On Michael Kidron

Against the Current, No. 107, November/December 2003

Phil Hearse

ATC 105, Samuel Farber wrote informative and moving tributes to Julius Jacobson and Michael Kidron. Can I just add a couple of points about Kidron?

In the 1950s, `60s and `70s Kidron was best known in the British far left — notorious among “orthodox” Trotskyists — for being the co-founder with Tony Cliff of the International Socialism tendency and the IS’s main theorist of the “permanent arms economy” idea. His version of the permanent arms economy argued that massive state spending on armaments played the role of stabilizing capitalism by destroying huge amounts of capital, preventing over-accumulation and thus warding off the tendency for the rate of profit to decline.

In retrospect, it seems to me that Kidron’s theory involved a vital insight, but the precise form of the theory was wrong. Indeed in 1977 Michael Kidron wrote a partial self-criticism (“One Insight Doesn’t Make a Theory”), which was duly attacked by Tony Cliff’s faithful lieutenant Chris Harman for giving up theoretical conquests.

Irrespective of the precise form of Kidron’s theory, there is no doubt that arms spending played a key role in the generation of the post-war boom. In 1949 the American economy was in a big recession and heading for slump.

This was turned around by the huge increase in arms spending started by the Korean War. As Dean Rusk said: “The Korean war saved us.” Whether arms spending could permanently stave off recession is another matter; nonetheless the role of arms spending in generating employment, technological innovation and an upward curve of the economy in the 1950s and `60s can hardly be doubted.

In the late 1960s Kidron was involved in a sharp polemic with Ernest Mandel, which was widely read on the British far left. In 1967 the English edition of Mandel’s “Marxist Economic Theory” came out. Kidron wrote a savage review (“Maginot Marxism”) accusing Mandel of regurgitating leaden orthodoxies, and particularly trashing his idea that there could be a “transition period” between capitalism and socialism. Social relations change in one fell swoop when the workers take power, said Kidron.

Mandel’s long reply “The Inconsistencies of State Capitalism” concentrated on the weaknesses of the state capitalism theory. Again in retrospect, state capitalsm — whatever its political merits — seems to me the theoretically weakest account of Soviet-type societies.

My guess is that Kidron’s view of Mandel probably changed. Pluto Press published Roman Rosdolsky’s “The Making of Marx’s Capital,” and Mandel acknowledged that his discussions with Rosdolsky were a key launch-pad for his magnus opus, “Late Capitalism.” That at least could not be accused of just repeating leaden orthodoxy.

Up until 1968 the IS tendency opposed “Leninism” and sought inspiration in Rosa Luxemburg. Like Victor Serge’s biographer Peter Sedgwick, Kidron was obviously depressed when Cliff changed sides and took up a top-heavy version of “Leninism” in 1968. I don’t doubt that Kidron’s work at Pluto Press was very valuable; but like many, many others he never found an adequate, simultaneously militant and democratic organization to pursue the struggle. That seems to me a real tragedy.

ATC 107, November-December 2003