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Jacques Martin

Martin Jacques

Martin Jacques was born in October 1945 in Coventry and raised there by Communist Party parents. He joined the Young Communist League Communist Party in 1961 when he was still just 15 and attending King Henry VIII grammar school. In 1962, he attended a youth summer camp in the German Democratic Republic, about which he wrote a cheery travelogue report for the school magazine without once mentioning the word `Communism’, or revealing his membership of the YCL.

He was then an undergraduate student at Manchester University, from which he graduated with a first-class honours degree. After this, he experienced a remarkably sudden rise by being placed on the recommended list for Communist Party Executive Committee membership, and subsequent election, at the 1966 Party congress. He was still only 21 years of age but highly regarded for a fierce intelligence, great levels of knowledge, and a desire to modernise practice in the British Communist Party.  Nonetheless, his elevation was a surprise to many, causing some speculation as to the motives of those in the leadership. 

He took a doctorate at King’s College, Cambridge, being simultaneously employed as a lecturer in economic and social history at Bristol University. During this period, he was fired by a reading of Marx’s early writing, such as the `Economic & Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844’, a series of unpublished notes (until 1932) that were the genesis of his later `Capital’. The notes are best known for the first expression of Marx's argument that the conditions of modern industrial societies result in the alienation of humans. Jacques began to argue that this was the `true’ Marx and that these earlier, almost unformed, ideas of his had been distorted by a later preoccupation with crude economics, a practice then much fostered on the British Party by Moscow.

By the early 1970s, Jacques had also become influenced by a highly revisionist interpretation of the writings of Antonio Gramsci, notorious for their having been written in Mussolini’s jails in a style that evaded the censor and are, thus, potentially ambiguous.

In a sign that he had been earmarked for further rise, with Reuben Falber, he was the Communist Party’s delegate to the December 1971 Congress of the Polish United Workers' Party, held the year after social disturbances had to the fall of Gomulka, the veteran leader of the nation. 

From 1972 at least, possibly as early as 1968, Jacques, along with other intellectuals in the Communist Party, had formed an effective faction, self-styled as the `Revolutionary Democrats’, although the very name was a matter of considerable secrecy. This group began to win significant success in motivating the factionising the core leadership of the Young Communist League, consequently polarising the organisation into supposedly `pro—Soviet and anti-Soviet groupings.  [See Graham’s Stevenson’s history of the 1960s-1970s YCL, `Anatomy of Decline’, elsewhere on this site for more details.] 

In terms of how this beginning would affect the growing role of revisionists inside the CPGB, what almost all commentators have missed is the fact that it was not so much tensions over attitudes to the Soviet Union that lay down a fault line in the Party that would grow into a massive schism. It began with taunts about `economism’ from revionists within the CPGB about the style of work of leading Communist trades unionists.

The term `economism’ lay in the history of the Russian revolutionary movement; it was a variety of the reformism that emerged as an international phenomenon in the late 1890s socialist movement. According to activists criticised by Lenin in his `What is to be Done?’, the economists thought that workers were interested only in basic bread and butter issues, and not in socialist politics. The focus of Lenin’s argument was against those who had little faith in the potential of the working class in Russia to fight, for example, for political freedoms enjoyed in liberal democracies. In fact, the derision of Communist trades unionists bandied about by Revolutionary Democrats, for whom Jacques was the foremost theoretician, actually inverted upon its head Lenin’s argument.

Thus, the Revolutionary Democrats, in the early to mid-1980s still no more than a small collection of intellectuals, began their inner-Party struggle over what they saw as `economist’ attitudes in the Party during the period from the 1972 miners’ strike to the start of Phase One of the Social Contract in the summer of 1975. This would result in a growing tension inside the Party between activists focused on winning support in localities and those heavily involved in key labour movement positions.

Jacques was elected editor of Marxism Today by the Party EC in 1977, taking up his post on 1st April in a move that reduced his earning by 40%, his having left his job as a lecturer at Bristol University. He, and those around him, now became intensely committed to moving the Communist Party towards `Euro-Communism, ostensibly intending to follow the trend associated with the Italian, Spanish and, to some extent, French, Communist Parties, which were wrestling with the ambiguities of being strong enough to seriously consider forming, or participating, in governments, without having won state power.

Left and union successes in the 1960s and 1970s appeared to suggest that a line of march against capitalism was under way. Yet, echoing theoretical challenges that arose during the Labour Government’s Social Contract, Jacques and others, notably Eric Hobsbawm, had now arrived at a view that, in fact, the labour movement was inevitably in decline.

