historical materialism”, as Engels says somewhere, “would be as easy as an equation of the first degree.”

The CPGB is obsessed with this period in history because it is unavoidable, and because it is not remotely as simple as made out by the just-so stories peddled by the various strands of ‘actually existing Leninism’, or their simple anti-Leninist inversions. We confront a very different world than existed in 1895, for the greatest part because of the experience of those years, of the greatest achievement of the Second International, the USSR, and its ultimate disastrous failure. Understanding this different world, bizarre as it seems, is inseparable from the archeology of the early 20th century; we must explain convincingly both the unprecedented and hitherto unsurpassed strength of the revolutionary workers movement as it faced the slaughter of the Great War, and its failure of nerve in 1914, and its failure to complete revolution after the war. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the rest – Stalin, Hitler, the Marshall Plan – follows directly from there.

Perhaps there are those, as Dave suggests, who “desire to return Marxism to its pre-1914 fall” – we are certainly not among them. After all, as he writes, ” the SPD and the other original Marxist parties went over to social democracy under the pressure of great historical processes (the bureaucratisation of the unions, the availability of political democracy, the failure of revolutionaries at key moments to win majorities)”. That blade cuts both ways, however – the early, iconoclastic days of the Socialist Review Group and International Socialists gave way to today’s SWP, to the dried-up bureaucracy and the recent crisis. I do not blame the theory of the permanent arms economy for the Delta debacle – that would be stupid. But still. The SWP has failed the same more recent historical tests as everyone else – it now appears that it has failed them worse than some. You cannot put twentieth century Marxism back into the womb – but Alex Callinicos will not fit back there either.

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3 thoughts on “Past imperfect: a reply to Dave Renton

  1. You can’t always rely on Wikipedia. Cliff first used the pseudonym “T Cliff” (though he flirted with Timothy before becoming Tony) for “Middle East at the Crossroads” in 1945 while he was still in Palestine.

    See my biography of Cliff for details. This also describes the state of knowledge of Luxemburg on the British left before Cliff’s book. [In 1950 Eric Hobsbawm wrote an extended review of a history of the SPD 1914-1921 without ever mentioning Luxemburg’s name.]

    On your substantive argument i take Cliff’s position; “If you sit on Marx’s shoulders you see far, but if you sit on Marx’s shoulders and close your eyes, you don’t see very far at all.” Callinicos and Renton can look after tehmselves.

    1. Ian Birchall is right. The South African born marxist, Charlie Van Gelderen, lived with Cliff when he returned from the fighting in Italy in WWII. Charlie got very angry with Bornstein and Richardson, when their book, ‘War and the International’, constantly kept referring to him as “Gluckstein”, a name Charlie said he never used in Britain.

      Dave Renton is quite right to reevaluate the past and look to new ways forward, but the “CPGB” sectarians will never be capable of it.

  2. Correction noted. The Wikipedia error was simply too convenient for my purposes to critically interrogate. If you have a moment, you might want to set them right, but whatever.

    Harry: truly devastating stuff. Would it be too much to ask that you re-evaluate your cliches and look to new ways forward?

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