Big Echo

Critical SF

Inteview with Ken Macleod

Ken MacLeod is a British writer and critic. His most recent novel is The Corporation Wars: Emergence (Amazon UK / US).

The central conceit of this issue of Big Echo is that Capital is a science fictional text. If you have any immediate thoughts on that (good idea, bad idea, obvious idea, stupid idea) we’d love to know them. If you would prefer a more focused question we just had a conversation with Cory Doctorow in which he argued (with nuance) that Marxism was inherently (even essentially) techno-utopian, that it seeks positive social transformation through technological revolution. Would you agree with that position?

I have to begin by admitting that I’ve never studied Capital. I read Volume One in the old Charles H Kerr edition way back in the 1970s, and I’ve read a few introductory texts on Marx’s economic theories and on ‘Marxist economics’, of which the one that sticks is Ernest Mandel’s Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory, a masterpiece of concision and clarity. The most comprehensive introduction to Capital as a whole that I’ve read is Marx’s Capital, by Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho. The main lesson I got from it was that you really have to read Volumes Two and Three as well, and a sense of the instability and contingency of the system’s circuits.

It must have been some earlier reading around Volumes Two and Three that inspired a throwaway line or two in my fourth novel, The Sky Road:

‘he’d run refinements of Otoh’s neo-Marxian reproduction schemata, primed with empirical data, on the university’s computers [...] the sinister algebra of the Otoh equations added up to complete breakdown in two more business-cycles.

‘That had been one boom and one slump ago.’

Sinister algebra! Now there’s a science fictional use of Capital!

For me, the most SFnal text of Marx is the Grundrisse, which consists of Marx’s notes when he was working out the ideas that went into Capital. In the Grundrisse he speculates on taking the tendencies within capitalism to their extreme limit, so you have a fully automated machinery of production. He doesn’t expect that to happen, because there are countervailing tendencies, and so on. But as a reductio ad absurdum of one tendency of the system, it bites. And it holds out the prospect of a world of creativity and abundance beyond capitalism. When it came to writing Capital Marx was more cautious, but out of that caution came one of the most singing passages of the work:

In fact, the realm of freedom actually begins only where labour which is determined by necessity and mundane considerations ceases; thus in the very nature of things it lies beyond the sphere of actual material production. Just as the savage must wrestle with Nature to satisfy his wants, to maintain and reproduce life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all social formations and under all possible modes of production. With his development this realm of physical necessity expands as a result of his wants; but, at the same time, the forces of production which satisfy these wants also increase. Freedom in this field can only consist in socialised man, the associated producers, rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favourable to, and worthy of, their human nature. But it nonetheless still remains a realm of necessity. Beyond it begins that development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom, which, however, can blossom forth only with this realm of necessity as its basis. The shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite. [source]It strikes me that here Marx unites the hopes that inspired all the great humanist thinkers with the everyday class struggle – organised or not – over working time. We shouldn’t overlook what a gigantic advance this was in human self-understanding. Aristotle could imagine the all-round development of the human being – heck, he could see it, in Athens at its best -- but he couldn’t imagine it as a possibility for everyone. Most human beings were doomed to be instruments of labour to enable the leisure of a few. And at the other end of this history, where liberal humanism is just beginning to tip over into socialism, you find John Stuart Mill’s chapter on ‘The Probable Futurity of the Labouring Classes’ where he expects workers’ co-operatives to become the dominant form of production and to end this class division between the toiling many and the fulfilled few. But it took Marx and Engels to ground all this in the mundane realities of political parties and trade unions, as August Nimtz has shown.

The only sense in which Marxism is techno-utopian is that it recognises that a society without class division and at the same time with the possibility of further human development can only come about on the basis of advanced machinery that enables a vast increase in available leisure time for the great majority. (It’s true that you can get local instances of communism at a very low level of technology, as seems to have happened in ancient Anatolia after an actual, dateable uprising of the lower orders, and they can last for thousands of years and be from all the evidence free and peaceful and happy places, but they have no possibility of further development.) This perspective has often been summarised as ‘Athens with machines instead of slaves’. But I wouldn’t say Marxism seeks positive social transformation through technological revolution: more like that it seeks a positive use of technology through social revolution. There’s nothing automatic about automation bringing utopia, far from it. As Mandel says in the pamphlet I mentioned, the system ‘will never die automatically. It will always be necessary to give it a conscious little push to effect its demise, and it is our job, the job of the working-class movement, to do the pushing.’ [source]

Now you can agree or disagree with Mandel on the desirability or probability of that conscious little push but there is no doubt that this is the view taken by Marx in Capital, even down to the sense of an almost modest task being posed – that what it would take to end capitalism would be incomparably less violent and protracted than what it took to establish it.

