A review of World Crisis: Essays in Revolutionary Socialism, Nigel Harris and John Palmer (eds) (Routledge, 2022), £27.99
The best ever collection of writings from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)—or the International Socialists, as it was known at the time—was published in 1971, but it has been out of print for decades. The publication, entitled World Crisis: Essays in Revolutionary Socialism, was a compilation edited by leading International Socialist members Nigel Harris and John Palmer. Unusually for a book of revolutionary writings from a single organisation, it was released by a commercial publisher, Hutchinson of London. The publisher positioned the volume thus:
The contributors to this volume, members of the International Socialists, probe the roots of the economic and social crisis of modern society. Their analysis is as bold as it is controversial. So is the alternative that they hold out: the overthrow of the system and its replacement by a society based on democratic workers’ control.
A central theme of the book is the need for socialists to be armed with a scientific view of the modern world—a socialist theory. Such a theory is claimed to be all the more urgent as socialists move into battle against the whole range of government policies.
The authors write as internationalists who see the struggles of oppressed peoples at home and abroad as interrelated, but they stress the primacy for British socialists of the struggle on their own doorsteps. They suggest that today’s political conflicts prefigure the social struggles of tomorrow.
That may be a general perspective, but John Palmer, writing in his preface, gives an additional organisational perspective:
This is not, in the strict sense, a volume of essays, for each contribution summarises a viewpoint derived from a common political position. Each contributor, despite individual idiosyncrasies and differences in style and approach, would not want to claim that his contribution is necessarily original; it summarises some of the work of many members of the group, the International Socialists, over the past 20 years.1
Now, wonder of wonders—completely unknown to Harris and Palmer, and indeed to the SWP—this ground-breaking book has just been republished by Routledge as volume number 26 in their “Political Protest” series. Apart from the cover design, the new edition is an exact copy of the original, including the pagination.
The book itself, in addition to a preface and an introduction, is divided into three parts, which, for the want of a better description, represent a yesterday, a today and a tomorrow.
Part 1 is titled “Britain and the Old Left” and contains three essays: “A Prologue: A Day in the Life of the ‘Fifties” by Peter Sedgwick; “The Decline of the Welfare State” by Jim Kincaid; and “Parliamentary Socialism” by Paul Foot.
Part 2 is titled “World Capitalism Today” and features the following pieces: “Imperialism Today” by Nigel Harris; “The Eastern Bloc” by Chris Harman; and “Capitalism: The Latest Stage” by Michael Kidron.
Part 3 is “What is to be Done?” and has two major essays: “The Class Struggle in Britain” by Tony Cliff; and “The Way Forward” by Duncan Hallas.
It is impossible to do justice to each of the essays in a few short lines, and I will not attempt to do so. I will instead attempt to give a flavour of what each one is about and outline some of the key messages using the words of the actual authors.
“Britain and the Old Left”
Peter Sedgwick’s “day in the life of the 1950s” is, in fact, Tuesday 25 January 1955: the day of a lobby of Parliament that Sedgwick attended, which ended with a demonstration being attacked by the police. Sedgwick’s account describes the behaviour of his own right-wing constituency Labour MP, the Communist Party members in his delegation from Liverpool and the police, as well as how the “riot” was reported in the right-wing press and the Communist Party’s Daily Worker. This is the story of, as Sedgwick so memorably refers to it, “Two visions: two versions. Two media: two messages.” Sedgwick wanted to record the day in detail because “it crystallises the main points of the mythology of that period of politics, which ended shortly afterwards in the cataclysm of 1956”, when Stalinism’s brutality was exposed in the eyes of many Communist Party members around the world by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. His account of the day is a prologue to a dismantling of the myths of the Communist Party and the idea of the Soviet Union as some socialist motherland. It also challenged the myth that the trade unions’ block votes within the Labour Party were somehow representative of workers’ views, when they are, in fact, “achieved through the manoeuvres of a bureaucratic clique, not through the exercise of a genuine rank and file mandate”. Another target is the myth that Labour conferences, which “meet annually in some charming seaside resort”, somehow “reflect the structure of actual pressures exerted by the working class against capitalist society”. Sedgwick contemplates the role of those revolutionaries who could also be found at Labour’s conferences:
