Review of Dave Renton’s Dissident Marxism (Zed Book 2004) in What Next? No 28.
Dave Renton’s new book presents, in just 238 pages, fourteen twentieth century Marxists – Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexandra Kollontai, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Victor Serge, Karl Korsch, Georges Henein, Dona Torr, Edward Thompson, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, Walter Rodney, Harry Braverman, Samir Amin and David Widgery.
The book has a clear political purpose. Renton perceives the growth of a new anti-capitalist movement, and aims, as a socialist historian, to make the members of this movement aware of the real traditions of authentic socialism in the twentieth century. For most people the word “socialism” evokes either Stalin or Blair. Renton opens up the rich world of socialists, mostly written out of history, who rejected both Stalinism and social democracy (though critics of social democracy are a bit thin on the ground). In this aim Renton is wholly right. A new generation and a new movement may well take paths that will displease their elders (they may even find Labour Party ward meetings too boring to attend), but they will undoubtedly draw on and learn from the past. Renton’s book can therefore be of considerable value.
It is written in a clear and lively style, and contains much precious information, only slightly marred by a number of minor slips which it would be pedantic to dwell on.1 If the sketches are necessarily brief, when almost every single figure deserves book-length treatment, this is no bad thing, since Renton’s enthusiasm will encourage his readers to pursue the topics in greater depth. The tone is one of dialogue. There are no heroes and villains here. Renton brings out the best – sometimes at the cost of considerable exertions – in each of his subjects to show the contribution they made, but he is also unsparing in his use of firm but fraternal criticism. The book is thus refreshingly free from denunciations of the type still all too common on the left. Denunciation has a great deal in common with what Americans apparently now refer to as “self-dating”, an activity which may bring great pleasure to the person indulging in it, but which there is no reason for anyone else to take the slightest notice of.
In this attitude Renton is clearly inspired by his hero David Widgery, to whom he devotes his final chapter. The whole point of Widgery’s approach to hippies in the 1960s, or punks in the 1970s, was to establish communication between different groups who were in some sense in revolt against the system. The dialogue was not one-sided; Widgery believed the traditional left had much to learn, especially in matters of style and popularisation. But nor was he some neutral mediator; he knew which side he was on. Paul Foot recalls Widgery telling him that York University students “don’t need you … They need the proletariat”. Widgery could be savage (Renton kindly recalls his description of myself as a “sniffer dog of orthodox Trotskyism”), but in general his sense of humour enabled him to engage even with those who differed sharply from him. Widgery was one of those rare writers (like his mentor Peter Sedgwick, or Eamonn McCann) capable of being simultaneously hysterically funny and profoundly serious.
Renton has cast his net wide. While many of his potential readers will be familiar with Edward Thompson, few will have heard of Georges Henein, reclaimed from oblivion by Renton’s own research. Two of the Marxists treated here were born in Egypt, and a third in Guyana, showing a concern to make Marxism relevant to the whole world, and not just to the advanced capitalist nations. The treatment of women is more questionable. Only two women – Kollontai and Torr – are featured, and neither has a full chapter to herself. Perhaps it would be malicious to suggest these “token women’ were added at the last moment, with Renton having an eye to his day job as Equal Opportunities apparatchik for NATFHE. Kollontai has two claims to dissident status, as feminist and as member of the Workers’ Opposition, but it is impossible to give serious consideration to either in the space of just six pages. Dona Torr’s dissident credentials are much more difficult to identify. Renton rests his case on a set of unpublishable notebooks which are said to reveal “occasional disquiet”. Surely only a totally amoral zombie could have been a Stalinist for twenty-five years and not suffered “occasional disquiet”. Indeed, Victor Serge would have us believe that Stalin himself suffered occasional moments of depression and self-doubt. Did that make him a dissident?
Renton would have been better advised to give us a full chapter on Rosa Luxemburg, the patron saint of all dissidents, or, from a later period, Natalia Sedova or Marguerite Rosmer, both remarkable revolutionaries in their own right who should not be overshadowed by their better-known husbands. The various parts of this book are of considerable, if somewhat uneven, value. The whole is more problematic. The book could simply have been called “Fourteen Marxists whom Dave Renton finds interesting” (admittedly not a title likely to appeal to his publisher’s marketing department). Yet Renton seems to want to claim something more. The anecdotic links he establishes in the conclusion between his various subjects fall far short of demonstrating the existence of a dissident “tradition”.
Dissidence, in fact, is a very slippery concept. Thus when Tony Cliff argued that the states of the Eastern bloc were not “workers’ states” he became a “dissident” within the Trotskyist movement. But by insisting that only the self-activity of the working class could establish a workers’ state he was adhering to the most rigorous Marxist orthodoxy.
