Ian Birchall and Pat Stack pay tribute to John Molyneux, one of the IS tradition’s most original thinkers and writers, who died suddenly last week.
Ian Birchall writes:
The sudden death of John Molyneux came as a shock to many people, both to his friends and comrades but also to those who knew him only through his writings. For over fifty years he had been a revolutionary activist, first in Britain and more recently in Ireland. There has been a flood of tributes to him, from various parts of the left. Though never a close friend I knew John well during the forty years we were both in the SWP. The following is a brief sketch of some aspects of his contribution.
Born in 1948, John was already a rebel in his teenage years. Initially that rebellion took some strange forms. As a schoolboy he got involved in a peculiar milieu of people who were effectively full-time poker players. As he recalled ‘I had little or no money so I had to play to win like the real pros. A feat I managed in a small way most, if not all, of the time.’ Clearly, he had remarkable mental powers which could have been put to many uses. He was also a talented chess player – at the SWP’s Easter rallies at Skegness he would play games of simultaneous chess against twenty or more opponents.
A life of commitment
But it was the year of 1968 which decided the direction his life would take. Involvement in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and a visit to the United States played a part, but the crucial event was a visit to France during the biggest general strike in history. As he remembered many years later:
I visited Paris shortly after the Night of the Barricades and there were no street battles during my brief visit but I saw how people had been changed – transformed is a better word – by their experiences. I too will never forget it and can’t ever say ‘It will never happen’.
He now decided to become a revolutionary socialist. Briefly he had joined the orthodox Trotskyist Socialist Labour League Young Socialists but soon left, ‘repelled by its terrifying authoritarianism’. Then in the summer of 1968 he joined the International Socialists, which a few years later become the SWP. It was a decision that was to shape the whole of his future life.
His new organisation provided a framework for his political and intellectual development. It offered a Marxism that was committed to human liberation, free from the monstrous distortions of Stalinism. In particular he was impressed by Tony Cliff’s theory that Russia was a form of ‘state capitalism’. As he wrote many years later, the theory was of central importance, far beyond the debate about Russia, and concerned the whole question of the state in capitalist society:
although the theory of state capitalism was elaborated in response to the phenomenon of Stalinist Russia, it was deeply rooted in classical Marxism, set out before the Russian Revolution even occurred, and remains vital for understanding the contemporary world and for dealing with the political challenges facing socialists today.
John admired Tony Cliff and felt great affection for him. And Cliff reciprocated. Cliff could be ferocious in responding to comrades who disagreed with him. But he welcomed and respected comrades who thought for themselves and were prepared to stand up to him. John and Cliff had many rows – John described the experience of being shouted at by Cliff as like a ‘benign hurricane’. And Cliff thought so highly of John’s 1978 book Marxism and the Party that he found time to do editorial work on it so that it could be published more quickly.
So the fact of SWP membership came to dominate John’s life. For some forty years he was the central figure of the SWP Portsmouth branch. I went to speak in Portsmouth from time to time and it was generally John who booked the speakers and seemed to be planning the branch programme. In 2003 he helped to organise twelve coaches of demonstrators from Portsmouth for the march against the Iraq War in London. He was responsible for recruiting many people into the SWP, notably Pat Stack.
He was also a popular speaker, in particular at the SWP’s Marxism events, where he spoke and debated on a variety of topics from art and philosophy to working-class history. The Marxism events were for many years a place where there were lively and vigorous confrontations of questions of theory, history and culture, and John was often at the centre of these.
I knew John throughout his years in the SWP; regularly we would meet at demonstrations or at other events, and we would discuss the current state of the party and other political issues. Not surprisingly we had many disagreements. He tended to think that my ideas on art came dangerously close to Zhdanovism, while I was always bewildered by the fact that someone who had such a keen understanding of the dialectical nature of human history could insist that the laws of dialectics applied to the natural world.
A major writer
But above all John was a writer. There is a good selection of his work on the Marxist Internet Archive But there is more, much more.
