Book review, International Socialism (1st series), No.69, May 1974, p.29.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
The Socialist Register 1973
Merlin Press £2 (paperback)
The tenth anniversary issue of the Register (first published this year) is a fat volume of nearly 500 pages, double the normal size. No less than 100 of these pages are devoted to E.P. Thompson’s Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski, an allocation that seems excessive in view of Kolalcowski’s influence (or lack of it) in socialist circles. But there is more than Kolakowski to the Open Letter. In it Thompson is reviewing his own political past and that of the British New Left, of which he was perhaps the most distinguished member.
“We were both voices of the Communist revisionism of 1956,” writes Thompson of Kolakowski and himself. 1956 was the year of Khrushchev’s “secret speech” denouncing Stalin’s crimes, of the “Polish spring” when leading Stalinists were removed from party and government positions and Wladyslaw Gomulka was brought out of prison to become General Secretary of the Party. It was the year of the Hungarian revolution and its suppression by the Russian army.
After the suppression of the Hungarian revolution up to 10,000 people, or one-third of its total membership walked out of the British Communist Party and I can think of not one who took on the accepted role ... of Public Confessor or Renegade.
Thompson exaggerates. To take the CP’s ETU fraction as one example, Les Cannon, Frank Chapple and Bill Blairford soon moved over to the extreme right wing of the Labour movement after a more or less brief flirtation with the anti-Stalinist left.
Nevertheless it is true that a relatively large number of workers and intellectuals broke with the CP in 1956-57 without immediately going over to Labourism. A tremendous potential for laying the basis of a sizeable revolutionary party existed. Insofar as this had an organisational form, it was the New Loft with its network of Left Clubs and its journal. The New Left Review of those days was a very different affair from the unreadable and abstract NLR of today.
Thompson describes it as “the attempt to give flesh to an actual New Left ... We addressed ourselves to the task of encouraging into being in Britain a movement of socialist thought and practice ... which was revolutionary, rational, democratic ...”
What happened? Peter Sedgewick, a participant, summed it up in an article in this journal ten years ago. “From the spring of 1957 until around the summer of 1961 ... the New Left flourished hectically, before entering a fatal decline... The confederate New Left fell apart in the autumn of 1961: the explosion was characteristically muffled. No statement was ever published on the differences around NLR ... Little was to be heard henceforth of the Left Clubs.”
“We had reached a point of personal, financial and organisational exhaustion,” says E.P. Thompson. But that is not the real explanation. The failure, was above all, political. “My colleagues and I turned back to work in our specialist, professional or practical fields. We no longer represented, a coherent and identifiable position.” The potential was largely dissipated.
The point about the old New Left, the reason it is worth discussing today, is that it was an attempt to develop a “revolutionary, rational, democratic” movement without coming to grips with the need for a party, without a clear position on the causes and nature of Stalinism and on the traditions of the Left Opposition, without an unequivocal stand against left reformism: in short without a clear and consistent theoretical and political foundation. Any future attempt of a similar kind will founder, and for the same reason.
E.P. Thompson, if he bothers to read this review, will probably retort “sectarian”, “dogmatist” and so on. He quotes himself as writing in 1960 “I am getting bored with some of the members of ‘Marxist’ sects who pop up at Left Club meetings ... Most Clubs have suffered from one or more of these prophets, heterodox or orthodox, of diabolical and hysterical materialism ...”
There is some justification for this, some but not much. Some of the marxists from the Left Opposition tradition were crude, ill-informed and even on occasions hysterical. But not all of them were. Nobody could plausibly attack Socialist Review (a forerunner of Socialist Worker) or International Socialism as hysterical.
Nor was the heat, the hysteria if you like, all on one side. I recall a meeting in Edinburgh in 1957 or 1958. The speaker was E.P. Thompson. Before any “sectarian dogmatist” had said a word (apart from this reviewer, who as chairman introduced the speaker), he treated us to a violent denunciation of the sterility, stupidity, ill-faith and ignorance of the “sects”.
In any case, in the light of subsequent events, were not the marxist critics of the political looseness, evasiveness and lack of clarity of the New Left leaders proved to be correct? Perhaps our arguments were put badly, tactlessly, unskillfully, anything you like, but the New Left did in fact disintegrate. E.P. Thompson himself tells us “since that time (1960) such Marxisms (as IS) have reproduced themselves, have held and added to their adherents, while I and many of my old comrades have, outside our more professional roles, fallen into silence.”
That is water under the bridge. More hopefully we read “it happens sometimes in the case of my own relations with Marxists of Trotskyist derivation that one can share political commitments with Marxists with whom one’s greatest source of disagreement is nevertheless about Marxism.” Perhaps then Thompson will return to active politics one day and devote his very considerable talents to the revolutionary movement in collaboration with “Marxists of Trotskyist derivation”. I hope so. But one thing must be clear. Any serious revolutionary tradition is necessarily embodied in an organisatian, a party.
This is a very one-sided review. I have discussed (and that inadequately) only one article out of the 14 in this Register. My justification is E.P. Thompson’s correct assertion: “This Register is the last survivor in the direct line of continuity from the old New Left ... The strengths and weaknesses of the Register are those of the New Left ...” There is much valuable and interesting material in this volume. It is well worth reading. But there is little political clarity; no revolutionary line provides a connecting thread between the contributions.
Last updated on 3.10.2007