Cliff Slaughter, 1928-2021: a life for revolution and its challenging legacy


Terry Brotherstone writes: Cliff Slaughter, whose life was dedicated to revolutionary, working-class internationalism and Marxist critique, died at the home in Leeds where he lived with Vivien Mitchell, his comrade and wife of 55 years, on 3 May 2021, aged 92. His last published article – an appeal for the radical rethinking of how Marx’s materialism should be practised today – appeared in Critique at the end of 2020. That essay now looks like a Parthian shot, a posthumous challenge to serious socialists to shed shibboleths and engage without prejudice in theoretical work as an indispensable part of revolutionary practice. It deserves to be revisited in the light of the two corrections in the footnote below.1


Clifford Slaughter, a working-class Yorkshire boy, was born in the industrial city of Doncaster on 18 September 1928 and brought up – at times during the 1930s Depression in very deprived circumstances – there, and in Leeds, fifty miles to the north-west, where he was to live most of his life. Joining the Young Communist League (YCL) in 1947, and later the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), he chose to work as a coalminer rather than do national service in the military, before, in 1949, taking up a scholarship at Downing College, Cambridge. There he was one of a handful of working-class students who at that time won places at England’s elite universities, where they frequently suffered from upper-class ridicule and bullying. On one occasion, Slaughter had to endure having his books removed from his room and burned in the quad, a crime he was invited by the senior member of College to whom he complained to regard as an understandable aspect of English ‘public school’ culture.

Unimpressed by the conservative History curriculum, Slaughter decided to study social anthropology, a subject that allowed greater scope for the imagination of someone who, tutored by his much-revered father (a sometime Durham miner and Methodist lay preacher, and a wartime recruit to the CPGB in 1943),2 was already well-versed in the available works of Marxism, as well as in creative literature – notably the novels of Stendhal, quotations from which continued to enrich some of his latter-day political writing. Graduating with a first-class degree, Slaughter returned to Yorkshire and a lectureship at the University of Leeds. (He later moved to Bradford, where he taught until retirement.)3

The 1956 crisis in the international Communist movement changed the direction of Slaughter’s life. He was the last prominent survivor of a small group of English communists who – on breaking with, or being expelled from, the CPGB in the aftermath of the Khrushchev revelations about Stalin at the twentieth congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the spring of 1956 and the Red Army’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian Revolution that autumn – joined the pugnaciously energetic T. G. (‘Gerry’) Healy in his Trotskyist ‘Club’, which, at that time of bitter disillusionment, offered a new perspective to principled revolutionary socialists.4 Amongst them – and amongst those closest to Slaughter, despite decades in which Healy’s sectarian politics made ongoing relationships with non-party comrades difficult – were Brian Pearce (1915-2008) and Peter Fryer (1927-2006). Pearce, a history graduate and a linguist, insisted, against the indifference of the CPGB’s better-known professional historians, on the political importance of rigorous examination of the history of Stalinism: he went on to become a prolific, and prize-winning, scholarly translator from both Russian and French. He was also a great letter writer, and Slaughter often consulted him over the years until his death, particularly on historical questions. Fryer was the Daily Worker journalist who, after his truthful reporting from Budapest was suppressed by the CPGB leaders, published his impassioned critique of Stalinism, Hungarian Tragedy (1956) and was hounded out of the Party: he was later to write the seminal Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain (1984), for which he is still celebrated as a pioneer of Black British history.5 Fryer’s and Pearce’s involvement in what, in 1959, was to become the Socialist Labour League (SLL), and – long after they had been alienated by Healy’s bouts of thuggish authoritarianism and left the organisation – the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), was relatively short-lived. But the participation of comrades of such calibre in the late 1950s helped make possible two significant socialist publications in which Slaughter came to play a major role: the expanded and transformed (from its first volume in the early 1950s) Labour Review (vols. 2-7, 1957-1963), initially edited by John Daniels and Bob Shaw; and a weekly paper established by Fryer, The Newsletter (1957-1969 – latterly twice-weekly).6 Both deserve renewed attention from historically-conscious socialists today.

