A rejoinder to Wood

Issue: 35

Alex Callinicos

I agree with Ellen Wood. It is important to start with what we have in common. That’s why, in my review, I described the ‘main thrust of The Retreat From Class’ as ‘one which this journal can only strongly endorse’.1 That is also why Andy Wilson, reviewing the book in another SWP publication, emphasised the points in agreement, and in particular Wood’s defence of such basic principles of Marxism as the centrality of class struggle and the self-emancipation of the working class.2

Nevertheless, a journal of socialist theory such as International Socialism is necessarily concerned with the clarification of complex and difficult issues, and this often leads to disagreement with, and criticism of some views even of others belonging to the same political tendency, let alone socialists of different backgrounds. This journal has often, for instance, been a forum for arguments within the SWP tradition: my review elsewhere in this issue of Nigel Harris’s new book is but the latest example. Vigorous but friendly debate over questions of theory and strategy is essential to the health and development of international socialism.

My criticisms of The Retreat From Class were made. In this spirit – from a standpoint of solidarity against shared enemies, but concerned nonetheless to identify aspects of Wood’s argument which undermined her case against the ‘new revisionism’. Nothing, of course, requires her to agree with these criticisms, but I was, frankly, taken aback by the violence of her response, which seemed quite out of proportion to the tone and the content of the original review, and which, in the personal accusations it made, at times crossed the boundary between reasoned disagreement and mere abuse. Ellen Wood may not be able to take criticism, but she sure can dish it out. I hope in these comments to avoid her example, and merely to deal with a few points at issue.

1. How important have changes in the balance of class forces been to the development of what Wood calls the ‘New True Socialism’? She seems to think that they have played only a secondary role. What is of prime Importance is the ‘political logic of a particular theoretical tendency’, stemming from the work of Althusser and his followers, which has undergone an ‘evolution through different stages’, from ultra-left Maoism in the late 1960s through to right wing social democracy today, but which has remained consistent in insisting on ‘the autonomy of political and ideological struggle’ from class relations.

Well, I certainly don’t want to treat theoretical changes as passive reflections of the class struggle, so that the new revisionism developed automatically once the upturn ended in the mid-1970s. I would actually date the emergence of that two-headed beast Hindess-and-Hirst somewhat earlier than Wood, since the disintegration of British Althusserianism became evident as long ago as the spring and summer of 1973, in the debates in the last issue of Theoretical Practice and at the Communist University of London that year. But the fact that some elements of the new revisionism took shape before the onset of the downturn does not (as Wood concedes at one point) explain why Hindess and Hirst were able to win such a huge audience in the late 1970s, and why Marxism Today has proved so successful since it began to popularise the ideas of the NTS a decade or so ago. Moreover, the fact that much of the Western far left went into crisis in the late 1970s suggests that we are talking about a general phenomenon whose explanation requires attending to more than the collapse of Althusserianism.

Does this mean that the prevailing theories on the left played no part in the emergence of the new revisionism? No, of course not, and I never suggested otherwise. The intellectual shift to the right arose, fundamentally, from a combination of two factors. One was the generalised downturn in the class struggle which set in throughout Western capitalism in the second half of the 1970s. It is not clear whether Wood recognises its existence. At one point she seems to invoke the great miners’ strike as a counter-example. I do not need Ellen Wood to remind me of the courage and self-sacrifice with which the men and women of the mining communities fought the Thatcher government. The fact remains that this government waged the strike largely on its terms, was able, with the help of the trade-union bureaucracy, to isolate the miners from their fellow workers, and inflicted, in the end, a terrible defeat on the NUM whose effects are being felt throughout British society. To ignore, as Wood does, the real (albeit temporary) shift in the balance of class forces in capital’s favour is to do those heroic strikers a disservice, since it stands in the way of learning from their defeat.

The second principal factor responsible for the rise of the new revisionism was the versions of Marxism prevalent on the Western left, usually absent from which was the central focus of classical revolutionary socialism, the self-emancipation of the working class. I agree with Wood that Althusser provided one of the most influential variants, and certainly the most ambitious attempt at a general reconstruction of Marxism. The theoretical influences were nevertheless considerably more heterogeneous than Wood is prepared to recognise. A version of Gramsci, strained through the now very right-wing Italian Communist Party, has, for example, been very important for such key new revisionists as Ernesto Laclau and Stuart Hall. Indeed, Hindess and Hirst stand out because they began as the most doctrinally Althusserian, and have tended to be much preoccupied with the internal consistency of each of the many theoretical positions they have successively held. Hail, serving up an eclectic brew of Gramsci, Althusser, Poulantzas, Laclau, Foucault and whatever else happens to be in the pot, is much more representative of new-revisionist ‘theory’.

