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Notes on Marxism in Britain since 1945
‘The neo-Marxist Left which now dominates the Labour Party’, said a speaker at this year’s Conservative Party conference. Or it may have been ‘near-Marxist Left’, given the difficulty of ruling-class English with the consonant ‘r’. In other speeches either qualification was dropped: the ‘Marxist Left’ now ‘dominates the Labour Party’. Everything goes fuzzy as these terms circulate. What a triumph it would be if the main governing party of the last twelve years were indeed now guided by a system of political thought which until 1960 and beyond was very generally regarded as un-English, irrelevant and irremediably out-of-date. To unpick the rhetoric which would induce such a fantasy is a complicated task, but looking back to 1945 one point can be made immediately. ‘Marxist’, in these years, has changed its meaning—or, more strictly, has taken on additional meanings. What would have been said in 1945, in the same kind of speech, was that the Labour Party was dominated, or at least heavily influenced, by ‘Communists and fellow-travellers’. Of course, we still hear about ‘Communists’, or about ‘Communists and Trotskyites’, in the unions and elsewhere. ‘Fellow-travellers’ I have not heard in many years, perhaps since the Sputnik. But what is new is this all-purpose term ‘Marxist’ to describe—what? The whole Left in Britain, it usually seems, from Tribune to out of sight. And it is certainly a problem that this use co-exists with the phrases of polemic within the socialist culture, in which almost everyone can inform almost everyone else, in snappy and putting-down ways, that ‘this position has nothing in common with Marxism’, or that ‘measured against Marxism this position reveals itself as . . .’, and then comes the deluge.
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