The only people in Britain who could be influenced by Marxist sophisticates were in and around the Labour Party (including its youth sections)… British Marxism sheltered, within the Labour Party battle, from the necessity to deal with what workers actually thought. The philistinism of the Marxist left, its nearly total apathy towards problems of culture, ideology and class consciousness, resembled (more than anything) the narrow perspectives of the very social democracy against which it pitted itself. In policy and programme, Marxism’s relation to the Labour Party might be one of opposition; a Marxist did not even join the Labour Party, he “entered” it. Yet, at the deeper level of politics beyond the programme, in the selection, that is, of what elements of life were to count as politics at all, it is most unclear now just who, in that day and age, was entering whom.2
Reviewing the book in 1971, Steve Marks described this essay as “a typical piece of inspired impressionism by Peter Sedgwick”.3
Jim Kincaid opens his essay, “The Decline of the Welfare State”, by stating that “it is a widely held opinion that the Labour Party leadership, whatever its other defects, is seriously committed to the defence of the welfare state”. Kincaid’s essay is full of data, facts, figures and analysis aimed at nailing this lie:
This essay examines Labour’s record since 1964 in a number of key areas of social policy, particularly taxation, the low-wage sector, the extension of charges and means tests for a wide range of social services and, finally, the proposals for an earnings-related system of social security. In each of these areas, the Labour government adopted strategies that minimised the redistribution of resources from higher to lower income groups. By refusing to recognise that better welfare and great equality are inseparable, Labour allowed social services to remain at the mercy of a lagging rate of economic growth, and hence they were starved of urgently needed resources.4
Jim ends his far-sighted essay (look where the welfare state is today) by citing the example of Glasgow in 1915, when rent strikes were backed by industrial strikes and militant demonstrations by engineering workers. In the present, he calls for a political mobilisation of industrial militancy.
Paul Foot’s piece seems to have started life as an article in issue 120 of Socialist Worker, dated 1 May 1969, with the title “Parliamentary Socialism: Labour’s Road to Disaster”.5 Here it is transformed into a 39-page essay. It starts as the original Socialist Worker article began—with a brief overview of the career of Labour arch-right winger Jimmy Thomas, who served as colonial secretary in the first Labour government, which took office in 1924. It then follows the chameleon-like development of Labour’s “right reformism” up until the end of the 1960s:
Right reformism…the political theory that has dominated the thinking and activities of the Labour leadership throughout the century, has slipped steadily to the right since men such as Fabian theorist G D H Cole gave socialists to believe in the late 1930s and 1940s that a Labour government with a parliamentary majority would legislate towards socialism. The 1945 election was fought on a platform of public ownership and social reform and, to the extent that public ownership and social reform fitted the demands of post-war capitalism (which was considerable), the promises of the 1945 election manifesto were fulfilled. The same promises and theory dominated Labour thinking until after the 1955 election, when public ownership was, in effect, dropped from Labour’s programme and replaced with vague slogans about welfare and equality. After 1959, welfare took second place to growth, dynamism and technological revolution. After 1964, welfare in all but rhetoric has been dropped, and the Labour leadership articulated the slogans of modern capitalism and strove to put them into effect.6
Having taken us through his tour of “right reformism”, Foot has an extended section on “The History of Left Reformism”. There is a mass of useful information about the so-called challenge of left reformism, but the underlying message is that, “from the outset, this challenge has always been fickle”. Foot closes with a quote from Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform and Revolution reminding us that reformists—whether, we might say today, of the Corbyn or the Starmer variety—are not just on a different train to revolutionary socialists. Rather, they are travelling to a different destination:
In each historic period, work for reforms is carried on only in the framework of the social form created by the last revolution. People who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal altogether.7
“World Capitalism Today”
In the preamble to his essay, “Imperialism Today”, Harris writes:
