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International Socialism, Autumn 1964


Laurens Otter

Letter from a Reader


From International Socialism, No.18, Autumn 1964, pp.22-23.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


May I congratulate you on Peter Sedgwick’s excellent history of the New Left (IS 17) and then, having done so, make some carping criticisms thereof? His distinction between the original New Left (which for all its faults was relevant) and the latter variety is obviously valid; but in failing to put the New Left adequately in the context of reformism as a whole he left unanswered the question as to why it should suddenly have lost its relevance. Furthermore, he was rather too complimentary to the founders (understandably, considering his own close personal relationship with them at the time of the foundation) and so fails to show why it was that the original New Left should have made place for the later variant, beyond saying vaguely that its leading militants and theoreticians got caught up in research, emigrated or went into CND. For Sedgwick rightly analyses the membership but does not adequately examine the relationship between members and leaders; and the fact is that the collapse of the membership happened in at least two stages, neither of them coinciding with the collapse of the leadership (although obviously not divorced from this). I will therefore, if I may, give a slightly different interpretation of the record, though hastening to add that I was only periodically about in the New Left, was never so closely associated, and that therefore the disagreements should only be taken as giving a different side of the same picture and filling in gaps.

The pre-1956 Centre-Left was destroyed by Hungary and by the failure of the Bevanites to call for industrial action. As a result many of its younger and more theoretically conscious elements sought a theory on the basis of which they could condemn (but not too much) those who had abandoned socialism, without committing themselves to any revolutionary alternative. In their search they absorbed several independent strains of socialist thought, and a variety of groups and people from the Far Left. For a year these served as the intellectual core of those Centre-Leftists (chiefly around Tribune) who still maintained their traditional position. After a year, very largely as a result, they and many of those to whom they addressed their arguments started to rebuild an intellectual basis for a revival of the Centre-Left (and in so doing formed what Sedgwick so aptly calls the ‘soggies’).

The leading militants of the New Left who originally considered the Victory For Socialism type of social democrats as mere reformists were very soon after dismissing them as ‘dead-beat sectarians’ and insisting that propaganda ought to be oriented to the Greenwood Centre. Before the Cry Europe meeting that Sedgwick mentions the ULR Council met to choose speakers and make other arrangements; uneasily and with a little demur the Council endorsed all the editors’ choices for speakers until the suggestion for a Labour Party MP. After this was reluctantly agreed all the VFS and left LPF names were suggested, each to be dismissed as a demagogue, and finally the editors asked for authority to find an MP who would be neither a sectarian nor a demagogic sectarian. We got Barbara Castle, and even then the editors managed to persuade the Council not to discuss this at the next meeting since the damage was done– this although the non-demagogue had performed the remarkable feat of speaking for 45 minutes without mentioning the rising in Iraq, the brewing crisis in the Lebanon, or the Bomb.

Nevertheless it was in a sense that Lebanon-Jordan crisis which brought the Centre-Left back into existence, a Centre-Left which went through the same ritual of resolution-passing about the Nyasaland atrocities, just as it had performed on a host of issues since 1951. As early as this the prime function of the New Left leadership, in conjunction with other such organisations, was to provide the theory for the TU Left. So that if the history of the New Left were only a history of its spokesmen, Sedgwick would have done better to date the change at the Lebanon crisis. However, at that stage the New Left’s relevance was maintained by its rebels; the CND was not in its early years sufficiently developed organisationally to permit its rebel members a forum to attack the leadership, and they were only able to find such forums on the floors of New Left Clubs. When in 1959 the rank and file of CND wanted to come out against NATO they had to force a resolution through the New Left Club – against the opposition of Stuart Hall – before they could get it seriously debated in the Campaign. (A motion on these lines had been proposed to the 1959 CND Conference, but was killed by the standing orders committee.) Earlier, when the campaign was officially opposed to pickets and these were considered the prerogative of the DAC, the New Left rank and file had swelled the numbers of the Whitehall and American Embassy pickets and as a result the New Left leadership eventually pushed the Executive so that it organised the 1959 Aldermarch, or rather permitted the New Left to do so in its name. Even when the next year Mike Craft pushed through a policy statement which marked the most radical development in the theoretical field that ever came out of the Campaign, and George Clark pulled his tour de force with the fantastic success of the London contingent on the Aldermarch, both radical pushes had to begin as movements, not of the CND rank and file, but of the New Left rank and file. Later still Ralph Schoeneman’s campaign for mass civil disobedience (which was first proposed in 1959 in New Left circles) grew to fruition within the New Left and against the leadership’s wishes. To use a phrase much beloved of early New Leftist thinkers, most advances within CND grew out of a dialogue between the membership of the New Left Clubs and the New Left editors. Only when, after the 1960 CND conference, the campaign began to develop the sort of formalised structure that allowed criticism of the leadership did this cease to be the case. Indeed all that happened was that not merely did the old editors turn to running CND but the old rebels turned to rebelling within CND, and the dialogue continued, with the sole difference that it was now organisationally within CND and not within the New Left. But it would be as true to say that the New Left took over the Campaign as it is to say that the old New Left died at that period. Either way the irrelevance of the latter New Left to the Campaign stems from the fact that that part of the New Left that saw the Campaign as the one point where it was possible to transcend at that time the norm of Centre-Left reformism, and that part also that was most fully attuned to the Centre-Left, both moved elsewhere.

All this would be irrelevant, as also would Sedgwick’s article, if there were no pointers to the future in all this. But the recent past is so reminiscent of the gestation of the New Left that it is worth considering the parallel. Faced with the Cuban crisis the Centre-Left collapsed in precisely the same way it had done in 1956. Just as before it had hastened to abandon its more radical slogans in token of surrender (so that by the time of the Lebanon crisis only a small section of the Centre-Left was armed with policies that could provide a platform for determined opposition), so, after Cuba, Labour unilateralists hastened to substitute campaigning against the Common Market for campaigning against the Bomb. Prominent campaigners resigned to do Party work, and those who stayed produced Steps Towards Peace as a declaration of surrender and then, deprived of any principles to keep the Campaign together any longer, attempted to build a phoney unity – an umbrella with a very heavy handle and no waterproofing. A minority turned to the Far Left once again searching for theoretical justification; but once again this move to the left in theory was not accompanied by a corresponding move to the left in practice, and was very soon after followed by a move to the right in practice. Under the influence of the revival of revolutionary ideas a section of the soggies turned leftwards and a section of the Far Left turned right to meet them, so that the soggies are succeeded by The Week – the weakly left. As a result we see – particularly in the recent conference on ‘workers’ control’ (in effect workers’ participation in management) – an attempt to rebuild a Labour Party ‘left’. (Probably, just as the Cousins’ ‘TU Left’ was more radical than the Bevanites, so its successor will be more radical than it.) There has not yet been – presumably because of the imminence of the election – an equivalent attempt to ‘harness the radicalism of youth by positing an impossible demand to make a better compromise’ (which is how Priestley and Taylor argued the case for forming CND in 1957), although to an extent the anti-conscription campaign signifies the radical youth harnessing itself. Given the parallels it is not unreasonable to assume that within the weakly left we will see a dialogue not unlike that which started in the New Left and ended in CND.

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