The unrealised political potential of that period was, I am sure, to play a significant part in Slaughter’s thinking as he reflected on it after the collapse of the Healy WRP in 1985. It was a time when it had been possible to develop real political conversations with militant workers in several industries – coal-miners, with whom Slaughter had particularly close relationships, dockworkers and others. But Healy’s prioritisation of top-down ‘party-building’, based on ideas drawn mechanically and unhistorically from the 1848 Communist Manifesto and Lenin’s 1902 pamphlet What Is To Be Done? – that socialist consciousness has to be delivered to the workers ‘from without’ by theoretically-well-versed intellectuals and party professionals – vitiated, and was often to abort, such organic developments. From an account Slaughter wrote of the funeral in 2000 of an old comrade, Jim Allen (the former seaman and miner, turned scriptwriter and collaborator with the radical film director, Ken Loach), however, we can get a sense of the sort of political force Slaughter hoped the SLL might become, and why he remained, for so long, committed to fighting within an organisation despite being increasingly at odds with its leadership.

In the late 1950s, as an SLL member, but independently of any ‘party decision’, Slaughter wrote, Allen:

was the moving force behind a new newspaper, The Miner … [which]rapidly gained a readership throughout the Lancashire and Yorkshire coalfields … [and appealed because]it told the plain truth about the life and work of coalminers, about their employer (the National Coal Board) and about their union leadership. Thousands of miners recognised it as their own, and … organised around it.

And in a ‘Personal Note’, Slaughter added:

I can honestly say that the years … in the Yorkshire coalfield with this paper were some of the most rewarding and enjoyable of my life … [H]ere was a paper which workers accepted as their own. It had not a trace of sectarianism … written by miners for miners … with fire and with humour. Sales … were not a chore but a pleasure … The paper really was ‘an organiser’. It was workers won by The Miner who formed and led the branches of the SLL in the Yorkshire coalfield … The group of miners around Jim … was a team able to establish immediate relations with miners everywhere, and … the union leadership and the NCB could do nothing about it.

One of the few compliments’ he recalled ever receiving ‘in a long political life’, he went on, was from one of Allen’s miner-comrades, who, when chairing a meeting introduced him (a non-miner) as ‘an egghead’, but one ‘with his feet on the ground.’7

Relationships made at this time were surely in Slaughter’s mind when, ill-health having prevented him from attending, he sent a heartfelt message to a memorial meeting for Peter Fryer in London in 2019 in which he wrote of how, after the crisis of 1956, ‘Peter never once wavered in [his]communist conviction, fighting and writing to his dying day for the oppressed and exploited [with]works like Staying Power … ’. Forced out of the SLL, Fryer had found other ways of playing a role in the development of socialist consciousness and Slaughter recognised that his break with Healy over his manipulatively inhuman political regime was of a piece with his communist convictions. His ‘experience had taught him,’ Slaughter wrote, ‘how to be a good communist, following in the footsteps of the young Marx [who wrote of the]impassioned man [who]feels that he is himself a human being, and that others are human beings yet are for the most part treated like dogs … ’ Fryer, after being, as he once put it, ‘twice bitten’ (by Stalin and then by Healy), had decided he needed time to reflect. And this, acknowledged Slaughter, who remained in Healy’s organisation over the next three decades, strenuously fighting him over many issues but always feeling constrained by loyalty to party discipline, had allowed him to see – ‘much earlier than I did’ – that Healy’s idea of ‘building the revolutionary leadership at the expense of all personal needs and talents,’ and his effective downgrading ‘of independent working-class action as mere ‘spontaneity’’, was fundamentally wrong.8

In the aftermath of the defeat of Britain’s miners in the great strike of 1984-5, which exposed the vacuity of the WRP’s predictions of incipient revolution and claims to revolutionary leadership, and drove Healy to hysterical predictions that fascism was around the corner, a key group of WRP members finally rebelled and exposed their leader as a sexual predator. Slaughter immediately aligned himself with the rebels and, having played a key role in calling time on Healy’s organisation, worked to repair, wherever possible, the damage its sectarianism had done to valuable political relationships. In his message to the Fryer memorial meeting, he noted with retrospective delight, that ‘Peter was overjoyed [at Healy’s expulsion]and … embraced with enthusiasm our invitation to join us and write in [the paper we then published]Workers Press.’9 Pearce also became a regular contributor.

