New Times and woke origins
Filofaxes. Perrier. Benetton—ah, it must be the ’80s. It must the ’80s, it must be the new times. Time to think about an emancipatory politics for the 1990s. Time to put away that tasteful cream business card, that Walkman with the Talking Heads cassette, and that reservation at 150 Wooster. Time to think about women, blacks, and lesbians and gays—time to think about Antonio Gramsci, time to think about the war of position versus the war of manoeuvre. Sorry—miners, white working-class men who say “Put the kettle on, love”, and mass party organisations are all out. These are the new times—I mean, don’t you listen to Scritti Politti, don’t you like the lyric “I’m in love with Jacques Derrida…gonna deconstruct my baby’s heart…I’m in love with a militante, read Unità and read Avanti!…I’m in love with a heart of steel…”?
This is all a bit recondite for 2022, no? Well, bizarrely, the very language of Marxism Today, the theoretical organ of the Moscow-orientated Communist Party of Great Britain, has oozed into contemporary Internet debates. Politicised teenagers either ironically self-identify or sincerely abuse their anonymous interlocutors on Twitter with the epithet “tankie”—a slang word that I became familiar with when I was involved in the remnants of the CPGB in the 2000s and which I never expected to ever take on mainstream usage; it was of antiquarian interest even in the 2000s, only persons such as myself, with a teenagehood spent in the one second-hand bookshop that had stacks of Marxism Today issues going back to the 1960s (for a mere 75p each!), could possibly know about the slanging matches within the CPGB between “Euros” (Eurocommunists) and “tankies” (diehard pro-Soviet members)—and, indeed, reader, you are right in your supposition, I was not getting laid.
On the other hand, I did come away with quite a good understanding of British Communism. The CPGB was never a major force in British politics, with its high point in the 1940s wartime Soviet love-in that granted the party two seats in Parliament and around 60,000 members—everything collapsed after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and never recovered. However, the Party—as the old hacks said, even in the 2000s—always “punched above its weight” because its activists worked their way “tirelessly” (Soviet-inspired jargon, Communists are always “tireless”) into the trade union machinery through which they could orchestrate strikes and, secondarily, influence the policy of the Labour Party (the unions being almost all affiliated to Labour and with a say on the party’s policy). The other strand of Communist influence was intellectual, through organs like Marxism Today.
In the late 1970s, European Communist parties, starting with the Spanish, began to break with the Soviet Union and pursue their own line—this was most instantiated in the Italian Communist Party (with the French, the other big European Communist party, remaining Moscow loyalists). Eurocommunism was characterised by a turn towards “cultural” politics, as found in the ideas of Antonio Gramsci and his Scritti Politi (Political Writings, Prison Notebooks). The overused phrase “civil society” really belongs to Eurocommunism; basically, Gramsci noticed that capitalist power rests on “common sense” and an informal network of social power relations such as those around the Catholic Church in Italy. What Gramsci had noticed, per Edmund Burke, was just the organic organisation of society; yet this organic organisation, much more than “grand politics” (storming the Winter Palace), was what, to Gramsci, was the real problem for Communists in more advanced capitalist countries.
What was required was not the Leninist-style revolutionary cadre party but rather something much more “organic”, something that could undermine or infiltrate “civil society” in order to achieve socialism. It was okay in Russia to just seize control and start to reform society as the “red Tsar”, but in Europe there were all these deeply embedded traditions, organisations, and notions that needed to be unpicked or redirected. Gramsci literally wanted to get rid of “common sense”; of course, for Gramsci the Italian peasant’s common sense was not “common sense” at all—he had been infected with bourgeois ideology that blinded him to his true interests. What he needed was a “red common sense” instead.
So what was required was more like red football clubs, red cycling clubs, union-sponsored family holiday homes and so on. Before Communism could be established the old “civil society” and “common sense” had to be burrowed into and turned into “class-conscious” culture. In an analogy to the then just-concluded First World War, Gramsci spoke of a “war of position” as opposed to a “war of manoeuvre”; basically, men like Lenin wanted to storm the opposite trenches (war of manoeuvre) whereas Gramsci wanted to burrow under the opposing trenches, plant a bomb, and then detonate it; and his strategy was more appropriate for the advanced Western capitalist countries because those countries had, for example, a long tradition of parliamentary democracy absent from Russia. Whereas Russia had always been governed autocratically, so that the Bolsheviks could bust in and institute “red autocracy”, the Western European countries had people who needed to be persuaded and convinced.
