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Dave Renton, Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times

Dissident Marxism was published by Zed Books Ltd., 7 Cynthia Street, London N1 9JF, UK and Room 400, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010, USA in April 2004.

'A salutory antidote to oversimple ideas of an homogenous left. Dave Renton's round-up of rebels and resisters gives voice to suppressed traditions of left dissent which are of great relevance in our times.' - Sheila Rowbotham, University of Manchester.

Review by Alex Law, from Critique 35/1 (2007), pp. 141-50.

In this book David Renton invents a new dissident tradition within Marxism. Much of the force of this newly-minted tradition depends on how 'dissident Marxism' is defined by the author. Renton suggests that the guiding thread of the dissident tradition is a certain methodological consistency, evident in 'the relationship between the Marxist method and the different times through which subsequent generations lived' (p. 34). Yet Renton has little interest in clarifying what this methodological thread might consist of. Ultimately, the book proposes a 'biographical method; rather than dialectical analysis. By this method, Renton attempts to unite under the rubric of 'dissident Marxism' a wide range of disparate authors such as Mayakovsky, Korsch, Kollontai, Serge, Lunacharsky, Dona Torr, E. P. Thompson, Baran and Sweezy, Walter Rodney, Georges Henein, Harry Braverman, Samir Amin and David Widgery. In this review, I attempt to clarify what is at stake in Renton's reinvention of a dissident Marxist tradition. I argue that, while the emphasis on individual biographies of 'dissident Marxists' provides for interesting insights into some of the above authors, in the end the book is marred by a lack of a dialectical conception of 'dissident Marxism' and its studied antipathy towards forefronting theoretical problems in Marxism. This raises the issue of what is specifically Marxist about Renton's conception of a new 'dissident tradition'.

While biography may have its place within Marxist historiography, it is predominantly a genre of writing concerned with exalting the historical significance of individual heroes. As such it represents a cast-iron method for ensuring both immediacy and objectivity, since such and such a figure [has] actually done this, wrote that, was criticised in such a way, and so on. All this can be documented from the sources and arranged chronologically by a skilful historian and storyteller like Renton. In the process, the ideas that were once advanced by the biographical subject are offered up as 'authentic', legitimated by the chronicle of a life (in its context) and its published works (in their reception). Individuals are counterposed to historical forces when they ought to be sublated as historical individuals. Siegfried Kracauer grasped this in the 1920s, when he identified biographies that counterpose individuals to history as 'the art form of the new bourgeoisie' (S. Kracauer, 'The Biography as the Art Form of the New Bourgeoisie', The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 101-106). Kracauer identified only one biographical work that 'violated' the dualistic conventions of biography – Trotsky's My Life – where the history of class struggle, 'pressing and generally recognised imperatives', and the individual subject inter-penetrate fully. For Renton, in contrast, each biographical figure is awarded the same value, that of a 'dissident Marxist', even if they never once knew themselves by that nomenclature. That Renton attempts to force-fit his varied subjects into his new 'dissident Marxist' tradition opens up the problem of the methodological eclecticism at the heart of this construction. Yet, contrary to Renton, not all the figures he includes as exemplars of his new tradition are equally equal in terms of their respective contribution to Marxism, with some making little or no appreciable contribution to the development of specifically Marxist theory, programme or organisation.

Within the given reality of historical circumstances Renton's dissident Marxists defined themselves against Stalinism and social reformism. A critique of Stalinism represents, for Renton, 'the acid test of dissidence' (p. 8). However, while anti-Stalinism represents a crucial datum point, Renton's ambition to found an anti-Stalinist tradition of Marxist refuseniks is somewhat undermined by the ambiguous (and not so ambiguous) relationship that some of his heroes had to Stalinism. For instance, the poet Mayakovsky may be seen as a tragic figure who could not bear the degeneration of 1917. However, that did not prevent him from becoming Stalinised after his death in the 1930s into a belatedly state-endorsed artist, criticism of whom became a crime against the state. Not Mayakovsky's fault of course. But it indicates that certain kinds of cultural Bolshevism could always be assimilated by Stalinism unless critical artworks are protected from co-option by being locked inside an electrocuted fence of barbed wire soaked in arsenic. One of the few 'heroines' in the book, Alexandra Kollontai, with nowhere to go during the long years of the degeneration of the revolution, operated as a diplomat for the Stalinist regime for 20 years. Dona Torr, the other 'heroine' in the book, founder of the Communist Party Historians Group, remained until the end an unrepentant apologist for Stalinism, while her progeny Edward Thompson could never quite escape from the CPs 'people's nationalism', not the Popular Front as a political form of activity. Dissidents perhaps in terms of the milieu they operated in, such figures cannot be considered dissident in the political and theoretical demands of the world-historic situation.

Similar comments could be made about many of the other thinkers catalogued as 'dissident Marxists'. Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, for instance, were part of the Monthly Review journal, an often indispensable journal of socialist analysis in the inhospitable climate for left wing politics that was post-war America. Together they produced an important work like Monopoly Capital in the mid-1960s that helped to resuscitate critical political economy in the United States. But their brand of political economy also imported into Marxism from Keynesianism an under-consumptionist view of political crisis. Politically, their critical support for the Soviet Union and their less than critical support for Cuba ran counter to the idea of anti-Stalinist socialism and proletarian self-emancipation supposedly characteristic of 'dissident Marxism'. Baran and Sweezy's increasing support for regimes in the Third World without any significant role for the working class, is echoed in Renton's book by other thinkers like Samir Amin and Walter Rodney. In contrast to the Egyptian Marxist, Georges Henein, such Third World radicals looked to the masses to accomplish 'non-capitalist' nationalist revolutions. For Amin, the Maoist example in China suggested that underdevelopment might be transcended gradually in a non-capitalist direction in Africa and India. For the historian and activist Rodney, murdered by the Guyanese state in 1980, Marxism represented only one resource among others, and not necessarily the most important, that anti-colonial forces could draw upon. National self-determination demanded 'people power' rather than class power. Understandably, Renton rightly makes much of the militant spirit of both thinkers. But in what sense are these examples of dissident Marxism? In the chapter on Rodney, Renton usefully sites the historian in the confluence of an extraordinary generation of militant anti-colonialists, including Du Bois, Garvey, George Padmore, Fanon and CLR James. Again, however it remains unclear how such varieties of African socialism can be accommodated under the rubric of 'dissident Marxism'.

Such ambiguity and eclecticism in Renton's adoption of the 'biographical method' and his neglect of the dialectical method leads him to devalue core Marxist notions in the following manner: '... dissidents are placed in context, according to the lives and historical situation of their authors. This method was chosen from a feeling that abstract arguments for socialism – expressed as they can be in terms like "misery", "recession", "impoverishment", "alienation", "exploitation", "consciousness", "protest", "demonstration" and "occupation" – are not nearly so vivid as specific histories, rooted in the experience of people's lives' (p. 8). What is interesting here is that the concepts singled out by Renton for critique and marginalisation are in fact central to any recognisably Marxist form of argumentation and activity. Moreover, they are not particularly abstract, if by that is meant bereft of specific content. Even where they may operate with a specialised meaning they are typically invoked in particular analyses and possess a cogency within Marxist theory that would usually suffice to establish their meaning. It is condescending to suggest that anti-capitalists need 'vivid' examples filled with concrete details lest they fail to grasp the rudiments of Marxist theory. In any cases, Renton defies his own rule since in places he ably provides engaging and coherent accounts of many complex ideas and disputes within Marxism. This argument that 'the biographical method' has a special affinity for popularly elucidating Marxist ideas that would otherwise be difficult for activists to comprehend accepts the flawed assumptions of historicism: that the individual life can be comprehended against a transparent, 'neutral' historical narrative. While there have been countless biographies and memoirs of Marxists of every hue, some circumspection about adopting biography for its local colour and 'vivid' rendering of contentious theoretical and political disputes seems in order. Indeed, it is on the basis of a biographical reading that Renton reserves the most trenchant critique for Marxist theorists like Braverman and Korsch and exhibits the most indulgence towards historians like Torr, Thompson and Rodney.