Although well-respected in the university as scholar and teacher – one with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Marx’s writings – Slaughter always eschewed the potential relative comfort of a socially detached academic life. Despite his growing distance from Healy’s authoritarian methods and subjective political predictions, he was indefatigable in carrying out serious political and educational work, not only amongst British workers but also internationally. As secretary of the Healy-led version of the Fourth International – the International Committee (ICFI) – he made many valued relationships, notably amongst comrades in the French Organisation Communiste Internationaliste (OCI), such as the much-respected, independently-minded militant, ‘Raoul’, remembered by his comrade, the historian and Trotsky biographer, Pierre Broué, in a lengthy and insightful tribute in the journal Cahiers Leon Trotsky.10

The fissiparous sectarianism of the Trotskyist ‘parties’ of this period as they struggled to connect with the real movement of the working class, however, meant such comradely friendships were often broken off, and a focus of Slaughter’s work in the difficult and still conflict-prone years that followed the end of the Healy WRP was on restoring them where he could. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and then, in 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union, it at last became possible to clarify many underlying political differences on the basis of the understanding that Stalinism no longer had the material base that had made it the ideological – and sometimes the very real and violent – enemy of revolutionary Marxism and its adherents. The bitter disputes about which group or sect was the true bearer of Trotsky’s legacy, to which Slaughter had had to devote so much energy, had lost their political, if not entirely their historical, rationale. It was a time for new thinking, which for Slaughter included recognising the reality that, as a practical expression of working-class internationalism, the ICFI had been – as he put it years later to an interviewer – ‘virtually a fiction’, consisting of small groups, only a few of them having had any real influence within the organisation.11


In his scholarly work, Slaughter never felt constrained to hide his class commitment under an academic bushel. He researched and published, jointly with Norman Denis and Fernando Henriques, the seminal study of a Yorkshire mining community, Coal Is Our Life (1956), which has been much reprinted.12 An associated article on gender relations appeared in the leading professional journal, The Sociological Review, in which Slaughter continued to publish a number of specialist reviews, always from an explicitly Marxist standpoint.13 In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he participated in a major project designed to address the crisis in Greek archaeology, the Cambridge/Bradford Boeotian Expedition.14 This interest led to an important review article on Geoffrey de Ste Croix’s highly original Marxist study of class struggle in ancient Greece.15 But for Slaughter there was also a political motive: this was a period of great volatility when the 1981 Greek elections brought to office a majority reforming administration of the left social-democrat Panhellenic Socialist Movement, PASOK, led by Andreas Papandreou. Relationships Slaughter made with left-wing activists and intellectuals endured and were to be valuable three decades later in informing his response to the Syriza government and the defiant ‘OXI’ (or ‘No!’) referendum vote in 2015 against European Unity-imposed austerity. This was a moment Slaughter greeted for its potential – real though alas unrealised – to act as ‘a signal to the masses of people throughout Europe that it is both necessary and possible to reject and oppose the demands of big capital.’16

In 1980 came his book of critical essays, Marxism, Ideology and Literature, presented by Slaughter as a much-needed ‘confrontation between Marxism and the sociology of literature’, and recognised in Marxist circles as a significant anti-Althusserian study.17 (Slaughter’s views on Louis Althusser were elaborated in the WRP journal Labour Review).18 An introductory book on Marx and Marxism appeared in 1985; a critique of the at-the-time fashionable work of Jon Elster, who argued that Marx could be read as in some way a functionalist, contributed to an Inquiry symposium the following year; and an essay on ‘Engels and Class Consciousness’, written for the 150th anniversary of Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) was published, a little belatedly, in 1996.19

