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Ian Birchall

The autonomy of theory:
A short history of New Left Review

(Autumn 1980)

From International Socialism 2 : 10, Autumn 1980, pp. 51–91.
Transcribed by Marven James Scott, with thanks to the Lipman-Miliband Trust.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

‘“Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action,” Marx and Engels always said, ridiculing the mere memorizing and repetition of “formulas”, that at best are capable only of marking out general tasks which are necessarily modifiable by the concrete economic and political conditions of each particular period of this historical process.’ (Lenin) [1]

‘The differential character and trajectory of the Scandinavian social formations, from the Dark Ages onwards, form a fascinating problem for historical materialism, and a necessary control for any general Marxist typology of European development, that is all too often neglected.’ (Perry Anderson) [2]

To produce, over twenty years, 117 issues of a theoretical journal [3], each containing some 60,000 words; to present to English readers numerous contributions to Marxist theory written in French, German, Italian, Swedish, Russian and other languages; to make major contributions to Marxist debate in the fields of philosophy, economics, aesthetics, history, feminism, etc.: all this is no mean achievement. It is one that cannot be denied by even the most impeccably bourgeois sources: ‘truly a magnificent achievement’ (Times Higher Education Supplement); ‘one of the most important reviews on the British intellectual scene’ (Le Monde); ‘arguably the most influential political review in the country’ (Guardian). [4]

Such an achievement deserves, and requires, fraternal but rigorous criticism. One important attempt at this has recently been made by Edward Thompson, a founder of the Review, in his The Poverty of Theory, [5] three out of the four essays in which are, directly or obliquely, aimed against the current editorial team of NLR – Thompson’s sparkling polemical style – only occasionally marred by self-indulgence – and the transparent sincerity of his commitment to political activism gives his work an imposing length. None the less, it must be recognised that Thompson’s political standpoint is in fact clearly to the right of that of NLR; his political strategy is openly Popular Frontist and anti-Leninist; he is concerned for ‘national sovereignty’; he sees both wings of the IRA as ‘terrorists’, the anti-NF action at Lewisham as a ‘provocative incident’ and the upsurge of 1968 as ‘a rich kids revolutionary farce. [6] Moreover, Thompson’s characterisations of NLR are often impressionistic and selective; Perry Anderson (NLR’s editor since 1962), has little difficulty in showing, in his reply to Thompson, that it is not guilty of some of the obsessions and omissions that Thompson accuses it of, and that, indeed, it is very much more eclectic than Thompson’s critique would suggest. [7]

All history is selective; but a brief history of NLR faces particular problems. In its twenty years NLR has published several hundred full length articles and a similar number of shorter pieces and notes. The range of both themes and quality is daunting. The possessor of a complete file has some valuable material – for example Gramsci’s Soviets in Italy, a contemporary commentary on the Italian factory occupations of 1919–20 (NLR 51/28), or Martin Nicolaus’ The Unknown Marx, which presented in 1968 the Grundrisse, at the time scarcely heard of by most Marxists. (NLR 48/41). For the lovers of the more esoteric archive material there is the correspondence between Isaac Deutscher and Heinrich Brandler (NLR 105/56); for the lovers of the retrospectively grotesque then is Conor Cruise O’Brien arguing that if the Easter Rising had only been postponed until 1918 it might have been successful (NLR 37/4); and for those who do not get all their satisfaction from theory there is a very practical (if under-theorised) piece of advice on contraceptive methods (NLR 23/57).

Obviously one article cannot confront this mass of material. The NLR Editorial Committee has published many articles as documentation or as contribution to debate, rather than because its approves. It would be easy, but fruitless, to score points by picking out the weakest items. Instead I have tried to concentrate attention on those articles which seem to me to be the most serious attempts to confront major problems. Inevitably I lay myself open to accusations of distortion by omission.

A history of New Left Review is more than an account of the evolution of one small group of intellectuals. It offers the possibility of examining the development of the British Left over the last two decades. Isaac Deutscher, speaking at the meeting that launched NLR, proclaimed, ‘Forward to the Red Sixties!’ The Red Sixties have given way to the Not-So-Red Seventies and the Not-Yet-Coloured-in Eighties. The problems NLR has faced – or failed to face – have been common to us all. International Socialism was launched in 1960 – the same year as NLR – and aimed itself largely at the same audience, the new generation radicalised by CND.

But while IS was always linked to an organisation, however small, NLR’s claims have been on the level of pure theory. The crisis of theory has been a crucial component of the crisis of the revolutionary left in the seventies [8], and a judgement on NLR raises the whole problem of the relation of theory and practice.

Because for NLR this has meant, from the beginning, a stress on the key political role of intellectuals:

‘The full conversion of the Conservative working class, for instance, can only be achieved through a detour through the sociological groups that generate the consciousness which mystifies it. In other words, the necessary ideological contest for a permanent majority must also be fought and won where the ideology originates – in the intelligentsia.’ [9]

More recently, however, Anderson has become deeply, even masochistically, aware of the divorce between theory and practice. At the end of his essay The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci he notes ‘The structural divorce between original Marxist theory and the main organizations of the working class in Europe has yet to be historically resolved.’ (NLR 100/78). And his book Considerations on Western Marxism [10] concludes lugubriously: ‘All that can be said is that when the masses themselves speak, theoreticians – of the sort of the West has produced for fifty years – will necessarily be silent.’