What is more, there is little common methodological ground between Renton's individual 'dissidents'. Take Renton's treatment of Karl Korsch for instance. Korsch is berated by Renton for abstract theorisation which prevented him from speaking to the working class activists that he placed at the heart of his philosophy of practice. 'Becoming arbitrary and subjective, Korsch's Marxism was separated from a mass audience, and in this way his revolutionary activism was hollowed out and lost' (p, 73). Again, 'Korsch's Marxism was persistently marked by grand philosophical statements which lacked a basis in detailed, living historical facts' (p. 75). And so on. But does this kind of sequential reasoning of Renton's stand up: that because Korsch's theory began from the standpoint and needs of working class struggle, this was somehow 'relativistic' and subjective as opposed to the scientific and objective status of the 'neutral' historical narrative? Renton imagined a detached standpoint given by an impartial historical narrative as a sufficient way to find what he calls the 'social facts'. In fact, Korsch himself railed against such positive reasoning as itself 'abstract' and 'metaphysical'.

Take another example: out of the Monthly Review milieu, the seminal 20th-century study of work under capitalism, Labor and Monopoly Capital by Trotskyist Harry Braverman appeared in 1974. Renton charts how Braverman's analysis led to the so-called 'labour process debate', where his analysis became increasingly caricatured by sociologists as the 'de-skilling thesis'. Here the technical division of labour increasingly simplifies and degrades work tasks into narrower and narrower operations. Labour becomes tightly circumscribed, monitored and controlled by incorporating human discretion and skill into machinery designed and maintained by a growing layer of management and technocratic experts, so-called 'scientific management'. While recognising the power of Braverman's insights (who thought he was merely updating Marx), Renton rehearses some of the criticisms routinely made of Braverman's thesis, including the legend that he neglected worker resistance 'because Braverman was a product of his time' (p. 183). In fact, Braverman deliberately placed 'self-imposed limitations' on his study to the 'objective' content of class exploitation and bracketed out the 'subjective' will of workers' consciousness, feelings and moods. To do otherwise, Braverman contended, would mistakenly derive 'the science before the science' (H. Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital: The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974), pp. 27-30). In other words, it would be a category mistake of the first order to derive the structure of class exploitation from the existing state of workers' consciousness of it at any one time, conflating the quasi-scientific degradation of work with the overt signs of worker dissatisfaction. This is the sociological commonplace, both then and now, that what matters is the subjective experience of domination at any single point in time. Braverman, in returning to Marx's analysis of the capitalist labour process in Capital I, sought to avoid such errors, even though, clearly, as Braverman himself demonstrated, the capitalist organisation of labour attempts to counter workers as so much recalcitrant material inhibiting accumulation. So while there are criticisms to be made of Braverman they are not the ones of 'subjectivity' that fall so easily off the word processors of industrial sociologists (See the special issue of Monthly Review on Labor and Monopoly Capital, 46:6 (1994))).

Undoubtedly the most important alternative to Stalinism was Trotskyism, which itself spawned a remarkable number of imaginative dissident figures, as well as its own species of organisational cretinism and organisational dogmas. Renton's chapter on the Egyptian-French Trotskyist and surrealist poet Georges Henein compensates in part, for me at any rate, for the deep flaws at the heart of the conception of 'dissident Marxism'. Like the best of the 'literary Trotskyists' (who no separate chapters on them?) such as CLR James, Andre Breton, Diego Rivera and the New York intellectuals, Henein combined artistic insight and revolutionary commitment. For Henein this mean[t] building an organisation in the 1940s that could pose the national liberation struggle against colonial rule in Egypt in terms of its class character rather than the two stages approach of the communists. Henein called for a smile from the 'Mona Lisa of utopia' to invigorate the spirit of rebellion to be raised 'against the odious unity of conformism' (p. 102). Here Renton refrains from invoking crude scientistic stipulations that so mar other chapters, especially the one on Karl Korsch, and presents Henein's rage at unnecessary class suffering and domination in a splendidly evocative image of militant utopianism: 'There is a corridor of experience, of anger and dreaming, that connects Henein's revolutionary manifesto to the politics of our own day' (p. 103).

What the foregoing argument perhaps implies is that instead of asking 'What is dissident Marxism' perhaps we need to first ask 'What is orthodox Marxism?' In answering this question Georg Lukacs isolated the materialist dialectical 'method' as the sole criterion to establish orthodoxy as a kind of anti-tradition. In this way, Lukacs attempted to rescue what was critical and creative in Marxism even if particular predictions and hypotheses were shown by events to be mistaken. Why? Because the dialectical process in thought emerges out of and shapes the living historical process itself. Dogmatic appeals to 'tradition' calcify this living relationship. 'Marxist orthodoxy is no guardian of traditions, it is the eternally vigilant prophet proclaiming the relation between the tasks of the immediate present and the totality of the historical process (G. Lukacs, History and Class Consciousness (London: Merlin Press, 1971), p. 24).Lukacs points here not to the habits of thought and interpersonal networks of 'orthodoxy' and 'tradition', but the revolutionary organisation as illuminating and renewing, rather than repeating and stabilising, the 'traditions of the oppressed'. And neither is this submerged 'tradition' pregiven by existing conditions independent of the class standpoint of the proletariat. Appeals to an already existing 'objective reality' outside of the collision of material forces has little in common with Lukacs' conception of the role of the 'vigilant prophet' in Marxist theory. For Lukacs the knowledge that historical materialism offers resists the splitting of the world into dualities of objective reality and subjective consciousness: 'historical materialism alone is in a position to offer objective and correct knowledge of capitalist society, [but] it does not deliver this knowledge independently of the class standpoint of the proletariat, but rather precisely from this standpoint (G. Lukacs, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness: Tailism and the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2000), p. 80 (emphasis in the original). Dialectics cannot be reduced to a disinterested series of formal prepositions outside of the class content it seeks to explicate and invigorate.

Lukacs forces one to ask the question: is it meaningful to think of Marxism in terms of dissidence, or indeed 'tradition' at all? To do so, Renton is forced to draw a sharp line between 19th-century 'classical Marxism' and 20th century 'dissident Marxism'. That there is no single, unified, dissident Marxism is something that is recognised by Renton, who appeals 'modestly' to a 'dissident tradition' in the much weaker sense of the 'habits of co-thinking and mutual support' (p. 8). These differed from the pre-1917 generations of 'classical Marxism', discussed by Renton in an earlier book as tending towards rigid, dogmatic and unimaginative interpretations of Marx and Engels (D. Renton, Classical Marxism: Socialist Theory and the Second International(Bristol: New Clarion Press, 2002)). Overlapping personal inter-connections and loose ideological affiliations seems a rather weak basis upon which to found anything like a 'dissident tradition'. In particular, such a conception, indeed the whole project of founding a 'tradition' lacks unifying intellectual and political content, which earlier 'classical' Marxists like the young Lukacs had insisted went to the heart of the matter. Dissident Marxism needs to have its orthodox Marxist antipode.

Whatever the problems of Lukacs' ideal-typical model of class (and they are legion), Renton is less interested in philosophical or theoretical issues as such than of situating the subjective activity of 'dissident' figures within the objective facts of historical circumstances. Indeed, philosophy is reduced by Renton to the lifeless, abstract systems of academic formalism while 'history' is chock full of real human content. Quoted approvingly 'not only as a model of Marxist practice at its best but also as a valuable model of how critics should work in times as different from his as our own, is Lunacharsky's propagandist notion of artistic and conceptual simplicity. But not all ideas can be simplified and rendered comprehensible outside of a developed intellectual, political and cultural grounding. In any case, our problem today is not that of Lunacharsky's [time], of overcoming mass illiteracy in a post-revolutionary society, but of confronting self-alienation under actually-existing capitalism.

