Dissident Marxism

Review of:

Dissident Marxism by David Renton.  Zed Books, 2004

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'. David 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? 

Review first published in: Radical  Philosophy 131 (May/June 2005), pp. 51-2