As the UK’s new leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, assembles his shadow cabinet, David Waywell bids us –
Marxism wasn’t a place I expected to revisit any time soon. It’s a bit like Bognor: popular in its day but now gone the way of Rubik’s cubes and the Vesta chicken curry as something I no longer need to wrap my brain around. This week felt, however, like we were suddenly back in 1975 as John McDonnell, our polyester shadow chancellor, gave us lessons in Marxist mind games:
‘You’re living in the 18th century. That’s when the great offices of state were decided.’
If the distant past is the benchmark against which things are now measured, McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are confirming that they are very much part of the political brethren to whom names like ‘Tolpuddle‘ still resonate more than ‘Lehman Brothers’. Even Corbyn sounds like he’s taken from a Fielding novel. Mr Corbyn harrumphed like a zephyr and was compelled to set forth wind. ‘Is health more important?’ he asked reporters. ‘You are living in the 18th Century, if I might say so…’
That Corbyn invoked the 18th century is perhaps as telling as it was prearranged. Does the British governmental reorganisation of 1782 still rankle Corbyn and McDonell?
Do they resent the pesky Charles James Fox becoming our very first Foreign Secretary or William Petty going to the Home Office?
Quite obviously they do. Marxism was born in the nineteenth century but questioned the structures of society, economy, and government formed in the eighteenth. The Marxist habit of mind is to go back to the source and Corbyn is nothing if he’s not Marxist in his thinking. Speaking to Andrew Marr, just recently, Corbyn admitted that the ‘philosophy around Marx is absolutely fascinating.’ Evidence of learning should be welcome among our political classes but Marxism is more than learning. It’s a willingness to pull from the root. Marxism exposes bedrock. It tinkers with foundations. If true conservatism is an unwillingness to tinker (a wisdom that, incidentally, bypasses most modern Tories), then Marxism is its opposite.
That is has come back into fashion is itself a surprise. British intellectual life had enjoyed a few decades free of the theoretical nonsense taught at our universities. Derrida and Foucault never really gained much traction beyond the ridiculously expensive books undergrads buy in their first year and flog in the second. Marxism’s return to fashion is like seeing a mullet on the high street. Surprising still is the enthusiasm it brings. I wish I was as young as young Owen Jones, who clearly has a mind limber enough to understand this new reality where ‘up’, ‘down’, ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ are mere labels. As I watched him gleefully hug Jeremy Corbyn the other day, I wasn’t sure what to think. Was that the transgressing imposition of patriarchal imperialist order on a submissive Other or was it just a hug? What exactly was it they were celebrating if Corbyn had merely become the first among equals? And what would we saying had we seen a brother Hitchen hug John Major?
And that is ultimately the point. As compelling as it is to break down the dialectics of rich / poor, ministers / MPs, politicians / journalists, New Old Labour risks sounding like young university radicals arguing over the correct way to open a bag of crisps. Do you open them from the bottom, liberate the crisps cruelly crushed by the system? Or do you attack the top end where you find those privileged crisps that whiff of Gary Lineker?
Class war survives partly because class is real in our society. Class makes talented politicians over compensate for both background and accent by indulging in a fetishism of intellect. I remember a lecturer once asking why bad guys in movies always wear black. One motivated student, deeply involved in the class struggle, had an answer. ‘It’s because our language developed in a period of imperialist colonialism when the darkness of the Other was treated as though it were somehow less valuable than the white.’ It wasn’t quite the answer the lecturer was looking for. Bad guys wear black because our species learned to fear the night and darkness became synonymous with danger and mystery. There is a reason why Indiana Jones has adventures in darkly lit tombs rather than the brightly lit bakery aisle in his local Asda and it was not because of latent racism.
But easy answers never play well with Marxists who gravitate towards the obtuse. In the world of Corbyn politics, simple questions will become convoluted. New Old Labour couldn’t even enjoy their victory without questioning the hierarchical nature of governmental organization. When the nation is crying out for answers to the big questions, the biggest danger to Corbyn and his cabinet of equals may well be getting mired in the detail. Young Owen Jones might be about to learn a lesson others learned the hard way, even as far back as the eighteenth century. What goes up, usually always comes down and sensible journalists know when to stand well back.