During the 1960s and seventies and into the eighties, however, much of Slaughter’s time was spent on making voluminous contributions to ‘party’ literature, in Britain and for the International. He found himself more and more at odds with Healy’s increasingly opportunist politics and eccentric philosophising, but he came to recognise that his work (and that of other party ‘intellectuals’) had served, in the eyes of loyal, and politically-exploited, activists at least, to give Healy, by association, an undeserved cachet of theoretical respectability. He made a self-assessment of his role in those years when he spoke to a meeting of international supporters in 2012:

Recently I read Jean-Paul Sartre’s book about his childhood. His upbringing in a house of professors, filled with books, led him to put words and phrases ahead of the reality. He spent his life trying to get rid of this nonsense. It made me rethink all our talk of theoretical work, the role of intellectuals, and so on. Speaking for myself, I wasn’t really doing any real theoretical work or analysis. Most of it – if you look through internal bulletins and papers – consisted essentially of finding the right quotations for every occasion: something in Lenin or Trotsky or Marx that would explain what was going on. That’s not real research or real theory.20

In the 1970s, Slaughter had opposed Healy on the ‘pre-revolutionary’ nature of the period and on other questions.21 But he failed to overcome the leadership’s manoeuvring that ensured his disagreements were always sidelined, and kept from the active membership. Acquiring the resources for creating the party apparatus – printing facilities for a daily paper, party offices, bookshops, training centres to attract a hoped-for mass youth movement and so on – that Healy thought his perspective demanded, went along with the degeneration of a politics in which, inter alia, principled internationalism and conditional support for national-liberation movements were increasingly superseded by opportunist relations with often corrupt nationalist regimes open to the exchange of material resources for supportive propaganda. This left the group that sought, after the termination of the Healy party and led by Slaughter, to recover a critical Marxist orientation with much to reassess. Slaughter’s focus was on serving the future rather than bemoaning the past, but he recognised the need to correct mistakes, amongst the most damaging of which had been the essentially uncritical support the WRP had given to the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Yassamine Mather, the Iranian socialist activist and scholar, now based in Oxford and chair of Hands Off the People of Iran, remembers meeting Slaughter in the mid-1980s:

He was the first British left-wing activist I met who apologised for his former organisation’s support for Khomeini. He was adamant that the British working class should show solidarity with Iranian workers, and [that]slogans of an anti-Western (as opposed to an anti-imperialist) government should not confuse the left. He remained a solid ally of the Iranian working class to the last days of his life.22


In the excitement of the post-soviet years, though still – working with some highly committed comrades who were fighting to rescue a positive legacy from the WRP experience – grappling with the idea of party-building as a key element in contemporary revolutionary practice, Slaughter increasingly extended his rejection of ‘Healyism’ to a more complete critique of the foundations of the ‘Trotskyism’ that based itself on the 1938 ‘Transitional Programme’, the document that launched the Fourth International. The vital significance of Trotsky’s courageous fight against Stalinism stood undiminished. But the proposition that ‘the world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterised by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat’ because the ‘economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism’ had quite simply been proved wrong.23 Lenin’s definition of imperialism as ‘the highest [or final]stage of capitalism’, whatever else the organisational genius of the October Revolution had been right about, had been misleading in promoting the idea that capital now lacked inherent resilience and the ability to overcome cyclical crises, even extreme ones. Each recovery – including the long post-war ‘boom’ in the West – however real its technological advances, has carried within it the seeds of even greater destructiveness. But the implication that the coming of socialism (‘truly human society’) has been thwarted simply by the failure – primarily through the (albeit very real) ‘betrayals’ of social democracy and Stalinism – to create revolutionary leadership in the working class had become a major obstacle in the way of the creative development of Marxism as practical revolutionary theory. The truth had to be embraced, concluded Slaughter, who had often been a cuttingly effective scourge of ‘revisionism’, that certain tenets of established theory do, in the face of empirical reality, have to be revised.

