Michael Kidron’s Marxism

Issue: 165

Richard Kuper and John Palmer

A new edition of Capitalism and Theory (Haymarket, 2018) has made a ­selection of writings by Michael Kidron available to a new audience in print for the first time in decades. Kidron was a founder and important early theorist of the International Socialist tradition and an editor of this journal. Richard Kuper, who edited the book and was a member of the International Socialists, and John Palmer, a member of the Socialist Review Group and the International Socialists, spoke to Joseph Choonara and Tomáš Tengely-Evans about the significance of Kidron’s work.

TTE: What can you tell us about Michael Kidron’s early life and political development?

RK: Mike was born into an ardently Zionist family in South Africa in 1930. His parents went to Palestine, leaving Mike behind in South Africa, but he made his way there at the age of 15 just after the Second World War. Mike went to Tichon Hadash progressive school, where he almost immediately rejected Zionism. The Palmach, part of the underground army that fought to set up Israel, used to come to the school every day. Mike refused to train with them but insisted on getting to school on time so they didn’t accuse him of just being lazy. So it was clear he was ideologically opposed to Zionism from very early on. He had a great time in Palestine but at the same time found it too narrow-minded politically and he got out in the early 1950s.

JP: Mike left having already met Tony Cliff, his future brother-in-law and one of the founders of the Socialist Review Group (SRG), which became the International Socialists (IS) and later the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I think they met in Palestine in about 1946, and Cliff lectured him for three days and three nights without interruption, as Mike put it, convincing him. But Cliff left shortly afterwards for London.

RK: Mike came to England in about 1953 and began studying at Oxford University. He immediately involved himself with the “left of the left” and was embroiled in the bitter rows with the Communist Party (CP) that dominated the left at the time. He was one of those fearless intellectuals who ploughed his own way and was willing to analyse situations, come to his own conclusions and stick to them.

Soon after Mike arrived, he met again with Cliff and the SRG, which existed more or less as a monthly magazine, Socialist Review. The SRG was on the fringe of the fringe, a tiny group of a dozen or so people with a small periphery, but Mike threw himself into organisational work and eventually became editor. He was very keen to differentiate himself politically from others and at the same time very keen to build bridges and find a language that would draw ordinary people in.

This was one of the most important things about Mike—his belief that, given the chance, ordinary workers could take control, change society and build a different and better world was the bedrock of his commitment. Everything he did was trying to understand why workers’ consciousness was not revolutionary, or could even be reactionary, and how to find ways to work on it, to connect with people, to move people’s ideas a little.

In the 1950s Mike contributed a number of theories, which became key to the SRG and later the IS group which it became.

JP: By the time Mike finished at Oxford, he had also become quite well known as an active member of the New Left. The journal New Left Review came out of a merger of the Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner, founded by John Saville and historian EP Thompson, who had broken with the Communist Party over Stalinism. The New Left had clubs in towns and cities, and the Partisan Coffee House in London, where important debates took place. I first went there around the time of the 1959 general election to a debate about Raymond Williams’s forthcoming book, The Long Revolution. Williams and Thompson were discussing the book with Mike and Alasdair McIntyre. I was transfixed by all of them, but Mike and Alasdair were absolutely stunning.

JC: From what you’ve said, Kidron was already committed to the idea of workers’ self-emancipation, but did he know any workers at this time?

JP: Early on Mike joined the AUBTW building workers’ union, because he worked during the summer months. There’s a photograph in the front of the book showing him carrying the union’s Brixton branch banner in 1958. The SRG couldn’t command an audience, but labour colleges partly filled that role. At that time there was a serious interest in socialist ideas not least through the educational work in the trade union movement of the National Council of Labour Colleges which both Mike and Cliff were associated with for many years as lecturers to trade union branches and shop stewards committees.

TTE: You mentioned how Kidron formulated theories key for the IS. A number of the essays deal with the Permanent Arms Economy (PAE), which sought to explain what was behind the unprecedented “long boom” that followed the Second World War. Debates about PAE can seem abstract or irrelevant, but a lot of people are looking to the sorts of Keynesian policies that were pursued in that period and which are today often regarded as the key to the long boom.

RK: When Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan told people “you’ve never had it so good” in 1957, the truth was people hadn’t had it so good. There was a widespread feeling that the problems of capitalism had been solved. You had people such as the future Labour minister Anthony Crosland writing this very explicitly in his 1957 book The Future of Socialism. The problem now, the argument went, was not how to produce wealth, but how to share it out in a more egalitarian fashion.