Despite nods in the direction of 'totality', Renton operates within a dualistic model of theory and practice. Instead of the dialectical sublation of the historical individual, an 'almost neutral' (i.e. 'objective') history of the 'short twentieth century' is provided by Renton 'in order to explain the motives of the dissident left' (p. 17). As such, he posits thought and activity as the epiphenomenal expression of 'History'. The concrete plenitude of history over-flows (we might say 'over-determines') the dissident figure, whose militant refusal of Stalinism and commitment to proletarian self-emancipation waxes and wanes as the historical conditions allow. Submerge din Renton's encyclopaedic dealing of subjective biography set alongside the objective historical context is the idea that dissident, if it means anything, involves brushing against the grain of history. That this might have tragic quality to it comes through the chapters with such monstrous regularity that this reader felt like asking whether the point was one of constructing a new 'objectively true' orthodoxy or one of calling anarchistically for a subjective refusal of any orthodoxy that stifles self-activity.

Renton displays an antipathy to fore-fronting the explanatory capacity of Marxist theory. Lost in his immediate acquaintance with all the known details of historical fact is the need to confront philosophy and theory rather than dismissing the realism of ideas with a dose of historical realism or activist zeal. A philosophically and theoretically astute Marxism,w hic halo means an 'anti-philosophy' is necessary to confront alternative worldviews. For Korsch, Marxist theory stands on the 'other side' of the working-class movement; it is not identical to it, cannot be wholly subsumed under it, but 'both sides [theory and practice] together comprise the concrete totality of the historical process' (K. Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy (London: NLB, 1970), p. 42).Hence for Korsch the 'moment' of theory needs to be taken seriously in its own right and all demagogic short-cuts to practical immediacy resisted. In this Korsch thought he was mounting an orthodox defence against a new debased orthodoxy on the shoulders of the classical Marxism of Lenin and Luxemburg, as well as Marx and Engels.

Renton's overarching thesis of dissident Marxism, his eclectisism, his antipathy towards Marxist theory, and the biographical method fail to convince. Several of these individuals have been at some point in their lives Marxists; others Stalinist, Third World radical, or Maoist. In places, Renton registers this gulf between these lives and his grand claims for an anti-Stalinist 'dissident Marxist' tradition. But to no avail. Nevertheless, several fascinating insights are offered by Renton into individual biographies. In this regard, Renton has done a genuine service in retrieving a few figures like Henein, whose contribution to Marxism seems closer to the orthodox one identified by Lukacs than the dissident model invented by Renton, and deserves to be rescued from what Thompson famously called the 'condescension of posterity'.

Jim Glassman, Progressive Human Geography, vol 29, December 2005, pp. 801-3
David Renton announces the objective of Dissident Marxism from the first lines of the book. 'The past few years,' he notes, 'have witnessed the birth of a new politics'- specifically, what has sometimes been referred to as the anti-corporate globalization movement (p. 1). This libertarian movement, though promising, 'knows little history' (p. 1), and thus does not understand 'the roots of today' collective dissidence' (p. 2). Renton' purpose is thus to provide a history of 'often submerged strands left-wing politics that should nourish the new anti-capitalist movement today' (p. 2). Toward this end, Renton provides a readable and interesting account of somewhat less-known strands of Marxism - strands that might rescue its libertarian image and potential from the tarnish of Stalinism and kindred authoritarian left projects. This is a valuable and also highly ambitious objective - but one carried out in a way that, in my view, does not provide all the nourishment today's anti-capitalist movement needs.
Renton tells the story of dissident Marxism through a series of biographical sketches, covering an array of twentieth-century Marxist thinkers and activists - some of them academics, some ofthem artists - from different parts of the world and different periods. The book is in this sense an important reminder that left ideas have sprung up in a variety of ways and a variety of contexts. Given this heterogeneity, it is no small feat that Renton synthesizes themes running through works as varied as those of Russian writer/activists Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexandra Kollontai, Anatoly Lunacharsky and Victor Serge, German philosopher Karl Korsch, Egyptian poet and writer Georges Heinen, British historians Dona Torr and E.P Thompson, US political economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, Guyanese historian Walter Rodney, US worker/labour analyst Harry Braverman, Egyptian political economist Samir Amin, and British political writer/doctor David Widgery. Renton is to be congratulated for pulling together information about each of these figures and analysing what their activities contribute to our understanding of radical political possibilities. Moreover, Renton does not describe the projects and ideas of these authors in doting fashion, thus giving appropriate notice that dissident Marxism - a tradition of which he himself is a part - is a critical project, always interrogating and questioning rather than taking claims on the authority or prestige of the figures that have proclaimed them.
If one were to summarize what Renton finds to be a shared theme running through the ideas of each of these authors it is that, in responding to the bureaucratic sclerosis and indignities of Stalinism and social democracy, dissident Marxists offered alternatives that 'were not created on the basis of one tradition alone' but 'were found most often in a collision between different traditions, and also in a living dialogue with the moment of their birth' (p. 34). This rejection of orthodoxy is evident in Trotsky' writings (which Renton sets to the side since he has written about Trotsky elsewhere), but it is also evident to varying degrees in the authors he discusses.
While there is much to be learned from Dissident Marxism - both in the way of left history and critical practice - the book also has a number of shortcomings, some of which, in my view, partially undermine its ability to realize the goal Renton sets out for the book. First, while Renton's array of personalities and biographies humanizes the history he tells and highlights the breadth of dissident voices on the left, this approach also compromises the depth in which Renton can tell any one story of dissidence. The problem here is not in the limits of biographical detail but rather in the limits that this approach imposes on what can be said about the context in which the dissident Marxist voices arose and the reasons for both their successes and failures.
This relates to a second shortcoming, what I would call the absence of an adequately geographical perspective. It is not that Renton fails to emphasize the diversity of contexts in which Marxism has arisen - for he surely does this - but rather that he does not in my view say enough about what the context of theories has to do with their form and development. Thus, where he emphasizes the living dialogue of theories with the moment of their birth he says less about the living dialogue with the place of their birth. For example, in an unduly disparaging reading of some of Walter Rodney' shortcomings, Renton argues that classical Marxists had a more developed sense than the nationalistic Rodney of'the class divisions that could emerge even within oppressed groups' (p. 153). While I would scarcely disagree with Renton that such class divisions were routinely underestimated by left nationalists in the post-second world war period, it is crucial to understand the power of the nationalist moment, which can only be grasped if one acknowledges the enduring power of imperialism and uneven development. It was precisely because ofthe levelling effect of imperialism on the prospects of different classes in the Global South that nationalist coalitions became meaningful expressions of a shared social struggle - however limited the objectives shared have turned out to be in the postcolonial (but not postimperial) period.
These geographical contexts of dissident Marxism, as the foregoing implies, are not just different places in which Marxism has developed but the connections between such places. The development of capitalism has not proceeded the same way everywhere in the world, and the earliest and most powerful centres of capitalist accumulation have been able to reap certain (unevenly distributed) benefits that have been less available to later developers and more marginal players. Moreover, even in the era of 'globalization' it is not the purported sameness of capitalism everywhere that animates many anticorporate globalization activists (cf p. 202) but rather global capitalism's incredible unevenness of development and the problems that are created in one place by the development of another, even if within and across national spaces. Such a relational geography of capitalist development is not entirely evident in Renton's analysis, and indeed it is seemingly dismissed in places such his chapter on Samir Amin, where he (oddly) says in effect that Amin does not truly belong in the dissident tradition because his 'engagement with Marx is a dialogue held within just one current of Marxism' (p. 203), namely Maoism, which Renton equates with Stalinism without either contextualizing Maoist projects or noting their variety and different historical moments of emergence (p. 236).
It is in its failure to provide a relational geography that Dissident Marxism seems to me to partly fail in terms of its stated goal. Within the anti-corporate globalization movement, even though its various members are all negatively affected by neoliberal capitalism, none the less different anti-corporate globalization groups have argued for different strategies - sometimes because of differing concrete interests related to relative position in a global system (see the long-running debates on this in New Left Review). Certainly nourishment of the new anti-capitalist movement requires it to grapple with these issues as much as to gain a generic understanding that there have been dissident Marxist voices throughout history that have opposed Stalinism.
If Renton's book does not provide inroads into this former, strategic issue, it none the less broaches ideas that are important and offers an alternative perspective on Marxism to the stagnant and inaccurate image that has dominated both much activism and much scholarship in recent years.

