One consequence of LSE being shut down was a new student demand to be taught Marxian economics. They had only the vaguest notion of what it entailed, but they knew it stood against everything they loathed – America, the Labour government, the Vietnam War and capitalism. In the UK, in those days, there were several left-wing groups.
The orthodox Communist Party was on the decline, but there were still prominent academics – Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and Maurice Dobb – who were known to be communists. The more popular groups, as I’ve mentioned earlier, were the Trostkyist groups, especially the intellectual International Socialists.
Their leader went under the pseudonym of Tony Cliff. He had written a trenchant critique of Stalinism and described the USSR as a state- capitalist rather than a socialist nation. Michael Kidron – who had written a very good book on foreign investment in India – and Nigel Harris, who was a prolific writer, were also in the IS, as the group was known.
There was another group led by Gerry Healy – the Workers Revolutionary Party; it was said to be much more dogmatic. Gerry Healy was an authoritarian but charismatic leader and attracted famous people such as Vanessa Redgrave and her brother Corin. David Hare’s play The Party, in which Laurence Olivier played the lead, was based on Gerry Healy’s life. A third Trotskyist group was the International Marxist Group, in which Tariq Ali was a prominent member. They also had Ernest Mandel, the prominent Belgian Marxist, as one of their leading lights.
There was much debate, mainly critical of the USSR but also of the US, in these circles. The works of Marx and Engels were discussed, many of which were coming into English translation for the first time. The “Young Marx” and his philosophical notebooks had just been published and that gave many people a chance to be “Marxist” without committing themselves to anything very radical. The debate about the nature of the Bolshevik Revolution and the class character of the Soviet Union was central to the Trotskyist critique of Stalinism. But even among the Marxists as a whole, there were debates as to whether Marx’s teaching had been distorted by Engels, or whether there were yet more manuscripts to be found, which would explain why revolutions had not occurred in mature capitalist countries.
It is hard to imagine now, decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, how much the hope of a revolution was part of the future trajectory in the imagination of all socialists. The Trotskyists were sure that there would be a worldwide revolution in which the Soviet Union would become a genuine workers’ socialist society rather than a state-capitalist, elite oligarchy. How was this New Society to be organised if not by diktats from the top?
The answer seemed to be endless meetings to determine what people wanted, who was to do what, and who got paid how much. The Marxists, to a man (and they were largely men), rejected any notion of the market allocating goods. To that extent, they were united.
But the puzzle remained as to why capitalism had lasted so long, and how one could explain it in terms of Marx’s economics. Had Keynesian economics solved the problems of capitalism or was this just a temporary revival? Was it due to spending on armaments – the so-called Third Department following Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of Marx – that capitalism was able to get rid of its problems of under-consumption and unemployment?
Imperialism was also a theme due to the US’s involvement in Vietnam, but there was no serious economic debate about imperialism as was the case among Indian and other Third World Marxists. Some people had become pro-China and criticised the Soviet Union for collaborating with the US and betraying the Vietnamese revolution.
Most of the discussion, however, avoided economics. Most Marxists, of whatever hue, did not know much about Marx’s economics. At best, they had fixed on their ideas from reading Lenin on imperialism or some more derivative work. They all thought capitalism was doomed but differed on what would take its place. Since the USSR was no longer the beacon of hope, what alternative arrangements would have to be made for a future socialist society? How to avoid the dictatorial nature of Stalinism?
These questions were discussed but in a muddled way. So I decided to start teaching Marxian economics on a voluntary basis. I had read much about Marx’s economics since my days in Bombay. This gave me the chance to do a more systematic study. It became a lifelong interest, and I ended up writing three books on Marx and one on Lenin. But of that, too, more later.
Back in London, I settled into a routine. But it was clear to me that while my academic work would carry on, politically the student agitation had reached a dead end. Despite their enthusiasm and sincerity, the students lost their battles. It was claimed that they had at least changed some people’s consciousness, but I thought that was a paltry consolation.
