Jeremy Corbyn is a Bennite socialist but he is not a Marxist

Letter to the editor
Letter to the editor

I have noted with increasing concern how opponents of Jeremy Corbyn — mainly from the Tory right — have revived the label ‘Marxist’ to describe his politics.

Corbyn is not a Marxist in any meaningful sense; rather he is a lifelong disciple of Tony Benn, the stalwart of the so-called ‘democratic socialist’ wing of the Labour Party in the 1970s and 80s.

Benn agreed with his more radical Marxist opponents that capitalism was inherently dehumanising and was sustained by fundamentally undemocratic vested interests (especially educational institutions and the media), but this did not include the core Marxist view that the state was by definition irredeemable.

As Marx and Engels tell us in The Communist Manifesto, ‘the executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’.

Such disdain for the institutions of the modern state prompted them to advocate revolutionary working-class action and the creation of a socialist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ as the first stage in the abolition of the state itself and transition to communism.

For Benn, this was little more than a recipe for authoritarianism, as the disaster of the Soviet experiment proved.

He was keen to forge a more ambitious synthesis of socialism and democracy. Eschewing historical materialist analysis of the state, he argued that key state institutions in liberal democratic societies (but not, crucially, elsewhere) could be utilised by the working class and recruited in the struggle for socialism.

This implies, of course, that there may be circumstances — or more precisely places — where political violence unavoidable, if undesirable.

Where democratic structures are absent and avenues for democratic politics closed off, Benn did not rule out such activity as necessary. For him, one such context was partitionist Ireland, which he regarded as an instrument of British imperialism and an appalling violation of Irish self-determination.

This made him naturally sympathetic with the provisional republican cause.

As far as Britain was concerned, beyond the right for the labour movement to engage in civil disobedience to dislodge ancient and inherited rights, and protect a Labour government from any attempted coup, political action was to be non-violent.

In short, alongside more traditional mechanisms of working class interests (especially trade unions) a reformed parliamentary system (including the abolition of the House of Lords and a written constitution) was to be respected.

It was on the basis of this rehabilitation that Benn’s faith in the democratic power of the nation-state was founded.

In the context of our current Brexit crisis, this explains Benn’s (and Corbyn’s) lifelong rejection of the EC/EU as a supra-national entity which posed an existential threat to a key vehicle of democratic socialist interests in Britain.

It is therefore more accurate to describe Corbyn as a democratic socialist. He is not a Marxist.

Dr Jolyon Agar, Co Down