Paul Anderson, review of The Socialist Debate by Bogdan Denitch (Pluto, £19.95), Tribune, 20 April 1990

In the first chapter of The Socialist Debate, Bogdan Denitch describes the milieu, on the radical fringes of the Trotskysant New York intelligentsia, in which, as a young Yugoslav immigrant to the United States, he was politically active in the forties: “In the eternal almost talmudic debates between leftist grouplets we were for the sailors at Kronstadt, and the anarcho-syndicalists and POUMists in Barcelona in 1937, and the Left Opposition in Russia in the late twenties and thirties. We opposed the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. We opposed the forcible extension of Soviet power throughout Eastern Europe and the imperialist agreements of Yalta and Tehran which legalised the new division of the world. Our journal of choice was Dwight McDonald’s wonderful Politics, and I was heartbroken when he stopped publishing in 1949 with a gut-wrenching issue entitled ‘Dilemma’.”
The dilemma was whether it was possible to maintain a politics of opposition to both superpowers at a time when there seemed to be no base for any such thing and the west appeared a lesser evil. McDonald thought that it was time to give up; Denitch was one of the small group of leftists who decided to stick to their “Third Camp” guns. Forty years on, he is still playing the same tune, albeit with a lot less revolutionary rhetoric.
The Socialist Debate is a strange hybrid of a book. It seems to have been conceived as a “why you should be a socialist” tract, but fortunately Denitch is incapable of resisting the temptation to engage in polemic of great sophistication. His current political position is characterisable as workerist left social democracy. “Today it might be ironically appropriate to raise the slogan: forward to classical reformism,” he writes after an enthusiastic passage on Sweden’s advanced wel­fare state.
This is a rather unfashionable stance, but he defends it with a verve unmatched on the traditional British democratic left. Like many of his generation, he shares the Leninist distrust of self-managed, non-party politics, and some of his best passages are withering assaults on the woolly politics of the “new social movements”. He is also extremely provocative on “fundamentalist” greens, whom he savages for arcadian anti-rationalism; and he attacks with relish the ideas of well-off critics of consumerism and full employment.
Although Denitch marshals some good arguments, in the end his old leftism, with its tendency to reduce all politics to class politics, fails to convince. Never­theless, this is a worthy effort – and its bibliography and footnotes are an excellent guide to the best left writing of the past 40 years.
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