Against fatalism: John Molyneux, 1948-2022

Issue: 178

Joseph Choonara

John Molyneux, who died in December of last year, was quite simply an exemplary revolutionary socialist.1 To write this is not just to make a statement about John’s beliefs; it speaks also to his character, the fibre of his being and the way it governed his practice. In his study of Karl Marx’s theory of revolution, the Marxist writer Hal Draper had something to say about revolutionary character:

Two pieces of statuary, both representing the same reality, may be made one of wax, the other of steel; so also the apparently same political view may be held by a Hard or a Soft. The difference concerns the degree to which an individual finds revolutionary oppositionism congenial or tolerable—not simply as an occasional or symbolic gesture, but as a relationship to the established currents of society around which to build one’s life. Its powering agency appears as “revolutionary energy”.2

At one level, it is strange to think of John as anything but “soft”. He was an exceptionally gentle, warm human being. Yet, he was undoubtedly “a Hard” in the sense captured by Draper; he embodied revolutionary oppositionism and energy. That energy was channelled, above all, into winning others to his cause, to being a “permanent persuader” for revolutionary socialism.3 It is not to diminish his theoretical ability one ounce to say that John’s great gift was as a propagandist and polemicist for Marxism through the spoken word and in print. Aside from Duncan Hallas, I can think of few people within the tradition represented by this journal so adept at presenting, illuminating and defending Marxist ideas. His commitment, during a revolutionary career lasting over half a century, to winning people to these politics, through patient explanation and tireless activity, is apparent from the tributes that have appeared in print and online since his death.4

In an introduction I wrote to a collection of John’s selected writings, published last year, I noted the relevance of one of Karl Marx’s famous “Theses of Feuerbach”:

The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. The human being must prove the truth, that is, the reality and power, the “this-sidedness” of their thinking, in practice. The dispute over the reality or non-reality of thinking that is isolated from practice is a purely scholastic question.5

As I commented there, “One thing John cannot be accused of is scholasticism, of thinking divorced from activity and struggle… The preoccupation here is with questions that inform and direct the efforts of those of us who want to change the world”.6 Similarly, the historian Lars T Lih unintentionally paid John a huge tribute when, in a study of Lenin’s ideas, he cast John together with Tony Cliff and Marxist writer Paul Le Blanc as advocates of an “activist interpretation” of Leninism.7 What John says of Cliff’s biography of Lenin applies equally to his own work:

Cliff was engaged, albeit in very different circumstances, in the same activity as Lenin, namely trying to build a revolutionary party rooted in the working class. Of course, this element of identification carries the danger of subjective factors distorting the historical perspective, but it also generates numerous insights unavailable to the academic historian or theorist.8

John, like Cliff, was more than familiar with the hard graft of building a revolutionary party. He was an activist in the International Socialists (IS), which became the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), in Britain and, later, the Socialist Workers Network (SWN) in Ireland. John opens an article he wrote for this journal—in which he defends the notion of building an interventionist party and argues against superficially more attractive options circulating on the left—with a telling exchange between himself and Cliff from summer 1968:

John Molyneux: “The comrades in Southampton don’t like this stuff about building the party.”
>Tony Cliff: “I don’t like it either; it’s horrible. Unfortunately, it’s necessary”.9

A revolutionary life

The timing of the quip—1968—is relevant here. It is both the year that the IS reoriented itself to become a more interventionist organisation and the year John’s own commitment to revolutionary socialism was forged.10 He had grown up in Belsize Park in London and, by the age of 15, was a schoolchild with a temperament he would later describe as “romantic, unfocused and nihilistic (I guess I was an anarchist)”.11 By the time the rebellions that marked 1968 erupted, he was a 19 year old student at the University of Southampton.12 The start of that year found him in the Bowery, “the skid row of Manhattan”, where he sought accommodation at a dollar-a-night flophouse, having been robbed on the first night of a three-week trip to New York City.13 He witnessed the extreme inequality, “the corporate wealth of the skyscrapers and Madison Avenue counterposed by the utter degradation of the down-and-outs on the Bowery”, and the experience chimed with socialist ideas he had begun to encounter at university. He returned home determined to engage more intensively in left-wing politics, joining the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign.14 This took him, on 17 March of that year, to the famed Grosvenor Square protest against the war:

A group of about ten of us from Southampton University travelled to London for the demo in a minibus. We arrived at Trafalgar Square to find it absolutely filled with Vietnamese flags… After speeches, the march of many tens of thousands headed down Charing Cross Road and Oxford Street towards the United States Embassy in Grosvenor Square… We were met…with a line of cops blocking the entrance to the square, but ten or twenty thousand people pushed through police lines breaking their cordon, with masses of people triumphantly marching into the square in front of the embassy. Fearful the embassy would be stormed…the police counter-attacked on horseback. This was my first major protest and the first time I’d seen anything like this. It was very scary, especially seeing a demonstrator who had been kicked in the head, but I was in awe of the protestors who stood their ground and fought back.15

Then came the French events of May 1968. Hearing of clashes between students and police, and then the ten million-strong general strike in solidarity with the students, John headed to Paris. He arrived four days after the official general strike was called:

