Peter Sedgwick

A Return to First Things


From Balliol College Annual Record 1980, pp.86-88. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

G.D.H. Cole and Socialist Democracy, by A.W. Wright. (Clarendon Press, Oxford, £10.50.)

My own generation of Balliol’s Left was far less influenced by G.D.H. Cole’s Socialist teachings than we should have been, considering that in those years of the mid fifties he was an incessant propagandist and missionary for his own brand of eclectic and open-ended radicalism. Contact with Cole was not in fact uncommon in my circle. Raphael (Ralph) Samuel, my chum and comrade and the very hub of the Communist Party’s endeavours at this time, was an habitué of the Cole Group that met in All Souls, as was my genial Left Social-Democrat friend Ralph Waldron. From these I learnt that Cole was in the habit of breaking into rousing Socialist songs, of his own composition, from the time of the General Strike, when in younger company. From time to time I would wend up a staircase in the back quad to see Branko Pribićević, a Yugoslav Communist and ex-partisan writing a thesis under Cole’s supervision on the history of the workers’ control movement in Britain. My visits to Branko had little to do with any serious discussion of socialism: I was, in fact, selling him the Daily Worker, at a time when (to his irritation) that newspaper was still viewing Yugoslav Communism as a nest of C.I.A. hirelings and NA.T.O. spies. In the state of eager delusion and wilful ignorance practised by the majority tendency of Balliol’s Left (and not only Balliol’s) in these final years of the High Cold War and a Stalinism that was slow to expire, dialogue and argument about left politics was not something I seriously wanted.

The factional lines separating Balliol’s Red corpuscles often prevented or aborted what might have been valuable friendships. Mike Kidron, who for years now has been a good buddy of mine, as well as a most patient publisher, was in those lunatic days the target of a concerted (and fairly successful) freezing-out campaign by our Stalinist selves, who accused him of numberless Trotskyist duplicities – an indictment particularly unfounded against one so naturally straightforward, and so visibly libertarian. A particular shadow – not ultimately fatal, however – was cast across my close friendship with Tom Arie, with whom I had exchanged a great deal of fun, tenderness, and warmth: an estrangement springing entirely from my tendency to spring to the defence of several east European states, one of the nastiest of which was engaged in persecuting his relatives (as well as several million other people).

In all this while, a few minutes’ walk away from this hotbed of spite and exaltation, G.D.H. Cole was publishing work after work dealing with revolutionary ideas to whose reception my mind was utterly closed. 1953 had seen the first volume of his History of Socialist Thought, dealing with the Utopian pioneers of the Left. In 1954 the second volume appeared, recounting the long debates between anarchism and Marxism. It was inconceivable for me to listen to any hint of a case stemming from Utopian Socialism or from anarchism. The experience (now so common among young radicals of the age I then was) of encountering several diverse critical traditions of inquiry and action, of negotiating a set of personal choices among them, was one denied to me – or (rather) one I denied myself.

It would not be long before, in my own case and that of my C.P. comrades, the brittle shell of Stalinist dogma caved in, and we became opened to all manner of influences from a wider, healthier Left. In the spring of 1956, as the Western press began to carry the first leaked reports of the denunciation of Stalin at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party Nikita Khrushchev and the Soviet Premier Bulganin paid a quick visit to Oxford as part of their official tour of Britain. In the Broad a large throng of undergraduates awaited their emergence from the Sheldonian Theatre: out came a dapper, demure Bulganin and a grinning, ebullient Khrushchev, who offered a boxer’s wave to a young multitude that was now engaged in a full-throated melody. ‘Poor Old Joe’ we were singing: an irony which only weeks previously would have been quite beyond the ken of myself and assorted comrades.

As 1956 progressed, so did the reach of the various feelers that were extended between dissident Communists and the non-C.P. Left. When The Reasoner appeared (the illicit inner-Party bulletin edited from Yorkshire by E.P. Thompson and John Saville) it carried an article by Cole, reflecting rather critically on ‘democratic centralism’: in early 1957 he also favoured the first issue of Universities and Left Review, an early New Left journal edited by four recent Oxford graduates (three of them from Balliol) with an article on the economics of British capitalism. By then, Suez and the Hungarian revolution had struck home: the vengeful suppression of the latter by Russian troops and armour consigned to cinders any residual loyalties my grouping may have felt to the U.S.S.R. and its works, and educated some of us (at least) in the spectacle of an authentic workers’ revolution, insurrectionary and associated in factory-based councils, an anti-statist counter-state raised in the form of ‘anti-Soviet’ soviets.

