Chris Leslie tweeted yesterday that “Marxism should have no place in a modern Labour Party.” You’d expect me to disagree, and I do. But I want to point out that a Marxist point of view might be an asset for non-Marxists within the party. I say so for three reasons.
First, Marxism draws our attention to the fact that politics is shaped by an economic base – by the nature of capitalism. The things that centrists deplore such as Brexit and the rise of Corbynism are not (just) fits of stupidity. They are a response to a real economic fact – that a decade long stagnation in productivity (which is almost unprecedented since the start of the industrial revolution) has caused stagnation in real wages. This stagnation contributed to the insularity and anti-immigrant sentiment that gave us Brexit. And it has caused discontent with the established order and hence the rise in populism; when people feel as if they’re losing, they take a gamble on risky alternatives.
If centrists want to fight the rise of populism on the left and the right they must therefore offer an analysis of capitalist stagnation and solutions thereto.
Herein lies another use of Marxism. It reminds us that the state in capitalism must fulfil two functions: legitimation (keeping voters happy with capitalism); and accumulation (providing the conditions for growth). The most successful governments of the post-war period found albeit different ways of doing both: the Attlee, Thatcher and Blair governments. Corbyn is offering something along these lines. What counter-offer can the Labour right make?
Remember – Corbyn became Labour leader not so much because of his political genius but simply because his centrist opponents were offering nothing – neither diagnosis nor remedy for capitalism’s problems. If people like Leslie want to seriously challenge Momentum and Corbyn, they must answer the question posed by a Marxist point of view: is it possible to reconcile capitalism with popular needs and if so how?
There is, though, a third reason why centrists should adopt a Marxian point of view. It’s that Marxists understand class. For us, class is not a lifestyle choice – whether you have avocado toast or a full English. It’s about ownership. Capitalists own capital and workers do not, and this gives capitalists (some) power over both workers and the state.
This helps explain why Corbyn is so popular among the so-called “middle classes”. It’s because they are not “middle class” at all. Their academic qualifications and decent incomes have not allowed them to escape drudge work or acquire property: if you want to understand why young people are Corbynistas, just look in an estate agent’s window. They are, objectively speaking and in Marxian terms, working class. And they are voting accordingly. If centrists are to effectively resist this, they need a class analysis and not just moralistic bleating.
Here, we must make two distinctions. One is between the Marxian diagnosis and the Marxian remedy. It is, I think, possible to use one but reject the other.
The second distinction is between temporarily adopting a perspective for particular purposes and being something. You can adopt a Marxist point of view without becoming a Marxist – just as I often become an orthodox macroeconomist, behavioural or financial economist depending upon the issue I face.
One of the most common forms of stupidity is the inability to have more than one point of view. If centrists are to become a serious political force again, they must stop equating who they are with what they believe, and take a Marxian perspective.