The New Times and Marxism Today
The crisis of Labourism encouraged intellectuals to consider the impact of the ‘New Times’ on the shape of Left politics. Labourism remained an elusive identity primarily relating to the ethos and culture of the British Labour movement, its attributes of loyalty and defensiveness focused since the nineteenth century on safeguarding the material interests of the working class.5 Even in the 1970s, the Labour Party was assumed to have a stable working-class support-base that provided moral legitimacy, and was best defended by maintaining the system of managed corporatism that institutionalised the power of the trade unions. As the focal point for debate about the manifest failings of Labourism, the importance of Marxism Today, a journal to which Blair, Brown and other leading figures contributed, has been emphasised repeatedly.6 Marxism Today was the in-house magazine of the British Communist Party. In 1977, the University ofBristol academic and reforming Euro-Communist, Martin Jacques, was appointed editor. Euro-communism was the reformist tradition prevalent on the Left in Italy and Spain in the 1970s, emphasising the rejection of narrow class-orientated politics and embracing the tradition of liberal representative democracy. Marxism Today’s editorial line remained vehemently anti-Soviet.
The journal became among the most influential on the post-war British Left. Marxism Today combined theoretical rigour, intellectual promiscuity and political ingenuity, attributes then in short supply in the British Labour Party. Pilloried in certain quarters as espousing metropolitan designer socialism, its writers were usually fearless, willing to attack age-old shibboleths that dominated British Labourism and post-war social democracy. As a consequence of its writing, socialism’s vocabulary was extended into spheres of public and private life, ‘which have, until recently, existed beyond the boundaries of Left politics’.7 Stuart Hall wrote that the expressed aim of Marxism Today was ‘to stimulate the Left to open a debate about how society is changing and to offer new prescriptions and analyses of the social conditions it seeks to transcend and transform’.8 Marxism Today allowed Labour to be strategic rather than purely tactical, to consider openly how the world was changing and the implications for Left politics.
Marxism Today invented the label New Times to denote that structural changes in the economy and culture of late-twentieth-century Britain had major repercussions, altering the face of politics and demanding ‘a complete reassessment of Left theory and practice’.9 There was particular interest in analysing the phenomenon of Thatcherism, confronting the extent to which neo-liberal doctrine and the fracturing of the post-war Keynesian welfare state had restructured Britain’s political and economic landscape. It was argued the post-1945 class compromise had been eroded by internationalisation and an open economy which invalidated national economic management. The persistence of chronic inflation and mass unemployment weakened the credibility of Keynesian economic theories. Marxism Today's contributors were particularly struck by the traumatic breakdown of the Social Contract under the Callaghan Government, and heretically questioned whether corporatism was a viable strategy for the Left. The deficiencies of central planning in Eastern Europe invalidated the political ideas of socialism.10 According to Marxism Today’s editorial line, Labour as the dominant Left force had to respond to recurrent electoral defeat alongside the breakdown of ideological orthodoxies in the context of a transformed capitalist society and new geopolitical realities. Jacques insisted that the most significant contribution of Marxism Today was to understand how the world was moving, especially ‘the enormous shift in the centre of power from the developed to the developing world, in particular the rise of China’.11
Andrew Gamble wrote in the journal’s pages in the early 1980s: ‘Making sense of the new politics that emerged in Britain in the 1970s remains a crucial task for the Left’. It was striking that after 1979, politics was dominated by the Right in Western countries, particularly Britain, West Germany, Japan and the United States despite the deep recession, rising unemployment and cutbacks in the welfare state.12 Throughout the 1980s, Labour appeared to have little immediate prospect of returning to office. The Left had reached a political and intellectual dead end. Following his election as leader in 1983, Neil Kinnock admitted, ‘The Labour Party needs to modernise a lot of its attitudes because some of them are nothing more than sentimentality and mythology’.13 In the climate of growing pessimism and uncertainty, Marxism Today offered, ‘a tide of dissidence, an undercurrent of challenge to some of the guiding precepts of socialist and Marxist thought’.14
The inquiry into Labourism’s predicament was not only concerned with new sociological and cultural forces. At issue was the historical failure of the twentieth-century Left, particularly Labour’s inability to break the Conservative Party’s hold on power to emerge as a more effective governing force. The intellectuals writing in Marxism Today, of whom the most distinguished was the historian Eric Hobsbawm, confronted the problematic legacy of the traditional Labour Right as much as Left sectarianism. Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan’s moderate Right-Wing Labourism imploded by the late 1970s. The party’s historic claim to office centred on the belief that only Labour governments could manage the post-war settlement by harmonising the relationship between capital and labour appeared implausible. What was apparent was the breakdown of Keynesian economics following the eruption of industrial relations conflict.15
Marxism Today reacquainted the Left ‘with the altered realities of British society’. The journal sought to ‘challenge the mind-set and morality of the mainstream Left’.16 In charting the demise of Labourism, the journal focused on ‘post-Fordism’ referring to the decline of mass industrial production and the emergence of a diversified and service-orientated economy. The nature of production was becoming globalised, fragmented and small-scale driven by highly disruptive general purpose technologies. In this context, Jacques explicitly acknowledged the decline of the Labour movement reinforced by the decaying institutions of the post-war settlement. In his landmark editorial, Jacques wrote that Labour was ‘wedded to the past. . . backward-looking, conservative, bereft of new ideas and out of time’.17 The young, urban Left was creating ‘new alliances’ in socialist politics.18 Marxism Today’s agenda emphasised post-material values. Movements that prioritised individual autonomy were supplanting traditional forms of political activism.19 There was an emphasis on breaking with the post-war culture of queuing, rationing, controls and regulation to embrace postcollectivism and the new individualism. Jacques believed Marxism Today rapidly became the think-tank of Kinnock’s Labour Party.
