Good Tradition

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Review of 'Dissident Marxism', David Renton, Zed Books £14.95

David Renton has begun the bold project of writing the history of Marxism through the lives of individual Marxists. The approach of his first book on the subject, Classical Marxism (2002), was relatively simple. It traced how, from apparently similar theoretical starting points, the paths of individual figures in the Second International led in quite different directions; either to accommodation with the system, like Kautsky, or to opposition to it, like Lenin.

His new book, Dissident Marxism, has a far wider sweep, taking in figures from revolutionary Russia like Vladimir Mayakovsky to members of the 1968 generation like David Widgery. The question is whether they actually constitute a distinct tradition, as David Renton claims.

The first thing to be said is that the biographical essays which comprise this book are always interesting and informative, and only rarely fall into mere chronology. Some of the people discussed here, like Victor Serge, may already be familiar to readers. But I imagine that many will be as ignorant as I was about George Henein, the Egyptian surrealist who became a Trotskyist for a brief period at the end of the Second World War.

However, there are difficulties involved in the concept of 'dissident Marxism'. What, if anything, connects the Marxists which David has included here?

He distinguishes the notion of 'dissident' from 'classical' Marxism on the grounds that the former were 'people who did not treat their socialism as an inherited canon of knowledge, but at each moment were willing to think their politics anew. The acid test of dissidence was a willingness to criticise the conduct of the Soviet state.' He argues that Trotskyism and the New Lefts of 1956 and 1968 were the traditions from which dissidence was most likely to emerge, but that 'other left wing traditions including African socialism, Titoism, Castroism and even Maoism could sustain dissidence, for a certain short time'. The specific examples were therefore chosen 'because they were seen to express key arguments, important moments on the left, or common dilemmas'.

There are three central problems with this conception.

First, to describe Trotskyism as a 'dissidence' seems to me to confuse the issue. Trotskyism represented a dissent against Stalinism, true; but it was a dissent in the name of classical Marxism and its relationship to the working class. That is not consistently the case for the other traditions that David invokes.

Second, it is never made clear whether he sees 'dissident Marxism' as being a particular response to the period when the socialist movement was dominated by Stalinism and social democracy, or - since those days are over - as being a much more general category, which is just as applicable now. At one point he suggests the first: 'Dissident Marxists lived in a situation shaped by the failure of the workers' parties, the Communists and socialists who had seemed capable of transforming the world but became shells.' At other times, the second: 'A distinction has been made between "orthodox" thinkers who used their Marxism to defend existing projects, and dissidents, who reapplied Marxist categories, holding on to what was central, but who were not afraid to think for themselves.' (Both definitions point to Lenin as the greatest dissident Marxist of all!)

The second definition in particular implies that, even in an organisation that was neither a 'shell' nor tied to a sterile 'orthodoxy', there would be a need for 'dissidence'. Now, an alert and critical attitude to one's own organisation is certainly a necessary aspect of revolutionary politics, but 'dissenting' from it on a regular basis would suggest that you were in the wrong organisation to start with. In short, 'dissidence' is not an end in itself, at least for revolutionary socialists. This is why, enjoyable though the chapter on Widgery is, I think that it is wrong to describe him as a dissident within the IS/SWP tradition; he seems rather to have been one of its best representatives.

Third, the category is simply impossibly broad. Take the two English Communists that David discusses, Dona Torr and Edward Thompson.

Torr is a neglected figure who was in many ways the inspiration for the Communist Party Historians Group and David is right to draw attention to her influence. It is her presence in this book that is odd. Like many intelligent CP members she may have had private reservations about Russia and the internal party regime (although David produces no evidence to this effect), but if so, it did not affect her political practice. Torr remained a Stalinist to the end of her life and her posthumously published book, Tom Mann and His Times, is structured around the Stalinist concept of 'the people' from beginning to end. Where is the 'dissidence' here?

David contrasts Torr with Thompson, who did break with Stalinism after 1956 - a step which freed him to write his great historical works. But admirable though they are, they are theoretically further away from Marxism than the orthodoxy he abandoned. Here I have to disagree with David that The Making of the English Working Class represented a theoretical step forward for Marxism.

In short, the parts of this book are greater than the whole. If the overall concept is not convincing, the individual chapters are excellent introductions to the work of the Marxists concerned, and serve to remind us of the rich and often ignored strands of thought within the Marxist tradition.