Issue 99 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Summer 2003 Copyright © International Socialism

Michael Kidron (1930-2003)

IAN BIRCHALL

To many readers of International Socialism Michael Kidron is known only as a name that crops up in discussions of changes in capitalism after 1945. But without Kidron, who died in March, this journal would not have developed as it did over the last 43 years.1 He was its founding editor and steered it through its first 20 issues from 1960 to 1965.

Kidron made many contributions to the left. Some will remember him for helping to build Pluto Press as an independent left publisher, others for the political atlases he produced with Ronald Segal.2 As a theoretician he is known for his work on the 'permanent arms economy', notably his two books Western Capitalism Since the War3 and Capitalism and Theory4 (containing key articles 'Imperialism: Highest Stage but One' and 'International Capitalism').5

But Kidron was also a remarkable editor and a prolific author of analyses and polemics. I had the enormous privilege of working with him on the editorial board of International Socialism between 1963 and 1965.6 Kidron was warm, hospitable and humorous;7 he wrote incisively,8 had the capacity to draw a talented team around him, and gave encouragement and criticism to new writers. Such qualities were vital to an editor, but they were not the essence. Kidron's supreme ability was to use the journal as a means of developing the embryo of what was to become the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).9 The best tribute this journal can pay is to recall his achievements as editor, letting him speak in his own words.

The middle of the long post-war boom was not a quiet time for socialists. If the economic base was--temporarily--stabilised, there was a lot going on up in the superstructure. In 1956-1957 destalinisation and the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution had driven several thousand workers and intellectuals out of the Communist Party; this created a milieu in which Marxist ideas could be discussed free from Stalinist dogmatism,10 and led to the creation, in 1960, of New Left Review--not just a magazine but briefly a federation of clubs at which lively and open discussion took place.11

Meanwhile growing opposition to the nuclear arms race led to the rise of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.12 At Easter 1960 some 100,000 people joined the march from Aldermaston. That autumn Labour Party Conference carried a resolution supporting unilateral nuclear disarmament, provoking a severe crisis when the party leader, Hugh Gaitskell,13 refused to accept the decision.

Also in 1960 the Labour Party, seeking to cash in on the youth radicalisation produced by CND, launched the Young Socialists, which promptly became a battleground for the competing grouplets of British Trotskyism. Because most of the groups were operating with a theory 20 years out of date and sectarian habits bred of years of isolation,14 a broad youth movement soon became a factional jungle.15

These times offered great opportunities to revolutionaries. International Socialism was conceived as a journal of analysis and debate, where rational argument might rise above sectarianism. Originally its editorial board was not limited to the Socialist Review Group, but drew from almost all the Trotskyist-derived currents except the Socialist Labour League (forerunner of the Workers Revolutionary Party). This experiment failed; by 1963 it became simply the theoretical journal of the International Socialists group. It was serious but not solemn, had glorious covers designed by Reuben Fior, and contained such delights as poems by the 28 year old Adrian Mitchell. Theoretical articles by Alasdair MacIntyre, Peter Sedgwick, Nigel Harris and above all Tony Cliff and Kidron himself provided vital support for the heated debates in the Young Socialists.

The journal also had to act as a tactical guide. When the left won at Labour Party conference, it was, paradoxically, somewhat disoriented. It fell back on legalistic reliance on the party constitution, while the right turned to the grassroots and successfully overthrew the resolution in 1961. The editorial in International Socialism was a model of lucidity and showed the importance of the permanent arms economy theory in establishing that the bomb was a class question; it guided IS supporters beyond possible demoralisation to a concrete strategy:

A little later, when the racist right ventured onto the streets, Kidron responded in vigorous fashion:

In the pacifist-influenced climate of the CND milieu, this provoked protests even from within the editorial board. Subsequent history has given the verdict to Kidron.

