‘MARXIST’ is an old scare word – but does it really work any more? I guess we’re about to find out, in the remaining few weeks of this General Election campaign. The mildest of positive responses from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his deputy John McDonnell, answering leading questions on whether they were followers of the writings of Karl Marx, are doubtless now being fed into the Tories’ message machines. Expect a lurid meme splurting on to your social media feed some time before June 8.

Surely a sensible distinction can be made here. That is, between someone who reads and takes insight and explanation from Marx’s writings (and his teeming millions of subsequent interpreters) and, on the other side, the hard identity of being a “Marxist”. The latter takes its dark frisson from before the end of the Cold War, when regimes and empires were subject to various versions of “Marxism-Leninism”.

With a few notable exceptions, this spectre is no longer around to haunt anyone. (The Communist Party of China’s leadership still uses phrases such as “the guiding ideology of Marxism, the common ideal of socialism” from its lecterns while on the ground trying to blend capitalism and Confucianism).

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But to accuse someone of expressing an interest in Marxism, as an interesting form of economic thought, is a pretty poor line of attack. As Ellie Mae O’Hagan wrote recently, it’s a bit like arraigning someone for choosing Shakespeare as their entry point into world literature. It’s inescapable, even banal, to do so.

There has been a routine in the marketplace of ideas, particularly over the last 20-odd years of economic peaks, troughs and near-collapses. At some point in the top-level commentary pages, some panjandrum takes to the keyboard and asks: “Was Marx right after all?”

The presumption is that what Marx got wrong was his belief that the instabilities and inequities of capitalism would inevitably give rise to communist societies worldwide. That’s all too true. But what he might have gotten right are the enduring reasons for that instability.

Marx argued that the incessant drive for profits, in a competitive system, would also drive companies to make their workplaces more and more mechanised. More goods would thus be made, but workers and their wages would also be cut. Personal debt increases in order to maintain our purchasing power – and eventually it all collapses, as in the crash of 2008 (and many predict there is another huge one to come).

Thoughtful governments intervene in the market to redirect these technologically derived profits back into workers’ pockets: the SNP with their “social wage”, or the Corbynites with their project redistributions from those earning more than £85k. Or take the fashionable experiments with basic income.

Marx advocated for a progressive tax system in his Communist Manifesto. Now, it’s part of the basic toolkit of macro-economics (though barely used by the Tories’ austerity regime). Revolutionary then – nearly common-sensical today. Or take Marx’s 19th-century ideas about how it’s vast monopolies that are the eventual outcome of market competition – not some pleasant, balanced field of equally viable small-traders. Marx certainly predicted that one correctly. Look at technology, finance, food, retail, media … can we imagine a world in which big business doesn’t rule?

Or read these lines from Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “The extension of products and needs becomes a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.” Does it get any more descriptive of much of our current consumer culture?

And never mind the pointless smartphone upgrade. The genetic editors and virtual-reality merchants are making plans to commodify the insides of your body and brain next. As Marx would say, that’s only the inevitable consequence of the logic of capitalism. “The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe”, he (and his collaborator Engels) wrote in The Communist Manifesto. “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.” Just to note: he anticipated globalisation and the internet in 1848, too.

I could go on – although I’m tempted just to point you to Paul Mason’s amazing book PostCapitalism, which assesses Marx’s legacy particularly in relation to digital technology and innovation. But in terms of the coming propaganda wars, it just seems embarrassing to be turning “Marxist” into a term of abuse, when some knowledge of Marx’s writing should actually be a regular item in any well-furnished citizen’s mind.

Now, as for the Scottish dimension … there are a few weel-kent members of a 1970s entity called the International Marxist Group, who you’ll be delighted to hear include Alastair Darling (boo, hiss) and George Kerevan (yay, cheer).

And even if she accepted my case that quoting Marx is merely a display of intellectual adequacy, I doubt whether Nicola Sturgeon will be performing this act any time soon (though Jim Sillars does so in his recent publications). But it’s difficult to think of Scotland’s “radical” history without seeing obvious traces of influence from Marx.

My pal Willy Maley from Glasgow University has generously supplied me with sources and references about the relationship between Marx and Scotland. In Volume One of Das Kapital (Capital), Willy notes a passage where Marx attacks the Duchess of Sutherland for brutally turning her clan estate into a “sheep-walk”: “All their villages were destroyed and burnt, all their fields turned into pasturage. British soldiers enforced this mass of evictions, and came to blows with the inhabitants. One old woman was burnt to death in the flames of the hut she refused to leave. It was in this manner that this fine lady appropriated 794,000 acres of land which had belonged to the clan from time immemorial.”

This atrocity fits with Marx’s notions of the violence at the heart of private property. But for him, and his later followers, the idea that there might be a national-cultural dimension to the universal struggle between classes was thoroughly frowned upon. Reading the Communist Manifesto, the late historian James D Young quotes from Marx: “He wrote that, ‘National differences, and antagonisms between peoples’, were allegedly disappearing; and industrial capitalism was supposedly destroying ’national one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness’.”

Yet as Young shows in his research, very early on in the embracing of Marxism in Scotland, questions of its relations with Scottish identity and culture were central. John MacLean, the Highland-born agitator who was Lenin’s appointee in Scotland, famously argued for a “Celtic Communism”, deriving its force from the spirit of clan society. But many of the Scottish leftist debates in the first few decades of the 20th century seem remarkably familiar. MacLean and the home rulers were slammed by the British Communist Party in the 1920s, writes Young: “The Scots’ seeming ‘obsession’ with self-government was vitiating the British socialist struggle by dividing the English and Scottish trade unions.”

If many Yessers are infuriated by Corbyn and McDonnell’s tone-deafness to the Scottish national agenda, it may help to understand just how classically “Marxist” their response is. Maley notes another reference to Scotland in Capital. In a discussion of “the way serfdom was abolished later in Scotland than in England”, Marx cites in a footnote the following words from Fletcher of Saltoun, the great contemporary opponent of the 1707 Act of Union: “The number of beggars in Scotland is reckoned at not less than 200,000. The only remedy I, a republican on principle, can suggest, is to restore the old state of serfdom, to make slaves of all of those unable to provide for their own subsistence”.

Oh dear. Historical reference does sometimes bite you on the bum. To cruelly mangle one of Marx’s famous phrases: countries make their own history, but they do not make it as they please. In any case, as the shrapnel storm of these last few week’s intensifies, let’s try not to freak out about the Bearded One’s latest comeback. Marx is a resource; not a demon.