Monday, 27 January 2020

Book Review - Stedman Jones and The Communist Manifesto (2002)

Gareth Stedman Jones, “Introduction” to K. Marx & F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto (Penguin, June 2002)
Written By: Keith Flett
Date: September 2002
Published In LSHG Newsletter, Issue 16: Autumn 2002 

Gareth Stedman Jones’ 187-page introduction to a new Penguin edition of the Communist Manifesto represents, arguably, a further staging post on his long journey from being one of the sharpest socialist historians and new left theorists of the 1960s and 1970s to someone who is now focused on the history of political ideas and disillusioned with the left, although by no means identified with the political right.

Jones’ introduction provides some useful new historical information on the production of the Manifesto and its reception. It is however a sign of his alienation from the left that he has nothing new to say on the question currently exciting most interest amongst socialist historians of the Communist Manifesto: the role and identity of the first person to translate the Manifesto into English, Helen Macfarlane. Despite writing for Harney’s Red Republican under the name Howard Morton, little is known about Macfarlane, although she is the subject of a forthcoming book by David Black, “Helen Macfarlane, the first British Marxist”.

Much of the Introduction is a lengthy discussion of how Marx, and to a lesser degree Engels, came to the ideas that are to be found in the Manifesto. As might be expected from someone who, in Languages of Class, [1983] was one of the pioneers of the linguistic turn in Britain, Stedman Jones is obsessed with what Marx and Engels actually wrote on the page, rather than how the ideas were received in practice. His account is interesting but by no means definitive. He cites on several occasions the work of Hont, who Edward Thompson criticised in Customs in Common for being more interested in abstract ideas than the historical context in which they were to be found. Stedman Jones appears oblivious of the criticism.

Stedman Jones not only rejects Stalinism but also any attempt to move towards socialism. He claims that ultimately Marx failed to describe in the Manifesto an alternative to the market and that for this reason attempts to establish a non-market Communist society were doomed to failure. Socialists might prefer a more historical and material explanation. Nevertheless there are some interesting openings in this argument. For example a rejection of the stages theory of historical development might explain Marx’s later interest in pre-capitalist societies and how they might move to Communism without the need to go through the full range of capitalist development. Stedman Jones however is more interested in using this aspect of Marx’s work to damn the entire Communist project.
Given Stedman Jones' rejection of the political programme of the left a key test is whether Blair could read Stedman Jones on the Communist Manifesto with enjoyment? To be fair to Stedman Jones, I doubt it. Blair would love the conclusion that there is no alternative to the market. No doubt too he would be happy with that part of Stedman Jones’ agenda which represents an attack on the anti-capitalist movement because it opposes the market. However Stedman Jones remains too scrupulous and serious a historian for the likes of Blair. He also still sees Marx and Engels as the best analysts of what capitalism is all about, even if he rejects their ideas about what should be done about it.

For socialists, Stedman Jones’ thoughts on the Communist Manifesto are an unwelcome turn in what was once a most promising career. Born in 1942, Stedman Jones joined the Editorial Board of New Left Review in 1964 [until 1981]. He was a founder of History Workshop Journal in 1976 and remains on the Editorial Board. In the 1970s and 1980s Stedman Jones was amongst the foremost of British socialist historians, first with the outstanding Outcast London [1971] and then with the hugely influential collection, Languages of Class [1983]. He has been particularly associated with a reworking of the history of Chartism which focuses on the language used by Chartists. Again his essay “Rethinking Chartism” has dominated historical work in this area, although it is much contested.

A clue to his later political trajectory can be found in the 1982 article he wrote for New Socialist magazine, “Why is the Labour Party in a Mess”. Here Stedman Jones appears at the crossroads between the new left and new Labour. Rejecting the left-wing politics of Tony Benn current at the time, but also critical of the Social Democrat split from Labour, Stedman Jones argued that Labour must appeal to new constituencies, new social movements. We could hardly disagree with this, but we could with his conclusion that it should therefore leave its working class and trade union constituency behind. In a sense it was no surprise to find Stedman Jones writing a chapter, “The Crisis of Communism” in the 1989 New Times volume edited by Martin Jacques, which represented the ideological transition of a wing of the old Communist Party into today’s New Labour politicians.
Stedman Jones has said and written little in the public arena for much of the past 15 years. Certainly he has not publicly renounced his previous positions. The current volume gives us a chance to assess whether he is still recognisably of the left. Sadly it appears that he is not.

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