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Ian Birchall

Michael Kidron (1930–2003)

(Summer 2003)

From International Socialism 2:99, Summer 2003.
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

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 War [3] and Capitalism and Theory [4] (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:

It is on defence that the left has scored its only significant victory these last years; it is on defence that the Gaitskellite Right has decided to ‘fight, fight, and fight again’ …

But it is ... easy to exaggerate the extent of victory. However powerful the revulsion from the inhumanities of nuclear logic, it is a revulsion from one isolated component of a policy which has as yet remained unquestioned by the left at large, as by the bulk of workers. The bomb is the monster issue of a world divided into nation states, organised by power politics, a world divided – ultimately – into conflicting classes. To fight the bomb alone, as a separate issue, it might be enough to advance the ‘little England’ arguments given by Cousins. But to fight the complex of which the bomb is part, it is not. Gaitskell’s policy has strength because it appeals to a fabric of traditions; it is ‘realistic’ because recognisable. The left has still to find a way to fight Gaitskell’s ‘internationalism’ of states, with an internationalism of its own – of workers.

This is not a matter of merely finding arguments to match Gaitskell’s. The right’s most powerful weapon is their control of the party and trade union machine and the unscrupulous use they make of it ...

The left is in no position to face Gaitskell’s machine with one of its own. Our organisational resources reflect our weakness in policy magnified by the greater stress we place on convictions and on the spontaneous recruitment of people to implement them. Our strongest weapon would be to link the issue of defence with the stuff of ordinary life on which workers have shown unshakeable convictions to the point of heroism.

From this angle, it is significant that those sectors of workers that have been engaged in industrial struggle latterly – railwaymen, engineers, transport workers – are in general the most outspokenly unilateralist. It is even more significant that the central London busmen, highly critical as they are of Cousins’ leadership on industrial matters, are solidly behind him on the bomb issue. It is obvious that progress for the left lies in breaking down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle.

It is here that the left might show its greatest weakness. There is nothing in the record of its accepted leadership to suggest that it will organise around a programme of argument by action rather than by word, or indeed, that it sees any connection between boss and bomb. On the contrary, to date it has remained a prisoner to the basic Gaitskellite assumption: that defence is a national issue, not a class one, and has been able to find none better than the anti-unilateralist Wilson as alternative leader ...

The issue of defence is too fateful for reconciliation. The left might be muddled and disorganised, but it represents a real protest at the suicidal implications of Gaitskell’s policy. It represents the possibility, at least, of embedding anti-NATO politics in the soil of class struggle. It represents the unity and working class bias of the Labour Party. In order to win, the left will have to recognise at some point that the fight needs be generalised and carried beyond the arid corridors of party headquarters. Likewise, it will have to conclude that the defence problem cannot be solved in a purely British context, and that the time has come to promote – actively – internationalism as an alternative to Gaitskell’s ‘collective security’. [16]

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

What should the labour movement do about the fascists? Stop them physically and directly, or rely on Acts ‘outlawing the dissemination of racial doctrines and practices’? One would have thought the lesson had been learnt 30 years ago and needed no repetition.

But no, Michael Foot writing in Tribune’s leader column (10 August) advises against taking matters into our own hands. Forgetting the massive opposition shown the fascists recently in London, Manchester and even village Gloucestershire, ignoring the readiness of CND and Young Socialist youth for do-it-yourself politics, he writes: ‘if it were accepted that the right of people to speak and demonstrate in this country should be settled by street fights and physical violence of one kind or another, the eventual casualty would be the right of free speech for many others besides the neo-Nazis. They would retaliate against left wing meetings.’

Let them dare!

Tribune needs to be reminded of two basic truths. The law is their law, not ours – capital’s not labour’s ... We might use the law sometimes, but never can we rely on it.

The second truth Tribune needs to ponder is that socialists are in this society but not of it. However small the socialist movement and however clogged its communications with the wider labour movement, it represents the possibility of an alternative form of society, an alternative social power. We are duty bound to assert that power where we are able.

