Peter Sedgwick

The Two New Lefts

(August 1964)

Peter Sedgwick, The Two New Lefts, International Socialism (1st series), No.17, August 1964, p.15.
Also published as The New Left, Chapter 3 in D. Widgery (ed.), The Left in Britain 1956-1968, Penguin 1976.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

... the Clubs and discussion-centres will be places beyond the reach of the interference of the bureaucracy, where the initiative remains in the hands of the rank-and-file ... Their influence will pervade the Labour Movement, as the Campaign is coming to pervade it; but because this influence derives from ideas it will elude administrative control. The bureaucracy will hold the machine; but the New Left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation.
(EDWARD THOMPSON, New Reasoner, Summer 1959)

I am not, I think, betraying a closely-guarded state secret when I say that the movement which once claimed to be ‘The New Left’ (and with which Wright Mills identified himself) has now, in this country, dispersed itself both organizationally and (to some extent) intellectually. We failed to implement our original purposes, or even to sustain what cultural apparatus we had. What purposes the review which now bears its name will fulfil remains to be seen.
(EDWARD THOMPSON reviewing Wright Mills in Peace News, 29 November 1963)


The Old New Left

From the spring of 1957 until around the summer of 1961, a British political movement which became known as the ‘New Left’ flourished hectically, before entering a fatal decline. In its prime, during the four years that followed the outrages of late 1956 upon Hungary and Egypt, the movement displayed an expansive and apparently tireless dynamism, accumulating an imposing set of political properties and insignia, the tokens and titles of an estate of presumable substance. There was the building, for instance, situated a stone’s throw from Marx’s old rooms in Soho, whose various floors were given over to the multiform functions of the New Left’s cultural apparatus; its nether storeys housed the Partisan, ‘London’s left-wing coffee house’ (a similar establishment opened later in Manchester), whose dramatic brutalist decor and white megawatt downglare diffused a curious alienation-effect upon the customers; the basement was more subdued, though still Spartan enough, a dining-room and resort for poetry and folk-song; the first floor began life as the frantic publicity HQ for the first Aldermaston march and subsequently became an odd little socialist library, full of literary garbage from the thirties, review copies of books just out, exchange copies of fraternal publications, and some true incunabula of Left lore. Here meetings and at least one exhibition (a heaped conspectus of cuttings and souvenirs from the thirties) took place. The uppermost floor held the editorial-cum-administrative office for the publications and groupings of the movement; the latter included the Universities and Left Review Club (1957-8; re-christened New Left Review Club from 1959 on), which used to attract hundreds to weekly lectures and discussions in the larger basements of central London, and further regular meetings were held by such autonomous sections as the Education, History of Socialism, Left Scientists, Social Priorities and Literature groups, the International Forum, and the London Schools Left Club, a self-governing unit for youngsters still at school. Between thirty and forty local Left Clubs ran on a modest scale outside London, mostly either in the South-East or in the industrial North (including Scotland). Sporadically through these years, there were hopes and hints of an informal New Left International, small but alive and identifiable. The Universities and Left Review Club’s Cry Europe meeting, which packed St Pancras Town Hall on Bastille Day 1958, united on its platform representatives of the West German anti-nuclear mass campaign and the French neutralist Left, spokesmen from the crushed Hungarian revolution and the rising anti-fascist generation of Spain, and staff members from the established Left and liberal press (Observer, New Statesman, Herald). And all through its existence, the New Left sensed that it had allies abroad: the French PSU, the Italian PSI, the flickering Marxist revisionism of Eastern Europe, and the entire gamut of sociologue radicalism in the United States from Wright Mills to Riesman, were all announced (or else announced themselves) as fraternal delegates in the thronged convention of ideas that met in permanent session, with a limitless agenda, up to the crisis of the movement. From the rostrum of the Universities and Left Review Club, Isaac Deutscher prophesied to his eager audience that the coming decade would be ‘known to posterity as the Red Sixties’; the slogan was taken up, made into the title of a pamphlet that was endorsed by a score of Labour MPs. The society that published the pamphlet, a keen left Labour grouping known as Victory for Socialism, was later to be taken over by disillusioned Bevanites, and in 1964 announced its own suspension ‘in the interests of Party unity’. At the time, however, the prophecy had an alluring gleam.

While the extent of the New Left’s actual influence is still far from clear, its news-value for the British intelligentsia was unmistakeable. The names of many of its writers became currency in that quotidian swapping of trends and trading of significances that weekend reviewers and columnists conduct, so to speak, within the temple of the arts. Between the organs of the Congress for Cultural Freedom and of the New Left a continuous sniping contest developed, and no volume of social-democratic theorizing was complete without a patient demolition of the latest arguments against capitalism offered by this neo-Marxist young set. A professor devoted all of three broadcast talks to the examination of the movement’s political philosophy, and to the reproof of its ‘vestigial Bolshevism’. While the political objectives of the New Left (e.g. unilateralism, workers’ control) received little or no publicity outside the committed dissident press, its cultural analysis of capitalism and the mass media were much more widely acceptable. R.H.S. Crossman, to take the most sensational instance, reviewing Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution on the editorial page of the Guardian, called it ‘undeniably the first book to break through the thought barrier of socialist ideas ... the book I have been waiting for since 1945’. Explorations in cultural sociology were regarded by most of its critics as the proper province of the New Left, and as its chief source of intellectual strength; the politics were a strident intrusion, perhaps even symptomatic of an old-Marxist faction within the group that was taking the more sensitive, innocent youngsters for a ride. All the same, within these limitations the New Left enjoyed a run of fashionable publicity of a kind that has in Britain rarely been the privilege of aspiring revolutionary formations. In a diffuse way, too, it benefited from the lustre of a few of its more notable artistic and academic contributors, mascots or idols for the occasion who provided an assuring link with the insurgent literature of the late fifties or with the world of solid scholarship. The allegiance of these writers to the New Left was usually a secondary loyalty at the most (except in the case of C. Wright Mills), but their presence in its pages anchored the movement firmly in the world of discourse that it shared with the accredited media, and helped to generate the sense, common among the Left intelligentsia of its time, that here was a setting for social action that drew together and marshalled the deepest, most authentic radical concerns of the day.

