Thursday, November 16, 2006

John McDonnell on Marxism

If you want to know what John McDonnell stands for, here’s the most detailed exposition of his political ideas I’ve yet read anywhere. It comes in the form of a long - and I do mean loooong - interview with a group of Alliance for Workers’ Liberty members, led it seems by David Broder.

Here’s some edited highlights. First up, McDonnell’s reasons for ‘work within’ the Labour Party - and that’s a revealing choice of words in itself - rather than join Respect, the SSP, and the smaller left groups that also undertake electoral campaigns.

In his own words, he is a Labour Party member out of ‘sheer pragmatism’, given the continuing use of FPTP for Westminster elections. So what would McDonnell do in the event of a switch to proportional representation and the subsequent emergence of a far left party picking up a handful of list seats? This obvious question sadly wasn’t asked.

‘I'm coming at it in terms of the sheer pragmatism of politics in this country, with a first-past-the-post electoral system. On a sheer pragmatic basis, I can't see how you can assess that outside the party you'd be more effective. The reason I'm in the Labour Party is, as I say, it's a terrain of struggle, within which we can win battles and eventually win power with the ideas that we convince people of.

‘Outside the Labour Party, the problem is that there's no form under the first-past-the-post system that you'd be able to win sufficient support to win positions where you could form a government or have any real pressure on government.’

But I loved the way McDonnell paraphrases Trotsky’s 1904 critique of the Leninist model of organisation, applying it Blairite New Labour. Cheeky!

‘The issue is, how has the PLP become cut off in the same way that any degenerate party does? It's the same as Trotsky's analysis of the bureaucracy. The leadership replaces the central committee, the central committee replaces the membership. And that's what's happened here.’

As the above quote underlines, this man knows his way around the Marxist classics. Quiz him about his political influences, and Keir Hardie doesn’t get a mention. But I would never have guessed that the sixties New Left played a role in McDonnell’s political formation:

‘If we go through it ... the fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically. In terms of the ability to mobilise spontaneously, Rosa Luxemburg. Interestingly enough, for a long time I was quite interested by the writers of the New Left who appeared in the 60s. Williams, Miliband, Griffiths, E.P. Thompson and others …’

Lastly, there’s a real whiff of the early eighties and ‘A Very British Coup’ about this argument:

‘If we do have a [socialist] prime minister … we will come under immediate attack from the City of London, international finance capital, and other countries in terms of political isolation. What we will then need to do as a movement is mobilise popular support behind that government.’

I can remember when Peter Hain and the Labour Co-ordinating Committee used to come out with much the same. Long time ago, though.

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