“I like your old stuff better than your new stuff”: Marxism Today’s ‘New Times’ is 25 years old

A list of 'modern' and 'new' things in the 'new times' issue of Marxism Today (Oct 1988)

A list of ‘modern’ and ‘new’ things in the ‘new times’ issue of Marxism Today (Oct 1988)

25 years ago this month, the Communist Party of Great Britain’s journal Marxism Today published its ‘new times’ issue. Under the editorship of Martin Jacques, and with significant input from Stuart Hall, the concept of Britain (and the rest of the Western world) entering ‘new times’ had been developing in the journal for most of the decade. The ‘success’ of Thatcherism (and its neo-liberal cousin Reaganism) had encouraged those writing for Marxism Today to reconsider the socio-economic and political landscape of the West in the 1980s and the conclusion was reached that the late 1980s heralded a significant (and irreversible) change – and thus a new political strategy was required. First published in the October 1988 issue of Marxism Today, the idea of ‘new times’ dominated the penultimate congress of the CPGB, where the Party adopted the Manifesto for New Times (which replaced The British Road to Socialism that had been in place since 1951). Alongside this, Hall and Jacques published a book in 1989 called New Times: The Changing Face of Politics in the 1990s that drew together a number of Marxism Today articles to promote this idea that the new decade could be seen as the dawning of ‘new times’. However by 1991, Marxism Today, along with the Communist Party, dissolved itself, resulting in a number of those who pushed the concept of ‘new times’ ending up in various thinktanks and pressure groups on the soft left, joining the debates about how the Labour Party should proceed in the 1990s.

The concept of ‘new times’, and the Gramscian/Eurocommunist project that Marxism Today embarked upon from the late 1970s onwards, has been mocked by various people on the left ever from the very beginning. A. Sivanandan in Race & Class wrote:

New Times is a fraud, a counterfeit, a humbug. It palms off Thatcherite values as socialist, shores up the Thatcherite market with the pretended politics of choice, fits out the Thatcherite individual with progressive consumerism, makes consumption itself the stuff of politics. New Times is a mirror image of Thatcherism passing for socialism. New Times is Thatcherism in drag.

But over the last few years, the ideas of Marxism Today and ‘new times’ have started to be reassessed and removed from the bitterness of the final years of the Communist Party, some have argued that, in fact, the journal made some important points about the changing nature of politics and British society under Thatcher. Personally, I think Marxism Today made some major contributions to political and social thought that should not be underestimated. Alongside the famous articles of the late 1970s – Hobsbawm’s ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted’ and Hall’s ‘The Great Moving Right Show’ – there were a number of articles, predominantly by Hall and Jacques, but also by Simon Frith, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Frederic Jameson (to name a few), that I believe are thought-provoking, not to mention influential. In The Location of Culture, Homi Bhabha pointed to Stuart Hall’s ‘Blue Election, Election Blues’, an analysis of Thatcher’s 1987 electoral victory, as an important piece that helped develop the notion of ‘hybridity’ (see the original article for New Formations here). For anyone interested in the notion of intersectionality, Hall’s article is a great introduction to how a multitude of identities and experiences can inform the social, cultural and political outlook of an individual. This extract in particular is one of my favourites:

Electoral politics – in fact, every kind of politics – depends on political identities and identifications. People make identifications symbolically: through social imagery, in their political imaginations. They ‘see themselves’ as one sort of person or another. They ‘imagine their future’ within this scenario or that. They don’t just think about voting in terms of how much they have, their so-called ‘material interests’. Material interests matter profoundly. But they are always ideologically defined.

Contrary to a certain version of marxism, which has as strong a hold over the Labour ‘Centre’ as it does on the so-called ‘hard Left’, material interests, on their own, have no necessary class belongingness. They influence us. But they are not escalators which automatically deliver people to their appointed destinations, ‘in place’, within the political-ideological spectrum.

One reason why they don’t is because people have conflicting social interests, sometimes reflecting conflicting identities. As a worker a person might put ‘wages’ first: in a period of high unemployment, ‘job security’ may come higher; a woman might prioritise ‘child-care’. But what does a ‘working woman’ put first? Which of her identities is the one that determines her political choices?

There are many things that the ‘new times’ edition of Marxism Today seemed to get right – the post-industrial economies developing in the Western world (what is described by the journal as ‘post-fordism’), the pervasive nature of neo-liberal capitalism, the emphasis of the individual (especially as a consumer) and the ‘pop cultch’-ification of politics. However historians now are starting to argue that the late 1980s didn’t really represent the beginning of ‘new times’ and that the processes identified by those writing for Marxism Today started earlier, with many pointing to 1979 as the beginning of the new historical era.

But most importantly, the political and strategic deductions made from these well-made observations is really what ‘new times’ got wrong and partially why the Marxism Today project is still dismissed by many. The observation that ‘new times’ required a new political outlook led a number of those who remained in the CPGB to come to the conclusion that a political organisation like the Communist Party was ill-equipped for the 1990s and that it was better to dissolve the Party and refocus its efforts into the thinktank-cum-pressure group Democratic Left. Another bunch of ex-CPGB members decided that it was better to concentrate their energy into various social movements, rather than participating in party politics. Few of those who were in the CPGB in its final days joined another political party, although some did join Labour or the Greens. Like those who left the CPGB in 1956, those who outlived the Party were turned off by how the Communist Party functioned as a political organisation, but eschewed party politics altogether, and allowed others to seize the political initiative. When the CPGB collapsed and Marxism Today folded, the beneficiaries of this were other political parties – the Communist Party of Britain (which published the Morning Star and was now the Communist Party), the Socialist Workers Party (the largest independent far left group after the CPGB) and the Labour Party (which absorbed some of more centrist elements of the CPGB).

As mentioned above, numerous analyses of Marxism Today and the concept of ‘new times’ have been conducted in the last few years. Phil BC, of A Very Public Sociologist blog, wrote this in 2008, which was reposted on Socialist Unity. Former CPGB member Andrew Pearmain wrote this blog entry on Marxism Today and New Labour, which was later included in his book on the ‘Gramscian’ origins of New Labour (taking on the allegation that the project initiated by Hall and Jacques ended up with Tony Blair). Recently the journal of the Institute of Public Policy Research, Public Policy Research, dedicated an issue to revisiting Marxism Today and had some weighty contributions. The University of Birmingham also held a conference on ‘new times’ in July this year, which looked like it had some great speakers.

So what is the legacy of ‘new times’? Was it just ‘hokum’? Or did it have something important to say?

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