It seemed possible to provide work for everyone who genuinely wanted to work. If you weren’t counting women in the figures, in the traditional male workforce there was something approaching full employment. When unemployment went up to 100,000 in the early 1960s, people said it was unacceptable. Mike was saying, “Yes, it looks great but it’s not going to last”, which is what the essay “Reform and Revolution: Rejoinder to Left Reformism” and the ones on the PAE were about.

JC: There was a period when Kidron was recognised as a serious figure in political economy. The History of Marxian Economics by Michael Howard and John King has a whole chapter on the PAE dealing with Kidron’s contribution among other views. He had a great grasp of Marxist political economy and what is today described as “value theory”, which seems 20 years ahead of his time. Where did he get it from? Was it from looking back at Marx’s own works?

JP: Mike was very well read in Marx. And there was a socialist educational subculture that was much wider than an extended family in north London; there was a critical engagement, debating these issues in the Marxist canon. When Mike arrived in this country, people who became part of the IS were beginning to be influenced by debates about the nature of Stalinist Russia and the state on the “Shachtmanite left” in the United States. Their stuff would reach Britain almost as soon as it was published. And when Raya Dunayevskaya, one of its leading figures, came to London she actually stayed with Mike and they were in intense conversation about all the currents. The debate about the “warfare state”—the growing importance of militarism—was quite important in testing the models that Mike and Cliff developed.

In a well-attended meeting in the 1960s in Berkeley, I remember the US socialist Hal Draper debating with Mike on whether to characterise Stalinist Russia as “bureaucratic collectivism” or “state capitalism”. There was a significant amount of agreement but Mike had the cutting edge. Draper’s explanation of the individual motivations of the ruling bureaucracy in the Soviet Union was very convincing on one level. But it didn’t really explain what was driving the priorities of the Russian economy, namely international competition. And Mike ended up saying, if the Soviet Union was isolated on the moon it would be a bureaucratic collectivist society—but it isn’t.

So Mike was shaped and influenced by—but critical of—currents on the thinking left; and all of that involved him rereading Marx.

JC: What characterises Kidron’s work is not only a very rigorous reading of Marx’s Capital, but an ability to operate at a much less abstract level then many other Marxist political economists. His critique of Ernest Mandel is a case in point. Kidron says that Mandel has read Marx without trying to apply the ideas to capitalism as it appears today. There’s a sense that capitalism for Kidron is a dynamic and changing system—and that’s refreshing. But Kidron is able to give the theory of the PAE a real depth using value theory. That marks it out from earlier versions of the PAE and the “warfare state”. I’m thinking of the version developed by TN Vance/WJ Oaks (two pseudonyms of US Trotskyist Ed Sard). Could you comment on these differences?

JP: In the early 1950s the concept of a “warfare state” was highly credible. The West came out of the Second World War with an economy in many ways more militarised. This meant there were powerful sociological realities that spoke to the fact that militarism dominated within the ruling class. The Warfare State, a book by left-wing professor Fred J Cook published in 1964, said war had become inevitable because militarism had colonised capitalism. That was the pressure that Kidron was under—and that he resisted because it would lead you to think the chiefs of staff were already ruling in an authoritarian way. That didn’t correspond with reality. Part of Mike’s work was a pushback against that view.

The charge always made against Mike was that he gave too Keynesian a reading of Vance/Oaks as well. There was an element that did correspond to a Keynesian justification for the arms economy. In other words, if ruling classes had done it for Keynesian reasons it would have had the same effect, but they didn’t do it for those reasons. They did it because of a desperate struggle for global hegemony. Mike needed to disentangle that.

In later discussions, Mike said there is something in the critique that we haven’t weighted productivity significantly enough in our theory. I raised it in the context of what Cook was saying about the real effect of arms expenditure. Arms spending presents productive capital with technological advances, which in the normal cycle of accumulation they would never have justified expenditure on. But that depends on a reasonable synergy in the military and civilian ­sectors—for instance transferability between military and civilian planes, missile technology and some other sorts of electronic technology. Mike did sense that the weight of the arms burden was undermining capital’s ability to control inflation. But, although he didn’t say this at the time, the spin-off applicability was diminishing, even in civilian sectors most able to take advantage. I don’t think that’s dealt with in his self-critical essay “Two Insights Don’t Make A Theory”, but subsequent conversations show he was aware that there were threads that needed to be tied together.

