1990s >> 1994 >> no-1077-may-1994

From Methodism to Marxism

“Socialism? Nice idea. But too much like hard work!”

I used to be a Christian, once upon a time. A Methodist, no less, and a preacher to boot.

This is not some kind of confession or personal testimony – we have all had to make some sort of intellectual journey to call ourselves socialists. It is just that I called myself a Methodist – and yet I enjoyed a drink then, as I still do, regularly indulging myself, sometimes to excess.

The time at which John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism, were preaching – the mid-18th century – was one in which there was widespread disquiet among the chattering (and, more importantly, the employing) classes of the day about the effects of the “demon drink” on society. Thus, Methodists were, for many years, encouraged to sign the pledge, and constantly railed against alcohol and those who consumed it. It was a theme that other sects picked up on. including, in the 19th century, the Salvation Army.

But it did not worry me that abstinence was – or had been – one of the central planks of Methodism. Indeed, it did not seem to worry many Methodists of my generation. “Well, we understand that there used to be a point to it.” they would say, “but alcohol’s OK in moderation, the problem’s not the same now!” – ignoring the fact that there are many more alcoholics, and alcohol-related deaths, now than there ever were in the Wesley s’ day.

That kind of selectiveness with ideas or creeds is common enough in Methodism, but it is by no means exclusive to it.

Many die-hard cold warriors, and sundry other tinpot armchair militarists, still sit in churches, praying to their god, in spite of the fact that, according to the New Testament, their god had enjoined his followers to “love their enemies” and to “turn the other cheek” when wronged.

The Queen – the richest woman in the world, or thereabouts – apparently has her god to thank for her position. Yet Jesus told his disciples that it was “harder for a rich man to enter through the gates of heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle”; called the love of money the root of all evil; and instructed his disciples to give away all that they owned before they could follow him. (Anyone tempted to think, at this point, of Jesus as some sort of proto-communist would be well advised to remember his injunction to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s”).

Various apologists for the exploiters in our society have tried to soften the blow of Jesus’ apparent rejection of the rich. I remember reading one “explanation” which argued that the Eye of the Needle was, in fact, a small gate in Jerusalem’s city wall; and that while it was difficult for a camel to get through, it was not impossible. But the fact remains that Jesus apparently took the view that one could not serve two masters at once: to serve the interests of one’s personal fortune detracted from one’s service to, and contemplation of, God.

I spent a lot of time making that kind of point from the pulpit. But in truth I was just as guilty of ignoring inconvenient parts of the doctrine. The Bishop of Durham and I both questioned the literal truth of the biblical miracles, the Virgin Birth, and the Resurrection. In my case I rejected them completely. I even came to the conclusion that Jesus was not the Son of God – an idea which, while it may not be central to the Gospels, is certainly central to the Nicene Creed, the statement of faith adopted by all the Western Christian churches.

And yet, for quite a time, I still continued to consider myself a Christian.

Most, if not all, Christians down the ages have tended to ignore bits of the creed that did not suit them. To a great extent this is because whole chunks of the Christian bible, at any rate, are contradictory, so a Christian has to decide what kind of Christian he or she is going to be. But also it is, in part, because many people’s religious beliefs are inherited, rather than considered. As they get older, if they retain any religious faith at all, it is likely to be in a bastardized, even unorthodox, form.

Socialists, on the other hand, one might expect to be rather clearer about what principles they hold dear. People calling themselves socialists, or Marxists, should have no difficulty in thinking through logically what their credo is.

And yet, ostensibly socialist/Marxist groupings and political parties seem to have real problems with identifying their principles and sticking to them.

The Labour Party, taken as a whole, has never really had any principles, at least none that it was not prepared to sell in exchange for public office. It has long been what it calls a “broad church” of reformists, opportunists, and sundry ideologically-challenged bleeding hearts. As such, it has never really known where it wants to go, or how to get there. For a while, a majority of the party thought that nationalization was the way forward. But it was never clear where that way was supposed to go, whether public ownership was a means to an end or an end in itself. And now in practice, even Clause 4 has been abandoned in a bid to make the policy-less party attractive to voters.

But one thing that the Labour Party has always maintained is that it is a socialist party, albeit that the word has stuck in the throat of some of those party leaders using it. Socialism, in the Labour Party dictionary, is a vague, woolly catch-all word: anyone can be a socialist in the Labour Party. There are no central ideas there to embarrass voters or activists, be they never so egotistical, opportunistic, or venal. Or indeed as rich as Croesus. This non-definition of “socialism” is deliberate. The main objective of the Labour Party is to get elected, not to change society. So the fact that nothing substantive ever gets done to justify the use of the word “socialism” – that the Labour Party has not advanced the cause of the working class one jot, despite several terms of parliamentary office – is viewed as unimportant.

Marx existed

It is, perhaps, possible to view the word “socialism” as a nebulous term that can mean a variety of things. But not the word “Marxism”. After all, unlike with Jesus, we can be sure that Marx existed. We know much of what he did and said. And, again unlike Jesus, we have books, letters and articles that we know he wrote himself. So there should be no problem with deciding what may legitimately be termed Marxism, and what may not.

And yet, astoundingly, there are groups, inside and outside the Labour Party, who call themselves Marxist and Trotskyist simultaneously, despite the fact that the two words are a complete contradiction in terms. These include Militant, Socialist Organizer and the SWP, to name but a few.

It does not take a genius to work out that, however Trotsky himself defined his political views, his ideas were fundamentally at odds with those of Marx.

For instance, Marx took the view that the liberation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. The implication of which is that the transition from capitalism to socialism will be, and must be, a democratic process. A good Trotskyist, on the other hand, will say that the revolution will be brought about by a dedicated (for which read “small”) band of professional revolutionaries, who will educate the working class to want socialism after it has supposedly been established. Trying to persuade the majority of workers to understand and want and work for socialism, in order that it may – as it must – be established democratically, is impossible in the eyes of the Trotskyist.

Far too difficult, too much like hard work. So the Trotskyist falls into the trap of the “revolutionary vanguard” concept, an apparently easier route to socialism which is, in fact, a cul-de-sac, a route only to dictatorship.

All Trotskyist sects thus fall at the first fence of the route to a Marxian socialist/communist society (and Trotsky distinguished between socialism and communism in a way that Marx never did).

But they also seem to have problems with what it is exactly that they are striving for.

Marx defined socialism as a society wherein wages and money, private property and profit had all been abolished. But I remember talking to a member of Socialist Organizer who scoffed at the Socialist Party’s vision of society as pie-in-the-sky idealism, at best only to be seen centuries from now.

The Socialist Party does not, of course, believe that Marx was a god, or a Pope, there to be infallible. He was a man, whose thought developed over the years, and who quite often was wrong. But with others, drawing on earlier ideas and on observation, he came to an understanding of capitalism and its alternative, which is clear and logical – and which, as a whole, the Socialist Party believes to be correct. The Socialist Party, like Marx, holds that a moneyless, propertyless society is feasible and desirable. It also holds that the only way to achieve such a society is democratically, by persuasion. There is no substitute for hard work, for “making socialists”.

Marx said that we have a world to win. He never said it would be easy.

PAUL BURROUGHS

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