Mike Haynes offers a tribute to revolutionary socialist thinker and organiser Colin Barker, who inspired him and many others to seek to understand capitalism so that it might be overcome and consigned to history.
Translation of Fiery Sounds of Prophetic Strings by Nick Evans.
I first encountered the International Socialists (IS) as a student in south London in 1969-1970. I can’t remember exactly when I joined. I had been a fellow traveller for several years – but it must have been in 1973-74. The focus of the IS at the time was on the working class and the importance of arguments about pay and productivity. This differentiated it amongst other groups originating in Trotskyism and meant that the short book that Colin had written on incomes policy with IS founder Tony Cliff was required reading. But I did not meet him in person until the first of the what came to be annual Marxism conferences in 1977 or perhaps later. I did not know him for as long as some people who may read this, or know him as well as others. We only saw each other very intermittently. But I followed him closely.
In Colin’s last months I had a clear out of some papers and put all of those long-unpublished essays I had from Colin in a folder. The earliest were typed. Then there were essays on the first personal computers – long printouts with perforated pages. Then came the neater ones printed with inkjet printers. Finally, there were the more recent ones (and newer versions of old ones) printed on laser printers. I put a photograph of the folder on Facebook hoping he would see it, with a message telling him that I was still following him. He replied straight away, saying ‘I thought I was following you’.
That is a very flattering idea. I hope some of the things I have written helped him but the truth is I was following him and I still am. Indeed, I remember telling him that his influence was not always positive. I said that he had given me a disease – Barkeritus. You may know its symptoms: Wild ambition. Dashing off for months to become an expert on something that others think obscure. Writing enormous papers that you circulate and then, just when you should finish them and see them published, something else comes along and you dash off in another direction. Fortunately, the wealth of what Colin produced is available on the website he set up. Hopefully more of the unpublished material will be edited and published in due course.
Many capitals, many states
Three things are important for me about Colin’s ideas, and I hope in different ways to be able to continue to build on them. The first is the centrality of the idea of state capitalism for making sense of capitalism. To those outside of the old IS tradition, talking of the importance of state capitalism for an understanding of Colin’s contribution will seem a little crazy. State capitalism is thought of as a special theory of Russia after the degeneration of the 1917 revolution and its satellites in Eastern Europe which formed the Soviet bloc. At worst many see it as totally confused. At best they see it is an attempt to solve the problem of the nature of the Soviet Russia by a crude analogy that relates state and military competition to economic competition. Either way, it is only of historical interest now.
Colin wrote a lot on the former Soviet bloc but he saw the idea of state capitalism as something much bigger. He thought it was an essential part of our understanding of capitalism – past, present and possible future. Russia was a special case but a special case of a state capitalism that was implicit in the capitalist system. Three things flow from this that Colin analysed.
One is the need to understand capitalism as a system where many capitals and many states compete. The capitalist system and inter-state system are not separate entities, not separate systems but are integral to each other. This then led on to his arguments about capitalist states plural – not the capitalist state. States do not simply support the capitalist system; they are active players within it. They guarantee the process of production and exploitation, they help to manage it, but they also produce and are exploiters themselves as a form of state capital.
Force within and between capitals
From this flowed a third emphasis, on the role of force within capitalism. Competition is not simply about the market competition of commodities – it is supplemented by force. Force is a central part of the external competition between capitalist states. It is also a central part of the labour process within and between them. Capitalism is about the wage relation but it also needs the whip and the threat and reality of prison. The term ‘whips, wages and prison’ comes from Diana Paton who has written on slavery and later forms of coerced labour in the Caribbean. I am not sure if Colin ever heard the phrase but I think he would have approved.
Each of these arguments is still anathema to many on the left. The over-rated Political Marxists have tried to build their own arguments in denial of each of them. The concept of state capitalism and the logical conclusions reached through it sets it against both orthodox Trotskyism and of course Soviet-inspired ‘official’ communism. But for Colin I think they were central, and they are for me too.
