The Quinlan Terry of Marxism

Submitted by martin on 3 May, 2011 - 4:49


The architect Quinlan Terry designs buildings to look classical from the outside, but be modern (structure, materials, floorplans, cabling, ventilation) inside. Above: his 264-7 Tottenham Court Road building. For a revolutionary socialist party, however, Marxism should be not just a "classical" exterior, but the defining structure of politics.


Eleven years after the death in 2000 of its long-time leading figure, Tony Cliff, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), Britain's biggest left group, is in trouble. Of the main second-rank leaders who worked with Cliff, only one is left on the Central Committee: Alex Callinicos.

Veteran SWPer John Molyneux has argued that things may not be as bad for the SWP as they seem. The losses are unavoidable overhead costs from "the struggle against the Rees/German/Bambery regime which in my opinion was the pre-condition of the party’s recovery from the severe crisis into which we were plunged by the splitting and abandonment of local branch organisation in the late nineties and early noughties".

Then, convulsive tactical turns (like Respect) disrupted the SWP's basic routines. For long periods regular branch meetings were abandoned. Regular paper sales folded. Everything was swallowed by the latest tactical turn.

So (an SWP-optimist might say) the necessary recovery could be well served by a Central Committee of organisers with some due modesty about their political pretensions, sheet-anchored by Callinicos, not an organiser but a learned Marxist.

Callinicos's record suggests that the SWP optimist will be wrong. An SWP in which Callinicos is the decisive figure is likely to remain stuck in a rut of churning again and again through a faded repertoire of tactical ideas, faced up by sophisticated but decadent rationalisation.

Alex Callinicos first came into politics as a student member of the SWP (then called IS) around 1973. He published his first (academic) book in 1976. He remained a student until 1981, then became a lecturer. He is now a professor at Kings College London.

Within the SWP, he was was "managing editor" of the SWP's International Socialism magazine in 1977-8, and editor of its monthly Socialist Review in 1978-9. He was not on the Central Committee then. Apparently he was reckoned to be a hard-working and talented young member, but rather a maverick, and not a political leader.

He became more prominent in the late 1980s, playing the central part, along with John Rees, in the "anti-imperialist" turn of the SWP in 1987-8. His prodigious output of books and articles also increased.

Paul Hampton has given the history of Callinicos's interventions on philosophy, on "state capitalism", and on practical political questions, in another article.

For thirty years now Callinicos has been chief systematiser and theoretical tidy-up man for the SWP. His chief ideological innovation, in the course of that work, has been to "re-brand" SWP politics as the continuation of "classical Marxism", rather than (as other SWP writers would have it) a series of essays in "fresh thinking".

The writings of Callinicos, much more than those of any other SWP writer, read as if he sees Cliff and "the IS tradition" as inspired but rather patchy contributions serving to make the link between the "classics" and a neo-"classical" synthesis by Callinicos himself.

Callinicos credits Isaac Deutscher as the originator of the phrase, "classical Marxism". Another influence on Callinicos must have been Perry Anderson, who used the phrase as a banner in his Trotskisant book of 1976, Considerations on Western Marxism.

The term thus underwent a double transmutation: from symbol of tragic resignation (Deutscher), through academic militantism (Anderson), to SWP organising principle (Callinicos).

When we call a body of political economy, music, mechanics, German philosophy, literature, architecture, or whatever, "classical", the adjective suggests a rounded-out body of work which has permanent value, but also has come to the end of its line.

That is what Deutscher meant when he referred to "classical Marxism". He expected history eventually to produce a "return of classical Marxism" (The Prophet Outcast), presumably something like a revival of classical ideas in, say, architecture: work done by a different sort of people, and with a necessarily different shape, from the original.

Callinicos's construction of a pastiche of "classical Marxism" outside of time and space suited the SWP well in the 1980s, when, bingeing on the idea that the class struggle was in downturn, it had a narrow "party-building" orientation and (in Callinicos's own words) "took refuge in the Marxist tradition as protection against the right-wing climate in society".

