Tribute to Cyril Smith

Por Spencer John , ,

(versión en castellano)
Speech from Cyril´s funeral
Emma has asked me to say a few words about Cyril’s life in revolutionary politics. I’m sure Cyril wouldn’t have wanted to be buried according to the rites of the WRP/SLL and I certainly wouldn’t want to speak on behalf of any fraction of that organisation. But it can’t be ignored that Cyril was a leading Trotskyist for 40 years. As a young mathematician in the biometrics department of UCL, he was surrounded by Communist Party enthusiasts led by the department chief, JBS Haldane. The department was thrown into turmoil when Stalin declared genetics to be a bourgeois pseudoscience, decreed that animals could pass on their descendants the characteristics they had acquired in life, and fired the entire cadre of Soviet geneticists, sending many to Siberia. For good measure, at the same time, the Soviet leader denounced Tito as an imperialist agent. “It became obvious that Stalin’s followers were lying their heads off, especially about the history of the Russian revolution, the fate of its leaders and the nature of life in the USSR. I turned with excitement to the works of Leon Trotsky. Here, I thought, was the real theory of socialism, completely worked out. All we had to do was to ‘put it into practice’.” After a brief spell in Ted Grant’s group, he joined the Revolutionary Communist Party and became a very effective propagandist against Stalinism and in favour of a genuine Bolshevik international. Active in the Labour League of Youth, he was the first editor of Keep Left, the paper of the Gerry Healy’s faction. When I encountered him in the 1960s he was a leading figure in what was then the SLL.  By that time, on his own account, Cyril was having difficulty swallowing the version of dialectical and historical materialism on which Healy was placing more and more emphasis. His difficulty in this respect were not helped by the publication in 1973 of Marx’s Grundrisse (Outline of the Critique of Political Economy). Around this time the newly founded Workers Revolutionary Party, began to produce the NewsLine and Cyril put his talents at the paper’s service. But the work of assembling random snippets of information into a newspaper was not congenial and he soon returned to his post teaching at the LSE.  A mark of the respect with which Cyril was regarded by the party membership was his election to its three-person control commission, the supposed repository of a Leninist party’s conscience. Unfortunately, as he put it later, this was more of a “controlled” commission and it was used to sanitise the arbitrary expulsion of the Alan Thornett group. At this time we were neighbours in Clapham South and I sometimes used to drop in on Cyril on my way home. Cyril always made one welcome but I was overawed by his wide knowledge and his intellectual brilliance. He gave the impression too of being under considerable personal stress. By the end of the 1970s, on his own account, Cyril had largely dropped out of the party’s frenetic day to day activity. When the WRP imploded in 1985 Cyril saw an opportunity to put his point of view to a wider audience by initiating discussions that would have been inconceivable while Gerry Healy was in charge. This was perhaps a little optimistic. When Cyril announced that the Marxists had not understood Marx he rather put himself in the paradoxical position of the famous beardless village barber who shaves all those and only those who don’t shave themselves. His former comrades were inclined to ask who are you to talk, just as they used to silence awkward questioners by demanding to know whether they had sold their NewsLine quota.  In 1988 Cyril produced a pamphlet Communist Society and Marxist Theory and organised a reading group to work through Marx’s Capital. This was the start of a new Odyssey which carried him a long way from his starting point and brought him a wider circle. As he put it, “the simple aim of checking everything turned out to demand a more protracted and painful process than I could have imagined.” It brought him to reject Lenin’s gloss on Marx’s work and to reject the tenets of Trotskyism (world revolution, defence of the workers state, building of the FI). Cyril came to see Marx as being concerned with the nature of humanity, and of how in class society its way of living denied its human essence. Bourgeois society, dominated by money and its development into capital, was a form of life “not appropriate to and worthy of our human nature” (Capital, Volume 3). A human social form would be a “free association of producers.” The task was not to “take power”, but to show how to live without power, a job to be done not by a revolutionary elite but collectively by all those oppressed under the existing order. Cyril was very critical of the received wisdom about the relationship between Marx and the Enlightenment. Increasingly he came to see Marx as the heir to a rich Hermetic tradition quite opposed to “Enlightenment thinking” based on scientific rationalism.  The fruits of this work went into Marx at the Millennium (2000) and Karl Marx and the Future of the Human (2005).  Despite the severe stroke which sadly overshadowed his final years, Cyril went on striving to understand and to transmit that understanding.  How can one sum up the life of such a mercurial figure in a short funeral address? I hope it is clear from the short summary of his political trajectory that he was in his element when subverting or ridiculing orthodoxy. He told me how when he was a boy Jewish iconoclasts used to stand standing opposite the synagogue on the sabbath ostentatiously eating ham sandwiches. I think he was with them in spirit. The word that comes most often to my mind is paradox. Cyril revelled in it and his life was very paradoxical. He was critical thinker who was for 30-odd years a militant in the most orthodox of orthodox parties. He was a man preoccupied with Capital who was untouched by the frenzy of modern consumerism. He was a gentle man in a ferocious political group. He was also a doting father proud of his daughters’ accomplishments. I vividly remember we used to see Cyril and Emma, who was then a very small girl, every Sunday walking past our house hand in hand on their way to her violin lesson. He was a born teacher. Liz remembers him teaching her sons chess up at the College of Marxist Education. He helped my son Tom very generously when he ran into difficulties with his university dissertation. At his funeral our thoughts should be most of all with Emma and Laura in their loss.

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