From Marxism to Social Democracy

Professor Colin Talbot was born in Dover in 1952. Professor Talbot is currently Professor of Government in Politics in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Manchester. He has also been an adviser to UK Parliamentary Committees on HM Treasury and Public Administration. Colin is the author of The Paradoxical Primate (2004) and several other books. Here, Professor Talbot is interviewed by Country Squire Magazine’s Dominic Wightman.     

Q: Professor, you call yourself a Recovering Marxist. What do you mean by that?

PROFESSOR TALBOT: I was a Marxist, of the Trotskyist variety, for a decade in the 1970s. I remember reading ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in 1972 and having a revelatory moment. I still think some of the Marx and Engels analysis of the rise of capitalism and its revolutionary character was remarkably accurate, but their prognosis was clearly wrong. They underestimated the adaptability of capitalism (which has survived in all sorts of environments from Nazi Germany to communist China) and the possibility of reforms – the post WWII welfare states.

Q: With the world turning on what has come to be called Progressive politics (not using the Burkeian meaning, of course, but the stolen meaning) and socialism under attack from all quarters, what future is there at all for Marxist politics?

PROFESSOR TALBOT: None. Marxism as a political movement, and the more diffuse socialist movement, has been marginalised. A great deal has been made of the rise of movements like Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain but they are remarkably weak – both in their ambition and their support. Syriza only managed 27% and Podemos 21% and their political programmes are a pale imitation of the Communist and Socialist parties of the early 20th Century.

The real – and understated – triumph of post WWII was social democracy. The West German SDP summed it up beautifully in their ‘Bad Godesburg’ manifesto (1959) with the idea of ‘as much market as possible, as much state as necessary.’ The truth is that after WWII all mainstream developed democracies became ‘social democracies’ with a ‘mixed economy’ of capitalist markets and welfare states. Previously ‘free market’ parties – like our Conservatives – accepted the social democratic reality. They still do, although they’d be reluctant to admit it (except Theresa May seems to be more accepting of the mixed economy, at least rhetorically, than most recent Tory leaders).

Q: Can you foresee the possibility of Marxist politics dying out? If yes, how?

PROFESSOR TALBOT: I don’t think the dream of “socialism” will ever completely die out but the experience of the 20th century has fatally undermined its attraction. Whilst capitalism could co-exist with everything from democracy to fascist or even communist authoritarian regimes, “socialism” always seems to have led to authoritarian government – from Russia to China, Vietnam, Cuba and North Korea.

Q: Would you consider Labour under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell to be virtually unelectable? 

PROFESSOR TALBOT: Yes. They are in Syriza and Podemos territory – around a quarter of voters, some of them very enthusiastic, but totally unable to appeal outside of their ‘base’. They have not helped themselves by coming across as totally inept and confused and they are failing to reach out even to their ‘soft left’ supporters. They won’t die, but the chances of them returning to be a serious contender for government are minimal.

Q: The breed of career politicians (the Milibands and Camerons) has been widely mocked. Would you agree that as a country the UK needs to loosen its inquisitiveness into politicians’ knicker drawers and focus rather more on character and ability? Churchill would never pass a Conservative Central Office background check.

PROFESSOR TALBOT: Agreed. Our Parliament used to be far more diverse on all sides but it has increasingly become a House for career (or in the Lords post-career) politicians. The number of real ‘characters’ has declined along with the social diversity. On the other hand we have seen a welcome – in my view – increase in other sorts of diversity – women and ethnic and (openly) sexual minorities.

I wouldn’t mind quite so much if “professional politicians” actually did the “professional” bit, but few have any real training or education in statecraft and public policy-making. They are more career politicians and not career governors.

Q: Talk of Left and Right could be undone by a future AI revolution. Although this is way off, do you see a common middle ground where what is currently defined as Left and Right can get stuff done and make genuine collaborative progress? Or does that still require many pints of ale and sandwiches?

PROFESSOR TALBOT: We have been making technological progress for a very long time – millennia – but we have yet to see it reduce how much we have to work. Hunter-gatherer societies – and some of our primate cousins – “work” for 4 hours a day or less. We’re a way off getting back to that, but we could see technology advance to the point where we could see that in 50 years or so?

If we do, it will raise massive questions about how we structure society and distribute its benefits. A society where half the people work 40 hours a week and the rest don’t work at all is clearly unsustainable. I don’t think the time has come yet, but ideas like a “universal basic income” may well be important in the future – and interestingly people from the Left and Right of politics are starting to look at ideas like that.

Q: If Labour disintegrates into a protest party, which party (perhaps a new party) will form Her Majesty’s Opposition?

PROFESSOR TALBOT:  I think, as the Fabian Society’s General Secretary Andrew Harrop recently put it, Labour is too weak to win and too strong to die. For the moment it won’t be replaced – probably. Inertia is a wonderful thing and it will take a lot to cause a complete disintegration and/or the rise of a new Party to replace Labour. But after 2016’s political earthquakes of Brexit and Trump, who knows?

I also think the Tories are far less secure than it appears at the moment. Theresa May has put a temporary lid on their internal divisions, but ironically the less they face a serious Opposition the more likely they are to fracture internally, especially over Brexit.

Historically “big tent” political parties seem to be on the wane – both Labour and the Tories may both be dinosaurs destined for extinction?

Q: Finally, Professor, I am going to force you to name 5 conservative political scientists (or philosophers) you’d urge all your students to read. 

PROFESSOR TALBOT: Locke – for starting the analysis of the ‘Social Contract’ although he was wrong in assuming we needed it to live together (we did that before we were even human).

Burke – for our understanding the negative destructive potential of revolutions. Society needs continuity and change.

Hobbes – for Leviathan and understanding the origins of “government” (although he was wrong about human nature, with Locke and Rousseau)

Hayek – for understanding the power of markets and distributed knowledge.

and I suppose Friedman – although more for his impact than the actual power of his ideas.

Thank you very much for your time, Colin. Much appreciated.