Martyn Everett, 'Dissident Marxism', Radical Philosophy 131 (May/June 2005), pp. 51-2

The central proposition of Dissident Marxism is that the failure of revolutionary socialism and the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union led to the creation of a dissident current within Marxism based on a shared commitment to socialism-from-below and a willingness to 'criticize the conduct of the Soviet state'. Dave Renton believes that the experience of this current should inform and 'nourish' the contemporary anti-capitalist movement. 

The book is organized around a series of vividly written biographical essays of activists and theorists whom the author identifies with this dissident tradition. These include a useful summary of the life of Guayan-born Walter Rodney, a fascinating introduction to Egyptian surrealist Georges Henein, author of the anti-nuclear tract The Prestige of Terror (1945); and an overview of the work of Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin which sits uneasily with the rest of the book. The final chapter is devoted to the life of David Widgery, East End doctor, radical journalist and founder of Rock Against Racism. 

Unfortunately the lives of four of the earliest and most colourful of Russian dissidents - Alexandra Kolontai of the Workers' Opposition, Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Bolshevik Commissar for Education, anarchist Bolshevik Victor Serge, and the Futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky - are squeezed into a single 24-page chapter. Theorists, however, are allocated a whole chapter each, which results in the unintended impression that dissident Marxism is characterized by theoretical dissent, rather than by practical activism. 

The first chapter describes the social processes that shaped the lives of the dissident Left, and sets out some of the issues they were forced to confront. These included the need to explain the degeneration of the Soviet Union, to understand the changes in the world economy, and to explain and confront fascism. Renton suggests that Trotskyism provided a natural early focus for dissident Marxism and describes how Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution provided a genuine alternative to the Stalinist policy of building 'socialism in one country'. Following Trotsky's expulsion from the Soviet Union, his attempts to create a new party in opposition to Stalin were more successful in attracting intellectuals than members of the working class. Other traditions, the New Lefts of 1956 and 1968, Castroism and African socialism are also seen as possessing the potential to create and sustain dissidence, even if only for a short time.

The work of historians Dona Torr and E. P. Thompson is discussed in the context of the New Left that emerged in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Torr was an influential figure within the talented circles of British Communist Party historians who pioneered a new approach to 'history from below'. Members included George Rude, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill. Torr, who never really broke with Stalinism, became the mentor of E. P. Thompson advocated a 'socialist humanism and was a tireless activist in the peace movement.

The different forms taken by dissident Marxism were often determined by the social and political conditions of the time. In periods of economic stability greater emphasis might be placed on developing theories explaining how capitalism had evolved and how it continued to make its ascendancy. It is in this context that the ideas of Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy and Harry Braverman are discussed. Baran and Sweezy published the eclectic Monthly Review, and explained how capitalism had developed into 'monopoly capital' in which the state played a key role in integrating and organizing capital through the means of armaments spending. The new form taken by capitalism meant that socialists could not rely upon economic collapse to create revolutionary conditions, but should instead follow the example of the Cuban Revolution, which had effectively been a matter of will. 

The writings of Samir Amin on the inequalities underpinning the international economy, and the consequent underdevelopment of 'peripheral' states, are discussed. Amin's analysis has a seductive explanatory power, but it is doubtful if his Maoist prescriptions base don the need for Third World countries to emulate Chinese socialism will do any more than tie them into a more aggressive form of state capitalism.

The book's self-limiting focus on anti-Stalinism as one of the defining characteristics of dissident Marxism (with the implication that the Soviet Union only failed after the death of Lenin) excludes consideration of revolutionary Marxists such as Rosa Luxemburg, who challenged the Bolshevik model before the revolution and its repressive behaviour afterwards. Luxemburg's inclusion would have strengthened the arguments in favour of a dissident tradition. Renton's reluctance to criticize Lenin also accounts for an otherwise curious omission - Sylvia Pankhurst who provoked Lenin into writing Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder.

The book also has little to say about the suppression of dissident left-wing movements in the earliest tears of the Soviet state: the Left Social Revolutionaries, the Workers' Opposition, the anarcho-communists and anarcho-syndicalists in the cities, and the peasant anarchist movement in the Ukraine. The Kronstadt rebellion, which was an attempt to renew the rebellion from below, was met not with concession as is implied here, but with bullets. The very act of seizing state power transformed Marxism from a revolutionary theory into an ideology justifying state power and the rule of a bureaucratic elite in the name of the working class. Anarchists have understood this, although a theoretical understanding was not enough to stop them from making common cause with the Bolsheviks in 1917, and with the Spanish Communists in 1936, in both cases to their ultimate cost. 

In fact, there is an unexplored tension between anarchism and Marxism in several of the pieces presented here. Victor Serge never broke completely with anarchism, while Korsch and Henein both looked to anarchism as a way of retaining a revolutionary edge to their Marxism. There was indeed a 'dissident' Marxist tradition that incorporated activists and writers who attempted to combine anarchism and Marxism, such as Walter Benjamin, Eric Muhsam and Daniel Guerin. Their libertarian socialism and counter-cultural politics prefigured many of the concerns of today's anti-capitalist movement.

This book is welcome for assembling evidence that not everyone on the Left closed their eyes to Stalinism, and for the enthusiastic way in which the lives and ideas of the selected dissidents are presented. It also provides an unspoken reminder that the new anti-capitalist movement has to resolve its attitude to the state. Can institutions created for the purpose of repression and used for mediating and managing the various forms of capitalism be transformed into the means of human liberation? or should we remain dissidents?

Nik Howard, 'Classical Marxism and Dissident Marxism', published In: Newsletter of the London Socialist Historians' Group Issue 24: Summer 2005 

Dave Renton, Classical Marxism: Socialist Theory and the Second International (New Clarion Press, 2002); Dave Renton, Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times (Zed Books, 2004)

Classical Marxism and Dissident Marxism form part of an as-yet-unfinished series of books by Dave Renton on the history of Marxism from 1883 up to the present. In this sense, they must be regarded as forming a developing argument that is still unfolding in print, with Renton’s book on Trotsky being the latest offering.

These two books place great stress on the diversity within the Marxist tradition. Treating a wide array of Marxist activists – from the French socialist Paul Lafargue to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Classical Marxism) and from the Russian Futurist and revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to the British counter-cultural political writer David Widgery (Dissident Marxism) – the breadth of the author’s learning is impressive.

The nature, strategy and tactics of revolutionary practice are central and inform these books from start to finish, as Renton makes the past richly relevant to how activists think and act today. In particular in Dissident Marxism, he provides the new and libertarian anti-capitalist and anti-war movements that have mushroomed since 1999 with a history of previous dissident Marxist activist traditions still largely unknown to them.

The attention given in Dissident Marxism to less well-known figures within the Marxist tradition is also a feature of Classical Marxism. Renton’s original treatment there of figures such as Lafargue and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as well as the choice to include Tom Maguire over William Morris, all attest to a refreshing openness in both books to the ‘margins’ of the tradition.

Renton’s tasks in these volumes appear twofold. The first is to urge the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement to learn from the history of dissident Marxist rebellion. The second is to make a valuable contribution to the debate about what Marxism is or should be in our time. A crucial aspect of this for Renton consists in remonstrating with orthodox Marxists retreating from the present to a historically outmoded ‘classical Marxism’. As the author underlines again and again, “socialist ideas only have validity in so far as they are continuously checked against the test of the present”. Moreover, the “task of rethinking Marxism compels us to challenge every argument advanced in its name. Karl Marx himself swore by the motto ‘doubt everything’.”

Renton defines classical Marxism as a synonym for ‘Second International Marxism’. He sees it as having effectively died by 1914 due to the support for the war by the German SPD. Setting his face against any contemporary tendency to “return to a pure set of left-wing values”, Renton argues that there are “no definitions in an abstract realm of political science” and that classical Marxism was both more diverse and contentious than any abstract philosophical definition of classical Marxism allows.

