on ‘marxism today’

by Nathan Coombs

This is an edited copy of a talk originally given at the Institute of Ideas Postgraduate Forum.



What ever happened to Marxism Today? There is, of course, a word play at work in this question: we could be asking both about the fortunes of Marxism as a political movement, and about the various publications that have professed insight into said movement over the years under that title. Still, it is uncanny the extent to which tracking the fate of those publications called Marxism Today gives us insight into the fate of the political movement – from the heroic early years to the banality and absurdity of a lot of what passes as institutionalised Marxism nowadays. Understanding this passage also helps us understand how unhelpful a lot of contemporary academic Marxist and post-Marxist theories are when they do not allow for the radical freedom to become a revolutionary Marxist.

From Maurice Dobb to Martin Jacques

The first mention I could find of “Marxism Today” was the title of a 1932 book by Maurice Dobb; at the time considered the leading historian of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) historical group. To him Marxism Today meant erasing the way events are separated into the material and the ideal; and he boldly formulated the way that ethics and liberal economic theory were just reifications of social relations. (Blackedge 2006, 83)

Dobb was part of a generation of intellectuals and scholars committed to the serious intellectual work of Marxist analysis with the aim of the overthrow of capitalism. His generation inaugurated an entirely new form of historiography committed to retelling “history from below,” from the perspective of ordinary working people, which has now become assimilated into mainstream historiography. It is a methodology that has also somewhat ironically ended up also being used by conservative historians against the communist revolutions of the 20th century, such as in Orlando Figes’ history of the Russian Revolution: A People’s Tragedy.

To find the next well known use of the title Marxism Today we have to move forward roughly half a century to the title of the journal of the CPGB, edited by Martin Jacques since about 1978, who later went on to found the Demos think-tank. Jacques, within four years of establishing Demos, went on to release reports declaring the following:

“’the end of politics’, ‘the end of unemployment’, ‘the end of social democracy’, ‘the end of 200 years of industrial society’, the end of traditional demarcations of what it means to be a man or a woman’ and the end of ‘class-based left –right politics’.” (Cohen 2000, 33)

One of the most curious reports was Demos’ take on feminism, which separated women into five basic categories, which sound like they have been plucked from a badly written GCSE marketing book: “networking Naomi, frustrated Fran, back to basics Barbara, Mannish Mel and New Age Angela.” (ibid)

And just to give another telling quote from one of Demos’ pamphlets:

“The old tired struggle between left and right is dead, destroyed by the Internet, the fall of the Berlin Wall and Sainsbury’s ready to eat Thai Green Curries” (ibid)

In its place this think-tank made a number of proposals to carry the torch of radicalism into the future. For instance, they proposed that marriages should be limited terms, schools should be run by private corporations and, the most unusual one of all, that every July in Manchester should be a week of celebration of sexual activity!

I don’t think it would be too uncharitable to ask what could explain the descent into such gibberish? In the last issue of Marxism Today in 1991 Jacques provides a revealing explanation:

“The magazine faced a more fundamental problem. I was frequently asked during this period ‘OK, we agree with your critique, but what is to be done?’ The answer: Waffle, silence, cliché, pause.” (Jacques 1991)

Which is a quite staggering admission. Despite spending their time courting Tory MPs for the paper and revelling in killing as many of the “sacred cows” of the left as possible, they professed no revolutionary strategy at all. In fact, it never seemed to even cross their mind until one day in 1988 when Jacques recounts how his editorial team convened was he describes as a “high-powered seminar” to address the question. The conclusion of their outing, in a kind of sickly inversion of Leninism: Nothing can be done.

I think these two examples well illustrate the tragedy of the fortunes of Marxism Today in the half century that separate Dobb’s book from Jacques publication: From revolutionary scholarship to new age marketing gibberish; from Communism to so-called ‘radicalism’ – minus any Marxist analysis or revolutionary intent whatsoever.

Rigby on Marx

It is not surprising, then, that in roughly the same historic period S.H. Rigby wrote in the preface to the second edition of Marxism and History the following description of his:

“…historical project of determining which aspects of Marx’s theories were most helpful for us in understanding the societies of the past. After all, of Marx’s and Engel’s intellectual heritage, their politics, based on the conception of the proletariat as a revolutionary class, now seems like wishful thinking; their economics, premised on the labour theory of value, is now rejected by all but a handful of fundamentalists; their philosophy of dialectical materialism in now a museum piece.” (Rigby 1998, vii)

This is, of course, your fairly typical post-Cold War take on Marxism in line with what we have heard already. But what comes after is more interesting and starts to unravel the matter at hand. He claims:

“Marxism has actually been rather more successful at comprehending the world than changing it” (ibid)

He resuscitates the Marxian division in On Feuerbach between comprehending the world and changing it and turns it back on Marx himself; to rather claim that despite Marx’s various declarations his theory too was more of a philosophy of comprehension than something successful at effecting change.