The Eurocommunists “rediscovered” Gramsci—especially the Italians, with a love for their countryman—and were happy to do so because the Soviet Union after Stalin, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia looked like a thoroughly nasty place. Conventional Marxist-Leninists didn’t want to break with the USSR altogether, they weren’t Trotskyists or 68ers—yet the USSR was clearly seriously troubled, as was Leninism. Hence they turned to Gramsci; luckily, Gramsci had died in a prison exile during which he had been insulated from the splits in international Communism over Stalin and Trotsky—so he represented a neutral “third force” that was still aligned to Lenin but not tainted by Trotsky or Stalin. The perfect solution for disillusioned European Marxist-Leninists who, finally, had noticed the Soviet Union was a bit of a, um, hellhole.
For the Italian Communists there were practical reasons for a new approach. The Italian Communist Party was huge, yet it was always excluded from government (for obvious reasons). Italian Communist politicians, especially their aristocratic leader Enrico Berlinguer, wanted to participate in Italy’s political life beyond the local level. They were frustrated because they were Italy’s second political party, absolutely massive, and yet permanently locked out above the local level (locally the Italian Communists were disproportionately popular because, being fanatics with tough steel workers behind them, they were not subject to mafia intimidation—if you wanted your rubbish collected, you voted for a Communist mayor even if you were a slick Olivetti executive). Eurocommunism gave the Italian party a way into power, since they could renounce the Leninist route (basically paramilitary and illegal) while still being Leninist in spirit and so cooperate with the bourgeois parties (bada-bing, bada-boom—to quote Silvio Belusconi).
This movement, mostly in the Italian and Spanish parties, split European Communism in the 1970s and the 1980s. The Italians and the Spanish became independent of the Moscow “line”—a shocking thing for orthodox Leninists—and started to develop their own Communism that involved participation in liberal democracy and, particularly, in cultural struggle. This eventually resolved into a split between the “tankies” and the “Euros”: the tankies, per the name, supported the Soviet tanks as they rumbled into Hungary and Czechoslovakia; they tended to be more working class and orientated to the trade unions and the old heavy industries; the Euros, meanwhile, criticised the Soviet Union (particularly over Afghanistan) and tended to be intellectuals (reading Gramsci) and nested in polytechnics, the environmental movement, and the anti-nuclear movement.
In the British CP, this dispute became extremely acrimonious and eventually led to the Party’s dissolution, in favour of the Euros, in the early 1990s (with many unresolved questions about what happened to the Party’s cash assets—the Soviets gave the British Communists regular cash injections throughout the Party’s history). The Euros were centred around Marxism Today whereas the tankies were centred around the Party’s daily newspaper The Morning Star (The Morning Stalinist—ha, ha). In the 1980s, Marxism Today evolved from a cheap and cheerful magazine mainly circulated among the Party’s intellectuals to a mass circulation glossy available in all the major newsagents. You get an impression as to what it was like from the cover above—bright primary colours and jigsaw-like designs, very popular on fashionable products in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Marxism Today was cool.
Eventually, Marxism Today assumed a pretty much independent existence from the Party’s control—a big step in a party characterised by quasi-military Leninist discipline. It invited contributions from all and sundry—even journalists at The Financial Times—and pretty much became left-leaning general interest magazine. The book above, New Times, was published in 1989 and it represented the apotheosis of Marxism Today; shortly after, the magazine would cease publication and the Party would dissolve, under inspiration from the ideas in this book, into The New Times Network (not even a party, just a network—an ideal place for Filofaxes, business cards, and, well, networking).
If you want to understand the contemporary left—woke ideas—you could not do better than to read the above book (along, perhaps, with Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy). For it is here you will find the real genesis of contemporary leftism. To briefly summarise: the old Fordist production line that has characterised capitalism since the 1930s—exemplified by Ford’s mega-plant at Dagenham—has come to an end; it has been replaced by just-in-time production models, as exemplified by Toyota—by adopting practises from American supermarkets to car production, Toyota cut a production process that once took seven minutes to two minutes (so increasing, since we are still Marxists, the circulation of capital).
We no longer live in a world where disciplined workforces pour through the factory gates in Detroit, where “brain” and “hand” are segregated (every worker, say the Japanese, has a “gold nugget in his head”), and where to have a secretary is a status symbol (everyone has a Filofax instead). No, today we live in a cybernetic ecology that is networked across the globe—just like a computer, it is a heterarchy where lowest and highest can swap positions with ease. Class is dead; now it’s what you know, not who you know—the knowledge economy.
