Blairite historical materialism

A recent blog post by Chris Dillow on the idea of conservative Marxism reminded me of a thought I’ve had kicking around for a while: if we separate Marxism as a analytic framework from particular normative commitments, its influence and analogues are not always found where you would expect them to be.

There has been an extraordinary volume of literature on the question of what Marxism as an analytic framework really is.  Raymond Geuss tries to trace a series of distinct traditions, each drawing on different aspects of Marx’s work: one which stresses Marx as an economic thinker, one which sees Marx as a humanist primarily focused on the idea of alienation, and one the historical materialist interpretation, which sees him as primarily interested in analysing historical processes. As Geuss himself stresses, these debates have a habit of presupposing that there is some coherent whole to be discovered, and that this whole constitutes some totalising theory of some aspect of society or human nature, rather than a set of ideas and remarks, some containing the odd useful concept or two, some less so. At its worst, this tendency extends to arguing about what the true idea of Marxism is, which simultaneously refers to what Marx really thought and what should be believed about the world generally. This odd tendency of responses to Marx as a thinker* has an obvious political dimension dimension to it, though less so since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Leaving this debate aside, the form of Marxism I want to focus on is the historical materialist interpretation. This takes as a starting point that society is structured around the particular modes of production, or ways of producing things. Roles in productive processes, including those of control or ownership give rise to social relationships. Gerry Cohen, who was a leading proponent of this school of thought, uses the analogy of a small village with a well. If the well were to provide not just drinking water but a means of irrigation, control of access to the well might well form the basis of social relations within the village. In Victorian England, the well is replaced with factories, and we have the familiar story of the bourgeoisie and proletariat, whose social status is essentially about relations of control and ownership of the means of production. In this school of thought, one of the key drivers of social change is technological. There is a certain set of possible relations given whatever particular technology is predominantly used, and these possibilities change as new technologies arise.  For any given set of social relations and any specific set of technologies, there is a fixed maximum level of human economic development. Old forms of organisation get swept aside when they prevent the exploitation of a new technology which might allow greater productive potential.

Let’s leave to one side for a moment the question of how plausible an account of society we find this. What interests me is where, in contemporary politics, we see something most akin to this kind of thought. The answer is quite a surprising one: not Jeremy Corbyn or, with some notable exceptions, the radical left, but from Tony Blair and what is sometimes called the neo-liberal centre.

To focus on Blair specifically, one idea he comes back to repeatedly is the idea of globalisation. This, in his view, is an unstoppable, technologically driven force, which drives social, economic and political change. It structures the possibilities of statecraft, and dictates the agency of individuals.

“Globalisation is not really a decision by government, it’s an unstoppable force that’s driven by technology, trade, travel, migration, and it’s going to carry on. However governments can respond to the stresses of it…. [the task is] to protect people from the risks and dangers of globalization, and allow them to access the benefits.” 

 “Some want a fortress Britain job protection pull up the drawbridghe get out of international engagements others see no option but to submit to global forces and let the strongest survive. Our answer has to be very clear. It is once again to help people through a changing world, by using collective power to advance opportunity and provide security for all… and the same global forces that are shaping business are at work in public services too.”

And, on the idea of social organisation and economic potential, he makes the following remarks in a 2005 party political broadcast:

“If we actually took human capital as the most precious resource of this country and we asked ‘how far are we from developing that human capital to its fullest extent?’, the answer would be ‘we have made progress, but there’s a massive amount still to do…” In order to do this we must “invest in the public sphere, whilst modernising it.”

In other words, the key drivers of social, political and economic change are technological. What policy makers can do is respond to these changes, as they in turn drive changes in potential forms of social organisation and human potential.  As Gordon Brown sees it, “the challenge is how Britain can be one of the great success stories in the next state global economy, and how every single citizen in Britain can have some benefit from that.” In Marx’s terms, it is to alleviate the "birth pangs"  of a new order. 

This leads us to a rather odd conclusion: for all the criticism of Corbyn as a Marxist, in many ways, his thinking is much more moralistic and much less Marxist than Tony Blair's. 

*The only other secular thinker I can think of who is subjected to this to the same extent is Sigmund Freud, though I'm sure there are others. 


  1. This is really interesting. But I don't think you can understand Corbyn or Blair without referring to class - or give an adequate account of historical materialism, which in your account is little more than technological determinism. The appalling novelty of New Labour was that it consistently and unapologetically treated the working class as an object - a workforce to be moulded to fit its place in the evolving world order - and not a partner, still less a subject. Corbyn, on the other hand, sees Labour's task as, well, rebuilding Britain for the many, not the few: a healthy, educated, empowered working class is an end in itself. It's certainly true that he expresses righteous anger towards the 'few' - the beneficiaries of systemic injustice and blockers of systemic change - but I think that's the moralistic cutting edge of his programme, not the core of it.

    1. Thanks! I take your point re a technological determinism. I agree it's a limited definition and New Labour did try and define itself as post class. I should say I'm not trying to defend Blair or New Labour (I'm not a historical materialist!) but I suppose the problem you identify with them is true of many (actual) Marxist movements. It's certainly true of vanguardism.