Gramsci, Dayan and New Labour

I recently had the strange experience of receiving an e-mail from Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press secretary. I would not expect such a man to be my friend. I will not forget his role in the illegal invasion of Iraq. My new friend Alistair was writing to thank me because I had signed a petition he had organised challenging Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail to debate with him about the paper’s attack on Ralph Miliband, the late father of Labour leader, Ed Miliband.

The article by Geoffrey Levy, published on 27 September 2013, described Ralph Miliband, who arrived in Britain as Belgian Jewish fugitive from the Nazis, served in the Royal Navy, and became a distinguished Marxist academic, as a “man who hated Britain”.

Levy argued that that young Ed intended to fulfil his father’s dreams and replace Margaret Thatcher’s legacy with a new 21st century socialism. “How proud Ralph would have been to hear him responding the other day to a man in the street who asked when he was ‘going to bring back socialism’, with the words: ‘That’s what we are doing, sir’.” A number of right wing commentators conflated the Milibands’ arguments in favour of socialism with the smear that they were in favour of violent revolution and repression.

I was reminded of the wacky world of the British Labour Party (and its uneasy relationship with Marxism) when I read Dayan Jayatilleka’s article in Ceylon Today dated October 13.

Dr Jayatilleka writes:

“It is no accident that the renovation and recovery of the British Labour Party during the long night of Thatcherism was intellectually spearheaded by three outstanding theoreticians of the Marxian Left, Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques, all of whom drew on the political science of Antonio Gramsci, to critically comprehend the success, national and cultural, of the Thatcher phenomenon of ‘authoritarian populism’ (Stuart Hall) and the ossification and obsolescence of the Labour Opposition.”

That seems to me to be problematic on several counts. I will deal with the concepts of “Marxian” and “theoreticians” later.

I vaguely knew Martin Jacques when we were contemporaries at Manchester University in the heady “revolutionary” days of the late sixties. What bliss it was in that dawn to be alive! We did not move in the same circles, although I knew people who knew him. He was almost exactly a year older than I was. Our tangential crossing of orbits induced me to follow his career with some interest. He achieved some degree of media fame in the 70s and 80s when, under his editorship, Marxism Today– the theoretical magazine of the Communist Party of Great Britain – became readable and even slick and fashionable. The grim old Stalinists of the CP embraced media-friendly Euro-Communism and started wearing gaudy silk ties, smart double-breasted suits with pleated trousers, abandoned their wrapover baldy men look and started talking fluently on TV.

Martin entered the world of think tankery and became quite influential. If you trawl the blogosphere patiently, you will find references (accusations?) from the left that he made New Labour possible. However, it is a bit of a stretch to imply that Gramsci had some connection with “the renovation and recovery of the British Labour Party”.

I also had a tangential connection with Stuart Hall when I worked for Sir Arthur Armitage at the Social Security Advisory Committee. Professor Hall was a candidate to succeed Sir Arthur as Chairman. I argued Hall’s case vigorously but 1984 was not the time for an SSSAC chairman who was black and Marxist. Incidentally, one of the SSAC members was quite friendly and humorous. Henry Hodge was a human rights lawyer who later went on to become a High Court judge. His wife was Margaret Hodge, who achieved notoriety as the leader of left wing Islington Council (nicknamed “Enver Hodge”, after the Albanian despot). She later went on to become a minister in the Blair government and in 2010, she was elected Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. The Hodges were neighbours and friends of the Blairs. Henry once remarked that he was married to the Labour Party. Margaret (née Oppenheimer) is a multi-millionaire. The Daily Mail alleges that her role on the PAC is compromised by the fact that her company paid just 0.25 per cent in tax on its profits last year

In 1983, I was present in the House of Commons to hear Gordon Brown give his maiden speech. It was very impressive in a dour kind of manner, but I did not detect the influence of Gramsci.

Soon after taking office in 1997, the new Blair administration announced that it would be continuing the economic policies of the outgoing administration in the interests of stability. One of Blair’s “triumphs” had been to abolish Clause IV of the party constitution. This was what made the Labour Party socialist because it dealt with nationalization of the commanding peaks of the economy. By getting rid of this central pillar of Old Labour principle, the party became New Labour and abandoned any pretence of socialism. Blair had never been a socialist; he was one of those careerists who decided politics was a good job option and then chose the party that suited him best, regardless of principles. On attaining power, there would be no attempt to re-nationalize privatised industries, like the railways or water, even though 73% of the population wanted that. New Labour brought further privatization by stealth. Blair and his finance minister, and later successor, Gordon Brown, pursued with great zeal the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), using private capital to fund public projects. Private companies prospered, the public paid.

The problem with theory is that it has a tendency to disappear up its own fundament. Karl Marx was a brilliant man who made many perceptive judgements about the way the world works. Like Freud, he has been a major influence on modern life. Freud was a big fraud who made up most of his theories without any scientific proof. It would be better if we regarded Freud and Marx as creative geniuses rather than trying to shoehorn the real world into their theoretical framework.

This shoehorning can be fatal when one believes that the end justifies the means. Let us look at the career of Eric Hobsbawm. When he died at the age of 95, even right-wing historians like Niall Ferguson praised Hobsbawm’s achievements as an historian.  In 1998, Blair appointed Hobsbawm to the Order of the Companions of Honour.

However, Tony Judt cautioned that Hobsbawm’s bias in favour of the USSR weakened his grasp of important aspects of the 20th century. David Pryce-Jones thought Hobsbawm “steadily corrupted knowledge into propaganda, and scorns the concept of objective truth”. In an interview with Michael Ignatieff in 1994, Hobsbawm said 20 million deaths might have been justified if a communist utopia had been created. The problem with utopias is that they do not happen so no loss of life is justified. Hobsbawm retained his CP membership long after the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia. David Pryce-Jones accuses Hobsbawm of actually supporting the invasion of Hungary. Marx biographer Francis Wheen argued: “When writing about how the anti-fascist campaigns of the 1930s brought new recruits to the communist cause, he cannot even bring himself to mention the Hitler-Stalin pact, referring only to ‘temporary episodes such as 1939–41’. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the crushing of the Prague Spring are skipped over.”

Hall, Jacques and Hobsbawm’s advice may well have helped to make Labour electable. Hobsbawm’s daughter Julia was, like my new friend Alistair, a media adviser to Blair. It is very odd that these CP diehards would advise abandoning socialism and making Labour Thatcherite. Ralph Miliband described the thinking of Marxism Today under Jacques as a “very pronounced retreat from some socialist positions.’ Eric Hobsbawm’s writings in Marxism Today lent support to Neil Kinnock’s strategy of steering Labour rightwards. It is ironic that this gang of Stalinists gave Britain a new Thatcherism under Blair rather than any kind of socialism whatsoever. Hobsbawm derisively referred to Blair as “Thatcher in trousers”. This may have been some cunning Baldrickesque plan but I would ask any remaining socialist in the present-day British Labour Party – “how was it for you”? Was the outcome good for socialism or Britain?