Bob Sutcliffe, a well-known Marxist economist for over fifty years, and at one time a comrade of ours in the Workers’ Socialist League of 1981-84, died on 23 December 2019, aged 80.
I last talked with Bob about 10 years ago, when I was seeking interviews and discussions with Marxist economists about the 2007-8 crisis and its aftermath. Bob explained that his health was bad, and he couldn’t contribute, but he was, as ever, friendly, helping me with introductions to other economists. He was then, and had been for some years, working as a university teacher in the Basque country of Spain.
When I first met Bob, in 1981, I was overawed. Educated at Oxford and Harvard, he had been a big figure in Marxist economic debate since at least 1972, when he published British Capitalism, Workers, and the Profit Squeeze (with Andrew Glyn) and Studies in the Theory of Imperialism (with Roger Owen).
The first issue of the magazine of the “new” Workers’ Socialist League was a special on the world economy written by Bob (later republished by Pluto under the title Hard Times.
I was trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps into economics — just finishing a evening-class economics course at Birkbeck, which then had a cluster of Marxists in its economics department.
Bob, however, had none of the airs of the Great Marxist. He was open, keen to discuss. I remember him advising me on the best sources for international economic statistics.
Bob came into the “new” Workers’ Socialist League from the “old” Workers’ Socialist League of Alan Thornett, which had then, in 1981, merged with the group I’d been in, known for the publications Workers’ Fight, Workers’ Action, and Socialist Organiser.
He was untypical of the political culture of that “old” WSL, which was still (though decreasingly: otherwise the merger would never have been on the cards) dominated by declamations round the words “crisis” and “alternative leadership”. It was like walking through a workshop where people were slamming hammers and axes, and finding someone in a corner quietly operating precision tools.
On Friday 2 April 1982 the Argentine military junta invaded the Falklands, islands 400 miles off the coast of Argentina inhabited since the 1830s by a small community of British settlers. The next morning, Saturday, I was sitting next to Bob in a coach going from London to a demonstration.
Clearly, Bob said, we could not back the junta. The positive response had to be self-determination for the Falkland Islanders. Of course we would oppose the Thatcher government going to war over the invasion, as it immediately decided to do.
Everyone from the “side” of the merged organisation that I came from had pretty much the same reaction. We and Bob managed to persuade most of the old-WSL people. And others: the next issue of our paper had a front-page article by an Argentine Trotskyist in Britain, a “Morenist”, denouncing the Argentine conquest.
In May, though, the old-WSL core swung over to a pro-Argentine position. A furious faction fight erupted, and continued long after the war ended on 14 June. Those who stuck by the new WSL’s almost-unanimous initial principles were denounced as “pro-imperialists” and worse.
Bob stuck by his principles. He wrote well on the issue, though with a sort of pretence that he was just offering individual opinions, not taking sides against his old-WSL comrades.
The faction fight wounded him politically, and by the time the merger finally broke down in early 1984, he was long gone. He moved to the USA, then to Nicaragua, then to Spain. As far as I know he was not again involved in organised revolutionary politics
I think that when a student and a young academic at Oxford he was impressed by the old Workers’ Revolutionary Party of Gerry Healy (from which the old WSL was a splinter). His 1972 book on imperialism paid tribute to Tom Kemp (a Healyite academic) for his book Theories of Imperialism (actually hack-work) and to Bernard Reaney, who in the early 1970s led a small group from the Mandelites into the WRP.
It was more common then than now for left-wing academics to feel that they should be involved in activist revolutionary politics. But some of them, and maybe Bob too, felt that the only way to do that was by a sort of arranged disunity of theory and practice, deferring to activists on practical day-to-day politics and reserving their theoretical knowledge for background.
His 1972 book with Andrew Glyn on British capitalism was Bob’s most influential and most controversial. Although it, too, name-checked Reaney, it was far from the stereotype-quotes-from-Marx style of the WRP (and, less crassly, other groups too). It said, essentially, that the Tory ideologues who blamed British capitalism’s profit slump on workers pushing up wages were right —but a good thing too!
Bob did little polemic against critics of the book. His 1981 survey carried only a muted version of the 1972 thesis (after all, wage militancy had dwindled, but capital was still troubled). He continued to resist those who attributed all crises to the supposedly scriptural “tendency of the rate of profit to fall”. He was credited by Philip Armstrong, Andrew Glyn, and John Harrison as having offered help and comment to their 1991 book trying to rework the 1972 thesis as part of a general account of Capitalism Since 1945, but was not a co-author.
Robert Brenner’s The Economics of Global Turbulence, in 1998, carried the most detailed factual refutation of the 1972 thesis, showing that it relied on a romanticisation of the wage militancy of the late 60s and early 70s. Oddly, though, Brenner’s rival theory, “ruinous competition”, was in its inner logic close to the 1972 thesis. Both relied on a scheme of profits being squeezed between international competition and domestic wage militancy, only each stressed a different side of the squeeze.
I’ve argued (in Crisis and Sequels, 2017) that the common scheme was faulty, and changing structures of world markets explain more about the phases of capitalist development. But that world-structure approach can also be found, cautiously and undogmatically advanced, in Bob’s 1981 work.
I wish we’d found more time in the mêlée of 1982 to learn from Bob and maybe convince him that there is another way to be both an activist and a theorist.