The problem of world development has to be a central concern for any socialist strategy…but to make world development central to any strategy demands that we grasp the nature of modern capitalism and its relationship to the rest of the world… A strategy requires not just the identification of the problem, but also putting it in context and showing how the problem can be overcome—and by whom. What is to be done, how can it be done, and who will do it? More than 50 years ago, it was one of Lenin’s remarkable achievements to answer all three questions.8
Harris’s starting point thus becomes the fact that what Lenin wrote more than 50 years previously in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism still pervades the left, so that any new strategy has to start by coming to terms with Lenin. He begins, “The account that follows deals separately with the two central issues of concern: the nature of modern imperialism and some of the means by which imperialism could be overthrown”.9
Addressing decolonisation, Harris insightfully explains that, following the Second World War:
Western capitalism entered a phase of unprecedented growth at the same time as it dismantled its different empires… Decolonisation was conceded because the metropolitan powers were economically less dependent upon their colonies, not more. The price of retaining empire steadily exceeded the returns on empire.10
He also shows how “petit-bourgeois” leaderships of the newly independent states have filled the vacuum left by the failure of the industrial working class to lead the independence movements, and he reflects on the impact this has had on the “language of socialism”. The leaderships that emerged were concerned with aspects of state planning, the expansion of state and public employment, and other such interests:
If the extension of the public sector is socialism, the urban lower middle class is the class of socialism par excellence. Yet, it is state socialism, the socialism of order and planning, not of freedom. It is a national socialism, not the international socialism argued by Marxists to be intrinsic to the material conditions of the industrial working class.11
For Harris and the International Socialists, the struggle begins at home:
The partial successes won in particular backward countries are vital if seen as the springboard to spreading the revolution. However, alone and isolated, they inevitably succumb to the logic of backwardness in a world dominated by the rich… In the final analysis the beleaguered garrisons of China, Cuba and India can only be relieved by a mutiny in the imperialist forces… The creation of an independent proletarian challenge in the countries of advanced capitalism is the precondition for decisive progress.12
In his introduction to Chris Harman’s Selected Writings, Colin Barker wrote:
Harman acknowledged himself the pupil of two of the founding thinkers of the International Socialists/SWP tradition: Tony Cliff and Michael Kidron. Both were very creative Marxists, insisting on the need to face up to the changing realities of capitalism in the post-war world, when most of the left believed it was necessary to choose between loyalty to Moscow or alliance with the Cold War-era United States. The only possible position for revolutionaries, Cliff and Kidron argued, was rejection of this choice in favour of working-class power… Chris made their theories his own and then developed them further.13
Harman wrote extensively on Russia and Eastern Europe as he pushed forward our understanding of state capitalism. That work was crucial, as Harman wrote, because “a clear analysis of these regimes is a necessary precondition for renewed growth of the left in the West”. Why? Because:
By describing Russia and the other bureaucratic states as “bureaucratised”, “degenerated” or “deformed”, and “socialist” or “workers’ states”, they nowhere locate the forces that determine their development.
What is involved is not just a matter of mistaken definition. Something much more fundamental is at stake. The strength of Marxism as a view of the world lies in the fact that it sees socialism as being possible for the first time in history, so enabling the alienation and exploitation, inhumanity and misery, and violence and war that characterise class society to be overcome. The establishment of workers’ states is to be the first stage in this process forward. Yet, the development of the Eastern Bloc states in no way signifies a movement away from alienation, exploitation, misery and war. Experience shows that their policies lead as inevitably to all of these ills as do those of the ordinary capitalist states. To call such regimes “socialist” or “workers’ states” is to empty Marxism of its fundamental meaning.14
This essay is surely one of the best short accounts showing how the central dynamic of Russian society is driven by exactly the same piston that drives the capitalist West: the accumulation of capital.
