Politics and society reflected all this tumult. The conversations at Wortley Hall touched on the decline of class politics, new conceptions of identity more complex than the hoary category of “worker”, how an insurgent women’s movement had highlighted huge changes to the fabric of everyday life, the rising importance of green politics, the increasing expectation of personal autonomy – and how seemingly unstoppable forces were weakening the traditional nation state. While the right had turned these changes to its advantage, far too much of the left still lived in a world that was fast disintegrating beneath its feet. As one Marxism Today editorial put it, the Labour party and the trade unions were “profoundly wedded to the past, to 1945, to the old social-democratic order … backward-looking, conservative, bereft of new ideas and out of time”.
Union membership was declining fast. By 1988, Labour had lost its third consecutive election to Thatcher’s Conservatives. The party had moved on from the unapologetic old-school socialism that it had presented to voters in 1983 and painstakingly worked on more modern policies and presentation, but in retrospect, its thinking was still largely built around enduring articles of traditional socialist faith. Labour people still believed that Thatcher’s success amounted to a flimsy con-trick – and it was Labour’s job, as their 1980s leader Neil Kinnock put it in one of his impassioned conference speeches, to “deliver the British people from evil”. The means of doing so still revolved around the big, beneficent, centralised state, the promise of stability and security through paid employment, and the idea that people’s identity could usually be boiled down to their lives as workers.
Three decades later, the impact of the economic and social changes that Marxism Today identified is undeniable – and the politics it prescribed are, if anything, more relevant today than ever before. But apart from a few cosmetic updates, today’s Labour party still essentially clings to the same old shibboleths. Indeed, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, its collective faith in them looks to have been renewed. Just before the last general election, Corbyn assured one interviewer that his was “a class-based socialist party”; throughout the recent leadership campaign, he extolled the wonders of nationalisation and at one point suggested that some British coal mines might be reopened. Meanwhile, centre-left politics all over Europe remains locked in a deep crisis, sidelined by the dominance of the centre-right, and further unsettled by the rise of new populist and nationalist parties from both ends of the political spectrum. In the delirium of Corbynmania and the arrival of tens of thousands of new members, the cold reality of Labour’s predicament has been somewhat forgotten. At the last election, it won its second-lowest share of the vote since 1983.
In leftist circles today, one frequently hears the argument that the world was changed for ever by the crash of 2008. But a much older point has still to be satisfactorily answered: has the left ever really understood the consequences of the economic and political changes that began to reveal themselves in the 1970s, defined the 1980s, and have been hugely accelerating ever since? On the evidence of his pronouncements over the last 30 years and the messages he dispensed during the leadership campaign, Corbyn does not seem to. Even Blair and Brown, who were at pains to stress their understanding of the late 20th century, failed to convincingly remodel their party’s politics for this new age.
This is the case for the continued relevance of a magazine that published its last issue in 1991. As this summer’s Labour leadership election showed, there is a need for a modern, radical politics, more ambitious and forward-looking than either reheated New Labour or a revived hard left. But it is nowhere to be seen – and that absence arguably sits at the heart of the Labour party’s ongoing crisis, and the sense that the left, here and across Europe, is all at sea.
For most of its life, Marxism Today – founded in 1957 – described itself as “the theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist party”. But in its peak period – from 1977 to 1990 – it was far from what those words suggested. Though published from inside the belly of the Communist party of Great Britain (CPGB), it spoke to a whole swath of the British left, and particularly the Labour party. Moreover, what it said was not academic and abstract, but vivid and urgent.
These were convulsive times. A run of watershed events began with Thatcher’s first election victory in 1979, and the 1980 arrival in the White House of her ideological soulmate, Ronald Reagan. After austerity and recession, the Falklands war came in 1982, ensuring another Thatcher election win a year later. British coal miners began a year-long strike in 1984 and were defeated in 1985; the printworkers who took on Rupert Murdoch began a similarly doomed struggle in 1986. The same year, the Thatcher government abolished England’s Metropolitan County Councils, and the Greater London Council (GLC), and thereby snuffed out a loud municipal revolt led by Labour politicians; a year on, the Conservatives won a third Westminster term. In 1989 came the most seismic change of all: European Communism breathed its last, and the free-market politics championed by Thatcher and Reagan was proclaimed triumphant.
Such were the birth pangs of a new order, as an innovative kind of accelerated capitalism spread across the planet. In the everyday world, this transformation took the form of a turbocharged consumerism, so that as old certainties collapsed, the world was suddenly painted in deep and dazzling colours. Marxism Today captured the mood: I read it avidly as a politics-obsessed teenager, and in my memory, its bold, brazenly modern covers sit in the same place as the 1980s’ iconic record sleeves.
As Britain and the wider world were transformed, the magazine set out on a journey based on three big ideas. One, the work of the renowned historian and lifelong Communist Eric Hobsbawm, was a clear diagnosis of the crisis that had confronted Labour and the trade unions. Another was a prescient analysis of Thatcherism, a term invented by the Jamaican-British thinker Stuart Hall, and used to describe not just a political project, but its embedding in millions of ordinary lives in the form of basic ideas about common sense and everyday life. When the magazine’s thinkers subsequently came up with what they called the “New Times” project, they wrapped up these previous insights in an all-encompassing analysis of profound changes, running much deeper than politics.