JC: There are slightly different ­iterations of Mike’s PAE. The earliest version rests more heavily on a Keynesian dimension—arms spending encourages full employment and so on—whereas later there is more emphasis on the PAE’s impact in ­offsetting the falling rate of profit. He starts to talk about arms being akin to “luxury” spending, which leads to a rather complicated argument about whether this kind of spending can influence the organic composition of capital. Elsewhere he talks about it being a withdrawal of capital intensive outputs. It strikes me that there’s a much simpler and clearer way of looking at it: surplus value is drained away by the state and then used to generate arms spending which is waste—it does not feed into future cycles of production. Kidron draws somewhere on Marx’s distinction between productive consumption and unproductive consumption, identifying the latter with waste. That would explain why arms production could offset the tendency of the rate of profit to fall.

RK: Mike was on his own in developing his work. There wasn’t a large number of people in IS or in the surrounding—tiny!—world of critical economists trying to hammer it out. He could have gone in any direction and the group would have accepted it. The PAE gave people confidence that they had a grasp and depth of analysis of what was going on in the world. It explained the stability of capitalism after the war; it explained reformism; it gave people authority to be Marxist in a world where it seemed irrelevant, where the system was delivering the goods, where reformism was working.

These problems in how the theory was elaborated became clearer in the early 1970s when a younger generation of IS members threw themselves into developing and extending IS’s critique of political economy and found, for instance, Mike’s reliance on Sraffa’s arguments troubling. The rough edges of the theory were never really polished to anyone’s satisfaction—least of all Mike’s! But in a certain sense it became less relevant. The instability of capitalism which it had pointed to was now clear for all to see (I remember Mike saying when his book Western Capitalism Since the War came out that it was “too late”—the instability it was predicting was already all around). A new generation of Marxist economists emerged and were grouped around the annual Conference of Socialist Economists. Some cared about value theory and the falling rate of profit, but new themes came to dominate debate on this left: domestic labour was one of these, the labour process another, the nature of the state (“in and against the state”) yet another. Many individual IS members were involved but IS as a group was not and nor, as far as I can recall, was Mike.

JC: Kidron draws on the Italian economist Piero Sraffa and was clearly very impressed by him. For my generation, coming to Marxist political economy after all the debates in the 1980s and 1990s around value theory, that would not be seen as a useful way of approaching it because of the simultaneity Sraffa relies on. The IS tradition from Chris Harman onwards was quite critical of it. What was Kidron’s relationship to Sraffa?

JP: He met Sraffa and he was very impressed by him. He thought that Sraffa’s 1960 book >Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities did throw light on territory he was trying to explore. But the argument had become quite esoteric because the organisation’s needs had changed. The problem of telling workers why they felt content was no longer quite the issue. We were running to catch up with a working class on the move. Those sorts of debates only existed in various sectarian notebooks. The lacuna, as a result of all of this, was that the left—including the revolutionary left and the IS—was left ill-equipped to deal with the subsequent advances of neoliberalism and globalisation. We were left without much intellectual ammunition to handle questions that arose out of neoliberalism, let alone the situation now. The Marxist movement, having specialised in crisis theory, was left strangely vulnerable when the system really hit the buffers.

One of the givens in all debates about late capitalism was that, as it matures and ripens, the power of states would grow exponentially. This was seen as happening not just under Stalinism but in Western capitalism too. One of the extraordinary aspects today is the emptying out of the state—it’s hollow, it’s run down. It’s an issue that Marxists should be working on today.

JC: There are two essays that seem dated—“Memories of Development” from 1971, which argues that China will never develop as a major capitalist power. and “Two Insights Don’t Make a Theory”, in which Kidron is arguing with Harman over the PAE. Both of them are working with a model that sees the world economy as based on a tendency towards state capitalism—in which the state and capital are tightly integrated. Even ten years later, with the shift to neoliberalism, it would look a little ridiculous. Did Kidron come to terms with that?

RK: Yes, a manuscript will be published in the International Socialism journal, where he talks about the phases of the state. There’s the dominance of the market to 1989 and then there is a “fractal state”: states without any overarching authority come to resemble each other because of the competition that they are forced to engage in. The role of the state is now much more subordinate, the notion of state capitalism developed in “Two Insights Don’t Make a Theory” now seems ineluctable.