In a first move challenging the Communist Party’s key strategic aim of winning major influence in the trade unions, which in retrospect could be said to have reached its zenith by 1974, Jacques co-edited the book `The Forward March of Labour Halted?’ (1981), based on lecture by Hobsbawm delivered in 1978.

The thesis was that advance for the workers’ movement had effectively been in stasis for a generation but we had simply not noted this. The labour movement had been merely adapting to each new situation, without a serious strategy for moving forward enough to contemplate state power. 

The question mark in the title belied the core truth that the query opened up defeatist notions. Whilst the nature of capitalist rule, the character of the working class, the culture of society are always in a state of flux, the core relationship between the state and business remains, whilst the workers’ movement will always move between high and low peaks as capitalism’s periodic crises create opportunities. The Forward March would provide the ideological driving force behind late 1980s `new realism’, the rise of Neil Kinnock, and, ultimately Blairism and New Labour.

Following hard on this argument for surrender to the forces of capital, the term `Thatcherism’ was first aired in Marxism Today ((often dubbed MTD, especially by those who loved its new incarnation) in January 1979 in an essay by non-Communist, Stuart Hall, in the magazine, which began to heavily suggest that the recourse of the ruling class to what would now be termed `neo-liberalism’ was an entirely new phenomenon. MTD courted Tory politicians as writers and Jacques co-edited and co-wrote `The Politics of Thatcherism and New Times’ (1983) with Hall.

By the early 1980s, a serious row occurred within the CPGB Political Committee over Marxism Today’s attacks on the shop stewards movement.  The PC faced conflict between Jacques, as editor of MTD, and Mick Costello (see separate entry), the Party's Industrial Organiser. In the event, it was Costello who shifted jobs, after loosing the argument in the PC, to work for the Morning Star. Those most hostile to Euro-Communism increasingly focused around that paper, as Jacques’ MTD became the focus for an opposing pole.

In 1984 the Party EC leadership, now composed of a united front of the career politicians and the Euro-Communists, after similar ructions at Congresses to those which the YCL had seen in the 1970s, sought to regain control of the paper. Arguably, the Party was imploding over its key assets, its premises and journals. The question was which trend would hold control over them.

The CPGB EC launched a savage attack on the Morning Star, seeking to control the technically independent paper. With the support of many in the wider Labour Movement, the Party was refused this control by virtue of loosing elections to the Management Committee of the co-operative that owned the paper. In response, an even more violent assault was made on key Districts, notably London and the North West, which saw hundreds of long time Communists expelled or excluded from membership of the CPGB.

In response the excluded and expelled set up their own group which campaigned for a reversal of these moves. In the meantime, the massive year long struggle of the miners took place without the advantage of the CPGB's still considerable industrial muscle. The Party leadership prevaricated and allowed public criticism of the tactics of the NUM leadership, despite the presence of one of its most valued members, Mick McGahey, as Vice-President of the union in the `troika' of leadership in the dispute. MTD fostered divisions and doubts about the miners’ struggle and little was done by the CPGB to mobilise solidarity with the miners and the Party began to fall apart. Shortly after, the excluded group re-established the Communist Party as the Communist Party of Britain.

By the late 1980, a remarkable convergence could be seen between the drift away from `Old’ Labour thinking in the Labour Party, which emerged under Neil Kinnock’s leadership of that party, and the slide towards outright rejection of Marxism that had now already largely occurred in the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Marxism Today promoted political analysis of electoral studies that suggested that socialism was no longer an attractive feature for parliamentary parties of the left and nurtured socio-economic analyses that recommended an acceptance of the dominance of global capitalism that meant that the left could not challenge its hegemony other than in the long-term, and only then on grounds of inserting its ideas into the cultural landscape.

Marxism Today had promoted negative conclusions about the tension between individualism and collectivism as a historical trend and was amongst the first to erect the, essentially Trotskyist, conception that `globalisation’ was both new and, in a more contemporary stance,  rendered the nation state redundant.

Now, pressure was on for the CPGB to ditch left politics completely, support for British membership of both the European Union and NATO incredibly emerged. Then, Martin Jacques became the chief writer of a new programme, `Manifesto for a New Times’, adopted in 1989 as a replacement for the British Road to Socialism.

Its essential thesis was that new methods of capitalist production associated with a globalised economy, just-in-time production allied to flexible specialisation of commodities, had finally ended the role of the organised working class, and its associated labour movement, as a major vehicle for change in advanced capitalist countries.  Gordon Brown wrote a basically approving comment for Marxism Today around this thesis that the nation state, and hence national governments, no longer held power to restrain trans-national corporations.

