Cooking the Books: Marxists Under the Bed

Anyone reading the Times over the end of the year period could be forgiven for thinking that the paper was waging a witch-hunt against ‘Marxists’. An article by Philip Collins, once Tony Blair’s speechwriter, on 16 December was headed ‘Ministers must stand and fight RMT Marxists’. Another, on 3 January, by Melanie Philips, former Daily Mail columnist (and it shows), on Obama was subtitled ‘The outgoing President is poised to return to his Marxist roots and lead opposition to Trump.’

What was the basis of these claims? Collins’s argument was that the current series of strikes on Southern Rail was not an ordinary trade union dispute over workers’ terms and conditions of employment but a political strike against the government. He cited talk by some of the union’s officials about strikes to bring down the government, one of Arthur Scargill’s illusions. Even if this was the union’s official position (which it wasn’t) this would not be ‘Marxism’ . The view that trade unions should take industrial action to overthrow the government is a syndicalist position, not one Marx held. He always stressed the need to win control of political power, via the ballot box if possible, as a preliminary to ending capitalism.

Collins also pointed to the fact that the RMT has supported TUSC, a Trotskyist front organisation. At least those behind TUSC do describe themselves as ‘Marxists’, even though they aren’t. Trotskyism is a fundamental departure from Marx’s own views and TUSC’s policies are just Old Labour.

Melanie Phillips’s case is even weaker. She can’t even cite anybody who even claimed to be a Marxist. Her argument goes like this: Obama used to be a community activist; Saul Alinsky was a community activist; Alinsky was a Marxist; therefore Obama was a Marxist. The logical fallacy is glaring, but one of the premises is not even true. Alinsky never claimed to be a socialist, let alone a Marxist.

But what is a Marxist anyway? Marx himself of course once famously said that he wasn’t a Marxist. The term originated in the dispute in the 1870s within the International Working Men’s Association. Marx’s opponents in the dispute dubbed those who took his side ‘Marxists’. They retorted by calling them ‘Bakuninists’. Some accepted the description ‘Marxist’, and, despite Marx, it stuck.

A Marxist is not a dogmatic follower of everything Marx wrote or did, but someone who shares his approach to history and economics and his insistence on the need to win political control before attempting to end capitalism and bring in communism (as Marx preferred to call socialism). In this sense, we would call ourselves Marxists, although our case rests on the facts, not on what Marx said, and stands irrespective of what Marx may or may not have said and even if he had never been born.

We wouldn’t want to claim to be the only ‘Marxists’. There are historians, such as Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm, who have brilliantly applied the materialist conception of history, but only to history. When it came to applying the same method to contemporary society they had a blind spot, believing that Russia was socialist or had been on the way to socialism, whereas the exploitative, class-divided, state-capitalist society there had nothing in common with what Marx envisaged as the next stage beyond capitalism. But one thing is certain, neither the RMT leaders nor Obama are in any way Marxist.

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