Marxism & the Labour Party – Ben Sellers


“Marxism has, from the earliest days, always been openly accepted by the Labour Party as one of the sources of inspiration within the Labour Movement.”

Tony Benn, in Arguments for Socialism.

A look back through the history of Marxism in the Labour Party – by Ben Sellers, City of Durham Labour Party.

In the current frenzy around proscriptions, bans and expulsions, it’s very easy to forget that Marxism has had a big part to play in the history of the Labour Party. Of course, some of this is to do with the gradual waning of political education within the labour movement, but it’s also in the interests of some to bury this important history.

Many of us will be familiar with the phrase, “the Labour Party owes more to Methodism than Marxism” (often attributed to Harold Wilson, but actually originally stated by Morgan Phillips, General Secretary of the Labour Party between 1944 and 1961). This may be true, but that doesn’t entirely erase the history of Marxism’s contribution.

As Tony Benn wrote, in Arguments for Socialism:

“Marxism has, from the earliest days, always been openly accepted by the Labour Party as one of the sources of inspiration within the Labour Movement along with – though much less influential than – Christian socialism, Fabianism, Owenism, trade unionism, or even radical liberalism.”

To acknowledge its subsidiary status is not to discount it altogether – as many of the left outside the party tend to do, or demonise its existence, as the right of the party would like to do.  

The Social Democratic Federation, an explicitly Marxist organisation led by H.M Hyndman and instrumental to the development of British socialism, was a constituent part of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which formed the Labour Party. George Lansbury, later to become a socialist leader of the Labour Party, was an early member.

The Labour Party had self-described Marxists at the top of the party for much of the 1930s, 40s and 50s and many more who owed an enormous debt to Marxism and said so publicly (Laski, Maxton, Strachey, and Cripps to name a few). In 1943 Harold Laski wrote a pamphlet called ‘Marx and Today’ where he talked about the necessity to “adapt the essentials of the Marxist philosophy to the situation we occupy.” He was a member of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) at the time, and was to become its chair two years later, in 1945.

Throughout the party’s history, it’s leading left-wingers have acknowledged a huge debt to Marxist ideas. This included people who contributed so much to our party and society and without which, the great reforming government of 1945 would not have existed. Michael Foot describes Nye Bevan as a Marxist in his famous biography of the founder of the NHS, adding, in an anecdote from a dinner held at a London restaurant where Karl Marx had once sought sanctuary:

“At the beginning of the proceedings we drank a toast to the great man’s memory and there was no sign then – or at any other time, for that matter, in my knowledge of him – that Bevan wished to disown his debt to Marxism, so long, of course, as the doctrine was undogmatically interpreted.”

For most of its history, too, the Labour Party has had small Marxist & Trotskyist groups organising within it, with little or no threat to its integrity. Of course, in the paranoid fantasies of the right-wing of the party, these groups have been about to take over, or are a great danger to “the brand” but the reality is, they have never made headway, and have mostly fallen in with the democratic socialist tradition represented most recently by the much larger Bennite left and the upsurge around Corbyn.

Of course, Marxists and socialists outside the Labour Party will argue that there was little formal Marxist organisation within the Labour Party, and this is true. Although Shapurji Saklatvala was briefly a Labour MP (1922-23) while retaining Communist Party membership, this situation was short-lived.

However, more broadly, and more importantly, the Labour Party left has always been influenced by a Marxist view of society. None of this did anything but add to the battle of ideas in the party. Only a factionalist for the right would deny that it has had a positive contribution and provided many of the ideas for the giant leaps forward society took after the war.

Of course, there are many definitions of what constitutes a Marxist, some dogmatic and others much broader – in terms of influence and ideas. But the truth is that Marxism is a diverse set of ideas. It encapsulates dissidents like Gramsci (used to develop all sorts of socialist strategy far removed from rigid Marxist orthodoxy) to Soviet style Stalinism. Those who want to narrow its scope are probably not interested in socialism within the Labour Party either.

So, those Labour Party members who shriek at Marxism should be reminded we have the words “democratic socialist” on our party card. Many in our party (especially those aligned to New Labour) haven’t adhered to this philosophy, either – and have been much further from it in spirit than the majority of those who might describe themselves as Marxists. For example, introducing competition and markets into our schools and in our health service can only be described as anti-socialist. The internal market, outsourcing, academisation – these are all anti-socialist measures that have caused immense damage to the fabric of our society.

If I’m honest, I don’t see that as grounds for expulsion or proscription. People may want to consider whether a self-described “democratic socialist party” is the place for them, but as a democrat, I would argue with them, politically. Because I have confidence in my arguments, and I know that free market solutions have no future.  Bureaucratic political methods – expulsions, proscriptions – whether “social democratic” or Stalinist, are the method of choice for those who don’t have that confidence and can’t convince by political argument.

  • Ben Sellers is a member of the City of Durham Labour Party
The Karl Marx Monument is a 7.10m tall stylized head of Karl Marx in Chemnitz, Germany.

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