Is Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn a Marxist?

Luke Murphy
Nov 12, 2019 · 9 min read
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party since 2015— Image from the public domain

Are you a British voter? Have you heard that Jeremy Corbyn is a Marxist but unsure what that means? If yes then it might be worth making up your mind so you can vote on 12th December in good faith.

To get to the bottom of this we must understand capitalism. Capitalism brings things that are not in the market and makes them marketable. The classic example is your ‘work’. Before capitalism, you just worked on a farm for food or produced something artisanal and exchanged it for other things you needed. The magic of capitalism was to turn this work into a commodity called labour. You could sell your labour to someone else in exchange for a wage. Now you earned money and what you did with it, whether saving it in the bank, buying stuff or giving 45% of it to your landlord, meant you could have a surplus or deficit of money. If you ended up with a surplus of money — or ‘capital’ then you were a successful capitalist. Well done.

Marx

As the industrial revolution gathered steam in the 1800s, Karl Marx wrote in detail about the success of capitalism. He asked, what motivated capital? Can we control its behaviour? How do people selling their labour for a wage feel? In answering these and many other questions, Marx concluded capitalism was dynamic and constantly reinventing itself but also unstable and regularly in crisis. He predicted a new system of socialism would take its place.

Marx was a journalist and historian by trade. Although he passionately advocated socialism he probably wrote more to analyse the capitalism he saw around him. After all, it is easier to pick faults in what you see then it is to design and articulate an alternative. It’s easier to be a pundit on Match of the Day than it is to be a football manager — and Marx was excellent at identifying the faults at the heart of capitalism’s defence.

Here there is a line in the sand. Because Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t want to be a criticising pundit. He wants to be the British Prime Minister. Corbyn describes himself as a democratic socialist. It is likely he sees Marxism as a great way of diagnosing the instability going on around us. But he doesn’t want to abolish money. He probably sees Marxism as offering the most obvious answers to why the financial crisis happened, but he doesn’t want to destroy the banking system [in fact he wants to create a National Investment Bank]. He likely sees Marxism as a great way of understanding why workers without representation in an Amazon distribution centre may want something different. But he doesn’t want to nationalise Amazon. What Corbyn wants is to use the power of government to bring political and economic decision making to the public. What does that mean?

Balance

Since Thatcher’s radical transformation of the economy, two big things happened. First, the power of workers’ representation was destroyed. And second, the economy moved to an 80:20 balance for services over industry. Without trade unions to represent workers, people had less say over their jobs. They became free individuals, perhaps with enough courage to negotiate a salary raise or convince their employer they should be given time to go to the toilet. Or perhaps not. And since the service sector is dominated by London, the UK became extremely reliant on the economy of a single city.

Corbyn’s Labour Party is proposing to push back on this status quo. It wants to increase the rights of workers to negotiate collectively. It wants to shift economic balance to parts of the country that are not London and the South East. This push back is about balance. Before Thatcher, Britain was also out of balance, symbolised by the winter of discontent in 1978. Her revolution was to shift economic power to individuals. Now more than ever, individuals have the right to express themselves, negotiate, start a business, take money out of the country, buy a house and set up their own school.

But if a group of people live in a tower block they feel is unsafe they need a communal way to achieve a safer home. If a group of workers at Amazon dislike having to urinate into plastic bottles they need to negotiate as one to force change. If 75% of British people live in areas poorer than the European average but constantly hear how great London is doing, maybe there should be some intervention to grow the economy across the country. If children who live in a poor place are not allowed to enter playgrounds built for children who live in rich place then maybe the local council should be pressured to provide universally excellent playgrounds for all children. What do all these four problems have in common? The answer is by existing they allow someone somewhere to increase their surplus profit. This is a Marxist analysis of the economy — Welcome.

For some, this debate is not welcome. The newspaper The Daily Telegraph started its election campaign on 6th November with a huge quote from their colleague and best friend forever Boris Johnson. The quote looked down on you, even if you read it from your lap:

“The tragedy of the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is that they detest the profit motive so viscerally…they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”

This is a substandard level of journalism from a publication itself collapsing under the weight of its inability to make a profit. It is also is a good example of why ‘Corbyn is a Marxist Full Stop’ is bad for our political language and our culture. It is a dog whistle. Worse, it’s lazy.

Countervailing Pressure

Do you know what would increase profits for business? Abolishing the weekend. But at some point bosses agreed to allow up to 2 entire days off a week. In 1870 the concept of the weekend was still novel and defined by ‘Food Journal’:

‘Week-end,’ that is from Saturday until Monday, — it may be a later day in the week if the money and credit hold out, — is the season of dissipation.”

Have some time off, they said. Organise football matches on Saturday and go to church on Sunday. Then come back on Monday raring to go. Is this Marxist? Surely The Daily Telegraph would say ‘Yes’ and equivalent to the murder of Russian kulaks.