Mike Kidron’s essay, “Capitalism: The Latest Stage”, tells us:
Although there is some “value-added” in this chapter, it is fairly small and almost wholly confined to sections 2 and 7. Most of the rest is taken, sometimes bodily, from articles published in International Socialism and from my book, Western Capitalism Since the War (Pelican, 1970).15
Of course, he was being modest. It is in fact fantastically useful to have Kidron’s arguments on the “permanent arms economy” and connected matters brought together. Kidron’s friend and collaborator, Richard Kuper, puts it differently in the introduction to Capitalism and Theory: Selected Writings of Michael Kidron:
The theory was further refined in two essays, “International Capitalism” and “A Permanent Arms Economy”, and in his book Western Capitalism Since the War. Slightly reworked, it reached its most developed exposition in “Capitalism—The Latest Stage.”16
Jim Higgins and John Palmer, writing in their introduction to World Crisis, hit the nail on the head regarding the importance of the permanent arms economy being on multiple fronts:
The development of the theory of a “permanent arms economy” answered, in ways that the effusions of the neo-Keynesians did not, the phenomena of capitalist expansion and the post-war freedom from crisis. The theory not only explained—it gave a clear directive for activity. For, if capitalism could, short of war, maintain a certain fevered equilibrium for a reasonable period of time, then the task of revolutionaries was not to preach short-term catastrophe, but rather to engage in the less exciting, but ultimately more rewarding, business of connecting the concrete issues that workers faced with a generalised perspective.
The theory explained other things: in particular, the changed relation between the metropolitan imperialist countries and their colonial and ex-colonial dependencies.17
As always, the essay is written in Kidron’s unique style of undogmatic and descriptive Marxism.
“What is to be Done?”
Cliff’s essay opens with a truism: “The central problem always facing Marxist revolutionaries is how the struggle of workers inside capitalism is related to the struggle against capitalism.” This problem once more required confronting because capitalism was changing—the post-war boom was receding:
The stabilisation of Western capitalism on the cone of the hydrogen bomb made it possible for reforms to be achieved over a long period, independently of revolutionary politics… However, things have begun to change over the past few years. The stability of Western capitalism is beginning to falter… The hurdles on the path of reform are becoming higher and higher. The period of decline in the working-class political movement is at an end.18
The end of the period of stability engendered an employers’ offensive, with bosses no longer ready to “buy off” workers via localised shop by shop bargaining:
This is where the employers’ offensive springs from. The years of effort to impose the incomes policy located the main obstacle: shop-floor organisation. From this came the determination to eliminate this power—not by direct confrontation, but by fundamental alterations in the structure of industrial relations, which would be designed to isolate and undermine it… Productivity deals are seen by employers as a means to curb the militant shop steward.19
Cliff recognises that the whole productivity bargaining campaign only worked when accompanied by an ideological offensive; calls by government and employers for “efficiency”, “modernisation” and “the national interest” forced politics onto the shop floor, and it was necessary for socialists to take up the challenge.
These changes in the economic and political environment, according to Cliff, created a transitional period. The revolutionary events of May 1968 in France were a turning point, and there was a need to learn the lessons: “France 1968 will be central to the analysis of the tasks and perspectives of revolutionaries in advanced industrial societies in the years to come”.20 Revolutionaries would face difficulties, but Cliff argued that the International Socialists needed to confront them:
“International socialism”, up to now at best a theoretical trend, now faces the challenge and opportunity to become linked with the mass working-class movement. To say that we are in a transitional period is not enough. We must be clear what is specific to the transition, and which forms of propaganda and organisation will take account of the specific characteristics of the situation. The main features of the immediate period are, to recapitulate: quick changes and fluctuations (economic, social and political) reflecting both the expansion of capitalism and its intermittent, patchy nature; reactions on the part of bosses and state that are disproportionate to the economic challenge and thus appear as irrationally nasty; the withering away of loyalties to traditional organisations (the “vacuum on the left”) and inertia of old reformist ideas, so long as they are not positively replaced by revolutionary ones. Fatalism, which is inimical to Marxism in general, exposes its poisonous nature especially under such dynamic conditions. The initiative and perseverance of revolutionaries are at a special premium.21
Steve Marks thought Cliff’s essay was “too bitty” for a summing up, but Martin Upchurch quoted from it approvingly, stating, “Cliff sensed the sea-change as long ago as 1971, when he wrote on the tasks at the time facing revolutionaries in workplaces, with the working class fragmented and driven into sectional interest”.22
Finally, Duncan Hallas’s essay, “The Way Forward”, is today better known as “Towards a Revolutionary Socialist Party”, the title it was given when published in Party and Class, a 1971 collection that also contained writings by Cliff, Harman and Leon Trotsky. Hallas explained the need for a revolutionary socialist party against the objections of both libertarians and reformists, but he does the explaining in a thoroughly realistic manner and from an appraisal of where revolutionaries were starting from—a quite difficult place:
It does not follow that the last word in organisational wisdom is to be found in the Bolshevik model. In the very different conditions of late 20th century capitalism, arguments for or against Lenin’s position of 1903 are not so much right or wrong as irrelevant. The “vanguard partyism” of some of the Maoist and Trotskyist sects is the obverse of the libertarian coin. Both alike are based on a highly abstract and misleading view of reality…
A vanguard implies a main body, marching in roughly the same direction and imbued with some sort of common outlook and shared aspiration. When, for example, Trotsky described the German Communist Party of the 1920s and early 1930s as the vanguard of the German working class, the characterisation was apt. Not only did the party itself include, among its quarter of a million or so members, the most enlightened, energetic and self-confident of German workers; it operated in a working class that, in its vast majority, had absorbed some of the basic elements of Marxist thought… In Trotsky’s striking metaphor, switching the points could alter the direction of the whole heavy train of the German workers’ movement.