If we do not, the dangers of partial fascist victories and of the roughneck politics Tribune fears will grow ... We can’t expect the constituency machine-men and parish pump tinkers to take to the streets, but Tribune should certainly get out of the way of ready anti-fascist fists. [17]

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:

It would be difficult to find a better description of apathy than E.P. Thompson’s, in his introductory essay, namely that it is the state in which people look for private solutions to public evils. The essayists proceed to enlarge and refine the description ... Altogether – a string of sensitive, fresh probes into the shape of apathy, but very little to do with its roots.

We must presume that if people look for private solutions to public evils they have sensed that such solutions offer some semblance of an answer to the problems they meet or are likely to meet. Surely collective action has always resulted from the demonstration of individual inadequacy when faced with certain problems? Put in this way, a discussion of apathy seems valueless without a consideration of the conditions which permit private and real solutions to be congruent to some degree, in other words the conditions which relax the imperative for collective action and allow its replacement by an aggregate of individual acts.

What are these conditions? Collective action by whom? How do conditions and collective action react on each other? It is a weakness of the book that nowhere does it give a systematic exposition geared to these questions ... If the war economy and the other factors mentioned by Thompson have anything to do with apathy, as I believe they have, it is not some wondrous alchemy that transforms them into personal withdrawal. The chaotic boom has affected different regions and different industries differently; war-sustained technical innovation has accentuated the disparity of conditions in different places of work; the anomalies of union structure and complexities of industrial structure have added their tangles, to the end that the common fate of being exploited and employed tends to be lost in the detail of being exploited in this particular manner and employed by this particular firm ... It is this decline of class consciousness, this tendency towards fragmentation of the class struggle into its local constituents, which has corroded not only revolutionary socialism in this country, but also reformism and Stalinism which, in their twisted way, also owe their existence to some degree of class consciousness in the ranks of the workers. It is the filter through which capitalist prosperity must percolate to become apathy. Unfortunately, it is something whose existence does not seem to have been noticed by the authors of this volume, or if noticed, not considered sufficiently important to warrant full-length treatment.

I say ‘unfortunately’ in no patronising tone. The New Left has brought two very real treasures to the socialist movement: a sensitivity to the falsities and contradictions which go to make contemporary society east and west of the Iron Curtain, and a tireless assertion of human agency and human (as distinct from class) consciousness as the creators of history. These two characteristics are alone, eloquent protest at the indignities heaped on socialist thought by the orthodoxies of Stalinism and Social Democracy; for this alone, given the miserable scale by which we measure such things today, the New Left is a potent force for good in British socialism. But these are not enough in themselves. What is needed is an analysis of contemporary capitalism in terms of its impact on working class consciousness, prescriptions tailored to the weakness and strength of class consciousness today; in fact the recognition that class consciousness is the material with which we deal as socialists with a view to transforming it into a material force in its own right. Without this at its centre, socialist analysis loses its coherence and socialist programmes their reality. Both afflictions can be seen in this volume of essays ... The crucial weakness of the essays is the absence of a programme. I don’t mean that the essays are devoid of concrete proposals and demands ... What I do mean is that each demand is put forward as a good idea in itself unrelated to material considerations of class power and consciousness, lacking in the coherence that derives from class activity and therefore unable to link up and sustain the fragments of class struggle which are always with us into a broad, integrated and thus socialist, movement. I shall take E.P. Thompson’s concluding essay, Revolution, to substantiate this thesis. There is no quarrel with his rejection of the schematic, toy-soldier approach to revolution and social change held by the sectarian Left; I agree that ‘it is necessary to find out the breaking point (in capitalism) ... in practice by unrelenting reforming pressures in many fields, which are designed to reach a revolutionary culmination’. It is true that ‘this will entail a confrontation, throughout society, between two systems, two ways of life’ and that ‘in this confrontation, political consciousness will become heightened’. All this is well stated, but something is missing. Confrontation between whom? One presumes, one hopes, that Thompson means labour and capital, the working class and the capitalist class (not the idea of progress and the idea of stasis), but it is nowhere clearly stated. And the tiny fuzz that surrounds this question spreads rapidly: the moment Thompson directs the working class off-stage in his social confrontation, the state of that class’s political and social consciousness becomes of no immediate concern to him. It then becomes easy for Thompson to fix that consciousness: to give it its goals, to – and this is the crux – ignore the material factors in its development (just like the ‘vanguardists’ and ‘voluntarists’ which he inveighs against with such vigour). And so he blithely writes off ‘disaster as the prelude to advance’ forgetting that by disaster socialists have always understood those crises of capitalism – economic or political – which have fused individual and sectional struggles into classwide struggles, which have heightened consciousness of class and of the power of collective action; in other words, by disaster socialists have always understood precisely those conditions which bring together those ‘unrelenting reforming pressures in many fields’ at a time when they can be satisfied only through a ‘revolutionary culmination’.