Not the faintest murmur of this movement now remains. To be sure, a journal titled New Left Review is still edited from the Soho address from which the old crusade was organized, and the roll of ‘New Left Clubs and Groups’, amounting to some forty local sections, until recently filled an entire page of each issue. NLR’s original editors and contributors still (in many cases) write articles in the independent left-wing press and books under the imprint of general publishers; although their names now scarcely ever appear in the review which they founded. The kremlinologically inclined observer, comparing the present editorial board of NLR with its forerunner, will not fail to note that only one name, that of a poet domiciled in the United States, survives from the former central committee of twenty-six that had emerged from the various ordeals of amalgamation and accretion in the formative period from 1957 onwards. Even the few symbols of continuity turn, on closer examination, into indices of change; the New Left now only occupies the top floor of the Soho building, the Partisan and the Left Book Centre having long vanished, and scarcely any of the listed clubs and groups have as much as a paper existence. The largest assembly that can be mustered under the New Left banner is a literary discussion circle that meets at a London pub. On a broader plane, the international affiliations and contacts of the movement have expired, or fragmented out of recognition. The French and Italian Lefts are consumed in their own dissensions, the Marxist revisionism of the Soviet bloc has been worn out or squeezed out – and the more recent schisms of world Communism, in China and Rumania, have proved ignoble in spirit and devoid of ideas. On both sides of Europe, the idealist absolutes projected after 1956, by Hungary, Suez and Algeria, have grown dim, and enthusiasms are tranquillized by rising dosages of technological renewal, expert planning and governmental power.

Within the press of the British intelligentsia the New Left has ceased to function as a desirable subject. It has left the realm of relevant matter occupied by Beatles, computers, Harold Wilson, polystyrene, Pop art and bentwood furniture, and entered instead the limbo populated by Rosicrucians, diesel-engine maintenance, syndicalism, married life and Omar Khayyam. It might, of course, be argued that a socialist movement is better off for being in, as it were, a state of cultural illegality. In the present condition of the Left in Britain, a review printed in around four thousand copies (the present scale of NLR) could be much more significant than one (like NLR at its outset) with double the circulation and possibly a diluted clientele. Be this as it may, the change of scale certainly reflects a qualitative change in the aims of the New Left, not simply a loss or retreat.

The origins of the Old New Left (for some such discrimination must now be made) were closely linked with a set of conditions operating in temporary coincidence on the British radical-intellectual scene from 1956 onwards. Each element in this conjunction formed an interest within the movement and held a claim on its attention. There was, for instance, a post-Stalinist lobby; part of the New Left’s history is of the evolution of a substantial section of it from an opposition within the British Communist Party to an unattached Marxism which could, at its best, ask searching questions of its less revolutionary colleagues. One of the components of the merger that created New Left Review in early 1960 was a quarterly journal named the New Reasoner, edited by two Yorkshire-based labour historians, John Saville and Edward Thompson, who had run a duplicated opposition bulletin (the Reasoner) as members of the Communist Party in that interval of agonized reappraisal in 1956 between the denunciation of Stalin and the destruction of Hungary’s revolution. The New Reasoner’s broad responsibility was felt towards the Labour movement, but it maintained a dissident-Communist identity of sorts until the time of its amalgamation into NLR. It would perhaps be more accurate to say that with the merger the New Reasoner gave up certain formal attributes of ex-Communism, for instance its tendency to lapse into roll-calls of the Marxist great (from William Morris through Tom Mann to Christopher Caudwell) and its conscious bond with the Marxist dissent (in any case now defunct) of Eastern Europe. It brought into the fusion far more than it shed: an explicit commitment to class-struggle, an iteration of the role of human agency as against impersonal historic process (be it gradual or cataclysmic), a devotion to relatively punctilious habits of work.

The claim exerted by this tendency, overlapped largely with the demands of a different source: the theoretically inclined sector of the Labour Left. Until the foundation of the New Left’s publications, the militant wing of the Labour Party had lacked any organ which could stabilize and generalize its mode of action beyond the level of transient, reflex response. Only the Right and Centre of the party (through the work of Crosland, Strachey and various Fabian essayists) could claim any attempt at a pondered overview of British society or world economics. During the Gaitskell ascendancy in British Labour politics, the New Left engaged in a series of detailed studies in the structure of modern capitalism, the pattern of world trade and the record of Labour Parliamentarism. These empirical analyses could be seen to run in parallel with other discussions at both a more philosophical and a more tactical level. Ranged behind the close factual studies lay nuanced dissertations on work and alienation (often with the character, as one unkind critic put it, of a ‘U’ trailer advertising an ‘A’ thesis). In the front rank, advancing from the main body of massed data, thrust a bristling programmatic array: common ownership under workers’ control, unilateral nuclear disarmament, neutralism in foreign policy, a new leadership for Labour. A quirk of fate has answered the last of these demands; a failure of nerve has caused the others to evaporate. The Labour Left no longer desires an independent theoretical base with an outspoken socialist platform. The sole residuary of the Old New Left’s tactical heritage is its Socialist Wages Plan, a piece of bureaucratic Utopianism envisaging the control of wages by a committee of Government, TUC and employers, first published in 1959 and recently offered once again for the attention of the incoming Wilson Administration in the latest issue of New Left Review. [1]

These were the twin political elements of the primeval New Left: a utopian pole and (as it has turned out) a Machiavellian, romanticism and realpolitik rubbing off on one another, reflecting back and forth, crossing and fusing at peaks of intensity upon platform or pavement, before separating out, and at last burning out. The confrontation of these extremes took place as much within individuals as between them (even though one can think of people prominent in the Old New Left who were either almost-pure romantics or else unmistakeable real-politicians); perhaps the most direct argument between the poles took place over the tactical question of support for independent electoral candidates (such as the Fife Socialist League). This, as it turned out, was resolved in a characteristic manner (at the Left Clubs conference in 1960) by deciding that ‘variations in local conditions’ were such that no general advice could be given; this was true enough, except that most of the local variation was inside the New Left itself. By and large, however, politics functioned as a single claim within the councils of the movement, as against the pretensions of its chief rival, which may be called Socio-Culture.

