Mrs Thatcher torments the left from beyond her political grave

In the fertile collective imagination of `Marxism Today', That Woman is eternally in power
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The Independent Culture
MARXISM TODAY rises this week from its seven-year slumber like a restless drunk who wants to impart two thoughts before nodding off again. Martin Jacques and the crowd jus'wannatellus that Charlie Marx was right all along, or at least he was sometimes. An'anutherthing: that Tony Blair - he's no better than he ought to be. Or at least he isn't sometimes.

A spectre is haunting this endeavour, and it is not Marx, whom we can safely bet will be exhumed as a misunderstood seer whenever the global economy goes pear-shaped. No, it is the Belle Dame sans Merci - whisper her name you who dare - Maggie, that woman, who torments her intellectual foes on the left from beyond the political grave.

The Chelsea pensioner in question is currently spending a quiet retirement, trading tea and gossip with General Pinochet - a fitting punishment for both of them. However, in the collective imagination of the magazine, Lady Thatcher is eternally in power. The cover picture is a kind of reverential homage in which Mr Blair is shown with his blue eyes titled upwards in a faintly deranged glare. The word "WRONG" is slapped across his crisp business suit.

It is a great moment in the life of a political leader when they are deemed to have a coherent enough agenda to be deemed plain wrong, full stop. That was the mantle that Marxism Today first bestowed upon Margaret Thatcher, and its price, as far as she was concerned, was greater than rubies. It underlined her absolute authority by creating an "-ism" from a person. It won her elections.

In the new revisionism, Mr Blair is her illegitimate son, a bastard of the onward march of history who has usurped the right of another to lead the left into government. Admittedly, they never did manage to agree on who the righteous one might be or what should be done when he or she got there.

In the process, Thatcher was elevated beyond politics, codified into an article of faith. She alone possessed the gift of "understanding modernity". Along came Mr Blair, and he demonstrated, by means of a revival of the Labour Party which Marxism Today held to be impossible and a landslide Labour victory (which I don't remember the magazine prophesying either) that he quite is a dab hand at modernity, too.

But there is no pleasing these people. As Railtrack might put it: it's the wrong kind of modernity. "New Labour did not usher in a new era but more properly belongs to the end of the previous one," writes Mr Jacques in his editorial. Well, wake up and smell the coffee. Of course New Labour accepted parts of the Thatcherite settlement. The foundation of its electoral revival was the recognition that people did not want to turn the clock back and that a new Government would build on the foundations of what had gone before, not take a hammer to them.

New Labour was born when it recognised that the state was a less efficient agent of social change than the Labour Party had previously thought. New Labour accepted that competition raises standards and that the means to its old and honourable ends of creating greater opportunity and tackling social deprivation need not rely solely on the Leviathan of centralised power.

At its best, it is a devolutionary force. It is steadily learning to unclench power at the centre. To that extent, it is unravelling the more brutally homegeneous aspects of the Conservative years.

The reason that Thatcher produced such a powerful backlash, and, in the case of Marxism Today, a creative one, was that she cared little about whether her policies divided society . New Labour does care - it has to. A feeling that society is not best served by widening divisions is inherent in the centre-left. The defining argument of ideas on the centre- left is about what kind of equality it should pursue and what the means should be. The same could never be said of Thatcherism.

As Mr Blair suggested himself in his speech on the Third Way, this Government is not going to be caught out in alienating great chunks of society for no good reason. The diaries of the late Lord Wyatt inform us that she regretted her comment about people "drivelling and drooling" about the poor. But it was a classically Thatcherite lapse : a flash of her intolerance for people who thought differently, a contempt for any solutions which did not come from within her own narrow circle of ideologues.

Where she sought to divide and rule, Mr Blair seeks to co-opt and embrace. The risks that his Government runs are thus the opposite to those which bedevilled hers. Where Thatcherism became an increasingly rigid set of ideological responses to problems - leading to the fiasco of the poll tax, the proximate cause for her downfall - New Labour wears ideological Lycra. It will consider just about any solution to problems. That leaves it without obvious standards or guidelines.

When Mr Blair pledges that he will leave Britain more at ease with itself than when he found it, we understand the desire and can identify with the ambition. But it is not clear how we should judge his attempts. How much inequality and whose inequality will have to be alleviated before we can say, "that worked" or "that didn't"? What are the "perpetual values" that Mr Blair keeps talking about, and don't some of them contradict each other? There is still a great mass of undigested contradiction at the heart of New Labour which demands critical attention. But "Karl Marx rules OK" doesn't get anywhere near the heart of the matter.

You might have guessed by now that Marxism Today brought me out in a rash in its heyday, and it still does. I know we are all supposed to feel fond of it in a self-consciously retro way, but I feel about it the way I feel about flares - they went out of fashion for good reason. Let sleeping fads lie.

Six years on in this airless intellectual tomb, I notice that women are still bolt-on extras. They get to talk about about Diana and the importance of crying, and they call (again) for a gender unit in Number 10. But the really serious bits - where you get to define modernity, analyse globalisation and trash neo-liberalism - that's a guy thing. I just love a magazine that assigns most of the serious stuff to the men, has a female quota of one fifth of its contents list and then complains that "it is New Labour's new lads who run the show".

They preach a set of attitudes, not a framework of responses to acute political dilemmas. They have a meta-language for everything and a coherent policy for nothing. They elevated Thatcherism to a creed only slightly less important in world history than Christianity but feel instinctively uncomfortable with a moderate Labour government with high ratings.

Stuart Hall complains that New Labour "simply projects sociological trends on to the political screen". The unspoken corollary is that a government in tune with its electorate is profoundly suspect. There is a bit of the left that is never happy unless it is seeking to alter human nature and that harbours suspicions of the aspirations of ordinary people. Fortunately, it lost the battle of ideas some time ago. The rest is nostalgia.