Over fifty years and more he wrote prolifically. For a time he had a weekly column in Socialist Worker called Teach yourself Marxism where he developed basic arguments for Marxism. As he made clear, his aim was not to patronise his readers, but to appeal to the natural curiosity of those involved in struggle who wanted to know more. As he put it: ‘Worker militants are in general the most intellectually developed – and cultured – representatives of their class.’ The Marxist Internet Archive selection includes many of these articles.
Another important book is What is the Real Marxist Tradition? It is easy to imagine how all too many in the Marxist tradition would have answered this question, with a careful demonstration that their organisation, and theirs alone, was the embodiment of the Marxist tradition. John did not attempt anything of the sort. But he did recognise a real problem, that there is a multiplicity of organisations claiming to be Marxist. In particular there was the whole problem of Stalinism, which claimed to be Marxist, and which our enemies were all too keen to identify with Marxism. John identified the central theme of Marxism as being the ‘self-emancipation of the working class’. But he recognised that it was ‘not a monolithic tradition’ but a rich and diverse current including ‘Mehring, Zetkin, the early Bukharin, James Connolly, John McLean, Victor Serge, Alfred Rosmer, and so on, as well as hundreds of thousands of working class fighters’.
In a short pamphlet John ventured to look at The Future Socialist Society. Many Marxists, intimidated by the way Marx and Engels denounced the Utopian socialists, have been very wary of discussing what a future socialist society might look like. John recognised that it would be folly to try to predict or prescribe what a socialist society would be like, but recognised that ‘if people are to take up the struggle for socialism, they want to know what they are fighting for. He concluded that ‘it is commonly alleged that Marxists believe in the state. The opposite is the case. We are opponents of the state’, and insisted that ‘the ultimate goal of Marxism, of socialism, and of the struggle of the working class is freedom’.
Then there was his book Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Revolution. John was a great admirer of Trotsky, and on occasion could defend him passionately against his critics. At the same time he never lapsed into the sort of Trotskyism that saw Trotsky as infallible and thought that problems in the real world could be solved by simply producing an appropriate quotation from Trotsky.
But John’s interests were not confined to Marxist theory and history. From his teenage years he had always had a keen interest in art, especially painting. At the Marxism events he often spoke on topics from art history, and for some years, together with Chanie Rosenberg, he organised an art exhibition linked to the Marxism event. But it was only a couple of years ago that he found time to complete his book on art, The Dialectics of Art. Many might regret that his political activity had not allowed him time to develop this work further. But it was precisely John’s strength that he wrote, not from inside the closed world of art criticism, but with a perspective based on a much wider understanding of human history and the place of art within it. If many did not go along with his main theoretical argument, that art is ‘work produced by unalienated human labour’, his ability to write passionate and illuminating studies of such diverse artists as Rembrandt and Tracey Emin showed his ability to develop Marxist cultural analysis.
John did not have an easy life. His wife Jill died and he was seriously ill with an aneurysm which, briefly, slowed down his activity. For many years he was a lecturer at the School of Art, Design and Media in the University of Portsmouth. But though he was undoubtedly a lively and stimulating teacher, he never made any particular success of an academic career. His job was simply a means of feeding his children and providing a base for his political activity; in reality his true profession was always that of a revolutionary.
An independent thinker
Yet while John was a loyal and dedicated SWP member, he was also an independent thinker who pursued his own ideas. So there was undoubtedly a contradiction here, and there was sometimes friction between him and the party. Often he was unhappy about specific positions taken by the SWP leadership. Yet he was also reluctant to openly criticise the organisation to which he gave such unconditional loyalty. When I interviewed him for my biography of Cliff, I recorded his comments. On no fewer than three occasions he made me turn off the recording device so that he could tell me things which he did not want to be ‘on the record’.
