Movement activists, including John Rees, help Jeremy Corbyn back to his car after he spoke at the national demonstration for the NHS on March 6 2017. Photo: Taj Ali Movement activists, including John Rees, help Jeremy Corbyn back to his car after he spoke at the national demonstration for the NHS on March 6 2017. Photo: Taj Ali

John Rees tries to distil some sense from recent tabloid exchanges, and looks at the real relationship between Marxism, parliament and Jeremy Corbyn

The only sensible reaction to the accusation by the Tory right that Jeremy Corbyn is “a Marxist“ is the one that Karl Marx himself gave. In response to some of his own would-be followers in France he said: “all that I know, is that I am not a Marxist”.

For if there is one thing in contemporary politics more certain than anything else it is that Jeremy Corbyn is not a Marxist. A principled socialist? Yes, of course. An opponent of free-market capitalism? Absolutely. A determined opponent of imperialism and racism? Certainly, the record speaks for itself.

And for all these reasons those on the revolutionary left who are indeed Marxists have often made common cause with Jeremy Corbyn on precisely these issues over many years.

But there are certain essential issues which distinguish the Marxist approach from others.

It is surely a distinguishing feature of a Marxist analysis that capitalism cannot be transformed into socialism by parliamentary means.

Marxists have long recognised the advantage and necessity of electoral politics in gaining an audience for socialist ideas among the mass of the working class. But equally they have rejected the idea that it is possible to transform society through incremental parliamentary legislation. In the English movement it was actually a non-Marxist, the historian R H Tawney, who best expressed this view when he said: “you can peel an onion layer by layer, but you can’t skin a live tiger claw by claw.”

Fundamentally this difference is based on contrary views of the state machine. Marx, and all Marxists since, have seen the state as an irreformable bastion of ruling-class power. Marx famously described the state as “a committee for the management of the common affairs of the bourgeoisie“. Labour and social democratic politicians have seen the state as a tool which in their hands can be used to transform capitalistic society.

Even within the sphere of electoral politics there have been some socialists who have argued that a radical, far-left, party should be created in order to contest elections. But no one in the current leadership of the Labour Party holds this view. Instead they cleave to the idea that a broad church party which includes defenders of capitalism and imperialism is the most effective electoral vehicle.

Naturally, Labour and social democratic politicians who view legislative change as fundamental tend not to see direct forms of struggle~such as strikes, protest, demonstrations, occupations, or direct action~as primary. But for Marxists it is precisely this kind of action which has the capacity to overcome the entrenched power, both economic and political, of the ruling class.

Even more importantly, it is only in the course of direct struggle that working-class people can both learn to run their own society and transform their consciousness so that they are able to rule.

No mere legislative act can have this transformative and liberatory impact on the working class. For Marxists, in the end, it is this failure to appreciate the centrality of struggle from below which distinguishes them from reformists as much as it is disagreement about the reformability of capitalist society or the capitalist state.

From all this can be seen that Tory claims that Jeremy Corbyn is a Marxist tells us more about the current state of the Tory party than it does either about Jeremy Corbyn or about Marxism.

The Tories, particularly their right wing, but also the entire political establishment, have lived so long with the ascendancy of neoliberal, free-market economics that they see any deviation from that ideology as a fundamental challenge.

Even modest plans for nationalisation and a more egalitarian wealth distribution seem near to revolutionary in their eyes.

But in one aspect they are not wrong to see a real threat in Corbynism. Above and beyond any manifesto commitments it has given renewed hope to working-class activists and has triggered a debate about socialism which is societywide for the first time in a generation.

It is for that reason that Marxists might want to reconsider the original context of Marx’s remark about not being a Marxist. It was a little more than an off-the-cuff joke. Engels referred to it in writing no less than three times. On the last occasion he wrote to French socialist Paul Lafargue:

“We have never called you anything but ‘the so-called Marxists’ and I would not know how else to describe you. Should you have some other, equally succinct name, let us know and we shall duly and gladly apply it to you.”

What was it that produced such a scathing remark from Engels? It was the idea, current among Marx and Engels’ French supporters, that support for reforms was just a trick meant to lure workers into more radical politics once they had seen such demands fail.

Marx and Engels would have none of it. They took seriously the demands for reform that arose from the working-class movement and inscribed them as basic demands in their own programme. They wanted them achieved because they knew that both the struggle to attain them, and any successes that were achieved, would strengthen the working class movement in practice and ideologically.

And that is why genuine Marxists will want to see the Corbyn project get as far as it possibly can and to attain as many victories as it possibly can. We might not agree that Parliament can deliver socialism, but in every struggle for concrete change in the here and now we will be fighting shoulder to shoulder with all those in the working class movement who want to improve the lives of working-class people.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.