Right wing Labour MP Ian Austin has torn into any suggestion that the Labour Party has links to Karl Marx and Marxism.
Austin was incensed by John McDonnell’s attendance at a conference celebrating 200 years since Marx’s birth. Austin said he “couldn’t imagine any previous Labour Chancellor or shadow Chancellor doing the same thing”.
But, as many quickly pointed out, Austin is showing his lack of knowledge of his party’s history.
For example, Stafford Cripps, chancellor in the reforming 1945-50 government, had a long history of involvement in an organisation that referenced Marx.
And in 1948 Labour published a centenary edition of the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Frederick Engels. The introduction said “the Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement”.
Marxists were involved in the formation of the Labour Party at the beginning of the twentieth century, and figures such as 1980s leader Michael Foot and left MP Tony Benn stressed their debts to Marx.
Of course most Labour leaders have scoffed at Marx. Leader and prime minster Harold Wilson said, “I only got as far as page two of Capital.”
The party sharply distanced itself from organised Marxists. That’s why the Communist Party’s repeated efforts to affiliate to Labour in the 1920s were denied.
And those in the Labour Party who do praise Marx often do so in a way designed to weaken any revolutionary content.
The first method is to reduce Marx simply to a critic of capitalist economics.
McDonnell said last year that people could “learn a lot from reading Das Kapital”.
That’s very welcome to hear. But such views are not necessarily more controversial than the fairly frequent injunctions in the Financial Times newspaper or the Economist magazine that bosses should read Marx.
The intention of these interventions is that those at the top should understand the potential for crisis and revolution—and work to prevent them bringing down the system.
Marx is reduced to the sort of man who might appear on Newsnight helpfully pointing out coming problems and hoping to steer us towards calmer waters within a continuing capitalist framework.
A more substantial manoeuvre by Labour people is to say that Marx was really for change, but through the methods of parliament. Electing a majority of “good” Labour MPs will open the door to a fundamental overthrow of society though legislation in the House of Commons.
Socialism will come about through the proper channels and during office hours. There are bits of Marx which—with a considerable twist— can be used in this way.
In 1852, in the context of the great Chartist movement for political reform, Marx wrote, “universal suffrage is the equivalent of political power for the working class of England”.
Almost 20 years later he added, “We do not deny that there are countries, such as America and England where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means”.
But the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 changed Marx’s views. For two months, having eliminated the old ruling institutions, the workers of Paris ran the city. Marx celebrated measures such as the replacement of a professional army by the armed population, the separation of church and state and free education.
In addition, all officials were paid the average worker’s wage, all important offices subject to election and then re-election whenever the people wanted.
But most important, Marx said, was that, “Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes.”
In other words, even ignoring the specific achievements of the Commune, it had shown “the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economical emancipation of labour”.
Marx had already, in 1852, concluded “the next attempt of the French Revolution will be no longer, as before, to transfer the bureaucratic-military machine from one hand to another but to smash it, and this is the preliminary condition for every real people’s revolution on the Continent.”
Now this became a general lesson. The capitalist state cannot be used by the working class but has to be destroyed. Instead there must be a workers’ state with a much richer form of democracy.
Marx said, “One thing especially was proved by the Commune, that the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.”
This Marx, the real and revolutionary Marx, is incompatible with the Labour Party’s vision of change carried out through the mechanism of the capitalist state.
Another big difference is that Labour thinks change can be won for people rather than by people themselves.
Of course left Labour members will say that there needs to be widespread mobilisation, engagement and participation. But the central focus of such activity is to secure votes at elections or to create the conditions in which more people will feel able to vote for Labour.
It is a type of what Hal Draper called socialism from above. It is the idea that socialism “must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite not subject to their control in fact.”
In contrast a central point of Marx is that “the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”.
Social change must be carried through by people themselves taking part in their own liberation. Their own involvement in strikes, protests and new democratic forms ensures both the destruction of the old order and the change in people’s consciousness.
This is the only way in which socialism can be what Marx called “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority”.
A final way of adopting Marx but not understanding Marx is to dilute his message into a pallid series of reforms. Just before he was elected Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn did an interview with Andrew Marr.
He was asked about his views on Marx. Corbyn brightly suggested that everyone, including a sceptical Marr, has a bit of Marx in them in the way they now understand the world.
He then added, “Marx analysed what was happening in a quite brilliant way. The philosophy around Marx is absolutely fascinating.”
Corbyn is right to say it is fascinating, and has implications.
He said, “Philosophy applies at all times. Do we then take that as a way in which we ensure people have reasonable security in their lives through public ownership of the major monopolies, then I think that is a fair point to look at.”
The reduction of Marx to the gradual renationalisation of the railways, the Royal Mail and the water industry is a process that began in the 1890s in the German Labour-type party, the SPD.
Here Marx’s “revolution” was reduced and diluted until it became compatible with capitalism and nationalism.
This disastrous identification with the existing system lay behind the SPD’s support for the German ruling class in the First World War, and then its bloody suppression of the German Revolution after the war.
Corbyn probably hasn’t read Marx’s works such as the Critique of the Gotha Programme, where Marx rails against the use of loose phrases such as “fairness” and “equality” because every class will represent such notions in their own way.
For capitalists they mean the right to own property and a wages system dominated by capital. For revolutionaries they mean social control, workers’ power and the removal of ownership.
There have always been Marxists in the Labour Party, but Labour isn’t a Marxist party—as its leaders would agree. Does it matter? It’s not about whether Labour fits with Marx’s words, it’s important because Marx describes the reality of a capitalist society that has to be overthrown, not reformed.
His writings on the state and revolution are essential to understanding the fate of Syriza in Greece or the Socialist Party in France.
Marx never lived to see the rise of mass reformist organisations such as Labour. But his writings are crucial to understanding why they can’t bring about the changes we need and why we need revolutionary organisation.
- The Communist Manifesto by Frederick Engels and Karl Marx, £1.00
- Celebrating 200 years since Karl Marx’s birth by Alex Callinicos bit.ly/ACMarx200
- Critique of the Gotha Programme by Karl Marx bit.ly/MarxGotha
Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk