Between Sartre and Cliff: Ian Birchall, a heterodox Marxist’s trajectory

Selim Nadi conducts a wide-ranging interview with long-standing revolutionary socialist Ian Birchall, touching upon his introduction to Marxism, the International Socialist current and his writings, specifically on French history, culture and empire. Selim is an historian and anti-racist activist based in France, and is a member of the editorial board of the journals Contretemps and Période. The original version of the interview is available hereAdditional translation by Joe Hayns.

View of the demonstrations in Toulouse, June 11–12, 1968 (Municipal Archives of the city of Toulouse)

SN: Could you give a sense of your entry into militant politics? It seems to me that you were politicised at university – could you explain the road you took, from the Labour Party to the International Socialists (IS)?

IB: Although I had begun to explore some socialist ideas while I was still at school, and had been influenced by writers such as Jean Paul Sartre, it was when I went to Oxford University in 1958 that I began to be involved in left-wing politics. I became a supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which in the early 1960s was able to mobilise large demonstrations of up to 100,000 people. And from this I also became involved in the Labour Party. This was also the time of the so-called ‘New Left’. The British Communist Party was always quite small but it had some influential intellectuals; after the crisis of 1956 many of the former Communist Party members began to explore new ideas, and in 1960 New Left Review was founded. It was quite an exciting intellectual milieu, and I began to encounter some of the very small Marxist groupings that existed. Their analyses seemed to me to be more useful in explaining and understanding the modern world than those of the left wing of the Labour Party to which I had initially been attracted. At the end of 1962 I joined the International Socialists of which there was a small group – perhaps eight or ten people – in Oxford.

How did you meet Tony Cliff? You’ve written a book about him – Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time. What was your intellectual and political relationship with Cliff?

IB: The International Socialists was a very small group – perhaps a hundred members – so I met Cliff soon after joining. Cliff was anxious to draw new members into activity, so I was given jobs to do. Cliff was a remarkable person – totally committed to the revolutionary project, he seemed to have little interest in anything other than revolutionary politics. But he had an enormous influence on me and helped me to form my understanding of the world. Firstly the theory of state capitalism was very important. It was not just a theory about Russia but an argument about what did, and did not, constitute socialism. In particular it stressed that state ownership and control of the economy did not in any way constitute socialism. I think this was very much in the tradition of Lenin’s view of the state in State and Revolution. And secondly Cliff was very much a realist – unlike some of the Trotskyists of the time he did not believe that capitalism was on the verge of collapse. He accepted that the post-war boom (the trente glorieuses) was real, and that therefore reformism had real roots in working-class experience.

Whilst you were active against the Vietnam War, what was you relationship with Third Worldism in the 1970s? It seems to me that, on the question of Vietnam, you had a different approach to both Cliff and Michael Kidron. Could explain what differentiated your respective views? Was there, in these different views, a different understanding of the realities of imperialism?

IB: I don’t think you should give too much importance to this. I accepted the analyses of Cliff and Kidron about developments in the Third World and I did not believe that Cuba, Algeria, Vietnam etc. were developing towards socialism. But, like many of my generation, I was angry at the brutality of the American war in Vietnam. I was involved in the founding of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, and I tried to encourage the International Socialists to become more involved in the campaign against the war. By 1967-68 things were changing and the International Socialists were heavily involved in the big demonstrations against the Vietnam war. But I don’t think there was a theoretical difference.

Recently, Haymarket published a selection of Kidron’s writing. Kidron played a major role in the International Socialists, and its journal, International Socialism, but he was also a cartographer and an economist. In what way was that work pertinent to his politics, do you think? Perhaps it was irrelevant?

IB: Kidron was a remarkable intellectual and a very impressive individual. In the 1960s he was best known for his theory of what he called the Permanent Arms Economy. This was an attempt to explain the long post-war boom in Western capitalism. Kidron’s explanation had been widely criticised and he himself criticised his earlier positions. But the great merit of his work was that, unlike many on the left, he recognised that the boom was real and had a real effect on class consciousness, but also, unlike many in the Labour Party, he argued that capitalism had not permanently changed, and that sooner or later the boom would come to an end. This was extremely important for our perspectives, although that is a debate about a period now long gone. Kidron left the International Socialists in 1977, and devoted himself to publishing, setting up Pluto Press. When he died in 2003 he left behind an uncompleted manuscript. This was of highly ambitious scope, covering ideology, nationalism and the state. In his account of modern capitalism he attempted to integrate science, culture and psychology.  Hopefully this may be made available online, and I think it may influence a new generation of Marxist thinkers.