I found a society at a standstill, paralysed by the power of the working class. I made my way to the occupied Sorbonne University. There was no actual street fighting going on but the debris of the struggle was everywhere… I stayed overnight on the floor of an occupied room with about 20 others… I was surprised to discover that none of the others were actually Sorbonne students but mostly young workers who had been inspired to join the struggle. What they mostly talked about was how their consciousness had been dramatically changed over the previous few weeks: from passive acceptance of the system to outright rebellion.16

It was this taste of workers’ power, along with the actions of reformist union officials and the old Communist organisations who sought to hold back and contain the struggle, that convinced him of the need to join a revolutionary organisation: “Sometime in June, Tony Cliff visited Southampton to talk to a group of about four or five students… I joined the International Socialists”.17

John would move to Portsmouth, where he taught at schools and colleges, living with his then partner, Jill Molyneux, and two children, Sara and Jack. In 1992, he took up a lectureship in the theory and history of art at the University of Portsmouth.18 By then, he had already established himself as an author of considerable talent. In 1978, he published Marxism and Party, which he describes as a “much edited (by Tony Cliff) version of my PhD”.19 Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution followed in 1982 and, in 1983, What is the Real Marxist Tradition? As a result of these works, he was asked to produce a regular column in Socialist Worker, which he did for 14 years until his work was interrupted by illness.

My own introduction to John came through reading those columns. At school in Bradford in the dour early 1990s, at the tail end of a decaying Tory government, with the Labour Party lurching to the right under John Smith and then Tony Blair, they represented a link to another way of thinking about the world. Like many others, I was desperate to know how Marxism could be reinvigorated to address the problems of the contemporary world. As I wrote elsewhere, “Clearing out some old possessions a few years ago, I came across a dusty box file containing some of those same newspaper columns, neatly cut out and annotated”.20 In a largely pre-internet age, this was how many of us learnt the ABCs of Marxism.

Throughout this time, John was an active member of Portsmouth SWP, booking speakers, shaping the branch’s agenda and helping to develop younger comrades joining the party. This last element is described well by his friend, Huw Williams, who joined Portsmouth branch in 1985 at the age of 20:

Recollections of those days, sitting in his house after the weekly branch meeting, smoking, drinking whiskey, sometimes until the light came up, will always remain… I would head off home to my bed shattered. He would go to work in the local further education college… Then myself and two other young members, Jon Woods and Richard Peacock, moved into a house on the same road as John. John would often pop in after work and, being utterly skint, we would cadge his beloved Golden Virginia roll-ups, which he would then leave and say he’d forgotten them. We built a relatively large branch in Portsmouth, and some of us thought John was conservative (John, I think, got the scale of the miners’ defeat in 1985 in a way I simply didn’t)… John could well have been pissed off with me but was the exact opposite and said young revolutionaries should be impatient. He lent me book after book, article after article, got me to do meetings in Portsmouth and phoned other branches to book me… He listened to people and wanted to know what they were thinking and why.21

John was confident enough in his politics that he was unphased by disagreements with the party’s “young Turks” or indeed anyone else. This hints at another aspect of John’s character. His generation, those forged in the upheavals of 1968, tended to be robustly independent-minded, not afraid to ruffle a few feathers, including those of the elected party leadership. As Alex Callinicos writes in an obituary:

John broadly agreed with the approach the SWP leadership took to building the party… At the same time, he wasn’t afraid to criticise and even to challenge us when he thought we got it wrong, particularly in how we conducted debates within the party.22

Having been caught up in a few controversies within the organisation, often on the same side as John, occasionally not, I know how strongly he could advocate for his position. However, as with many of the best of that generation, he did not view internal debate as an end in itself. He remained deadly serious about unifying theory and practice through building revolutionary organisation. As Callinicos goes on to note, “When Respect, the radical left coalition we had helped to initiate, went into crisis in 2007-8, John sprang to the SWP’s defence. It was a class question, he said”.23

In 1984, John sparked a debate in the pages of International Socialism on the question of whether working-class men benefited from women’s oppression. John’s argument focused on what he saw as the benefits men derived in the context of the family, for instance, through housework being performed predominantly by women.24 Sheila McGregor responded with an article emphasising the systemic benefits capitalism derives from the existence of the family—and arguing that both men and women in the working class had an interest in challenging this. This provided a basis on which whatever divisions existed could potentially be overcome.25 A response by John, following a debate at the SWP’s Skegness Easter Rally, was met with a final “rejoinder” by Lindsey German.26 Although most party members agreed with McGregor and German, the debate significantly clarified the organisation’s approach to women’s oppression and the struggle against it, allowing the SWP to emphasise how oppression was shaped by the needs of capital and the ruling class.

Eventually, John accepted he was in a minority on the issue of “male benefits” and agreed to stop arguing the point. He was not one to hold a grudge against someone who debated in good faith, nor to walk away because he was outvoted on the matter of the day. He understood that any revolutionary party worth its salt would be in a state of creative dialogue with real movements of workers and the oppressed, and that this would be reflected within the party in all kinds of ways. As Hallas put it in 1971, looking back at the sharp arguments over how best to reorganise the IS in the year John joined:

The factional struggle was quite sharp and, in the heat of the conflict, a good many uncomradely things were said. Finally, conference decisions were made on the disputed questions. The factions more or less rapidly dissolved. No one ordered them to dissolve. They dissolved because new issues were arising and new alignments of comrades on those issues… Tomorrow, there may be new factions, and no one can predict with any accuracy what the line-up will be. It is very unlikely to be similar to the earlier factional alignment.27