Up to the mid-1970s, the IS/SWP had presented itself as heterodox, free-thinking, unpompous. Callinicos's "re-branding" suited a scheme in which SWP activity was re-focused from transforming the labour movement towards the construction on the one side of a "party" machine, representing an abstract "revolution" and "Marxism" in and of itself, and on the other of "broad fronts" on whatever limited or even foul political basis seemed to catch the wind.

There is a long story to be told about the contradictions of the SWP and its predecessors before 1975, and how they shaped what happened after 1975. But before 1975 the SWP, then called IS, was a group oriented to rank-and-file organising in the labour movement. It would even claim, though falsely, that "the rank and file orientation" was what made it special as against other revolutionary socialist groups.

In 1975 the IS/SWP split. Probably the majority of its old leading cadres were expelled or quit. At first IS/SWP sought "the raw youth who want to rip the head off capitalism" (as Cliff put it). For two years it floundered and thrashed about. Then it found a successful "formula" - the Anti-Nazi League of late 1977 to mid 1979.

For over thirty years now, successive (and increasingly politically cynical and corrupt) attempts to find a new ANL-type formula have followed, sometimes - as with Respect in 2004-7 - resulting in fiasco.

The "broad fronts" could be lively enterprises making a real contribution to working-class causes - as the 1977-9 Anti-Nazi League, severe criticisms notwithstanding, was - or vile efforts like the Stop The War campaign of 1999 or Respect. The basic scheme remained the same. One of its axioms was that "broad front" activity need not be restrained by socialist principle. It would be progressive as long as it drew people in and served the only really revolutionary activity, viz. recruitment to the (abstractly) Marxist "party".

Callinicos's decisive political formation was in the post-1975 SWP. He was inducted into SWP culture at the point when its earlier rank-and-file working-class orientation was already being cut away, and something else substituted. He found his distinctive role as the well-read academic who could rephrase that new culture as "classical Marxism".

One of Callinicos's youthful heterodoxies was his sympathy for the non-Marxist philosopher of science Imre Lakatos (a sympathy which personally I share). Lakatos coined a distinction between "degenerating research programmes", in which theory turns more and more to rationalisation and explaining-away, and "progressive research programmes", in which new conjectures and new refutations drive knowledge forward.

Ironically, Callinicos's own theory has become an epitome of "degenerating research programme". Cliff used simply to change his line, without explanation, and dismiss those who pointed out contradictions as pedants and sectarians more interested in old documents than in new realities. "Tactics contradict principles", he said, and too bad for the principles. Callinicos has always tried to weave together the "tactics" and the "principles" in intricate syntheses.

As the SWP has plunged through a series of catchpenny campaigns and "united fronts", Callinicos has had the role of explaining how all the opportunist turns are, when viewed in sufficiently learned terms of theory, good coin of an intact "classical Marxism".

In Trotskyism (1990) Callinicos claimed that Cliff had "continued the classical Marxist tradition" by steering a middle course in the 1940s and 50s between "Orthodoxies" and "Heresies".

Callinicos equated "orthodoxy" with Jack Barnes, Isaac Deutscher, and Perry Anderson, in a way that did not deal loyally at all with most of the "orthodox" Trotskyists. Even-handedly, and in urbane academic style, Callinicos dismissed Max Shachtman, C L R James, and Cornelius Castoriadis, as "heretics".

If, as Callinicos surely believes, the Stalinist USSR was by 1939-40 a class-exploitative imperialist state, then Shachtman must have been right against Trotsky and Cannon in 1939-40 to reject any "defence" of the USSR in its invasion of Finland. No, says Callinicos: Trotsky and Cannon were right in 1940 to denounce Shachtman and his friends "as a 'petty bourgeois opposition' which had capitulated to pressures from the liberal intelligentsia". The continuation of "classical Marxism" would come, through Cliff, in abstraction from such political fights as over Finland in 1939-40.