Yet although it provided British social democracy with vigorous theoretical analysis, Marxism Today’s perspective proved controversial. As the historian Ross McKibbin pointed out, the claim that Britain’s economic structure was post-Fordist and that the electorate felt disdain towards the bureaucratic state rested on the assumption that the British economy was once dominated by large- scale production. The UK economy was never obviously Fordist. Throughout the twentieth century British industry was centred on small firms, a major factor in post-war underperformance. Moreover, Thatcherism was less the product of the global movement towards neo-liberalism than a particularly English response to the threat of national decline.20 Marxism Today implied that economic and social transformations were sweeping the world and negating historical contingency. Yet Thatcherism’s triumph owed as much to the Labour Party’s meltdown in the 1980s, alongside the boost to the prime minister’s popularity provided by victory in the Falklands war. Marxism Today contributors were rarely well versed in matters of party politics. Their understanding of how formal governmental and parliamentary institutions worked was often perfunctory. Ralph Miliband also believed the journal provided the intellectual rationale for premature jettisoning of the Left’s core ideological beliefs.21 The writers who dominated Marxism Today were overwhelmingly male, underlining the troubled relationship between the magazine and the burgeoning women’s movement.
Intriguing generational differences emerged by the end of the 1980s. Jacques and Hall believed the Left had to mount a ‘counter-hegemonic’ challenge to Thatcherism - in Gramscian terms seizing the ideological high ground by promoting a new popular common sense in British politics. Younger Marxism Today contributors, notably Charles Leadbeater and Geoff Mulgan, were now more empirical in their approach focusing on fine-grained adaptations in the fabric of the economy and society. Jacques and Hall became ardent critics of New Labour, whereas Mulgan and Leadbeater were eventually to play leading roles in the project.22 Mulgan and Leadbeater believed rational, technocratic government had the potential to achieve far-reaching social reforms. Yet what was prescient given the eventual fate of New Labour was Marxism Today’s disdain for Labourism’s culture and institutions. Contemporary historians questioned the belief that society was being reconfigured by the ethic of liberal individualism and the decline of community.23 In Raymond Williams’s terms, Marxism Today had insufficient grasp of the ‘structures of feeling’ that shaped British working- class life deepening Labour’s alienation from its proletarian heartlands, while encouraging the Left’s intellectual defensiveness.