Today, the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists, but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement, and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment and the tradition that gave it influence. In Britain that tradition was never so extensive and influential as in Germany and France, but it was real enough in the early years of the Communist Party. The crux of the matter is how to develop the process, now begun, of recreating it.23
Hallas lays out what kind of party is to be built:
It must be more than a mere collection of individuals giving general adherence to a platform. It must also be a centre for mutual training and debate, for raising the level of the raw activist to that of the experienced, for the fusion of the experiences and outlook of manual workers, white-collar workers and intellectuals with the ideas of scientific socialism. It must be a substitute for those institutions—special schools, universities, clubs, messes and so on—through which the ruling class imbues its cadres with a common outlook, tradition and loyalty. It must do this without cutting off its militants from their fellow workers.24
Such a party cannot possibly be created except on a thoroughly democratic basis; unless, in its internal life, vigorous controversy is the rule and various tendencies and shades of opinion are represented, a socialist party cannot rise above the level of a sect. Internal democracy is not an optional extra. It is fundamental to the relationship between party members and those among whom they work.25
Can it be done? Hallas responds:
A revolutionary socialist party is necessary but…why should it be supposed that it is possible to create it in the 1970s? Basically, the case rests on the analysis of the world crisis contained in other contributions in this book and particularly on the thesis that, in the changing conditions of capitalism, reformist policies will be less and less able to provide those partial solutions to the problems confronting the working class that they have been able to provide in the decades since the Second World War. This is the objective factor. The most important subjective factor is the decline in the ideological power of Stalinism.26
The essay concludes:
Without having any illusions that it is “the leadership”, the International Socialism group exists to make a theoretical and practical contribution to the regeneration of socialism in Britain and internationally.27
The same but different?
So, what made the book so special in 1971—and, more to the point, what makes it still so special today?
One can start with the contributing authors. The list reads like a who’s who of writers who made the history of the International Socialist tradition thought-provoking, vibrant, challenging, exciting and politically fit for its times. The essays were either written or adapted specially for this volume; of the eight essays, it is extraordinary to note that five have been selected to appear in the “best of” selections of writings for Harris, Harman, Kidron, Hallas and Cliff.28
World Crisis was reviewed anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement in June 1971, with the reviewer commenting:
There has been nothing so good since E P Thompson edited Out of Apathy back in 1960… It contains by far the most original and challenging applications of the Marxist method at present available… This is a challenging and powerful book—more powerful than a thousand academic or journalistic probes for gaining an understanding of the new revolutionaries, and more cogent in its arguments and analysis than any socialist project of the recent past.29
Nevertheless, the book is undoubtedly a product of its time; no left-wing organisation would produce a volume like it today. The authors are all male and are predominantly white. What Alex Callinicos today calls the “terrains of struggle”—gender and “the racial fracture”—barely get a mention.30 Climate catastrophe was not yet on the agenda and, as Sedgwick remarked in his essay, the Marxist left showed an almost total apathy towards problems of culture, ideology and class-consciousness. So be it. The importance of the book is not even in its ability or inability to accurately predict the future; one could very reasonably argue that, in many, if not most, respects, things have not gone in the way the authors hoped or predicted. I contend that is not the point—so what is?