I just read a short essay on Capital at 150 by Radhika Desai in which she argued that the two most significant contributions of the book were that it historicizes capitalism and gives us a method by which we can understand that history. Is this a fair reduction of Capital’s significance? And in your experience to what extent is the SFnal project also, or at least potentially, such a historical project?

I have to thank you for that link because besides being a stimulating essay it sent me back not only to Volume One but to Ernest Mandel’s introduction. I’ve learned a lot over many years from reading Mandel, and I have a lot of respect for his memory. I whole-heartedly agree with Desai’s recommendation of Mandel’s introduction and her urging of people not to be intimidated by Capital or get side-tracked into rival interpretations but to read it for themselves. However, as I say it’s a long time since I read the book myself, so I’m not entirely sure about whether that’s a fair reduction, but I would agree that enabling us to see capitalism as a social system that had a beginning, that has a development, and that has a foreseeable end is one of Capital’s major accomplishments.

On the second question, I’ve argued elsewhere that science fiction is implicitly historical materialist:

‘What distinguishes SF from previous ways of thinking about the future is precisely what distinguishes Marxism from other forms of socialism - it investigates the possibilities of the future by looking at the tendencies of the present: developments in technology, scientific discoveries, social trends, and how these interact. A reading of science fiction is one of the best possible preparations for understanding Marx’s materialist conception of history, no matter how conservative or pro-capitalist the given writer’s own views may be. That society is greatly affected by technological change, that societies flourish or fail to the extent that they enhance or inhibit technological progress, that people’s philosophical and religious and moral ideas are connected to the whole social system in which they live and move and have their being, and that the whole social system itself rests upon the ability of human beings to wrest a living from nature - these ideas are the most basic tools in the science-fiction writer’s kit, and in the science-fiction reader’s mental map of the world. They are also, of course, those of Marx.’

(‘Socialism: Millenarian, Utopian, and Science-Fictional,’ in The True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod, edited by Andrew Butler and Farah Mendlesohn.)

This may have been a tad over-stated, especially as I went on to suggest that maybe because the First and Second Internationals actually did promulgate that materialist way of thinking it may have directly or indirectly influenced early SF. But I still think tracing these connections would make an interesting research project for someone someday.

These next three are Big Echo stock questions (i.e. obsessive preoccupations): How would you characterize your political or ideological origins? How has your political trajectory changed over time? Would you characterize your project as revolutionary?

I began to think about politics when I was in secondary school, around about 1970. I caught the tail end of the 60s radicalization and read about Malcolm X and May 68 and Women’s Lib and Northern Ireland and, well, everything! This was a time of great questioning and upheaval. After I moved to London in 1976 to attempt a research degree in biomechanics at Brunel University I joined the International Marxist Group, the British section of the Fourth International. We were relentlessly active: in West London we were involved in the labour movement, anti-racist and anti-fascist actions, the Troops out Movement, the women’s movement and later CND and the Labour left. Within months of joining I was smuggling books into Czechoslovakia – a mission for which I received no practical training or political preparation whatsoever. By 1980 or so I was getting pretty frazzled, went through some wild political lurches and eventually concluded that Trotskyism was fundamentally misguided. After giving things a lot of thought I joined the Communist Party in the mid 1980s just as it began to tear itself to bits and just as Chernenko gave way to Gorbachev and it all started kicking off in the East. I followed the ensuing counter-revolution quite intensely. At first I indulged some hopes that this was the political revolution for workers democracy that Trotsky had talked about, but soon saw that this notion was deluded. Unfortunately the delusion was held onto by most of the far left, including Mandel.

