When Marxism Was Made Fashionable (in 1992)

Marxism Made Fashionable

Brendan Clifford adds a postscript to Hugh Robert’s remarks on the B&ICO in his Student Politics article in the May-June issue of the Review

There is one aspect of Hugh Roberts’s excellent account of the derivation of Kinnockism from Marxist student revolutionism which is not entirely accurate. It conveys the impression that the B&ICO functioned until 1986 and then dissolved itself. This may have been true of the London Branch. But in Belfast and Dublin it had become a loosely associated group of people discussing polities without regard for ideological labels long before 1986.

In 1982 the Dublin Branch announced its dissolution in a statement released to the Irish press. It was run by Marxist doctrinaires. Although the politics and policies of the B&ICO had always been democratic, this group had remained lodged in Marxist doctrine and had retained the mentality of “scientific socialism”. In 1982 it took part in the formation of a “Democratic Socialist Party”, declaring itself democratic in a highly doctrinaire manner, and applying in the DSP the bureaucratic manipulation which had been impossible in the B&ICO. The DSP joined the Irish Labour Party a couple of years ago, and it drafted and helped to push through without discussion the new Constitution which gives authoritarian power to the Party Leader, Dick Spring.

A number of people who had been nominal members of the Dublin B&ICO, but had been inactive due to a distaste for doctrinaire meditations, became politically active after the dissolution of the Branch, and have been immensely influential in shaping public opinion on secular lines during the past ten years. They worked out functional concepts of what is Church and what is state – the two having been jumbled together in clerically dominated public opinion until then. In successful Court actions against the state two of them, Pat Maloney and Dick Spicer, forced the issue of endowment of religion into the centre of public debate. The magazine Church and State discovered and publicised clerical control of hospitals and schools. And David Alvey’s book, Irish Education: The Case for Secular Reform, is fuelling the current drive for provision of secular education under an Education Act – the schools having been run without a legislative framework until now.

None of this is the achievement of the Dublin Branch of the B&ICO. The dissolution of the B&ICO by the doctrinaires was not challenged. It was welcomed with relief. Dublin B&ICO has not been reconstituted either in fact or substance.

In the mid-seventies the Belfast B&ICO saw the obvious fact that Northern Ireland is excluded from the democratic political process by which the UK state is governed – a fact so obvious that until then nobody had seen it – and applied itself to making an issue of that fact. Its name and function became so utterly inappropriate to its membership and function that it became a joke. And its necessity to political development was so great that even Thatcherite Tories joined it in order to find bearings in the chaos of Northern Ireland. Eventually it changed its name to the Ingram Society, after the author of the poem, Who Fears To Speak of ‘98? With the extension of Tory Party organisation to Northern Ireland the Tories left the Ingram Society, and the Ingram Society became a miniscule discussion group meeting irregularly. But the conception of things launched by the B&ICO over twenty years ago, being the most adequate conception of things so far devised, keeps going of its own momentum.

The John Lloyd business is not quite as Hugh Roberts remembers it. It is true that in 1979 there was a confused discussion in Belfast about changing the name of the B&ICO. I do not recall that Lloyd made any actual proposal. It’s not much use demanding that a more appropriate name be found and then sulking when your demand is not met, if you have not yourself made a proposal which seems to meet the case and is rejected. But that is how Lloyd used to behave.

It seemed to me that what the B&ICO had become was something for which there was no name in the existing spectrum of labels, and that we either continued with the name we had started with or else adopted some entirely meaningless name which would acquire meaning through association. But I made no proposal, leaving it to people like Lloyd – the high-fliers of the public relations business – to come up with a meaningful and appropriate name if they could.

Some time after that Belfast meeting the matter was discussed by London Branch. Again Lloyd made no actual proposal, but he seemed to want something with “Marxist” in it.

In those days “Marxism” was fashionable and “Communism” was doubtful in what I thought of vaguely as the student revolutionary circles. I never had much to do with the student revolutionaries, whom I could only see as bourgeois careerists on the make. And I had stopped reading Marxism Today. But the idea percolated through to me from Lloyd and others that Marxism was in and Communism was out. My opinion was that Marxism was dispensable and Communism in some shape or form was necessary, and that the trouble with the Communist Parties, whether in or out of power, was the cast of thought given to them by the insistence on treating Marxism as an independent and self-sufficient philosophy of life.

Communism is a possible form of social organisation while Marxism is merely a philosophical doctrine. The fact that the two became synonymous in actual usage can be regarded as either a great propaganda achievement of the Marxists or a symptom of the decay of their analytical and critical faculties.

The National Health Service is a Communist institution, supplying the most advanced medical treatment free to everybody on the basis of need. That is what I have always understood by Communism. In the mid-seventies the complications of Northern Ireland politics brought me into contact with some of the up and coming Thatcherite propagandists. We were entirely in agreement that the NHS and the National Assistance (Income Support) system were Communist institutions which had become central to British social life, and that von Hayek’s capitalist vision could never be realised while they continued in being. I told them that their efforts to undo those institutions would come to nothing, even with the Labour Party losing its bearings, because British civil society would protect them.