On a number of occasions John did find himself in public opposition to the dominant positions of the SWP. In the 1980s there were fierce arguments about the relation between Marxism and feminism. John published two articles in which he directly confronted the position argued by Cliff and Chris Harman that working class men do not benefit from the oppression of women. On the contrary John argued that:
to appreciate the benefit the male worker receives from this unequal division of labour in the home, as it is experienced by workers and as it influences their behaviour in the class struggle, one must ask what he would lose if that division of labour were equalised under capitalism as it is today: i.e. with no 24-hour nurseries or neighbourhood restaurants. The answer is that he would lose a considerable amount of time, freedom and energy to participate in social activities outside the home.
John took a lot of stick from the party leadership and their followers on this question, as he did when a little later he wrote in Socialist Worker that ‘as products of a society in which racism and sexism (and many other reactionary ideas) are all pervasive, we all – black or white, male or female, Jew or gentile – retain traces of them.’ (SW 1052, September 1987) This claim that the leadership and membership of the party had not managed to free themselves totally from the grip of ideology provoked a flood of criticism, and again John was compelled to drop the argument.
In around 2008 John was concerned by what he saw as certain shortcomings in the party’s internal democracy, and particularly with the fact that dishonestly inflated membership figures were being quoted. He decided to stand as a candidate for the SWP Central Committee (CC). This caused a certain furore. For over twenty years there had been no challenge to the way in which the outgoing CC proposed a slate to conference which was elected unopposed. The entire CC and its supporters came together to block John’s candidacy. I now very much regret that I did not support John openly. He was challenging the way that the leadership was becoming a self-perpetuating closed circle.
But it must also be said that while John was clearly not wanted on the CC this did not lead to him being marginalised in the organisation. He continued to be regarded with high esteem and affection within the party.
Until 2013 I should have taken a very positive view of John’s relation with the party. I would have welcomed the fact that he was able to successfully combine loyal party membership with authentic intellectual independence. And I would have seen the fact that the SWP permitted such political and intellectual independence as proof that we had gone beyond the sectarian dogmatism that characterised most of the far left.
2013 changed all that with the terrible crisis that erupted inside the SWP, and which led to the foundation of rs21 in early 2014. It has to be said that many of those of us who had long liked and admired John’s independence of mind were bitterly disappointed when he took the decision to give complete support to the CC. In fact, John’s measured arguments were an enormous asset to them though he never descended into bullying or personal abuse.
A couple of years ago I had a letter from John in which he recognised that he had been wrong to support the Central Committee in 2013 – it had been an ‘error in judgment’. But at the same time he insisted that he would not have left the party and that he continued to regard the SWP as ‘the best revolutionary socialist and Marxist organisation in the country. I never expect parties or individual comrades not to have serious weaknesses or make big mistakes, myself included’.
In 2010 John had retired from his job and moved to Ireland where he had formed a new relationship with Mary Smith. This was not so much retirement as a new lease of life. He flung himself into activity, made many new friends and comrades and was involved in a range of activities with the Irish Socialist Workers Party (Socialist Workers Network from 2018), including editing of the Irish Marxist Review. I gather he was actually on his way home from a meeting when he suffered his fatal collapse.
John was always aware that Marxists had to look at the world as well as at their theoretical tradition., In particular that whole question of climate change become increasingly important for him. For some Marxists climate change was just one more point on the programme, a campaign to support or a milieu where recruits could be made. John recognised that the whole future of humanity was at stake. As he wrote in 2005:
All the scientific evidence points to the fact that climate change threatens the world with environmental and humanitarian catastrophe. All the political evidence points to the fact that our rulers are either sleep walking to disaster or, more likely, consciously gambling with humanity’s future for the sake of profit.
Hence he played a key role in forming the Global Ecosocialist Network, an international organisation which drew in Marxists from a range of different traditions, including Michael Löwy, Alan Thornett, Mike Davis and Hugo Blanco.
John’s death is a loss not just to his own organisation, but to the left as a whole. He was a remarkable example of how one could combine party loyalty with genuine thoughtfulness and intellectual independence. But his writings survive and will continue to educate and inspire. We send our heartfelt condolences to his partner Mary Smith, to his children and all his family, and to his many comrades and friends.
 Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1981, reprinted as a Bookmarx Club Special Edition (nd).
 Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2020.