But Thompson will have none of this talk of ‘conditions’ and suchlike in his sweeping revolt against determinism and ends up by more or less equating the struggle for socialism with the struggle for a change of attitudes within the socialist movement: ‘What is required is a new sense of immediacy’; ‘a break with parliamentary fetishism’; ‘research and discussion’. Yes; but how? It is time to sum up. Out of Apathy contains a lot of the good and a lot of the bad in the New Left. It is fresh and keenly sensitive to the more subtle brutalities of capitalism; it is passionate in asserting man’s responsibility for history, man’s creativity. But it shies away from a class analysis; it is blind to the material power of working class consciousness; it belittles the factors which impinge upon that consciousness. It has ideas, but unless these ideas become working class ideas aimed at working class power they will remain irrelevant to the socialist movement and powerless to advance it. [18]

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:

The word ‘working class’ is about the most dangerous word in the rhetoric of the labour movement ... the sectaries employ it platonically to indicate ideas not actually held by significant numbers of working people but ideas which they ought to hold, or which it would be in their interests to hold, if they conformed to an approved doctrinal system. In this case, a ‘working class idea’ is an idea of which Michael Kidron approves. [19]

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

I see IS in the tradition of political action, a paper designed to serve the agent of social change – the working class – and therefore necessarily devoted to problems of class and class consciousness. We are not intellectual democrats – class struggle is our overriding theme. We try to study its working, to enhance it in the form of workers’ independent activity. We try to link its phenomena through time and between countries. We don’t think this is a narrow field. On the contrary, class relations and activity (or the absence of it) are the key to most of today’s major problems; what cannot be related to them, we often find irrelevant to our aim – revolutionary social change.

Not so the New Left. Here is an intellectual liberalism that makes equals of all problems. True, class and class consciousness are recognised as fields of enquiry, but so is so much else, and all so well segregated. Little is done to bridge them. I defy anyone to see in the spate of words on cinema and sentiment, painting and politics the primacy of a single galvanising element, to see in fact anything but the dislocation between the Statesman’s back and front written large. It is not that I disagree with Thompson on class, but with its weighting in what he writes; I might agree with what the New Left as a whole thinks of the matter, but I suspect that it hardly gives it a thought.

In a word, to my mind IS is geared to action; NLR is not. Action demands priorities of preoccupation; inaction can do without. [20]

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:

For reformists capitalist instability is subject to cure within the system; for revolutionary socialists it is not. The reformist will point to the absence of major slumps since before the war; the revolutionary – apart from a lunatic fringe who see in every visit to the labour exchange a prelude to hunger marches – will accept the fact but question its relevance. Slumps have never defined the system; they merely indicated, viciously and publicly, its contradictory nature. Ultimately they derive from factors which are as inherent in capitalism today as they ever were, and which remain as powerful a source of instability.

