I was talking to Mike this evening about John McDonnell’s appearance on Question Time last week, when all the other panelists, including Alistair Campbell, Soubry for the Tories and Dimbleby himself all tried to pile into him and attack himself and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. I didn’t see the programme, but heard from Mike that at one point someone attempted to score a point accusing McDonnell of being a Marxist. McDonnell said he was, and that as a Marxist he was overjoyed at the 2008 financial crisis, as this was the kind of massive economic crisis that is caused by capitalism. Mike took this McDonnell answering in the conditional: this is what he would believe, if he was a Marxist. But even if McDonnell is a Marxist – which is debateable – this still is not necessarily a reason why he should be feared or disqualified from government.
There’s a difference between Marxism and Communism. Communism is a form of Marxism, but as historians of the Soviet regime and political scientists will tell you, it is a form of Communism based on the interpretation of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. And I was taught by the tutor at College on the rise of Communism in Russia, that Lenin adapted and reformed Marxism as much as his ideological opponents and enemies in democratic socialism. I should point out here that before he began the course, he made a little speech stating that he wasn’t a Communist, and if, by some accident, he found himself in such a party, he would very soon find himself thrown out of it. This is pretty much true. The official ideology of the Soviet Union was Marxism-Leninism, and it broke with the ideas of the German Social Democrats, and particularly that of Karl Kautsky, as the leading European Marxist party. In 1910 the German Social Democrats (SPD) were world’s leading socialist party. They had 110 deputies in the Reichstag, the German parliament, 720,000 members and over 70 newspapers and periodicals. (See John Kelly, Trade Unions and Socialist Politics, p. 27).
The party had been riven by ideological conflict in the 1890s over Eduard Bernstein’s ‘Revisionism’. Bernstein had argued that Marxism was wrong, and that far from impoverishing the workers in the operation of the ‘iron law of wages’, the workers were becoming more prosperous. He therefore urged a revision of Marxist socialism, abandoning the aspects that were no longer relevant. Instead of the Hegelian dialect, he urged instead that the party should incorporate and adapt the ideals of the great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. This did not mean abandoning socialism or the nationalisation of industry. Indeed, he saw the emergence of joint-stock companies as the type of capitalist institution, which would gradually become transformed as society developed to produce the new, socialist society of the future. Despite widespread, and fierce opposition, Bernstein was not thrown out of the party. Lenin, who had previously been an admirers of the Germans, really couldn’t understand this. When he met Karl Kautsky, the Austrian leader of German and Austrian Marxism, during his exile from Tsarist Russia, Lenin asked him that question. Kautsky replied that they didn’t do that kind of thing. Lenin went berserk, called him a prostitute, and published a pamphlet attacking Kautsky and denouncing him as a ‘renegade’.
Kautsky was no enemy of democracy. I’ve put up various pieces from Marx, Kautsky and the French Marxist, Lucien Laurat, showing how they all supported, to a certain degree, parliamentary democracy. Marx never ruled out violent revolution, but was increasingly of the opinion that there was no need, as socialists were winning considerable concessions and advances through parliamentary politics. Kautsky and Laurat fully support parliamentary democracy. Kautsky himself despised the workers’ soviets as undemocratic, and bitterly attacked the Bolsheviks for their suppression of human rights. He hated the disenfranchisement of the bourgeoisie, their subjection to slave labour and how they were given the worst jobs, and were given the worst rations. He also attacked the Bolsheviks’ monopolisation of the press and their destruction and banning of competing parties, newspapers and publications. And rather than industry being nationalised in one fell blow, as the Bolsheviks had done, he argued instead that Marxism demanded that industry should only be nationalised gradually at the appropriate moment. This was when the various capitalist firms in a particular economic sector had merged to create a cartel. It was only then that the industries should be taken over by the state, and run in the interests of the working class and the people as a whole. After the Bolshevik revolution, Kautsky supported the Mensheviks, their ideological rivals, in the newly independent state of Georgia in the Caucasus, before that was finally conquered by the USSR.
Lenin, by contrast, had argued in his 1905 pamphlet, What Is To Be Done, that the Russian socialist party should be led by committed revolutionaries, who would command absolute authority. Debate was to be strictly limited, and once the party’s leaders had made a decision, it had to be obeyed without question. Lenin had come to this view through his experience of the conspiratorial nature of Russian revolutionary politics. He was influenced by the ideas of the Russian revolutionary – but not Marxist – Chernyshevsky. He also adopted this extremely authoritarian line as an attempt to prevent the rise of factionalism that divided and tore apart the Populists, the Russian agrarian socialists that form Marxism’s main rival as the party of the peasants and working class.
Now I’ll make it plain: I’m not a Marxist or a Communist. I don’t agree with its atheism nor its basis in Hegelian philosophy. I’m also very much aware of the appalling human rights abuses by Lenin, Stalin, and their successors. But Marxism is not necessarily synonymous with Communism.
During the struggle in the 1980s in the Labour party with the Militant Tendency, the Swedish Social Democrats also offered their perspective on a similar controversy they had gone through. They had also been forced to expel a group that had tried to overturn party democracy and take absolute power. They had not, however, expelled them because they were Marxists, and made the point that there still were Marxists within the party. Thus, while I don’t believe in it, I don’t believe that Marxism, as opposed to Communism, is necessarily a threat.
It’s also hypocritical for members of New Labour to try to smear others with the label, when one element in its formation was a Marxist organisation, albeit one that came to a very anti-Socialist conclusion. This was Demos. Unlike conventional Marxists, they believed that the operation of the Hegelian dialectic had led to the victory, not of socialism, but of capitalism. The goal for left-wing parties now should be to try to make it operate to benefit society as a whole, rather than just businessmen and entrepreneurs.
Arguably, this form of Marxism has been every bit as destructive and doctrinaire as Militant. Blair seized control of the Labour party, and his clique swiftly became notorious for a highly authoritarian attitude to power. Events were micromanaged to present Blair in the best, most flattering light. Furthermore, the policies they adopted – privatisation, including the privatisation of the NHS and the destruction of the welfare state, the contempt for the poor, the unemployed, the disabled and the long-term sick, who were seen as scroungers and malingerers, resulted in immense poverty and hardship, even before they were taken over and extended massively by Cameron and now Theresa May.
Traditional Marxists in the Labour party, as opposed to Communists and Trotskyites aren’t a threat. And neither McDonnell nor Corbyn are either of those. What has damaged the party is the pernicious grip on power of the Blairites, who have turned it into another branch of the Tories. It is they, who have harmed the country’s economy, provoked much of the popular cynicism with politics, and impoverished and immiserated its working people and the unemployed. All for the enrichment of the upper and middle classes. It is their power that needs to be broken, and they, who are responsible for acting as a conspiratorial clique determined to win absolute control through purging their rivals. It’s long past time they either accepted the wishes of the grassroots for a genuine socialist leadership, and made their peace with Corbyn, or left to join the Tories.