In the early 1970s, things were changing fast. In June 1971, there were some 1,850 members of the International Socialists, of which 29.4 percent were manual workers and 25.5 percent were white-collar workers. The organisation’s newspaper, Socialist Worker, moved from eight pages to 12 pages in November 1971. It had a print run of almost 19,000, with a paid sale of around 60 percent.31 Clearly, these were meagre resources, but the International Socialists had pulled around itself a brilliant layer of intellectuals and a small but growing industrial cadre, building a modicum of influence in the movement. It was the best placed group on the tiny British revolutionary left to react to the looming challenges. It was, therefore, incumbent on the group to rise to these challenges by articulating theory relevant to the new situation: theory that could also be articulated in a strategy and programme for concrete action. Higgins and Palmer put it well:
The re-emergence of economic instability at the core of the system is generating social and industrial unrest on a scale not witnessed for more than 40 years. The rhetoric and traditions of consensus politics are being abandoned by a Conservative government that is pledged to wrest from working people many of the rights and advances so painfully won since 1945… For the first time in more than a generation, trade union militants are discussing basic objectives and questioning past methods and assumptions. The revolutionary left finds its arguments listened to by growing numbers of militants. Socialist theory is beginning to be put to the all-important test: practice. Theory now has to find its expression in terms of a strategy and programme for working-class action. It also has to find an embodiment in an organisation—ultimately, a party—capable of carrying out the strategy, learning from experience and correcting that strategy where necessary. In this volume will be found much of the essential theoretical understanding that informs the day to day practice of the International Socialists and their intervention in the class struggles around us. It also seeks to identify the most important future currents of struggle and the organisational alternatives offered the left.32
This is the prime importance of World Crisis. Today, we are also living in rapidly changing times—possibly even in a “new age of catastrophe”. Britain has only a small organised left. The SWP has meagre resources of funds, members and influence, and no meaningful revolutionary tradition has survived in the British working class. If this analysis of our times is true, then this book should surely teach us that today’s SWP needs to make the same sort of thorough re-appraisal today as the International Socialists undertook in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
John Rudge joined the International Socialists in Portsmouth in 1974. He is a retired project manager and remains active in Unite. Much of his spare time is spent researching obscure corners of the history of the International Socialist tradition.
1 Palmer, 2022, p7.
2 Sedgwick, 2022, pp30-31.
3 Marks, 1971, pp29-30.
4 Kincaid, 2022, p37.
5 That short article is available at www.marxists.org/archive/foot-paul/1969/05/parl-soc.html
6 Foot, 2022, pp89-90.
7 Foot, 2022, pp113-114.
8 Harris, 2022, p119.
9 Harris, 2022, p120.
10 Harris, 2022, pp128-129.
11 Harris, 2022, p156.
12 Harris, 2022, p158.
13 Barker, 2010, p8.
14 Harman, 2022, p199.
15 Kidron, 2022, p204.
16 Kuper, 2018, p7.
17 Higgins and Palmer, 2022, p17-18.
18 Cliff, 2022, pp226-227.
19 Cliff, 2022, pp228-229.
20 Cliff, 2022, p241.
21 Cliff, 2022, p247-249.
22 Upchurch, 2015, p199.
23 Hallas, 2022, pp257-259.
24 Hallas, 2022, p263.
25 Hallas, 2022, p264.
26 Hallas, 2022, p267.
27 Hallas, 2022, p268.
28 See Harris, 2018; Harman, 2010; Kidron, 2018; Callinicos, McGregor and others, 2023. Cliff’s essay is incorrectly titled “On Perspectives: The Class Struggle in Britain” in Cliff, 1982. It is also incorrectly noted as first appearing in International Socialism 36.
29 Times Literary Supplement, 1971.
30 Callinicos, 2023, pp151-163.
31 The membership details were given in a “Membership Report” submitted to the International Socialists national committee in June 1971. The Socialist Worker circulation and print figures were provided by a report, “Socialist Worker Sales and the Twelve Page Paper”, contained within the October 1971 issue of the “International Socialists Bulletin”.
32 Higgins and Palmer, 2022, p18.