TTE: One of the essays from 1974, “Black Reformism: The Theory of Unequal Exchange”, looks at the relationship between the North and South. Today there’s a resurgence of debates about the Global South, and specifically whether the working class in the “developed countries” also benefits from that oppression.

RK: Mike was a development economist who spent ten years studying India and Pakistan and did very original work. But Mike argued that this was peripheral to the system—not peripheral to suffering in the world, of course, but not the point in analysing international capitalism. In Britain the lure of “Third Worldist” ideas, the attraction of Cuba and the romanticism of it all was incredibly appealing. But IS was saying, if you really want to help those struggles, make a revolution here.

JC: The essays we’ve discussed were mostly included in an earlier ­collection, also entitled Capitalism and Theory, published in 1974. What’s new in this edition?

RK: This edition has more material and it has a whole number of appendices, which give a sense of Mike as an activist not just a theorist. For instance, when Mike took over Socialist Review in 1954, he wrote up an explanation of each point of the organisation’s twelve-point programme. It’s still worth looking at for how to make a political argument and to connect with people.

There are also two new essays, “The Injured Self” and “Failing Growth and Rampant Costs: Two Ghosts in the Machine of Modern Capitalism”, which appeared in the 2000s. They were a grand return to the Karl Marx of his early manuscripts. Mike was saying Marxism had to deal with all aspects of human existence. It was an overarching attempt to see where capitalism had ended up—its psychological, ecological and other effects, not just political economy.

JC: Kidron drifted out of the SWP in the 1970s. He kept up the idea of workers’ self-emancipation, but what did that now look like to him?

JP: Mike was highly sensitised to new forms or resistance and anti-system forces. He was very quick to see the importance of ecological issues and through that an emerging new wave of radical and potentially revolutionary dissent. This brings us onto a difficult question that preoccupied him and that he was never able to answer—what is happening to the working class? Mike was an observer of what was happening, and he was trying to mark down elements of change. I don’t think it’s overstating it—and one must be careful not to draw conclusions that Mike might have been more nuanced about—but he thought the character of the working class had changed. This was a man for whom, more than anybody else, class consciousness was an absolutely indispensable dynamic around which revolutionary politics was based. Without it we are whistling into the wind. The working class is growing globally, but in large parts of capitalism class consciousness has undergone a decline and fragmentation.

RK: Mike was distraught when he left. IS had structured his life for at least two decades. He couldn’t find a new political home, and didn’t feel it was in the SWP. Mike did feel that what he could do was to try to grasp how the system had changed. And, at least during the last five years of his life, he put all his energy and efforts into trying to develop a book, interestingly called Presence of the Future: The Cost of Capitalism and the Transition to Ecological Society. Earlier than most on the traditional left, he recognised that the system was eroding its own material base. But there wasn’t an agency that he could identify that could bring change about—he didn’t have an immediate answer to it. But he could show that there were new points of friction developing in the system and new agents emerging in those struggles. And the problem was how to link it up into something resembling the old revolutionary movement.

The reason I wanted to do the book of Mike’s selected writings was his enthusiasm, his energy, his determination, to connect the ideas with people outside, to speak with wider audiences. So often that is lost with political activism; the struggles to survive mean people forget about why they’re engaged in the project, why there’s a need to really popularise the ideas. Mike never gave up on that; and he was constantly concerned that, if ordinary people can’t do it, then it’s not going to happen. And it strikes me as critical for today to remember that. We’re not about to have a revolution, but there are always opportunities and spaces. Even when Mike’s analysis was pessimistic, he was always looking for points where he could insert a critical edge to make struggles that were taking place slightly more effective, slightly more oppositional, slightly more critical.

Richard Kuper was a member of the International Socialists from 1964-1977 and a founder of Pluto Press. He was also a university lecturer, a trade union militant in ATTI/Natfhe and a member of the Socialist Society. He is a red-green activist, an organic farmer, a campaigner for proportional representation and the co-founder and former chair of Jews for Justice for Palestinians and Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL). He is currently the web editor for JVL.

John Palmer joined the Socialist Review group in December 1959. He was on the editorial board of Rebel and subsequently Young Guard. He was subsequently a member of the International Socialists and was an occasional contributor to International Socialism under the editorship of Michael Kidron. He left the IS in 1974 prior to the formation of the SWP and is a member of the Labour Party.