I read some Marx (and I liked it)

The Shadow Chancellor made a blushing confession on the Marr Show—but his politics are not radical enough

May 10, 2017
John McDonnell speaks at a May Day rally in Trafalgar Square © Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images
John McDonnell speaks at a May Day rally in Trafalgar Square © Jonathan Brady/PA Wire/PA Images

On The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, the host asked Shadow chancellor John McDonnell if he is a Marxist. Obligingly, he said “no”—but admitted that he had read Marx and learned from him alongside traditional Labour economists like R H Tawney and G D H Cole. Jeremy Corbyn has since leapt to his colleague's aid, describing Marx as a "great economist."

In philistine, managerial British politics, McDonnell's comments felt like a blushing confession: “I read some Marx and I liked it.”

Predictably, senior Tories have in response warned darkly of an “Islington cabal” of revolutionaries. But what exactly in McDonnell’s agenda is Marxist? A tax freeze for the 95 per cent doesn’t need the labour theory of value to stand it up. Borrowing only to invest doesn’t depend on Marx’s theory of the commodity form. Renationalising the railway is as close to common sense as it gets in politics.

If McDonnell is a Marxist, so is most of the country. And if reading Marx makes one a Marxist then so is Vince Cable, whom one thinks of as more Fifty Shades of Grey—in politics and personality. McDonnell wants to laugh this off, and I believe I can help. You see, I know Marxism; I am a Marxist. And John McDonnell is no Marxist.

Marxism, for me, began with a conversation on a windy Woolwich high street at the tail-end of the last millennium. Accosted by a socialist newspaper flogger, I had asked what the plan was for the next election. New Labour had been in for just a year, and it was already a bitter disappointment. Everything looked so bleak. He looked anything but bleak.

Parliament, he explained, was not where real power lay. Power was in the workplaces, factories, offices and shops around us. Representative democracy depended on a machinery of class relationships—owners of capital, their appointed managers, and employees—without which nothing happened, no wealth was produced, and no government formed. Deference to parliament induced passivity. There was real power all around me, everywhere I looked. And this was where change had to begin.

This, lucid though it was, confounded my understanding of politics. One consequence of thinking like this was clear. If the owners had the advantage, as they manifestly, massively did, any government that formed would have to defer to their power just to get anything done. Even a nicer Labour government would have limited room for manoeuvre. The “pragmatic” idea that things changed first through parliament suddenly looked wildly utopian.

Devouring as much Marx as I could, I was frequently struck by the impression that I had been missing the patently obvious. Almost every major point struck me as glaringly apparent.

The whole of social development depends, in the last instance, on how people go about reproducing themselves: their work. If that work is geared toward producing a surplus, then the secret of any society is how it is produced and who gets to control that surplus. If someone is making a profit then someone else has to do the work to produce that profit. If workers are exploited to make profit, then they have an interest in higher wages and less work. If owners live off exploitation, they have an interest in more work and higher profits. This is class conflict.

And whichever class has more power will have the upper hand in politics and in the shaping of mass culture (relating to, I suddenly thought, how I might have apprehended Marxism before reading Marx). Only their superior numbers and collective organisation, independently of parliamentary representation, could give workers any chance of exercising power.

This is putting it crudely but, even finessed, it is a hard-headed theory of conflict and crisis, not the prescription for “fairness” that parliamentary socialists like John McDonnell want. It expects systemic breakdown, not class peace. It urges workers to form their own party, not to elect a better government, but to take power directly in their own hands—even though the odds are always firmly against this happening. The last time anything like that took place, they called it soviet power. That was a hundred years ago.

So if Tories are haunted by spectres of Marx, this has little to do with an agenda for social democratic administration. Could it be that, amid their energetic class war on behalf of the owners, it is their unconscious that speaks to them?