Wood does not explain why she ignores Hall. She does defend excluding Eric Hobsbawm from her critique, because he is an old-style Popular Frontist who ‘has no interest or faith in revolutionary agencies apart from the working class’. This is rather a strange argument. For one thing Hobsbawm’s most celebrated recent argument has concerned what he believes to be the decline of the working class as the agent of socialist change in the West. For another thing, the notion of a strategic alliance between the proletariat and sections of the bourgeoisie – and this is the core of the idea of a Popular Front – amounts in practice to a break with the self-emancipation of the working class and to the subordination of workers’ struggles to the need to conciliate their capitalist ‘allies’. Laclau at least has the honesty to draw out the logical consequences of this strategy, and to argue openly for a break with ‘classism’. Hobsbawm has not, and that indeed is the ‘difference’ between him and the NTS which Wood berates me for ignoring, but she doesn’t seem to be aware that, in the split in the Communist Party, Hobsbawm lent his intellectual prestige and polemical skills to backing precisely that faction which shares ‘the NTS vision of a social transformation brought about by the “popular-democratic” struggles of the new social movements.’ Here at least it is she who has ignored the ‘political logic’ involved in the arguments advanced by Hobsbawm.3

One trouble with Wood’s narrowness of focus is that it leads her to underestimate the serious intellectual threat represented by the ‘analytical Marxism’ of Jerry Cohen, Jon Elster, John Roemer, and others. She says that ‘its highly formalized abstractions are unlikely to have the political appeal possessed even by the most academic theorizations of the politics associated with the new social movements’. Who is she kidding? Academic bookshops have been flooded with Elster’s two books on Marx, one a heavy tome, the other a student’s introduction. Are these books really so much less accessible than such pellucid texts as Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today or Hegemony and Socialist Strategy? Cohen, Elster, and Roemer have received extraordinary, indeed extravagant praise from the English speaking intellectual establishment. Moreover, their politics cuts with the grain. Even the relatively ‘orthodox’ Cohen defends a variant of market socialism. And market socialism, as any reader of recent issues of the New Statesman (and even, I might add, of the New Left Review) will know, has very much become the watchword of the social-democratic right, who have drawn from the failure of Keynesianism the conclusion that the market is essentially omnipotent. Others have taken analytical Marxism’s measure more accurately than Wood. Thus Perry Anderson brackets it with the ‘post-Marxism’ of Laclau & Co as two attempts to theorise the rightward shift of social democracy.4 Wood’s obsession with one strand of the new revisionism blinds her to other, arguably more significant forms.

2. Wood no doubt will dismiss these arguments as mere strategems designed to deflect attention from the central part played by Althusserianism in producing the new revisionism. My own sympathies for Althusser and even for post-structuralism, and my admiration for Paul Hirst are, according to Wood, the principal reasons motivating my criticisms of her book. This is pretty wild stuff. It is hardly a secret that I have found things to agree with in Althusser. Does this make me a covert supporter of the new revisionism? If so, then Wood had better look hard at some of her fellow-members of the NLR editorial committee.

Consider the following passage:

In the twentieth century the modem classics of Marxism have emerged from the most diverse surroundings all of which emphasize its vocation to change the world: from the Vyborg suburb of Petrograd on the eve of the October Revolution (Lenin’s State and Revolution), from the embattled Budapest Commune of 1919 (Lukacs’ Change in the Function of Historical Materialism), from the prisons of Mussolini’s Italy (Gramsci’s prison notebooks), from the caves of Yenan (Mao’s On Contradiction) and from Havana, capital of the free territory of America (Che Guevara’s Socialism and Man in Cuba) and from the Paris students’ Marxist-Leninist Study circle in a Sorbonne soon to become the storm centre of the French insurrection of May 1968 (Lire le Capital, Althusser, Balibar, and others).5

From Vyborg to the Sorbonne: what a fall was that… This is a perfect text of the kind of Maoist, Third Worldist Althusserianism which Wood argues gave birth to the NTS. Even at my least critical of AIthusser I would never have dreamt of writing anything so silly. Its author was Robin Blackburn, now the editor of NLR. Presumably Wood does not regard him as a new revisionist: I certainly would not. (Incidentally, when criticising Blackburn for supporting a ballot during the miners’ strike I certainly was not assimilating him to right-wingers like Kinnock – under his editorship NLR has been a firm opponent of the new revisionism – but illustrating a more general point about the importance of distinguishing between bourgeois and proletarian forms of democracy.)6

Wood’s only evidence for my post-Althusserian sympathies is the ‘fulsome praise’ I allegedly ‘showered’ on Hirst in a review published in the New Statesman eight years ago. There I indeed called him ‘the Ockham of the contemporary British left’. This was not meant to be a complimentary comparison, as the context ought to have made clear to even the most literal-minded reader, since I went on to describe the way in which Hirst used his razor of intellectual ‘rigour’ to slice away the entire theoretical and political corps of classical Marxism. I concluded:

