McDonnell is no Marxist

The question of whether or not Labour’s John McDonnell is a Marxist is once again consuming the Westminster bubble.

On The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, McDonnell was repeatedly asked whether or not he was a fan of Marx. It wasn’t the first time he’d been asked this: David Dimbleby pursued the exact same line of questioning on Question Time last year. On Sunday, as before, McDonnell refused to call himself a Marxist. But he did say ‘I believe there is a lot to learn from reading Das Kapital, yes, of course there is’. Later on, on The Sunday Politics, Andrew Neil played a recording of McDonnell telling supporters at a meeting a few years ago that he was indeed a Marxist.

Rather predictably, this all caused a furore on Twitter. Guido Fawkes was quick to declare Marxism ‘an evil ideology’, drawing a nonsensical link between Marx and the gulag. Centrists like John Rentoul and Dan Hodges (who have previously bemoaned the supposed post-Brexit climate of anti-intellectualism) scoffed at McDonnell’s claim that there was anything to learn from Das Kapital – one of history’s most significant texts.

For those on the right, ‘Marxist’ has become a meaningless, catch-all insult for anyone to the left of Tony Blair. The chief secretary to the Treasury, David Gauke, talked up Labour’s supposed ‘Marxist agenda’, which he claims threatens to ‘cripple Britain with a hard-left experiment’. For international trade secretary Priti Patel, Marxism seems simply to mean ‘high taxes’ and ‘closing down businesses’.

But while Marx has become a punchbag for the right, he is also a plaything of the left. Leftish commentators like Owen Jones, Paul Mason, and almost every Vice journalist revel in the radical chic of the Marxist label. But during the EU referendum, these self-proclaimed radicals became cheerleaders of the status quo, campaigning against Brexit. Hardly revolutionary.

The memeification of the hammer and sickle in recent years, with the rise of popular Facebook groups like Marxist Memes, Sassy Socialist Memes and Karl Marx’s Dank Meme Stash, illustrates how sanitised Marxism has become. The death of any revolutionary potential among the working class has allowed for the hollowing out of Marxism. Though exploitation continues, the working class is no longer a political force, and left-wing institutions have faded away.

Marx saw working-class people as agents of change. By contrast, McDonnell, and the Labour Party, see them as objects of pity. Marx wanted workers to overthrow the state and take control. For McDonnell, the state, taxation and welfare are ways to look after people who can’t look after themselves. For all the excitement over McDonnell the Marxist, the commentariat missed the real ‘gotcha’ moment: McDonnell wasn’t lying to Marr when he said he wasn’t a Marxist, he was lying to his supporters when he said that he was.

Fraser Myers is a producer at WORLDbytes.

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