All this while I had been reading widely, and talking to lots of different people, and I was well versed in the critiques of existing socialism from the right and from the left. So none of this came as a great surprise or shock, but it certainly showed that the two political currents I had tried to swim in – Trotskyism and mainstream Communism – had run into the sand. Those left currents that weren’t implicated in the debacle – from anarchism and left-communism to conventional right-wing social democracy – had proved themselves incapable of so much as intervening in the crisis of state socialism, let alone gaining from it. The fall of Communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe was far more than the well-deserved eviction of their complacent and insolent state and party apparats. The entire Left was hammered for the foreseeable future.

My first four novels, the Fall Revolution books, came out of thinking over this defeat and thinking through some consequences of it. There’s a thread in the first two about the problems of markets and planning, which I’d been obsessed with ever since the mid-1980s. The idea that unacknowledged planning is as crucial to modern capitalism as unofficial and often illegal trading was to the Soviet economy – called in the novels ‘black planning’ by analogy to the ‘black market’ – came from reading Hillel Ticktin and others of the Critique school, which I first encountered at Glasgow University back in the 1970s. The Fall Revolution books were written in the 1990s and the flames of Yugoslavia and the first Gulf War were very much on my mind. I had found that some libertarians, whose critiques of socialism I had been reading since the early 1980s and with whom I had some agreements and disagreements, were more implacably opposed to wars of intervention than much of the liberal left. I became a daily reader of, as I remain. Those first four books are riddled with allusions to the Fourth International and to free-market libertarianism. As a result a lot of people think I’m either a Trotskyist or a Libertarian. Well, I’m not!  

After I had worked all that out of my system I felt free to explore other ideas and possibilities. For instance, in Learning the World I take the hypothesis that the old Victorian liberals like Spencer and Macaulay were right after all, and capitalism will last and improve for tens of thousands of years. In The Restoration Game I wondered if the conspiracy I was in when I crossed that border in that van was rather more extensive and successful than it seemed at the time. But in most of my books the future, near or far, is set in one stage or other of a rocky passage out of capitalism. Even if sometimes the rocks seem to have blocked it completely, as in Intrusion:

            ‘It’s banal,’ Ahmed said. ‘"Delay is the essence of the period", as Ticktin said.’ He shrugged. ‘Sorry. It’s as simple as that.’

            Geena shook her head. ‘I don’t get it.’

            ‘The global system has got to the stage where the whole show can only be kept on the road consciously. And for that it needs all the critique it can get. [...]’


            ‘What alternative, then?’

            ‘The one that’s implicit in the system itself.’

            ‘Oh.’ Geena felt disappointed. ‘Socialism. Like anybody would ever want that.’

            ‘Well, indeed,’ said Ahmed, in a wry tone. ‘It would be so terrible that the most important task in politics has become preventing people from realising that they’re already almost there. That train has left the station. We’ve already crossed the border. State-capitalism can flip over - or rather, can be flipped over, overturned - into socialism in the blink of an eye, the moment people become conscious of the possibility. The point is to prevent them becoming conscious. [...]’

What I hope is consistent throughout is at the very least an anti-imperialist and antiwar standpoint, and libertarian (in the broad sense) attitude. And to remind people of the possibility of that little conscious push.

Apart from that, though, I wouldn’t characterise my project as revolutionary. It would be pretentious, for one thing, and ridiculous, for another. As you may have gathered, I was absolutely crap at being a revolutionary. I’m quite content to be a member of the Labour Party. What I try to do, in non-fiction writing and speaking as well as science fiction, is to encourage a certain way of thinking about the present and the future. In a talk on space and socialism that I was asked to give in Manchester a few years ago I put it like this:

 ‘[T]here’s a civilisational crisis, a complex of conflicts that have to be resolved in, let’s say, the coming century if we are to continue in something like a civilised manner. But we are part of the working class, the class that can outlive capitalism. Which means it’s up to us to make our way to a future beyond it. That’s the weight of the responsibility we’ve taken on.’  

Is it possible to write about the future without fetishizing technology?

Yes, of course. But ‘fetishizing’ is ambiguous. There’s the psychoanalytic sense of eroticising an inanimate object, which in this context could mean shiny things and phallic spacecraft. There are a lot of cheap laughs to be got out of that, no doubt. And then there’s the sense used in Capital, which as I understand it means attributing agency and relationships to things, so that the market becomes in a double sense a second nature.

