In the bright autumn of my senescence
- In the Heat of the Struggle: Twenty-Five Years of ‘Socialist Worker’ by Paul Foot
Bookmarks, 288 pp, £12.50, November 1993, ISBN 0 906224 94 2
- Why You Should Join the Socialists by Paul Foot
Bookmarks, 70 pp, £1.90, November 1993, ISBN 0 906224 80 2
If there is one term that illustrates the rapidity with which historical truth can degenerate before one’s very eyes, that term is ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. According to those who employ this smooth and evasive construction, the lesson of the Vietnam War is that the United States suffered greatly from being ‘entangled’ in a ‘quagmire’ in Indo-China, and should henceforth be extremely prudent about overseas military commitments. Jimmy Carter put it very gruffly, when he said that both America and Vietnam had suffered equally. Henry Kissinger, in his memoir Years of Upheaval, phrased it even more prettily: ‘Hanoi and Washington had inflicted grievous wounds on each other; theirs were physical, ours psychological and thus perhaps harder to heal.’
This connects perfectly to the sickly fashion for therapy and esteem which it partially prefigures, and to the essentially Stalinist reading of history which allows that ‘mistakes were made’ but maintains that it was either everybody’s fault or nobody’s. I can only say, for myself, that I don’t remember Vietnam in this way at all. There were days when it was almost physically unbearable to look at the papers or to watch the news, and to be a spectator to the disgusting superpower aggression that was levelling ‘every work of man in Vietnam’ (General LeMay, speaking approvingly) as well as reducing its population by a million or two. The clear lineal descent of this policy from Japanese and French imperialism, the relentless campaign of lying and falsification by which it was justified, and the coercion and bullying of those brave Americans who resisted it, made the Vietnam War a rather urgent cause for those of us who were essentially politicised by it.
For people who had been enthused by the Labour victory in 1964, the prostitution of the British Government both to this crime of war and to these war crimes was a burden of responsibility. How to show that one was not represented by such a depraved Cabinet? Sometime in the spring of 1967, I trudged along to a protest meeting at Oxford Town Hall. The line-up was of the sort summarised by the phrase ‘stage army of the good’. A moon-faced vicar or two, talking about giving peace a chance. A self-satisfied Labour councillor wearing a CND badge. John Berger, the star guest, putting his usual spin on the dishonest line of the Communist Party. No doubt there was a resolution to send a telegram to Downing Street. There was also, I dare say for the sake of ‘unity’, a pro-Chinese speaker (for some reason I remember that his name was Henderson Brooks) who maintained that all this proved the rightness of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. That was too much for me, so I made a brief intervention from the floor. As the meeting broke up, I was approached by a small, scruffy and slightly misshapen chap, with some suggestion of ironic intelligence glinting behind his pebble glasses. He proposed a cleansing ale. I fell in with his plan. I had met the International Socialists.
My new chum was called Peter Sedgwick, and he didn’t really wear the aspect of the recruiter. Well-known for his edition of Victor Serge, he was soon to become better known for his clinical evisceration of the work of R.D. Laing, and for his hilariously mordant critique of Herbert Marcuse. (This is important, because a feature of the IS, as it called itself, was that it was inoculated against certain Sixties fads in advance.) Over the next several months we continued to meet and (while I was doing a ridiculous job of teaching in the West Country before ‘going up’ to Oxford) to correspond. By the time I was ready to attend my first freshers’ fair, I knew enough to join the Labour Club as a candidate member of The Group – an open conspiracy which scorned to conceal its aims, objects and analyses.
The essential precepts descended from Luxemburg rather than Lenin. They consisted of three or four central tenets. These were that, contrary to the babble of smart-asses like Crosland, Britain was still a class society in every sense of the term; a central fact that the Labour and Communist Parties played down for reasons of opportunism. That the capitalist system had only temporarily stabilised itself, and that the stabilisation was not by means of Keynesian welfarism but by reliance on a permanent war economy which proved the continuing irrationality of this mode of production. That the Soviet Union and its satellites were not the affirmation but the negation of socialism, resting on a system of ‘state capitalism’. That while the globe was ruled in this way, it was idle and romantic to expect anything of peasant and Third World revolutions.