These Communist elements in British life have survived three Thatcher election victories and the collapse of Marxism. By contrast, nothing social has survived the collapse of Marxism in the Soviet sphere.

I could see that Lloyd’s mind was much too fashionable for this distinction between Marxism and Communism to make sense to it. Fleet Street fashion said that Marxism would be salvaged from Communism, and that was that.

Lloyd was then an editor of the magazine Problems of Communism. At the last meeting we both attended I proposed that he should initiate a discussion of this question in Problems. If he undertook to make out the case for Marxism I undertook to reply to it, making out the case against Marxism and for Communism. But he never did so. And I never saw him again except once. That was at a Labour Party Conference five or six years ago. I was among a group of CLR campaigners in a hotel lobby when he turned up bearing a huge tray of pints of beer for the purpose of insinuating himself into the company. I don’t know what he wanted. He had nothing of interest to say.

The B&ICO took it as axiomatic that a sustainable Communist development could only occur in a liberal-democratic cultural and political framework. In 1967 it analysed the political economy of Dubcek’s “socialism” as capitalism and ridiculed the new Marxist fashion, the “socialist commodity”. Then in 1968 it condemned the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, but not on the ground that it destroyed democratic socialism. The CP Marxists sank into a morass of doublethink over this episode, accepting Ota Sik’s capitalist political economy as socialist in 1967, and then in 1968 either actively or passively going along with the Soviet invasion as being necessary to the survival of socialism.

In 1966-7, when there was some scope for rational debate on the London left, CP Marxists such as Aaronovich, J.R.Campbell and Rothstein dismissed me as a stick-in-the-mud Marxist doctrinaire because I insisted that their reasoning about the “socialist commodity” made no sense. They, by contrast, were “creative Marxists”.

The “creative Marxists” struck me as being like the caterpillar in Alice In Wonderland. Because words had no fixed meaning in his mind, it was impossible to communicate with him. He reversed Marx’s tombstone epitaph, saying in effect that the point was not to change the world but to reinterpret it in slippery concepts.

I thought then that the political economy was the most worthwhile thing in Marxism. Over the following decade I came to the conclusion that it was the only worthwhile thing. I understood the economic programme of the Dubcek revolution to be not simply capitalist, but to be a sort of ultra-capitalism, operating through a stringently meritocratic individualism in which each was at war with all, and the distortion of the market caused by inheritance of wealth was eliminated. It could now be called Thatcherite, but that sort of thing was then unknown in Britain outside the pages of von Hayek.

Rading Sik, and his precursors von Mises and von Hayek, I came to the conclusion that if there was to be capitalism I would prefer it to be as greatly distorted as possible by pre-capitalist social remnants or even by wealth inherited by self-made plutocrats. It was then I realised that classes are social institutions which humanise the rat-race to some extent.

I found the economic ideal of Dubcek “socialism”, or classless capitalism, revolting. But I knew that the Kremlin had forfeited the goodwill of Czechoslovak society, and had also rejected the rational core of Marxism, and could therefore do no good by taking over from Dubcek.

CP Marxism reduced itself to essential mindlessness in those years by casually rejecting the durable political economy of Capital and then proceeding to elaborate other features of Marxism into a self-sufficient and all-embracing philosophy – a totalitarian philosophy.

I was immersed in Northern Ireland politics for a number of years after 1969, so I was scarcely aware of the coming of Althusserian Marxism, and its acceptance in both CP and Trotskyist circles. When I became aware of it in the later seventies I concluded that Marxism was dead. There was a wide range of opinion in the B&ICO on the subject. Some were upset by my attack on Leninism. Others couldn’t care less, having joined because of the effective lines of political thought developed by the B&ICO (what the fashionable Marxists called its “empiricism”), and tolerating the Marxism as a kind of mumbo jumbo that made some people feel happy. My attack on Leninism, and my praise of Locke and Kant, obviously gained in credibility as the Leninists made a thorough mess of their affairs in the world at large.

The only philosophical discussion I ever had with John Lloyd was on the subject of Althusserian epistemology, and said I would sooner regress to the most elementary commonsense rather than indulge in it. Lloyd clearly saw this as mere perversity. I insisted that some kind of commonsense was always the final epistemological arbiter, and that people would be better off trying to gain some experience for their commonsense than pursuing the mirage of a special Marxist epistemology. But perhaps he knew best what was good for his career at the time.

I have raked over these ruins of a lost world because of a feeling that even though Lloyd never wrote the article he agreed to write, making sense of his views, I should nevertheless reply to it.

This article appeared in July 1992, in Issue 30 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.