Rigby then goes on to talk about the ambiguity of what exactly Marxism is in regard to whether we see Marxism in convergent terms – and by this he means as a revolutionary philosophy to replace capitalism – or in the divergent terms, as a form of analysis to help us ask questions, i.e. an academic frame, which he clearly prefers:

“One response to these two readings…would be to scour Marx’s works in order to find which of the two approaches corresponds most closely with Marx’s ‘real meaning’. The problem when we do this is that we find Marx’s works themselves are profoundly contradictory, thus allowing both schools of thought to claim scriptural authority for their reading of Marx.” (ibid, viii)

Scriptural Hermeneutics

The interesting word used in Rigby’s analysis is “scriptural”, because it introduces us to the problem of hermeneutics, one that he unfortunately fails to follow up on throughout the rest of the book.

To provide some background: The modern study of hermeneutics arose in 19th century Germany in response to the sense by some theologians that the words of the Bible had become hopelessly lost in the eighteen centuries since its canonisation. Hermeneutics roughly means ‘understanding,’ but the sense of understanding means not just what do the words say, but their meaning, the experience they impart and whether we can ever return to their original sense. In a crude way, this also refers to what is played out in all these interminable debates in the Church, from the Catholic to Protestant split on the issue in the use of the Latinate Bible, to gay and female Anglican bishops.

One the one side, some seek to legitimate their positions by referring to certain lines in the Bible; and on the other, some use different lines to counteract that message. But the far more interesting position is those that refer to the higher principles of Christianity and say: “No, it doesn’t matter what it says in the Bible, instead we have to now act in the spirit of Christianity.”

But what does this mean when we talk about the spirit of Christianity? It seems to me that they are not just talking about the changing over time in line with social norms and so forth, because Christianity has always claimed to actually define moral norms, but instead, something more fundamental, as in we have to actually ignore or negate some of the key words of the Bible to stay faithful to the spirit of Christianity.

What would it mean to stay faithful to the spirit if not in abeyance to the words? If we follow Badiou (2005) in his definition an event as being the occurrence of an unnameable, an unknown, into the fabric of social reality, then we can see that the event of Christ can be divided into two parts: the self-declaration as the Son of God and a certain set of new moral principles, and the event of Christianity, which was how exactly to spread the news of the resurrection and formalise Christianity as a religion.

It was the task of St. Paul to accomplish the latter and in that process it was Paul’s intervention that turned Jesus the Jew into Jesus the Son of God who died on the Cross. It was Paul’s faith in the Christ event that ultimately led to some of the foundational tenets of Christianity, which are not directly derivable from Jesus’ words himself.

So following Badiou and Zizek I would also argue that the Holy Spirit of Christianity exists not in a dogmatic adherence to either the Bible or a ‘real’ Jesus we have no access to, but precisely in the gap between Christ and Christianity, and if there wasn’t that gap we would never have experienced Christianity as a living practice at all.

Marxism as an event

This theological detour considered, to return, then, to Rigby’s analysis I think we can also perceive the same problem. Because although he specifies that there are two readings of Marxism he doesn’t correlate these positions to the gap. That gap is very clear in Marx: there is a clear gap between his dialectical, scientific analysis of the world, and how to actually realise the defeat of capitalism. It is a gap between the analysis and response, and what I want to argue here is that they are not identical sides of the same coin.

Rather, when we become Marxists what we are doing is essentially shifting our perspective to thinking how to realise revolution, how to change the world – and thus our analysis will essentially shift also. They are irreconcilable. You can apply Marxist analysis, without the corresponding political commitment to Marxism, and come up with a totally different and logically coherent explanation of a situation.

Essentially what I am getting at is a radicalised version of Ernesto Laclau and Chantel Mouffe’s argument in Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. But whereas they note that in Marx there is no dialectical mechanism for the passage from contradiction to antagonism in the workplace, and use that to discredit the theoretical basis of Marxism, I would rather radicalise that observation and use it as the basis for understanding what Marxism actually is. They say, for example:

“Antagonism, far from being an objective relation, is a relation wherein the limits of every objectivity are shown.” (Laclau and Mouffe 2001, 25) – because – “this was the hiatus which the distinction between ‘class in itself and ‘class for itself’ tried to fill.” (ibid, 16)

Let us look at it more broadly beyond this dialectical passage and rather claim that the gap in Marx between analysis and response is in fact the very basis of Marxism. Because if there were no gap, there would be no Marxism: just a rigid set of dictats that would quickly become out of date and leave no room for subjects to insert themselves.

And in fact it is a total failing on Laclau’s part that despite the promise of his analysis here, he never came to realise this and was rather dutifully rolled out in the last issue of Jacques’ Marxism Today to nail a final theoretical hammer on Marxism as “an outmoded system of thought.” (Laclau 1991, 56)

But it is that gap we have pointed to which means that Marxism is actually never an outmoded system of thought; even if academic careers are made espousing such ruminations and ex-Communists can find themselves media niches denounced the folly of their past commitments.