This historicisation of classical Marxism in all its messy, concrete and discrete particularity to specific contexts (1883-1914) is a cogent move if properly understood. It combats the complacent notion that the socialist truth is or was already out there (say, in Marx, Lenin or the revolutionary party), complete and beautiful, with only (!) the need for its realisation. Thus for Renton, the rubric of classical Marxism is flawed as a means to build a new Marxist mass movement because it is a symptom of an irremediably defensive posture that is long obsolete as well as questionable in its depiction of historical reality. Hence Renton’s plumping for dissidence as a method in theory and practice to break the comforts of orthodoxy.

More concretely, Renton stands with Flynn in her call for Marxist parties to develop a “more militant, more progressive and more youthful” face. For this to happen, Renton affirms in Dissident Marxism, Marxists need more of Widgery’s talent “to explain, challenge and persuade” with emotional intelligence, rooting “more theoretical arguments in the physical reality of people’s lives”.

Renton’s two books articulate the need for new thought, new practice and new blood with such passion, based not on grand theory and abstruse philosophy but on reaching hearts and minds in an accessible way, that they deserve to be read carefully and acted upon.

But these books are not without their faults. There are arguably misleading implications behind the titles, which might better have been qualified in some such way as ‘Biographical Essays on Classical/Dissident Marxists’, for neither Classical Marxism nor Dissident Marxism are particularly systematic theoretical works. This is a real weakness given the nature of the arguments he wishes to make, despite many very important insights and illuminations he provides on the way.

Probably the most damaging criticism of these two books is the tendency not really to adequately expound his main concepts – of classical and dissident Marxism. This is connected to Renton’s preference for an indirect style of argument. When, as in this case, an extended argument requires completing, the lack of an adequate theoretical introduction and conclusion does not help the cause.

This particularly manifests itself in his apparent argument for dissidence over orthodoxy. The author himself is never quite clear: for example, was Lenin a dissident or a classical Marxist, or both? I think he has to argue for the last option - that, through his break with the Second International and immersion in Hegelian dialectics, Lenin became a dissident from 1914 onwards - for his argument to work, but he does not convey this unequivocally. In failing to do so, he unnecessarily allows grist to the mill of his critics.

Nonetheless, I await further writing by Renton on these themes, albeit more adequately and consistently theorised, for, at their best, these books are excellent.

Dougal McNeill, 'Dissident Marxism', Socialist Alternative (Australia), April 2004

“Marxism [is] not an academic science, but a creative art of change”: this line, taken from Dave Renton’s stimulating new book Dissident Marxism, sums up what is best about his work.

Dissident Marxism is a political intervention in the present. Dave Renton sees the birth of a “new politics” (anti-capitalism, the anti-war movement and refugee rights campaigns) and argues that the activists of this movement need armed with lessons and inspiration from the past. For Renton, the characteristics of these “new politics” are a rejection of the single-issue politics of the 1980s; organisational libertarianism; suspicion of routine; emphasis on creativity and a lack of historical awareness. Looking at previous writers and activists, Renton finds traces of this tradition in a body of work he calls “dissident marxism”: thinking that inhabited a space between the New Left and orthodox Trotskyism.

This approach helps remind us that Marxism is not the stale, unchanging current of liberal mythology. Activists forever have to, in Renton’s words, “defend their socialism based on the continuous rethinking of Marx”. Dissident Marxism is worth reading for its inspiring examples of women and men fighting for socialism in the most difficult conditions. From Kollontai and Serge in Stalinist Russia to Georges Heinen in Egypt or David Widgery in Thatcher’s Britain, Renton has written the history of some often forgotten struggles. He chooses lesser-known moments where activists have existed outside of, or in opposition to, the main organisations that are supposed to represent socialism. 

If this emphasis on dissidence and originality has the strength ofuncovering a diverse tradition, it also has a key weakness. Renton never really assesses, beyond comments about his subjects’ ongoing commitment to socialism, the legacy or effectiveness of any of his dissidents. None of them built organisations of any lasting impact or size and, sometimes, while they may have been original thinkers in other ways, their practical activist politics stayed very close to the Stalinism Renton rightly rejects. The peace activist E.P. Thompson was certainly a fine historian but his orientation within the peace movement – to build the biggest demonstrations across class lines because nuclear war is a “human issue, not a class issue” – had exactly the same disastrous Popular Front logic as the Stalinism he rejected. Many of the other writers Renton discusses – Samir Amin, Paul Sweezy, Walter Rodney – had even more ambiguous relations to Stalinism.

Ideas are useless unless they are given life by a group with both the organisational and political clarity to put them into action. Dissident Marxism provides some inspiring examples of activists staying true to socialism but it almost completely passes over the crucial question of organisation. To really learn the lessons of these figures, this inspiring book needs to be read alongside a work by another “dissident” Marxist: Tony Cliff’s biography of Lenin.

Dougal McNeill

'Good Tradition', Neil Davidson, Socialist Review, September 2004

Dave Renton has begun the bold project of writing the history of Marxism through the lives of individual Marxists. The approach of his first book on the subject, Classical Marxism (2002), was relatively simple. It traced how, from apparently similar theoretical starting points, the paths of individual figures in the Second International led in quite different directions; either to accommodation with the system, like Kautsky, or to opposition to it, like Lenin.

His new book, Dissident Marxism, has a far wider sweep, taking in figures from revolutionary Russia like Vladimir Mayakovsky to members of the 1968 generation like David Widgery. The question is whether they actually constitute a distinct tradition, as Dave Renton claims.

The first thing to be said is that the biographical essays which comprise this book are always interesting and informative, and only rarely fall into mere chronology. Some of the people discussed here, like Victor Serge, may already be familiar to readers. But I imagine that many will be as ignorant as I was about George Henein, the Egyptian surrealist who became a Trotskyist for a brief period at the end of the Second World War.

However, there are difficulties involved in the concept of 'dissident Marxism'. What, if anything, connects the Marxists which Dave has included here?

He distinguishes the notion of 'dissident' from 'classical' Marxism on the grounds that the former were 'people who did not treat their socialism as an inherited canon of knowledge, but at each moment were willing to think their politics anew. The acid test of dissidence was a willingness to criticise the conduct of the Soviet state.' He argues that Trotskyism and the New Lefts of 1956 and 1968 were the traditions from which dissidence was most likely to emerge, but that 'other left wing traditions including African socialism, Titoism, Castroism and even Maoism could sustain dissidence, for a certain short time'. The specific examples were therefore chosen 'because they were seen to express key arguments, important moments on the left, or common dilemmas'.

There are three central problems with this conception.

First, to describe Trotskyism as a 'dissidence' seems to me to confuse the issue. Trotskyism represented a dissent against Stalinism, true; but it was a dissent in the name of classical Marxism and its relationship to the working class. That is not consistently the case for the other traditions that Dave invokes.

Second, it is never made clear whether he sees 'dissident Marxism' as being a particular response to the period when the socialist movement was dominated by Stalinism and social democracy, or - since those days are over - as being a much more general category, which is just as applicable now. At one point he suggests the first: 'Dissident Marxists lived in a situation shaped by the failure of the workers' parties, the Communists and socialists who had seemed capable of transforming the world but became shells.' At other times, the second: 'A distinction has been made between "orthodox" thinkers who used their Marxism to defend existing projects, and dissidents, who reapplied Marxist categories, holding on to what was central, but who were not afraid to think for themselves.' (Both definitions point to Lenin as the greatest dissident Marxist of all!)

The second definition in particular implies that, even in an organisation that was neither a 'shell' nor tied to a sterile 'orthodoxy', there would be a need for 'dissidence'. Now, an alert and critical attitude to one's own organisation is certainly a necessary aspect of revolutionary politics, but 'dissenting' from it on a regular basis would suggest that you were in the wrong organisation to start with. In short, 'dissidence' is not an end in itself, at least for revolutionary socialists. This is why, enjoyable though the chapter on Widgery is, I think that it is wrong to describe him as a dissident within the IS/SWP tradition; he seems rather to have been one of its best representatives.