It follows that the old leftist models, the paramilitary party “storming the heights”, are redundant. The world is not like that anymore. The coal mines will close, Dagenham will close—and the father who once worked in a railway depot in Swindon will ask his daughter for a job at Allied Dunbar selling insurance in a call centre (“I don’t have to get my hands dirty anymore”). As the economy becomes globalised and digital, women become more important whereas as “real workin’ class bloody ‘ell I just took a shit off the scaffolding at Glasgow shipyard on me lunch break, now it’s your turn—or are you a poofter?” types become less important.
The days when the union representatives had a boozy lunch with management in which they came to an agreement that was “mutually beneficial” and then chased skirt about the place—hell, perhaps hired in a few tarts to help with the negotiations—are over. Now everyone works at “Silicon Glen” in Scotland and everything is clinically clean and there’s free gym membership and you bring your own mug to work and nobody gets drunk or swears. Instead, you have quarterly reviews where the staff psychologist has you fill in little forms “nothing too intrusive, don’t want you to feel uncomfortable” and makes you draw pictures to work out your “psychological type” (as represented by a little primary colour pie chart).
The post-Fordist production is system is feminine, organic, and only quasi-hierarchical (heterarchy). It is cultural—as everything is automated the only activities left are cultural production (or OnlyFans) and this actually favours women and ethnic minorities who have funky, fresh product to provide to the market: the working-class steel worker has nothing funky or fresh to provide—perhaps, per The Full Monty (1997), his masculine industrial-era muscles could be used in a stripping act for the girls who sell insurance at an Allied Dunbar call centre.
In the argument between the tankies and the Euros, the Euros were completely vindicated. They understood what had happened. Indeed, Martin Jacques, the editor of Marxism Today, praised China to the hilt and eventually moved there—rather as with Nick Land, he grasped (in the 1980s, mind) that what was happening in China was very exciting and would change the world. The tankies who stood by the coal miners, the steel mills, and the T-72 tanks were reduced to history’s scrapheap: the working class as understood in Leninist terms, the huge steel mill or car factory, no longer existed.
The future was light-weight industry, business parks on the edge of town, mesmeric Barratt estates called “Hillsong” and the like. In a way, the current conflict in the Ukraine is very “tankie” versus “Euro”: the Russians put forward a conservative progressive “Leninist” view (mosques, okay; trannies, not okay) and push into the Ukraine with T-72 tanks that are duly blown up by “yass, slay qween” light-weight technologies developed in ultra-fluid progressive “you do you” Silicon Valley. The LGBTQ+ programmer develops the handheld missile system that blows up the old patriarchal “typical bloke” tank—Fordism versus post-Fordism; and, indeed, the Russian tanks are probably built in factories provided by Ford to the USSR in the 1930s. The post-Fordist circus is presided over by Zelensky, the infotainment social media king. Welcome to the New Times.
Even the “Boris bikes”, the hireable bikes dotted around London for about a decade or so (causing a mess) were first trailered in this very book—hireable bikes funded by a public-private partnership (Mayor of London and Santander or whatever bank sponsors it now) are very New Times. So it turns out that those CPGB intellectuals were pretty bright after all. The Party should become a network, ready for a networked age—and, actually, it did.
It’s worth noting that although New Times was prescient, it was only prescient for the left. It’s the left that is truly reactionary; in this case, the left was in reaction to Thatcherism—the Thatcherites, neither tied to old Tory patrician values nor the rusty modernist Keynesian ideas, were ideally placed to speak to the plumber or barrow boy turned City stockbroker who made “loadsamoney” in the new cybernetic economy.
The ideal Thatcherite is Roger Scruton: the son of a teacher who went to a top university and then made “loadsamoney” selling the experience of country gentility through the media and to intellectual tourists at his model farm nestled in the English countryside (the simulacrum of English upper-class life sold digitally by a lower-middle-class boy made good—that’s Thatcherism). The left was only playing catch up to capital’s development: it had to find a way to bend this development towards social justice—and it would involve a “web” of women, LGBT+, ethnic minorities, and so on who would take the place of trade unions and the mass political parties. Sound familiar?
The New Times just tried to subvert the dynamic power contained in free-market capitalism as described by Hayek. This led them to say things that were almost ridiculous, such as the idea that people need freedom of choice under socialism—just like consumer choice. Yet how to do that without just treating them as consumers (without just admitting, as the Marxism Today crowd almost did, that Thatcherism was basically right)?