This was, of course, a very simplified vision both of the just society and of the means laid down by history for reaching it. Yet, as it happened, Cole was in this period engaged in propaganda for a political vision that was discernibly similar: that of a Socialism of decentralized association and active, participatory democracy, whose basic units would be sited at the workplace and in the community rather than in any central apparatus of the State. In this latest phase of his political and educational career, lasting till his death in 1959, Cole was experiencing what Tony Wright terms, in this masterly intellectual biography, ‘a return to first things’, a re-envisioning of the same concern with democratic organization, shaped at the base of society from below, which had formed the centre of his Guild Socialist theorizing from before the First World War until the twenties. The New Left that was beginning to define itself in our own more recent era of radical democratic pressure realized that in Cole it had a precursor and helper; a theorist and activist for a form of left-wing Socialism that owed nothing to the Leninist mould and had only a precarious connection with Social-Democracy; a firm anti-Stalinist who had refused embroilment in the international and domestic cold war against Communism.

Cole’s last campaign for the reassertion of a militant Socialist conviction was finely timed: he was sponsoring the first political gatherings of anything that could be called a New Left in the months when the C.P.S.U.’s Twentieth Congress was still a little while ahead. These were the initial meetings to form the International Society for Socialist Studies, the harbinger of what was intended to be a ‘World Order of Socialists’ free from any primary allegiance to a party or State machine. From the Balliol Left, Alan Hall was closely involved in this preparation, as was Stuart Hall, soon to become the non-Balliol member of the Universities and Left Review team and, subsequently, the first editor of New Left Review. For those of us whose baptism into an independent Socialism had to await the series of traumatic events in 1956, the availability of this alternative tradition of the Left, upheld by Cole over decades of a frightful isolation, was a source of sustenance and hope.

In Tony Wright’s rich and distinguished analysis of Cole’s thinking we have a Balliol thesis on Balliol’s own most outstanding Socialist thinker: Cole was, of course, a Balliol alumnus and (later) Fellow, though in view of his connection with several other Oxford institutions – extramural as well as collegiate – it would be wrong to claim him with any sense of possession. Wright’s treatment is particularly acute in disentangling the consistent principles which held together Cole’s various inconsistencies. For there were long spells when his principal public role was not that of a propagandist for massive social change but rather that of a prescriber of electorally based remedies to he dispensed by a reforming Labour Administration. Wright dwells sensibly on what he terms Cole’s ‘bifocalism’ – that is, his capacity to entertain, more or less simultaneously, broad and generous long-range vision of thoroughgoing socialism and a set of short-run tactical objectives which rendered his outlook conformable with that of parliamentary labourism even though his own temperament and bent were profoundly anti-parliamentary.

Cole’s position as a free-lance radical intellectual meant that, for the translation of his ideas into political effectiveness, he had to depend on an institutional framework forged by other social and historical forces. In the period before the First World War, the agency that could implement his arguments was visible (or apparently so) in the nascent syndicalist and industrial-unionist movements of British labour. When, in the defeats of the twenties, the trade unions became weakened and the Guilds bankrupted, Cole rationalized his pleas for industrial peace and shop-stewardly moderation as a tactical retreat in hard circumstances rather than as the principled adoption of classless, national-interest perspectives. When no connection was possible with a real rank-and-file in the labour movement, there was always work for an indefatigable researcher like Cole to servicing the T.U.C., the Labour Party, or the intelligent public with the factual documentation that would keep them well informed in bewildering times. During such phases of modest retreat from an open militancy, the long-run Socialist case remained as a reserve whose credit was still intact, and could be drawn on – with telling effect – when the times changed once more and a new audience could be found to make it their own.

Dr. Wright is a sensitive critic of the gaps and weaknesses in Douglas Cole’s approach to politics. Cole never developed a Socialist (as distinct front a liberal, or generally ‘civilized’) critique of the Soviet Union: indeed, one is left with the impression that he preferred to leave Stalin’s Russia as a dark exemplar of the worst that Marxism could do rather than engage in the beginnings of an attack which would separate Stalinism decisively from the heritage of Marx. But then Cole could create an autonomous political space for himself only by distancing himself from (among other things) Marxism as a systematic view of the world: even though, to modern eyes, his espousal of industrial class-struggle and his belief in the necessary abolition of capitalism make him look far more Marxist than not.


Last updated on 25.11.2004