Sneering at Marx

The context of Rachel Reeves’ failure to read the author of Capital hints at the intellectual bankruptcy of the contemporary Labour right

In 1956, Anthony Crosland, revisionist theorist and future Labour cabinet minister, penned some reflections on Marx. In his Future of Socialism, seen even today as a holy text amongst sections of the Labour right, he repudiated Marx’s analysis as out-of-date, with ‘little or nothing to offer the contemporary socialist, either in respect of practical policy, or of the correct analysis of our society, or even of the right conceptual tools or framework. His prophecies have been almost without exception falsified, and his conceptual tools are now quite inappropriate’. Crosland dismissed Marx forthrightly, but in stark contrast to the current Shadow Chancellor, Rachel Reeves, he had read him. Moreover, Crosland directed his fire not merely at Marx, but at those who sought to use disdain for him to make a political point:

But this is no reason for adopting the current fashion and sneering either at the man or his achievement. Intellectually he remains a towering giant amongst socialist thinkers, a man of the stature, in other fields, of Freud and Keynes, and very few others over the last hundred years.

Crosland described Marx as a ‘dedicated genius’, a man who had achieved ‘a feat of self-sacrificing devotion not often paralleled in the history of letters.’ It was, for Crosland, ‘people devoid of imagination’ who ‘sneer at men like that’. Crosland’s affection and respect for Marx had obvious roots; he had been a student Marxist, and in his youth had envisioned himself as a revisionist theorist, the ‘modern Bernstein’ as he boasted in a letter to a friend. The tortured Blairite mythology of the Future of Socialism notwithstanding, it was not simply (or even) a Gaitskellite template for winning elections (which, in any event, in 1959 proved unsuccessful) but a considered if at times confused text which was defined in relation to Marx even as it rejected him.

    2021 is not 1956, and the Labour right perhaps lacks the intellectual self-confidence it once did. Whilst it’s still seen as important for the Labour right to contribute ideas to policy debate, these are usually in the form of pamphlets that are heavy on assertion and low on evidence, or biographies of predecessors who can be inducted into a right-wing Labour canon (as Reeves did with her co-written biography of Alice Bacon). More widely, the political centre has moved so far to the right that the kind of question Reeves was confronted with on the Trevor Phillips show on Sky News is a regular loyalty test for politicians of (nominally) left-wing parties. Before the 2019 General Election Corbyn’s Labour was accused of ‘broadband communism’ by the BBC, whilst Emma Barnett asked Angela Rayner would Labour ‘nationalise sausages’. John McDonnell, in his tenure as Reeves’ predecessor-but-one, evaded the question of whether he was a Marxist or not on several current affairs shows.

    Phillips’ framing of the question to Reeves was instructive too; he asked her not if she had read Marx’s Capital, but if she had read Das Kapital, emphasizing its foreignness (despite the fact it was famously partly based on Marx’s researches in the British Museum’s Reading Room). This hints at a broader issue in British, and more precisely English, political culture which was as true of Crosland’s time before, namely a suspicion of ideology as ‘alien’. E. P. Thompson, whilst arguing against Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn’s views on empiricism-as-English-ideology in the seventeenth century, did concede that, in the post-war period, there had been ‘an an attempt, it is true, to erect empiricism into an ideology, or an end-of-ideology’. Again, 1956 (or in Thompson’s case, 1965) is not 2021; Fukyama’s ‘end of history’ was yet to come. The development of contemporary centrist politics has attempted to use the ‘empiricist idiom’ Thompson preferred to discuss as a way of transforming neoliberal market fundamentalism and new public management into a vernacular common sense – an attempted transformation, to bastardise Thompson’s work, of a political economy into a moral one – all the while denying that its premises amount to an ‘ideology’. With this in mind ‘ideology’ is seen as ‘foreign’, just as seemingly-serious scholars are wont to claim that ‘neoliberalism’ doesn’t exist. Michael Freeden makes the point succinctly:

In the Anglo-American world, with its naïve myths of political pragmatism, ideology is all too often an alien implant, something concocted by spinners of dreams, otherworldly intellectuals, or machinators with totalitarian designs.

For news outlets like Sky and the BBC, this is clearly how they see it. The BBC for its part published an online article – ‘What is Das Kapital’ – in 2017 when discussing McDonnell’s views on Marx. Brian Wheeler asserted the ‘powerful influence over many in the Labour Party and the trade union movement’ that Marxism had had, whilst also claiming that it was ‘a byword for totalitarianism – as one-party states and dictators proclaimed Marxism as their guiding philosophy’. It’s unsurprising then that Reeves would claim not to have read Marx; it’s consistent both with her politics and with her vision of the politically acceptable for discussion. Indeed, Wheeler’s BBC article concluded that in the wake of the Soviet Union’s demise, Marxism ‘went out of fashion on university campuses and in mainstream left-wing political parties that aspired to gain power in the West, such as the Labour Party.’

    In 2018, in a pamphlet entitled The Everyday Economy, Reeves sought to outline a vision of an economic offer from a future Labour government that was rooted in the empiricist idiom and the language of nation and nationalism. The Leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum was partly ‘an expression of a deep anger at the way the governing class had ignored them and belittled their concerns about their national culture and identity’. Delving deeper into the history of economic thought, Reeves’ sought again to draw a distinction between Britain and the Continental ‘Other’:

Unlike the abstract reasoning and theoretical systems favoured by Enlightenment thinkers on the Continent, in Britain the concern was with the social virtues and the conflict between emotion and reason in human beings.