International Socialism has always argued for a radically different concept of theory – as a ‘guide to action’. The more the masses speak (and act), the more crucially necessary theory will be. But the aim of this article is not to compare the output of NLR and IS (however favourable to us a comparison of the files of the two journals would be). It is to assess NLR in terms of its own theoretical pretensions. In order to do so I have divided the article into two sections. First comes a historical sketch of the main phases of NLR’s development, in relation to the changing priorities of the situation; then follows a survey of its contribution to the main problems facing socialist theory today. [11]

History of NLR

(i) Origins

The origins of the British New Left lay first and foremost in the political crisis of the British Communist Party in 1956, provoked by Kruschev’s ‘secret’ speech and the Russian invasion of Hungary. While nearly ten thousand members left the Party, an unprecedented debate arose around the history, theory and practice of Communist politics. [12]

One group of dissidents was centred on Edward Thompson and John Saville, who between July and November 1956 produced three issues of a duplicated journal called The Reasoner. They were suspended from the Party and resigned following the Russian intervention in Hungary. [13]

Thompson and Saville were not, at this stage, aiming for an Alternative organisation, but for a journal in which problems could be debated and clarified. In reply to the CP Executive, they cited the case of Labour Monthly, published by Party members, but not under democratic control of the Party. [14] And by November 1956 Saville was writing to Thompson ‘I am asking for an English Marxist Esprit – which to me is the best periodical afloat.’ [15]

What he got was the New Reasoner, which produced ten issues; between 1957 and 1959. Among those who were associated with it were Ken Alexander, Doris Lessing, Peter Worsley, Mervyn Jones, Ralph Miliband, Christopher Hill, Iris Murdoch and Eric Heffer. In general, the core of the New Reasoner group were comrades who had spent several years in the Communist Party, and still identified with many of its traditions; they described themselves as ‘a journal of the democratic Communist opposition. ‘ [16]

A rather different group was represented by the Universities and Left Review, also founded in 1957. Some of the founders were ex-CP students, but ULR did not have the same sense of allegiance to the Communist tradition. What ULR did have was access to a new generation of young people being radicalised by a different set of circumstances. Repulsion at Cold War rhetoric and a Gaitskellite Labour Party led young people to flood into the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. At the same time the fifties was a period of complex cultural transition; there is no space to analyse this here, but the developments may be imagined as taking place within a field whose four corners consisted of Elvis Presley, Lonnie Donegan, John Osborne and Kingsley Amis. ULR played an important role in organising for the first CND March to Aldermaston in 1958 (at a time when the CP was still opposed to unilateralism), and also ran a coffee bar, The Partisan, in Carlisle Street (below the offices of the present journal), where there was ‘good skiffle and folk’. [17]

ULR and the New Reasoner were both overwhelmingly in the hands of intellectuals, though the New Reasoner may have had a periphery of ex-CP workers. The only place where the embryonic New Left seems to have had a working class base was in the former CP stronghold of Fife, where ex-CP members formed the Fife Socialist League, which succeeded in winning a local council election, and taking 4,886 votes in the 1959 General Election. [18]

1956–60 was a period of vigorous and open discussion. But the liveliness of debate concealed some fundamental ambiguities which were to lay up trouble for the New Left.

To begin with, the New Left was ambivalent on the whole question of Marxism. Many of the contributors to ULR were openly hostile to the whole Communist tradition; thus Charles Taylor: ‘Stalinism did not just add itself to Communism, it was not an external element deflecting the main stream of Communist development. In every real sense it has grown out of Communism.’ [19] And even Saville and Thompson were writing in 1959: ‘We tend to see “Marxism” less as a self-sufficient system, more as a major creative influence within a wider socialist tradition.’ [20]

Of course the dogmatic adhesion to ‘marxism’ in itself guarantees nothing; but the New Left’s ambivalence about Marxism paved the way for other problems. The New Left revulsion against Stalinism was sincere enough, but it was not worked through in theory. All too often the critique was couched in liberal terms. When Thompson launched his critique of Stalinism inside the CP with his article Winter Wheat in Omsk, he quoted Milton twice; George Matthews in reply cited Shelley. [21] The whole debate on democratic centralism raged between a Stalinist model of the monolithic party and a liberal or even libertarian rejection of it; only a few individuals – Eric Hobsbawm, Cliff Slaughter [22] – tried to present a Leninist alternative. Likewise, the first editorial of the New Reasoner compared ‘the state orthodoxy of “Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism”’ to ‘its stunted opposite, dogmatic Trotskyism’. [23]

Hence the concern with ‘humanism’ in the early New Left. Once again Thompson was the most eloquent advocate of socialist humanism: ‘Stalinism is socialist theory and practice which has lost the ingredient of humanity’. [24] The New Left, however, ‘is humanist because it places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration, instead of the resounding abstractions – the Party, Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism, the Two Camps, The Vanguard of the Working-Class – so dear to Stalinism.’ [25]

The debate about humanism was to be a central theme in the subsequent evolution of the New Left, so it is worthwhile insisting on its roots in the post-1956 period. The humanism of the early New Left was an expression of authentic revolt against the mechanical deformations of Stalinist theory and the sheer barbarity of Stalinist practice. At the same time it represented a failure to follow through the theoretical logic of anti-Stalinism. Clearly, in terms of the classic Marxist model of base and superstructure, there was a contradiction between saying that the Russian state-owned economy was socialist, and recognising the non-socialist nature of the legal, political and cultural practices of Stalinism. There were two paths leading from this point. One led to a re-examination of the socialist credentials of Russian social and economic institutions; the other – socialist humanism – led to a greater emphasis on the capacity, for good or for ill, of human agency. In this sense Kruschev’s ‘secret’ speech, with its stress on Stalin’s personality defects, was a profoundly humanist document. If one man could do so much harm, other men and women, by dint of trying, could do a deal of good.

