Richard Kuper

Michael Kidron

(1930 – 2003)

Publisher, writer and socialist whose life’s project was to understand, and help replace, capitalism

From The Guardian, 27 March 2003.
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© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003.
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Michael Kidron, who has died aged 72, was an economist, a Marxist theorist, an agitator, an editor, a publisher and the co-author of the bestselling State Of The World Atlas (1981) and The War Atlas (1983). Both books transformed the way people look at maps and the realities they reveal and conceal. In the 1950s and 1960s, he made revolutionary ideas of social change into common sense for a generation coming of age around the non-Communist party left. He had infectious optimism, razor sharp political insight and, above all, warmth, energy and love of life.

Kidron played a key role in developing a theory, that of the permanent arms economy, to account for the west’s long postwar boom and the strength of working class reformism. But as a critical Marxist he recognised all theories as provisional – even his own.

His sympathy with the peoples of the so-called third world shone through his biting criticism of theories which romanticised their struggles. An internationalist, he always placed the peoples of the world above the interests of their states.

He was born in Cape Town into an ardently Zionist family. The youngest of seven children, he was an adored but sickly child, further weakened by rheumatic fever at the age of 13. He left South Africa just after the war to join his parents, who had already emigrated to Palestine. There he went to the Tichon Hadash progressive school in Tel Aviv – where he rejected Zionism almost immediately – then on to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem to study economics.

A brilliant mind and a free, rational and open thinker, he clearly enjoyed the heady days of early 1950s Jerusalem immensely. But Israel was a backwater for anyone not tied in to the Zionist project. So, in 1955 Kidron went to Oxford as a doctoral student. Knowing nothing of Oxford colleges, he applied to the two colleges at the top of the alphabet and was accepted by Balliol.

He promptly clashed with his supervisor Thomas Balogh, which did not help his career much. But he thrived in the Oxford political world, carving out a role as oppositionist within the opposition, becoming a fiercely independent libertarian Marxist, clashing vigorously with Communist party hardliners (before the 1956 Hungarian revolt had shaken their certainties). He also developed a close working relationship with his brother-in-law Ygael Gluckstein who, under the name of Tony Cliff (obituary, April 11 2000), was trying to chart an independent Marxist course in the Trotskyist-infested waters to the left of the Communist party.

Academic work provided a base for research and independent thinking, but also for political activity in the Socialist Review (later International Socialism) Group. Unlike others who looked to the Soviet bloc or the third world for salvation, this tendency argued for the centrality of the working class of developed capitalist societies as the agency for social change. This meant jettisoning the shibboleths of both communism and Trotskyism and looking reality squarely in the face, recognising and accounting for the success of postwar capitalism.

This Kidron did in some inspired writings, notably in a brilliant critique of Lenin – Imperialism: Highest Stage of Capitalism But One (1962) – on what he labelled the permanent arms economy, and in Western Capitalism Since The War (1968). The latter book appeared just in time, he noted, since after that year, capitalism’s long-denied vulnerability to crisis and upheaval was no longer in doubt. In this period, too, Kidron threw himself into (unpaid) political organising, campaigning and lecturing, acting with charm and panache in a movement often noted for its solemnity and dourness.

He also edited the quarterly International Socialism, which first appeared in 1960. The journal broke with the far-left style in its attempt to be clear, jargon-free and relentlessly honest.

He was an academic at Hull University in the late 1960s and gave his wholehearted backing to the wave of student protest which washed over the country. When the vice-chancellor accused him of being impertinent, he was honoured by student placards on their next demonstration which affirmed: “Yes, we are all impertinent.”

In 1972 he and his wife Nina joined Pluto Press, helping to make it one of the most influential socialist publishing houses of that time. His main contribution was as an editor and a visionary, but he made his own special mark as an author and editor in the Atlas series, which produced The State Of The World Atlas and The War Atlas. And there was also The Book Of Business, Money And Power (1987).

His lifelong project was to understand modern capitalism, to help replace it. Already in the mid-1970s he had questioned the central pivots of the theory he had been so instrumental in developing in a brief but devastating critique called, in typically self-deprecatory fashion: Two Insights Don’t Make A Theory.

Disliking the way the International Socialists – who were transformed into the Socialist Workers party later in that decade – had turned to orthodox Leninist forms of organisation, he drifted away in the mid-1970s, throwing his enormous energies into political publishing.

While a fellow at Chatham House, he wrote Foreign Investments In India (1965). Pakistan’s Trade With Eastern Bloc Countries was published in 1972. His book of essays in political economy, Capitalism And Theory, was published in 1974.

In the early 1990s, Kidron returned to that central project of his life – his attempt to understand (and write about) capitalism. It was becoming a vast intellectual project. Now that his conception of capitalism had broadened, he wanted to address it – not just as an economic system, but in its political, social and psychological aspects as well – capitalism as a truly total system. Alas, his planned book remained fragmentary, despite three-quarters of a million words in draft.

Dogged by illness, Kidron found it increasingly difficult to give the focused attention the subject demanded. But his conviction that an alternative was possible, indeed was being nurtured within the heart of the system, remained undimmed as new networked forms of communication and relationships undermined the command and control relations of earlier capitalism.

He received the news of last Saturday’s demonstration against the war in Iraq with quiet joy and was delighted that his two youngest children were on it. He loved his family, and although he separated from his wife Nina in the early 1980s they remained very close. Together they had three children, Adam, Beeban and Cassia. From 1991 Mike lived with Polly and they had twins, Petra and Ruby, in 1995. He loved them all, as he did his seven grandchildren.

Ronald Segal writes: I collaborated with Michael Kidron on successive editions of The State Of The World Atlas and on The Book Of Business, Money And Power. They involved a great deal of drudgery, and only Michael could have made them so much fun. He had the sharpest of minds and the most gentle of natures. He was a revolutionary and an intellectual who never discarded people for ideas. He was wholly without pretentiousness. He will be remembered and mourned by more people than he would ever have suspected. There was no one like him.

Michael Kidron, revolutionary socialist and thinker, born September 20 1930; died March 25 2003


Last updated on 9.7.2003