Blair the Marxist

We know Blair was influenced by Marx in his youth. What’s not so appreciated is that the mature Blair is also a Marxist.
By this I don’t mean that he’s attacking our freedoms; he is, but this has little to do with Marxism. Instead, I’m thinking of a particular strand of Marxism – one that’s got little to do with infantile leftism, drivel about the labour theory of value or multiculturalism.
No, what I mean is that Blair seems to accept Marx’s theory of history, as summarized here. There are three points of similarity.
1. Both believe technology determines social relations; technology is the premise, society the conclusion. “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” said Marx in the Poverty of Philosophy.
For Blair, the technologies are globalization and IT. A consistent theme of Blairite economics – as clear in his speeches of 10 years ago as now – is the need for policy to respond to globalization, which he takes to be an exogenous, unstoppable force:

Complaining about globalization is as pointless as trying to turn back the tide. There are, I notice, no such debates in China. They are not worrying about potential threats but are busy seizing the opportunities in ways that are transforming their society and ours as well.

And here’s what he said back in 2000:

There is no new economy. There is one economy all of it being transformed by information technology…What is happening is no fad that will come and go – it is a profound economic revolution.

2. Both Marx and Blair believe capitalism radically transforms the world. Here, famously, is the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society…Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air.

And of course, pretty much any Blair speech talks about the newness of something or other. David Marquand cites him thus:

‘New, new, new’ Tony Blair told a meeting of European socialist leaders in a characteristic outburst shortly after entering office, ‘everything is new.’

3. Both believe history follows a law-like path – it’s not just one damn thing after another. This is obviously Marx’s view. It’s also Blair’s. New Labour policies, he claims, are rooted in an understanding of the forces shaping historical change. Here’s Marquand again:

The world is new, the past has no echoes, modernity is unproblematic, the path to the future is linear. There is one modern condition, which all rational people would embrace if they new what it was. The Blairites do know. It is on that knowledge that their project is based.

Alan Finlayson is also good on this. He shows that New Labour has many of its origins in Marxism Today’s “New Times” analysis in the 1980s, and continues:

The Third Way forms a politics based on the fallacy of empirical sociology – that social trends are always clearly identifiable and neutral phenomena as long as you have enough statistics.

Now, you might object here that there’s a big hole in Blair’s Marxism – there’s no revolutionary politics.
This complaint rests on a misreading of Marx. He wrote:

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Blair obviously believes that capitalism has not yet finished developing the productive forces, so revolution would be premature.
There’s good evidence on his side. Profit rates are still high – the tendency for the rate of profit to fall hasn’t asserted itself. Productivity growth in the most advanced capitalist country is strong. And the numbers of new patents (though an imperfect measure) suggest technical progress is still rapid.
What’s more, the working class is not yet ready for revolution. There’s little demand for the key Marxist  ideals of the withering away of the state or greater autonomy at work. The working class is not yet a class for itself.
As revolution would be premature, Blair seems to see his task as helping capitalism develop the productive forces. Hence policies such as tax credits and education to increase the labour supply, and generous PFI contracts to uphold profitability.
This in turn helps answer another question: if Blair’s a Marxist, why doesn’t he hint at being one?
To do so would be counterproductive to the goal of developing capitalism’s productive forces; capitalists would see such a statement as a threat of expropriation and cut investment. It would be mere childish posturing.
Now, I’m not saying here that Blair has consciously and deliberately adopted historical materialism. But so what? As Marx said, “one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself.” All I’m saying is that, in policy terms, there’s more evidence that Blair is a Marxist than that he’s a Christian.

  1. Chris, you know a lot more Marx than me. However, I’ll try to counter with a couple of the well-known Marx quips even I learned.
    Marquand: The world is new, the past has no echoes, modernity is unproblematic, the path to the future is linear.
    KM History repeats itself; first as tragedy, then as farce.
    Chris Dillow: Now, you might object here that there’s a big hole in Blair’s Marxism – there’s no revolutionary politics. [… Marx says wait until the time is right]
    KM The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.

    What say ye?

  2. Hmmm. Marxism is not the only kind of historicism – as Popper called it.

    But I can well believe that if he thinks a particular future is inevitable, that it is just a question of how fast you get there, that could explain things like his willingness to trample on human rights when it is expedient.

    This is a big mistake. The future is no determined, it depends on what is done in the present. Failing the present is not serving the future. Means and ends and all that. Hmph, maybe you’re right.

  3. Paranoid Andriod said:

    Christian? Marxist? Both? Neither?

    Either way he’s still a prick.

  4. soru said:

    If the Chinese can justify their turbo-capitalism by reference to Marx, I don’t see much of a problem with Blair’s platform of Democratic Socialism with British Characteristics doing the same.

    It would be interesting to try and find a pairing of political theorist and poltical programme where the books written by the theorist couldn’t be used to support the programme.