A dialogue with the Marxist political philosopher, István Mészáros, then on the cusp of publishing his masterwork, Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition, fed productively into Slaughter’s new thinking. It began when, in the early 1990s, they found themselves amongst a minority on the revolutionary left that wholeheartedly welcomed the so-called ‘collapse of Communism’.24 Where many others mourned the death of ‘really existing socialism’, they recognised that the end of Stalinism as a material force had removed a decades-long obstacle to socialist revolution and severely weakened a major source of ideological confusion. The time was ripe for Mészáros’s book, which was the product of his experience in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and subsequent exile, and of over two decades of rethinking three key questions: how had capitalism survived so long from the first recognition of its historical transience in the 1840s?; what had gone wrong with the soviet experiment?; and how could Marx’s theory be recovered as the practical guide to the revolutionary transformation required and its realisation in a way that will avoid the mistakes and disappointments of the twentieth century?25

All this was grist to Slaughter’s mill. In his Not Without a Storm, published in 2006, he addressed the need to be ‘brutal’ about the reality that, despite all the efforts of those ‘of us who for a good part of the twentieth century tried to work as Marxists in the working-class movement’, the ‘world’s working people remain, in the new millennium, at the mercy of a capital system that has survived all their struggles and confronts them with greater threats than ever before.’ Vital to his attempt to address that ‘one big sobering fact,’ he acknowledged, ‘was the work of István Mészáros’; and most importantly his demonstration that it was with what was being called ‘globalisation’ that ‘the capital system [had]encountered its historical limit, its structural crisis.’26

Mészáros’s comprehensive rethinking of Marxism – prefigured as early as 1970 in his Marx’s Theory of Alienation and his Isaac Deutscher Memorial lecture on ‘The Necessity of Social Control’ the following year, continuing with, amongst other work, The Power of Ideology (1989), and reaching fruition with Beyond Capital – developed into a multi-volume project still incomplete when he died in 2017.27 The ‘Himalayan’ task before humanity in its twenty-first-century confrontation with Rosa Luxemburg’s century-old choice of ‘socialism or barbarism’, he argued, had to be understood as involving much more than the political victory of the working-class over capitalism. What is needed is rather the social-metabolic transition – in what Slaughter articulated in 2013 in the subtitle of his Bonfire of the Certainties, as ‘the second human revolution’ – beyond capital itself, the power that has dominated different forms of society over many centuries. Slaughter’s own work, building on the foundations of new thinking Mészáros had laid, increasingly focused on going further – particularly in rethinking the problem of transitional agency. His next book Against Capital, in 2016, accordingly, was a collective study of contemporary, practical ‘experiences of class struggle’ and of ‘rethinking revolutionary agency’.28 In a richly engaged Critique review, Bridget Fowler recommended it for its penetrating global, socio-political analysis; for its ‘timely’ rejection of the ‘bankers’ fatalism of the ‘end of history’ ideologists’; and, particularly, for its ‘scrupulously honest’ confrontation with acknowledged error, ‘not about Marxism as such – which rightly remains a treasured resource – but rather about the imposition of doctrinaire ‘democratic centralism’.’29

Slaughter’s theoretical work continued until shortly before his death; and his final Critique article was designed to signal a yet more radical new beginning. As Mészáros said, in paying tribute to him at a launch meeting for Bonfire of the Certainties in 2012:

… my friend Cliff Slaughter … always remained firmly in a revolutionary orientation even if the organisation he was attached to [the WRP]was … extremely problematical. He [always]maintained this determined position of thinking in terms of a revolutionary perspective.30

And it was commitment to that perspective that had led Slaughter to play an indispensable role in the break-up of the WRP in 1985, when Healy was finally denounced from within the ranks of his own organisation as a political opportunist with a cowardly predilection for discipline enforced by intimidation rather than argument and persuasion; and incontrovertibly – the decisive charge leading to his expulsion – a sexual predator, exploiting the idealism of young women comrades for personal gratification.