Pat Stack writes:
A lot has been written about John Molyneux since his passing. Much of it very moving, some enlightening and informative. He clearly not only educated, but also inspired and befriended many, many people around the world. His commitment to fighting to change that world is plain for all to see in his writings and his political activity. So many good pieces have been written, that I wondered whether there was much original left to say. I will try however to touch on a couple of points that I hope I can illuminate.
First though, for me his death was not just a great political loss, but also a personal one. John was a close friend. He was a brilliant revolutionary, but also a warm and wonderful human being, a loving husband to Jill, a devoted father to Jack and Sara, and a doting grandfather. The loss of Jill was a great blow for him, but it was wonderful to see him so happy again with his partner Mary who made his last decade a very happy one, and who he loved deeply.
We didn’t see each other a lot in the last few years, but the friendship remained. In fact, John was due to stay with me in London just as Covid broke out, and it became unwise to travel.
I arrived in Portsmouth in 1973. I had already joined the Labour Party, but was drawn very much to the left, and spent a short time with the Labour Party Young Socialists. However, coming from Ireland, I simply couldn’t buy the line that the cold-blooded killers of Bloody Sunday were merely ‘workers in uniform’.
In 1974 I started visiting the Irish Club in Portsmouth, and it was there I first ran in to the International Socialists (IS). Two people that were to become close and long-term friends were members. I discussed politics with them, and from time to time they would sell me Socialist Worker. I liked very much what they had to say about Ireland, and the class nature of Russia, and became keen to go to a meeting.
For reasons that I didn’t quite get, they seemed reluctant to take me to a meeting, always saying they were ‘waiting for a good one’.
Then one Saturday morning I went to the precinct to do some shopping and there were a few people selling Socialist Worker. This very tall guy with a beard saw me looking and asked if I’d like a copy. He engaged me in conversation – I think we discussed Northern Ireland – and during the conversation, Big Beardie asked me if I’d like to go to a meeting. I told him about my two friends and how they were waiting for a ‘good one’.
That night in the bar of the Irish club, both my friends came up to me separately saying I must come to the next meeting. I agreed and smiled to myself, thinking Big Beardie is clearly an important figure.
The meeting, as it turned out was bizarre. Ostensibly on Keir Hardy, it turned out to be an unintelligible set of weird asides and sort of snide jokes about someone called Tony Cliff, and lots of other weird references, almost none of which had anything to do with Keir Hardy, and none of which meant anything to me.
It turned out that the IS was in the middle of a faction fight, that in fact would lead to a serious split. The speaker was Jim Higgins a leader of the minority faction.
At the end of the meeting, I overheard Big Beardie castigating Higgins, saying it was a public meeting and that the non-members in the room had no idea what he had been going on about. That he was all in favour of having the debate but in the proper context.
Big Beardie turned out to be John Molyneux. He came and sat and talked to me at length, clearly seeking to repair the damage, at the end of our conversation he asked me , more out of a sense of duty, than any real prospect of success I suspect, whether I would like to join IS. To both our amazements, I said yes. John later told me he was really taken aback that I joined after THAT meeting.
I threw myself into the organisation, and was like a sponge in my relationship with John, learning everything I could from him. His patience was astounding, and his kindness knew no bounds. He would sit and talk to me and other young members for hours, but always encourage us to go out there and do it for ourselves.
I remember him encouraging me to do my first ever public meeting on Ireland, and he was so encouraging afterwards, though looking back I’m pretty sure it was a pretty incoherent rambling history lesson that probably bored the audience rigid.
I subsequently discovered that my two friends’ hesitation in taking me to meetings was related to my disability. They were unsure I would be able to partake in activities and concerned that I might feel excluded if I didn’t; odd really given the mad cap late night adventures and scrapes we got into after we had taken ‘drink taken’!
No such concern ever seemed to cross John’s mind. From the beginning he treated me as another recruit from whom he asked no more nor less than the others. If I said such a thing was not possible (which was rare) John just took it in his stride without fuss or embarrassment.