It’s hard not to read Reeves’ use of ‘abstract’ and ‘theoretical’ as pejorative. She goes on to stress how it was ‘It was British social virtues, not Marxism, that shaped the early labour movement.’ The message from Reeves, as ever, is the party has lost touch, needing to ‘reach out beyond its metropolitan cultural strongholds’. Everyday Economy was written at a difficult time for Reeves’ chosen narrative, given the 2017 General Election result – as she was forced to concede – resulted in gains for Labour. But through an evidential sleight of hand – she compares the 2017 result with the 2010 result, rather than the 2015 one which preceded it – she is able to condemn 2017 as preaching to the converted. The pamphlet more generally represents a right-wing Labour politics that predated Corbyn, that developed during the Blair years, and that was influential in Blue Labour in the Ed Miliband era. It draws on the same tropes as Claire Ainsley’s work, encapsulated in her book The New Working Class. Ainsley of course is Starmer’s Director of Policy, and has argued for a changing composition of the class structure and a need to appeal on an ‘emotional’ level, citing the work of Jonathan Haidt. She also cited Crosland – albeit through a citation from Blair – using him to argue that Labour had been losing touch as early as the 1950s, ‘too slow to respond to the changing class dynamics of a more affluent society’. Drawing by her own admission on work from the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange, she reproduced the fear of the metropolitan common to right-wing commentators. Approvingly citing David Goodhart’s ‘somewheres and anywheres’ thesis, she argues that the ‘interests of a narrow but entitled minority have come to dominate everyone else’s, leading to a dislocation between the mass of society and its political representation by the major parties’.

    It’s no wonder Ainsley celebrates Haidt, who has been a forthright critic of left-wing thought and practice on US college campuses, just as it is no wonder that Reeves disdains Marx to the point of not having read him. The Labour right’s intellectual oeuvre today is data from right-wing think tanks, talking points from anti-immigration writers, and gestures to the Blairite (and imagined Blairite) past.  For Ainsley, ‘party members and politicians are far more likely to be ideological than the typical voter’. This is the ‘naïve myth of pragmatism’ Freeden spoke of redux. The explicitly political is ideological; the voter is not. The solution – ‘how to win hearts, minds and votes’ as Ainsley puts it, or how to reconnect with the ‘political economy of everyday life’ as Reeves puts it – is to revert to shibboleths such as the family and senses of place. This is just, after all, common sense in their shared view. Both Reeves and Ainsley have discussed how one of the alternatives to their chosen course is nationalist populism, without giving any consideration to how their own diagnoses might mainstream and entrench such ideas amongst the wider public.

    Richard Jobson, in his fascinating recent study of Labour’s relationship with nostalgia, lays much of the blame for Labour’s obsession (as he sees it) with the ‘politics of the past’ on the party’s left. Though his book was published too early in the Corbyn era to offer much on Corbynism itself, and offers some very light criticism of New Labour’s own articulations of nostalgia, his view is that New Labour represented a profoundly ‘forward looking’ agenda (albeit he also reserves significant praise for Kinnock). Yet it appears that the intellectual bankruptcy of the contemporary Labour right lies at least in part in its mythologization of its own past, to which it has become slavishly beholden. Just as Nick Clegg was, in Shirley William’s phrase, a ‘first generation’ Liberal Democrat, so are Starmer, Reeves and Ainsley first generation New Labour. Their intellectual universe is bounded by the tactical politics of the 1990s, the commitment to ‘modernisation’, and the definition of the political agenda by the Right. In this light, it is by no means surprising that Reeves wouldn’t have read Marx. What is perhaps also more telling, given how widely his views vary from that of his supposed acolytes, is how few of them have read Crosland. After all, despite being characterized as the arch-nemesis of nationalization (he wasn’t), and the social democratic theorist par excellence (a lapsed Marxist who discussed a wide range of socialist ideas in Future of Socialism – including guild socialism and syndicalism), Crosland in the 1970s died knowing FoS had been falsified by events. He had been wrong. The antagonism between the capitalist class and the working class had not diminished. The key question remained ownership, not management as he had claimed (though management certainly complicated it). And his belief that the Keynsesian Welfare State compact had ushered in a post-capitalist society was fundamentally mistaken.

    It was this chastened Crosland that supported Tony Benn in the Cabinet debate over the IMF loan, believing that the conditions which would be imposed as a consequence would mean Labour could not be a socialist government. Crosland was not afraid of the language of socialism, of course, just as he was unafraid of talking about Marx, or claiming that socialists should have a ‘trace’ of the ‘anarchist and the libertarian’ in them. Crosland folded in the IMF debate at Callaghan’s behest. But this is not the past, or the Crosland, that the Labour right knows or celebrates. Nor is it a past that has meaning for Starmer’s first generation New Labour politicians and ministers. They, as I did, grew up in an era where neoliberalism was the norm and where it became political ‘common sense’. They grew up too in an era when strategic communications was valorised as a science and when the poles of political debate narrowed sharply. None of this, of course, was by accident. However, the lack of interest the current Labour leadership has in attempting to redress the balance in terms of political narratives available in the public sphere is in stark contrast to that which characterized its predecessor.

    This then, is the context in which Rachel Reeves didn’t read Marx, and this is its broader meaning – a Labour leadership ignorant of its own history, reactive in nature, and in terror of the Right. Labour, as Paul Ewart wrote for New Socialist some time ago, needs to construct narratives, not be defined by those of others. The narrow intellectual and historical focus of the Labour leadership at present offers little hope that this will be forthcoming any time soon. 

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