John’s active engagement with revolutionary politics continued, when, in 2010, he moved to Dublin to be with his partner, Mary Smith. I happened to stay with them in Dublin not long after and was delighted to see his contentment in his new home. Retirement from politics was, though, not an option. He threw himself into editing Irish Marxist Review and played a role on the leadership of the SWN. He was part of his local Crumlin-Drimnagh branch of People Before Profit, the broader formation in which SWN participates, and he helped found the Global Ecosocialist Network.28 His activity continued right up to his sudden death from a heart attack. As Kieran Allen, a leading figure in the SWN, remarks: “In the last week of his life, he featured in an Irish Independent video challenging the racist arguments that ‘unvetted refugees’ were a threat to the good people of East Wall in Dublin. He died coming home from a meeting of the Irish Anti-War Movement”.29

Discovering the party

John’s attitude to the revolutionary party was not simply a consequence of his own experience, but also his early engagement with the theory and history of party building.

The opening pages of his first book, Marxism and the Party, contain a characteristic formulation: “Political parties come into being, attract support and continue to function primarily as the representatives of class interests. Naturally, this idea, as is the case with many Marxist principles, becomes a piece of nonsense if it is understood crudely and dogmatically”.30 In the book, John traces the complexities faced by those building revolutionary organisation in the context of the living struggles between and within classes.

The study begins with an examination of Marx and Friedrich Engels’s own practice, and the various organisations in which they participated. Their conception of the “party” was, as John notes, limited by several factors. The founders of Marxism were, at times, imbued with an “evolutionary optimism” regarding the development of revolutionary consciousness among workers. Moreover, reformism had not yet established itself as the dominant current in the workers’ movement; on the contrary, the prime dangers were sectarianism and conspiratorial approaches.31 Towards the end of their careers, Marx and Engels intervened in debates in Germany and France, criticising emergent signs of reformism. However, they retained a particular attachment to the German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands; SPD), a mass workers’ organisation that contained socialists of various stripes and, from 1889, stood at the centre of the network of parties known as the Second International.

It was left to later generations of Marxists—including Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci and, above all, Lenin—to debate, develop and propagate a Marxist conception of the party. John describes Lenin’s “dialectical conception of the relationship between spontaneity and consciousness, the mass movement and the party” as “a tremendous step forward for Marxist theory”, marking a “radical break with fatalism”.32 In setting out Lenin’s view, John avoids hagiography. He is critical of some of the formulations in Lenin’s early writings, particularly What is to be Done?, which suggests that revolutionary consciousness originates “outside” the working class. Here Lenin was over-emphasising the need for conscious organisation, in the face of a more evolutionary conception of workers’ consciousness common in Russia at the time. He was also drawing on the work of the SPD’s Karl Kautsky, then viewed as the “Pope of Marxism”.33 John explores how Lenin developed his theory through his engagement with workers’ struggle in Russia—including the two revolutions of 1905 and 1917. In John’s view, it was the failure of Kautsky’s SPD and its counterparts across Europe to unequivocally oppose their own governments at the outbreak of the First World War that convinced Lenin of the need for a break with the parties of the Second International.

Now Lenin charged those parties with adapting to gradualism during the long period of relative class peace that preceded the war—and of constructing organisations of revolutionaries and opportunists in which the latter had the whip hand.34 Lenin now saw that in practice the SPD and its counterparts had long since broken with the ideas of Marx.

The book ends with a chapter on the Italian Marxist Gramsci, which John would, in later editions, acknowledge overestimated his contribution to the theory of the party. Certainly, the deployment of the notion of a “historic bloc” between classes has more limited application in countries such as Britain than John suggests. Nonetheless, what he describes as a “provisional” analysis offers an interesting condensation of ideas from Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks, placing them within the context of Marxist discussion of the party, and helping to reclaim them from their distortion at the hands of post-Marxists and Stalinists.35

The defence of Lenin’s conception of the party, against both its ossification into a mechanical dogma and against those rejecting the need for parties, would be a theme throughout John’s career. Lenin for Today, written for the centenary of the 1917 revolution, offers a defence of the contemporary relevance of Lenin’s work, including his theories of imperialism and of the state. However, at the centre of the book is a chapter on the necessity of the party, which reiterates many of the arguments first set out in the 1970s.36

Marxism and the Party offered a somewhat critical assessment of Trotsky’s contribution to debates on the party. On the one hand, Trotsky defended Lenin’s conception of the party against its distortion at the hands of the Stalinists. On the other, in the late 1930s, he attempted, in extraordinarily unfavourable conditions, to establish the Fourth International as the basis for the creation of new mass revolutionary parties. In doing so, he helped spawn “a host of illusions” regarding the movement’s “strength and significance”.37 Having been established on the basis of a series of Trotsky’s predictions, made towards the end of his life, the Fourth International would split and degenerate over time. This spawned some groups committed to a dogmatic sectarianism, clinging to the orthodoxy like a safety blanket. Others were more engaged with reality, but while they rightly engaged with oppressed groups—students, peasant guerrillas and social movements of various kinds—they tended to substitute these for the struggles of the working-class, which alone ultimately offered the possibility of a decisive confrontation with capitalism.38