The theoretical issues would take years to resolve. In the shorter jerm the anti-dogmatism of the New Left tended to mean a failure to draw the lines between reform and revolution. Before the founding of New Left Review, ULR and the New Reasoner cooperated in 1959 to issue a pamphlet – A Socialist Wages Plan, by Ken Alexander and John Hughes, in which the authors argued that a Labour Government and the unions should come together to plan a redistribution of incomes. [26] Once again, the ghost of this bureaucratic Utopia stayed to haunt the New Left for several years I to come.

(ii) The first twelve issues

New Left Review, born of a merger between ULR and the New Reasoner, produced its first issue in January I960. [27] In style it was radically different from the NLR of later years; its front cover depicted Harold Macmillan gazing in bemused fashion at what was apparently some piece of nuclear weaponry; and inside it contained a wide range of articles relating to the political and cultural concerns of the day. Ralph Miliband analysed the Labour Party and Raphael Samuel working-class Tory voters. Michael Barratt Brown reported from Yugoslavia and Michael Kullman described the election in North Kensington where Oswald Mosley had made a sinister intervention. There were debates on strategy for CND and non-violence in the US black movement, and a transcript of a discussion between Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. Arnold Wesker contributed Act II of his play The Kitchen, and John Braine an essay on a provincial cinema. Book reviews covered Chartism, the falling rate of profit and Lolita.

With nearly 9,000 copies of the first issue distributed (NLR 2/69), it clearly had a significant audience. NLR conceived its function as being both propaganda and agitation. The first issue set the task as follows:

‘The Left Clubs and New Left centres – the New Left in general – must pioneer a way forward by working for socialism as the old missionaries worked: as if consumed by a fire that is capable of lighting the darker places in our society. We have to go out into towns and cities, universities and technical colleges, youth clubs and Trade Union branches, and – as Morris said – make socialists there.’ (NLR 1/2)

This of course, was the age when Macmillan’s slogan ‘You’ve a never had it so good’ had a certain plausibility, and the Labour Right was arguing that capitalism was permanently changed. Articles like Charles Taylor’s What’s Wrong with Capitalism? (NLR 2/5), which probed the nature of capitalist priorities, by contrasting expenditure on advertising and packaging with that on education and health, were of great help in arguing for the relevance of socialism in 1960. A team of NLR supporters produced a daily four-page bulletin for the 1960 Labour Party Conference at Scarborough (NLR 6/71), where a nuclear disarmament resolution was carried against Gaitskell’s opposition.

But behind the propaganda and the activism, the ambiguities of the earlier period persisted. Edward Thompson launched a debate on fundamentals with his article Revolution (NLR 3/3), in which he rejected both Parliamentary evolutionism and ‘the cataclysmic model of revolution’ which he argued ‘owes more to Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin than to Marx’ (NLR 3/6). The rather blurred advocacy of a transition involving both Parliament and mass mobilisation ended with an appeal to the ‘long and tenacious revolutionary tradition of the British commoner.’ (NLR 3/9) The debate involved a broad cross-section of the left, including Judith Hart (‘E.P. Thompson’s distinction between revolution and evolution is unconstructive, and poses an artificial dilemma.’ [NLR 5/58]) and Eric Heffer, who after criticising Thompson’s treatment of the State, concluded that ‘even now, in all Labour-controlled local authorities, a system of workers’ control could be introduced in all departments’ (NLR 5/60). Thompson’s extended review of Raymond Williams’ The Long Revolution (NLR 9/24 and 10/34) takes the debate further, and perhaps brings out better than anything else the ambiguity between the Marxist and non-Marxist currents in the New Left.

The debate was not academic; it related to the whole question of NLR’s orientation. That the working class was important nobody denied; but was it more than that? C. Wright Mills, an American sociologist who had great influence on the early New Left, wrote Letter to the New Left in which he described the concept of the historic agency of the working class as a ‘labour metaphysic’ and ‘a legacy from Victorian Marxism that is now quite unrealistic.’ (NLR 5/22)

In turn the absence of a commitment to the working class threatened the unity of NLR’s preoccupations. As Mike Kidron (then editor of International Socialism) pointed out in an acute letter, the relation of theory and practice was jeopardised:

‘Here is an intellectual liberalism that makes equals of all problems. True, class and class consciousness are recognised as fields of enquiry, but so is much else, and all so well segregated. Little is done to bridge them. I defy anyone to see in the spate of words on cinema and sentiment, painting and politics the primacy of a single galvanising element, ... In a word, to my mind IS is geared to action; NLR is not. Action demands priorities of preoccupation; inaction can do without.’ (NLR 7/59)

More immediate aspects of political strategy also suffered. The years I960 and 1961 saw a deep ferment in the Labour Party around the issues of nuclear disarmament and nationalisation. But NLR was unable to develop a clear strategy for intervention in the Labour Party struggle. In striving to hold together a disparate bag of political tendencies, it could opt neither to wage a determined fight inside it, nor to try to build an organisation outside it. Its advice on electoral strategy was no more than a moralistic laissez-faire:

‘Where the candidates are good, we should concentrate our forces, swing the enthusiasm of a Left Club behind someone who will vote NO to the Bomb, when the rest of the parliamentary fraternity troop through the door into no-man’s-land: where the candidate is weak, bad, compromising, we should draw away from political blackmail as if from the plague.’ (NLR 1/2)

The next issue contained a delightful comment from Peter Sedgwick, who imagined the city of Lidchester where all four MPs were killed simultaneously in a collision of Daimlers on the M1. In the ensuing by-elections Lidchester Left Club endorsed Labour, Liberal and Independent Left candidates according to circumstances, and equipped itself with a loudspeaker van with sliding panels so that the slogan could be changed as constituency boundaries were crossed – ‘a vote won for Labour on the wrong side of a street would mean the squandering of Socialist energies upon a scoundrel’ (NLR 2/70).