Third, the category is simply impossibly broad. Take the two English Communists that Dave discusses, Dona Torr and Edward Thompson.

Torr is a neglected figure who was in many ways the inspiration for the Communist Party Historians Group and Dave is right to draw attention to her influence. It is her presence in this book that is odd. Like many intelligent CP members she may have had private reservations about Russia and the internal party regime (although Dave produces no evidence to this effect), but if so, it did not affect her political practice. Torr remained a Stalinist to the end of her life and her posthumously published book, Tom Mann and His Times, is structured around the Stalinist concept of 'the people' from beginning to end. Where is the 'dissidence' here?

Dave contrasts Torr with Thompson, who did break with Stalinism after 1956 - a step which freed him to write his great historical works. But admirable though they are, they are theoretically further away from Marxism than the orthodoxy he abandoned. Here I have to disagree with Dave that The Making of the English Working Class represented a theoretical step forward for Marxism.

In short, the parts of this book are greater than the whole. If the overall concept is not convincing, the individual chapters are excellent introductions to the work of the Marxists concerned, and serve to remind us of the rich and often ignored strands of thought within the Marxist tradition.

'David Widgery: did he lose the faith?, Michael Fitzpatrick, Spiked Online, February 2005

A new biography of the renowned left-wing GP shows how political crisis
spawned personal crisis.
by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

Confronting an Ill Society: David Widgery, General practice, Idealism
and the Chase for Change, by Patrick Hutt with Iona Heath and Roger

David Widgery died in 1992 at the age of 45. Shortly before his death,
he contributed to a collection entitled Infidelities, edited by Marsha
Rowe, a fictional account of the crisis of conscience of a left-wing
East London GP, 'Harry Meyer' (1). After a lifetime devoted to his poor
patients and to radical causes, Meyer loses faith, both in the working
class and in the goal of socialism. Losing his 'inner core of hope and
humanism', he is 'left with an empty cynicism', writes Rowe in her

Yet, in a dramatic (and somewhat unconvincing) volte face, he finds, in
Rowe's words, 'the strength of will to tell himself that he still
believes in the lives of the people, in his patients in particular. The
political belief that has sustained him in the past will sustain him
again'. Then, 'with a terrible, ironical twist of fate, he dies before
he can put this belief into practice'.

Widgery's story is based on the thinly-disguised character of Michael
Leibson, the veteran Communist Party GP in Bethnal Green with whom he
worked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Like Meyer, Leibson died of a
heart attack. Before the story was published Widgery too was dead, as a
result of an excess of alcohol, barbiturates and pethidine, an
injectable synthetic opiate (the coroner recorded an open verdict).

In Confronting an Ill Society, Patrick Hutt provides a biography of
Widgery that offers him as a role model for a new generation of
doctors. Hutt avoids, however, the questions raised by the manner of
his death, implicitly endorsing the prevailing view that it was some
sort of freak accident. Yet depicting Widgery as a hero to be emulated,
without engaging with the background to his demise, risks the sort of
infidelity to principle of which Widgery accuses Meyer in his story,
poignantly entitled 'Mea Culpa'. We have to ask: had Widgery too 'lost
faith with his own conscience'? One thing seems clear. Whatever the
particular circumstances of his end, alongside issues of health (he
continued to suffer from the effects of childhood polio) and lifestyle,
a deep political disillusionment had been setting in.

I first encountered Widgery in the early 1970s when, as a medical
student, I read his articles, sometimes in purple ink on a green
background, in Oz and other 'underground' publications. We were both
members of the International Socialists (IS), an allegiance he
continued (though I did not) as it metamorphosed into the Socialist
Workers Party (SWP) in 1977. Our paths often crossed in the campaigns
against hospital closures, anti-racist protests, labour movement and
anti-war demonstrations of the 1970s and 80s. We both became GPs in
East London and for a time I worked in a practice adjacent to his in
Limehouse, sharing in the same out-of-hours rota.

As Hutt acknowledges, Widgery was notorious for his rude and abrasive
behaviour. Our relations, though I was never a close friend, were
always cordial. I was an admirer of his writings, particularly on
matters of music and culture. He was a man of wide interests and great
enthusiasms and he wrote with feeling and flair about Bessie Smith and
George Bernard Shaw, Roland Kirk and Chuck Berry. It is perhaps
unfortunate that writers who now seek to claim Widgery for left-wing
politics tend to neglect his wider critical journalism.

Widgery personified the convergence of the counterculture of the 1960s
and the radical left of the 1970s, expressing both the strengths and
the weaknesses of these trends. Like a number of talented individuals
attracted at that time to IS - Peter Sedgwick, Eamon McCann, Terry
Eagleton, Christopher Hitchens - Widgery was independent of spirit,
intellectually alert, imaginative and energetic. He always looked
beyond the combination of parliamentary cretinism and dour trade union
militancy that dominated the outlook of the British left, and took
creditable stands against racism and in support of women's rights and
gay liberation when these were far from fashionable positions.

Though revolutionary rhetoric was commonplace on the radical left,
rigorous political analysis was not. Subjective commitment to socialism
was never complemented by a coherent anti-capitalist programme. Indeed,
whenever the left's leading figures moved away from their preoccupation
with trade unionism, they tended to fall back on theory developed by
the social democratic or official communist movement. Widgery shared
this weakness. Though he is now celebrated as a 'dissident Marxist', it
is difficult to discern much Marxist theory in his writings (2). His
1979 assessment of 'the crisis in the health service', for example, is
described in Hutt's account as an impassioned polemic (3). Yet in
substance it is little different from that of contemporary social
policy academics more or less closely allied to the Labour Party (as a
result it is, in striking contrast with his cultural writings, a rather
dull book).

Widgery also expressed the self-indulgent and ill-disciplined approach
to organisation characteristic of the radical movement. The notion that
Widgery and his fractious friends in Rock Against Racism - in his own
judgement 'a fairly egocentric group of artistic people' - 'organised'
the successful Anti-Nazi League carnivals in 1978 can only raise a
smile (4). Though he is characterised as a 'dissident' within IS and
the SWP, this had a more personal than political character. Thus, while
more serious dissidents moved on to organise elsewhere, Widgery
remained loyal to the SWP to the end.

The politicisation of medicine helped Widgery to become a role model
Shortly after his death, Widgery's family and friends held a
commemoration at the Hackney Empire (of which he was a trustee).
Featuring speeches by stars from the worlds of politics and the arts,
and poetry, music and theatrical performances, it was a moving tribute
to his life and work. As I recall, the only contentious comment came
from Paul Foot (recently himself commemorated in the same theatre).
Foot provoked some animosity by describing how difficult Widgery had
been within the SWP and expressing his anger at the wastefulness of his
death. Overall, I was struck by the fact that somebody for whom few,
either in the worlds of medicine or politics, ever had a good word when
he was alive, had in death already become a saint. Talking over this
commemoration later, one of the organisers said how much Widgery would
have relished the backstage rancour that raged before, during and after
the event.

Recent publications confirm the extent to which, a decade after his
death, Widgery has assumed cult status. It is true that, as one of his
friends said after the commemoration, 'Widgery was an assiduous
promoter of his own myth'. Yet this is an insufficient explanation for
his current stature. Hutt's book includes an introduction by two
leading figures in the Royal College of General Practitioners (whose
membership examination Widgery never deigned to sit) and a foreword by
the former editor of the British Medical Journal. Elsewhere, David
Renton includes him in a cast of dissident Marxists that includes
Mayakovsky and Serge, Karl Korsch and EP Thompson (2).

One reason for Widgery's rising status is the transition of the
counterculture from the bohemian margins of the past to the cultural
mainstream today (5). By 1985 Don Henley had already famously
spotted 'a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac'; 20 years later a senior
civil servant at the Department of Constitutional Affairs was hosting a
celebrated Grateful Dead fan website (6). Beat poets Jack Kerouac and
Allen Ginsberg, Widgery's adolescent heroes, have received
retrospective recognition, Mick Jagger has his knighthood and Bob Dylan
has received a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

The twin features of the counterculture, the rejection both of
contemporary society and of any possibility of changing it, once
regarded as marginal and subversive, have become universal and safe.
The recent thirtieth anniversary of the Oz obscenity trial revealed
that most of its leading figures were fully assimilated into
respectable society, while the BBC screened Jerry Springer - the Opera,
with an obscenity count in thousands. The old left has become a
heritage project sustained by ageing veterans and academic historians.

