New Left Review 3 (1960)


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Programme notes

This illusion was dashed, however, by the third key event of that year. In November Soviet troops intervened to crush the Hungarian Revolution. However, the Soviet intervention in Hungary was not the only act of imperialism that month. The very same weekend, British and French troops in cooperation with Israel invaded Egypt with a view of seizing the Suez Canal. That this act of gunboat diplomacy ended in fiasco did not prevent many in Britain from recognising the parallels between the imperialisms of the ruling classes on both sides of the Cold War.

As a response to these events, a New Left emerged out of dissident groups within the Communist Party, alongside student radicals, left Labourites and members of the tiny revolutionary left. Khrushchev had in fact made two speeches at the Twentieth Congress.

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The Suicide of New Left Review

Predictably, the Communist Party leadership attempted to suppress the debate as it was taken up in The Reasoner. Accordingly, he explained the anti-Stalinist revolt of as a rebellion of the human spirit against the deadening grip of authoritarianism, while Stalinism itself had arisen out of the weaker elements of the Marxist canon.

The Stalinist bureaucracy had blocked the struggle for socialism, and consequently the revolt which underpinned the struggle for socialism had become a revolt against Stalinism. Negatively, this was a revolt against ideology and inhumanity. The obvious problem with this form of anti-Stalinism was that it began from the Stalinist assumptions that, first, Lenin led to Stalin, and, second, that the East European regimes were in fact socialist states!


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However, while events in Hungary led to the Reasoner group, alongside thousands of others, leaving the party,46 in his parting shot to the CPGB Thompson equivocated on this issue. He continued to believe that while the Stalinist States had degenerated, they remained in an important sense socialist.

In the manuscripts Marx brilliantly prefigured his later theoretical and political trajectory by positing socialism as the struggle of the working class against alienation, through a synthesis of what Lenin later termed the Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism. What made these three elements susceptible to synthesis was the place of human labour, understood as purposeful social activity, at the heart of each. First, the political economists had, despite themselves, acted to reveal alienated human labour as the essence of value, while, second, the French socialists expressed the collective rebellion against the division of labour.

Marxism before 1956

Following from his model of life as struggle, Thompson consistently brought active political questions to the fore in his writings for the New Left. However, while he pushed for action, he was against the formation of a New Left organisation: his experience of work within the Communist Party convinced him of the folly of building a new socialist party. This perspective emerged out of the break with Communism made by those around The Reasoner. Moreover, as Leninist parties had been the source of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution, then dropping the democratic centralist structure could only be a good thing.

Precisely because the New Left was much more than a theoretical tendency, its activity brought it into conflict with the Communist and Labour parties. From onwards New Left activists threw themselves into activity around the newly formed CND,60 whose marches saw thousands of dissatisfied youth come into conflict both with the government and the leaderships of the Labour and Communist parties.

Leninists, he argued, had seriously misconstrued the nature of the coming revolution, and were consequently incapable of adequately preparing for it. He argued that the past century had been witness to a series of structural reforms that had been granted by capital to labour. The weakness with reformism did not lie in the belief in the possibility of reform; these all too palpably existed, but rather in its misdiagnosis of their cause.

Leninism, meanwhile, was incapable of reorienting to the changed situation. In particular, Leninists could not comprehend the implications of the enormous reforms that had been brought about through the war: for it was in the period from to that the most significant reforms had been won. The bulk of the New Left enthusiastically joined the fight to transform the Labour Party. At its heart this perspective greatly underestimated the power of the right wing of the Labour Party.

In fact, once the right mobilised its forces at the party conference the left was easily defeated. This defeat might not have proved fatal for the New Left had it not believed so fervently up to that point in the possibility of transforming the Labour Party. Like the New Left, CND had gravitated towards a programme that aimed to win the Labour Party for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and because they too hoped for so much from this strategy they were also hugely disappointed by the defeat of the vote on unilateralism at the Labour Party conference.

There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of many students of the British New Left to dismiss the role of Trotskyism within it.

One reason for this attitude is the academic orientation of these authors, which, as Dorothy Thompson has powerfully argued, acts to emphasise the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of New Left activity at the expense of an analysis of its, primary, political nature.

First published in , this book was a powerful Marxist demolition of the socialist pretensions of Stalinism, which ended with a call for a political revolution in Russia to overthrow the bureaucracy and remake democratic socialism. Over the next two years this publication gained a reputation as an excellent socialist newspaper. Between and , the socialists who produced and distributed these two publications managed to pull around them a significant grouping of revolutionaries, such that when they launched the SLL in May this new organisation represented what was a potentially significant breakthrough for the revolutionary left.

Unfortunately, the potential of the SLL was not to be realised.