The same ambiguity developed at the level of organisation. NLR saw itself as more than a journal, and its audience as more than passive readers. Left Clubs were formed in many areas – at the peak NLR listed some forty contact addresses. There was a genuine concern to establish Left Clubs in industrial ‘non-University towns’ (NLR 4/70), and to make the clubs into active ‘centres of socialism’ (NLR 6/72). But in practice the Clubs could be no more than discussion groups; they had no control over the Review, nor did they have a coherent strategy towards the Labour Party, CND etc. Moreover, the debate on organisation was effectively blocked from the top. Too many of the leading figures in the New Left had been repelled by Stalinism, yet retained an opposition to Trotskyism, for a fruitful discussion of forms of organisation which might combine democracy with centralism. Thompson complained vigorously that he was ‘getting bored with some of the members of “Marxist” sects who pop up at Left Club meetings around the country to demand in a your money or your life tone whether the speaker is a Marxist, whether he “believes in” the class struggle and whether he is willing to give instant adhesion to this or that version of the Creed’ (NLR 6/21). Anyone who has encountered the Socialist Labour League (and its successor the WRP) will admit that Thompson had some reason to be irritated. [28] But Thompson in fact used the abuse of one sectarian current to evade the real debate; a passing compliment to International Socialism (‘the most constructive journal with a Trotskyist tendency in this country’ (NLR 6/22) in no way made up for this. The real questions were simply not asked.

So, by the end of 1961, New Left Review was clearly riddled by its own internal contradictions. Whether these would raise it to a higher level remained to be seen.

(iii) The ‘coup’

With the special double issue 13–14 (January–April 1962), NLR changed its form. The magazine style, with pictures on the cover and inside, gave way to the sober, picture-less, book-like format which, with minor alterations, it retains at the present time. Stuart Hall, who had edited the first twelve issues, retired. An Editorial Committee took over the responsibility for the production of the Review; from number 15 Perry Anderson became Editor, assisted by a committee including Tom Nairn and Robin Blackburn. With several additions and a few departures this became the nucleus of the present Editorial Committee. The original Editorial Board abandoned responsibility for the journal, but was to continue to deal with ‘other matters’ (NLR 12/13). Two years later it was announced that the New Left Board had been ‘dissolved’ (NLR 24/112). The network of Left Clubs seems to have collapsed. [29]

Thompson has given a typically colourful account of the circumstances of the transition:

‘Early in 1962, when the affairs of New Left Review were in some confusion, the New Left Board invited an able contributor, Perry Anderson, to take over the editorship. We found (as we had hoped) in Comrade Anderson, the decision and the intellectual coherence necessary to ensure the review’s continuance. More than that, we discovered that we had appointed a veritable Dr Beeching of the socialist intelligentsia. All the uneconomic branch-lines and socio-cultural sidings of the New Left which were, in any case, carrying less and less traffic, were abruptly closed down. The main lines of the review underwent an equally ruthless modernisation. Old Left steam engines were swept off the tracks; wayside halts (Commitment, What Next for CND?, Women in Love) were boarded up; and the lines were electrified for the speedy traffic from the Marxistentialist Left Bank. In less than a year the founders of the review discovered, to their chagrin, that the Board lived on a branchline which, after rigorous intellectual costing, had been found uneconomic. Finding ourselves redundant, we submitted to dissolution.’ [30]

As too often in Thompson’s writings, the brilliance of the imagery conceals a lack of substance. Thompson fails to explain the administrative means by which Anderson sacked the old Editorial Board; Anderson has no difficulty in showing that the ‘notion of an editorial coup is a legend’. [31] More important, Thompson fails utterly to explain the political basis of the coup. For Thompson, the old Board had, by 1961, ‘reached a point of personal, financial and organizational exhaustion’ [32]; Anderson’s equally inadequate account concentrates on personal factors and an ‘exaggerated sense of generational distance’. [33] It is certainly clear from all accounts that a good deal of personal bitterness was involved; but to see the change as the replacement of bluff, amiable Edward Thompson by aloof zombie Perry Anderson is to evade all the issues.

NLR was created in 1960, when CND was still dominated by a mood of naive non-party enthusiasm; by 1962 the defeat of unilateralism in the Labour Party, combined with the revival of Labour’s electoral fortunes, had created a very different situation. Much of CND’s initial support had simply evaporated; but many other people now saw the Labour Party as the main arena of struggle. Groups like the IS and the SLL, which had a serious strategy for fighting inside the Labour Party (especially the Young Socialists) were able to show modest but significant growth in this period; NLR, with its studied disdain for strategy, was unable to do so.

To this another, secondary factor may be added. The original NLR Board consisted overwhelmingly of academics. And the sixties was to be a period of unprecedented academic expansion. For those working in the social sciences above all, there was indeed ‘room at the top’. No less than ten of the original EB members were to achieve professorial appointments, and one a knighthood. [34] It would be absurd to suggest that all sold out, though some undoubtedly did. But the pressures towards intellectual specialisation and academic respectability undoubtedly made it more difficult for the old nucleus to cohere effectively.

The coup marked a significant shift in style and personnel; as far as politics was concerned there was no clear break. In 1966 Anderson was to make a biting attack on the politics of the early NLR, accusing Thompson, among other crimes, of ‘maundering populism’ (NLR 35/34). Yet a journal which for many years made heroes of Mao Tse-Tung and Fidel Castro could equally be accused of populism of a different variety. After a year of Anderson’s editorship, NLR published, as its only comment on the Cuba crisis a piece by Ruth Glass which far exceeded in liberalism and sentimentality anything Thompson had perpetrated; it concluded: ‘And human integrity was maintained most strikingly by one man: it became identified with Bertrand Russell just because in this context, so strongly opposing the pull towards helplessness, he was acting as an individual, on his own’ (NLR 17/8).

