During this election campaign, the Tory press have attempted to attack Corbyn and McDonnell on the basis of their supposedly Marxist views. But the Labour leaders should not be embarrassed by any influence of Marx on their ideas. As Rob Sewell discusses, Marxism has played a significant role throughout the history of the Labour Party.
“Jeremy Corbyn plunged Labour into fresh chaos today by praising Karl Marx as a ‘great economist’.
“It came as the Labour leader defended Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for saying people could ‘learn a lot from reading Das Kapital’ – the revolutionary socialist’s economic masterpiece.”
This shock-horror story appeared in the anti-working class rag, The Sun, which dug up the disgraced former Labour MP Simon Danczuk to attack John McDonnell for “continually obsessing about Karl Marx, the benefits of communism and celebrating the reign of Joseph Stalin.”
This crude provocation by Danczuk and The Sun to equate Marxism with the crimes of Stalin and Stalinism is an age-old slur. Marxism is opposed to Stalinism and stands for the widest possible democracy – a workers’ democracy. It was precisely because of Trotsky’s defence of these ideas that Stalin had him exiled and murdered. In reality, a river of blood separates genuine Marxism from Stalinism.
In a 2015 BBC interview with Andrew Marr, Jeremy Corbyn was asked about his views on Marx. Jeremy said: “Marx obviously analysed what was happening in a quite brilliant way and the philosophy around Marx is fascinating.
“He was essentially a fascinating figure … from whom we can learn a great deal.”
Asked if he regarded himself as a Marxist, Jeremy paused before saying: “That’s an interesting question. I haven’t thought about that for a long time.”
“I haven’t really read as much of Marx as I should have done.”
Such a positive statement about Marx is a tremendous advance compared to the views of previous Labour leaders. Harold Wilson, for example, contemptuously said that he had never got further than the footnote on the first page of Marx’s Capital. He maintained that the solution to workers’ problems “would not be found in Highgate Cemetery”, a reference to Marx’s grave.
Of course, the efforts by the Tory press to link Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to Karl Marx and Marxism is an attempt to embarrass them. But they should not be embarrassed.
As a mass workers’ organisation, the Labour Party has embraced different views - both right-wing pro-capitalist tendencies, as well as left-wing socialist ones. It has always contained a Marxist current within it as well as individuals who were deeply influenced by Marxism. In fact, Marxism has been present in the Labour Party ever since its inception in 1900. At that time, the Marxist Social Democratic Party along with other socialist groupings and the trade unions helped to set up the Labour Party. The SDF even had a reserve seat on the Executive of nine. It unfortunately abandoned the Labour Party when it refused to adopt socialism as its aim. However, it later changed its name to the British Socialist Party and re-affiliated to the Labour Party in 1916.
In 1918, under the impact of the Russian Revolution, the Labour Party adopted a new socialist constitution, with its famous Clause Four:
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
This socialist aim of replacing capitalism with a planned publicly-owned economy clearly differentiated the Labour Party from all other parties. It remained part of Party’s Constitution until it was abolished by Tony Blair in 1995.
When the Communist Party was formed in Britain in 1920, it applied for affiliation to the Labour Party but was refused. Nevertheless, its members could also be members of the Labour Party. A number of Labour MPs were card-carrying Communist members, such as Shapurji Saklatvala and Walton Newbold, who were both elected in 1922. However, by 1925, under the impact of a right-wing witch hunt, Communists were banned from Labour membership.
An inspiration for the labour movement
The left-wing within the Labour Party gathered around the Independent Labour Party which, after the 1931 betrayal of Ramsay MacDonald and the world slump, moved in a revolutionary direction. The party published Trotsky’s Copenhagen speech of 1932, with its own introduction by James Maxton MP. The ILP however split from the Labour Party.