While students are a transient lot in universities, teachers are there for the longer term. I had to think of my political life since I knew I would not just be an economist, taking no part in the political life around me. In India, I had gone many years earlier to the inaugural meeting of the Swatantra Party. Since then my views had moved considerably to the Left, thanks to my stay in the US and my exposure to issues around civil rights and Vietnam.
I was beginning to think out a position of my own, which was not related to any of the left-wing groups around. For one thing, I did not like the authoritarian structures of left-wing parties; whatever their critique of Stalinism, they all behaved like Stalinist parties – endorsing thought control disguised as democratic centralism. Growing up in India was a deep lesson in the necessity and desirability of democracy. My stay in America had strengthened this resolve and in the UK I could even vote in the elections as I was a Commonwealth citizen.
I had no illusions that anything like Marxist socialism would ever come to any developed country; I knew enough Marx and enough history to know that. The real question remained: would such a prospect hold out for India? India had even more Marxists parading as revolutionaries (even in the top echelons of the government, as I had discovered during my visit to Delhi) than in the UK. But they were all mainly Stalinists – in the ideological rather than pejorative sense – and they adhered to the orthodox Communist Party line.
Although the Communist Party had split into CPI and CPM, both their theories were based on Lenin’s idea of a stage-wise revolution in developing countries. The differences between the two parties – made much of by them, as was true of the minuscule left-wing groups in the UK – from any theoretical perspective were minor.
Gautam Appa had been known to me ever since I came to LSE. In 1965, he was in his final year in BSc Econometrics, so I got to know him well. He went on to do a master’s and a PhD in operations research and eventually taught at LSE all the way to his retirement as professor. He was much more committed to the ideals of revolutionary Marxism than I was. He was also very active in the anti-racism campaigns in the UK, having joined the Indian Workers’ Association.
Perry Anderson, a formidable intellectual, was then the editor of the New Left Review. He had shown interest in an article on India. Gautam was studying the Naxalbari movement in detail, while I had some knowledge of left-wing politics in India. So we both ended up writing an article each in the New Left Review – I wrote a long piece and Gautam wrote a shorter piece on Naxalites.
We had a meeting at the New Left Review offices, with all the editorial board members present. They were all well read but most sceptical of the revolutionary possibilities in India. My article “Vortex in India” came out in 1970 in the May-June issue of the New Left Review. I have to confess that the somewhat Sturm und Drang introductory paragraph is Perry’s, not mine.
My main argument was quite pessimistic about the possibility of any socialist revolution in India, and I gave my reasons using such Marxist analysis as I could command. It became a much read piece and was later reproduced in a revised and extended form in Robin Blackburn’s 1975 collection, Explosion in the Subcontinent. M
y overall perspective was that India had a weak bourgeoisie, and its capitalism was underdeveloped. But any further development of capitalism was to be welcomed even from a Left perspective, since – unlike what happened in Russia and China – I did not believe a weakening capitalism would further the chances of socialism in India.
I believe this to be the classical Marx perspective, not Lenin’s. Marx, in my view, embraced the progressive possibilities of capitalism for developing countries (which meant most of the world, apart from UK and France, in his time). Thus I welcomed the Green Revolution, which had happened in India in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in my 1975 article, which was retitled “Contradictions of Slow Capitalist Development in India”.
Most people who read the article did not appreciate this point, and I acquired a reputation as a fiery left-wing economist. While I did write a lot about Marx and Lenin, my political view was always that capitalism had much longer to go before socialism could become possible even in developed countries, let alone the less developed ones. China’s subsequent turn towards capitalism in its economic path was evidence for this classical Marxist view.
With such a view, it was no surprise that I decided to join the Labour Party. I had, of course, read my colleague Ralph Miliband’s classic book Parliamentary Socialism which treated any such idea as an oxymoron. But I still believed that a social democratic or a democratic socialist option was the best one in an advanced-capitalist country like the UK. It would be gradualist, reformist, and often compromised; that was to be expected. Yet I felt that if I wanted to change the world around me, the best way I could do it was by joining the Labour Party.
Excerpted with permission from Rebellious Lord: An Autobiography, Meghnad Desai, Westland.