Andrew Burgin, now the International Officer of Ken Loach’s Left Unity, who was a WRP member at the time of the 1985 crisis, spoke for many when, on hearing of Slaughter’s death, he posted on social media his account of the ‘important part’ he had played in his own political education; and of how, when Healy’s corruption was revealed and WRP national organiser, Sheila Torrance, defended him with the argument ‘that [his]role as a revolutionary socialist was a more important consideration than the allegations of sexual abuse’ (an argument repeated by Healy’s ‘celebrity’ allies, Corin and Vanessa Redgrave), Slaughter led, and gave direction to, the opposition.31 He:

dissect[ed]her argument and, in a hugely powerful speech, made the case for a revolutionary morality and linked the abuse directly to Healy’s politics. He concluded that the abuse itself expressed the degeneration of Healy’s politics and of those who now sought to defend him … [Slaughter] was one of the central figures … who sought to repair the damage and set the organisation on its feet politically speaking … At every point [he] … attempted to raise the level of discussion and to overcome the abuses of the past … He deeply regretted the part he had played in sustaining Healy’s regime but tried to overcome that through the building of a healthy political tendency in the post-split period … 32

Slaughter’s internationalist commitment was undiminished by his recognition that the corruption of the WRP had permeated the politics of what, as far as he was concerned, was now, for practical purposes, the defunct ICFI. In addition to his determination to correct the opportunist errors of the WRP’s past – and the Iranian revolution referred to above was only one question amongst many – it was manifested particularly in his enthusiastic support for Workers Aid for Bosnia (and later for Kosova), which in the 1990s organised working-class aid convoys to miners and other trade unionists fighting for national liberation from the Milosevic dictatorship in the former Yugoslavia; and also in his solidarity work in southern Africa, where he went with the Marxist social anthropologist Frank Girling (1917-2004) – another former CPGB member who had briefly joined with Healy after 1956 – in support of anti-Stalinist fighters in the liberation movements there.33 He was particularly inspired by the courageous Namibian twin sisters, Panduleni and Ndamona Kali, who had fought – at the cost of great personal suffering – against both apartheid and the brutal and dehumanising internal regime of the military wing of SWAPO, the South West Africa People’s Organisation, which replicated that of its close ally, the African National Congress. Appropriately an image of these two women graced the cover of Slaughter’s last published book, Women and the Social Revolution, co-authored with Vivien Slaughter and Yassamine Mather: it was dedicated (no doubt with the reactionary, bourgeois gender relations that had prevailed in the WRP partly in mind) to the memory of the American liberationist Maria Turner and her appeal – at the time of the Southampton slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831 – on behalf of ‘the fair daughters of Africa’, that they should no longer ‘be compelled to bury their minds and talents beneath a load of iron pots and kettles’ or have to tolerate the fruits of their labours being enjoyed by exploitative men.34

In Africa too Slaughter met with militant students, one of whom, Jade McClune – now a committed fighter for social justice, campaigner for land rights in Namibia, and eloquent polemicist against neoliberalism – has written that he remembers Slaughter as ‘perhaps the most civilized man I ever met’, a judgement based ‘not so much [on]Cliff’s theoretical insight as his demeanour and non-bourgeois character.’ McClune recalls:

Attending a lecture in Windhoek where he came dressed in denims and delivered a myth-shattering analysis – that had such a profound impact on me as a student, and on my view of the world and of my place in it that it somehow altered the course and trajectory of my life.

Though he clearly did not have much time for nonsense, he always treated us with genuine … respect. As people who grew up under the boot-heel of soul-destroying racism, his humane and intelligent approach to us as brown socialists certainly had a deep effect on our sense of self-worth, to the extent that since then I have found myself incapable of tolerating to be treated by any lesser standard of comradeship and respect than Professor Cliff Slaughter showed us. Even when we were young and foolish, he treated us with full dignity and respect as thinking beings, necessary agents of change … 35


