By Chris Harman
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Obituary: Permanent Legacy

This article is over 21 years, 2 months old
Chris Harman remembers Mike Kidron, who helped Marxists understand the post-war boom and Third World revolt.
Issue 273

Mike Kidron, who died last month, was probably the most important Marxist economist of his generation, although he never received the recognition he deserved from the academic Marxism of the 1970s and early 1980s.

He became a political activist in the mid-1950s when revolutionary socialism faced a double challenge. Most people saw bureaucratic societies with totalitarian features like the USSR and China as the culmination of the century-old struggle for an alternative to capitalism. At the same time, Western capitalism seemed to have changed fundamentally as it went through the longest boom in its history and let go, one by one, the colonial possessions it had used such barbarous means to procure. The great majority of the activists in the workers’ movement internationally were pulled either towards the Stalinist caricature of socialism, or repelled from it into the arms of liberalism and social democracy.

There were ‘New Lefts’ trying to resist the pull to apologise for the rival forms of oppression and exploitation of Washington and Moscow. But they were small in number, even if they occasionally found themselves in the forefront of important movements (against nuclear weapons in Britain, for Algerian independence in France, in the Civil Rights movement in the US). And they rarely had the intellectual clarity to escape being pulled, albeit reluctantly, to embrace the assumptions, if not the enthusiasms, of one or other of the Cold War rivals.

Reality of the boom

The best known Marxist economists outside the orbit of official Communism found it all but impossible to come to terms with what was happening. Their initial response was to deny the reality of the boom (so the influential American Marxists Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy presented a ‘stagnationist’ account of the system in their work ‘Monopoly Capital’, published in 1964 when the boom was at its height, while the early writings of the Belgian Marxist Ernest Mandel assumed imminent slump) and then to flip over to accept that ‘neo-capitalist’ state intervention was able to ward off crises (a view that found its way into Mandel’s writings in the mid-1960s). And almost all ‘New Left’ writings referred to the Stalinist states as ‘socialist’, or at least ‘post-capitalist’, and usually presented them as a model for the Third World at least to follow (see, for instance, Paul Baran’s ‘The Political Economy of Growth’).

Overcoming such theoretical confusion required a recasting of parts of established Marxist thinking–what historians of science call a ‘Copernican revolution’. Tony Cliff had started such a revolution with his ‘The Nature of Stalinist Russia’, published in 1948 (and soon to be reprinted in Volume III of his selected works). He had developed the concept of bureaucratic state capitalism to explain the USSR and, in passing, had pointed to arms expenditure as a countervailing factor to the tendency to crises in any form of capitalism. Mike Kidron expanded on these hints in a series of articles and books from 1957 to the mid-1970s to provide an overview of the system as a whole.

His first articles appeared from 1957 onwards in the monthly (and for a period fortnightly) paper ‘Socialist Review’ that he edited for the small revolutionary socialist group of the same name (a forerunner of the SWP). In these he challenged the notion that the mixed economy and ‘Keynesian’ measures by governments had somehow changed the character of capitalism fundamentally and pointed to the role of arms expenditure in providing temporary stability for the system. He developed these ideas at greater length and with greater theoretical stringency in a series of articles in the journal ‘International Socialism’, which he founded and edited from 1960 to 1964–‘Rejoinder to Left Reformism’ (1961), ‘Imperialism: The Highest Stage but one’ (1962), ‘International Capitalism’ (1965), ‘A Permanent Arms Economy’ (1967)–and then in two books, ‘Western Capitalism Since the War’ (1968) and ‘Capital and Theory’ (1974).

His central argument was that capitalism was militarised to a degree unknown before in peacetime. This militarisation may have arisen out of the struggle between rival empires to colonise the rest of the world, but had taken on a life of its own. The sheer scale of arms spending had produced a massive growth of manufacturing production, but had also reduced the tendency towards periodic crises. It provided a guaranteed market for key sections of industry. And it reduced upward pressure on Marx’s ‘organic composition of capital’, so offsetting the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. The system had brought stability by becoming more barbaric than ever before. And along with the barbarism went a waste of human resources on an enormous scale, amounting, he calculated, to more than half of the output of the US in 1970. But, Mike insisted, even the stability would not last. Different countries spent different proportions of their national output on arms, with Japan and Germany benefiting from the market provided by the arms spending of the US and Britain without having to pay for it. This translated into differential competitiveness when it came to the struggle for markets–and, over time, to a tendency for the old cycles of boom and slump to re-emerge.