A key factor in the emergence of Widgery as a medical role model is the
politicisation of medicine since the defeat of the labour movement in
the 1980s. Whereas the government had formerly spurned doctors, such as Widgery, who drew attention to social inequalities in health as part of
a wider socialist project, in the 1990s it embraced an authoritarian
public health agenda (7). This gave the medical profession, including
many of its erstwhile radicals, a new role in promoting healthy

Widgery's last book, Some Lives! A GP's East End is, as Hutt
indicates, 'generally considered his best' (8). It skilfully weaves
sketches gathered from surgery consultations, home visits, night calls
and casual encounters, with a history of the East End and its immigrant
minorities and subcultures. It is also, however, a testimony of
personal disillusionment, of 'the grinding down of optimism' that
resulted from his encounters with brutalised lives.

There is an air of fatalism in his account, and nostalgia for the lost
spirit of community and solidarity of the old East End. Hutt quotes the
criticism of Kambiz Boomla, one of Widgery's former colleagues and
comrades (with a far more sustained record of commitment to general
practice in East London), that Some Lives! fails to mention the class
struggle. Yet to criticise Widgery's book for neglecting politics
misses the point that the political approach he advocates is that 'we
need to plan again', citing Fabian municipal socialism as a model. By
the early 1990s, the radical left had reached the end of the road: Some
Lives! records Widgery's personal and political exhaustion.

Had Widgery, like Meyer, lost faith? There is an undercurrent of
despair in Some Lives! that goes some way towards explaining the
subsequent tragedy. As Marsha Rowe concludes on Widgery's fictional
alter ego, 'by his own infidelity, the character of the doctor was in
the end betrayed'.

Patrick Hutt has written Confronting an Ill Society as a personal
voyage of discovery. As a work that started out as a student
dissertation and was completed just as he qualified as a doctor, it is
an impressive achievement. His father Nick Hutt was a highly respected
GP in Hackney who died of cancer at the age of 51, before the book was
published. Hutt records how he asked his father 'Do you wish you were
more like Widgery or these other political medics?'. To which Nick,
characteristically wise, replied with a question of his own, 'Are they
better doctors?'.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004
(buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of
Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy
this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA)

(1) Infidelities, ed Marsha Rowe, Chatto, 1993

(2) Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times, Dave Renton,
Zed, 2004

Reviewed by James Woodcock, Bookmarks Review of Books, summer 2004

Whether you are new to the movement or not, this book is likely to teach you something about the history of radicals throughout the 20th century. These activists and writers all claimed a heritage in the Marxist tradition but were willing to challenge and develop it. After the initial success of the Russian Revolution, through much of this period Marxist politics suffocated under the dead weight of Stalinism.

Some of the figures challenged this more than others, and the book does not hold back from criticism, but all maintained a belief in socialism from below and that Marxism must engage with new situations and not just repeat old formulations. The breadth of this book is impressive, including the philosopher Karl Korsch, historians E P Thompson and Dona Torr, Egyptian surrealist Georges Henein, African socialist Walter Rodney, and writer on May 1968 David Widgery. The link to the anti-capitalist movement is most explicit through the one living person covered, samir Amin, the Egyptian economist and socialist. 

Reviewed by Robin Sen, Red Pepper, July 2004

Dissident Marxism is a fascinating book that examines the lives of  14 activist thinkers who defined themselves as Marxists and who trod paths outside the prevailing left-wing traditions of Stalinism and social democracy. It covers the period between the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Those up to speed with left-wing debate might expect a potted history of Trotskyism to follow; this book is not that. It covers an impressive range of figures: from high-profile names like EP Thompson, to far less well-known socialists like the Soviet orator Anatoly Lunacharsky and the Egyptian surrealist Georges Henein. Some were members of Trotskyist organisations; some spent significant parts of their lives as critical Communist Party members; and others flourished outside any party.

Connecting them all was their willingness and ability to maintain simultaneously a revolutionary Marxist perspective and a critical stance towards the Soviet Union. This was a period when large sections of the left saw no alternative to Moscow.

Attention is focussed on the difficult political choices that socialists had to make after Stalin's rise to power, and on the contributions that each of these figures made in developing Marxist theory to explain prevailing political, economic and social realities.

The book raises well-rehearsed issues about the relationships between individual activists and their organisations and activism and theory, and about attitudes that Marxists took towards existing socialist states; but grounds them in the lived experience of these socialists.

What is the significance of these dissident Marxists today? Dissident Marxism makes the claim that the roots of the new anti-capitalist movement can be found in their lives.

On one level, this is hard to substantiate, given the explicit rejection by large parts of the anti-capitalist movement of received political traditions of thought. However the challenge before the movement - to find ways to oppose the domination of global capital under new political conditions - is the same one that dissident Marxists faced. And in the way the figures in this book rose to the challenge, there is inspiration to be found.

Reviewed by Ian Birchall, 'Eclectic Avenue?', What Next?, summer 2004

DAVE RENTON'S new book presents, in just 238 pages, fourteen twentieth century Marxists - Vladimir Mayakovsky, Alexandra Kollontai, Anatoly Lunacharsky, Victor Serge, Karl Korsch, Georges Henein, Dona Torr, Edward Thompson, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, Walter Rodney, Harry Braverman, Samir Amin and David Widgery.

The book has a clear political purpose. Renton perceives the growth of a new anti-capitalist movement, and aims, as a socialist historian, to make the members of this movement aware of the real traditions of authentic socialism in the twentieth century. For most people the word "socialism" evokes either Stalin or Blair. Renton opens up the rich world of socialists, mostly written out of history, who rejected both Stalinism and social democracy (though critics of social democracy are a bit thin on the ground). In this aim Renton is wholly right. A new generation and a new movement may well take paths that will displease their elders (they may even find Labour Party ward meetings too boring to attend), but they will undoubtedly draw on and learn from the past. Renton's book can therefore be of considerable value.

It is written in a clear and lively style, and contains much precious information, only slightly marred by a number of minor slips which it would be pedantic to dwell on.1 If the sketches are necessarily brief, when almost every single figure deserves book-length treatment, this is no bad thing, since Renton's enthusiasm will encourage his readers to pursue the topics in greater depth. The tone is one of dialogue. There are no heroes and villains here. Renton brings out the best - sometimes at the cost of considerable exertions - in each of his subjects to show the contribution they made, but he is also unsparing in his use of firm but fraternal criticism. The book is thus refreshingly free from denunciations of the type still all too common on the left. Denunciation has a great deal in common with what Americans apparently now refer to as "self-dating", an activity which may bring great pleasure to the person indulging in it, but which there is no reason for anyone else to take the slightest notice of.

In this attitude Renton is clearly inspired by his hero David Widgery, to whom he devotes his final chapter. The whole point of Widgery's approach to hippies in the 1960s, or punks in the 1970s, was to establish communication between different groups who were in some sense in revolt against the system. The dialogue was not one-sided; Widgery believed the traditional left had much to learn, especially in matters of style and popularisation. But nor was he some neutral mediator; he knew which side he was on. Paul Foot recalls Widgery telling him that York University students "don't need you ... They need the proletariat". Widgery could be savage (Renton kindly recalls his description of myself as a "sniffer dog of orthodox Trotskyism'), but in general his sense of humour enabled him to engage even with those who differed sharply from him. Widgery was one of those rare writers (like his mentor Peter Sedgwick, or Eamonn McCann) capable of being simultaneously hysterically funny and profoundly serious.

