Developing Marxist theory

The Critique journal is celebrating its 50th issue. Peter Manson spoke to its editor, Hillel Ticktin

What would you say have been the achievements of Critique over its 50 issues?

What we set out to do in 1973 was to initiate a serious theoretical study of the Soviet Union. That had been sorely lacking on the left, which had not undertaken a thorough examination based on Soviet experiences and material in Russian. Not having such experience to draw on and knowing very little about the detail of Soviet life, the left for the most part resorted to dogma.

You mean notions of the USSR as some kind of deformed workers’ state or an example of state capitalism?

Yes, that’s right. And we did succeed in breaking down this resistance to a more scientific approach and start to encourage the left to drop its dogmatism.

Other than that, we undertook to develop Marxist theory and apply it to current circumstances more generally. Obviously one journal cannot go very far, but that was our aim and I think we achieved some modest success.

Our first issue had a print run of over 2,500 and it sold out very quickly. We subsequently increased this to 5,000. During this time we continued to focus on the Soviet Union.

When were you in the USSR yourself?

The early 60s. Although I was critical of the Soviet Union before I went there, I was nowhere near as critical of it as I became. What I saw was in fact worse than what was being described by people either on the right or left - the great difficulties of everyday life, the atomisation, the awfulness of state control that went far beyond anything in Nazi Germany. I was also surprised by the extent of anti-Semitism.

I didn’t know any Russian before I went to the USSR, but I took lessons in the language during my period as a PhD student in Moscow.

How has Critique’s role evolved over the years?

Well, we began with the Soviet question and gradually changed in the direction of a more rounded Marxist journal. Clearly one’s understanding of the Soviet Union was a key part of that.

From the beginning, Critique organised conferences - the latest is this Saturday. Our 1973 conference attracted 500 people, with Ernest Mandel, Ralph Miliband, myself and other speakers. Those events certainly had an impact.

At first we were probably naive. I wanted to be non-sectarian and embrace all the different views on the Marxist left. So we had, for example, members of the International Socialists/Socialist Workers Party, Paul Sweezy of Monthly Review and the International Marxist Group on the advisory board. Mandel was also on it. But this simply did not work.

The IS wanted Critique to carry articles elaborating its state-capitalist view of the Soviet Union and was unable to see beyond that. There was also a problem with the IMG. The people on the board were fine, but they did not really agree with the leaders of their organisation. A complication was that the journal had been founded by people in the Institute of Soviet Studies, but the IMG took a different approach.

It soon became clear that Critique had to be independent and even an advisory board where representatives of the groups were present was a problem.

But we were certainly on friendly terms. Mandel and I had a debate in London - in 1978, I think - that went on all day. But people gradually dropped off the board and its nature changed, although Mandel remained on it.

How do you see Critique developing?

Originally the intention was for it to come out twice a year, but for a time it was nearer once a year. Now, however, it is published by Routledge and comes out quarterly.

The journal now has more space and we have a policy of publishing anything of sufficient quality within the Marxist tradition. The aim remains the same: to develop Marxist theory.

The features we have published around the question of capitalist crisis have been better than most published elsewhere. Most of what passes for ‘analysis’ in the media - and on the left - has been hopeless. There is no real explanation as to why crises take place - apart from pointing to the bubble, which does not explain anything.

The debate over the theory of crisis does, however, show that it is possible for there to be a number of different views within Marxism. In one sense there are more viewpoints within Marxism than outside it.

Critique has always adopted themes for exploration. In the last couple of years you have personally become involved in campaigning for a Marxist party. Do you think that the question of party might be a useful theme to explore today?

To do that we would have to have writers of sufficient quality. The left is in a very poor state and is desperately in need of theory before a party can be formed …

 … which is in itself a question of theory.

As I say, it is not that easy to get good people to write. We could hope for the best and accept anything that comes, but I would want contributions of a high enough standard, which are not always that easy to get. So that would be a problem.

However, it might be useful to have an issue on that question. That more or less relates to the present situation - that is to say, the situation resulting from the crisis. It is fairly obvious that more people will look to socialism, but will not know how to get it. The attitude towards capitalism has clearly changed. We knew it does not work, but the present crisis has made that more obvious to many people, including those who are suffering badly as a result.

One would therefore expect a demand for change and so, yes, that puts the question of party on the agenda. That is linked to the question of crisis - a long-term one, not merely cyclical, and one that will develop more and more powerfully.

As for themes more generally, the crisis will no doubt be an ongoing one. We have one theme per year and the current one is ‘Marxism and freedom of expression’, coinciding with our 50th issue. In 2011 we are planning to revisit the question of Stalinism - it just so happens that it will be 50 years since Khrushchev ordered the removal of Stalin’s body from the mausoleum in Red Square.

I was actually in Moscow in 1961 - the university department where I was based was opposite Red Square and the event created a tremendous stir at the time. I went there during the session of the 22nd Congress when Khrushchev made his speech and a whole lot of people had come to Red Square. They were milling around and actually speaking to each other about politics, which was quite different from anything that had happened for more than 40 years.

1961 was undoubtedly an important moment, and so we in Critique are using the opportunity of the anniversary to look back at the whole question of Stalinism. This is particularly pertinent, since there has been something of a revival of Stalinist nostalgia in Russia.

Which says a lot about the failure of the international movement for socialism.

Yes. Hopes in both the market and for a better society have been dashed. But a residual yearning for a socialist future remains. These are some of the issues we will be discussing at our February 27 conference.

Remembering the past, rethinking the future

Saturday February 27, 12 noon to 5pm: Critique seminar, London School of Economics, room B212, second floor, Columbia House, corner of Aldwych and Houghton Street, London WC1.
Speakers: Hillel Ticktin, Mick Cox. Followed by celebration of 50th issue.
Organised by Critique: critique.journal@yahoo.co.uk