Or again, there is a clear line of continuity between the Socialist Wages Plan and Anderson’s support for incomes policy (NLR 27/25).

Anderson himself declared openly for Marxism in 1963 (in a footnote to his article on Portugal), and on the somewhat esoteric grounds that it was ‘the only thought which has rigorously united developmental and structural analysis’ (NLR 17/113). But a range of left reformist currents co-existed within the Review for some time, with eventual split-offs of editors and contributors to Views, The May Day Manifesto, The Spokesman, etc. [35] And the Anderson team was to lead the NLR as the next sections will show, through a series of avatars in response to changing conjunctures. The myth of the coup can only confuse a study of that evolution.

(iv) Waiting for Wilson

In the course of 1964 NLR made a more ambitious attempt than at any other time in its history to unite theory and practice. The problem was stated in an announcement at the end of 1963:

‘By the end of 1964, a Labour Govt, should be in power. This will open a new period for the Left, and poses already clear problems of analysis, strategy and organization. How can we prevent the Wilson administration from going down in history as an involuntary renovator of capitalism and ensure that it takes its place as the Government which irreversibly inaugurates the transition to socialism?’ (NLR 22/125)

To ask the question in such a form was of course to assume that it was possible to ensure anything of the sort; moreover, it defined the task for socialists as offering policies to Wilson rather than preparing the working class to fight against Wilson if and when necessary. But it was within this framework that NLR published a series of historical and theoretical articles pointing to a strategy for the present situation. Of these the central articles are by Editorial Committee members: Anderson’s Origins of the Present Crisis (NLR 23/26), Nairn’s The English Working Class (NLR 24/43), Anderson’s Critique of Wilsonism (NLR 27/3) and Nairn’s The Nature of the Labour Party (NLR 27/38 & 28/33). These were accompanied by a number of related articles, some by distinguished guest contributors.

Origins of the Present Crisis boldly attempts a sweeping sketch of three hundred years of British history. [36] Briefly, Anderson argues that England had the first and ‘least pure’ bourgeois revolution in Europe; that England had the first industrial revolution, producing a proletariat for which socialist theory was largely unavailable and an ‘industrial bourgeoisie polarised from the start towards the aristocracy’; that Britain’s seizure of the largest empire in history retarded the development of British society (NLR 23/28–35). The analysis presents a formidable display of erudition; however, the proposition that the aristocracy still plays a key role in British society seems to have had a rather impressionistic foundation, namely the election of a noble nonentity, Alec Douglas Home, to the leadership of the Tory Party following the Profumo debacle. (In fact, far from representing a significant shift, Home’s reign was a brief interlude before power passed to ‘Grocer’ Heath.)

It is this historical perspective that provides Anderson with his understanding of the British working class. ‘A supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat’ (NLR 23/43). The British working class was, by the late nineteenth century, irrevocably condemned to backwardness in comparison with its continental counterparts: ‘Marxism had missed it. Mature socialist theory developed in precisely the years of the British proletariat’s amnesia and withdrawal. In France, in Germany, in Italy, marxism swept the working class’ [37] (NLR 23/36). Nairn echoes the same disdain for the traditions of the British labour movement. ‘It embraced one species of moderate reformism after another, became a consciously subordinate part of bourgeois society, and has remained wedded to the narrowest and greyest of bourgeois ideologies in its principal moments’ (NLR 24/44).

And thus Anderson came to his conclusion. In England the bourgeois revolution had never been properly completed; hence the present crisis. ‘The international pressures of contemporary capitalism require a radical adaptation. The unfinished work of 1640 and 1832 must be taken up where it was left off’ (NLR 23/53).

Later in 1964 Anderson devoted a second article to the specific situation of the expected Labour Government. Here he sees clearly the danger that a Wilson regime will simply carry out the necessary tasks of modifying British capitalism. Yet he also develops a wildly optimistic scenario for an alternative to this. Wilson’s very opportunism becomes a virtue:

‘At the same time, the very vices of Wilsonism offer the possibility of transcending it ... He never commits himself to right-wing credos: he always frames his proposals so as to leave himself maximum freedom of manoeuvre. Under his leadership, the whole Labour programme has become open-ended. It is not at any point socialist; but nor is it, unlike his predecessor, inherently incapable of debouching onto socialism. It is thus neither a barrier nor a trampoline for the Left: it is simply a political space in which it can work.’ (NLR 27/21)

This optimism continued unabated even after Labour’s narrow election victory in 1964. An editorial statement just after the election declared:

‘For a party with a small parliamentary and popular majority, the temptation is always the same: to do nothing, avoid controversy and provocation, wander along in a ‘centre-left’ mediocrity and confusion of purpose. If the Labour Party succumbs to this temptation, even minimally, it will lose everything. Its only hope is to magnify the impetus which carried it into power – by seeking controversy, by creating genuine conflict in ‘public opinion’, and by thus mobilising the whole of the working class out of its apathy at the next election. The Labour Party is condemned to act radically, or perish.