They never really resolved the contradictions, but the basic ideas popped up in New Labour—Blair’s chief spin doctor, Peter Mandelson, was briefly associated with Marxism Today in the 1980s and the “new deal” promised by Blair was mentioned in this very book. Hence “consumer associations” (very Gramsican) were to be empowered against the corporate monopolies and single parents were prioritised with SureStart and, naturally, mass immigration was massively increased. New Times, New Deal, New Labour. You understand, right? Tony Blair’s New Labour project was created by intellectuals from the Communist Party of Great Britain—Blairism was literal Communism, albeit for the 1990s.
Further, the “progressive nationalisms”—Scottish and Welsh—were boosted with regional assemblies (the London assembly, Boris bikes) as part of the move to create a decentralised society. This is only a parody of genuine catallaxy because if you let “organic networks” have their own way you end up with the unitary British state; and the Marxism Today crowd almost acknowledged this was so, speaking of the “organicism” found in cybernetic rightist thought—how reactionary. It’s all there, though: progressive nationalisms (i.e. non-blood nationalisms), feminism, LGBT+, single parents, mass migration, Boris bikes…
Really, the left is always the greatest describer and chronicler of capitalism. In a sense, Capital is the greatest love letter to capitalism in history—the most accurate description of the power latent in capital, its ability to turn “all that is solid” into Bitcoin and YouTube. Similarly, the New Times could only describe the process that had broken down the old Fordism and try to subvert and parasitise it; for all their rhetoric about “progress”, they were in reaction against dynamic capitalism in the mode of Patrick Bateman (“I moved $400k across my green screen with the flick of a finger, ordered a new business card, and then murdered a hooker. It was another day in Reagan’s America”). All Marxism Today did was acknowledge what had happened and then create an “anti-web” to counter the nascent “real web” that had, per Hayek, spontaneously assembled itself as the state was removed.
The European Union was integral to Marxism Today because they saw that this was the right level to tackle Thatcherism. Thatcher was really popular, but the unitary English state could be eaten from below by progressive nationalisms (Scottish, Welsh) and above (an EU repurposed from a free-trade area to a “social Europe” based on human rights)—naturally, the higher level EU would support the progressive nationalisms in the project.
This amounted to socialism; except it was “Euro socialism”, the EU is not an old-fashioned nation state—it is post-Fordist, it practices governance and it works culturally (Gramscian). Hence the Marxism Today crowd—bereft of the Soviet Union—tended to speak about the EU’s “inevitable” ascension due to a “globalised world”; and this was because, as ever, they couldn’t convince the British people to vote for socialism, so the hope was that some network from above (not the old-fashioned Fordist USSR) would descend and impose socialism in the New Times. Hence, again, as with New Labour, the EU became integral to this post-Fordist leftist project.
Similarly, Marxism Today worried about the environment, but it noted that “ecology” (very 1970s) was founded by aristos and neo-Malthusians—what was needed was not ecology but a progressive environmentalism (no need to cull the herd—welcome to the world of renewable energy and Extinction Rebellion).
It all amounts, as always with the left, to subversion and perversion: the interlinked, dynamic, and global capitalist economy built on computer chips and organic interconnection has to be undermined because it creates inequality (just a fact of life)—the left is playing around with leaflets at the factory gates, it needs to get where the action is (parasitically).
Note well, the Marxism Today crowd rejected both postmodernism—seen as irrational and emotional, not a scientific emancipatory project (possibly latently fascist)—and the 68er New Left. You see, the 68ers were still too patriarchal and believed in retarded ideas from the full-employment Keynesian era about “the right not to work”. No, no—the New Times crowd still retained a Leninist sensibility, they still had a little T-72 inside them; the left had to learn from Thatcher, from what was dynamic in Thatcherism—to turn it, dialectically, against itself.
So work was part of the New Times. The New Times ideal: a black single mother who just realised she’s bisexual drops her mixed-race daughter at the state-sponsored crèche before she cycles to her job in an industrial park, created by council-mediated Japanese direct investment, that was developed by a government-funded enterprise zone and is powered by wind turbines and solar power from a cooperative renewable energy company. New Times.
If you want to understand “woke politics” today, you would do well to read and understand this book—far more than to ramble on about postmodernism or 1968; it is more important to understand Gramsci, to understand that the left is a virus on the network, than to worry about postmodern ideas. Remember: goodbye to the party, hello to the network. “Hello, world” Time to log off.