Socio-Culture was compounded of two sorts of item: there were specimens of personal creative work, whether poems, plays, paintings, films or critical essays, which were felt to be successful in manifesting, within the terms of their genre, some vision or insight relevant to a ‘socialism at full stretch’. These were at first grouped under the catch-all slogan of ‘commitment’; although the term was shortly dropped as an embarrassment, the subject-matter persisted on and off for years. This material bears re-reading after the lapse of time less than any other feature of Old New Left writing: bitsy or self-indulgently prolix by turns, its nose embedded in the furrow of literary vogue, incapable of either the long look back or the sideways swoop into neglected byways.

The other main arm of Socio-Culture lay in the exploration of the cultural mass media and their effects on popular moral and social consciousness. With the exception of its evidence to the Pilkington Committee (set up by the Government in 1960 to advise on the future of radio and TV), the New Left performed very little empirical work of its own in this field. Rather it theorized upon the role of the mass media in a class-divided society, and on the relationship between a critique of the media and the overall socialist case against capitalism. This concern was most evident in the journal Universities and Left Review (founded in Oxford, early 1957; merged into NLR, early 1960) and was given its fullest rationale in the work of Raymond Williams. What Williams finally offered was the replacement of a conflict model of society (of the sort which has been traditional among socialists and even radical reformers) with a communications model, in which the unity of human-kind is primordially broken, not by the clash of rival social interests, but by blockages and faulty linkages in moral perception. Society is conceived as a kind of mental organism whose warring faculties, in the shape of sectional or partial value-systems, eventually, if effortfully, knit together in a single communications net or ‘common culture’. Williams’ style is peculiarly idiosyncratic and cloudy, so much so that it can have had scarcely any following in detail. Once exposed to view in its most extended form (The Long Revolution), the argument was at once subjected to stringent criticism in the pages of New Left Review by Edward Thompson. However, embryonic variants of the approach were common enough in New Left circles from the outset, particularly among contributors to ULR. Williams’s model, indeed, grants a distinct positive role to the working-class movement, as the carrier of the collective, democratic values which form the main alternative in tradition to the hierarchical bourgeois norms of competition and ‘service’. Other moral critics associated with the group tended to leave no scope for any active influence to emerge from below against the enervating effects of TV, the press and the domestic machines. Raymond Williams acted at times as a lucid and invaluable corrective to this paralysed vision of victimhood, in which the working class was sited always at the receiving end of transmission from an alien agency, whether as the objects of survey research, the beneficiaries of welfare and planning proposals, or the consumers of shoddy cultural goods. And yet the whole effect of the sociocultural mode, whether in its overweening or its plebeian variety, was subversive of political activism. This is not to deny that individual cultural critics became engaged in pamphleteering or public demonstration as the call of duty arose; only to indicate that the social approach which they were evolving left no place either causally or functionally for the operation of struggle.

Witness the New Left’s evidence to the Pilkington Committee:

The task of the Pilkington Committee is, first to define a philosophy of communication in modern society, and then to apply it, with vigour and skill, to the particular problems which face us now. But it must be added that no reshaping of the present structure, by itself, will suffice. In the end, the quality of the service provided will depend on the critical awareness of the audience, the sense of responsibility on the part of those who serve that public, the conditions in which that service is received and the cultural life of society as a whole. Each of these has its roots deep in the educational structure (my italics - P.S.) of our society and the Pilkington Committee should not be inhibited from making these wider connections in its Report, because of its terms of reference. [2]

Briefly put, it’s all in the mind, you know. And the solidarity primarily expressed is with the programmers and transmitters: wrongheaded as they may be, it is with these that the dialogue is conducted, to them that the bright ideas are tendered.

What emerges most strikingly from a retrospect of this section of the New Left is its distillation of the false consciousness of the middle-class meritocracy. The myth which the Leftish professional man most enjoys is to the effect that corruption lies about him everywhere except in his own element. The factory worker, the salesman, the stockbroker, the brigadier are all enslaved by virtue of their actual social functions, which are part of the machinery of class society. But the career worlds of the cultural media, of education (especially higher or further education) and of social welfare are commonly believed to be intrinsically classless or neutral agencies, floating with an eagle eye around the social pyramid but never integrally located within it. As an absent-minded host will deal out coffee-cups to the assembled guests, only to discover finally that he has forgotten one member of the company, namely himself, so the professionalized radical appoints himself as observer and dispenser to society within his speciality, a role with which he is so wholly identified that he can never view it externally. Since his duties may be sponsored by one of the many collectivist or corporate institutions whose advertisements for pensionable posts occupy whole pages of his favourite weeklies, he is apt to believe that these or kindred bodies constitute a locus for progressive advance against the vulgarities of commerce: BBC as against independent TV, planning department as against speculator’s sprawl, liberal studies as against barbarity, the sociologist’s or economist’s peephole into the bourgeois ant-heap. Over the last few years it has become more and more evident that the socio-cultural preoccupations of the New Left were not after all coursing heroically against the stream, but instead have been, in the broadest sense, with it. ‘We are full of confectionery and short of hospitals; loaded with cars and ludicrously short of decent roads; facing an educational challenge of major proportions, yet continuing a limited class system of schools’; these sentiments could have come today from a liberal newspaper editorial commenting on the latest batch of governmental reports, or from a party political broadcast on behalf of Transport House. (Actually they are from a New Left article of January 1960.) The components of socialist humanism, lovingly turned out, oiled and assembled in the comradely arsenals of yesteryear, are flung back at us in monstrous dispersion from the target areas on the other side.

Nor should this be entirely surprising. The institutionalization of the avant-garde, which has reached the perfection of a mechanized process in the visual arts, is today established in a wide variety of material. The repeated transformation of radical preferences (in theatre, film, TV, folksong, satire) into reigning norms, the increasingly frantic tempo and turn-over of critical acclaim, the apparently ever-shortening lag between debut and recognition, recognition and popularization: these arise from the cultural demands of an expanding selectively educated stratum which requires the installation around itself of an entire furniture of novelty to stand in lieu of, and partly in opposition to, the more genteel spiritual upholstery upon which the pre-war educated classes had reclined. So, too, in the realm of social ideas there is particular scope for the generation of trend-setting, trail-blazing, mess-clearing attitudes and programmes which have an inherent appeal to those middle sections of the community whose professional position is intimately bound up with the direction of public spending. A limited collectivism, a readiness to listen to experts and accept planning, is built into the consciousness of this social segment; current Labour Party style is indeed an attempt to trap and canalize this bias for electoral purposes. The Old New Left was of course more radical in many of its prescriptions than Harold Wilson – but in its social and cultural class-appeal it belonged half-consciously to the same programmatic family.