Fortunately, it appears that Wilson understands this. Where Gaitskell would have sought ‘moderation’ at all costs, and wilfully sacrificed the class-character of the Labour Party for the sake of a mythically-conceived ‘middle-class’ vote, Wilson will be more ready to follow the logic of the situation.’ (NLR 28/3)

One of the more bizarre aspects of this optimism was the extent to which the rigorous theoreticians of NLR were mystified by Wilson’s individual personality. For Anderson:

‘Wilsonism emerged as a precise response to the new situation: the slow crisis of English capitalism and the transformation of the Cold War. In many ways it has been a creative response, which has made the Labour Party into the dynamic left-wing of European Social-Democracy.’ (NLR 27/4)

‘All the most crippling limitations of the British Labour movement have been incorporated in the lamentable succession of its official spokesmen. Now suddenly this is over. The Labour Party has at last, after 50 years of failing, produced a dynamic and capable leader.’ (NLR 27/22) [38]

Wilson was even commended as being ‘untouched by anti-communist phobias’ (NLR 27/5). This was less than two years before Wilson’s celebrated denunciation of the ‘tightly knit group of politically motivated men’ who were intervening in the seamen’s strike. [39]

But it was not merely prediction and evaluation that was at stake; there were concrete recommendations. In March 1964 NLR published an article by John Hughes (incidentally a member of the old NLR Editorial Board) called An Economic Policy for Labour. This was not just a discussion piece; the editorial introduction announced ‘It is the most cogent left-wing economic plan so far produced to meet the needs of the situation in which a Wilson Government will probably find itself, and to fit realistically with the outlook of the Labour Party. It should be kept, debated and referred to by everyone on the Left’ (NLR 24/3). Hughes’ article is in fact openly reformist; he takes it for granted that a Labour Government must co-exist with the private sector, but that ‘the economy can be pushed towards socialism’ without substantial extension of private ownership. He declares that ‘the two main facets of economic policy will be – firstly, organization of the physical increase in output, linked to our choice of social and economic priorities; secondly, a co-ordinated incomes policy aiming at increasing real earned incomes while stabilising prices’ (NLR 24/6–7, 10–13).

For Anderson too the lure of incomes policy was powerful:

‘Does this mean that the unions should a priori refuse any discussion of incomes policy? By no means. To advocate such a policy would in any case be Utopian, since all the major unions are committed to discussions with a Labour Government. What it does mean is that they should demand as a priority, not greater wage increases, but measures of workers’ control. For workers’ control is the only negotiable exchange for an incomes policy: it alone offers a genuine counterpart – powers and not pence. The sacrifice of trade union autonomy to the state which is involved in an incomes policy could only be compensated by the gain in return of decisively increased autonomy and control for the workers in the plant ... A crucial first step could be, as Tony Topham has recently suggested, the institutionalised right of shop stewards and Trade Union officials to have access to company books, and thus to administer the provisions of the incomes policy regulating profits.’ (NLR 25/27)

Tom Nairn even went so far as to argue that the policies of the Labour Government and the TUC for co-operation between unions and state must be beneficial because it would mean that ‘trade union leaders can no longer hide within their corporative shell, pretending to be “only trade unionists” and turning a deaf ear to demands for more involvement in extra-economic affairs’ (NLR 28/58).

Throughout the run-up to Wilson’s election, NLR published articles by eminent guest contributors who were concerned to make practical proposals for Labour policy. Thus Thomas Balogh argued that the only alternative to the Common Market was higher investment through ‘shared sacrifice’ with trade union support (NLR 16/30); Michael Lipton declared that in the matter of railway freight transport we ‘can learn a lesson in Socialist planning from West Germany’! and that British Railways should employ more economists (NLR 19/13–14); Barbara Castle urged the relevance of learning from the experience of French economic planning (NLR 24/33). In 1965 NLR published jointly with Fontana a collection of essays entitled Towards Socialism; contributors included Balogh on The Drift Towards Planning and Richard Crossman on The Lessons of 1945. Castle and Crossman, of course, served uninterruptedly in Wilson’s cabinet from 1964 to 1970, while Balogh was Economic Adviser to the Cabinet Office. It is hard to escape the conclusion that NLR was not so much advising the Labour Government as giving it a touch of leftist credibility.

The euphoria did not last. By May 1965 NLR was bitterly denouncing the crimes of Labour foreign policy (NLR 31/1), and the next issue declared: ‘The Labour Government has now been in office nine months. In that short time it has won the virtually universal contempt of the Left, both in this country and – even more so – abroad. Few regimes have so immediately lost all credit or respect’ (NLR 32/1). And later in 1965 Bob Rowthorn contributed an article on The Trap of an Incomes Policy which concluded:

‘Thus an incomes policy must be fought, not only because it does not give adequate guarantees about redistribution of income and nationalisation, but above all because the Labour movement must in return for these guarantees, so emasculate itself that the guarantees themselves become worthless.’ (NLR 34/11)

Very true, but it might have been helpful to say it a little earlier.

But there was little sign of an alternative. In an article on Labour Imperialism Tom Nairn concluded:

‘A maximalist programme can scarcely be opposed to a minimal programme in the classic fashion any longer, under present conditions in Britain. There can only be a maximalist programme, the ruins of the Labour Party’s minimalist positions lie scattered all about us. Labour’s aims amounted to taking over from the traditional ruling class, at least for a while, and to solving its problems for it within the general ambit of its vision of things. A socialist programme must envisage the replacement of that class and the structure of its power in society.’ (NLR 32/15)

This might be read as the a call for the building of the revolutionary party independently of Labour. If so, nothing more was heard of it. NLR did not switch to align itself with the growing working class opposition to Wilson as manifested in the great seamen’s strike of 1966. [40] Instead it went off at a rather esoteric tangent.

(v) Western Marxism

‘The English working class, immunized against theory like no other class, by its entire historical experience, needed theory like no other. It still does’ (NLR 24/57). Thus wrote Tom Nairn in 1964. Having failed to show Harold Wilson how to inaugurate an irreversible transition to socialism, the NLR team turned their attention to another form of good works, namely, bringing theory to the British workers.

