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Dermot Trainor speak to the Marxists among us in the wake of Corbyn’s rise to power


“I do think it is a broad church,” said the Chair of Cambridge’s Marxist Society hesitantly, to all-round amusement.

The speaker continued by assuring those present, not without a hint of irony, that “not just die-hard Marxist Leninists are welcome”. Far from watering down the far-left’s communion wine, these words of welcome will be a source of comfort for the faithful, as it appears that Cambridge has ever fewer ‘churches’ for the Marxist creed.

Mingling among copies of Das Kapital and The Communist Manifesto, these few disciples of Cambridge’s Marxist Society ruefully inform me about their slow decline. First I hear “that there used to be a student organisation of the Communist Party, but it was only one or two members strong”. Nodding along, another informs me that “the only one of them I know has graduated and they didn’t have a Freshers’ Fair stall this year.” Needless to say, this dismal image is replicated elsewhere. An alternative socialist student outlet, Left-Wing Unity, is “effectively collapsing post-Corbyn”, and other options, like Cambridgeshire Left, are also fading away under the Corbyn banner. The current Labour leader, whose greater radicalism acts as a catch-all bandwagon, has united all but the hard left.

And seemingly unbeknownst to these Marxists I spoke with, this is a trend which extends far beyond student and activist groups. Earlier this month, in a very public spat, Cambridge’s branch secretary of the Communist Party, Martin O’Donnell, used the party’s Facebook page to announce: “I have resigned from the CP and joined the Labour Party”. O’Donnell explained that “Labour has clearly become a genuinely working class, progressive mass movement, as evidenced by the election of Jeremy Corbyn. The same cannot be said of the CP. For a long time I’ve been in denial that the CP remains a Stalinist organisation.” Indeed, O’Donnell described how “the Stalinist elements, that have a nostalgic and passionate view of all things Soviet, seem to still dominate the party” and added that “the very fact that there have now been four attempts to remove this post speaks volumes about the assumptions of powers and control that such elements have.” He concluded by alluding to the allure of Corbyn, stating that despite his own attempts “to contribute to the growth of the CP” and “make it relevant”, he felt that “Labour is going to be a considerably more effective vehicle” for “achieving progressive change and enhancing the lives of working people”.

That post was followed by an exchange between O’Donnell and other party members. Amidst accusations and recriminations, O’Donnell claimed that members had previously been warned that his resignation “would lead to the collapse of the branch” – a branch which formally confers only once a month. With members expressing concern that O’Donnell was “abusing the Facebook mechanisms”, the party branch eventually abandoned their Facebook page and set up a new account, ‘Communist Party of Britain – Cambridge Branch’. O’Donnell himself signed off: “I’ve given my honest assessment of the CPB and the Stalinists who still dominate it.” Comrades all round.

Conscious of the Corbyn-induced communist schism in Cambridge, I attended the Marxist Society’s recent discussion in partnership with the Cambridge Universities Labour Club, entitled: “Where next for Corbyn’s Labour?” The meeting, chaired in jest by a self-appointed ‘General Secretary’, drew approximately 30 people. Those in attendance listened first to an impassioned Marxist import from London, who railed against all things anti-Corbyn. Referring to a Labour “civil war” and “grand conspiracy” in the party “to be rid of Corbyn”, the speaker launched a full-scale onslaught against Labour’s “Blairite wing” which “has nothing to offer, will wreck the party” and is “Tory-lite”. The subsequent speaker for the club, analysing and critiquing Corbyn’s shortcomings, was relatively moderate by comparison. He faced sustained scrutiny from those more strident Marxists present, who questioned the very premise of Labour policy. One Marxist Society member put it to the Labour speaker that society needed to “break with capitalism” and to take “the uninvested wealth of the rich in one fell swoop – expropriation”.

In this college room, fervent debate remained limited to a vocal minority, while the greater part of the audience present (myself included) remained silent as the talk dragged on over 90 minutes. More than a few left early. Such an atmosphere proved reminiscent of yet another Marxist Society event I attended a few weeks earlier. Then also, an inflammatory firebrand up from London launched rhetorical warfare against the “Western imperialism”, which has “created Islamic fundamentalism” and “made Iraq a mass grave”. The speaker’s emotional diatribe on the West – which could, in their (relatively unsurprising) opinion, be salvaged by Communism – was met with a wall of silence and apathy, prompting a few belated questions before the breakup of the 18 assembled on that occasion.

In the aftermath of the Corbyn debate, I discussed the workings of the society with those who run it. The Cambridge Marxist Society is only the surface. The Society is in fact only one part of the much-larger Marxist Student Federation, a nationwide web of over 30 university society branches, all co-ordinated by a larger, non-university network: the International Marxist Tendency, or IMT. A Marxist present told me that the Cambridge branch currently has “14 members”. Admitting that such numbers were “miniscule”, the member added that the Cambridge Marxist Society essentially serves as an advertising and recruiting mechanism for IMT. In the words of one, the “Cambridge Marxist Society is like a branch in the tree of the International Marxist Tendency”.

I was then informed that the Cambridge Marxist Society was indeed fulfilling its role as an advertisement for the IMT. A member of both groups told me that IMT numbers “had doubled since the start of term”. Like the Marxist Society, IMT also meets once a week and its activism at present remains essentially academic. The aim is to “first lay the educational ground basis in Marxism,” according to one member. However, with so few members, both organisations are left with little power or influence.

Nevertheless, this doesn’t necessarily mean the dissolution of dogma. Appearing keen, I spoke to members who described IMT as “a Bolshevik, revolutionary outfit” with ambitions to “control the leadership of trade unions and the Labour Party”. Picking up on “Bolshevik”, I expressed curiosity that the Marxists studiously avoided any association with the word ‘Communist’ or any mention of the ‘Soviet Union’.

Making clear that the ‘Communist’ label itself was evidently toxic, one participant still affirmed “that Communism was the ultimate output of Marxism” and in reference to past attempts, simply added that Communism “had made some mistakes”. Looking around, I thought perhaps in this context I’d hold my tongue on the entire twentieth century. I was told that “there were several forms of revolution, not just BANG, BANG”, but they nonetheless didn’t “rule out violent revolution”.

Finally slipping away, I couldn’t help but ponder how far such revolutionary aspirations were from the academic reality I’d just witnessed. Earlier that evening, the Labour Club speaker had described how “last December, when Jeremy Corbyn was asked to Oxford Labour, seven people attended. And suddenly it’s a mass movement of tens of thousands. A political revolution.” IMT’s numbers have likewise expanded. In October they too were seven. At present, they number 14.

Modern Marxism may well have evolved from its revolutionary past after all.