The miserable sight of ex-Marxists

We can witness this trend quite clearly in the way Jacques came to run a think-tank that provided New Labour with the intellectual ammunition for its complete betrayal of the labour movement and the few principles it still embodied. We can also note that Frank Furedi’s post-RCP adventures are also no longer allied to a Communist project: Furedi’s calls to “axe the welfare state” and so forth are nothing more than fodder for the right-wing media. We can also note that the leading lights of the ex-Marxists from the former RCP were called upon by The Times to give an opinion on “What Marxists think” about the economic crisis – with a predictably soothing message that nothing can be done!

Arguably the situation is even worse in France where a whole generation of 68ers like Andre Glucksmann became the most outspoken supporters of capitalism and liberalism and later neoliberal Sarkozy supporters. In the New Left Review Alain Badiou talks about a confrontation he had with Jacques Alain Miller as far back as 1978. He asked:

‘Why did you just quit like that?’ Because they dropped out very suddenly – even today there are elderly workers, Malians in the hostels, Moroccans in the factories, who ask us: ‘How is it that, over-night, we never saw those guys again’? Jacques Alain Miller said to me: ‘Because I realized one day that the country was quiet.’ And Gerard: ‘Because we understood we were not going to take power.’ (Badiou, 2008, 126)

Badiou also gives a second reason for the turncoat phenomenon of Marxists who turned into the most die-hard right wing apologists of capitalism:

“What happened at that point was a transition from the alternatives of a ‘bourgeois world or a revolutionary world’ to those of ‘totalitarianism or democracy’. The shift can be given a precise date: it was starting from 1976… Here you can see the reversal at work. It revolves around the idea that at a certain point, absolute commitment becomes indistinguishable from absolute slavery, and the figure of emancipation indistinguishable from barbarism.” (ibid, 127)

What Badiou is getting at is that without the fundamental commitment to the revolutionary project, Marxism has all the potential to turn into the ideology of reaction and free market fundamentalism.

What is the meaning of Marxism?

Let us return to the event of Marx to understand this relationship better. We have seen how the gap is between analysis and response is what constitutes the event of Marx.

If we try decide what the new element Marx introduced was, it is not as it is commonly understood, in materialist political economy. Already, in a rudimentary way Marx has derived these insights from the Scottish thinkers such as Adam Smith. And it is also not the dialectical method and conception of totality that he derived from Hegel. It was the way he wedded the materialist scientific analysis of history and society to the revolutionary project. Not by closing the gap, but precisely by asserting the gap and arguing that one can only understand the former by adopting the analysis and the subjective position of the latter: attempting to realise communist society. The event of Marx is that only once you adopt the position of commitment to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, does your analysis fall into place and become Marx-ist.

Let me quote from Raymond Williams on the matter:

“…in the transition from Marx to Marxism’, the concepts of ‘base’, ‘superstructure’ and ‘forces and relations of production’, among others, were projected, first, as if they were precise concepts and second, as if they were descriptive terms for observable “areas” of life.” (Blackedge 2006, 62)

What seems to have happened with the death of Marx and the transference to Marxism is the narrow empiricalisation of Marxism, i.e. the closing of the gap into a teleological schema of the realisation of Communism through the development of the forces of production. Karl Kautsky who inherited the Marx estate, has taken much of the blame for this for this brand of ‘right-Marxism.‘
But, in many ways in the historical conditions of the late 19th century this understanding of Marx made a lot of sense, as the strength of both the workers’ movement and the productive force of capitalism increased at the same time.

However, if we move forward to Lenin in exile in 1914, this was in fact they key point that came out of his study of Hegel’s the Science of Logic. After his study he declared – and this is also where I would also like to leave us to further reflect – “until now, no Marxists have understood Marx.”

Is such a conceivable reappraisal possible today?


Badiou, Alain. 2008. Roads to Renegacy. New Left Review 53, Sept/Oct 2008: 125-133

Badiou, Alain. 2005. Being and Event. London: Continuum

Blackedge, Paul. 2006. Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History. Manchester: Manchester University Press

Cohen, Nick. 2000. Cruel Britannia: Reports on the sinister and the preposterous. London: Verso
Jacques, Martin. 1991. The Last Word. In: Marxism Today, December 1991: 56-59

Kouvelakis, Stathis. 2007. Lenin as Reader of Hegel. In: Lenin Reloaded: Towards a Politics of Truth. Durham and London: Duke University Press

Laclau, Ernesto and Mouffe, Chantel. 2001. 2nd ed. Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. London: Verso

Laclau, Ernesto. 1991. God Only Knows. In: Marxism Today, December 1991: 56-59

Rigby, S. H. 1998. Marxism and History. 2nd. Ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press