Could you explain the rupture in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)? After 50 years in the organisation, you sent a letter of resignation to the party’s national leadership. In this open letter, you recalled the success of the SWP – the Anti-Nazi League, its role during the 1984-5 miners’ strike, the anti-war movement, anti-racism, the struggle against sexism. However, you wrote that with ‘the events of the last years’ – the accusations of rape committed by a senior party member and the inability of the party’s leadership to face the situation – the SWP was floundering, especially after having lost hundreds of members. What is today the state of the SWP, which before this ‘crisis’ was a credible force amongst the British radical left? More generally, what is the state of the revolutionary left in the UK?

IB: I should make it clear that I can’t give a full answer to this question. For the last three years I have been in poor health and have been unable to attend meetings and demonstrations, so what I know of the state of the left is based on what I am told by other comrades and what I read. In general I am fairly pessimistic about the state of the SWP and the far left in general. The SWP continues to exist and does some good work. It has some younger members, though I think it is dominated by older comrades. It seems to me to lack the imagination and the innovative approach it had when Cliff was still in the leadership. Many of the best of the younger comrades left in 2013. Its real membership is at best about a thousand, though it claims more. It seems to me that its practice is largely conservative – it carries on doing the same things it has done for years in the past. It still stresses selling papers, although print journalism is generally in decline. It stresses anti-racist campaigning (not a bad thing in itself) and has been a little involved in the climate change movement (though that could change). Organisationally it still insists on a version of ‘Leninism’ adopted in 1968, a very different world. In generally I think the rise of Corbyn has weakened the far left: young people who ten years ago might have looked to the far left are now joining the Labour Party.

How do you see the success of Corbyn over the last years?

IB: Corbyn is a very rare phenomenon in British politics – or in politics anywhere – in that he is an honest man. He is not a revolutionary – though he has worked with revolutionaries, notably in opposition to the Iraq war. But in the 2017 general election he offered a mildly radical programme and this aroused considerable enthusiasm, encouraging large numbers of people, many young, to join the Labour Party in order to support him. This was undoubtedly a positive phenomenon, opening up the possibility of spreading socialist ideas.

But at the same time there were great problems with the Corbyn experience. Firstly the enthusiasm for Corbyn was in some senses a sign of weakness: the oppressed and exploited people who backed Corbyn did not have the strength and confidence to fight for their aims, so they hoped Corbyn would do it for them. And secondly, it is impossible to take over the Labour Party from the top down. The great majority of Labour Members of Parliament do not support Corbyn, and many are willing to do anything, even lose an election, in order to sabotage his chances. The press has run a virulent campaign against him. The Guardian, the most left-wing of the daily newspapers, has run a savage campaign.

And then came the accusations of antisemitism. There is antisemitism in the Labour Party, and it should be condemned totally, but it is very limited, and has been greatly exaggerated by those who want to harm Corbyn. My own feeling is that Corbyn has been so damaged, so much forced onto the defensive, that he cannot win an election, and if he did, he would achieve very little. But I have been wrong about Corbyn in the past, and I may be wrong again.

Could you return to the experience of the Anti-Nazi League (ANL)? How do you explain the success of this initiative?

IB: The Anti-Nazi League was one of the great successes of the British left in the 1970s. In the mid-1970s the National Front, an openly racist organisation, was becoming very strong. It seemed likely that it could become part of the political mainstream, as the Front National was to do in France a few years later. We had confronted them on the streets and had prevented them from marching. But it was necessary to build something broader which offered a real alternative to the far right. The ANL was launched on the initiative of the Socialist Workers Party, but it was far broader. Although some of the organisations of the far left refused to take part, we drew in a large number of Labour Party activists, and organised groups in trade unions. But there was also a cultural dimension, provided by Rock Against Racism, which had been formed earlier in opposition to openly racist statements by the musician Eric Clapton. So in parallel to the more political work there were concerts and carnivals, bringing together black and white musicians. My friend and comrade David Renton has written an excellent history of the ANL, called Never Again, which I hope will be translated into French.

The major part of your work is dedicated to France. You have written a book on Sartre, Sartre et l’extrême gauche française (Sartre and the French Far-Left), a number of texts on the Parti Communiste Français (PCF), and also on revolutionary figures, such as Gracchus Babeuf and August Blanqui. More recently, you have written an article on Hadj Ali Abdelkader – PCF member and figurehead of the Algerian revolution. Where does it come from, this particular interest in the French left?