These themes would be taken up by John’s second book, Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution. This work was more controversial and is far less widely known than Marxism and the Party.39 John would regularly refer to Trotsky as his “hero”, and even a “genius”, yet here he was determined to balance this with some sharp criticisms.40 In a sense, it is not surprising that this would cause controversy in the SWP. The organisation’s origins lie within Trotskyism, but it sought, from the outset, to challenge elements of Trotskyist orthodoxy. This involved Cliff developing his theory of bureaucratic state capitalism, contesting the idea that the Soviet Union was, as orthodox Trotskyists claimed, a “degenerated workers’ state”. It also meant challenging catastrophist notions that capitalism faced an imminent economic slump in the post-war years—and that the pressure of events would shatter Stalinism and push workers towards the banner of the Fourth International.41

John tended to see traces of “fatalism” as one of the greatest vices to which Marxists can possibly succumb and, particularly in his early writings, he analysed socialist figures through this lens. Here John argues: “Trotsky broke with the Second International politically…but he did not break with the Second International’s fundamental methodology, its mechanical materialist philosophy”.42 Although this was not the sole cause of Trotsky’s mistakes, he suggests, it does help explain them. Several leading theorists within the SWP objected to John’s formulation. In the context of a polemic against the main orthodox Trotskyist group in the US, which had just ditched the theory of permanent revolution, Trotsky’s greatest theoretical contribution to the Marxist tradition, Callinicos wrote:

In his assertion that Trotsky’s thought is flawed by an adherence to the “mechanical materialist philosophy” of the Second International, John comes dangerously close to the view…that Trotsky is a revolutionary thinker whose contributions to Marxism are local and limited…

Trotsky was crystal clear that the victory of the working class was not fated by history… It is true that in the very difficult circumstances of his last years, Trotsky did at times succumb to the belief that the victory of the Fourth International was guaranteed by the laws of history. But this had less to do with some “mechanical materialist philosophy”…than with objective circumstances.43

Duncan Hallas offered a glowing review of a “really splendid book”, but he also noted:

Trotsky’s philosophical position, he argues, was basically deterministic “with traces of the teleological view of history. This in turn produced an overestimation of the possibilities of historical prediction and an assimilation of Marxism to the socially neutral objectivity of natural science.” This is both dubious in itself and quite unnecessary for Molyneux’s position.44

Hallas points out that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which Molyneux discusses extensively, was in fact an extraordinary break with mechanical accounts of history. In this theory, Trotsky explored how, in a late developing capitalism such as Russia, different stages of development could fuse together. This could generate an explosive combination, consisting of a weak capitalist class, dependent on an autocratic state enmeshed with the landowners, alongside a significant urban proletariat capable of coming to the fore in revolutionary upheavals. If the resulting revolutionary explosion was led by workers, it was unlikely to stop at the kind of changes heralded by earlier “bourgeois revolutions”, such as that in France 1789, which overthrew the old feudal order and paved the way for the full development of capitalism. Instead, it could lead to a challenge to capitalism itself. The revolution would become “permanent” on the international terrain, through wider revolutions that could connect Russia to societies with working-class majorities and the most advanced means of production.45

John would come to accept the extent of Trotsky’s break with mechanical materialism through a reading of the latter’s “philosophical notebooks”, published in English about five years after John’s book. He would acknowledge that this aspect of the text was no longer tenable, moving to a position much closer to Hallas’s.46 Nonetheless, other aspects of this work do have their merits. Cliff was positive about the work and would later turn to John for “expert critical comments” and “valuable stylistic suggestions” when he wrote his own four-volume biography of Trotsky. John was also undoubtedly right that Trotsky could be “reckless in prediction”, though Hallas suggested this might be better seen as a “personality trait” rather than a legacy of the Second International.47 The caution about prediction also led John to a valuable insight about how best to read Trotsky’s efforts, from the late 1920s, to generalise his theory of permanent revolution. John argues that this should be viewed as a strategy rather than a prognosis:

While recognising the significance of this generalisation it is necessary to sound a note of caution. For, as presented by Trotsky, permanent revolution was not only a strategy but a prediction. It not only propounded permanent revolution as the goal upon which Marxists and the working class should orientate themselves, but also asserted that, apart from outright reaction and counter-revolution, it was the only course of development possible.48

John’s view was both influenced by and complemented Cliff’s writings on “deflected permanent revolution” in the post-colonial world. In this work, Cliff argued that sections of the middle classes and intelligentsia could, if revolutionary working-class struggle did not triumph, deflect revolutionary processes into different channels, with the resulting regimes seeking to use the national state in the Stalinist mode to develop their economies along state capitalist lines.49

A Marxist humanism

John’s rejection of fatalism reflected his broader philosophical commitments within Marxism. He saw himself very much as a humanist Marxist, part of a tradition that would, from the 1950s, challenge the Stalinist caricature of Marxism and help to shape the radical left that emerged from 1968.50 Stalinism had reduced the notion of revolution to the replacement of one small elite, based on private capital, with another elite of bureaucratic state capitalists. The gradual development of the productive forces would, it was claimed by the Stalinists, ultimately deliver “socialism”. In other words, Stalinism had recapitulated a version of the mechanical materialism of the Second International. The emerging “New Left” marked a return to “a version of Marxism in which there was room for the ideas of self-emancipation and freedom”, drawing on rediscovered or newly published writings by the young Marx and later major works of Marxist humanism such as Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness.51

