Callinicos glosses over the history of Marxism

Phil Sharpe discusses an essay by Alex Callinicos, the chief theoretician of the Socialist Workers Party.  It is published in Sulle tracce di un fantasma: L'opera di Karl Marx tra filologia e filosofia (On the Tracks of a Spectre: The Work of Karl Marx between philology and philosophy), edited by Marcello Musto and published by Manifestolibri.

Alex Callinicos' analysis of Anglo-Saxon Marxism from the 1930's to the present attempts to be both descriptive and analytical. But his method is flawed because his emphasis is on the descriptive, and the result is the general exclusion of the role of the critical in his analysis. Consequently, he glosses over the importance of the troubled history of Marxism, which by the 1930's was based upon the tension between the attempt to elaborate a genuine revolutionary Marxism and the official formal Marxism of Stalinism.

Callinicos considers that the weakness of theory in the 1930's is caused by the absence of a mass Communist Party. He is therefore unable to explain how the official theory is problematic and suffers from the attempt to reconcile the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy with the creative intentions of the author. For example, Callinicos describes the work of Communist Party fellow traveller John Strachey as 'brilliant', because of its innovative attempt to reconcile Marx and Keynes.1

What is omitted from this description is any understanding that such a hybrid of Marx and Keynes was promoted by Popular Front considerations of trying to reconcile reformism with the strategic goal of socialism. The result of this hybrid is that Strachey advocates the aim of a managed capitalism as the path to socialism. Such a theoretical approach may be understood as intellectually brilliant, but it is also compatible with the Stalinist bureaucracy's attempts to achieve a reconciliation with Western capitalism. In contrast, the revolutionary Marxism of the 1930's - Trotskyism - did not have a mass publisher, because of its opposition to Popular Frontism.

It would also seem from Callinicos' description that it was the Communist Party that was responsible for the group of British historians that developed an understanding of history from the perspective of the exploited and oppressed. What is not obvious from Callinicos's account is that such a talented group of historians could only emerge from within the Communist Party because they generally wrote about history before the 1917 October revolution, and so did not comment on the practice of the Third International. Writing the history of the British Communist Party was left to the usual sycophants of Moscow. Consequently, when one of the most talented of this group, EP Thompson, developed criticisms of the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, the result was his break with the Communist Party and the adoption of an anti-Stalinist stance. In contrast, Eric Hobsbawn who did not leave the Communist Party, still wrote history, but he did not write about the present until the Communist Party had dissolved in the early 1990's. In other words, the development of a talented group of historians from within the Communist Party was not because of the Communist Party but was rather despite its limitations of ideological conformity.

Callinicos is also complacent about the American context for Marxism. It is certainly true that Paul Sweezy and Paul Baran emerged from an American Communist Party background to write talented works on political economy.2 However, such work was part of the trend towards the convergence of Marx and Keynes. This meant the contradictions of capitalism were primarily located in terms of the distribution of the surplus, and the capital-labour relation was left untheorised. Hence, it was questionable whether Baran and Sweezy represented the flourishing of a Marxist political economy that could challenge the Keynesian orthodoxy of the 1950's. Instead capitalism was criticised for its waste rather than the exploitation generated by the process of capital accumulation, and therefore the working class of the West was written off as an agency of revolutionary change.

Callinicos is content to write of the history of Marxism after the 1950's in similar terms to that outlined by Perry Anderson. Firstly, he seems to suggest that the modernisation thesis of Anderson was one of the most important contributions to an understanding of the British class struggle. He does mention the objections of EP Thompson to this theory, such as the rigid application of the French model of bourgeois revolution to the British situation, and the role of the struggles from below, which are underestimated by Anderson. But the overall impression is that Anderson provides the most explanatory theory of the failure of modernisation of British society is because of the limitations of the bourgeois democratic revolution.

Such a theory is unable to explain why Britain became the most dynamic of capitalist societies in the 19th century, and that its decline was due to the parasitic character of the role of British imperialism in the 20th century. In other words, Anderson inverts the relationship between economics and politics, and therefore arrives at the view that the antiquated political institutions undermined the economic development of British society. Such an approach is unable to explain how the economic decline of Britain interacts with the role of increasing antiquated institutions of the state, like the House of Lords and Monarchy.3 The problem is not the completion of a mythical bourgeois democratic revolution, but the inability of the state to create the conditions for the economy to compete effectively with its rivals.