Vol. 16 No. 2 · 27 January 1994
Without wishing to revive the polemics of yesteryear, I would be unhappy if a new generation were to be left with Christopher Hitchens’s roseate view of the International Socialists in the Sixties and Seventies (LRB, 6 January). Of all the leftist sects that emerged in that period to take advantage of the global revolutionary upheaval that shook established institutions in every country, the IS was possibly the most pernicious, the most arrogant, and the most blindly sectarian. Inspired by deranged fakirs, of whom Peter Sedgwick was but one outstanding example, the IS dragged half a generation into a one-way alley of political despair, mixing half-baked Marxist incantations with sentimental appeals to a vanishing labourism. This, says Hitchens, was politics ‘without illusions’. Maybe. But the result of their final disillusionment is a world now peopled with ex-IS graduates, a cynical, sardonic, amoral generation, without faith or optimism and prey to the enthusiasms of the Thatcher era – and plentiful in the higher reaches of the media.
I recall returning to England in the early Seventies, after a long, interesting and in many ways inspiring stint with the ‘illusioned’ revolutionaries of the Third World – in Latin America, Africa and Indochina – to find a billet in Richard Crossman’s New Statesman. There two brilliant young recruits from Oxbridge were already installed, Christopher Hitchens and James Fenton, preaching the gloomy and pessimistic gospel according to the IS. Their life seemed to consist of speeding off to Plymouth to support some IS endeavour (a strike at the Fine Tubes factory) and rapidly returning to take tea with Sir Maurice Bowra at Wadham – an unmatched couple of effete onanists, to use Hitchens’s terminology.
In those days, I had no revolutionary ideology to sustain me, nothing but a simple belief that Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, Mao Tsetung and Agostinho Neto, were admirable men who had been doing interesting things, that their passion and concern for the peasant was well-judged, and that their preoccupation with the struggle for land had had far-reaching and significant political consequences. For the IS, such beliefs were heretical. The peasant was destined for the dustbin of history, the leaders of their struggles could already be dismissed, sight unseen, as embryonic Stalinists. History was not to be made in such distant and difficult parts of the globe but on the picket line in Plymouth and in the tea-rooms of Oxford. Other revolutionary thinkers who enlivened debates in those stirring times, Marcuse or R.D. Laing, were dismissed with equal contempt, as Hitchens recalls with relish.
Of course, in the perspective of decades, all is vanity. Doubtless we were wrong to have hopes and illusions, doubtless we all ploughed the sea. But looking back I find that the old Stalinists – the Eric Hobsbawms and the Christopher Hills and Edward Thompsons – shine more brightly in the firmament than the forgotten gurus of the Trotskyist IS, who left their more intelligent votaries with nothing better to do with their brains than to survive as gadfly columnists for the well-named Vanity Fair. Curiously enough, the IS’s successor organisation, the Socialist Workers Party, with the ever-faithful Paul Foot to the fore, seems to have taken on a new lease of life since the defection of the intellectuals in the Seventies. Its stand on both the Gulf War and on Bosnia has been well nigh exemplary.
Guardian, London EC1
Can your reviewer of Paul Foot be the same Christopher Hitchens who once offered me an iced bun to join International Socialism? A trifle sad, though, that Christopher’s warm memory of Peter Sedgwick should be tinged by residual animus towards others who survived him. Most of the Sixties Left were decent and entertaining young folk – as (presumably) were Lenin and Trotsky, had one but known them personally.
I was saddened to read Chris Hitchens’s review of the two Socialist Workers Party books, In the Heat of the Struggle (edited by me with an introduction by Paul Foot) and Why You Should Join the Socialists (by Paul Foot). Not because the review was critical. That was to be expected, since Chris has not agreed with our political analyses for the best part of two decades. But because it was marked by a greater degree of amnesia and distortion than one would expect from one of the best radical journalists around.
Chris describes the Eighties as a time when workers ‘who were doing jobs that nobody really wanted done’ were ‘hit’ by Thatcherism, with the Left defending ‘a way of life that was historically redundant’. Such glib journalistic phrases are hardly adequate to describe what happened in a long period of reaction on both sides of the Atlantic. Increasingly confident ruling classes set out to reverse the gains made by organised workers in the long post-war economic boom. Alongside this went onslaughts on all those whose conditions had improved so long as union strength forced governments to adopt some form of consensus politics – particularly the unemployed and the poor, the sick and the elderly. There were repeated attempts to roll back advances made by ethnic minorities and women. Finally, there were the renewed efforts to reimpose the Western ruling classes’ sway over the rest of the world – the Carter-Reagan-Bush arms build-up, Thatcher’s war in the South Atlantic, the Israeli and US incursions into the Lebanon, the bombing of Libya and the occupation of Panama, the blitzkrieg of Baghdad and the butchery on the road to Basra.