In 1988, MTD produced a special edition, called `New Times’, which argued the world had been through a profound change with globalisation and post-Fordism.  It argued, with some merit, that the right had already grasped the potential but the left was unaware of the danger. Yet some on the left, notably in unions, were already alive to the dangers emerging in a liberalised labour market. `New Times’ appeared to argue for an acceptance of complete defeat.

Allied to this, Jacques had been openly agitating amongst the rump leadership of the CPGB for its dissolution since around 1988, when expelled and excluded Communists had `refounded’ the British Communist Party. But significant elements of Marxist inclined and openly Marxist-Leninist support remained with the CPGB.

Despite having clearly been at odds with the basic approach of the Communist Party for, at the very least, ten to fifteen years (some might wonder if it had been all along, and how that worked!) Jacques finally left the party in 1991, citing his horror at the level of financial subsidy provided to the British Communist Party by the CPSU.

Jacques would claim that he stayed in the Party into the 1980s because of possibilities arising from his editorship of Marxism Today. Under his editorship, Marxism Today shifted dramatically from an internal theoretical journal towards being an iconoclastic magazine that attracted non-Communists. Indeed, Party members, especially those who wished to dispute the factual basis of some of the increasingly bizarre conclusions drawn by published articles, found it more and more difficult to obtain a hearing in the journal.

Far from being a business success due to its iconoclastic style, as was claimed, in fact Marxism Today was massively subsidised by the Communist Party leadership in its heavy launch into major publishing `success’; in normal circumstances, it would have been financial prudent to close the magazine, or seriously reduce resources to it. How had Jacques imagined Party finances worked, after having spent over 30 years as a member of its leadership?

Marxism Today closed in January 1992, whilst a small proportion of the former CPGB membership went into the short-lived Democratic Left, Martin Jacques did not follow. He, and others with roots in what would become New Labour launched `Demos’, seen as a cross-party think-tank, which soon gained offices and funds. He had planned Demos from at least a year or so before the final dissolution of the rump CPGB. Jacques also became deputy editor of the Independent from 1994-96.

For a man whose biography is almost synonymous with the decline of the CPGB, through the application of unnerving interpretations of high theoretical questions, Jacques’ personal life had been largely uneventful. It has been difficult to find, other than in his early life, sources to personalise the story. Yet this would now change in a most dramatic way following the final demise of the CPGB, as his intellectual iconoclasm also moved towards a focus on the Chinese People’s Republic, which seemingly arose out of chance.

In August 1992, Jacques met a lawyer called Harinder (Hari) Veriah whilst on holiday, which began a life-changing course, involving `love at first sight’. Then aged 47, and living in London with his partner of 18 years, he began an affair with Veriah, a 26-year old, a Malaysian nation of Sikh background, who was also then involved in a relationship. She was the daughter of the youngest MP in Malaysia's history, who had once been imprisoned for four years for leading a march of rubber-plantation workers.

By his account, from 1993, Jacques began an intense interest in China.  By December of that year, with Veriah planning to do a year's Master's in law at King's London, they mutually agreed to separate from their existing partners and marry to have children. In 1994, Veriah came to London and the couple was married two years later. In November 1998, Veriah came to Hong Kong to work for a law firm, Lovells. Hari Jacques, as she now was, spoke Cantonese. Jacques accompanied her, intending to write a book on East Asia.

A child, Ravi, was indeed born to the new union but, tragically, his mother died, aged 33, on January 2nd 2000 in hospital in Hong Kong, where the couple had settled. She had been taken there after suffering a major epileptic fit, having first had such fit in 1995, in London.

An inquest decided on natural causes, although what happened was 'sudden unexpected death in epilepsy'. Jacques considered that his wife's death was entirely avoidable suggesting that medical standards in Hong Kong were unacceptable. Prompted by this, the London Times ran a piece headlined 'Wife's death blamed on Hong Kong racism' – Jacques wife was, of course, ethnically Indian in origin, not Chinese.  Jacques began work on a memoir, `For Ravi: The Story Of Hari And Martin’ and, devoting himself to the care of his son, returned to the UK.

Martin Jacques has since resumed a partly London-based career, essentially becoming a freelance writer and broadcaster, combining this with the role of roaming academic. He was, for a time, a Sunday Times and Times columnist, is still a columnist for the Guardian. In 2009, Jacques' book `When China Rules the World: The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World’ appeared.

Along the way, he had also acquired a visiting professorship at Renmin University in Beijing, Aichi University in Nagoya, Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto, a senior visiting fellow at the University of Singapore, and a visiting research fellow at the Asia Research Centre at the London School of Economics.

 

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