The informing purpose of Marx’s thought- the self-emancipation of the working class- is quite absent from the writings of Hirst and his collaborators. All that is left is a technique and a vague goal (co-operative and non-authoritarian social relations’ – Hirst’s ‘rigorous’ reformulation of the abolition of classes). What sense is there in calling this ‘Marxism’?7

This hardly amounts to ‘fulsome praise’. Nor was it an isolated attack. The year before I wrote a lengthy, and extremely hostile review article of Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today in this journal.8 I later wrote a book, Is There a Future For Marxism?, which placed people like Hindess and Hirst in the broader context of post-structuralism, and subjected its basic assumptions (often shared by Althusser) to detailed criticism. It is true that I did not, like NLR, simply ignore Hindess and Hirst, in the hope that they would go away. They did, eventually, moving into the camp of right-wing social democracy, but they took a lot of people with them. It has always struck me as the height of irresponsibility that NLR did not use its enormous intellectual prestige to defend Marxism against Hindess and Hirst in the late 1970s, at a time when they could, for example, attract a thousand people to a meeting of the Communist University of London, instead waiting till 1986, when Hirst had become much more right-wing, and much less influential, to publish a rather lightweight survey of his shifting positions.9

Wood is naturally not responsible for any of NLR’s acts or omissions before she joined its editorial committee. She can, however, be held to account for the manner in which she conducts arguments. The insinuations Wood makes about my alleged sympathy for Hirst & Co reflect at best sheer slovenliness – a failure to check her sources, at worst the intellectual dishonesty of which she is so ready to accuse others. Either way she has strayed far from the norms of socialist debate.

3. One instance of my dishonesty, Wood claims, is the way in which I misinterpret her views on the state, making her out to be a centrist advocate of combining bourgeois and proletarian democracy when she is nothing of the kind. I quoted one passage from The Retreat From Class which Wood now says was a ‘gloss on an argument which [she was] … criticizing.’ Well, let us see.

Wood was discussing Geoff Hodgson’s assertion that there is no Chinese wall between ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ democracy. Here is what she says, with my allegedly misleading elisions restored:

What, then, does it mean to say that there is no “Chinese Wall’? At best, it means that the institutional forms of parliamentary democracy are not in themselves antithetical to socialism, that they need not be destroyed as a pre-condition to socialism, that they are not in themselves useless to socialists in their struggle to transform society, and perhaps that they may still have their uses after the destruction of capitalism. With certain qualifications, these are not unreasonable propositions; at least they may serve as a useful corrective to uncritical applications of Leninist principles which treat liberal-democratic forms as if they ‘correspond’ to capitalism so completely and exclusively that they can be dismissed – and must even be destroyed- as the enemies of socialism. (pp 136-7)

It is true that Wood then goes on to criticise Hodgson, and to insist that there is a ‘qualitative break between “capitalist democracy’ and socialism’. Nevertheless, as this passage makes clear, she does express sympathy with the idea that ‘the institutional forms of parliamentary democracy…need not be destroyed as a precondition to socialism…and…may still have their uses after the destruction of capitalism’. Now this does look pretty much like the kind of position defended by Karl Kautsky and Otto Bauer at the time of the October revolution, and by Nicos Poulantzas, Tim Wolforth, and Tariq Ali more recently, which seeks to combine parliament and soviets. Lenin gave this strategy the name of ‘centrism’. Wood may not like to be called a centrist, but her own words invite such a description.

But I have missed the point, Wood claims. Her concern with democracy is not so much about the strategy for overthrowing capital as about the problem of controlling the state which would emerge from a successful socialist revolution. Even in a classless society, ‘public power will constitute a problem.’ Indeed, ‘public power may be, and historically often has been, itself the source of differentiation between appropriators and direct producers.’ Consequently, ‘even in a classless society there will probably have to be organizations whose conscious and explicit object is not simply to complement but to check power and prevent its misappropriation.’ Therefore, ‘insofar as the most “liberal” forms of the capitalist state represent the hitherto most advanced modes of restricting the freedom of the state, it is possible that socialists have something to learn from “liberalism” in this regard.’ (pp 156-7, 160)

It is not at all clear what Wood is saying here. Revolutionary Marxists- most notably Rosa Luxemburg-have insisted that the dictatorship of the proletariat would not simply preserve, but would greatly extend the characteristic rights of bourgeois democracy – freedom of speech, assembly, association, due process of law, etc. However, it is necessary to distinguish between these rights and the institutions of state power in which they are entrenched and exercised. For reasons, given in my original review and reflecting the experience of a century and a half of class struggles, the working class could only come to power by destroying the central apparatuses of the capitalist state and replacing them with a new form of political power based on an extensive network of workers’ councils. Parliamentary institutions, as part of the bourgeois state apparatus, would be one of the targets of socialist revolution, not an instrument of that revolution.