Were it not that the productive forces of society are controlled by an infinitesimal minority of its members, the capitalists, the disposition of its resources over and above what is required for renewal would present no problem. It would conform to a pattern formulated by all in terms of present and projected needs and wishes. Were it not for competition amongst capitalists, whether organised in monopolies or not, there would be no compulsion for them to accumulate these surpluses and reinvest them in a constant, unplanned expansion of the productive structure. These statements are axiomatic in my argument. Without both these factors there would be no reason for the blind accumulations of capital – blind in the sense that it bears no immediate relation to the consumer needs of society – that has always defined the capitalist system. And it is this compulsive accumulation, the expansion of capacity in response to the exigencies of competition rather than to the needs of society, that has been the final cause of the periodic crises of overproduction that punctuated the development of capitalism until quite recently. It is also for Marx the underlying factor in the long-term decline in the rate of profit which, by lowering the ceiling of booms and shortening their duration, presaged for him a future of increasingly catastrophic slumps. [21]

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

An obvious outcome is the decline of reformism as a political movement. Whether it is measured in the shrinking individual membership of the Labour Party, or in the changing nature of the party as Gaitskell drags it towards Brandt’s SDP, or in the utter confusion of the honest reformist left around Tribune, the symptoms of decline are all too apparent. On balance workers still vote Labour – although the balance among young workers is slowly tilting away – but the expectation of improvement from changes at Westminster is dying, and with it the degree of political involvement on the part of the working class.

This is not to say that workers are any less interested in reforms than they have ever been. The permanent arms economy has provided full employment; it has created the expectation of continued full employment and to that extent a degree of self confidence and indifference to authority little known in working class history. It is hardly to be expected that this confidence and bargaining power will be wasted. On the contrary, far from there being less interest in reforms and less involvement in gaining them, there are more; what has happened is a change in the forms and arena of struggle and, to an even more marked extent, a change in the troops.

In a word, workers have become their own reformists. Where before they pursued their reformist aims – minimum wages, maximum hours, health and other welfare services – by sending representatives to parliament, now, with the decanting of power out of parliament into the huge private complexes that control the economy, they take steps to achieve the same end directly, without intermediaries other than shop stewards’ or similar local organisations.

It is no part of this argument to idolise this development after the manner of the syndicalists. It has unpleasant aspects. However militant a body of workers, or successful in improving their own conditions, unless their militancy is generalised into political action, it can only result in deepening the gulf between themselves and less fortunate sections, those that are either too old or not lucky enough to work in the concentrated and growing industries. The pattern of capitalist success merely assumes a cloth cap. Their activity is sectional, it multiplies the fragmentation of their class, substitutes a local, ad hoc consciousness for class consciousness, leads to a distrust of political ideas and political organisations. The indictment is long and could be extended. Nevertheless, these things are happening. To deny it, or the relevance of sectional militancy or do it yourself reformism to modern conditions is to ignore contemporary capitalism’s most characteristic features and the realism of the working class response to them.

But if there is no case for idolatry, there is equally no cause for despair. By becoming his own reformist the worker rejects the inhibiting influence of the organised reformist party. It is he, directly involved in his local primary organisation, who bears the brunt of the conflict with capital; it is he who takes the decision, with scant reference to authority, to act; and it is his appreciation of the relation of forces between those fragments of capital and labour with which he has direct experience that informs his activity. For him reform and revolution are not separate activities, enshrined in distinct and separate organisational loyalties; his transition from reform to revolution is natural, immediate and unhampered by the vested interests of a reformist organisation and one eminently responsive to changing circumstances.

It is here that the discussion of capitalist stability ties in with the argument. Were the system as stable as Collins suggests, there would be no question of transition. It is only because of its fundamentally crisis-ridden nature that we can posit the transformation of sectional consciousness and loyalties into their class equivalents, and therewith a change of society, sharp and cataclysmic, as a realistic alternative to the deadly status quo.

To say this is not to underestimate the difficulties of transition. Reality is infinitely more complex and contradictory than appears here. And working class history is a confusion of revolutionary opportunities lost, of revolutionary consciousness castrated by the very fragmentation that has enabled sections of the class to attain a high order of self mobilisation. But this is where we must stop. To continue would entail a detailed discussion of the role of a revolutionary party, the problems of its formation and the forms it could take.

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.


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 273, 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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