IB: It goes back to my youth. At school and university I specialised in studying languages (French and German). In many ways it would have been better if I had studied history, but the history I learned at school (kings and queens of England) was very boring, so I found the study of languages and literature more interesting. In 1961-62 I spent a year in France working as an assistant in a school. It was the last year of the Algerian war. I was in a very small town in the Massif Central, so I was not involved in any activity, but I was aware of what was going on, and of the possibility that there might be civil war in France. At the time I probably understood quite little of what was going on, but the period has always fascinated me and I have tried to find out more. When I joined the International Socialists, the fact that I knew foreign languages meant that I was given responsibilities for international contacts. After 1968 we had close relations with Trotskyist organisation Lutte Ouvrière (LO) and I helped to organise an international conference jointly with them. Later I also had contacts with the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire (LCR) and Révolution!/OCT. I met a number of comrades from various currents of the French far left – Denis Berger, Jean-René Chauvin, Alain Krivine… So I have always taken an interest in French history and especially the history of the French left.

I first became interested in Babeuf at the time of the bicentenary of the French Revolution in 1989. I had been very impressed by the work of Daniel Guérin who had discovered elements of ‘permanent revolution’ in the French Revolution. Some of my own comrades criticised me for deviating from orthodoxy. When I began to look at Babeuf I was surprised to find what a remarkable thinker he was and how much of value there was in his work. In particular I wanted to challenge what I saw as an essentially Stalinist view that Marx represented an absolute beginning and that he had no ‘predecessors’ – it was thought that by seeing Marx as having predecessors the originality of his contribution was somehow denied. I wanted to insist that Marx was part of a long historical process, and that it was precisely his ability to draw on and learn from his predecessors that constituted his greatness.

You have written about the ‘forgotten founders’ of the PCF – especially those from the revolutionary syndicalist tradition, and particularly those grouped around La Vie ouvrière (Worker’s Life). What importance did these ‘forgotten founders’ have for questions sometimes considered secondary – questions of feminism, the anti-colonial struggle, and so on? You evoke, in particular, the figure of the Robert Louzon – who is, for me, an essential figure for French anti-colonialism – and also Marthe Bigot, a feminist teacher. How do you explain the forgetting of such figures, even amongst, it seems to me, the radical left?

IB: I think the main blame has to be put on Stalinism. For many years the PCF claimed to be the true heirs of Lenin, and therefore anyone who had played an important role in the history of the party but who had become a critic of Stalinism was simply written out of history. I would add that Trotskyists were not innocent in this respect: they tended to ignore those who had opposed Stalinism but did not support Trotskyism organisationally. Thus Pierre Monatte, a leading figure in pre-war syndicalism, disagreed with Trotsky – who said he had ‘crossed the Rubicon’ – and as a result his memory was largely lost. Likewise with Louzon. I agree with you about his importance. As far as I know there is no biography of Louzon, which is a great pity. It is only recently, now that the Cold War has disappeared into history, that important studies of the early years of the PCF have been written, notably by François Ferrette and Julien Chuzeville. While I recognise the validity of some of the Marxist criticisms of revolutionary syndicalism, I also think there was much positive in it – no tendency had a monopoly of truth.

One of the key ideas of your work on Sartre is that whilst he is often been reduced to the role of fellow-traveller of the PCF, his relationship with the French far left – to Trotskyists in particular – was more complex. Could you return to this point? What role did Sartre’s experience amongst David Rousset and George Altman’s Rassemblement Démocratique Révolutionnaire (Revolutionary Democratic Rally – RDR) play?

IB: It was when I first read Les Communistes et la Paix (The Communists and Peace) – often seen simply as a rapprochement with Stalinism – that I noticed that Sartre was familiar with some of the arguments of the Trotskyist left and that he was concerned to debate with them. I was fascinated and tried to find out more about Sartre’s connections with the far left, something most historians – because they were ignorant of Trotskyism or considered it politically insignificant – have neglected. I discovered from Annie Cohen-Solal’s biography of Sartre that at the time of the RDR he had written a document jointly with Jean-René Chauvin. I had already met Chauvin – a remarkable man who had survived the Nazi camps of Mauthausen, Auschwitz and Buchenwald. I had a fascinating interview with Chauvin, who told me of his activity with Sartre. Whether the RDR could have succeeded I don’t know – it was a brave attempt to organise a left independent of both Washington and Moscow, but perhaps the context of the Cold War doomed it to failure. What is certainly true is that the situation was not helped by the sectarian and negative attitude of the Trotskyists, who lost perhaps half their membership as a result of their refusal to cooperate with the RDR. In general Sartre remains for me an important figure, and if we can learn from his mistakes, we can also learn a great deal from his achievements. A number of recent books have shown that there is much positive in Sartre’s legacy – Ronald Aronson, Camus and Sartre, Sam Coombes, The Early Sartre and Marxism, Paige Arthur, Unfinished Projects.