The front page of the Daily Telegraph 6/11/2019. In the last financial year, the Telegraph Media Group suffered a 94% drop in profit and is now looking for buyers. Image courtesy of Twitter

The weekend is Marxism in action, an example of countervailing pressure against the profit motive. But since the victory of Thatcherism, other countervailing pressures like trade unions, housing associations and collective bargaining have been neutered. The entire economy has been one unending green light to the demands of business. This is bad for capitalism because it needs a competitor to make it think twice, push back and make it pay taxes. Otherwise, with no other power to keep it trim, capitalism will become fat and lazy, make bad decisions, divert money out of the economy into tax havens and forget about what made it great in the first place. A monopoly for capitalism in the market of ideas is bad for business.

There still exist a few examples of Marxism in action in our society. Now, we will disagree on this but, have a look through these examples and see which ones you think are an obstacle to the profit motive of private companies and could be considered Marxist:

  • In the UK it is illegal for workers aged over 25 to be paid less than £8.21 per hour.
  • John Lewis gives each employee part-ownership of the company, a share in annual profits, and a say in how it is run.
  • In 2017, the Conservative Prime Minister said excessive executive pay was the “unacceptable face of capitalism.”
  • The National Health Service is funded by and organised by the government.
  • The Financial Times’ headline on 16th September 2019 was: “Capitalism. Time For A Reset. Business must make a profit but should serve a purpose too.”
  • The new nuclear power plant in Hinkley Point is being built by EDF Energy which is 84% owned by the French government.

If these things had not already happened and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party proposed them, then they might be called ‘Marxist.’ And that would be correct. Because sometimes we see reform or regulation of capitalism as more like common sense. But we’re actually unconsciously thinking like a Marxist.

Being Critical

This is not to apologise for the negative or unintended consequences of what Marx wrote. The Soviet Union, Venezuela and China are, or were, brutal, even totalitarian, dictatorships, guilty of the worst crimes. They are far worse than what we have created in the UK. But this article, at its heart, is an attempt to understand the meaning of words so we can all avoid becoming as lazy as the people at The Daily Telegraph.

Marxism provides far less satisfactory answers on how best to organise the economy than capitalism. And we should challenge Corbyn as we would any other politician about their actual policies. But to call him ‘Marxist’ and retreat will not do. The Daily Telegraph strategy is to hope this works like a dog whistle for ‘Communist Murderer’. This behaviour insults the intelligence of its readers who likely will never vote for Corbyn anyway, but are patronised by its editors by their deliberate denigration of the English language.

Corbyn’s opponents would do better to find his real, not cartoonish, weakness. They would do better to investigate the rise of antisemitism in the party and understand why that has happened. And they would do better to acknowledge the possibility that Marxism could bring them some fresh insight. If City bankers or regulators had read more Marx over the past 20 years rather than thinking they were ‘masters of the universe’ or had ‘abolished boom and bust’ perhaps the financial crisis we have failed to shake off for more than ten years may have been avoided, if only in its severity.

People forget, Marx was a person. He was a journalist, documented well in ‘Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx’ by James Ledbetter and celebrated by Christopher Hitchens in a 2007 essay. He advocated socialism, but he was a supporter of Abraham Lincoln, the American revolutionary experiment, with its democratic checks and balances and separation of powers. It was as a journalist that his repeated defence for the freedom of the press led to his expulsion from Germany. Emerging from the haze of caricature, we can see a picture of a person with ambiguities who is worth our rational thought.

To be Marxist is to diagnose capitalism. But not to diagnose is to endorse our current economy in all its absurdity, pain and glory and without need for any change. Yes, for as long as Corbyn has been in the Labour Party he has wanted it to move leftwards. But in 2019, the British economy is so far unbalanced to the right and lacking in countervailing pressure against the forever demands of a one-sided free market, that by moving it leftwards we arrive only at the employee-owned John Lewis model or the successful state energy companies like EDF Energy who we pay to build our infrastructure.

Now we have concluded that Jeremy Corbyn is a Marxist but perhaps this isn’t as bad as we once thought, we should give the last word to Jonas Fossli Gjersø, a Norwegian historian who wrote:

“As a Scandinavian who has spent more than a decade living in Britain, nothing has made me feel more foreign than observing the current Labour leadership election. From his style to his policies Mr Corbyn would, in Norway, be an unremarkably mainstream, run-of-the-mill social-democrat. His policy-platform places him squarely in the Norwegian Labour Party from which the last leader is such a widely respected establishment figure that upon resignation he became the current Secretary-General of NATO. Yet, here in the United Kingdom a politician who makes similar policy-proposals, indeed those that form the very bedrock of the Nordic-model, is brandished as an extremist of the hard-left and a danger to society.”

So, it turns out in life there are ambiguities. And maybe you are more Marxist than you think.

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