John at the time had serious family commitments which probably for the only time in his political life meant he had restrictions on his activity. Nevertheless, he would spend much time talking to younger comrades, giving them their heads, encouraging them to lead. His success at this was startling.
Portsmouth was not really a town with a great socialist tradition. Legend had it as a scab town in the General Strike. The biggest employer was the Royal Navy shipyard, whose workforce were anything but militant. Indeed, one of the few picket lines I remember in my seven years there was Southampton dockers trying, unsuccessfully, to picket out the Portsmouth dockyard workers.
Yet for the IS/SWP a remarkable number of Portsmouth IS members ended up playing national roles, two ended up on the central committee, many others were full timers, district organisers, student organisers, NUS executive members, Socialist Worker journalists, public speakers and writers. Some became key local trade union activists, one led a section of the IS tendency abroad.
All had been schooled by John, developed by John, allowed to go their own way, and make their own mistakes by John.
This was no accident. John wasn’t the only person in the organisation to develop young cadre, but he was surely the most successful. I think the way he did it reflected John’s clarity of vision. John wanted future leaders not acolytes.
He didn’t see you as a valuable pawn in whatever internal struggle might take place, or as part of a process of building a personal power base. John had no interest in that, he wanted people who could lead in revolutionary struggle, and if he became involved in a dispute with you, he would seek to convince you through political argument rather than expecting personal loyalty.
Many of those of us he developed disagreed with him on a number of occasions, he never took it personally, nor discounted you when next he entered a debate with this or that section of the organisation.
Huw Williams, a later arrival than me to Portsmouth, and one of John’s many successes and closest friends, wrote about being young and impatient and announcing John was conservative in his approach, but that John’s response was warm measured and very patient.
Huw’s recollection made me smile because some years earlier myself and the young bright star of the Portsmouth branch, Kevin Murphy, came to the same conclusion and stated so very loudly in a branch meeting. John responded very calmly, without being in the least patronising, but we were young men in a hurry and paid little heed.
Afterwards John asked us if we’d like a pint, to which Kevin, one of the most spectacularly and adorably rude men I have ever met, responded by saying ‘would Lenin take a drink off Martov?’. Now I can imagine many who would have entered into a rage at such a slur, but John just laughed and said, ‘almost certainly, personally they liked each other’.
John probably enjoyed the uppity lip from Kevin all the more, because I think it’s fair to say that of all of us who he developed and cared for, Kevin was his greatest protégé, and he adored him.
A young kid from an Irish émigré working class background, Kevin was in incredible talent, a tough guy who backed down to no one, He was in equal measure, charming and rude, he could ridicule mercilessly but had a real soft centre.
His courage was unmistakeable. He had been in a long-term relationship with a woman called Maggie, but after they broke up, he chose a student union meeting where gay rights were being discussed in front of about 200 students (most of who knew him as either a political ally or fierce political opponent) to come out. At the time it was an incredible thing to do, and even today I doubt many would choose that sort of forum to do it.
Kevin was also incredibly bright and had huge intellectual promise. Despite the ‘Martov smear’, he adored John, and John in turn saw Kevin as a shining light of what working class kids can become: a secondary modern schoolboy, outshining all his middle-class piers academically, whilst having no wish to become one of them, but rather to struggle to see his class take power. We lost Kevin far too early, one of the earliest victims of AIDS, and the only time I ever saw John cry, and I’m pretty sure the only time he ever saw me cry was at Kevin’s funeral.
Despite the loss of Kevin, John’s pride in what his other former Portsmouth members were doing remained, and the vast majority of us remained close to John and increasingly knew the debt we owed him – which isn’t to say that any or all of us always agreed with him.
Which brings me on to the second observation. John was both a huge party loyalist and an unstinting independent thinker. To be both is a rarity in left organisations. On numerous occasions he broke with the leadership (sometimes when I was part of it). He argued that men benefit from women’s oppression, a position for which I’m not sure he got one vote at a party conference (if he did get any it was a tiny handful). He wrote a book on Trotsky, which not only challenged orthodox Trotskyism, but also challenged aspects of the traditional SWP view of Trotsky. He challenged the leadership about internal democracy, accountability, and accuracy of membership figures. He once stood for the Central Committee on a platform of criticism of some existing positions. Like most of those who had been developed by John in Portsmouth I stood with him on some questions, opposed him on others. He would have expected no different.