  5. Alex said:

    All I’m saying is that, in policy terms, there’s more evidence that Blair is a Marxist than that he’s a Christian.

    Which, all things considered, isn’t very much evidence at all. Depending on what you consider to be Christian.

    I think he’s actually closer to John Redwood’s thinking during his spell in the sun of influence, before the long arctic night of merciful obscurity set in. We can do nothing about the turbulence of Teh Globalisation, so we must offer various forms of false community (jingo flabber for Redwood, a mix of same with very watered-down pop culture, Murdoch bollocks and vague “community” talk for Blair) to reassure the herd.

  6. “There are, I notice, no such debates in China.”

    Was there ever a quote that better summed up the tragic masquerade that is Blair’s ‘democrat’ costume?

  7. chris said:

    Dave – Marx’s line about changing the world (11th thesis on Feuerbach) has very little context. It could be quite consistent with Blair’s ambition to develop capitalism’s productive forces.

  8. Justin said:

    Just on the “There are, I notice, no such debates in China” thing – isn’t that because China is still in the upward swing, still looking to see a car in every drive etc?

    Whereas over here, we’re just further up the curve. Now that we’ve all got our cars etc, we’re more aware of the manifest downside to globalisation – jobs going abroad, erosion of (read “flexible”) working conditions and the rest?

  9. luis enrique said:


    Jobs going abroad is a bad thing? What, you mean poverty reduction abroad?

    sorry, I think that counts as trolling doesn’t it.

  10. Blair the Marxist, or The Adventures of Tony Blair and the Cunning of Reason. Or, Blair as Mephistopheles, “the power that would/ Do nothing but evil, and yet creates the good’.

    Makes a change from seeing him called a lying bastard, anyway.

  11. Phil E said:

    Interesting logic. Has there never been a technologically-determinist believer in the transforming power of capitalism who wasn’t also a revolutionary socialist? I wonder. I doubt.

  12. dearieme said:

    In his “A History of Fascism 1914-1945″ Payne gives a ‘Typological Description of Fascism’. I score Blair’s Labour at 9 out of 12. For comparison, I scored Thatcher’s Tories. They have 13 marks available, since anti-communism was still an issue in their time. I scored them at 3 out of 13. Neglecting the anti-communism issue, they score 2 out of 12. Versus, I repeat, Blair’s 9 out of 12. And this is about Fascism, not Nazism: no points were awarded for that nasty little whiff of Labur anti-semitism before the last election.

  13. Alex said:

    I score you at 20 or so.

  14. Jamie K said:

    “There are, I notice, no such debates in China.”

    Actually, there are, and pretty extensive ones. I’ll refer you to Wang Chaohua’s One China, Many Paths if it’s the kind of thing that interests you.

    More generally, isn’t the idea that you know exactly where the future is heading compatible with both religion and marxism? It’s also part of a wider positivist tradition – Comte, for instance, or Macaulay come to that and the general idea of whiggish history, namely that life improves as humans apply their rational selves to the development of political and economic resources.

    There’s also the general self delusion of politicians – I want the world to be so, therefore it is so.

  15. Justin said:

    Luis: Is that what you’d call a rebalancing in favour of the victim? It’s a fair point, I suppose, although probably difficult to swallow if you’re at the sharp end.

    When I was a computer programmer who was lazy/hated his job, I was very pleased to see that job handed over to the very nice Indian lads who’d flown halfway across the world to earn less than half I was being paid. Good riddance for me and good luck to them. That came as less of a consolation to the 40-something guy with three kids and nowhere to go, however.

    Apologies for straying OT, Chris.

  16. Is now a good time for the old Chinese election joke?

  17. Phil E said:

    Apparently we’re being governed by Jim Davison.

    “There are no such debates in China – at least, there are, but they’re all in Chinese and nobody can understand them! The Chinese alphabet, that’s something else, isn’t it? Only language where the ABC song has twenty verses. My theory is they can’t read half the letters themselves – that’s why they always make you order with the number! But seriously, I did read a paper on the Chinese government’s economic policy the other day – only trouble was, half an hour later I wanted to read another one! Thanks, you’ve been a great audience…”

  18. treborc said:

    Sadly in China you complain about the sweat shops or low pay your not seen again, something Blair is looking into in case anyone says to much at the next conference.

    It is easy for people to say look at China and Pakistan India, they have grasped the idea of the global market, sadly we grasped in about two hundred years ago and then lost it.

    Now we are a country of shop keepers well not yet, we are becoming a country of shops workers.

    Sadly Blair idea of IT is giving the USA billions and the USA saying sod him send him crap.

  19. Barneh said:

    The idea that Blair is Marxist is rather optimistic. I feel rather that he seeks to promote capitalism beyond its natural life, just like every other capitalist leader. I hope that you prove me wrong, but I’m afraid its rather wishful thinking.

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  21. Ibrahim said:

    I though people “Love” blair giving him three consecutive victories to be the British prime minister