Duncan Hallas

Ideas without action

(January 1984)

From Socialist Review, No.61, January 1984, p.32.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Socialist Arguments
edited by David Coates & Gordon Johnston
Martin Robertson £5.95

According to Tony Benn, writing in the Guardian (20.6.83),

... for the first4ime since 1945 a political party with an openly socialist policy has received the support of over eight and a half million people...it is indeed astonishing that socialism has reappeared once more upon the national agenda and has won such a large vote.

The editors and most of the contributors to this book have no time for that kind of hollow rhetoric. Writing before the general election in which the Labour Party got its lowest percentage of the total vote since 1918, the editors note “the shallowness of its (the Labour left’s – DH) roots in the wider society”, the absence of arty broadly based belief in the efficacy and desirability of a socialist alternative, “the paradox at the heart of the British left’s present dilemma, the parallel absence of capitalist economic stability and mass support for a socialist alternative”.

They are therefore incomparably more realistic than Comrade Benn and his deluded acolytes, not to mention the self-deluded ‘entrists’ in the Labour Party. That is a merit and a very considerable merit.

It is, however, to define the matter negatively. What, actually, do the contributors to this volume have in common apart from a recognition that socialist ideas, not to mention socialist, activity, are very much minority concerns? This is true even in the working class (however defined) let alone in ‘the wider society’.

I take a summary of their position from the publisher’s blurb – admittedly not the responsibility of any contributor but in this case not at all inaccurate:

The editors are both members of the Socialist Society. This book contributes to that Society’s aim – of creating a sophisticated and widely understood socialist counter-culture, and of winning mass support for socialist ideas.

It is a seductive notion, especially for those who earn their living by the discussion of – one might almost say the trade in – ideas, debates, criticism.

Moreover it has some apparently weighty precedents. Some works of Gramsci (although hardly the Gramsci of The Modern Prince on any candid reading) may be and have been interpreted in the sense that ‘hegemony’ in the field of ideas must be the central objective for socialists and can, in principle, be achieved by ‘independent’ socialist intellectuals. There is an obvious British precedent too, although it is not cited in this work, of which the subtitle is Socialist Primer No.1. This is an echo, conscious or not, of the Primers for an Age of Plenty, written by Hogben in the late thirties.

Now Hobgen’s works (Mathematics for the Million, Science for the Citizen) were immensely influential contributions to socialist argument and conviction as well as quite brilliant expositions of basic (if somewhat dated) scientific ideas. Immensely influential by an objective test: 400,000 copies of Mathematics for the Million and 370,000 of Science for the Citizen were said to have been sold by 1946.

But this success has to be seen in a political context. Hogben himself was never a Stalinist but his whole approach fitted in beautifully with the ‘Popular Front’ line of the Communist International.

I cite this example not to denigrate Hogben. His works – like those of the real Stalinist J.D. Bernal on broadly similar themes – are well worth re-reading today.

Rather I have cited it to draw attention to a basic truth. It was the Communist Party, small as it was, Stalinist as it was, that played an absolutely essential role in creating the situation in which Hogben, the more important Left Book Club and the rest, could influence the ‘wider society’. Without the Communist party, without the rebuilding of its industrial base in the late thirties, without its intellectuals, the whole intellectual development, such as it was, would have been aborted.

Which brings us to the Socialist Society. Founded early in 1982, its true nature is equivocation; not revolutionary (my God, no!) not uncompromisingly parliamentarian that might upset some potential supporters, but neither fish, flesh, fowl, nor good red herring.

Is that unfair? The introduction to the book states:

The project of which this volume is part was prompted by the enormous imbalance of intellectual resources that exists between those who would defend capitalism in Crisis and those who would replace it by a democratic socialism.

Well, yes. The ‘imbalance’ is there, as it must be, so long as the balance of forces between the reformism (including the Bennite reformists) and the revolutionaries in the workers’ movement favours the former.

To alter that balance of forces requires a combination of circumstance and will. Above all it requires a nucleus of’ revolutionaries. Circumstance we cannot control, will we can. The question is, do the contributors to this volume have the conviction and the will to destroy British capitalism?

Perhaps some do, most don’t. The result is a mish-mash in which Frank Field, persecutor of Militant, writes one of the best, at least clearest and most unequivocal pieces (on the Welfare State). But he is an unequivocal opponent of revolutionary socialism, and to be fair to him, has never pretended to be anything else.

So what of the “building a whole socialist counter-culture” which the editors proclaim? A ‘counter-culture’ means, must mean, a revolutionary culture.

It can’t be done in alliance with the Frank Fields or with the less honest and less involved academics who make up most of the contributors to this book.

There is a great deal of useful information in the book. At £5.95 it is not a bad buy. But in terms of “winning recruits to our cause”, as the editors put it, it is a non-starter.

The determination of the editors to avoid what they call “gratuitous sectarianism” ensures that all the real and immediate issues are evaded. Read this book for information; not for politics.


Last updated on 25.11.2003