Secondly, Callinicos uncritically accepts the Anderson view that revolutionary Marxism has been represented by Isaac Deutscher and Ernst Mandel in the post-war period. Hence, he does not discuss the strategic problems with their tendency to argue for the possibility of the self-reform of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the so-called period of de-Stalinisation. Furthermore, he eclectically tries to identify the undoubted literary brilliance of Deutscher with Tony Cliff's theory of state capitalism by describing them as both being examples of creative revolutionary Marxism. Consequently, he glosses over the differences between Deutscher and Cliff, and the classification of revolutionary Marxism is filled with Callinicos' own preferences for the founders of his own Socialist Workers Party organisation. Such partisanship means that Callinicos makes only brief mention of CLR  James as a Marxist historian, and ignores his unique development of a philosophical and dialectical theory of state capitalism. It was James who was the real intellectual rival of Deutscher in this period.4

Callinicos also uncritically follows Anderson in describing Marxism as going through an Althusserian crisis that was rescued by the development of Anglo-Saxon analytical Marxism. Such a comfortable view attempts to refute the more plausible view that analytical Marxism is a new form of a theoretical crisis caused by the positivism of Althusserianism. An essential aspect of the Althusserian approach was that structuralism complemented the historical materialist approach of Marxism. Althusser had rejected the Hegelian heritage of Marxism as idealist, and so scientific Marxism was defined as the late Marx and its structuralist rationalisation. So, when structuralism was critiqued by the increasing anti-Marxist themes of post-structuralism, the result was crisis. The scientific understanding of class was said to be undermined by the role of power, and the epistemological claims of Marxism to provide knowledge of the class struggle was said to be compromised by knowledge as power. This crisis of Althusserianism happened in the mid 1970's, and so the development of analytical Marxism in the late 1970's seemed to be an answer to this crisis.

What actually occurred was that structuralism was rejected as the methodological rationalisation of Marxism, and instead the themes of analytical philosophy, functionalism and economic game theory were dressed up in Marxist forms. Gerry Cohen provided one of the most famous and creative examples of Analytical Marxism with his attempt to outline the explanatory primacy of the productive forces.5 An important problem was that whilst he tried to prove the importance of the productive forces in terms of the causal importance of rationality, the relation of the productive forces to the class struggle became obscured. Furthermore, Cohen could not explain the significance of modes of production like feudalism when stagnation has been an important economic characteristic. Hence, his trans-historical and over-generalised concept of rationality could not explain the historical uniqueness of capitalism, which was able to rapidly develop the productive forces because of the dynamism of the process of capital accumulation.

However, the main contentious issue is not that Cohen inaccurately described history, but rather that the ontological relation between rationality and socialism is problematical. To Cohen, socialism only has historical credibility if it can generate relations of production to develop the productive forces more effectively than capitalism. So, the historical necessity of socialism is reduced to a technical question of the role of the productive forces, and issues about striving to end alienated labour and exploitation are considered to be Hegelian and Feuerbachian residues within Marxism. In other words, just like Althusser, important aspects of Marxism are dismissed as anti-scientific, and Marxism is defined as credible if its conforms to a new scientific procedure. Like Althusserianism, the approach of Cohen and other analytical Marxists becomes subject to crisis not when Marxism is subject to scrutiny, but when the new method is found to be wanting. When his functionalism was increasingly criticised, Cohen's form of analytical Marxism entered into crisis. 

So contrary to the illusions of Anderson and Callinicos, analytical Marxism has not meant the renaissance of Marxism. Instead analytical Marxism has provided 'theoretical' credibility to the perspective of market socialism, and the apologetic acceptance of capitalism as the only possible contemporary economic and social system. Callinicos outlines the supposed advances of analytical Marxism, and is essentially silent about these problematical aspects, in order to maintain his view of a rebirth of Anglo-Saxon Marxism. What would be more constructive than these apologetics would be to attempt to contrast real and authentic Marxism with what are flawed and positivist trends that substitute social scientific fashions for the principled development of Marxism.


(1) John Strachey: A Programme for Progress: Victor Gollancz: London: 1940
(2) Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy: Monopoly Capital: Monthly Review Press: New York 1966
(3) Andrew Gamble: Britain in Decline: Macmillan: London 1981
(4) CLR James: Notes on Dialectics: Allison and Busby: London 1980
(5) Gerry Cohen: Karl Marx's Theory of History: Oxford University Press: 1980

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