The intellectual and cultural backwardness was an essential part of the analysis of British society which Nairn and Anderson had developed in 1964. Anderson developed the argument further in 1968 in a major article called Components of the National Culture. Here he argues that ‘Britain, the most conservative major society in Europe, has a culture in its own image: mediocre and inert’ (NLR 50/4). He goes on to give a survey of the role of émigrés in British intellectual life which appears dazzling in its erudition until one begins to question its arbitrary basis; there is a list of foreign born ‘maitres d’ecole’ of various academic disciplines which is neatly tailored to prove its point – why exactly is Lewis Namier the ‘maitre d’ecole’ of British historiography? (NLR 50/17) But what is ultimately irritating about Anderson’s analysis is not so much the anti-British bias (that shows a healthy gut feeling) but rather the romanticisation of Western Europe. In his reply to Thompson he writes that there ‘has never been a Marxist culture in this country, in the sense that Marxism becomes the normal intellectual consensus of great numbers of writers and scholars’ (NLR 35/26). The notion of a Marxist ‘consensus’ is indeed a quaint one; what Anderson appears to mean in fact is that Marxism was trendy in Paris in the 1960s.

It is in this framework that NLR embarked on the enterprise of systematically translating and presenting the key texts of Western Marxism. By ‘Western Marxism’ is meant the tradition of Marxism in Western Europe since the Stalinisation of the Comintern; the key figures are Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Volpe, Marcuse, Lefebvre, Adorno, Sartre, Goldmann, Althusser and Colletti. [41] Anderson notes that this tradition is characterised by a separation of theory and practice:

‘Nor is this tradition an unimpeachable one. Far from it: it has suffered immensely by its divorce from political reality and practice. Lukacs wrote Geschichte und Klassenbewusstein in exile in Austria after the fall of the Hungarian Commune. Gramsci wrote his Notebooks in prison after the triumph of Mussolini’s fascism. Sartre wrote the Critique in France, in lonely opposition to the Algerian war before which the whole Left lay supine.’ (NLR 35/3l) [42]

What characterised Western Marxism above all was what Anderson, in one of his more lucid moments, described as ‘obsessive methodologism’. [43] The Western Marxists (with the exception, to a considerable extent, of Gramsci) were concerned with the status and method of Marxism rather than with the application of Marxism to concrete analysis and strategy. Such a concern took various forms – from Goldmann’s attempt to show the superiority of Marxism in interpreting the great works of the bourgeois literary canon to Althusser’s relentless exegesis of the concepts used in Capital. It is easy to understand how such a current of Marxism developed, in a context where non-Stalinist revolutionary parties were absent and Cold War attacks on Marxism compelled a defensive posture. It is less easy to defend the encouragement to perpetuation bestowed on such work.

Anderson has shown convincingly in reply to Thompson that NLR is not a mouthpiece for Althusserianism; on the contrary, as he demonstrates, it has been characterised by a wide-ranging eclecticism. [44] Humanist and structuralist, Hegelian and non-Hegelian Marxisms have been represented, alongside such non-Marxist thinkers as Levi-Strauss, Lacan and the Annales school. As early as 1963 NLR introduced a representative of an alternative tradition to Western Marxism, the ‘prominent Belgian socialist’ Ernest Mandel (NLR 20/2). [45]

Much of this effort was positive in value. We may be grateful to NLR for enriching the content of socialist discussion in Britain. [46] Only a philistine could deny that we have something to learn from Gramsci, Lukacs or Sartre. Timpanaro’s The Freudian slip (NLR 91/43) is a model of the kind of critical rigour that should be applied to much Marxist writing.

The job might, however, have been done without the pretentious rave notices that accompanied each new theoretical star. In 1966 Anderson told us that ‘Jean-Yves Calvez’s monumental La Pensée de Karl Marx is irreplaceable’ (NLR 35/27). Little more was to be heard of this Jesuit priest who had seemed to be God’s gift to Marxism. The same year Ben Brewster announced that Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason ‘has dispensed with the theoretical paraphernalia of the Stalin-Trotsky debate and thus is able to comprehend both positions’ (NLR 37/31). It is doubtful whether Sartre himself would have claimed so much. Two years later Brewster introduced us to André Glucksmann, ‘a member of the brilliant younger generation of French theorists influenced by Louis Althusser’ (NLR 49/40). Glucksmann is now a star of the nouveaux philosophes and a vicious anti-Marxist. By the next year NLR was urging us over the Alps like an impatient courier: ‘Of the major contemporary European schools of Marxism the Italian is the least known in the English-speaking countries’ (NLR 56/1). The journal’s style did much to create a milieu in which Marxist theory became the pursuit of the latest fashionable thinker. By the late seventies there were coteries of of English Marxists where expressing an interest in Sartre or Lukacs was like declaring an admiration for Frank Sinatra to a group of punk rockers.

The most influential of all NLR’s introductions was that of Althusser, whose Contradiction and Overdetermination was translated in 1967. Brewster rather patronisingly informed NLR readers:

‘Many socialists in England are still defending Marxist humanism against Stalinist dogmatism without realising that this battle is largely won; it has been reduced to a conflict with bourgeois distortion of Marx, and even this is fast disappearing to give place to a bourgeois critique of communism based on the work of the younger Marx. To bring Marxist theory into line with contemporary conditions a completely new conception is needed. Althusser’s work represents one approach to such a scientific Marxism.’ (NLR 41/14)

The article presented was in fact resolutely Stalinist. [47] Not only does a footnote explicitly praise The Foundations of Leninism by Stalin, but the section on the Russian Revolution explains October 1917 in terms of a purely Russian conjuncture and provides a theoretical foundation for ‘socialism in one country’. (NLR 41/19–22).