The diversity of the New Left’s origins was reflected in the logic of its discourse. In this Federative People’s Republic of the mind, all the constituent territories were egocentrically equal; all proclamations were posted in the several tongues side by side (laced with an official lingua franca combining features both of mandarin and demotic idiom), and massive verbal contingents from the separate duchies marched past in separate formation for a review which rapidly became a show of ceremonial unity rather than of fighting strength. Legislatively, the votes of the member-states were balanced within an implicit veto system, so that the metropolitan interest (analytic, socio-cultural, theatre-going) could never outweigh the provincial (romantic, movement-oriented, Club-brandishing), the reformist spirit was always countervailed by the revolutionary (and vice versa), and the intelligentsia always had the same ration of seats at the round table as the working-class Left (whose quota was seldom if ever taken up, though, by actual personnel). Dissent was never suppressed, but simply co-opted, usually settling thereafter into a voluntary silence. For, despite all divergences, the movement was agreed upon its basic enemies (capitalism, communism, philistinism) and was able to cohere, at least for a long period, through the cement of militant success. New autonomous oblasts constantly announced their accession and joined the march-past, a Left Club one month, a social critic the next; and the whole procession knew that it moved in time with the millionfold footsteps of a vast phantom army of potential fellow-travellers, that up-and-coming fresh, vigorous race of recruits against the effete, whose name is Youth. ‘The bureaucracy will hold the machine; but the New Left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation.’

For Youth was more than another partner in the bloc of claims, it was the banner of the whole confederacy, the source of positives – authenticity of feeling, breadth of response, suspicion of establishment – for activator and analyst alike. However, the brilliance with which the cultural anthropologists of the New Left reported on the folkways of the young was in the end hopeless: the only section of young people among whom the movement made any progress was its own further educated juniors. The Young Socialists, a solidly proletarian body, remained unscathed by New Left ideas. Among the thousands of youngsters who marched with CND the New Left never established an independent socialist presence. It is, of course, dauntingly difficult to make contact with a world as self-enclosed and as self-regarding as that of adolescence. But virtually every other left-wing tendency in Britain has made some showing in this respect, sometimes (it is true) by disreputable methods of intellectual manipulation. The New Left ‘captured’ youth in a purely mental fashion, by recording the detail of the teenage masquerade, by placing its nonconformity as ‘the distorted moral response to a bureaucratic age’ (as Stuart Hall put it in one of his superb pieces in this field), by annexing it into its world of honorary allusions. ‘Only connect’ was, one suspects, a favourite motto within the editorial reaches of the group; the New Left became trapped in the mass of its contemporary connections, unable to break through the web and connect with anything outside.

No less serious was the effect of the polymorph structure of the movement upon the ideas produced by it. The federal budget drained the regional ideological coffers, the official pidgin swamped each hardy vernacular. Much of the Old Left’s writing displayed an inspirational public-relations flabbiness, designed to reassure rather than to discuss. A whole range of arguments were pre-empted by formulae which disarmingly included all candidates in the list of first-class honours. ‘It is not a case of either this or that. We must, at every point, see both – the surge forward and the containment, the public sector and its subordination to the private, the strength of the trade unions and their parasitism upon capitalist growth, the welfare services and their poor-relation status.’ [3] The additive logic of the New Left’s idea-structure equally prevented its proclaimed loyalty to the Labour movement from functioning as an over-riding commitment. The general feeling in the organization was that everybody did their bit, and some people happened to have an industrial bit; whereas, for example, ‘the class struggle for the secondary modern teacher lies in the fight for the comprehensive school and the social principles behind that’. [4] Only C. Wright Mills, a lone voice from abroad, argued for the repudiation of ‘the labour metaphysic’ (i.e., the idea of the working class as the historic agency of change), in his Open Letter to the New Left. [5] For the rest, the New Left tended to invoke the Labour movement as the framework within which it operated, without giving any theoretical primacy to the economic processes which define Labour, or to the struggles, in the first place industrial, out of which the social character of the movement is constantly renewed. NLR was from its inception intended to be ‘both the product of the socialist movement and the point at which this movement is reproduced’ [6]; the trajectory of socialism is, however, by no means that of a merry-go-round in which each specialized hobby-horse rotates into view by turns. The economic antagonism in production, insufficient and incomplete as it is by itself, is still the ground for all other forms of socialist activity, the permanent reservoir for socialist politics.

This view is as implicit in the origins of the British Labour Party (parliamentary reformism) as it is in any Marxist teaching. It makes sense to try and fuse socialist ideas with the institutions of a working-class movement; but not to attempt to add industrial campaigning to a political movement of the intelligentsia. Of the few ‘industrial comrades’ with whom the New Left could claim any persistent contact, a high proportion were full-time trade-union officers. Shop stewards and rank-and-file worker militants were rarer here than in any left-wing grouping in Britain. This extraordinary defect in composition could not be corrected (as some of us tended to believe) by a more class-aware, more responsible orientation on the part of the New Left leadership. It was inherent in the terms of the group from its outset, in the Clubs no less than the Review; Fabian organizational forms cannot accommodate working-class (let alone revolutionary) politics.

