Michael Kidron (1939-2003)

Against the Current, No. 105, July/August 2003

Samuel Farber

MICHAEL KIDRON, A Marxist economist and founding editor of the British journal International Socialism, died on March 25 of this year. He was 72 years old.

Kidron was born and grew up as the youngest child of an ardent South African Zionist family that migrated to Israel throughout the 1940s. His older brother Avram eventually reached the position of Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, the number two position in that department.

While still in South Africa, Mike and his older sister Chanie had been members of the left-wing Zionist youth group Hashomer Hatzair. This was a very peculiar group that included a Trotskyist faction as well as a number of followers of the Marxist psychologist Wilhelm Reich. It also counted among its members a youngster named Larry Skikner, who later became the British film star Laurence Harvey.

Not too long after Mike arrived in Israel as a teenager, he became an anti-Zionist. So did his older sister Chanie, who married a Palestinian-born Jewish Trotskyist by the name of Ygael Gluckstein (Tony Cliff). Meanwhile, the family (with the exception of Chanie) had changed its name from Rosenberg to Kidron, a common Israeli practice of repudiating Yiddish sounding names.

From the early to middle 1950s, all three had left Israel for Great Britain where they founded, with a few other Trotskyists, a small group named Socialist Review (renamed International Socialism in 1962 and Socialist Workers Party in 1976).

Creative Theory and Politics

The group, under the guidance of Cliff and Kidron, developed a “bureaucratic state capitalist” analysis of the Soviet bloc countries with the corresponding slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism.”

They were also very keen in recognizing and developing an analysis of the great economic boom that had taken place in the economies of North America and Western Europe in the post world war II period. In this context Kidron worked on the theory of the Permanent Arms Economy as a key to understanding the relative stability maintained by the western economies during the postwar epoch.

Furthermore, the SR group saw the boom as creating the economic basis for working class reformism throughout the industrialized world. This later perspective was developed as a counter to the view that reformism was primarily caused by a “failure of leadership” of the unions or the revolutionary Left.

Similarly, recognizing the economic boom as a reality and major historical benchmark conflicted with the view, common then in far-left circles, that this economic growth had been artificial or fictitious and that a major economic collapse was just around the corner.

The Socialist Review group was a hard-working, activist group with a stable and strong leadership that shunned the Dr. Know It All arrogance common to so many groups on the Left, then and now. Its humility was one of its most attractive characteristics and it made it possible for it to talk to hundreds of young activists and grow accordingly.

I first met Mike when I arrived to London in the Fall of 1961 as a twenty-two year old first year graduate student at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Mike became my friend and since he and his wife Nina had just begun to have children, I shortly became “Uncle Sam” (just as Cliff had previously become “Glickshtick,” and so on with other group members).

This was one of dozens of examples of Mike’s playfulness, great sense of humor, charm and utter lack of pretentiousness. He also became my mentor, not out of any intention on his part, but because I learned much from him and because his personality was a practical demonstration that one could be a principled and militant revolutionary, and still be a “mensch” (Yiddish for a full person or human being).

New Look at Lenin

Mike was very supportive of my political and intellectual development and greatly encouraged me to write not just about Cuba (where I was born, grew up and had my first political experiences), but about all sorts of topics.

I did in fact review several books for the journal (under the pen name of Sergio Junco) but lacked the knowledge and self-confidence to undertake one of Mike’s initiatives. Mike wanted me to reexamine Lenin’s classic 1917 text State and Revolution both conceptually and in light of contemporary developments. This was very much in the spirit of the early years of International Socialism under Kidron’s editorship.

Mike himself tackled Lenin’s view of imperialism in a critical spirit. I felt then, and told him so, that he had excessively reduced the scope of the concept of imperialism to make it almost synonymous with colonialism.

Along the same lines, Tony Cliff criticized Trotskyist vanguardism in “Trotsky and Substitutionism.” I then realized that it was most unfortunate that the term “revisionism” had become identified with “reformism” since the turn of the twentieth century. Fundamentally, the International Socialism of the sixties was a “revolutionary revisionist” journal, and a very good one at that.

Mike was a non-dogmatic, independent, original thinker. He had a lot of respect for the facts and empirical evidence without that making him an empiricist. Perhaps because he was a professional economist, however, he tended to downplay the importance of ideological struggle.

Thus, he was indifferent and did not do well in a debate we took great trouble to arrange between Mike and the scholar Bernard Crick at the LSE. Characteristically, when I criticized Mike for his attitude and poor performance, he welcomed my critique with his usual good humor.

Leading by Example

I also learned a great deal from Mike, the political activist. At the time, the members of the SR tendency were active in the Labor Party. While I and other young sympathizers of SR were members of the Labor Party Young Socialists (YS) and published a paper called Young Guard, the adults were members of the Labor Party.

By sheer geographical accident, I was a member of the youth wing of the same South Saint Pancras and Holborn constituency party to which the Kidrons belonged. This was very much a working-class milieu, although being London, not one based on heavy industry.

I was in a good position to appreciate this class composition, since I was also a member of the Labor Society at the LSE, where with some exceptions most members came from middle- and even upper-class families.

Our local party campaigned for the 1962 municipal elections with the aim of replacing the Tory majority then controlling the local Saint Pancras Borough Council. Our central campaign plank was the reduction of the rates (rents) paid by the tenants of the local council’s housing.

On this basis, Labor did far better than expected and assumed control of the council. However, the Home Office (equivalent to the U.S. Attorney General’s Office) informed us that we could not reduce the rents without the authorization of the central government, then under control of the Tories under Prime Minister Harold McMillan.

With the Tory Party being very much against these sorts of local actions, there was no chance that the Attorney General would approve the measures adopted by our Council.

Faced with this situation, the Kidrons (Nina had been elected as a Labor Councilwoman) and other SR members such as Tirril and Nigel Harris argued that we could not betray the main plank of the political platform on which the new Labor majority had been elected.

Because of this, they proposed that the Labor councilors resign en masse as a first step in a national campaign to challenge the Tories on an issue with deep resonance in the British working class.

The majority of the Labor council members reacted with fury on hearing of the mass resignation proposal. There was no way that having been duly elected, they would resign their positions in pursuit of a larger, and to them pie-in-the-sky political goal.

To me this experience, in which the Kidrons played a leading role, was worth more than a dozen books on the difference between electoral politics and real substantive politics. In the last analysis, this was also a valuable lesson in the difference between social democratic reformism and revolutionary socialism.

Building Pluto Press

After the International Socialism group adopted “democratic centralism” (as usual, meaning far more centralism than democracy) in 1968, Mike began to gradually withdraw from the group. However, he was highly productive in these years.

In 1968, he published Western Capitalism Since the War. In the early seventies, he and Nina took over Pluto Press and converted it into one of the principal left-wing publishers in the English language.

His book of essays on political economy was published in 1974 under the title Capitalism and Theory. He also prepared, with Ronald Segal, several editions of the highly successful State of the World Atlas.

In the early 1990s, Mike returned to his life project, the attempt to comprehend and write about capitalism, not just as an economic system but also in its political, social and psychological aspects. He was not able to finish this project, although he had left some three-quarters of a million words in draft.

However, fragments of this vast work did appear as articles: “The Injured Self” (Socialist Register 2002, 229-244) and “Falling Growth and Rampant Costs: Two Ghosts in the Machine of Modern Capitalism,” International Socialism, Autumn 2002, 87-103).

With the passing of Mike Kidron, the revolutionary left lost an important thinker and a generous and free spirit. I lost a good comrade, friend and former mentor.

ATC 105, July-August 2003