From the time he played his key role in the overdue destruction of the Healyite WRP and began work to overcome its sectarian legacy, Slaughter, assisted first by his discussions with Mészáros, and then by his fresh reading of Ernst Bloch (whose The Principle of Hope, he came to think of as ‘the most thorough and complete exposition’ in the twentieth century of Marx’s active and humanist materialism), devoted himself to the radical critique of existing Marxist theory and practice, including much of the thinking that had guided his own life. It culminated in the 2020 Critique essay, ‘More Than a Theory … ’, written in the passionate belief that political activism, however courageous and determined, if it is not informed by Marxist theoretical development, cannot guide the transition ‘beyond capital’ on which the future of human society depends. For Slaughter, Marx’s dictum that ‘the emancipation of the working class’ – and through that the emancipation of humanity as a whole – must be the task ‘of the working class itself’ remained a basic principle, although, in practice, it had been largely forgotten in the WRP.36 But what he sometimes described as the ‘refoundation’ of Marxist theory, he argued, means beginning anew from a re-examination of its origins in the period of the 1843 ‘Theses on Feuerbach’; and recognising, Slaughter argued, that ‘Marx’s materialism has not been understood by Marxists [he included himself], and that, without a radical reorientation, [the]new beginning – essential today – is impossible.’37

Further work on the challenge he had thus issued would certainly have followed. But it is now for others to decide to pick up the gauntlet Slaughter threw down. In Bloch’s excitingly diverse The Principle of Hope, I think he found inspiration: here was an approach to Marxist philosophy that embraced all human practice – human achievement – including artistic and scientific work; and elaborated a materialist way of confronting the future, the ‘not-yet’ that is immanent but yet to be realised in the ‘here-and-now’. Bloch recaptures for materialism the ‘active side’ that mechanical, contemplative materialism leaves open to idealism and subjectively determined political practice. As the oppressed and exploited masses are more and more forced into struggles for survival, and towards consciousness that it is the hegemonic system as a whole that is the obstacle to a world of social cooperation and real human relations (and indeed planetary survival), Marxists, participating where they can, have a vital role to play in the orientation of such actions – which too often seem to come to a crescendo but then fade away – on a sustainable trajectory towards the essential goal, the radical social-metabolic transition ‘beyond capital’.

In February 2018, Slaughter, who did not believe in the value of autobiography, circulated what he called ‘a sort of profession of faith’, a document entitled ‘Some things I learned – some of them I learned later than I should have – on the rocky road’.38 It consisted of aphorisms, some drawn from Bloch, including Hegel’s assertion that ‘Nothing great has been achieved without passion’;39 and – a favourite he had used in the passages on aesthetics in his recent books – John Keats’s ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty.’40 From Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch he chose: ‘The surest guide to the correctness of the path that women take is joy in the struggle. Revolution is the festival of the oppressed’; to which he added that this goes for men too, with the implication that men must learn it from women.41 In a moment of apparent sentimentality that might have seemed uncharacteristic to many who knew him only through politics, he included a popular song title, ‘Love is a many-splendored thing’.42

For an epitaph (‘if I ever need one’) he turned again to Hegel: ‘The best bet is to keep a close eye on the advancing giant.’43 And, of the principles he thought should act as a guide to a 21st-century life, ‘[t]he greatest,’ he asserted, ‘ … is Hope!’ – hope ‘informed, inspired and sustained by determination to understand and to struggle to bring forth the shoots (until now obscured and suppressed by the rule of capital) of the flowering of the future community of free and equal individuals.’ It was with that principle in mind, I believe, that he wrote what proved to be his valedictory article in Critique.


My thanks to those who read previous drafts, often making corrections and/or valuable suggestions, or who responded to requests for information. Remaining mistakes are my responsibility, and I am aware of many lacunae in the background history referenced. This appreciation is a personal one that can only scratch the surface of a rich, richly contradictory, and sometimes bitterly contested, political life. I hope others will add to it. My primary purpose is to draw attention to Cliff Slaughter’s open-ended theoretical legacy and to his call for a radical, forward-looking reassessment of how Marx’s materialism was understood and practised in the twentieth century.


This article was originally published in Critique.


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