Marxism Today

by Martin Jacques, May 2006

Though it might sound a little far-fetched for those whose generation post-dates Marxism Today, it is no exaggeration to say that Marxism Today was easily the most influential political magazine in Britain between 1978 and 1991. Its influence had many aspects. Not least was the element of surprise. People expected a magazine of this title to be leaden, boring and predictable. It most certainly was not. Across a wide range of fronts it was, for its time, highly innovative, especially given its belonging on the left, which for the most part had sadly come to conform to this typecast.

It created a new kind of writing style, which combined the best aspects of academic and journalistic writing – weighty, analytical and accessible. The tomb-line design, reminiscent of academic journals, had transmuted by 1986 into a magazine characterised by a memorable design panache. It was widely available on the news-stands and enjoyed soaring sales. It constantly explored new forms of writing from the conventional article-format to the interview and the roundtable discussion.

Not only were writers drawn from many walks of life, but increasingly from the mid-1980s, they also embraced those outside the left, including leading figures on the right. At the time this was unheard of on the left. Not surprisingly, many regarded it to be a heinous crime: today it would not even raise an eyebrow.

Marxism Today uniquely combined two characteristics: a level of analysis unrivalled in such a publication together with a commitment to the left. At the core of Marxism Today’s importance lay its central arguments. If the 1990s was, true to the idiom of New Labour, characterised by fad and fashion, Marxism Today was quite the opposite: it was a magazine of profound political and intellectual substance. The real yardstick, as always, is the test of time. In this respect, Marxism Today has no peers, either then or since.

Of course, as a monthly magazine, which was determinedly topical, many of the articles are clearly of their time and context. But others still shine like beacons, illuminating the time in which they were written, revealing historic turning-points when all around them were blind to such epochal change. Here was Marxism Today at its brilliant best: big picture analysis, hugely relevant, mining the deeper changes which were to transform the whole character of the world in which we lived.

Marxism Today July 1987 Marxism Today November 1986
Marxism Today was a magazine of profound political and intellectual substance.

In this context, I would like to mention three debates that for me define the historic importance of Marxism Today. The first was the ‘Forward March of Labour Halted?', which was initiated by Eric Hobsbawm in September 1978 in a now famous article bearing that title. Hobsbawm argued that the labour movement was in historic decline.

He – and the magazine – were furiously attacked for propounding such a heresy. Within a decade, or less, it had become the new commonsense. The second was the debate on the nature of Thatcherism, which was introduced by Stuart Hall in a memorable article entitled ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ in January 1979 and which for the first time used the term ‘Thatcherism’.

The conventional view on both the left and right at the time was that Thatcherism – a term that they rejected – was simply a continuation of Toryism. They could not have been more wrong: nor Marxism Today more right. Within a decade, this too became the conventional wisdom.

Finally, there was the debate on ‘New Times’, which was inaugurated with the special issue of that name in October 1988. It was, in a multitude of respects, a tour de force. It sought to understand the profound changes in society, culture and the economy, to which neo-liberalism was a response and to which it sought to lay claim. Post-fordism, globalisation, the state, the changing nature of the culture, post-modernism – this being the era of ‘post-’ this, that and everything – and much else besides were put under the analytical searchlight. It was Marxism Today’s boldest project of all and attracted enormous publicity.

Marxism Today May 1986 Marxism Today April 1987

In an important sense, though, unlike the Forward March of Labour Halted and Thatcherism, it was to remain uncompleted, the beginning of something rather than the end: moreover, the MT proposition was to be contested in a most fundamental way, as the rise of Blair and New Labour was subsequently to illustrate. It has not infrequently been suggested that Marxism Today begat Blair. This contains an element of truth in that, like Blair but more than a decade before him, Marxism Today recognised the obsolescence of much of the left’s proposition.

But in another sense, it is completely wrong: while, Marxism Today’s project was the creation of a new kind of left – and left proposition – for an utterly transformed world, Blair’s project was the opposite, namely acquiescence in the Thatcherite agenda and a denial of the very notion of the left.

Of course, Marxism Today had its weaknesses. With hindsight, I would mention two things. Firstly, its failure to lay sufficient stress on core values of the left like equity and the notion of the public: perhaps if we had done such, then some of the worst excesses of New Labour might have been more effectively resisted. But closest to my heart is the weakness of Marxism Today on the world outside the west: it was overwhelmingly western-centric. And, not unrelated, was its failure to address race and ethnicity, without which it is not possible to understand the world in which we live.

Amongst the magazine’s weaknesses, however, I would not now include, something that I used to: namely its weakness on policy. That was never the task of such a magazine. Marxism Today’s role and genius was the big picture. If you don’t get that right, then what use, pray, is policy? The British political scene is littered with think-tanks, not least the one that I co-founded, which bear testimony to that.

I am delighted that the Barry Amiel and Norman Melburn Trust have found their way to make these issues of Marxism Today available online. It is a wonderful initiative. The founders of the trust would never have guessed how different the circumstances would be today from those that they surely envisaged: yet strangely, that has made the activities of the trust all the more valuable and important.

Marxism Today September 1987

Finally, I would like to thank all the thousands of people who contributed to the magazine as authors, editors, designers, space-sellers, event organisers, promoters, distributors or simply as buyers. We never paid any authors and we paid those who worked for the magazine, including myself, less than a pittance. But in a world where money has become the measure of everything, somehow that made it all the more honourable and worthwhile. It was a fantastic journey of which I remain immensely proud. Alas, its departure left a gaping hole that has never been filled.

Marxism Today February 1987
Martin Jacques (editor, 1977-1991)