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Exclusive: John McDonnell named Lenin and Trotsky as his biggest influences in 2006

How the Soviet revolutionaries shaped the shadow chancellor's political and economic beliefs. 

On 13 September 2015, for the first time in British history, a Marxist entered the office of shadow chancellor. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, who recently confessed that he had not “read as much of Marx as I should have done”, John McDonnell is described by friends as a “true follower” of the philosopher.

Labour MPs have long suspected that his admiration extends to Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the 1917 Soviet revolution. A lengthy 2006 interview with the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, unearthed by the New Statesman, confirmed their belief. Asked to name the “most significant” influences on his thought, McDonnell (who was then standing for the Labour leadership) replied: “The fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically.”

Though the shadow chancellor has praised Marx since his appointment (“You can’t understand the capitalist system without reading Das Kapital”), he has unsurprisingly avoided any reference to Lenin or Trotsky. Unlike Marx, the Soviet duo were responsible for the mass murder of political opponents and inaugurated many of the communist state’s dictatorial methods. In Labour circles, they are reviled as the intellectual inspiration for the entryist Militant Tendency (expelled from the party under Neil Kinnock). But as recently as 2006, the shadow chancellor cited them as definitive influences on him.

Many will ask how a politician with such loyalties remained in the party throughout Tony Blair’s leadership. Still more will ask how he can now speak in social democratic terms of “transforming” capitalism, rather than abolishing it. It is McDonnell himself who offers the best explanation of these apparent contradictions. In the same 2006 interview he argued that the first-past-the-post electoral system and “the affinity and loyalty of the large section of the labour movement and of the working class” to Labour (“you can call it false consciousness or whatever”) meant for “very pragmatic reasons” it was “important to work within” the party.

To the charge that his leadership campaign was a “doomed effort”, he countered: “It's the old Gramsci thing - we're trying to win the battle of ideas on the basis of a really thorough, democratic debate. So we're trying to win hegemony within both the party and the country. And then, use that battle of ideas to make sure we can reflect that in the battle of organisation within the movement overall.”

Antonio Gramsci, one of the most influential Marxist thinkers, advocated a “long march through the institutions”. This entailed working within established organisations (such as Labour) with the intention of winning them for the revolutionary cause. 

McDonnell’s strategy was derided by leftists such as George Galloway, who formed the rival Respect Party. But with the election of Corbyn as leader it was vindicated. In 2006, McDonnell spoke presciently of a “dormant” left which could “easily be re-engaged” with Labour. Ed Miliband’s reform of the party’s leadership voting system in 2014 transferred sovereignty to them. In what he regarded as the twilight of his political career, McDonnell’s “long march” finally bore fruit.

As shadow chancellor he has said that he both hopes and believes Labour will win the next general election. But some, such as former No.10 policy head Geoff Mulgan (who worked with McDonnell at the Greater London Council), have suggested that he may be pursuing a version of Trotsky’s “transitional programme”. According to this strategy, socialists should make economic demands they know are unachievable in the hope of stirring up greater discontent with the system. Previously unreported remarks by McDonnell suggest this interpretation is not outlandish. During a House of Commons debate on 4 July 2011, the then Labour backbencher said: “As someone who still sees the relevance of Trotsky’s transitional programme, I am attempting not to salvage capitalism but to expose its weaknesses.” More recently, McDonnell has suggested that he hopes to retain capitalism but in a more egalitarian form. The question remains as to whether this is merely a tactical shift or an ideological one. 

With Corbyn as leader, the left is no longer what McDonnell called “an opposition within our own party”. But its rule is potentially threatened by Labour MPs, just 14 of whom (out of 230) voted for Corbyn. The leader’s opponents intend to launch a challenge to him after the EU referendum on 23 June. Though most acknowledge that they are likely be unsuccessful if Corbyn is automatically included on the ballot (a recent YouGov poll showed undiminished support among party members) they are prepared to make multiple attempts. “We only need to get lucky once, he needs to get lucky every time,” a shadow minister told me. Corbyn, they hope, will succumb to death by a thousand cuts.

In 2006, McDonnell cited “Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy” to explain the creation of a “degenerate” Parliamentary Labour Party. “The leadership replaces the central committee, the central committee replaces the membership. And that's what's happened here. That coup has allowed the ruthless use of patronage to isolate the PLP from any democracy or accountability within the party itself.”

Among both supporters and opponents of Corbyn, McDonnell is increasingly spoken of as possible successor if his ally is ousted or resigns before 2020. “If Jeremy was pushed under a bus being driven by Boris Johnson, it would all rally behind John McDonnell,” Ken Livingstone told Russia Today last month.