John’s own introductory account of Marxist philosophy, The Point is to Change It!, is imbued with this approach, emphasising the concept of alienation drawn from Marx’s early writings, and the importance of subjective, alongside objective, factors in the revolutionary process.52 This drew on an earlier intervention in a 1995 article, “Is Marxism Deterministic?”. This offers a fine example of John’s knack for presenting complex philosophical questions in a comprehensible style, addressing both mechanical materialism and its inverse, an extreme and equally dangerous voluntarism. He cites, as an example of the latter, Che Guevara’s comment that “it is not necessary to wait until all the conditions for making revolution exist: the insurrection can create them”.53 By contrast, John argues, Marxism starts from the dialectical relationship between what is “determined independent of our will and what it is possible to change through conscious intervention”.54 However, within these limits, there is an emphasis on the capacity of revolutionaries to act, to seize the time and to turn events to their advantage. This is supported by examples that would be familiar to readers in the mid-1990s:

The decision of the National Union of Mineworkers and Trades Union Congress leaderships in October 1992 to march the first great demonstration against pit closures around Hyde Park rather than leading it directly to parliament made an immense difference to the ability of the Tory government to ride out the crisis. Conversely, the decision by the Socialist Workers Party in 1977 to confront the fascist National Front at Lewisham and to launch the Anti Nazi League made an enormous difference to the struggle against fascism in Britain.55

It is from this standpoint, of an interventionist Marxism fusing theory and practice, that John was able to produce one of his finest contributions, the article, later published as a short book, “What is the Real Marxist Tradition?”.56 Here John traces the development of Marxism as “the theoretical expression of the proletarian revolution”, a theory developing from a specific class standpoint and intimately bound up with practice. Conversely, ideologies that claim the mantle of Marxism but reject the notion of working-class self-emancipation express other class standpoints outside the proletariat. This provides a foundation for damning criticism of the three main exemplars of this phenomenon: the Kautskyism of the Second International, Stalinism and Third World nationalism:

For all their differences, Kautskyism, Stalinism and Third World nationalism have much in common—above all a commitment to the national state (nationalism and state ownership) and rejection of the self-emancipation of the working class. These are features, arrived at by a different historical route, which Engels…analysed as key characteristics of the ultimate stage of capitalist development:

“The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of the productive forces, the more does it actually become the national capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage workers—proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head.”

What has happened, therefore, to these “Marxisms” is that in abandoning the class positions of the proletariat they have ended up supporting the next stage of capitalism.57

Although “statism” of this kind suffered a temporary loss of popularity during the heyday of neoliberalism, the recent revival of forms of Stalinism and Third Worldism, as well as left-leaning strands of reformism, makes this work worth re-reading.58

Finally, on this aspect of John’s writing, his convictions about the potential for human agency, once liberated from the shackles of alienation, made him the ideal person to contribute to the relatively sparse Marxist literature on the nature of socialism. This took the form of a pamphlet, The Future Socialist Society, which was published in 1987. A standard response from revolutionaries when quizzed on the nature of socialism is often to state, accurately enough, that Marx and Engels were highly critical of the “utopian socialists”, such as Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, who built elaborate plans for socialism without any means to realise them. A genuinely socialist world would be generated out of the creative energies of billions of revolutionary workers and would be unlikely to conform to the vision of any one individual or small revolutionary party. All true, but as John points out, in addition to denunciations of capitalism, “There is also a need for inspiration, for a vision of the goal which makes the struggle worthwhile”.59 Moreover, the growth of material abundance since Marx’s time, squandered by capitalism or deployed towards harmful ends, and the glimpses of workers’ power offered by the history of revolutionary struggles, puts us in a better position to outline what socialism might look like.

John sketched this out, adding easily grasped illustrations. For instance, on the way socialism would replace commercial exchange with distribution according to need, he gives the example of water being made available “on tap” for a fixed amount in countries such as Britain. This does not, John points out, result in everyone consuming as much water as they possibly can.60 This kind of principle of “abundance” could be extended to other areas of production. The pamphlet ends, naturally enough, with an evocation of a Marxist concept of “freedom”: “Thus, in the socialist society of the future, the state will wither away, and this will mark the disappearance of the last vestige of the terrible legacy of class society and the final completion of humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom—which is the essence of socialism”.61

Art and revolution

A study of John’s work would not be complete without mentioning his views on art. Indeed, such an exploration follows quite naturally from the previous one. As he himself puts it in The Dialectics of Art:

Only in a society not based on the alienated labour of the majority will free artistic production become the property and practice of all. Until that is achieved, art will take its place in the quest and fight for human freedom, if not on the frontline—which will be occupied by the masses in struggle in the workplaces, the streets and on the barricades—then as an important ally and essential supplier of spiritual nourishment, as necessary, in its way, as boots and medicine.62

The book in which these words appear was the culmination of decades of engagement with art. John’s childhood home was frequented by artists and art critics, and his secondary school was located between the National Gallery and Tate Britain, whose galleries he would regularly visit.63 In later life, he lectured on art and curated exhibitions such as the “Left in Vision” show at the annual Marxism Festival in London. It was unsurprising that John would both seek to develop a Marxist account of art and find ways of exploring specific works and artists from that standpoint. The Dialectics of Art contains superb discussions of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Pablo Picasso, the 1997 “Sensation” exhibition of “young British artists”, Yasser Alwan, Tracy Emin, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and Peter Paul Rubens. Some of these figures were also the subject of the illustrated talks John would offer at socialist events, many of which can be watched online.64

