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Top Marx: Bevan and the importance of Karl

11 May 2017

He may have been dead for over 100 years but suddenly Karl Marx has become an issue in this election. Within all the General Election coverage, John McDonnell has suddenly got people talking about Karl Marx. On the Andrew Marr Show, McDonnell was asked about a previous comment where he described himself as a Marxist. He replied:

“I believe there’s a lot to learn from reading Das Kapital, yes, of course, and that’s been recommended not just by me but many others, mainstream economists as well.”

Immediately McDonnell was attacked for praising what Priti Patel described as “the nonsensical ideas of Karl Marx”. Another person who doesn’t seem to think much of Marx is First Minister Carwyn Jones. When asked in First Minister’s Questions by Neil Hamilton whether he agrees “with the Shadow Chancellor that we have a great deal to learn from Karl Marx and ‘Das Kapital’”, Carwyn Jones stated that he didn’t “think that we have much to learn” from Marx’s Capital; “for those who’ve read it and tried to understand what it says, it is not an easy exercise”. It seems Carwyn Jones’ efforts to distinguish Welsh Labour from Corbyn’s Labour includes dismissing a thinker who inspired many of Labour’s politicians.

One of those who attributed a great deal to Marx and various Marxist thinkers was Aneurin Bevan. Writing in In Place of Fear in 1952, Bevan stated that Marxism “put into the hands of the working class movement of the late nineteenth and first part of the twentieth centuries the most complete blueprints for political action the world has ever seen”. He argued that:

“No serious student who studies the history of the last half century can deny the ferment of ideas associated with the names of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Their effectiveness in arming the minds of working class leaders all over the world with the intellectual weapons showed that their teaching had an organic relationship with the political and social realities of their time”

He stated that if he had any training at all, “it had been in Marxism”. Bevan’s Marxism was of a certain kind – it was the work of American socialists such as Eugene V. Debs, Daniel De Leon and Jack London that influenced Bevan. He acknowledged that: “the relevance of what we were reading to our own industrial and political experiences had all the impact of a divine revelation”[1]. (Incidentally, Jeremy Corbyn recently revealed that he was reading Jack London’s The Iron Heel). It is questionable as to whether Bevan had read Capital himself. Bevan’s friend and election agent Archie Lush claimed that “the first 27 pages of the Tredegar Library copy of Das Kapital were dirty, while the remainder of the pages remained clean”[2].

Whether Bevan read Capital or not, he still understood the importance of Marx and the school of thought that he inspired. What he read did not fit completely with his worldview; Bevan felt that Marxism had undermined the role of Parliament as a means to achieving power for the working class.

“Quite early in my studies it seemed to me that classic Marxism consistently understated the role of political democracy with a fully developed franchise. This is the case, both subjectively, as it affects the attitude of the worker to his political responsibilities, and objectively, as it affects the possibilities of his attaining power by using the franchise and parliamentary methods”[3].

Bevan agreed with the principles of class conflict inherent in the Marxist critique of power but fundamentally disagreed with the means of achieving that power. He argued that “the classic principles of Marxism were developed when political democracy was as yet in its infancy”[4]. Bevan became, what one of his biographers John Campbell describes as, a “parliamentary Marxist”[5]. Parliament, according to Bevan, was “the most formidable weapon of all in the struggle”[6].

Whilst there is the need to separate Marx from the different strands of Marxism which influenced Bevan and others, Bevan understood the importance of Marx as a political thinker. Writing in 1921 in Plebs magazine, Bevan wrote that The Communist Manifesto “stands in a class by itself in socialist literature…No indictment of a social order ever penned can rival it”[7]. He regarded the Manifesto as “the best and most convincing exposition of the Marxian point of view”. It might well be argued that Bevan was writing over 90 years ago, so why would Carwyn Jones or anybody else find Marx relevant today? Bevan argued that the Manifesto “affords the best example in political literature of the combination of theoretical principles with tactical needs; and because tactics must always be sought in the conditions immediately at hand, the Manifesto is today tactically valueless, except in so far as persistent stress on first principles is of tactical importance”. For Bevan, the importance lay not in the tactics, but in the importance of the principles and the value of its theories: “If the value of a theory depends upon the time it endures, then one can say the Manifesto is a permanent contribution to the science of society”.

Bevan may have rejected many of Marx’s theories but that’s not the point. When Carwyn Jones says there is nothing much to be learnt from Capital he is not only disregarding a seminal text and a seminal thinker, he is also disregarding someone who was an influence for a whole tradition he claims to want to advance:

“Conference we need to constantly remind ourselves what Labour being in Government actually means. That is our historic mission – that is the journey that Hardie started and every Labour leader since must try and advance.

How was it that Bevan finished his great quote “the Language of priorities is the religion of socialism”? It was with these words: “only by the possession of power can you get the priorities correct.”” (Carwyn Jones at Labour Party Conference 2016)

Whether you agree or not with the theory, the insight gained by reading such texts can be highly valuable, opening up the mind to challenging ideas and changing the way we view the world. This is not just true of Marx, but for thinkers from various schools of thought. Bevan understood the value of engaging with a thinker like Marx – I hope current politicians do too.

[1] Bevan, A. 1952 [1978 ed]. In Place of Fear. London: Quartet Books pp. 37-38

[2] Thomas-Symonds, N. 2015. Nye: The Political Life of Aneurin Bevan. London: I.B. Tauris p. 38

[3] Bevan, A. 1952  p. 39

[4] ibid p. 42

[5] Campbell, J. 1987. Nye Bevan and the Mirage of British Socialism. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson p. 26.

[6] Bevan, A. 1952 p. 49

[7] Bevan, A. 1921. Socialist Classics: The Communist Manifesto. Plebs Magazine vol.13(1)