Nevertheless, Marxism Today unquestionably struck a chord with those in the Labour Party who acknowledged the need for far-reaching modernisation of the British polity and society. Tony Blair warned in his 1982 lecture at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, that the Labour Right had run out of ideas. It courted favour with the press obsessively while remaining wedded to the complacent orthodoxies of the political establishment. Blair claimed subsequently that the seeds of the Right’s obsolescence ‘were sown in the Sixties and Seventies, when the leadership of the Labour Party was content to concentrate on stitching up the block vote, manipulating Party Conference . . . [while] at the grassroots the Party was withering’.24
Moreover, the Right of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) was bitterly divided over British membership of the European Community, alongside industrial relations reform after the failure of the White Paper, In Place of Strife. The decomposition of the revisionist project during the 1970s implied that social democrats had little idea how to address the systemic weaknesses of the British political economy and the breakdown of the constitutional settlement.25 Even more worryingly, after 1979 social democrats were at odds over the existential question of loyalty to the Labour Party itself. The Labour Right was perceived to be out of touch, unable to fully comprehend changes in personal identity, the rise of new forms of popular culture ‘and the dissatisfaction at a corporatist state which people felt had become unaccountable and inefficient’.26 In a letter to Michael Foot following his defeat in the 1982 Beaconsfield by-election, Blair lamented:
T[ony] Benn is in one sense quite right in saying that the right wing of the Party is politically bankrupt. Socialism ultimately must appeal to the better minds of the people. You cannot do that if you are tainted overmuch with a pragmatic period in power.27
He then reiterated:
The Left has generated an enormous amount of quite necessary re-thinking in the Party. We were in danger of drifting into being ‘the natural party of government’, but of a society that was unradicalised and unchanged. We had become managers of a conservative country.28
Such was the journal’s sweeping influence, Stuart Hall quipped in 1994 that Blair was the ‘Marxism Today candidate’ for the Labour leadership.
In the discussion of the New Times manifesto, it is striking that Gordon Brown, then Labour’s Trade and Industry Spokesman, similarly embraced Hall and Jacques’ view that the Left must confront the systemic failings of Labourism, addressing the structural alterations reshaping the British economy. In the new order of production:
The economy is global, companies are transnational, capital flows are instantaneous, the mass production hierarchical factory is but one of the economy’s commanding heights. . . the class structure has been modified, new political forces, not least the women’s movement and green politics are in play.29
Even in the 1970s, Brown had insisted the Left must confront ‘how working people ... can increase the control they have over the decisions which shape their lives’. In The Red Paper on Scotland, he claimed traditional socialism had become ‘little more than a scheme for compensating the least fortunate in an unequal society’.30 Brown attacked core shibboleths of the Bennite Left warning, ‘socialists must neither place their faith in an Armageddon of capitalist collapse nor in nationalisation alone’.31 Renowned figures on the New Left, notably Antonio Gramsci, Eric Hobsbawm and E.P. Thompson greatly influenced Brown’s thinking. As a consequence, he was highlighting very different intellectual themes to those preoccupying Crosland and Gaitskell thirty years before.
What made Marxism Today so influential in shaping the New Labour agenda? Martin Jacques points out he never subscribed to Blair and Brown’s politics. Indeed, in 1998 Marxism Today published a highly critical review of the administration’s first year in power.32 Even so, it is clear that ideas and concepts generated within the pages of the magazine did influence leading modernisers. Charles Clarke, Neil Kinnock’s chief of staff and minister in the Blair governments believed Marxism Today ‘played an important role in the evolution of Left thinking throughout the 1980s’.33 Marxism Today questioned the Left’s traditional preoccupation with economic structure and class. It acknowledged the growing significance of the individual. Marxism Today acknowledged the increasing importance of diversity, pluralism and culture.
Marxism Today’s impact on the New Labour project derived from the fact that its writers occupied similar territory in the intimate world of London metropolitan Left politics. There was a multitude of influential personal relationships and connections. Blair and Martin Jacques, for example, forged an unlikely political friendship. Geoff Mulgan became Gordon Brown’s adviser on policy, subsequently head of the Number Ten Policy Unit. Charles Leadbeater worked closely with David Miliband, Blair’s policy director. Questions were addressed in the pages of Marxism Today that were not on the agenda of post-war social democracy. As such, the journal filled the vacuum created by the breakdown of the close alliance between social democratic intellectuals and the Labour Party. Following the crisis of revisionist social democracy and the SDP’s emergence in 1981, the progressive intelligentsia had become estranged from the party.