Alongside these discussions, John sought to understand what art is and how it can be judged. Judgements about art are, John argues, unavoidable. Such assessments are often based on a range of criteria but, within the Western artistic tradition, key focuses are “mimesis, skill, beauty, the sublime, morality, emotional power and expression, realism, innovation and critique”.65 Though each of these might play a role, John argues that the precise weight attached to each in different periods of history, or in different sections of society, and the way that they are combined, is shaped by broader factors. Here Marxism can play a role. This unequivocally does not mean that judgements about art can be based on “the extent to which a work’s worldview is ‘progressive’, ‘radical’ or corresponds to Marxism”.66 Nonetheless, art, even in its most abstract forms, always also gives expression to and responds to distinctive social relations inhabited by artists and their audience:

Works of art are good or great insofar as, and to the degree that, they give powerful and insightful expression to social relations and, especially, to new and changing social relations. The other criteria that I have considered here (mimesis, technical skill, beauty, emotional power, realism and so on) are not negated or replaced by this criterion but subsumed under it. They become possible means—each important in its own right—to achieving a unity of content and form through which the powerful expression of social relations is achieved.67

John’s views on art generated a great deal of controversy in the SWP and more widely. Much of this focused not so much on his views on the judgement of art as the question of what art is. A debate in the pages of this journal was sparked by a 1998 article on “The legitimacy of modern art”. This forced John to consider the basis on which contemporary works, such as Damien Hirst’s shark in a tank of formaldehyde, could be deemed to be art. Here he proposed that “‘art’ is the product of non-alienated labour”.68 He qualifies this:

By non-alienated labour I do not mean labour that exists “outside” of capitalism…or labour that does not produce commodities (the massive commodification of art under capitalism is obvious), or even labour that people enjoy… Still less do I mean that “artists” are not alienated or that their work does not reflect and express alienation—alienation affects everyone in capitalist society. What I mean is labour that remains under the control and direction of the producer.69

He also acknowledges that many works, such as films, were typically produced by a combination of alienated and non-alienated work. Finally, he suggests, although lots of other forms of activity were also “non-alienated labour”, those that qualified as art were “labour in which there is a unity of form and content or, to be precise, where form is the content”.70 These claims resulted in a debate that, for many comrades, probably generated more heat than light.71 The debates largely revolved around the relationship between form and content in artistic works, as well as the extent to which artistic labour can be considered non-alienated. My own view is that the substance of John’s approach to art is largely sound, but that he also deployed the term “alienation” in a way that is questionable and leads to some unfortunate formulations. Discussing the issue of form and content, he writes:

What distinguishes art from other forms of unalienated labour is that it embodies meaning… It is the labour…that is charged with meaning and produces work that embodies that meaning, that is to say, has content. However, the same is clearly true of political campaign work and works of scientific and social theory… And yet, they are not regarded as art. Why not? The answer lies in the nature of the relationship between form and content… In a work of scientific or social theory, the content is not only much more important than the form, but it is also to a large extent detachable from it. In a work of art, the content/meaning is totally bound up with the form and is inseparable from it… It should be said that this unity or fusion is not absolute, nor always perfectly realised. Rather, it constitutes a goal towards which art and artist are constantly striving and by which the work can be judged.72

This does not seem a world away from the formulation used by the Alexandr Voronsky, a Marxist who wrote in the wake of the Russian Revolution and is cited by some of John’s critics:

What is art? First of all, art is the cognition of life… Like science, art cognises life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality… Science is directed to man’s reason, art to his sensuous nature. Science cognises life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation.73

The conception of artistic labour as unalienated is more obviously open to debate. It certainly would have been clearer had John made a distinction between forms of work performed by labourers under the ultimate authority of capital or its counterparts (such as the state in the case of public sector work) and those that are not. At times, John is explicit about the narrow way he is deploying the term:

There is an inherent contradiction between capitalist methods of production and the production of art… Art cannot and will not be produced by the normal methods of capitalist production (that is, by means of wage labour in which the employer determines more or less entirely the work of the worker and owns from the outset the products of that labour)… It is…precisely what I am arguing when I say that art is a product of unalienated labour.74

Marx does indeed use alienation to describe work directed by and for the benefit of capital:

What, then, constitutes the alienation of labour? First, the fact that labour is external to the worker, that is, it does not belong to his intrinsic nature… In his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself… His labour is therefore not voluntary, but coerced… It is merely a means to satisfy needs external to it.75

However, alienation extends beyond this: it shatters the metabolism between humans and nature that ought to be established by freely conducted human labour; it alienates humans from their broader humanity, what Marx at this stage calls their “species-being”; and it estranges humans from their fellow humans, fragmenting the social forms of production that might be possible in non-class societies.76 As private property, capital, emerges from, and is the expression of, this alienated system of production, so it is also subjected to this logic: “Estrangement is manifested not only in the fact that my means of life belong to someone else, but also…that my activity is something else and that, finally, (and this applies also to the capitalist) all is under the sway of inhuman power”.77 Given the pervasive nature of alienation under capitalism, to regard any labour within that system as unalienated is open to debate. John was, of course, too good a Marxist not to recognise this dimension of alienation, explaining, “Manifestly, all artistic production is ‘influenced’ or ‘affected’, and in many ways damaged, by this general alienation, by the role of the capitalist market and by the continual transformation of artworks of all kinds into commodities and private property”.78 Nevertheless, his work has to be read with an awareness of narrower sense in which he is using the term.