Fighting back against all these things was hard and often dispiriting work for the Left. We lost many more battles than we won. A lot of socialists dropped out of the struggle, worn out, beaten down and, in the case of thousands of worker activists, victimised. Some of those who dropped out became disillusioned with the possibility of social change; a handful, known and disliked as much by Chris as by ourselves, chose to join the other side. But this is no reason for forgetting, as Chris seems to, that the struggles took place or for seeing them as a result of some romantic nostalgia.
Amnesia also afflicts Chris when he writes about the British Nazis in the late Seventies. He says the Socialist Workers Party’s leadership deliberately overstated their importance, in the hope ‘of picking up some impressionable young members’ by engaging in ‘street theatre’. I don’t know where Chris was in the summer of 1977. I lived in one of the many less fashionable parts of Hackney (as I still do) and I wasn’t alone in looking over my shoulder as I walked down the street, knowing the fascists had received more than 100,000 votes in the GLC elections, that racial killings were averaging one a fortnight, and that white socialists were regularly being beaten up. The NF were not, of course, in the position to make a bid for power. But they were capable of making the sort of impact on British politics that Le Pen has since made on French politics – and, in the process, raising the level of racism to terrifying proportions. Surely, the success of the Anti-Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in stopping their advance was a cause for celebration, not for bemoaning the initiative of the SWP as Chris does.
Chris claims that ‘worst of all’ we supported ‘near Baader-Meinhof elements’ in Portugal in 1975. He is completely wrong. Those who went there for Socialist Worker, like Nigel Harris, Laurie Flynn, Paul Foot and myself, found a country where enormous revolutionary spirit was being dissipated by the most Stalinist of Communist Parties, on the one hand, and Nato-backed social democrats, on the other. We also found socialists attempting to counter this by arguing, with a limited degree of success, for workers’ and soldiers’ councils – and getting denounced by the Stalinists for their efforts. Whatever the mistakes of analysis and activity, this was a far cry from the assassinations and the kidnappings that characterised the Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy.
One final insinuation sticks in my throat. Chris implies that the old international Socialists were characterised by bold and innovative thinking, but that the Socialist Workers Party today merely repeats dogma by rote. In fact, if he followed our publications he would know that we have continued to question the dogmas of the fashionable Left. We recognised a downturn in the class struggle in the late Seventies long before most of the Left and a decade later we opposed the nostrums of Marxism Today, with their claim that the class struggle no longer mattered. We were as enthusiastic as Chris about Solidarnosc at a time when most of the Left regarded it as a CIA front. But we insisted, as against people like Kuron, that moving from state capitalism to market capitalism would neither improve the mass of people’s appalling living conditions nor provide a guarantee of real democracy. And for three bitter years we have been denouncing the Governments of Serbia and Croatia, but also refusing to fall into the trap of believing that somehow Western intervention can do any more good in former Yugoslavia than it did in Central America, Lebanon, the Gulf and Somalia.
Chris may believe that the Socialist Workers Party today is intellectually arid and that the future lies with ex-members of the IS and the SWP (presumably, by that, meaning those like himself who have stayed on the left, as opposed to the real defectors like former News of the World editor Wendy Henry, Daily Mail leader writer Roger Rosewell, Sun columnist Garry Bushell and the Daily Express’s Peter Hitchens). I doubt if that will be the opinion of anyone who actually reads the range of debates in our monthly Socialist Review and our quarterly journal, still called International Socialism and more exciting if anything than when I edited it in Chris’s youth.
If we are all to cope with the real issues confronting humanity as the new world order reveals its real face, then the different sections of the Left have to learn to work together and to engage in serious intellectual debate without name-calling. That’s why the tone of Chris’s review was so disappointing. I trust it won’t stop us fighting alongside each other on many occasions in the future.
Socialist Worker, London E3
Not for the first time, Tony Cliff is credited with pioneering the view of Soviet Russia as state-capitalist rather than Communist – this time by Christopher Hitchens. But the view is much older. Lenin himself, of course, said that state capitalism would be a step forward for Russia, and as early as 1921 the German Communist Otto Rühle characterised it in those terms. The prize for being first off the blocks, however, should probably go to the still-extant Socialist Party of Great Britain – an organisation containing neither gurus nor non-gurus of the kind that Hitchens assures us Cliff is – which didn’t manage to be fashionable even in the Sixties. Russia is described as state-capitalist in an article in its journal the Socialist Standard for July 1920. Credit where it’s due.
