A profile of the founder of New Interventions

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Mon Sep 13 08:14:48 MDT 1999

(I just received this from Jason Schulman. It is an interesting profile of
the man who helped to launch New Interventions, the magazine that I have
contributed to and which Paul Flewers serves on the editorial board of.)

KEN TARBUCK 1930-1995

Ken Tarbuck first became active in politics when he joined the
Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyist organisation, in 1947, after
hearing one of its leading members, Bill Hunter, speak at a meeting in
Birmingham. Ken was 16 at the time. For the next 20 years he played a key
role in a number of the central disputes within the movement. He was a
founder member of Tony Cliff’s group in 1950, the RSL in 1957 and the IMG
in the mid 60s.

After leaving the IMG in 1967 he never joined another group. It was by
choice not accident. His experience of the unprincipled "dirty politics"
that dominated the faction fights convinced him that "there was no chance
of a genuine revolutionary party being developed from out of the existing
Trotskyist movement". In considering these problems, he became convinced of
the need for a thorough theoretical re-evaluation.

During his years in the Trotskyist groups Ken had been an industrial worker
in the Birmingham area. He had left school at 14 to become an apprentice
butcher. Later he worked at Austin Motors and then, after two years
national service in the RAF, at Cadbury Bros. He was throughout this time
active in both the trade union movement and the Labour Party locally.

He had taken a keen interest in theory, but had been entirely self taught.
However, in 1963 he obtained a place at Ruskin College, studying for a
diploma in Economics and Political Science. A contemporary student at
Ruskin was John Prescott, now deputy leader of the Labour Party. Ken
commented: "I was not impressed with him at Ruskin, nor since".

Ken later went on to gain a Masters in Philosophy at the University of
Sussex and worked as a teacher and lecturer in secondary and further

Academic circles tend to be closed circles. They do not look very kindly on
self taught late-comers who have not gone through the conventional
scholastic route. This is just as true of the academic "Marxists" as of the
rest of the university fraternity. Much of so-called "Marxist theory" in
such quarters consists of a kind of deferential back slapping of each
other. Through such mutual admiration they seek to convince each other of
the importance of theory that has lost all contact with the class it claims
to represent.

Ken’s theoretical work never gained much recognition within such company.
In particular, his work on Bukharin and Luxemburg was almost totally
ignored by academics despite containing valuable insights. This did not
surprise him nor greatly disappoint him. Having had to gain access to
theory the hard way he took it seriously and viewed with contempt most of
the hollow sham claiming to be Marxism within the universities.

Ken tried to address his theoretical work to the socialist movement, not to
these academic circles. His experience of the nonsensical factionalism of
the Trotskyists convinced him that fundamental re-evaluation was needed of
certain dogmatic axioms accepted within these quarters. He spent the last
thirty years of his life considering these questions.

Between 1968 and 1971 he published, together with Chris Arthur, the
Bulletin of Marxist Studies. They gathered around them a fairly large
number of young people. They could have formed a new political group, but
deliberately chose not to. Ken regarded this as a major turning point in
his life and to his death remained proud of the decision he and Chris made:

"Most of the youngsters we were in contact with were very inexperienced and
eager for the revolution. To have founded a group we would have had to play
up to this belief in the imminence of revolution, when in fact the message
I gave was that it was not on. I was not prepared to trim or lie just for
the sake of influence."

The path Ken chose could often be a very lonely one. It meant setting
himself up against the euphoria that often gripped the socialist movement
in this period. In particular, his serious study of economics convinced him
that the prevalent theories of catastrophism in the Trotskyist movement
were absurd. There was no "death agony" of capitalism that would suddenly
propel the Trotskyists to the leadership of the working class and to power.

He also grappled with another question - the problems concerning Trotsky's
theory that the Soviet Union was a "workers’ state" despite the Stalinist
dictatorship. After being influenced by Tony Cliff’s state capitalism in
the period he had worked with him he never returned fully to the workers’
state position although he developed serious criticisms of Cliff’s standpoint.

This issue came to a head for him when he obtained the job of Associate
Professor of Economics at Addis Ababa University in 1978/79. His experience
in Ethiopia convinced him "that the Soviet Union had nothing to do with
socialism and was not any sort of workers’ state".

He became convinced that what he had seen in Ethiopia had been a state
bureaucracy ruling in its own right and not on behalf of any other class.
He knew this raised major theoretical questions for Marxism and would be
considered heresy within the movement.

Throughout the 1980s Ken concentrated on study and writing "judging the
time wrong to push my particular ideas". He joined the editorial board of
Revolutionary History when it was set up thinking "it would not have a
chance of surviving the sectarian atmosphere". He was pleasantly surprised
when it did.

The collapse of the Soviet Union was seen by Ken as a major event that
would eventually create the possibility of the theoretical reassessment he
sought. As a direct result of this he began publishing New Interventions in
February 1990. His intention was to develop a journal for open discussion
in the Marxist movement that would not be afraid to publish contentious views.

Early issues of New Interventions contained Marxism in the New Age: Towards
the twenty-first century. In this article, Ken presented the view that
imperialism far from being "the highest stage of capitalism" was in fact
its first stage. He posited that "a century of revolution" had taken place
in reaction to imperialism and since 1945 was creating, for the first time,
the "genuine world market" on which Marx had based his concept of
international working class solidarity.

Ken knew this would be another very controversial position within the
Marxist movement, but was determined not to let this stop him pursuing it.
In the last months of his life he outlined a series of theoretical
questions that needed to be re-examined and reworked in the light of the
above thesis.

As always, in doing this, Ken did not see himself as merely producing
theory in the abstract. If his position was correct, then the material
foundation for a revival of internationalism in the workers’ movement was
now developing. Ken strongly believed this. He saw his theoretical work as
preparation for this turn of events.

In a movement that has been subject to much division and unprincipled
infighting Ken brought a sense of honesty and integrity that was recognised
even by most of those who had major disagreements with him. His memorial
meeting on October 14th, 1996 was well attended by a range of people from
the socialist movement with widely differing views. The theme touched on by
many of them concerned Ken’s politeness and courtesy in discussion in
contrast to the arrogant and hectoring style that dominates so much of the
left. In his manner, Ken pointed to a correct way of proceeding forward at
a time when socialism is in crisis and the old certainties are clearly

Ken did not run away from the truth however unpalatable and disappointing
it often seemed. He faced his own death in the same way, trying to make
every preparation he could for work, he had begun, to be carried on without
him. He struggled to write a final article, an obituary to Ernest Mandel,
in which he was clearly assessing his own life. He concluded that to have
spent his life attempting to initiate change in a socialist direction "was
an honourable thing to do". By his example, Ken renews the confidence of
others in the truth of that statement.

Ken took a keen interest in the launching of LabourNet, which occurred at
about the same time as his death. On the day before he died he visualised
and discussed with me the possibility that the open discussion he had
started with New Interventions might find new life in an international
context via the Internet. He would very much have welcomed this Socialist
Discussion Journal.

Chris Bailey


Louis Proyect

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