Renton’s book, therefore, raises a lot of questions which it does not resolve – this, indeed, is one of its great merits. In the space of a brief review I want to consider briefly three themes – Stalinism, voluntarism and nationalism. Most of Renton’s dissidents are defined in terms of their opposition to Stalinism. But the crimes of Stalinism were so monstrous that there were many different ways of opposing it, not all of them pointing in equally progressive directions. Thus Edward Thompson broke with Stalinism at the time of the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. The sending of tanks against workers’ councils was so heinous that only someone in a state of total moral bankruptcy could fail to oppose it. Thompson’s moral opposition was expressed with magnificent rhetoric, but it remained moral. Renton discusses the inadequacies of a purely moral critique, but he fails to draw some broader conclusions. Thompson never broke with the Popular Frontism which was the main political manifestation of Stalinism in Britain. When, in the 1980s, he developed the concept of “exterminism” in his tireless campaigning against nuclear weapons, it was in order to argue that the question of nuclear war transcended class divisions and that all classes could unite in opposing it.
Likewise, in his account of Harry Braverman, Renton sees his break with the American SWP as a rejection of “sectarianism”. He believed that “McCarthyism would force the American Communists to turn left”. (There was precious little sign of this; repression rarely encourages militancy.) What Renton omits to tell us is that Braverman was translating into American conditions the strategy of Michel Pablo for the Fourth International: that world war was imminent, that the conflict of blocs would replace the traditional class struggle, and that revolutionaries should abandon independent organisation and enter Stalinist parties.
As Renton makes clear elsewhere, in his discussions of Korsch and Serge, only a rigorous understanding of what Stalinism was could lay the foundations for real opposition to Stalinism. In his account of Korsch Renton stresses the former’s opposition to the “evolutionary and fatalistic Marxism of the Second International”. While this did indeed have pernicious consequences, it is not a problem that need occupy us much today. In building the anti-war movement, I rarely encounter people who say: “I shan’t be going on the demo; socialism’s inevitable anyhow.” And if Korsch rejected Kautsky, he hailed the “orientation on the will” of the Fabian Society. From the frying pan to the fire.
Likewise Renton commends Thompson for presenting class in terms of “experience” rather than of “impersonal forces”. But unless one is drugged out of one’s skull, experience is always of something external. The reality of exploitation must precede the experience of class consciousness. Renton is not wrong to follow Thompson and Korsch in seeing a role for morality and human choice. If socialism were not about people choosing to take action in the hope of a “better” world, then we might as well all roll over and go to sleep. But voluntarism has its dangers too, especially in periods when the working class may appear dormant.
He describes how Baran and Sweezy argued that the historic role of the working class had been taken over by the impoverished masses of the Third World, while workers in the imperialists’ lands sided with their own rulers. Hence their enthusiasm for the Cuban Revolution and for Che Guevara’s claim that “it is not always necessary to wait until all the conditions for revolution are fulfilled”. Renton is far too indulgent towards this voluntarism, suggesting that while in retrospect it may seem unwise, at the time it had a certain legitimacy. Guevara’s voluntarism sent hundreds of Latin American revolutionaries, who could have played a part in rebuilding the socialist movement on their continent, to their deaths in an unequal and futile struggle against the state machine.
Renton praises Georges Henein for introducing the Egyptian left to the idea that workers did not need to wait until after national liberation. But by the time the issue was posed concretely in 1952, and striking workers faced the gallows of the so called Free Officers, Henein and his organisation had disappeared. The other two Third World Marxists under discussion add relatively little. Rodney is seen as a failure, though his mistakes are said to demonstrate “enormous creativity”. The mistakes include an acceptance of the Stalinist model, for which apparently “we can hardly blame” him. Blame is scarcely relevant; what matters is an effective critique.
As for Samir Amin, Renton makes no attempt to conceal the fact that his position is essentially Maoist, and as a result increasingly irrelevant to either First or Third World. Dissidence seems to have little to offer in terms of authentic socialist strategy for the Third World. To make these points is not a negative criticism of Renton’s book. Renton presents his subjects honestly, and develops critiques as required. But a lot of questions are left unanswered.
The greatest value of Renton’s book will be in stimulating further discussion. Marxists in the anti-capitalist movement will face a broad range of debates, from philosophy to immediate questions of tactics. But the most crucial argument will be that about the centrality of working class agency. Ultimately Marxist thinkers will be evaluated, not so much by whether they are “orthodox” or “dissident” as by what they contribute to that argument.
Note 1. There is, however, one error that cannot be left uncorrected. Renton, like his mentor David Widgery, cannot spell the “Leyton Buzzards”. The whole point of the name of this long forgotten band – which peaked at No. 53 in March 1979 – is the contrast between proletarian East End Leyton and middle-class Home Counties Leighton Buzzard.