‘Marxism Today’ smugly winds itself up amidst the ruins of left-wing politics

Good Riddance to Bad Rubbish

By Brendan Clifford

Marxism Today was “a free spirit” we are told by Martin Jacques in an editorial introduction to “the last issue ever”, which appeared in December 1991. It proclaimed itself on the cover to be a “Collectors’ Item“.

The “free spirit”, with an eye on the main chance, indulges in nostalgia before the event.

This must be the first political magazine in the history of political journalism to be produced as a Collectors’ Item. Other magazines have become collectors’ items and entered the rare book market after they had served their political function, and because of the way they had served it. Only Marxism Today was advertised in advance of publication as a Collectors’ Item, and had no function in its month of publication except to be a Collectors’ Item

This was an entirely apt way for it to conclude its career. It is a long time since it served any political purpose, good or bad.

Mid-way through the magazine, “Martin Jacques bids a fond farewell to Marxism Today”. In nostalgic spirit we might take “fond” to mean “foolish”, as it used to mean not too long ago. And it is undoubtedly a foolish piece of writing. It begins:

“I remember being asked whether I would become the full-time editor of Marxism Today. The year was 1977. The benefactor was Gordon McLennan, then general secretary of the Communist Party. I was an academic at Bristol University, and deeply involved in the CP. It was the high point of eurocommunism, a time of optimism when I and others like me believed that the party could be changed into something different (If only we had known about the Moscow gold … )”. (Dots as in original.)

It seems that free spirits don’t know where the money comes from. They can’t know. They mustn’t know. Because if they knew they could not be free. The free spirit must be a simpleton.

It isn’t easy to be a simpleton about such matters in this modern world of ours. I would say it requires great tenacity of purpose to remain ignorant of where the money comes from. Even the darling children of the bourgeoisie know these days that they cavort on surplus value. Martin Jacques must have worked quite hard at not knowing that his freedom was sustained by Moscow gold.

It was not always the case that “free spirits” were charlatans. I first came across the term when I read Nietzsche as an agricultural labour before I had ever read a word of Marx. And I was impressed. I still am.

Martin Jacques has the gift of turning everything he touches into dross. He does it for money of course but I don’t think that excuses it. But I appreciate that the prevailing attitude among eminent socialists these days is that money excuses everything, and that there is no worth where there is no money. Nevertheless I must make a point in the near future of restoring the meaning of “a free spirit” as I found it in Nietzsche, now that it has been tainted by use in Marxism Today.

I never got any Moscow gold – not because I had objections to gold but because I had objections to Moscow. If I had been in agreement with Moscow I would have felt entitled to a share of its gold. Because I could only function politically on the basis of my own understanding of things, and my understanding was at variance with the forms of understanding sponsored by Moscow, I resigned myself to doing what I could without gold. And I have noticed over a quarter of a century that nobody got Moscow gold who did not serve Moscow’s purposes in one way or another.

Jacques asserts that Marxism Today

“has had a profound effect on the political scene, way beyond the number of copies sold. The magazine used the term Thatcherism before anyone else. More importantly, it was the first to grasp what the term actually meant. It sensed the profound crisis of the Left before virtually anyone on the Left had any real clue it existed.”

He does not get around to saying what the actual political effect was. It seems to me that it was to provide an easy transition from Moscow gold to the gold of Fleet Street for journalists who wanted to be fashionably Marxist without damaging their career prospects,

With regard to Thatcherism, Marxism Today was one of those influences which during the high tide of socialism in the seventies helped to guide the Left into a cul-de-sac. By opposing the harnessing of trade union power to industrial management, and encouraging the delusion that the trade unions could continue indefinitely in the position of merely preventing the capitalists from exerting effective management, it helped to create the political atmosphere in which Thatcher could be elected to cut the power of the unions, bringing with her the baggage of petty-bourgeois nonsense called Thatcherism. And then Marxism Today made a living by erecting this Thatcherism into a mind-boggling subject for passive contemplation, and encouraging a process of adaption to it.

Marxism Today was ahead of its time. It prefigured the fracturing of politics and the world that has proceeded apace over the last few years.”

That is true enough, but it is a strange thing to boast of. All those clever little people had an exciting time for a few years turning socialist politics into a kind of gibberish that was marketable to the middle class. They can now move on to careers in mainstream bourgeois journalism – to “a new challenge”, as Jacques puts it – leaving the working class to cope in whatever way it can with the inheritance of fractured politics.

When Gorbachev was praised by Bush and others for destroying the political movement which he had tried to lead, he had at least the grace to look sullen. He left you in no doubt that he would much rather have failed to do what he was being praised for doing. No so Martin Jacques. On the front cover he prints a pat on the back from Chris Patten.

I have never been in sympathy with the CP and have rarely been in agreement with it. But I never felt sheer contempt for it until I saw this issue of Marxism Today, with Jacques, Sarah Benton, Stuart Hall, Eric Hobsbawm, Beatrix Campbell, etc, capering smugly in the mess they have made.


This article appeared in January 1992, in Issue 27 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/very-old-issues-images/.