The extension under socialism of the bourgeois-democratic freedoms would, therefore, depend on the destruction of the state machine (including parliament) of which they are now part. Wood obscures this fundamental point through vague talk of the ‘institutions and practices’ of bourgeois democracy, failing to distinguish between those aspects which are compatible, and those which are incompatible with proletarian rule. There is another vital point as well. In the immediate period after the overthrow of capital, a workers’ state would in all likelihood be forced to make major inroads into individual rights in order to defend itself against bourgeois counter-revolution. Any Marxist who denies this, ignoring the long and bloody history of what Marx called slaveholders’ rebellions, from the suppression of the Paris Commune to the destruction of Popular Unity in Chile, disqualifies themselves from serious consideration in discussion of socialist strategy. As Plekhanov once put it, salus revolutionis suprema lex: the safety of the revolution is the supreme law.

Does this qualification not deprive the idea that socialist revolution will extend individual freedoms of any content? No. Wood is, of course, right to say that state power can be a source of class antagonisms. That is precisely what happened in Russia in the decade after the October revolution. Nevertheless, as this example indicates, whether the ‘alienation· of power’ occurs depends on concrete, historically shaped, materially based circumstances. It was the disintegration of the industrial working class, itself a consequence of economic collapse in an isolated, predominantly peasant society, which allowed the state created by the Bolshevik revolution to become a basis of class power. The only guarantee against a repetition of this disaster lies in the existence of a politically conscious working class democratically organised in soviets which not merely seizes power in one country but uses that victory as a base from which to spread the revolution internationally.

At times Wood seems very close to these arguments. Thus she writes: ‘The heart of socialism will be a mode of democratic organization that has never existed before – direct self-government by freely associated producers in commonly owned workplaces producing the means of material life.’ (p 165) At other times, however, she clouds the issues with vague and ambiguous formulations, such as those she uses when arguing for the continuities between bourgeois and proletarian democracy. Is it sectarian to insist on the greatest possible clarity concerning these questions? I do not think so. We are discussing matters literally of life and death, confusion concerning which can, and has inflicted catastrophic defeats upon the workers movement even in the very recent past, from Chile 1973 to Poland 1981.10 I see no point in Marxist theory if it does not seek to draw, as sharply and lucidly as possible, the lessons of these struggles.

How major are the differences between Wood and myself? I think that they are quite important, although we would have to dig beneath such general formulae as ‘the conditions of capitalist democracy’ imposing ‘its own rules and standards of political success’ to bring them fully to the light of day. The existence of such disagreements among socialists who are united in their opposition to the new revisionism is no bad thing. We can all learn from open, vigorous, and comradely debate.


1. A Callinicos, ‘Looking for Alternatives to Reformism’, IS 2:34 (1987), p109.
Page references in the text are to E Wood, The Retreat From Class (London
2. Socialist Worker Review 91, October 1986.
3. For more detailed discussion of Hobsbawm, see N Carlin and I Birchall,
‘Kinnock’s Favourite Marxist’, IS 2:21 (1983), and A Callinicos, ‘The Politics
of Marxism Today’, IS 2:29 (1985).
4. P Anderson, ‘Social Democracy Today’, Against the Current 1:6 (1987), p28.
5. R Blackburn, ‘A Brief Guide to Bourgeois Ideology’, in A Cockburn and R
Blackburn (eds), Student Power (Harmondsworth 1969), p28.
6. Wood also says that I am ‘generally obsessed’ with NLR. I do not know what her grounds are for this statement: I doubt if everything I have written on the subject would amount in length to as much as, say, one chapter of Mike Simons’ and my The Great Strike. In any case, I don’t see that a member of the editorial committee of a journal whose publicity material includes the quotation ‘arguably the finest Marxist journal published in any language’ is in much position to complain when it receives some of the attention which this description invites.
7. A Callinicos, ‘Ockham’s Razor’, New Statesman, 13 July 1979. So critical was my review that two weeks later a letter from a sympathiser with Hirst appeared complaining about my ‘dogmatism’: see ibid., 27 July 1979.
8. A Callinicos, ‘Marx’s ‘Capital’ and Capitalism Today- a Critique’, IS 2:2 (1978/9).
9. G Elliott, ‘The Odyssey of Paul Hirst’. New Left Review 159 (1986). Hirst gives his own account of his relationship with NLR in Marx and Historical Writing (London 1985), ch 1.
10. See C Barker (ed), Revolutionary Rehearsals (London 1987).