These two usages get persistently muddled in lazy discourse, as if what Marx meant by ‘the fetishism of the commodity’ was somebody stroking their new phone or giving their car a name. By analogy with the Marxian sense of the term, fetishizing technology would be attributing to it a degree of autonomy and inevitability that it doesn’t have. The idea of the Singularity, particularly as projected by the likes of Ray Kurzweil, does that a lot. As if the only sure generalisation in social science was Moore’s Law!

And a similar fetishization occurs in pop futurology and in the mass media. In science fiction itself it’s, if not rare, then something that would have to be established case by case. Science fiction has always been about causality and consequences, and often second or third order consequence.

What might be a more pervasive problem is that way that science fiction unconsciously participates in the hype cycle of emergent technologies – what I’ve heard referred to by a sociologist of science as ‘the political economy of promise’. There’s another research project there, if anyone’s interested. I think it was Kim Stanley Robinson who first pointed out that when science fiction was ostensibly all about spaceflight what was really going on was a massive expansion of aviation. Cyberpunk caught on in the late 1980s just as computers began to land on office desks but before the Internet had become an everyday reality. And it helped to bring that about. Maybe New Space Opera and New Hard SF presaged the much more private and profit-driven space programmes of today, as well as the more realistic approach to space exploration – lots of little robots, rather than astronauts -- and maybe something similar is happening or about to happen with biotech.  

What would you describe as the ideological content of “the future” as an idea? Who owns it? Who controls it?

We’re seeing the truth of the slogan from Nineteen Eighty-Four: ‘Who controls the past controls the future’. Every possibility of making a better world through conscious collective action is seen as utterly discredited in practice. The past is trashed, the future is vacant and dystopia is the default. Changing this will depend on a real revival of consciousness that the world can be changed.

Around about 2011 I was walking to the station in Amsterdam, and happened upon a huddle of tents that turned out to be Occupy Amsterdam. Slavoj Zizek was wandering around being interviewed by a group of young people. I overheard him say very emphatically: ‘We have to admit that the Twentieth Century was a disaster.’ It wasn’t my place to interrupt but I felt like heckling him. We have to admit no such thing. A billion people went into the Twentieth Century and for all the wars and revolutions, six billion people came out of it. And far healthier, longer-lived, more literate and freer people, at that. If you dismiss that you sell the past to the one per cent right away.  

My whole view of what science fiction was and could do was shifted on its axis by a talk at the Edinburgh International Book Festival a couple of years ago by Mary Talbot and Brian Talbot. They were introducing their graphic non-fiction book about the revolutionary and Communard Louise Michel, The Red Virgin and the Vision of Utopia. They showed that science fiction and technological utopianism were very much a part of a radical popular culture of opposition among the turbulent people of Paris in the 1860s, the people who went on to establish the Commune. This is quite a different origin story of the genre and its readership from what we usually trace through the American pulps.

And I suspect that the future as an idea looks very different in China and the newly industrializing countries than it does in Europe and North America, but that’s a question I intend to investigate further in the actual future, if we’re spared.     

Putting together an issue like this means running smack into the wall that so frequently seems to lie between class analysis, and gender and race analysis. Among SF aficionados and writers it is pretty easy to get white men to run their mouths about Marx; less so women and POC. Any thoughts?

My first thought is that this is literally a first world problem. Most of the world’s Marxists are in Asia! And nearly all of the rest are in Africa and Latin America. Maybe the real problem is with SF fans and writers, rather than with Marxism? But more seriously, from the outside it seems that particularly in the United States a ludicrous and pernicious misunderstanding has been cultivated that Marxism is all about class, and that what Marx meant by the working class is white men who work in factories. So socialism is seen as privileging the so-called white working class, and in competition with or even opposition to struggles against other forms of oppression. As is this misconception is promoted quite widely including by many leftists and liberals, it’s not surprising that it has an effect. But its real basis is the deep divisions in US society and the weakness of the left, which the misconception serves to perpetuate, along with the destruction of its historical memory, so it’s all a nightmare spiral to which I have no easy answers. 

What would you characterize as the most exciting developments in contemporary SF writing over the last twenty years? How do you see it proceeding over the next few?