By the late 1970s, the synthesis of Beveridge, Keynes and post-war welfare state social democracy elaborated by Anthony Crosland in The Future of Socialism (1956) was manifestly exhausted. Revisionism exhibited numerous deficiencies associated with post-war British intellectual life, particularly its emphasis on empiricism over theory and its refusal to seriously address the emerging concerns of post-materialism - feminism, environmentalism, ethnicity, nationhood, and the politics of personal identity.34 When younger revisionists such as John Mackintosh and David Marquand emphasised the importance of democratic popular representation, Crosland scorned the ‘artificially contrived idea of equality of participation’.35 He remained sceptical that the large majority of British citizens had any interest in deliberative decision-making. Most:
preferred to lead a full family life and cultivate their gardens. And a good thing too. For if we believe in socialism as a means of increasing personal freedom and the range of choice, we do not necessarily want a busy bustling society in which everyone is politically active . . . fussing around in an interfering and responsible manner, and herding us all into participating groups. The threat to privacy and freedom would be intolerable.36
As a consequence of Crosland’s natural scepticism, revisionist social democracy initially refused to take seriously the atrophy of representative democracy alongside the breakdown of the governing machinery of the British state. There was no successor generation of Croslandites in the party. Giles Radice found Crosland personally arrogant and aloof. He gave younger MPs ‘little encouragement in their own efforts to think out new strategies. . . . Crosland said at one point that he was “too bloody busy” to rethink his whole philosophy’.37
Marxism Today sought to fill the gaping void in the Left’s intellectual armoury, while satisfying the thirst for new ideas among the rising generation of Labour politicians. The journal produced a compelling critique highlighting contradictions and ambiguities in the political identity of the post-war party subsequently elaborated by New Labour. Marxism Today highlighted the inadequacies of reformist social democracy, given its inability to address the paralysis of the English ancien regime that amplified post-war relative decline. Writers drew on the burgeoning ‘declinisf literature that related the deterioration of the British economy to the inherent weaknesses of Britain’s governing institutions and political culture. They argued Britain had neglected to create a more dynamic capitalism in contrast to post-war continental Europe.38
As a journal Marxism Today offered a very different account of Labour’s historical failings to Crosland’s generation. In the wake of the party’s 1987 defeat, Stuart Hall wrote that:
Electoral politics - in fact, every kind of politics - depends on political identities and identifications. People make identifications symbolically: through social imagery, in their political imaginations. They “see themselves” as one sort of person or another. They “imagine their future” within this scenario or that. They don’t just think about voting in terms of how much they have, their so-called material interests. Material interests matter profoundly. But they are always ideologically defined.
Croslandite revisionism remained wedded to the politics of economic structures and material interests. During the 1970s, the Labour Party proved itself incapable of attuning to modernity and the politics of identity-based activism. Whereas the Labour Right believed that in Herbert Morrison’s phrase, ‘socialism is what a Labour government does’, Marxism Today sought to elaborate, ‘an intellectually articulated and justified strategy’.39
Of course, Marxism Today was not the only weighty journal of note on the Left. The prolonged inquiry into the decay of British Labourism involved periodicals including the New Statesman and Society, as well as New Socialist; the output of think-tanks, notably the Fabian Society, Demos, and the Institute for
Public Policy Research (IPPR); and liberal centre-left newspapers, particularly the Guardian, the Observer, and the Independent. The questions posed by the Left’s degeneration informed an array of seminars, gatherings and conferences embracing the various tributaries of the British progressive tradition. In party meetings and debates throughout Great Britain, the ecosystem of the British Left, New Labour’s political project gradually took shape.
During the 1980s, the predominant attitude towards the Labour Party was pessimistic. The party appeared incapable of thinking and acting strategically.40 Labour seemingly had little effective capacity for sustained intellectual rejuvenation. In the crisis years of the 1970s, it began ‘spurning new ideas at the point when it most needed them’.41 The Wilson and Callaghan era was a huge disappointment. Then the party was unable to reflect constructively on its situation in the wake of the 1979 defeat. Thatcherism had become the dominant ideological force in Britain. The former cabinet minister, Peter Shore, remarked that Labour appeared to have ‘lost the 1980s’. To assert that Labour was a party in crisis became an overworked cliche. Yet the party’s electoral demise after 1979 was undeniably structural, stemming from the deep recesses of Britain’s economy and culture. The Labour Party was shipwrecked, battered on the razor-sharp rocks of Thatcherism. Repeatedly, the Conservative Party defeated Labour in general elections. Meanwhile, social and political forces were undermining Labour as the dominant centre-left party. These defeats could not be explained away as the result of bad luck or unpopular leadership. It appeared the Labour Party had lost the ability to think and imagine for itself.
The New Labour project was a comprehensive response to the long-term collapse of Labourism in British politics. The thinking drew on the eclectic British progressive tradition, encompassing Labour and the Liberal parties; the trade unions; sections of the non-aligned Left including former Communists and nationalists in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland; and diverse organisations in civil society. The British progressive ethic emphasised personal liberty, social justice and economic equality achieved through the imperatives of national modernisation and democratic revitalisation. This progressivism was ‘a kaleidoscope of political institutions, ideologies and mentalities that challenged laissez-faire capitalism and promoted . . . social justice on both a domestic and global level’.42 Despite its failings and perceived limitations, the Labour Party continued to be viewed as the principal agent of social reform in Britain’s majori- tarian, First-Past-the-Post electoral system.