Something should be said on the foreign policy advocated by the New Left. ‘Positive neutralism’ is a watchword seldom heard today on the British left-wing scene. Its viability was undermined by the Chinese invasion of India and the growing direct Soviet-US confrontation; its honour was put in question by Conor Cruise O’Brien’s expose of UN machinations in the Congo; its public expediency as a slogan has lapsed through the amalgamation, in foreign policy and defence, of Labour’s Parliamentary Left and Right. (Three years ago, Konni Zilliacus was temporarily excluded from the Parliamentary Labour group for publishing an article attacking the Gaitskellite leadership in the international Communist Party journal Problems of Peace and Socialism; a recent issue of the same magazine carried an article by him eulogizing official Labour policies, with a by-line from the Prague editors noting that the views expressed in it were entirely personal.) It is difficult now to recollect how sacrosanct was the formulation of ‘positive neutralism’ in the New Left milieu of 1960–62. The phrase explicitly went beyond a policy of opposition to nuclear war preparations in the Soviet and US power-blocs; it implied an unyieldingly positive attitude to the existing neutral powers of the underdeveloped world. For Peter Worsley, indeed, commenting on the Belgrade neutralist conference in the twelfth issue of NLR [7], the ‘emergent peoples’ were ‘the makers of a new synthesis which may contain the germs of a shared and enriched world-culture’; a synthesis which apparently without further ado incorporated their own rulers, since these governments were in New Left sociology uniquely exempt from any analysis in the terms of bureaucracy, elite or class. For David Ross, writing in the same issue, the conference was ‘by and large the nearest thing we have ever seen to a gathering of our sort of people in power’. Ghost-written gems from the Belgrade rostrum could be quoted in extenso as the pronouncements of authenticated spokesmen for their peoples; Sudan’s General Abboud, Prince Sihanouk, Marshal Tito, Emperor Selassie and Osagyefo Nkrumah stood at the summit of New Left diplomacy, the international Popular Front that answered the domestic indiscriminacy of ideas, the unchallenged bearers of the Common Culture. Castro’s Cuba was an early candidate for the ‘new synthesis’ of the organic Third World: ‘Elections and party government is [sic] seen now as a rupturing of the transitional period, slowing down its pace and altering its style. It would formalize the system and fracture the fraternity between people and leaders formed in the revolutionary war. With the memory of Batista’s electoral hoax fresh in their minds, the Cuban poor regard elections as a bureaucratic postponement of the revolution.’ [8]

The deformations of the Cuban revolution were ascribed exclusively to Cold War pressure; conversely, neutralism in foreign affairs was assumed to be a stimulus to healthy socialist development, without any further consideration of domestic social facts that might militate for or against a radical outcome. Thus Peter Worsley invokes ‘the immense pressure Britain could generate, in alliance with India, Ghana, Yugoslavia, and backed by the uncommitted countries, for world peace and active neutrality’, and remarks that ‘most of these uncommitted nations are countries which could, under such stimulus, move towards socialism ... India, Austria, Israel, Indonesia, Ghana, to name but a few ...’ (Out of Apathy, p.136). The incongruity of this coalition was surpassed by the conclusion by a New Left pamphlet that the European Free Trade Association, which includes Portugal as well as Britain, Austria, Switzerland and the Scandinavian governments, was ‘fundamentally a neutralist bloc’ (Britain’s Crisis and the Common Market, 1961). This was indeed the diplomacy-in-exile of an ideal Republic: fantasies of statecraft, hallucinated expediencies, clouded the social vision of the New Left and inflated its self-importance. The language of Positive Neutralism, New Powers, and Emergent Peoples was about as illuminating as the rival rhetorics of Free World, Camp of Peace, Western Values and Proletarian Internationalism.


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 which were brought to a head shortly before the retirement of the editor Stuart Hall and the radical reorganization of the movement. The arguments were conducted out of sight, through the medium of discreet conventicles and duplicated factional documents. And the content of the debate was mostly internal to the New Left, over matters of tone rather than of detail. Nobody got up, as far as one knows, to query the advocacy, in A Socialist Wages Plan, of ‘the re-allocation of labour between firms by propulsion rather than attraction’ (in English: don’t pay them more, sack them), or to denounce NLR’s tactical silence on the mass Civil Disobedience campaigns. For a long time there had been mounting dissatisfaction in the clubs with the lack of priorities evident in the content of the review. It had become little more than an image-conscious disc-jockey of political and cultural LPs cut outside its own ambit, its heterogeneity rationalized by a listing of the various ‘audiences’ and ‘concerns’ in which it was supposed to have a footing. Edward Thompson became the chief spokesman for that section of New Left opinion that was eager for a more activist and purposeful approach; after six months of argument up and down the country, the journal was re-structured. Instead of a large and amorphous editorial board (which in practice had left the running of NLR to a metropolitan in-group with ill-defined responsibilities, subject to overwork and drift), the review was entrusted to a small team of four with a mandate to re-establish New Left journalism as a serious source of ideas. The projected series of New Left Books was written off, having in two years produced one collection of essays and one literary-critical reprint from the United States. Little was to heard henceforth of the Left Clubs.

By a mixture of design and default, NLR shortly became the preserve of a younger wave of New Left writers, most of whom had been involved in the production of New University, a student socialist journal edited from Oxford. Their elders on the New Left Board, lacking even a token editorial function, dispersed to catch up on their research, emigrate, help run CND, or just vanish. With the organizational passing of the Old New Left, whatever was distinctive in its ideas has perished also. The New New Left cadres in CND have formed no exception and offered little resistance to the processes of dissipation and dilution that have been visibly at work in the anti-nuclear movement as a whole, reflected in Bertrand Russell’s turn from mass campaigning to personal diplomacy and research sponsorship, in the withdrawal of Labour’s MPs from CND’s Executive (‘I am sure these Labour members feel that a CND connection might be a serious embarrassment during the election’ [9]), and in the recurrent moves by the moderantiste wing of the Campaign to disown direct-action initiatives (Committee of 100, Spies for Peace) and play down the full unilateralist case. Stuart Hall co-authored the CND Executive’s ‘intermediate’ policy statement of 1962, of which Canon Collins could later confess, in the mood of retrospect occasioned by his resignation from the chairmanship: ‘... we must never seem to be departing from our basic policy. It was, perhaps, our failure in this respect which led to the poor reception by the bulk of the Campaign of the “Steps Towards Peace” programme.’ [10] John Rex, author of NLR’s main unilateralist pamphlet Britain Without the Bomb, produced for the Aldermaston March of 1960, can now write: ‘What we can do realistically is to lay emphasis on stopping the spread of control, and if this is our aim the notion of unilateralism is entirely irrelevant. We have to see to it that those who are in a position to influence strategic thinking come out clearly for confining possession and control of the deterrent to Russia and America. Precisely because Mr Wilson is ambiguous on this we must make sure that he commits himself against the MLF.’ [11] Attitudes such as this are, in fact, the dominant tendency in British socialism today. The role that is most commonly sought after is nothing more than that of the Left Centre to the Centre-Left.