Debate with the thinkers of the New Left was also crucial. When the New Left Review team produced in 1960 a collection of essays entitled Out of Apathy, Kidron's review was fraternal in tone, but sharp in analysis:

In the pages of New Left Review, Edward Thompson described International Socialism as 'the most constructive journal with a Trotskyist tendency in this country, most of the editorial board of which are active (and very welcome) members of the Left Club movement', but revealed some of his own confusions in responding to Kidron:

Kidron clarified the points at issue in a letter to New Left Review

But the most important debate was between reform and revolution. To be a revolutionary at all in the early 1960s was far from easy; to argue the case for revolution without relying on outdated language and outdated analyses required real intellectual clarity. International Socialism carried a major debate on left reformism, initiated by the labour historian Henry Collins. Kidron's contribution extended far beyond the technicalities of the permanent arms economy to lay the basis for a political strategy. He began by showing the fundamental instability of modern capitalism:

He went on to show the implications for class consciousness and political intervention:

After 1968, for reasons that were probably partly personal and partly political, Kidron's role in the organisation became much less central. But if it was Tony Cliff's relentless determination that enabled the SWP to become what it is today, Mike Kidron's part in educating the generation that seized the opportunities of 1968 and after should never be forgotten.

Notes

  1. The first International Socialism (containing an article by Kidron on recent strikes) appeared in 1958. This was a one-off and a new series (quarterly, and from 1973 monthly) was launched at Easter 1960. This lasted till issue 104 in 1978. The new series, now approaching its 100th number, began in 1978.

  2. For an overview of Kidron's life see Richard Kuper's obituary in The Guardian, 27 March 2003, Chris Harman, 'Permanent Legacy', Socialist Review, April 2003, or my own piece in Revolutionary History vol 8, no 3 (2003).

  3. M Kidron, Western Capitalism Since the War (London, 1968); revised Penguin edition (Harmondsworth,1970).

  4. M Kidron, Capitalism and Theory (London, 1974).

  5. For a critique of Kidron's economic work see C Harman, 'Better a Valid Insight than a Wrong Theory', International Socialism 1:100 (July 1977); C Harman, Explaining the Crisis (London, 1984); and Harman's article 'Analysing Imperialism' in this issue of the journal.

  6. I owed my position to my knowledge of foreign languages, and not to my (negligible) political experience.

  7. One of the joys of joining the International Socialists was to discover that one was allowed to have a sense of humour. For much of the Trotskyist left jokes were frowned on, unless they were recycled bits of abuse from Trotsky's less well judged polemics. But while Tony Cliff never told a joke that did not have a direct political message, Kidron's humour was more playful and self ironic, a recognition that however good the analysis there was always something left over.

  8. He characteristically used a condensed and abbreviated style that often suggested he was submitting his copy by telegram at a pound a word. His work often had to be reread carefully to get the full wealth of meaning.

  9. In 1960 the Socialist Review Group had less than 50 members; it changed its name to the International Socialists in 1962 and by 1965 had grown to over 200.

  10. For a sense of the period read the earlier sections of D Widgery, The Left in Britain (Harmondsworth, 1976).

  11. See I Birchall, 'The Autonomy of Theory: A Short History of New Left Review', International Socialism 2:10 (Autumn 1980).

  12. For a history of CND see R Bulkeley et al, '"If at first you don't succeed": fighting against the bomb in the 1950s and 1960s', International Socialism 2:11 (Winter 1980).

  13. At this time Labour leaders were elected by the parliamentary party alone.

  14. For the crisis of post-1945 Trotskyism see T Cliff, A World to Win (London, 2000), and S Bornstein and A Richardson, War and the International (London, 1986).

  15. To get a sense of the atmosphere in the Young Socialists read 'A Weekend with the Lumpentrots', Young Guard (June 1964), describing the factional degeneration of a YS weekend school. This appeared under the name Mike Caffoor but was written by Jim Higgins. Jim died last year and a collection of his political writings is currently in preparation.

  16. 'Labour and the Bomb', International Socialism 1:3 (Winter 1960). This was before I joined the editorial board, and I cannot be sure it came from Kidron's pen. Style and intellectual rigour suggest it did; if someone else drafted it, they were heavily influenced by Kidron.

  17. 'Fists Against Fascists', International Socialism 1:10 (Autumn 1962).

  18. 'Two Left Feet', International Socialism 1:2 (Autumn 1960).

  19. 'Revolution Again!', New Left Review 1:6 (November/December 1961).

  20. 'Intellectual Liberalism?', New Left Review 1:7 (January/February 1961).

  21. 'Rejoinder to Left Reformism', International Socialism 1:7 (Winter 1961).


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