University of Bristol
Memory suggests that Christopher Hitchens never was all that keen on his Saturday-morning Socialist Worker sale, and this may explain why he looks for theoretical debates in an anthology of 25 years of that paper. Socialist Worker is, after all, love it or hate it, an agitational paper. Mr Hitchens will find the theory where it always was, in the SWP’s theoretical journal, International Socialism.
Equally, while I have no doubt that ex-members of the IS/SWP have a role to play – the ex-editor of Socialist Worker, Roger Protz, is an enthusiastic campaigner for real ale, while Mr Hitchens himself writes excellent pieces for the London Evening Standard – surely even Hitchens must recall, even if only vaguely, that the point is not to interpret the world but to change it. For this you need not brilliant individuals, useful though they are, but socialist organisation.
Future Historian A:
Future Historian B:
James? Ah, James was on the periphery of the group Hitchens was in.
The group that Hitchens left?
Oh, I think we should rather say that the group left him.
And indeed there are those who might argue – as against Christopher Hitchens’s faintly bizarre, not to say solipsistic, analysis – that the SWP’s donation of organisation and troops to the Anti-Nazi League was that faction’s single most substantial non-sectarian gift to the wider public good, and thus in this respect very nearly as valuable to British political life as the companionship its predecessor the IS provided for young Master Hitchens and chums in the dear, dead days. And if, as Hitchens sourly insists, this movement/party did indeed give so much to the ANL for so little recruitment benefit to itself, well, all the more remarkable and praiseworthy. Or so, from their benighted perspective, they might argue. Cheers.
Why is Christopher Hitchens so habitually condescending? He even condescends to himself at times – to the self he was when he joined the International Socialists back in the late Sixties. As a current member of the International Socialist Organisation (the US sister organisation of the British Socialist Workers Party), I was of course dismayed by the tone as well as the inaccuracies and misrepresentations of Hitchens’s article. But even readers with no commitment to the politics of the SWP/ISO might have been turned off by the self-congratulatory ex-member’s confidence ‘that, in what we used to call “the coming period”, the best contribution is likely to come from among the ex-members.’
Vol. 16 No. 4 · 24 February 1994
Reading Christopher Hitchens’s review of new books from the SWP (LRB, 6 January), then Chris Harman’s reply (Letters, 27 January), was a strange experience for a few of us who are too young to feel obliged to invest in old debates and grudges. Harman started out convincingly enough by defending the part played by the SWP in various struggles over the past two decades. He is right to stand by their record in launching and running the Anti-Nazi League, and in his claim that the Party continues to ‘question the dogmas of the fashionable Left’. In both roles, and in a hundred other arguments and interventions, the SWP has managed to preserve much of what was best in the New Left during times when that tradition seemed in danger of extinction. It was for those reasons that I joined the SWP ten years ago. Despite this, Harman’s claim that the SWP remains theoretically open-ended will jar with some people.
The Party may well reject the dogmas of the fashionable Left, but it does so with an attitude that itself grows increasingly dogmatic and self-regarding. Christopher Hitchens says that, in the IS of old, ‘one was expected to be able to debate about everything, from changes in the class composition of society to the question of Lukács and the historical novel, to the situation in Indonesia.’ Harman’s attempt to make out that this remains the case struck a particularly hollow note with me, since the SWP expelled me recently precisely for continuing one of these debates. According to Chris Harman – in his role as the author of the charges brought against me, if not as a correspondent to the London Review – arguing about Lukács and culture these days is a ‘diversion’ from the struggle against fascism. That is why up to ten other SWP members are now threatened with the same fate as myself.
It seems that the price paid for ‘efficiency’ against the fascists today is that theoretical debate is no longer welcome in the SWP, that consensus is to become the precondition of party discussion rather than its telos. The point about the IS tradition is neither that it was a debating hothouse which threw up some novel ideas, or simply that it did the business against the class enemy. The point is that it combined these moments in a way which avoided the pitfalls of both sterile theoreticism and blind activism. That tradition, contrary to the rantings of Richard Gott (Letters, 27 January), was a rich and fertile one.
Vol. 16 No. 5 · 10 March 1994
I have no doubt that Lukács is an important figure in socialist and cultural theory and that it may, from time to time, be appropriate to debate the particular significance of this importance. Full marks then to Andy Wilson (Letters, 24 February), for raising the matter in the LRB. Equally, however, I can understand why the Socialist Workers Party may have tired of him. Lukács does not seem to be of any immediate value in such urgent tasks as fighting the rise of the BNP, although I suppose a bonk on the head from a hardback copy of History of Class Consciousness might have its place.