Political initiative is directed not down to the grass-roots, but upwards, influencing the ambiguous leaders, strengthening and supporting their progressive, collectivist leanings. In this scheme, the medium of political advance is the Centre-Left, a body of persons who have influence, and possibly even administrative power, but lack gumption and consistency and are subject to the wrong pressures. The Left Centre has (it believes) the gumption and the principle, but not the influence; its job is to apply the right, pressure at selected points so that the Centre-Left will swing towards policies which, however limited, will in the long run have delayed radical effects. The tactic has a built-in propensity to retreat from a public, campaigning role, or else the public campaign becomes an adjunct to the localized lobby at the top. The pressurizer is himself under pressure to reduce the most salient features of his own identity, to keep silence about any basic differences in purpose that might be thought to exist between himself and the object of his exertions. His public aim, after all, is not to supplant, but only to supplement, the part played by the influential Centre-Left.

At the moment, there are four or five socialist publications in Britain whose politics fall within Left-Centre/Centre-Left terms. Their outstanding characteristics are their militant reticence (or, in moments of daring, reticent militancy), their mastery of oblique, Aesopian language, and their protective colouring, viz., their total refusal to differentiate themselves from the main lines of official Labour policy. The monthly Union Voice, sponsored by a galaxy of constituency activists, union officials and marxisants, issues a Defence Broadsheet replete with quotes from Dennis Healey, George Brown and Harold Wilson; on unilateralism it is silent, and its qualms about NATO are expressed conditionally (‘build up the United Nations so that it can take over from NATO’). When Wilson commits Parliamentary Labour to support of the oil war in Aden, Tribune quietly deplores ‘hasty statements’ of this ilk, until shamed into a more outspoken protest by its scandalized readers’ letters. In the columns of The Week, a news analysis for socialists with far-Left backing, may be discerned a tougher stance, set in reported rather than direct speech, visible in the interstices between paste-ups. The new bi-monthly International Socialist Journal, whose slate of contributors overlaps markedly with that of NLR, seems to have been conceived as a theoretical meeting-ground for French, Belgian, Italian and British Left-Centre tacticians; and the annual Socialist Register, a volume of essays edited by two stalwarts of the Old New Left, John Saville and Ralph Miliband, while much more traditional in its independent-socialist tone, maintains a sober, silently aloof tenor that is in distinct contrast to the aggressive intellectual presence that burst from the pages of Out of Apathy.

The present development of New Left Review must be seen within this context of general caution and dependence, which runs deeper than the mere tactical conformity of Election Year. The previous management of the review was committed to the establishment of an independent cultural apparatus that could both challenge and elude the grasp of the Party bureaucracy. Now that this hope has failed, any successor movement of socialist intelligentsia must find a fresh rationale. From its beginning, the New Left has been concerned to define its limits, and to achieve the maximum intellectual density within those limits; its sponsors possess a unitary and homogeneous political culture, which they have maintained editorially without sentiment or mercy, preferring the risks of exclusiveness to the flaccid hospitality of their forerunners. As a consequence, the new NLR has succeeded in fulfilling the first duty of any serious political tendency: it has survived intact. The retrenched and concentrated politics of the present editorial team has given a wide berth to the impressionistic social journalism that marked ULR. We have been spared the sociologist’s escapade into youth-leadership, the essay on the political significance of Beatlemania, complete with Twist photographs for Marxist voyeurs. We hear no more of the corroding effects of mass media and status objects; indeed, the captive consumer may now, in certain favoured circumstances, be numbered among the positives of socialist theory:

... the communications network in Cuba - transport, telecommunications, and newsprint - was very highly developed; in some sectors it had effectively reached saturation point. This sophisticated system of communication provided the indispensable technical pre-conditions for the astonishing mobilization of 1959-60. The absence of a political party was compensated by a television, radio and transport system which allowed immediate, electric contact between the revolutionary leadership and the working people of Cuba. [12]

The strength of NLR for the last two years has lain in its richly documented structural and historical studies of metropolitan and colonial societies, studded with Sartrean logic and gallicized syntax. (There have been occasional attempts to copy the typographical style of Les Temps Modernes.) Its cadres are partisans of ‘rigour’ (a key word in New Left deliberations not long ago), adept in the swift global interconnection and the dialectical surprise move. They lack nostalgia; when they survey the past, it is with a time-machine’s traverse, plotting the orbit of elements in the historical ensemble, rather than registering sensuously the impact of men and events. They have never had to ‘work through’ a distorted loyalty: and so there is in them none of the energy of conscious rejection, no streak of puritan vigilance against the enemy within. They are not so much uprooted (the common fate of the mobile intellectual) as rootless. Whereas the other New Left had preserved a notional or umbilical link between itself and extra-intellectual sources of action in British society, this is an openly self-articulated, self-powered outfit, an Olympian autogestion of roving postgraduates that descends at will from its own space onto the target-terrains of Angola, Persia, Cuba, Algeria, Britain ...