The argument was incredibly important in the early 1960s, when the apparent stability of the system was leading even opponents like Herbert Marcuse to write off any possibility of it being torn apart by class conflict. It remains important today, since we still have to understand why none of the recessions of the last 30 years has reached the depths known in the early 1930s.

Mike’s account of Western capitalism had its corollary in his view of what was happening in the Third World. When he entered into political activity there was still a battle waging to evict the Western countries from their colonies in Africa and Asia. By the early 1960s the battle was all but over, with the most important colonies achieving independence. Yet Europe’s capitalists saw their profits were booming, in a way which seemed to contradict the best known theory of imperialism, that of Lenin. Mike carried through a series of analyses of the relations between the Western economies and the Third World which showed that things did indeed no longer fit into Lenin’s theory. It had, he insisted, been accurate as both a description of the world and a guide to action when it was put down on paper in 1916, in the midst of world war. But the very militarisation of the Western economies had changed their relationship to the rest of the world in important respects. Financial capital was no longer king at home. The flood of capital seeking increased profitability in the poorer countries of the years before the First World War was reduced to a trickle in the 1950s and 1960s, with most foreign investment flowing between advanced capitalist countries. And the Western economies had developed ways to synthesise raw materials during the two world wars and were much less dependent on importing them from the Third World than previously.


The post-war boom of the 1950s and 1960s led many to conclude that capitalism was no longer in crisis.

Some capitalist interests might resist decolonisation–and inflict terrible pain on those who fought for it in Kenya, Algeria or Angola. But the bulk of the capitalist class in the advanced countries could easily reconcile themselves to it. And once independence was achieved, local and foreign capital in Third World countries tended to work together to try to establish new manufacturing industries. Their collaboration, he argued, spelt the end of the old multi-class movements for national liberation led by sections of the local bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie. In the Third World, the workers would increasingly find themselves fighting alone against domestic and foreign bosses alike.

In two pieces in ‘Capitalism and Theory’, he added two other elements to the analysis. He showed by a combination of rigorous argument and empirical research that Western workers did not benefit from the exploitation of people in the Third World as claimed by theories of ‘unequal exchange’. And he claimed that the sheer scale and level of productivity of industry in the West made it all but impossible for Third World countries to achieve the successful development their rulers craved. Such an analysis at the time was as important as that of the permanent arms economy, cutting through fashionable views about Third World revolts substituting for working class struggle in challenging the system as a whole.

It is clear in retrospect that the analysis was insufficient in three respects. It underestimated the ability of certain countries (the Asian tigers, Greece, Portugal) to industrialise by inserting themselves into niches within Western markets. It ignored the ever greater dependence of the whole system on one raw material, oil, as it lost its dependence on others, so repeatedly pushing the Middle East and the colonial enclave of Israel to the centre of world politics. And it confused the end of colonialism with the end of imperialism. On this last point, Mike’s mistake flowed from his dependence on Lenin’s Imperialism, with its fixation on finance capital and colonies, rather than on the rather broader analysis implicit in some passages in Lenin and developed by Bukharin, which saw imperialism as the struggle for domination of the world system as a whole between ‘state monopoly trusts’. In one of his articles, Mike wrote, ‘Capital is still monarch–shorn of empire it may be, but yet more terrible than hitherto, more refined and still more barbaric, more firmly bedded in blood and filth than it has ever been.’ This is a description of what Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin–and we–would call imperialism, and of the horror it is inflicting in the Middle East today.

Like many of his generation, Mike began to drop out of active political engagement with the downturn in struggle internationally after the mid-1970s. He also began to suggest that there had been some holes in the analyses he had played so much part in developing earlier. ‘Two Insights do not Make a Theory’, he entitled an article in 1977, arguing that the trend was towards a world dominated by the conflict between completely statified capitals and the marginalisation of privatised, multinational capitals. In this world, he saw little room for the old economic struggles between unionised workers and their employers. Some of us argued against this, just as we argued against the view of another former editor of ‘International Socialism’ that the internationalisation of capital made the state redundant and military conflict a throwback to the past.

However, about the importance of Mike’s contributions to Marxist theory we never had any doubt. No adequate analysis of world capitalism in the 21st century can succeed without building on them. We were overjoyed when, after a 25-year gap, he provided an article full of hatred and analysis of the system for a recent issue of ‘International Socialism’.

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