Connections and engagement
Colin’s second big contribution for me was his focus on finding connections. He saw capitalism as a complex system in which the different bits were held together and made to work by their dynamic links to production and exploitation. Teasing out these connections is central to his concern with uneven and combined development. Teasing them out is there too in his analysis of the Meiji revolution in Japan – the process by which Japan moved from feudal isolation to bourgeois nationhood. But he also tried to find these connections in small things and it is here that much of his work on social movements is important. Colin discussed big social movements – strikes, strike waves, revolutions – but he could also look for the connections in small ones, as when he analysed micro-protests in Manchester. He also looked for connections in another sense. He was continually trying to see protest and protest movements as not only linked to capitalism but could – in however a limited way – point beyond it. That was the importance of the link between alternative futures and popular protests in the conferences that he organised with Mike Tyldesley.
The third big thing I got from Colin was the importance of engagement. One aspect of this was the need to connect with people whether in writing, speaking or just conversation. To engage, you had to be engaging. Colin was always engaging, you were always interested, captivated. He was always interested in you and never belittled you. I remember Trevor Ngwane from South Africa, who is also a musician, saying that to speak in a meeting with Colin was like speaking with a jazz master. You never needed to worry about making a mistake. The master would always find something positive to develop out of what you said.
But Colin was engaged in another way and one which puts me to shame. He hailed from an earlier generation which was always organising politically. He was not necessarily always to be seen like his fellow IS and later Socialist Workers Party (SWP) comrade Ian Birchall – with papers in hand to sell. But he was still an activist. The conferences he organised were eclectic attempts to bring together academics and people engaged in popular protests. But he was trying to build an organisation, and when the SWP fractured he looked to continue that activist tradition with rs21.
So, these three things – state capitalism and its implications, the importance of connections and finding the links and the need for engagement stand out for me when I think of Colin.
How can I sum up Colin? Colin knew that as socialists we have been living in difficult times for some years. His optimism remained. As I thought about this, the idea of a spark of light in the darkness came to me and I remembered that Iskra – the name of the early Russian revolutionary newspaper – meant ‘the spark’. The paper had a line of poetry which said, ‘From our spark a flame will arise’.
This is a line from a poem by Alexander Odoevsky. Odoevsky was a Decembrist, the Russians inspired by the French revolution who in 1825 revolted against their absolute ruler the Tsar. The Decembrists lost. Some lost their lives, some lost long years in prison, and for decades their memory was lost too. Odoevsky died young in the Caucasus region of Russia and his poems were not published until decades later. In 1828 Odoevsky received a poem from Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet. Pushkin had sympathised with, but not joined, the Decembrists and Odoevsky appeared to think his poem not sufficiently positive. It had a line, ‘Your sorrowful labour will not be in vain’. In reply Odoevsky wrote a poem from which the line about the spark comes. Odoevsky’s short poem, written in 1828 or 1829 probably in Chita Prison, is called Fiery Sounds of Prophetic Strings.
Fiery sounds of prophetic strings
Reached our ears;
Our hands grasped for our swords
But acquired only chains.
But bard be still! The chains
Of our fate we take pride in
And behind prison bars
In our heart we laugh at Tsars.
Our sorrowful labour will not be in vain:
From a spark a flame will arise
And our enlightened people
Will gather under its holy banner.
We will beat our chains into swords
And light once more the flame of freedom!
It will descend upon the Tsars
And the nations will sigh with joy!
Although I hope Colin would have appreciated having the poem in English it doesn’t feel the right note to end on. I find myself seized by Barkeritis. Who was this Alexander Odoevsky? Find out more – look for the connections. It turns out that he was a friend of Mikhail Lermontov – one of the greatest figures in early nineteenth century Russian life, who was killed at the age of 26 in a duel. Lermontov was rather like a Russian Keats or Byron. His single ‘hit’ novel is A Hero for Our Time. When Odoevsky died in 1839, possibly of typhoid or typhus while in forced military service, Lermontov wrote an appreciation of his friend. As a tribute I don’t think I can better it.
In Memory of A I Odoevsky, slightly adapted for Colin
We knew him well, for we and he had wandered …
It seemed that he was born for hopes like those,
Of poetry and joy but stubbornly
He tore himself free of childish clothes,
And threw his heart into life’s noisy sea.
The world would not save him, nor did God raise
A finger. Yet, till the end, through all that strife,
In teeming crowds or deserts void of life,
The quiet flame of feeling always blazed
And his eyes sparkled, blue as summer days,
His ringing laugh, his voice’s rhythms
His proud belief in people and in heaven.