For all its purism and scholarship, NLR is now committed, at least on paper, to an activist and Marxist philosophy, in which struggle is acknowledged as the engine of social change, and economic levers are seen as operating at a more fundamental level of potency than cultural influences. Only, the forms of struggle which are picked out for attention and commendation are not those of an industrial working-class movement; they are predominately either agrarian or technocratic, depending on whether an underdeveloped or an advanced society is under scrutiny. In its analyses of the ‘Third World’, NLR has dropped the neutralist endorsement of regimes by foreign policy alone, and maintains a more selective sympathy with those governments and movements which combine drastically radical domestic objectives with a mass rural social base. There is some variation among contributors as to the number and nature of ‘peasant-based socialisms’ that may be affirmed. For one writer, China has ‘her distinctive variant of socialism’ in the underdeveloped world, along with the ‘royal socialism’ of Cambodia, the ‘democratic centralism’ of Guinea and the ‘African socialism’ of Ghana and Mali. [13] The editorial team’s standpoint is much more definitely Fidelista, with Cuba and Algeria taken as the most instructive models for social change, and Ghana, the UAR and Zanzibar as the exemplars of promise for the development of African socialism. [14]

Within this variance of assertion, certain silences are constant: never is any concern voiced for the fate of political democracy in the new regimes, or for the autonomy of trade unions; the vacillations of favoured Front leaders are never mentioned in print, and the corporatist features of their programmes and methods of appeal are ignored. This is not simply the old silence of the ‘Friends of the Soviet . Union’, the factual mythology of bemused fellow-travellers; it is much more like the present silence of the intelligent Labour Left, confronted with an oracular parliamentary leader who (it is felt) may jump in any of several possible directions, some more progressive than others. (The early fixation of American liberals upon Kennedy was very similar.) The single-Front regimes of Castro, Ben Bella, Nasser and Nkrumah are the colonial analogue to the Centre-Left; the leader at the wheel is kept to the revolutionary course either by the discreet comments of the Left Centre inside the vehicle or by the encouraging bravos of Marxist bystanders. The most striking (and successful) instance of this approach is of course the part played by M. Michel Pablo (Raptis), formerly the secretary of the Fourth International, as a key economic consultant to Ben Bella, but others have accepted the same role. (Consider the implications of Ben Bella’s: ‘I am now so unreservedly committed to the Left that any opposition to me is necessarily counter-revolutionary.’ [15]) Recently, too, Khrushchev has elevated Nasser’s Egypt from the ‘state-capitalist’ status to which it had been hitherto consigned by Soviet theorists, and spoken of its ‘advance on the road of socialist development’; the incipient mass Front, the Arab Socialist Union, is declared to be ‘a political organization of the people’ in which, presumably, the Egyptian Communists will play their part. (‘It must be presumed that persecution of Communists has become a thing of the past ... there are no stauncher fighters for progress and socialism than the Cornmunists.’ [16])

Here then is a socialism which puts out no press, organizes no party, supports no strikes, rallies no class, carries no banner, articulates no ideology; its work is only to exhort and endorse the initiatives of the guiding directorate, and (where possible) to enter the inner circle of the latter’s confidence. And, this is an absolutely reasonable terminus for a certain kind of socialist approach; if socialism is not bound up in its very nature with the achievement of democracy by an actual working class, there is not the slightest ground for withholding support from any agency whatsoever, no matter how militaristic, mystical or totalitarian, that conducts sweeping measures of statization and planning.

Jacobin in its inclinations towards the ‘Third World’ of radical scarcity, the New Left veers towards Fabian methods nearer home. The socialist potential of ‘Third World’ dictators lies in the extent of their readiness to expropriate the expropriators and make a sharp, decisive break with the ancient order; for British purposes, however, socialism can be satisfactorily defined as ‘democratically accountable social control over the big aggregates of capital’ [17] and the permeation of planning methods into capitalism is thought to offer the best opportunity for militant socialist advance at a later stage. Thus Barbara Castle (widely tipped as a member of the next Labour Cabinet) can write that ‘In Britain, as in France, the serious pursuit of planning will edge us towards more fundamental decisions about property - and therefore about power – than may seem obvious when we first start out on the road.’ [18] This is sometimes put as the strategy of ‘structural reforms’, a sort of creeping takeover bid by the state against the private sector that will, at a certain point, perhaps through an expose of capitalist obstructionism, clear the air for an explicit inauguration of socialism.

The initial agency of socialization need not, it seems, even be a government of Labour. Gaullist neo-capitalism is seen by one contributor as a ‘compromise’, ‘an abandonment by capitalism of crucial prerogatives to the state’ in which ‘capitalism, in short, is attempting to preserve its position by the use of socialist techniques’ [19]; the same author notes the contemporary ‘introduction of mechanisms of a socialist nature [Mallet’s own italics] into the heart of capitalist economy’. Equally the work of structural reform may, as in Italy, be initiated by a socialist-liberal-clerical coalition, though more of this will be said a little later.

The programmatic consequences of the New Left’s permissiveness towards gradualism are rather interesting. In the sphere of social ownership, no New Left writer has in the last two years singled out any particular area of private industry for nationalization – with the exception of steel and road haulage (the one firmly and the other tentatively booked for state ownership by official Labour policy), and, in one recent tantalizing editorial aside, the contraceptive industry. (This may be contrasted with the lengthy shopping-list of industries and firms given in the Old New Left’s industrial policy document of 1957, The Insiders; the difference reflects the new mood of a Left convinced that Labour’s further plans for social ownership may be safely left up Harold Wilson’s sleeve, where they are assumed to reside.) On the other hand, NLR has been eloquent in its purveyance of detailed suggestions for indirect state limitation of monopoly power, and for the organization of an economic Civil Service. In offering these proposals, it has never considered the implications raised by the remarkable record of adaptability which British capitalism has been able to show in the face of governmental intervention, its long-standing capacities both of evasion and of fusion, when confronted with a rival social challenge. Although the success of a probing, ‘edging’, state-interventionist strategy must remain at least problematic, the New Left (both Old and New) has not hesitated to propose the incorporation of the trade unions into the future machinery of planning. In this respect the time-scale of its policy priorities is revealing; the direct extension of the public sector by nationalization is (except for the case of steel) indefinitely postdated, but the introduction of ‘incomes policy’, the creation of ‘conditions under which the trade unions and their members can be expected to accept only modest increases in money wage terms’, is urged ‘without delay’ upon ‘a Labour Government, working from its existing economic and social policy commitments’.[20]

A similar sense of relative urgencies, as between incomes planning and nationalization, seems to have gone into Thomas Balogh’s pamphlet Planning for Progress; Balogh is both an economic adviser to the Labour Party and a contributor to NLR. In effect, the economic bargaining-power of the working class is being mortgaged to a hopeful blueprint. The protestations of New Left writers in favour of ‘workers’ control’ rest upon a suspect distinction between the control of wages and the control of conditions, the former being hived off for statized determination, the latter being left for the shop-stewards to practise in ‘encroachment’ at factory level. In fact, of course, in many industries the power of the trade-union movement at shop-floor level is inseparable from its ability to enforce improvements in locally determined rates of pay; and many improvements in conditions cost money, as a sort of social wage inside the factory. Nothing could be more calculated to undermine the ‘power at the base’ which the New Left is committed to defending than this bureaucratic buffering of working-class self-activity.