Renton has cast his net wide. While many of his potential readers will be familiar with Edward Thompson, few will have heard of Georges Henein, reclaimed from oblivion by Renton's own research. Two of the Marxists treated here were born in Egypt, and a third in Guyana, showing a concern to make Marxism relevant to the whole world, and not just to the advanced capitalist nations. The treatment of women is more questionable. Only two women - Kollontai and Torr - are featured, and neither has a full chapter to herself. Perhaps it would be malicious to suggest these "token women' were added at the last moment, with Renton having an eye to his day job as Equal Opportunities apparatchik for NATFHE. Kollontai has two claims to dissident status, as feminist and as member of the Workers' Opposition, but it is impossible to give serious consideration to either in the space of just six pages. Dona Torr's dissident credentials are much more difficult to identify. Renton rests his case on a set of unpublishable notebooks which are said to reveal "occasional disquiet". Surely only a totally amoral zombie could have been a Stalinist for twenty-five years and not suffered "occasional disquiet". Indeed, Victor Serge would have us believe that Stalin himself suffered occasional moments of depression and self-doubt. Did that make him a dissident?

Renton would have been better advised to give us a full chapter on Rosa Luxemburg, the patron saint of all dissidents, or, from a later period, Natalia Sedova or Marguerite Rosmer, both remarkable revolutionaries in their own right who should not be overshadowed by their better-known husbands. The various parts of this book are of considerable, if somewhat uneven, value. The whole is more problematic. The book could simply have been called "Fourteen Marxists whom Dave Renton finds interesting" (admittedly not a title likely to appeal to his publisher's marketing department). Yet Renton seems to want to claim something more. The anecdotic links he establishes in the conclusion between his various subjects fall far short of demonstrating the existence of a dissident "tradition".

Dissidence, in fact, is a very slippery concept. Thus when Tony Cliff argued that the states of the Eastern bloc were not "workers' states" he became a "dissident" within the Trotskyist movement. But by insisting that only the self-activity of the working class could establish a workers' state he was adhering to the most rigorous Marxist orthodoxy.

Renton's book, therefore, raises a lot of questions which it does not resolve - this, indeed, is one of its great merits. In the space of a brief review I want to consider briefly three themes - Stalinism, voluntarism and nationalism. Most of Renton's dissidents are defined in terms of their opposition to Stalinism. But the crimes of Stalinism were so monstrous that there were many different ways of opposing it, not all of them pointing in equally progressive directions. Thus Edward Thompson broke with Stalinism at the time of the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution. The sending of tanks against workers' councils was so heinous that only someone in a state of total moral bankruptcy could fail to oppose it. Thompson's moral opposition was expressed with magnificent rhetoric, but it remained moral. Renton discusses the inadequacies of a purely moral critique, but he fails to draw some broader conclusions. Thompson never broke with the Popular Frontism which was the main political manifestation of Stalinism in Britain. When, in the 1980s, he developed the concept of "exterminism" in his tireless campaigning against nuclear weapons, it was in order to argue that the question of nuclear war transcended class divisions and that all classes could unite in opposing it.

Likewise, in his account of Harry Braverman, Renton sees his break with the American SWP as a rejection of "sectarianism". He believed that "McCarthyism would force the American Communists to turn left". (There was precious little sign of this; repression rarely encourages militancy.) What Renton omits to tell us is that Braverman was translating into American conditions the strategy of Michel Pablo for the Fourth International: that world war was imminent, that the conflict of blocs would replace the traditional class struggle, and that revolutionaries should abandon independent organisation and enter Stalinist parties.

As Renton makes clear elsewhere, in his discussions of Korsch and Serge, only a rigorous understanding of what Stalinism was could lay the foundations for real opposition to Stalinism. In his account of Korsch Renton stresses the former's opposition to the "evolutionary and fatalistic Marxism of the Second International". While this did indeed have pernicious consequences, it is not a problem that need occupy us much today. In building the anti-war movement, I rarely encounter people who say: "I shan't be going on the demo; socialism's inevitable anyhow." And if Korsch rejected Kautsky, he hailed the "orientation on the will" of the Fabian Society. From the frying pan to the fire.

Likewise Renton commends Thompson for presenting class in terms of "experience" rather than of "impersonal forces". But unless one is drugged out of one's skull, experience is always of something external. The reality of exploitation must precede the experience of class consciousness. Renton is not wrong to follow Thompson and Korsch in seeing a role for morality and human choice. If socialism were not about people choosing to take action in the hope of a "better" world, then we might as well all roll over and go to sleep. But voluntarism has its dangers too, especially in periods when the working class may appear dormant.

He describes how Baran and Sweezy argued that the historic role of the working class had been taken over by the impoverished masses of the Third World, while workers in the imperialists' lands sided with their own rulers. Hence their enthusiasm for the Cuban Revolution and for Che Guevara's claim that "it is not always necessary to wait until all the conditions for revolution are fulfilled". Renton is far too indulgent towards this voluntarism, suggesting that while in retrospect it may seem unwise, at the time it had a certain legitimacy. Guevara's voluntarism sent hundreds of Latin American revolutionaries, who could have played a part in rebuilding the socialist movement on their continent, to their deaths in an unequal and futile struggle against the state machine.

Renton praises Georges Henein for introducing the Egyptian left to the idea that workers did not need to wait until after national liberation. But by the time the issue was posed concretely in 1952, and striking workers faced the gallows of the so called Free Officers, Henein and his organisation had disappeared. The other two Third World Marxists under discussion add relatively little. Rodney is seen as a failure, though his mistakes are said to demonstrate "enormous creativity". The mistakes include an acceptance of the Stalinist model, for which apparently "we can hardly blame" him. Blame is scarcely relevant; what matters is an effective critique.

As for Samir Amin, Renton makes no attempt to conceal the fact that his position is essentially Maoist, and as a result increasingly irrelevant to either First or Third World. Dissidence seems to have little to offer in terms of authentic socialist strategy for the Third World. To make these points is not a negative criticism of Renton's book. Renton presents his subjects honestly, and develops critiques as required. But a lot of questions are left unanswered.

The greatest value of Renton's book will be in stimulating further discussion. Marxists in the anti-capitalist movement will face a broad range of debates, from philosophy to immediate questions of tactics. But the most crucial argument will be that about the centrality of working class agency. Ultimately Marxist thinkers will be evaluated, not so much by whether they are "orthodox" or "dissident" as by what they contribute to that argument.

Note 1. There is, however, one error that cannot be left uncorrected. Renton, like his mentor David Widgery, cannot spell the "Leyton Buzzards". The whole point of the name of this long forgotten band - which peaked at No. 53 in March 1979 - is the contrast between proletarian East End Leyton and middle-class Home Counties Leighton Buzzard.

Dissident Marxism

The past years have witnessed the birth of a new politics -- anti-capitalist, libertarian and anti-war. Its advocates reject the single-issue politics of the 1980s and 1990s Left, preferring to see the system as a totality, a world ripe for revolutionary change. But where do today's dissidents come from?

Dissident Marxism argues that the roots of today's anti-capitalist movement can be found in the life and work of an earlier generation of socialist revolutionaries, including such inspiring figures as the Soviet poet Mayakovsky, the Marxist philosopher Karl Korsch, Communist historians Edward Thompson and Dona Torr, the Egyptian surrealist Georges Henein, American New Left economists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy, advocates of Third World liberation including Walter Rodney and Samir Amin, Harry Braverman, the author of Labor and Monopoly Capital, and David Widgery, the journalist of the May '68 revolts.

What these writers shared was a commitment to the values of socialism-from-below, the idea that change must be driven by the mass movements of the oppressed, and not by the leadership of labour movement bureaucrats. In a world dominated by slump, fascism and war, they retained a commitment to total democracy. They passed on the torch of anti-capitalist resistance.

Dissident Marxism describes the left in history. Some readers will enjoy it as a history of revolutionary socialism in the years between Stalin's rise and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Others will find here a challenging thesis - that the most enduring of left-wing traditions, and highly relevant to the times we live in today, were located in a space between the New Left and Trotskyism. Dissident Marxism explores the lives and thinking of some of the most creative and striking members of the twentieth century left, and asks if the new anti-capitalist movement might provide an opportunity for just another such left-wing generation to emerge?