McDonnell, who again stood unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership in 2010, has long been the senior partner in his relationship with Corbyn. Both friend and foe describe him as more competent, more experienced and more intellectually able. Shadow cabinet ministers say he is an “increasingly dominant” presence.

After the PLP meeting on 14 March 2016, a spokesman told journalists: “No one criticised John [McDonnell] or the fiscal credibility rule”. The shadow chancellor’s pledge to run a current budget surplus while borrowing for investment is regarded by most MPs as sound economics. But McDonnell’s recent admiration of Lenin and Trotsky will only confirm their fear that the messenger risks crowding out the message. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can a “Momentum moment” revive the fortunes of Germany’s SPD?

Support for the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, behind the far right Alternative for Germany.

Germany has crossed a line: for the first time in the history of the federal republic, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has sunk into third place, polling just 15.5 per cent – half a point behind the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The poll was published on the day the SPD membership received their postal ballots on whether to enter another grand coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, and inflamed debate further.

For the grassroots coalition opposed to the so-called GroKo (Große Koalition) the poll is proof that the SPD needs a fundamental change of political direction. Within the two grand coalitions of recent years, the SPD has completely lost its political profile. The beneficiary each time has been the far right. Yet another GroKo seems likely to usher in the end of the SPD as a Volkspartei (people’s party). Taking its place would be the AfD, a deeply disturbing prospect.

For the SPD leadership, the results are proof that the party must enter a grand coalition. Failure to do so would likely mean new elections (though this is disputed, as a minority government is also a possibility) and an SPD wipeout. The SPD’s biggest problem, they argue, is not a bad political programme, but a failure to sell the SPD’s achievements to the public.

But is it? The richest 45 Germans now own as much as the bottom 50 per cent. According to French economist Thomas Piketty, German income inequality has now sunk to levels last seen in 1913. Perhaps most shockingly, the nominally left-wing SPD has been in government for 16 of the last 20 years. Whatever it has been doing in office, it hasn’t been nearly enough. And there’s nothing in the present coalition agreement that will change that. Indeed, throughout Europe, mainstream left parties such as the SPD have stuck to their economically centrist programmes and are facing electoral meltdown as a result.

The growing popular anger at the status quo is being channeled almost exclusively into the AfD, which presents itself as the alternative to the political mainstream. Rather than blame the massive redistribution of wealth from the bottom to the top, however, the AfD points the finger at the weakest in society: immigrants and refugees.

So how can the SPD turn things around by the next federal election in 2021? 

The party leadership has promised a complete programme of political renewal, as it does after every disappointing result. But even if this promise were kept this time, how credible is political renewal within a government that stands for more of the same? The SPD would be given the finance ministry, but would be wedded to an austerity policy of no new public debt, and no increased tax rises on the rich. 

SPD members are repeatedly exhorted to separate questions of programmatic renewal from the debate about who leads the party. But these questions are fundamentally linked. The SPD’s problem is not its failure to make left-wing promises, but the failure of its leaders to actually keep them, once in office.

The clear counter-example for genuine political renewal and credibility is, of course, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn. In spite of all dire warnings that a left-wing programme was a sure-fire vote-loser, Labour’s massively expanded membership – and later electorate – responded with an unprecedented and unforeseen enthusiasm. 

A radical democratic change on the lines of Labour would save the SPD party from oblivion, and save Germany from an ascendent AfD. But it would come at the cost of the careers of the SPD leadership. Sadly, but perhaps inevitably, they are fighting it tooth and nail.

Having promised an “especially fair” debate, the conflict over the GroKo has suddenly surged to become Germany’s Momentum moment - and the SPD leadership is doing everything it can to quash the debate. Party communications and so-called “dialogue events” pump out a pro-GroKo line. The ballots sent out this week came accompanied by an authoritative three-page letter on why members should vote for the grand coalition.

Whether such desperate measures have worked or not will be revealed when the voting result is announced on 4 March 2018. Online, sentiment is overwhelmingly against the GroKo. But many SPD members (average age is 60) are not online, and are thought to be more conservative.

Whatever the outcome, the debate isn’t going away. If members can decide on a grand coalition, why not on the leadership itself? A direct election for the leadership would democratically reconnect the SPD with its grassroots.

Unless the growth in inequality is turned around, a fundamental reboot of the SPD is ultimately inevitable. Another grand coalition, however, will postpone this process even further. And what will be left of the SPD by then?

Steve Hudson is a Momentum activist and a member of both Labour and the SPD. He lives in Germany, where he chairs the NoGroKo eV campaign group.