None of these qualifications should diminish the enormous contribution of John in this field, his immensely rich and wide-ranging grasp of art, or his ability to make discussions about art accessible and engaging for working-class audiences.

The coming storm

Towards the end of The Dialectics of Art, in the context of a chapter on how art develops, John discusses the likely growth of artworks responding to the growing ecological crisis. This was no accident but reflected John’s intensive engagement, around this time, with discussions on the left on these themes. In the previous issue of this journal, in a piece of analysis written in the wake of John’s death, I mention how, for him, “ecological breakdown signalled the necessity and urgency of…revolutionary transformation”.79 A number of articles on this topic can be read in recent issues of Irish Marxist Review and in John’s Selected Writings.80 Here I will make two further points on this topic by way of conclusion.

The first is that this engagement, which gathered pace when John was already in his 60s, involved a reinvigoration of his own theory and practice. John eagerly digested an emerging body of writing on ecology from Marxist authors such as John Bellamy Foster, Paul Burkett and Ian Angus. It is a myth that political thinkers inevitably become more conservative with age. When John argued that our tradition “sought always to unite theory and practice, and therefore has never rested content with received wisdom or fixed dogma but has sought to apply Marxism to a changing world”, he really meant it.81

The second point returns to the issue of fatalism. One kind of fatalism is to envisage the triumph of socialism as a historical inevitability. Another, though, is to fall into despair at the enormity of the task facing us. In an article written a couple of years before his death, John took up cudgels against such negative fatalism:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report’s warning in October 2018 that the world has 12 years to avoid climate disaster was undoubtedly a major factor in galvanising a global wave of climate change activism… There were large numbers of people, especially young people, who “heard” the warning as meaning there was, literally, only 12 years to prevent global extinction… Climate change is…a process that is already underway. Every week, month or year of delay in reducing carbon emissions exacerbates the problem and makes it harder to tackle. By the same token, there is no absolute deadline after which it will be too late to do anything and we might as well give up the ghost.82

Given the gulf between where we are now and global revolution, fatalism of this kind leads, at best, to a collapse into piecemeal reformism, at worst, demoralisation and passivity. John would have none of that. Socialists should, of course, fight alongside others for reforms. However, this fight had to be waged in such a way as to convince workers that they could, through their own struggles, settle scores with capitalism and its attendant horrors. Furthermore, it had to implant, at the heart of these struggles, revolutionary organisation. That was John to the last: fight, persuade, argue, organise. Because, whatever they tell you, you can make a difference—and he certainly did.

Joseph Choonara is the editor of International Socialism. He is the author of A Reader’s Guide to Marx’s Capital (Bookmarks, 2017) and Unravelling Capitalism: A Guide to Marxist Political Economy (2nd edition: Bookmarks, 2017).


1 Thanks to Alex Callinicos, Judy Cox, Richard Donnelly, Christian Høgsbjerg, Sarah Lahm, Sheila McGregor and Huw Williams for comments on earlier drafts.

2 Draper, 1977, p194.

3 This phrase comes from Antonio Gramsci’s discussion of the “organic intellectuals” thrown up by classes as they engage in struggle—see Gramsci, 1971, p10.

4 For a small selection, see Socialist Worker, 2022. John’s prolific output found its way across the globe, and tributes have been received from activists in South Korea, Egypt, South Africa and many other countries.

5 Marx, 1950. Quoted in Molyneux, 2022a.

6 Choonara, 2022, p17.

7 Lih, 2008, p18. Cliff was the founder of the Socialist Workers Party and its forerunners.

8 Molyneux, 2022b, p204; Cliff, 1975.

9 Molyneux, 2019, p93.

10 On the IS in 1968, see Birchall, 2008.

11 Molyneux, 2006. John had a colourful life, rather different from the grey existence sometimes assumed to be the fate of the “serious revolutionary”. This started with his immersion in the illegal poker scene while still at school, a scene that intersected with London’s criminal underworld—see Molyneux, 2002.

12 Before this, he seems to have spent a single term at Cambridge, which was not to his taste.

13 Molyneux claimed Bob Dylan, alongside Allen Ginsberg, as his major cultural influence at this age. He would have been familiar with the musician’s surrealist sketch of the United States in “Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream”: “Ah me I busted out / Don’t even ask me how / I went to get some help / I walked by a Guernsey cow / Who directed me down / To the Bowery slums / Where people carried signs around / Saying, ‘Ban the bums’ / I jumped right into line / Sayin’, ‘I hope that I’m not late’ / When I realised I hadn’t eaten / For five days straight.”

14 He briefly joined Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League Young Socialists in January 1968, but left “shortly thereafter, repelled by its terrifying authoritarianism”. He later contrasted this with the “democratic openness” he encountered in the IS—Molyneux, 2009.