In all this, the New Left is almost consciously acting as a dynamizing Left Centre to the putative Centre-Left of Wilson, Callaghan, etc. What is particularly staggering is its failure to imagine that it might be out-manoeuvred; pursuing a tactic of total theoretical entry, all its eggheads have marched into the single basket of Left reformism, and are now busily appealing to the waverers outside, especially in the trade-union movement, to jump in as well. But the unknown factor in Left-reformist strategy lies not only in the possibility of sabotage or enticement from the business world. Equally doubt-provoking is (a) the immense responsibility that would attach to the leadership in a campaign of administrative encroachment; combined with (b) the desperate unlikelihood of any foreseeable Labour Cabinet that would answer to the part. The successful management of an encroaching, creeping revolution in an advanced capitalist society must surely demand qualities of intransigence and tactical brilliance at the top far in excess of the human resources on call in, let us say, a proletarian insurrection or the industrialization of a peasant territory. (After all, what makes a structural reform structural, and not simply any old reform, is not anything in its content, but precisely its timing in an unfolding militant strategy – no more socialist than the nationalization of coal (or of cars, as in France, or of petrol, as in Italy) unless it was followed through).

Are such qualities of militant intelligence really much in evidence in the Parliamentary Labour Party? The Old New Left thought not: ‘Most of the people at the top of the Labour Party are professional politicians, very much at home in the conventions of capitalist politics. These are a very bad and untrustworthy sort of people. We all know this, but some fetish about “unity” prevents us from saying it. We should say it now since – being professional politicians and sensing which way the wind blows – some of them may start to try out a leftish “image” in their speeches.’ [21] A trifle overpersonalized, perhaps, but well said. Labour’s possible Front Bench has not changed very much since then. The addition of a radical Fabian here or a shifty middleman there is not going to make all that much difference – particularly if Mr Wilson fulfils his object of enlarging the powers of Premiership into something approaching those of Presidency. ‘How can we prevent the Wilson Administration,’ asks NLR rhetorically, ‘from going down in history as the involuntary renovator of capitalism, and ensure that it takes its place as the government which irreversibly inaugurates the transition to socialism?’ The simple, straight answer is that we can’t (though there are other, more modest, mostly welfare functions for a Labour government, and certainly plenty of work for a clear-sighted Left); if we pretend more than this, we risk being transformed into apologists for measures which shackle working-class initiative without having the faintest relevance to a socialist transition. Militant Left-reformism is actually, in the Britain of 1964, as ‘millennial’, ‘utopian’, ‘heroic’ and ‘romantic’ as its proponents have supposed revolutionary Marxism to be.

We do not have to look far back for a practical demonstration of the pitfalls that await even a dynamic gradualism based on an inadequate political vehicle. Italy has afforded a pioneering instance in the ‘Opening to the Left’, a strategy whereby an erstwhile independent socialist formation (the PSI) undertook to support a Centre-Left coalition in the hope of initiating structural, socializing reforms that would go beyond a neo-capitalist modernization. Three articles in New Left Review have commented on the evolution of this perspective. In the beginning, ambitious euphoria:

‘At this decisive moment of Italian political history, the PCI remained faithful to its policy of “presence”. Refusing the trap of a facile sectarianism, it announced a conditional approval of the Centre-Left formula, based on the declared belief that the “Opening to the Left” could set in motion a political dynamic which would shift the whole political centre of gravity in Italy decisively to the Left.’ [22]

A more guarded, hedged approval followed, as the strategy progressed:

‘I consider that a temporary alliance with the DC cannot be refused a priori, since it may be useful for the achievement of certain specific reforms. The condition of such an alliance, of course, should be that it is not a permanent option.’ [23]

The final note, however, was one of bitter hindsight:

‘Nenni may have wanted to do a number of things, and thought he could do them, but in fact, once he was captured he could do nothing.’ [24]

A good epitaph should be committed to memory: it may be useful for another tombstone.




1. See John Hughes, An Economic Policy for Labour, New Left Review, 24, March - April 1964.

2. New Left Review, 7, January-February 1961.

3. Edward Thompson, New Left Review, 3, May-June 1960.

4. Stuart Hall in Universities and Left Review, 7, Autumn, 1959.

5. New Left Review, 5, September-October 1960.

6. Edward Thompson in New Left Review, 1.

7. November-December 1961.

8. Stuart Hall and Norm Fruchter, Notes on the Cuban Dilemma, New Left Review, 9, May-June 1961.

9. J.B. Priestley in the New Statesman, 26 October 1963.

10. Sanity, May 1964.

11. Peace News, 24 April 1961. [In the original version in IS17 the words “we must make sure that” in this quote were omitted by mistake.]

12. Robin Blackburn, Sociology of the Cuban Revolution, New Left Review, 21, October 1963.

13. Quotations and ascriptions are from Keith Buchanan, The Third World, New Left Review, 18, January-February 1963.

14. See the review of Fenner Brockway’s African Socialism in New Left Review, 24, March-April 1964.

15. To a New Statesman correspondent, 5 June 1964. [In the original version in IS17 the words “committed to the Left that any opposition to me is” in this quote were omitted by mistake.]

16. From Khrushchev’s radio speech on his return from the UAR, summarized in Soviet Weekly, 4 June 1964.

17. John Hughes, An Economic Policy for Labour, New Left Review, 24, March-April 1964.

18. The Lessons of French Planning, New Left Review, 24, March-April 1964.

19. Serge Mallet in New Left Review, 19, March-April 1963.

20. John Hughes, op. cit.

21. Edward Thompson, New Reasoner, Autumn, 1959.

22. Perry Anderson, New Left Review, 13-14, January-April, 1962.

23. Lelio Basso, The Centre-Left in Italy, New Left Review, 17, winter, 1962.

24. Jon Halliday, The New Italian Socialist Party, New Left Review, 24, March-April 1964.


Last updated on 20.8.2007