The awful truth is that I’m twenty years behind in reading contemporary SF. It’s an occupational hazard of writing it, at least if you’re as lazy and easily distracted as I am. I read far, far more non-fiction than fiction of any kind. I can look with some pride at a dozen Gollancz SF Masterworks that I’ve written well-received introductions to, all lined up on one bookshelf, and I can look at adjacent shelves and see major recent works by writers I admire, some of whom I know, and I could just curl up in shame that I have yet to read them. And on another shelf, there are those unopened Volumes Two and Three of Capital...

I’m curious about the degree to which not just the content but style of your work (or SF more generally) correlates to political and ideological shifts.

Bearing in mind what I just said about being twenty years behind current SF ... it’s a tricky one.  At first glance it seems like there’s a very rough correlation between political conservatism and readable or popular style – but it’s more complicated than that. I think the key variable is the personal impact of literary movements in SF: the New Wave confronted the issues of style, texture, literary experiment and innovation, and didn’t for the most part care about commercial or popular success. That approach, taken in the UK by New Worlds, had a resurgence in the New Weird, with M. John Harrison as a strong and articulate voice in both.

Since 2008 the commercial pressures on all genre writers have become a lot more pressing.  And in the past few years there was a convulsive reactionary movement in SF, the whole Sad/Rabid Puppies brouhaha, which attempted to equate right-wing politics with readable style and liberal or left-wing, so-called SJW politics with literary pretension and obscurity. This is of course a classic right-wing populist ploy, and one that falls apart on examination.

The implied template of good old-fashioned SF style goes back to Campbell’s exaltation of so-called transparent, workmanlike prose, as exemplified by Heinlein and Asimov – and analysing Heinlein’s  politics, or even Asimov’s, would take some serious work (as it has in Heinlein’s case, most recently in Farah Mendlesohn’s new book). This Analog aesthetic is carried forward by Niven and Pournelle and the whole libertarian mil-SF tradition, where it sometimes devolves into pure pulp. Because the New Wave reacted against the Campbellian old guard, and because some but by no means all its writers were broadly speaking on the left, you can see where the rough correlation comes from.

But then you see the exceptions, and the complications of any simple mapping. Lovecraft had a – well, distinctive, let’s say -- style. Gene Wolfe is a conservative, and his style is perhaps the most literary – and literate – in the field, putting considerable demands on the reader. Likewise Disch, and Keith Roberts, an increasingly self-conscious and accomplished stylist as time went on.  Among writers you could categorise as liberal or progressive, Le Guin’s prose is clear and popular, as is Bujold’s. And Brin, Scalzi, Stross, Kowal, Robinson and so on.

In my own work there’s a definite move to a simpler style, and it’s not entirely driven by market considerations. In The Star Fraction there are, I’m afraid, some purple passages, some too-clever word-play, turns of phrase I was proud of – always a warning sign. But this arose out of my clumsy emulation of elaborate style done well, notably in the early work of M. John Harrison which was all I’d read of him at the time. I’d been enthralled by the prose of The Pastel City and The Centauri Device and the great short stories such as ‘Running Down’ and ‘Coming from Behind’, and thought I could try for that effect. No go.

And there was another fault too, which my striven-for style tended to hide. I showed a draft of the second chapter of my second novel to Andrew Greig, a poet and novelist I’d met when he was Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University. He went through a couple of pages with a sharp pencil and taught me line editing. He called it ‘picking the fluff off the needle’. I’m convinced this is something you have to be shown by someone else, and once you’ve seen it done you can do it for yourself – a favour I’ve paid forward more than once. As time has gone on the style I’ve striven for is that of good commercial fiction, a more difficult standard than some might suppose.

I’m still thinking about techno-utopianism and in particular its relation to mass movements. Is there a tendency in SF to valorize technocracy and theoretical knowledge at the expense of social movements, to suggest that change is driven by small groups or individuals in possession of esoteric knowledge? (If one was a total ass one could ask: If Marxism was SF, would cyberpunk be Leninist?)

I get the joke, but — to ruin it with pedantry — the idea of an elite with esoteric knowledge has nothing to do with Lenin, whatever you may say about certain self-styled Leninists. The historian Lars Lih has established this pretty conclusively, as did the American socialist Hal Draper many years ago. Lenin thought Marxism was a social science that like any science took serious effort to learn, but the whole point was to bring that body of knowledge to as many working people as possible, and to convince them to act on it. There was nothing esoteric about it.