By the 1970s, the British Communist party was almost irrelevant as an electoral force, but its senior members included high-ranking trade unionists, and its organisation was partly built around a national network of shop stewards. Its offices in Covent Garden were bugged by MI5; its daily paper, the Morning Star, came out each day, buoyed by a Soviet subsidy in the form of up to 15,000 copies bought each day, and flown out to the USSR. The party’s once-rigid orthodoxies had been shaken by the Soviet invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 – and the latter episode in particular had galvanised a young generation of Communists intent on pushing their politics somewhere new, in defiance of the pro-Soviet diehards known as “tankies”, in honour of the military vehicles that had rolled into Budapest and Prague. One of these activists was Martin Jacques – a native of Coventry, the son of Communist parents, a graduate of Manchester University, and by 1967, a member of the party’s executive committee.
I met Jacques, now 69, in his mansion-block apartment nudging Hampstead Heath, where we sat in his kitchen, talking over the endless gurgle of a fishtank and drinking green tea. He was preparing for one of his regular trips to China, the global power he analysed and explained in his bestselling 2009 book When China Rules the World, but he happily cast his mind back to the passions that had driven him nearly 50 years ago, when his life was changed by the student militancy that spread across Europe in 1968. In Manchester, he and other students were embracing the more political aspects of the 1960s counterculture – but his perspectives were decisively shifted when he spent a week in and around Prague, two months before the Russians arrived. “I know what I thought then. I can remember it vividly. I basically said: ‘Everything is contingent now, and how things relate to my membership of the CP” – he paused – “I don’t know.”
By the mid-1970s, British Communists of Jacques’s ilk had an increasingly clear sense of who they were. Their big theoretical inspiration was Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist who had died in Mussolini’s jails, and left a political legacy built around the concept of “hegemony” – in essence, the means by which capitalism maintains its dominance through culture, social institutions and the everyday stuff of supposed common sense, all of which would have to be turned around by a politics much more creative and outward-looking than the European left had so far managed. Gramsci’s devotees now looked not to the USSR, but Italy, where the national Communist party was blazing a trail for the open, nuanced and self-consciously “Gramscian” politics increasingly known as Eurocommunism.
In the CPGB, Eurocommunism began to amass momentum and influence, and just before the party congress of 1977, Jacques was approached by the party’s general secretary, Gordon McLennan – a representative of what Jacques characterises as the Communist party’s “centre ground”, whose politics were dutiful and dull, rather than sharply ideological. McLennan had an offer: would Jacques give up his life as an academic at Bristol University, start a new working life at the CP’s offices, and edit Marxism Today? He would be paid the “party wage” of around £8,000 a year, and take his place in a small office partly staffed by volunteers.
Jacques recalled how his new job initially worked. “When I started, there was Doris Allison, who was 82, and like this – ” he walked around the table, bent double – “and she was in charge of subscriptions. There was Minnie Bowles, who was my part-time secretary. She was 75: a very sexy woman of 75. She just had something about her. And there was Margaret Smith, who would put in a day or half-day every week, and she was 65. Effectively, I was on my own. And that was the beginning of a new start.”
In three months spread across 1978 and 1979, Marxism Today published the two essays that started to set out a new mission for the British left. The Forward March of Labour Halted? appeared in September 1978. The work of Eric Hobsbawm, then in his mid 60s, it was initially delivered as the Communist party’s annual Marx memorial lecture. By modern standards, it was a somewhat pedestrian read, but its message was clear enough: if the Labour party and wider labour movement had understood themselves to be hopefully trudging onwards and upwards, their progress had long since stalled, as class consciousness had waned and Labour’s support had started to dwindle. There had been a superficial increase in union militancy in the 1970s, but most of it had been about increasing wages rather than heightening class consciousness. “It seems to me,” Hobsbawm wrote, “that we are now seeing a growing division of workers into sections and groups, each pursuing its own economic interest at the expense of the rest.”
The growth of white-collar employment and the mass entry of women into paid work were both part of this fracturing; in 1979, a third of the UK’s trade unionists would vote for Thatcher. “The forward march of labour and the labour movement, which Marx predicted,” Hobsbawm told his readers, “appears to have come to a halt in this country about 25 to 30 years ago.”
The second watershed text that Marxism Today published was a piece titled The Great Moving Right Show, written by Stuart Hall, the pioneer of cultural studies who would become Marxism Today’s most insightful thinker, and one of Jacques’s closest friends. Written in the somewhat chewy language of cultural and political theory, it was an analysis of what had been quietly happening to politics – and Britain at large – since the 1960s, and which was now being taken to a new level by Thatcher, despite the fact that she was still keeping her brand of zealously free-market economics somewhat hidden.
Hall knew that what the Tories were doing was much more ambitious than simply ramping up orthodox Conservatism: he talked about their new use of a “rich repertoire of anti-collectivism”, which fused with “popular elements in the traditional philosophies and practical ideologies of the dominated classes”. Thatcher and her allies, in other words, were living out Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony, by pursuing their politics on the terrain of common sense: kitchen-table economics, the comforts of self-sufficiency, the necessity of property ownership.
As well as coining the word “Thatcherism” six months before Thatcher had even taken power, he wrote about “the doctrines and discourses of social market values – the restoration of competition and personal responsibility for effort and reward, the image of the over-taxed individual, enervated by welfare coddling, his initiative sapped by handouts by the state”. And he identified something at the heart of Thatcherism that would serve the Tories well for the next four decades: “in the image of the welfare ‘scavenger’,” he said, the new Conservatives had hit upon “a well designed folk-devil”.