Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Classical Marxism / Dissident Marxism (2005)

David Renton, Classical Marxism and David Renton, Dissident Marxism
Written By: Nik Howard
Date: April 2005
Published In LSHG Newsletter Issue 24: Summer 2005 

David Renton, Classical Marxism: Socialist Theory and the Second International (New Clarion Press, 2002); David Renton, Dissident Marxism: Past Voices for Present Times (Zed Books, 2004)

Classical Marxism and Dissident Marxism form part of an as-yet-unfinished series of books by Dave Renton on the history of Marxism from 1883 up to the present. In this sense, they must be regarded as forming a developing argument that is still unfolding in print, with Renton’s book on Trotsky being the latest offering.

These two books place great stress on the diversity within the Marxist tradition. Treating a wide array of Marxist activists – from the French socialist Paul Lafargue to the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin (Classical Marxism) and from the Russian Futurist and revolutionary poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to the British counter-cultural political writer David Widgery (Dissident Marxism) – the breadth of the author’s learning is impressive.

The nature, strategy and tactics of revolutionary practice are central and inform these books from start to finish, as Renton makes the past richly relevant to how activists think and act today. In particular in Dissident Marxism, he provides the new and libertarian anti-capitalist and anti-war movements that have mushroomed since 1999 with a history of previous dissident Marxist activist traditions still largely unknown to them.

The attention given in Dissident Marxism to less well-known figures within the Marxist tradition is also a feature of Classical Marxism. Renton’s original treatment there of figures such as Lafargue and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, as well as the choice to include Tom Maguire over William Morris, all attest to a refreshing openness in both books to the ‘margins’ of the tradition.

Renton’s tasks in these volumes appear twofold. The first is to urge the anti-capitalist and anti-war movement to learn from the history of dissident Marxist rebellion. The second is to make a valuable contribution to the debate about what Marxism is or should be in our time. A crucial aspect of this for Renton consists in remonstrating with orthodox Marxists retreating from the present to a historically outmoded ‘classical Marxism’. As the author underlines again and again, “socialist ideas only have validity in so far as they are continuously checked against the test of the present”. Moreover, the “task of rethinking Marxism compels us to challenge every argument advanced in its name. Karl Marx himself swore by the motto ‘doubt everything’.”

Renton defines classical Marxism as a synonym for ‘Second International Marxism’. He sees it as having effectively died by 1914 due to the support for the war by the German SPD. Setting his face against any contemporary tendency to “return to a pure set of left-wing values”, Renton argues that there are “no definitions in an abstract realm of political science” and that classical Marxism was both more diverse and contentious than any abstract philosophical definition of classical Marxism allows.
This historicisation of classical Marxism in all its messy, concrete and discrete particularity to specific contexts (1883-1914) is a cogent move if properly understood. It combats the complacent notion that the socialist truth is or was already out there (say, in Marx, Lenin or the revolutionary party), complete and beautiful, with only (!) the need for its realisation. Thus for Renton, the rubric of classical Marxism is flawed as a means to build a new Marxist mass movement because it is a symptom of an irremediably defensive posture that is long obsolete as well as questionable in its depiction of historical reality. Hence Renton’s plumping for dissidence as a method in theory and practice to break the comforts of orthodoxy.

More concretely, Renton stands with Flynn in her call for Marxist parties to develop a “more militant, more progressive and more youthful” face. For this to happen, Renton affirms in Dissident Marxism, Marxists need more of Widgery’s talent “to explain, challenge and persuade” with emotional intelligence, rooting “more theoretical arguments in the physical reality of people’s lives”.

Renton’s two books articulate the need for new thought, new practice and new blood with such passion, based not on grand theory and abstruse philosophy but on reaching hearts and minds in an accessible way, that they deserve to be read carefully and acted upon.

But these books are not without their faults. There are arguably misleading implications behind the titles, which might better have been qualified in some such way as ‘Biographical Essays on Classical/Dissident Marxists’, for neither Classical Marxism nor Dissident Marxism are particularly systematic theoretical works. This is a real weakness given the nature of the arguments he wishes to make, despite many very important insights and illuminations he provides on the way.

Probably the most damaging criticism of these two books is the tendency not really to adequately expound his main concepts – of classical and dissident Marxism. This is connected to Renton’s preference for an indirect style of argument. When, as in this case, an extended argument requires completing, the lack of an adequate theoretical introduction and conclusion does not help the cause.

This particularly manifests itself in his apparent argument for dissidence over orthodoxy. The author himself is never quite clear: for example, was Lenin a dissident or a classical Marxist, or both? I think he has to argue for the last option - that, through his break with the Second International and immersion in Hegelian dialectics, Lenin became a dissident from 1914 onwards - for his argument to work, but he does not convey this unequivocally. In failing to do so, he unnecessarily allows grist to the mill of his critics.

Nonetheless, I await further writing by Renton on these themes, albeit more adequately and consistently theorised, for, at their best, these books are excellent.

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