New Left Review

If the most important role for revolutionaries in was to explain to ex-Communists why Russia was not socialist, the Club was able to do this admirably. However, once this grouping moved from a negative critique of Stalinism to a positive presentation of their own perspectives, the limitations of orthodox Trotskyism became all too apparent. Consequently, while by the SLL had seemed to offer the promise of the creation of a viable anti-Stalinist British Marxist party,89 within a year Healy had managed to expel or hound out of the organisation just about anyone independent enough to question his absurd perspectives.

This essentially was the starting point of the grouping around the magazine Solidarity, who, under the influence of the French journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, embraced the idea that socialism would emerge, more or less spontaneously, from the struggles of the working class at the point of production.


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  • While the positive side of the democratic thrust of this reaction to orthodox Trotskyism cannot be denied, like the SLL, Solidarity tended to greatly underestimate the barriers to the growth of socialist ideas within the working class. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that, despite their formal differences, Solidarity shared with the SLL a weak model of socialist activity: if Healy one-sidedly stressed socialist leadership at the expense of the spontaneous movement from below, Solidarity tended to invert rather than to correct this mistake.

    They were all hamstrung by unjustifiably optimistic perspectives: the SLL and Solidarity for revolution; Thompson for radical reform of the Labour Party and then the British state. Moreover, as these states were locked into a process of military competition with the West, and as the producers within these states remained wage labourers, the East European states could best be classified as bureaucratic state capitalist social formations.

    Every struggle of the working class, however limited it may be, by increasing its self-confidence and education, undermines reformism. The main task of real, consistent Socialists is to unite and generalise the lessons drawn from the day to day struggles.

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    Thus can it fight reformism. While the arms economy had temporarily stabilised capitalism by underpinning the post-war boom, this boom was beset by contradictions, and therefore apathy would be challenged as these contradictions were played out. It was thus aimed at facilitating the growth of a general socialist consciousness out of the multiplicity of anti-capitalist struggles.

    At this juncture it became essential that the New Left explain the objective barriers to socialist activism if they were to hope to regroup their forces and orientate towards the long-haul. Unfortunately, neither Thompson nor any of the other leading members of the New Left were able to offer an adequate explanation for their defeat. In this context the New Left collapsed, and in a new editorial team transformed New Left Review from an activist magazine into an austere theoretical journal which aimed, in part, to make sense of the decline of the first New Left.

    The British left had to wait until the period after when an upturn in political and industrial struggles created a space for a third New Left. Unfortunately, Thompson distanced himself from the radicalism of , and it was left primarily to the International Socialism grouping to begin to realise the hopes of of building a socialist current independent of both Labourism and Stalinism. The Amiel and Melburn trust is to be congratulated for making the content of these magazines widely available. As American involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, opposition to the war, which was seen as the overarching symbol of Cold War imperialism , became the major focus of American activists and their counterparts elsewhere.

    New Left movements generally avoided traditional forms of political organization in favour of strategies of mass protest, direct action, and civil disobedience. The high point of New Left activism was reached in as a wave of radical protest swept across the globe.

    New Left Review at 50

    The revolutionary mood dissipated through the s, although important lines of continuity remained between the New Left and new social movements such as feminism and environmentalism. Others moved into far-left parties and groups that proliferated in the s. The New Left produced no unified body of political theory.

    In many countries, including the United States, it was primarily an activist force, although in France, West Germany, and Britain theoretical production was also an important concern.

    The concept of alienation was influentially reworked by the Frankfurt School thinker Herbert Marcuse , whose One-Dimensional Man argued that advanced industrial capitalism had created a totalitarian society in which human needs and interests are constructed and manipulated through consumerism and the mass media so that resistance to the status quo appears irrational or impossible. Despite the pessimism of his analysis, Marcuse was sympathetic to the student movements and, along with the American sociologist C.

    Thinkers of the New Left also made groundbreaking contributions to the analysis of culture and communications. Departing from Marxist orthodoxy and convinced that new conditions of consumer capitalism required fresh thinking, British theorists, including Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, conceived of culture as constitutive rather than simply reflective of social and economic processes. They published pioneering studies of the role of advertising , television , and the mass media as well as investigations of the potential of youth and other subcultures to challenge and subvert ideological messages.

    As it developed within and beyond the New Left, cultural studies drew on new theoretical developments, notably structuralism and poststructuralism , to become a discipline in its own right. The British journal New Left Review continued decades after its founding in to demonstrate the eclectic and experimental approach to theoretical and political questions that gave the New Left its distinctive character.

    Although it is a matter of contention when the New Left as a social movement came to an end, its decline is generally associated with the fractious dissolution of the SDS in New Left. Info Print Cite.

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