In the work you are currently engaged in, which returns to the authentically internationalist traditions of the French left, you have given an entire chapter to the Dreyfus affair. To what extent have the difficulties of the left to come to terms with the affair marked the left’s subsequent development, in terms of the question of race?

IB: There is a version of the chapter you refer to here. Very briefly, I think that the left failed over Dreyfus, not because it was antisemitic (though there certainly was some antisemitism on the left) but because it had not developed a means of relating the central importance of class to the struggle against racism. The need to develop such an approach, in both theory and practice, remains an essential task for the left. And the left’s failure with regard to Dreyfus meant that it was weakened over the succeeding years. It was the mainstream republicans who took the lead in defending Dreyfus and picked up the rewards. Chief among them was Georges Clemenceau, who had courageously defended Dreyfus, but became prime minister and repeatedly sent the army to shoot on striking workers.

In the same book, you write that 1962 marked a turning point in French history. Whilst colonialism had been formally terminated, there were a good number of challenges to French internationalists – especially the new forms of French imperialism. Whilst you recognise various contributions of French Third Worldism, you also point to certain limits. What were these limits? Many important intellectuals and militants, as different as Tony Cliff and Maxime Rodinson, were extremely critical of Third Worldism, whilst being involved in anti-imperialist struggles.

IB: In general I accept the critique of Third Worldism that I learned from Tony Cliff, Michael Kidron and Nigel Harris. Very briefly, there are two main elements. Firstly, that struggles for national liberation – though they should be supported unconditionally – do not lead necessarily to the establishment of socialist regimes. The experiences of Vietnam, China, Cuba, Algeria show that such struggles generally culminated in some version of state capitalism. And secondly, for revolutionaries the ‘main enemy is at home’. In the 1960s and 1970s some revolutionaries devoted a lot of their time and energy to celebrating what they saw as victories in other parts of the world – Tony Cliff used to call this ‘vicarious pleasure’. The most important thing for revolutionaries to do was to challenge their own ruling class. (I believe that when a deputation of Italian Communists visited Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh told them the most useful thing they could do to support the Vietnamese struggle was to make the revolution in their own country.) The argument is still very relevant. For example, it is important to campaign against US intervention in Venezuela. But that should not mean taking an uncritical attitude to the Maduro government.

In a number of your texts, you point to the ‘problems’ of the French left, the face of racism. How do you see the evolution of this left, in relation to racism, over the last years?

IB: I can’t really answer this question. Because of my health problems I have not been able to visit France for the last four years. I was very impressed by Jim Wolfreys’ book Republic of Islamophobia, and I largely agree with the analyses he presents there. In particular I think a very critical approach to the whole tradition of laïcité is important. Beyond that I can’t say more.

What is your intellectual and political relationship to the Trotskyist tradition today?

IB: I was formed and developed politically in the Trotskyist tradition, and learned my Marxism there. So in some ways I still identify with it. If I am attacked as a Trotskyist by a Stalinist or a supporter of the right wing of the Labour Party I shall still say ‘I am a Trotskyist and proud of it’. Trotsky was a great Marxist thinker – the theory of permanent revolution, his analyses of fascism, his writings on culture: there is still much there that is valuable. For my generation the discovery that there was an alternative tradition of Marxism to Stalinism was extremely important. Nonetheless I think the Trotskyist tradition was flawed from the outset. Because of his isolation and the terrible attacks made by the Stalinists, Trotsky took a very defensive approach to Marxism. Moreover, he tried to impose his positions and analyses on the movement and excluded those who disagreed with him. As a result authentic revolutionaries such as Victor Serge and Alfred and Marguerite Rosmer never joined the Fourth International. And as a result the whole history of the Fourth International is a history of splits, with each grouping claiming a monopoly of truth. There is still much to learn from Trotsky, but ‘Trotskyism’ is dead.

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