‘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of political thought which until 1960 and beyond was very generally regarded as un-English, irrelevant and irremediably out-of-date.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.
One way out of this confusion, which has been widely taken since the early 1960s, has been a concentration on Marxist theory. If political practice could be only occasionally and temporarily distinguished from a much broader spectrum of the Left, then at least in theoretical positions a distinctive Marxism could be maintained. But there are at least three strands within this ‘theoretical’ option, and it is important to distinguish them, even where in practice they have overlapped or coexisted within the same persons and groups. The earliest strand to appear, notably from 1957 but with isolated examples from the late forties, can be called ‘legitimating’ theory. Closely or exclusively connected with arguments about the character of Soviet society, this kind of work led to distinctions of theoretical and then often organizational position in terms of the unfinished struggle within the world Communist movement. As world Communist divisions and variations became more open, theoretical and organizational reflections of all the major positions— Soviet, Chinese, Cuban, Yugoslav and eventually Euro-communist (Italian)—were adopted and asserted or reasoned in British theoretical work. What was at issue, in these cases, was the legitimate inheritance of an authentic Marxism—including the identification of an authentic, Marxist Marx—and thus, hopefully, an authentic revolutionary tradition.
Then, secondly, there was a decisive insertion or re-insertion of Marxism into a range of strictly academic work. Again there had been earlier examples, but in the academic expansion of the sixties and early seventies there was a qualitative difference, quite evident to anyone who had also experienced the academic world of the forties and fifties. The strongest work was, perhaps significantly, in English history, which already had a strong base in the work of the Communist Party historians. But there were also significant contributions in economics, sociology and political theory, and, most remarkably, in the history and scholarship of Marxist thought itself. This important body of academic work is, incidentally, yet another reason for the change in the usage of ‘Marxist’ and its common replacement of ‘Communist’. For what was most evident in most of this work was that it was academically professional history or economics or some other ‘subject’, which had also a set of distinctive theoretical assumptions or methodological procedures. It was, therefore, in an increasingly reputable and respectable sense, the work of Marxist academics; the question of ‘communism’ or one of its variants did not necessarily arise.