Of course, the doctrines of socialism and social democracy in Britain were never interchangeable, although the ideological linkages were obvious. Perry Anderson wrote that ‘[fjor all their mutual disclaimers, [western social democracy and eastern Communism] were joined as heirs of the ideals of nineteenth century socialism’.43 Progressives on the Left perceived themselves to share a common heritage embracing the radical, dissenting tradition marked by the seventeenth century English revolution. Progressivism was a ‘spectrum of thought’ far broader than revisionist social democracy. Its ideas were elaborated by a diversity of ‘organic’ and ‘traditional’ intellectuals from across parties, generations and political traditions who shared particular concerns and predispositions.44 While sectarian conflict was gripping the Labour Party, those who inhabited the space of progressive thought continued to think hard about fashioning a credible alternative to Thatcherism. The new generation of thinkers acknowledged, ‘the mode of being of the new intellectual can no longer consist in eloquence, which is an exterior and momentary mover of feelings and passions, but in active participation in practical life’.45
Despite the prevailing mood of pessimism in the party, the culture of the British Left remained vibrant and inventive. The discussion of ideas was often energetic and animated, drawing on associated currents in British and continental European intellectual life. From the late 1970s, Britain’s culture of publicly engaged scholarship was becoming more dynamic and vigorous in the light of the expansion of the universities, alongside the increasing numbers of graduates employed in the public sector, the law, the ‘caring professions’, charities and NGOs.46 There was growing interest in post-structuralism, feminist social theory and post-colonialism. The disciplines of sociology, anthropology, psychology and psychoanalysis had become increasingly influential. As a consequence, there was a more lively Left-Wing ferment of ideas arising through journals, magazines and political conferences.47 The relationship between intellectuals and social democracy remained vitally important. Intellectuals could both supply overarching theories and detailed policy programmes.48
Indeed, there was a striking parallel between the 1980s and the drive to formulate a Left programme in the aftermath of the 1931 collapse following the Labour government’s implosion. From the aftershock of the financial meltdown until the outbreak of the Second World War, Labour experienced among its most fruitful periods of policy thinking in the twentieth century. The party was able to devise a credible governing agenda. Leading politicians, notably Hugh Dalton, Evan Durbin, Hugh Gaitskell and Douglas Jay, played a critical role in translating Keynesian theories and the associated ‘deluge of ideas’ into Labour’s Programme (1937), the precursor of the 1945 manifesto, Let Us Face the Future,49 The progressive intelligentsia ‘could and did lay down the intellectual framework within which the battle for votes took place. They asked the questions which the politicians had to answer’.5" Without these thinkers, the party ‘would have been a kind of political dinosaur, all brawn and no brain’.51
One of those intellectuals, John Maynard Keynes, provided a masterful critique of the limitations of unregulated capitalism which led to the catastrophic worldwide depression of the 1930s.32 In The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936), Keynes insisted the spontaneous working of market forces was incapable of achieving the conditions for full employment. The Left focused on combining macro-economic policies of demand management with nationalisation alongside economic and social planning. The New Fabian Research Bureau (NFRB) served as the influential vehicle for elaborating the party’s programme translating Keynesian insights into practical policies. As the historian Elizabeth
Durbin suggests, on the basis of the work of the late 1930s, ‘British democratic socialist thought has a rich tradition of designing realistic programmes’.53
In the early 1980s, Labour similarly appeared to be a party wandering in the intellectual and political wilderness. The ‘sectarian neo-liberals’ of Thatcherism were in the ascendency. Yet there was a determination to confront the deficiencies of ideology and strategy on the British Left as there had been in the 1930s, despite being crippled by the SDP’s defection and the disintegration of revisionist social democracy. New political movements subsequently emerged focusing on constitutional and democratic revival. Among the most renowned was Charter 88, the broad-based movement for root and branch reform of the UK constitution. The upsurge of Scottish nationalism, the emergence of the European question, the inequity of the outcomes created by the electoral system, alongside the perceived abuse of the constitution by the Thatcher governments led to a wide-ranging coalition for change.'’4 New journals and publications were subsequently launched. One noteworthy example is Samizdat, a magazine founded by Michael Young, the peer and author of Labour’s 1945 manifesto. Institutions were created to unearth fresh ideas, notably think-tanks including Demos and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). These organisations were institutional pioneers and policy entrepreneurs that sought to fill the void created by the obsolescence of British Labourism.