Many have alluded to John’s independence of thought, and willingness to oppose, without I think quite conveying the courage this took. It is easy to look back on debates and laugh about so and so holding this position or that, but that leaves out a big part of the story. Those debates were not funny at the time, they took great political and moral courage. John would often be isolated and incur the wrath of many. Some just following the line would get abusive, which John shrugged off. Much harder for him was the angry and sometimes dismissive response of those he looked up to and admired the most. I would meet him after bruising encounters (even when I hadn’t been on his side) and his hurt and isolation was there for all to see.
IS/SWP founder Tony Cliff’s quipped that ‘John Molyneux wrote a great book, the problem is he didn’t read it’, which was both very funny but also wildly inaccurate. Whatever else, John did not lack clarity of thought. However, the joke also reflected a view that John wasn’t to be entirely trusted. This was best exemplified when he ran for the Central Committee. The rage directed at him by some leading members for running on a critical platform, which he was after all only doing what the internal democracy of the organisation entirely permitted, shocked even him. As used as he was to taking a hammering this went beyond anything he had experienced.
As I say he displayed enormous courage, and great dignity, and through it all his loyalty to the SWP was unflinching. He later became rehabilitated, and I think he found that comforting, though he remained an independent thinker.
After John lost his wife Jill he suffered personal isolation, and for the only time in his life seemed ground down, he always bounced back from the political hammerings, but this was different. Then he started seeing Mary Smith and his life changed completely, he began caring again, looking after himself, he became personally rejuvenated. As if Mary hadn’t done enough, she then put the cherry on the cake, and took him to Ireland.
Every time I met him or talked to him, he was so excited by the move, the new political challenges, the day-to-day activity that you could see it in his eyes, hear it in his voice. One reason he was so successful was that he applied the ‘Molyneux method’. I don’t think he ever lectured the Irish comrades with ‘this is how we did it in Britain’ or ‘this is how we’ve always done it’. Instead, he watched, listened, learned and using all that great vision, adapted and help create innovative methods of organising.
He founded and became editor of the Irish Marxist Review and produced a lively, informative, and theoretically innovating magazine. He responded with great positivity to the People Before Profit experiment. He was elected to the leadership body of the Irish organisation and performed such a key role that there must be those in Britain who scratch their heads and think ‘how come we never had him on our Central Committee?’ By all accounts he was hugely active in all sorts of key areas of work. His far-sighted vision on the importance of the issue of climate change being particularly notable. Still, he found time to write about his great love of art.
However, for anybody reading this who knew us both there will be an elephant in the room. We parted company politically, and for a while personally. I don’t want to rake up the arguments again. Suffice to say on the central issues that caused the split in the SWP in 2013, I felt he was profoundly wrong. He played a big part in that debate, and when it all drew to a conclusion, we were no longer on speaking terms. Or to be more precise I wasn’t on speaking terms with him. I told Mary that I was so angry with him that if I spoke to him, I would probably say things that would mean we would never speak again. Some time passed when a mutual friend asked if I would speak to John. The wounds from the battle were far from healed, but the huge anger and hurt had calmed down. I met John and Mary for a pub lunch, and we talked and talked.
On the central question that had caused the split, the response to a rape allegation, John reflected that he had got it wrong. I think the response of women cadre in the Irish organisation to the events had an effect on him in this regard. On wider questions the faction had raised he disagreed with me, and he thought we were profoundly wrong to split. Those were disagreements we could both live with, and our friendship renewed, for that I will always be grateful. It was great to be back in contact with the invigorated and happy John Molyneux who seemed as full of life as when I first met him.
John left us at the height of his Indian summer, which both makes his passing happy, but sad. Happy in the sense his last years were some of his best; sad because he had so much more to give, and because, well, I miss him.