In the 1930s, many leading members of the Labour Party were influenced by the ideas of Marx. John Strachey, Harold Laski, Stafford Cripps, Aneurin Bevan, Michael Foot and many others were in this category. “He [Bevan] was a convinced Marxist”, wrote Michael Foot. “He accepted the Marxist stress on the need for a full theory of social change and went so far to accept the Marxist analysis of the weakness and disabilities associated with social democratic leadership.” (Foot, Aneurin Bevan 1897-1945, p.150)
In 1947, the Labour Party went so far as to reprint the Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, with an introduction by Harold Laski, to mark the document's centenary. The foreword explained:
“In presenting this centenary volume of the Communist Manifesto, with the valuable Historical Introduction by Professor Laski, the Labour Party acknowledges its indebtedness to Marx and Engels as two men who have been the inspiration of the whole working class movement.
“The British Labour Party has its roots in the history of Britain…But British socialists have never isolated themselves from their fellows on the continent of Europe. Our own ideas have been different from those of continental socialism which stemmed more directly from Marx, but we, too, have been influenced in a hundred ways by European thinkers and fighters, and, above all, by the authors of the Manifesto.
“Britain played a large part in the lives and work of both Marx and Engels. Marx spent most of his adult life here and is buried in Highgate cemetery. Engels was a child of Manchester, the very symbol of capitalist industrialism. When they wrote of bourgeois exploitation they were drawing mainly on English experience.”
Tony Benn, one of the most important leaders of the left in Britain, was certainly influenced by Marx’s ideas. According to Michael Foot's biographer, Kenneth Morgan, "Both [Foot and Benn] pay tribute to the inspiration of Marx, whose role in British socialist thought had been virtually ignored during the Cold War years. Even if neither was seriously a Marxist socialist, Marx had been an influence on both over the years. Both adopted Marx's view of historical necessity and the centrality of class. Foot, as we have seen, spent time reading through the Marxian dialectic in his Socialist League days, and instructed Barbara Betts in the fundamentals of Marx's message. Benn discovered Marx much later in life, and first read The Communist Manifesto in his fifties." (Morgan, Michael Foot, pp. 407-8)
In defence of Marxism
Although many of those influenced by Marxism later went off in different political directions, it nevertheless clearly indicates the importance of Marxism as an influential trend in the history of the British Labour Party.
In the late 1970s, Tony Benn took up a public defence of Marxism, which was under attack from the capitalist press and its shadows in the Labour Party.
“The Communist Manifesto, and many other works of Marxist philosophy, have always profoundly influenced the British labour movement and the British Labour Party, and have strengthened our understanding and enriched our thinking”, explained Benn.
“It would be as unthinkable to try to construct the Labour Party without Marx as it would be to establish university faculties of astronomy, anthropology or psychology without permitting the study of Copernicus, Darwin or Freud, and still expect such faculties to be taken seriously.”
Tony Benn also made reference to Trotsky’s vital contribution: “Trotsky should be remembered as the first and most significant Soviet dissident, hunted and later murdered by Stalin. His critiques of Stalinism merit respectful study and his contemptuous exposé of the milk-and-water socialism of some Labour leaders in the 1920s in his book Whither Britain, entitles him to a place in our history.”
Marxism can be defined as the conscious expression of the unconscious processes in the minds of the masses. It provides a scientific understanding of capitalism and how it can be overthrown. It rejects the reformist idea that you can change society bit by bit. The ideas of reformism – the attempt to run capitalism on a humane basis - have been shown to be false. That is the main reason today for the crisis of social democracy internationally.
The ideas of Marxism have never been more relevant. As we face the greatest crisis of capitalism since the Great Depression, the ideas of Marx, which reveal the insoluble contradictions of capitalism, offer the only real way forward. Only by the working class taking power into its hands and expropriating the capitalists can we use the resources of society for the benefit of the mass of people.
Today, the ideas of Marxism are consistently represented by Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency. Events will confirm these great ideas and will lay the basis for the spread of Marxism throughout the British Labour movement. The fight for the socialist transformation of society will become a reality for millions in Britain and internationally.