But in SF the tendency you mention is ever-present, and I have to put my hands up to that too. As some readers and critics have remarked, in the Fall Revolution books the whole fate of humanity and long-term future of the universe is determined by four people who drank in the same student union bar in Glasgow in the 1970s. Two different futures, come to think of it, that in The Sky Road hinge apart on one moment of decision by one character. And because this character is herself a historical materialist, she worries about that!

In part this tendency is a necessity for fiction. You can’t have story without character, decision, agency and consequence. Because in SF the consequences are often global, and the protagonists are so often people with technical or scientific or otherwise important knowledge, the whole problem stands out sharply. And there is a difficulty in having a social movement as a protagonist. I think Kim Stanley Robinson achieves it in the Mars trilogy, but even there the First Hundred and their personal quarrels and affairs and so on play a big part in the plot. But to turn the question back on itself, China Miéville’s October writes an accurate history of the Russian Revolution almost as if it was science fiction – like an alternate history that actually happened, which is how it strikes us now -- and achieves a vivid depiction of a gigantic social upheaval without losing sight of agency and decision at every level of the process. 

I’m very interested in what you had to say about the Talbots and want to run out and get hold of the Red Virgin immediately (it also reminded me that I have yet to watch Peter Watkin’s film about the Paris Commune). This idea of different origin stories for SF, of alternate genealogies, is very much in the air, and I wonder what the most significant non-SF influences on your SF might have been.

In this interview we’ve focussed on Marxism, and while my acquaintance with that and my very marginal participation in political and social struggles has obviously been an influence, it’s far from the only one and perhaps not the major one. Most of what goes into my SF is what I’ve squirreled away from science and philosophy and history and following the news. For my latest trilogy, The Corporation Wars, I drew on a lot of online reading about neo-Reaction, and on realising that I’d met its ancestors in the trenches of 1990s Usenet, and on reading a little book about planetary science (Planets: A Very Short Introduction, by David A. Rothery) over and over. Or at least taking it out from the library over and over.

The Scottish landscape has been important to me, as have other landscapes and locations I’ve visited. Poetry and music, to an extent, though my tastes are barely educated. My experience of working in science and later in IT and industry obviously goes into many of my books, as well as a later wider interaction with literary people and academics.

For example, I shared with Pippa Goldschmidt a residency for a year or so at the Genomics Policy and Research Forum at Edinburgh University. The Forum was a node for public engagement with the results of social science as applied to the new life sciences, using everything from policy briefings and press packs to plays and art installations. For the first time I saw the social sciences from the inside, an experience I drew on and mildly satirised for the novel I wrote during that residency, Intrusion.

We put on events that brought together scientists, social scientists, writers and journalists for informal discussions, with titles like ‘The Laboratory of Dr Latour, and other stories’, on the scientist in fiction and in science studies; or ‘Dr Jekyll’s DNA Found: Is Hyde in the clear?’ on genetics and crime, featuring crime writers Ian Rankin and Lyn Anderson. We did one on science and poetry, ‘Base Pairs and Couplets’, with a panel of well-known poets. And we found that SF fandom networks are a great force multiplier for public engagement with science.

An alternative genealogy, perhaps, of my own SF implicates the seamy underside of a great deal of SF – pseudoscience. I was raised in what is now called young earth creationism, and by reaction as a teenager I got hooked by von Daniken and Velikovsky and UFOlogy, and by a further reaction and a little education got into scepticism, rationalism and secular humanism in my later teens and twenties. That, by extension rather than reaction this time, led on to an interest in computation and evolution and later on to deep time and geology.

This is all very close to the Brit-SF genealogy. After Mary Shelley’s brilliant start we can trace its prehistory in scientific romance and future war stories, then spot its point mutation of origin as a distinct species with H. G. Wells learning zoology from Thomas Huxley. That puts Wells, Stapledon, Clarke, Baxter and all who met them only so many handshakes away from Darwin: an apostolic succession for the church of science militant. And there are connections between that tradition and the British radical scientists: Haldane, Hogben, Levy, Needham, Bernal. Off the top of my head I know that Wells blurbs Hogben, Clarke cites Haldane and Bernal. The founding SFnal text of Brit-SF is The Origin of Species. But to understand this particular peculiarity of the English, you could do worse than start by reading the historical chapters of Capital.