15 Molyneux, 2018.

16 Molyneux, 2018.

17 Molyneux, 2018.

18 Molyneux, 2020, pix.

19 Molyneux, 2006.

20 Choonara, 2022, p18.

21 Williams, 2022.

22 Callinicos, 2022.

23 Callinicos, 2022.

24 Molyneux, 1984. The article was in response to Harman, 1984.

25 McGregor, 1985.

26 Molyneux, 1986; German, 1986.

27 Hallas, 1971.

29 Allen, 2022.

30 Molyneux, 1978, p11. So, although he saw the early work of the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács as an important expression of the development of the classical Marxist tradition, John was sceptical about Lukács’s notion of “imputed class consciousness”, which tended to see the party as the “bearer of working-class consciousness”—see Molyneux, 2012, pp165-168.

31 Molyneux, 1978, p35.

32 Molyneux, 1978, p43. He also identifies a tendency towards fatalism within Luxemburg’s ideas, arguing that her wonderful insights, particularly in The Mass Strike, can only be fully developed when integrated into “the framework of Leninism”—Molyneux, 1978, p116.

33 Molyneux, 1978, pp46-50.

34 Molyneux, 1978, p71. See also Corr and Jenkins, 2014.

35 Molyneux, 1978, pp141-161. For a discussion of the abuses of Gramsci, see Harman, 1977.

36 Molyneux, 2017, pp156-189.

37 Molyneux, 1978, p136.

38 Molyneux, 1978, pp139-140.

39 This smaller readership was due not least to the publisher of Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution, Harvester Press, preferring to sell a small number of copies at a high price. This was unlike Pluto Press, which had published Marxism and Party while still connected politically with the SWP.

40 See, for instance, the opening remarks in John’s talk on Trotsky and Trotskyism at Marxism 2013, which is available online at

41 See, for instance, Cliff, 1999.

42 Molyneux, 1981, p11.

43 Callinicos, 1984, pp136-137.

44 Hallas, 1982.

45 Molyneux, 1981, pp17-46.

46 Correspondence with Huw Williams. This judgement is given credence by John’s later article, “Is Marxism deterministic?”, which identifies Trotsky, at least from 1917, as an opponent of determinism and its twin, fatalism—see Molyneux, 1995.

47 Hallas, 1982.

48 Molyneux, 1981, p43.

49 Cliff, 1963.

50 This does not mean John was uncritical or unprepared to go beyond the Marxism associated with the New Left. For example, it was commonly held in this milieu that Engels was a key ideological source for Stalinism. John, by contrast, was much more enthusiastic about Engels’s contribution. Thanks to Huw Williams for this point.

51 See Harman, 1983. For a superb example of how John deployed some of Marx’s early writings to polemical effect, see his article on Marxism and religion, written in large part to inoculate the left against the disease of Islamophobia—Molyneux, 2008.

52 Molyneux, 2012, pp11-16 and 202-203.

53 Cited in Molyneux, 1995, p40.

54 Molyneux, 1995, p45

55 Molyneux, 1995, p63.

56 Again, alienation is a central theme here: “A long theoretical road lies between the 1844 Manuscripts and Capital, between alienated labour and the theory of surplus value… But in the process the original concept is neither ‘forgotten’ nor ‘rejected’.”—Molyneux, 1983, p18.

57 Molyneux, 1983, p46.

58 On Stalinism’s revival, see Tengely-Evans, 2022.

59 Molyneux, 1987.

60 As discussed below, John became deeply interested in ecological questions towards the end of his life. If he were writing the same pamphlet today, he would undoubtedly have said more about the ecological aspects of water consumption—and the struggle that erupted in Ireland, a few years after he moved there, over the attempt to introduce water charges.

61 Molyneux, 1987.

62 Molyneux, 2020, pp237-238.

63 Molyneux, 2020, ppvii-viii.

64 Some are accessible via the SWP YouTube channel—

65 Molyneux, 2020, pp48-49.

66 Molyneux, 2020, p67.

67 Molyneux, 2020, p71.

68 Molyneux, 1998, p81.

69 Molyneux, 1998, pp81-82.

70 Molyneux, 1998, pp83, 84.

71 See Nineham, 1999; Molyneux, 1999; Harman, 1999.

72 Molyneux, 2020, pp21-22, 24.

73 Voronsky, 1998, p98. A couple of years ago, I raised this with John, who told me he had only a minimal acquaintance with Voronsky’s writings and was unimpressed by the little he had read. Still, he acknowledged, though Voronsky did not provide what he regarded as a comprehensive definition of art, there might be parallels between Voronsky’s formulation and his own ideas about form and content. For critics of John who cite Voronsky, see Gilchrist, 2021; Harman, 1999.

74 Molyneux, 2020, pp27-28.

75 Marx, 1977, pp65-66.

76 Marx, 1977, pp70-73.

77 Marx, 1977, p111. Elsewhere, Marx is even more explicit on this point: “The propertied class and the class of the proletariat present the same human self-alienation. But the former class finds in this self-alienation its confirmation and its good, its own power; it has in it a semblance of human existence.”—Marx and Engels, 1957, p51. I sought to persuade John, in an email correspondence extending over several thousand words, of how Marx’s concept of alienation could be placed within a broader account of fetishism and reification, drawing on later works such as Capital. John engaged gamely enough but, for both of us, “events” intervened, and the discussion was paused; it is sad to realise these dangling threads of discussion will never be picked up.

78 Molyneux, 2020, p32.

79 Choonara, 2023, p3.

80 See, for instance, Molyneux, 2022a, pp365-398.

81 Molyneux, 1983, p46.

82 Molyneux, 2022c, pp383-384.


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