Duncan Hallas

Selected memories

(October 1989)

From Socialist Review, No.124, October 1989, pp.29-30.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Out of Apathy
Ed. Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group
Verso £7.95

Whether we knew it or not, we were struggling with a difficult act of description, trying to find a language in which to map an emergent new world’ and its cultural transformations, which defied analysis within the conventional terms of the left while at the same time deeply undermining them.

Well, possibly that is what Stuart Hail was doing during the short and fairly hectic life of the original New Left (1957-62) which is the subject of this book. If so, he was entirely untypical. Many of its members actually believed they had some new ideas about how to change the world.

True, these ideas were often confused and sometimes contradictory. A mixture of reformist notions and revolutionary impulses was combined with deep hostility to any sort of organisation which might seek to impose any kind of ‘discipline’ on its members.

This was understandable, because one of the two main components of the trend was a group which split from the Communist Party in the wake of Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin’s terror and the crushing of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

This, the most vital and vigorous wing, was anti-Stalinist, contemptuous of the Labour Party leadership, hostile to Trotskyism (or what passed for such in Britain) and hopeful of finding a new way forward and a revitalised Marxism. The best known leading figures were ex-CP intellectuals like E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Ralph Miliband and so on but there was also a sprinkling of trade union activists like Laurence Daly, Bill Blair Ford and Alex McEwan.

The core of the other wing was a group of students and a few others associated with elite educational institutions, mainly the University of Oxford. Stuart Hall will stand for them. Unlike the first group, most of these young men (there were very few women amongst them) had no contact with or experience of the working class movement in any shape or form.

Each wing had its publication - The New Reasoner for the first, Universities and Left Review for the second. In 1960 these fused to become the The New Left Review. The original version of Out of Apathy also appeared in 1960. This can be described as manifesto. Out of Apathy was also the title of the lead essay by E.P. Thompson and gives the flavour of the thing.

The original New Left disintegrated after a few years under the weight of its own contradictions. What survived the collapse of quite numerous clubs and discussion groups was a new style New Left Review under Perry Anderson and his colleagues - which set out to introduce an allegedly ‘rigorous’ Marxism to the backward and benighted British left - and the more eclectic and much less arrogant Socialist Register. The New Left as such was dead.

Why then this book? It is not a critical account of the early New Left. It is not concerned even remotely with the class struggle in Britain or the world today. As theory it has all the weight of thistledown and of action it does not speak.

Of the three major contributors (major as judged by the length of their contributions only) Charles Taylor tells how he came to reject the ideas of class, class struggle and historical materialism and is not sure what socialism is. He is now, appropriately, a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford - the one that has no students.

Raphael Samuel, whose contribution is at least witty and occasionally informative, tells us: “Whenever I feel gloomy about politics, I think of Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach - the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it - and then think also that one can have consolation from reversing it ...” And Stuart Hall is - Stuart Hall.

It appears that the book is a record of a conference held in Oxford (where else?) in 1987 by the Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group. There was indeed a discussion, duly recorded. The most pertinent contribution came from an anonymous questioner (only the stars have their names printed. The others get numbers, number nine in this case).

No.9 said:

The title of this conference is “Out of Apathy”, so not knowing very much about the group that organised it, I came thinking that it was going to be a sort of reproach to my generation for the lack of activism on student campuses and for our general materialist self-interest. But instead of a call to organise, what I’ve been hearing is a call to analyse: let’s all just get together and think.

This drew the following reply from Stuart Hall: “I am sure that you will be frustrated because I won’t answer your question.” But he had already done so earlier, in these memorable words:

There is always a moment in the politics of the left when doing nothing is probably the best thing!


Last updated on 25.11.2003