‘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of political thought which until 1960 and beyond was very generally regarded as un-English, irrelevant and irremediably out-of-date.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’
What are the reasons for the shift in general use? And when did it occur? These are the first questions about Marxism in Britain since 1945. Some of the reasons are not hard to find. Until 1956, though minor variants existed and were known to specialists, there was a simple general equation between Marxism and the ideological positions of the Communist Party, representing a body of Communist Parties led by that of the Soviet Union. From 1957 onwards, there was a rapid proliferation of other organizations and groups which claimed, if in different ways, the significant inheritance of revolutionary socialist practice and Marxist theory. It was reasonable, in this situation, to begin to speak more generally of ‘the Marxist Left’. Then, from the early 1960s, there was the open ideological split between the Soviet Union and China, each with its ruling Communist Party and its competitive version of Marxist theory and practice. Variations extended from Cuba to Vietnam; Yugoslavia was remembered. ‘Marxist’ coexisted with ‘Communist’, but by the mid-1970s the liberation movements of Mozambique and Angola were known, in general English description, as ‘Marxist guerrillas’. If it was a long way from frelimo and the mpla to the Left of the Labour Party, still the general term was used, to cover a multitude of sinners.
But there is then, beyond this accessible history, an immediate problem. If Marxism is not only a theory but a theory of practice, it becomes very difficult to use the same general term to describe such evident variations of practice, and especially in Britain where (at least on the mainland) all known Marxist groups were taking part in an open and legal political process. This could be explained by referring to the specific conditions of British society and other West European societies, but what then followed was the disappearance of any obvious dividing line between Marxists and other socialists. Certain extraordinary contortions around ‘socialist’ and ‘social democrat’, and around the (American) classifications of ‘extremist’ and ‘moderate’, were attempted in order to redraw the line. But these only further confused the general use of ‘Marxist’, since (and this was especially true in Britain) socialists who were not, did not claim to be, or positively denied that they were Marxists were nevertheless swept, by their ‘socialist’ or ‘extremist’ views, into the general ‘Marxist’ classification.
This point has immediate relevance to the diagnosis that the ‘Marxist
If then, making necessary distinctions, we identify the Labour Left as the real Social Democrats, we may have cleared the ground for a more accurate definition of Marxism and Marxists in Britain since 1945. But there is again an immediate difficulty. A majority of groups which would define themselves as Marxist have, throughout this period, identified themselves in practice, and in locally supporting theory, with just this version of Social Democracy. There have been extra emphases here and there: on workers’ control in industry; on democratization of the social services; on solidarity with liberation movements; on withdrawal from the military alliances; on opposition to neo-colonialism. But all these emphases have been made also within the Labour Left. Until 1957, the only major dividing line between the Labour Left and most Marxists was in attitudes to the Soviet Union. But while that still holds for the Communist Party, it does not hold in many other Marxist groupings. A majority of Marxist groups, meanwhile, support the election and continuation of a Labour Government. There are serious political reasons for all these connections and alliances, but there is the obvious danger, again, of sweeping the whole Left into the description ‘Marxist’ or, just as seriously, of sweeping all (or almost all) British Marxism into this amalgam of Left theory and practice.