Michel Husson, 1949-2021

Submitted by martin on 5 August, 2021 - 3:44 Author: Martin Thomas

The death on 18 July 2021 of Michel Husson means a large loss of light and sparkle in the world of discussion and debate in Marxist economics.

Unlike almost anyone else today, or maybe even in history, Husson was equally at home in abstruse "Marxist high theory" debates about value and price, in hypothesising about broad epochal shifts in capital's modes of self-regulation, and in detailed everyday statistical investigations (would a cut in the working week reduce unemployment, how much, under what conditions?)

His website hussonet.free.fr made available a wealth of week-by-week Marxist economic commentary, interspersed with "heavy" theoretical debate.

In 2008 and the years following, puzzling over the economic crash of those years, I did interviews and discussions with many socialist economists (collected, and supplemented by an introduction, an afterword, and appendices, in my book Crisis and Sequels). From Husson I included not only interviews, but three of his contemporary comments on events; and in the introduction I wrote: "on many issues I think I have learned more from Husson than from others".

Mostly I talked with him on the phone, and corresponded by email. I remember only one face-to-face conversation, when he was in London for a conference. He seemed tired and out of sorts that day. He was put on a panel together with the ever-disputatious Andrew Kliman, who was arguing that profit rates had been declining since the 1980s despite official statistics showing the opposite. Husson had contested Kliman's argument more than once, in writing, in detailed statistical discussions, but on the day said just that he didn't have the energy to go through it all again.

But that was atypical. On all accounts, even into his last years, he was usually affable, voluble, irreverent, often droll, never pompous.

His own account was: "I think I acquired my Marxist culture in reaction against the teaching I got at university [as a student of economics and statistics in 1966-71]. I had Raymond Barre [later right-wing prime minister of France, 1976-81] as a teacher, and I remember a session when he drew two curves to demonstrate that the unions were blocking the realisation of full employment…"

After university, he worked all his life in official or semi-official departments of economic statistics. From 1975 to 1984 he worked in the forecasting department of France's economic ministry. As he commented, wryly, on the one hand, in his day job, he was designing and maintaining the official economic models; on the other hand, meanwhile, he was writing critiques of them in Marxist journals.

In his day jobs, he came across writers like Robert Boyer and Michel Aglietta, who developed theories about capitalism moving through successive modes of regulation. On Husson's account, "Boyer was a sort of mentor, Aglietta too. But it was also a critical relationship". Husson would later write one of the most incisive critiques of the "regulationists".

Revealing of his approach was a comment he made in an interview on research he'd done while on secondment to Mexico's economic ministry about relations between the peso-dollar exchange rate and Mexico-US trade. It turned out that the facts fitted standard neoclassical theory quite neatly. A young Marxist whom Husson told about this was shocked. Husson commented that the objector was using Marxism as a "corset" making them less rather than more able to understand real economic movements.

Politically, Husson first joined the PSU [Unified Socialist Party], a group originating from a split in the Socialist Party over the Algerian war, which by around 1968 was relatively active and included a sizeable spread of revolutionary and Trotskyist-minded members.

Over the 1970s, many prominent PSU people, and whole groups, would move across to the "Mandelite" LCR [Revolutionary Communist League], which by then was the most active and best-resourced of the world's "orthodox Trotskyist" groups. Husson moved across late, in 1979, I don't know why.

By then the PSU was much faded, edging towards extinction. The LCR was entering a long period of doldrums, running from then until around 2002. The LCR's magazines would sadly chew over the "crisis of activism" depressing and thinning the ranks of the thousands of talented and dynamic people who had rallied to it around and after 1968.

Husson stuck to it. He became a leading figure in the LCR, more I think as an educator and writer than in day-to-day organising and debates on political tactics.

After 1995, the LCR went through a long period of trying to form a new "broad left" party together with numerous fragments thrown off by the Socialist Party and Communist Party in those years. It didn't work. Eventually, in 2008-9, the LCR decided to form the "new party" just by a direct appeal to individuals to join it in a new enterprise. That "worked" at first. The new group, the NPA, started off with over 9,000 members. Since then, however, many of the better-politically-educated "Mandelite" activists have hived off in successive splits, and a good many of the newer people who joined in 2009 have drifted off. The remaining NPA forces, though still of some consequence, are scarcely stronger than the old LCR but politically shallower (which shows especially on issues like Israel-Palestine), and harassed by internal conflicts with groups like the "Morenists" drawn in as part of the 2008-9 appeal.

Husson was gone by then. He quit in December 2006, with a sour letter of resignation, blaming (wrongly, I think) LCR "sectarianism" for the failure to create a new "broad left". He remained active in campaigns, left think-tanks, and so on. Despite declaring in his resignation letter that he wouldn't write again for the LCR press, he did in fact remain open to the revolutionary left.

I don't think he "moved to the right", particularly: he remained committed to the fight for a comprehensive overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by a society of associated producers, and not just to pushing for reforms.

He saw himself as a pupil of Ernest Mandel in economics, though in my view Husson's rigour in dealing with economic facts and statistics was vastly better than Mandel's sloppiness, and he was less given to contrivances to "save the theory" on issues like the famous "Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall".

Notably he continued to consider Mandel's scheme of "long waves" in capitalist development (first coined to pigeon-hole the "long boom" from the 1940s to, in Mandel's scheme, 1966-7) as valuable, and to think that the "down-wave" allegedly starting in the mid or late 1960s had still not been replaced by an "up-wave". (Odd, if you think about it: Mandel's scheme was of regular "waves" of 25-30 years, so a "wave" continuing for 55 years without turning makes the whole scheme dubious).

I've discussed elsewhere (on this website, and in the introduction to Crisis and Sequels) why I think Husson was wrong on that. But he was never a schematist. He fizzed with ideas both broad-brush and detailed, and was attentive and scrupulous about examining awkward facts and statistics in "real time". I wish I'd done more to pursue arguments with him and pick his brain.

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