There is a method here rather like that of liberal Christian theology since the time at which the theologians had to concede to Darwin on evolution and to historical scholarship on the Bible being a patchwork of contradictions, corruptions, and accretions. Their trick was to fabricate a stance comfortably midway between the excessive "orthodoxies" of more fundamentalist Christians and the dread "heresies" of atheists, and invulnerable to refutation.

Likewise with Callinicos. The effect is to claim a "classical Marxist" niche, status, or profile for the SWP in abstraction from whatever campaign or activity it is currently running.

Socialists who have university jobs - with all the advantages such jobs give, in access to libraries, relative leisure, etc. - have often made big contributions to the movement. Socialists coming from posh family backgrounds have been so important that the Communist Manifesto itself mentioned their role in bringing "fresh elements of enlightenment and progress".

All that said, in the whole history of the movement it has been very unusual for socialists with backgrounds and career choices like Callinicos's to make the sort of choice of issues on which first to put themselves forward as political authorities that Callinicos made. He put himself forward as the voice of severe Marxist orthodoxy to tell rank and file trade unionists that their organising efforts were futile tinkering, and to tell black workers in southern Africa that their political awareness was so limited that their self-organisation into a workers' party was worthless use compared with the self-promotion of a small group of revolutionary aficionados.

His later interventions have stood out, within the general range of SWP literature, for their efforts to integrate whatever current political point Callinicos is promoting into elaborate, all-bases-covered, would-be magisterial syntheses.

The veteran Trotskyist Bill Hunter chose a good title for his autobiography: "Lifelong Apprenticeship". For Callinicos, an appropriate biography title would be: "Lifelong Professorship".

Comparing Callinicos's record with that of John Rees, who now leads Counterfire, sheds light on the current split between Callinicos's SWP and Counterfire.

Although Rees is seven years younger than Callinicos, in SWP terms they are near-contemporaries. Both came into politics and into the SWP in the early or mid 70s; both became prominent as young SWP intellectuals in the 1980s. Both are proficient in a hectoring, heresy-hunting, polemical style which must have helped "kill off" any talented young SWPers who might have emerged to jostle them.

In other ways they contrast. Callinicos, from an aristocratic family background, was at Oxford University; Rees, from a labour-movement family background, at Portsmouth Poly. Callinicos first became prominent as a writer with high theoretical pretences; Rees, as a student activist and then as a hands-on SWP organiser. Callinicos went on with a university career. Rees became a long-term SWP full-timer.

In the 1980s Callinicos and Rees worked together as amanuenses of Cliff in the theorisation of the SWP's "anti-imperialist" turn, from 1987-8, and its dumping of the vestiges of its "third camp" past; but even then, when they were working side by side, Callinicos's versions had a more "Marxological" character, Rees's more empirical.

Rees prides himself on being the man who grasps the main thing to be done and goes for it headlong; Callinicos prides himself on being the synthesiser, the man with an overview.

When he split from the SWP, Rees presented himself as the architect and hands-on organiser of an approach which could and would hurl socialists into successive "united front" initiatives and turns with verve and urgency, whereas (he said) his opponents, round Callinicos, represented a prissy, quibbling approach, rationalised in the name of "party-building".

Rees took the lead in hurling the SWP into Respect, while Callinicos spent that time writing his "Anti-Capitalist Manifesto" and his book on "American Power". That hardly makes Rees "better" than Callinicos. Better dawdling than that sort of "decisiveness"!

But Rees may be right that Callinicos and he embody different emphases within the general SWP scheme of recent decades. Between Counterfire and SWP, Rees and Callinicos, it is as if SWP-minded activists have a choice between Zaha Hadid and Quinlan Terry to design their political edifice, but always on foundations of the approach which sees politics as a game of balancing sham "united fronts" and abstract "party-building".

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