Yet despite all the pretentious claims, Western Marxism did not seem to lead to anything concrete. [48] The political lessons were scarcely ever drawn. Thus NLR published several articles by Nicos Poulantzas, but never pointed to the fact that he was a long-standing member of the Greek CP and a pioneer of Euro-Communist reformism. Thus theory and practice lurched farther apart. And so, when the Anderson team made its second foray into practical politics, it had even less roots in reality than the first.

(vi) The Student Vanguard

In 1964 NLR had underestimated the power of reformism in the labour movement; in 1967–69, impressed by a student upsurge in Britain, France and around the world, it tried to by-pass reformism. For Western Marxism, isolated from working-class practice, the student movement was a godsend. Anderson’s Components of the National Culture ends its ponderous tour through the sterility of British intellectual life with the announcement: ‘A revolutionary culture is not for tomorrow. But a revolutionary practice within culture is possible and necessary today. The student struggle is its initial form’ (NLR 50/57). And the following year James Wilcox showed how Althusserianism could provide the foundation for the transformation of students into a substitute revolutionary vanguard:

‘The traditional assumption of strategy on the revolutionary Left in Europe is that nothing can be changed until everything is changed. European revolutionaries have sometimes been so preoccupied with the necessary struggle against reformist illusions (“islands of socialism”) that they have implied that the revolution will suddenly emerge one day fully armed, like Minerva, from the head of the proletariat. Capitalist power is seen as what Louis Althusser has called an “expressive totality”: that is to say the power of the ruling class is thought to be evenly and equally distributed in all the institutions that comprise the social order. Each part “expresses” the meaning of the whole with equivalent efficacy: the power of the ruling class cannot be encroached upon until the social order as a whole has been destroyed. By portraying the revolution as a Last Trump that will transform social relations once and for all the traditional idealist conception of revolutionary strategy can easily succeed in daunting the revolutionary movement as at the size of the tasks before it. This leads to an indefinite postponement of the decision actually to start looking for ways to make the revolution rather than to wait for its immediate conception in the womb of capitalism’s general crisis.

‘On an international scale the Russian revolution and Lenin’s theory of the “weakest link” showed the falsity of these conceptions. The appearance of Red Bases in the protracted guerrilla war of the Chinese revolution further shows their falsity within the context of one national struggle. Thus in a sense “agrarian reform” in the rural Red Base preceded and assisted the triumph of the revolution on a national scale just as the work of transforming education in a university Red Base may precede and assist the full consummation of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. The guerrilla’s liberated zone is initially located in those areas which are geographically inaccessible to the repressive forces of the established order. We must ask ourselves whether the complex structures of late capitalism do not contain areas, sociologically inaccessible to the repressive forces of the ruling class, which can become growing points of revolutionary power? The black ghettos in North America already promise to become areas of this sort. The student movement, the rent struggle and the Ulster Civil Rights movement have similar possibilities on their strategic horizons.’ (NLR 53/26)

I have quoted this passage so extensively because, in its admixture of reformism, ultra-leftism, pretentiousness and sheer fantasy, it sums up all that was worst about NLR’s student strategy.

The student movement in Britain began with the LSE occupation in the spring of 1967. The next issue of NLR bore the device ‘Student Power’ in red letters on the cover, and contained two articles analysing the struggle. This showed NLR had its ears to the ground (or to some of the ground: the strikes at Myton’s and Roberts-Arundel in the same year awoke no echo in the pages of NLR). The article Student Power: What is to be Done? by Gareth Steadman-Jones, Anthony Barnett and Tom Wengraf (NLR 43/3) was in general useful and sober; it analysed the structural changes in education caused by the growth of student numbers, raised a number of concrete demands (democracy, discipline, course control, higher grants), and argued for a strategy of work within student unions.

But in the heady atmosphere of 1968–69, such sobriety rapidly faded. Reports were published by a number of participants in student struggles, and issue No. 53 contained a symposium of four pieces on the nebulous concept of ‘Red Bases’. The general line was now unambiguously ultra-left. Thus David Triesman, writing from the storm centre of Colchester, declared:

‘The lessons are these. We must not be afraid of polarization. If there is a moderately large minority committed to action, as there was, they must begin as soon as possible to hold sanctions over the University ... Secondly, the staff must not be encouraged to come in too soon. They cannot help being a moderating influence since they can hardly incite us to seize the University. What we should do, if the situation were to arise again, would be to behave as provocatively as necessary and to effectively sanction the University to the extent that they need to use force, probably the police. Complete occupation of offices rather than corridors will achieve this. It is at this stage that the administrations commit their ultimate folly, and it is at this stage that the staff and less political students will feel encouraged to enter a situation already politically structured.’ (NLR 50/71) [49]

The heady atmosphere of student struggle contaminated NLR’s overall view of the world. The most graphic example is probably the article Two Tactics by James Wilcox, mentioned above, which contains some striking passages:

‘The critiques of “economism” and “trade unionism” by Lenin and Gramsci have never been rebutted. Strikes, even general strikes, tend to induce passivity in the working class: after all, in itself a general strike is simply workers doing nothing on a large scale.’ (NLR 53/24)

‘The pseudo-left only recognises those forms of resistance which have the blessing of the ruling order (strikes, demonstrations, trade unionism etc.). It is not prepared to consider the testimony of other popular acts of resistance (industrial sabotage, absenteeism, fiddles, delinquency, shop-lifting, “madness”, etc.).’ (NLR 53/28)

‘The time might come when some sections of the European student movement should “industrialize” themselves or try to find ways of organizing the resistance of the proletariat, petit bourgeoisie and lumpen proletariat ... Such a movement could enter not just the factories but also the cultural institutions of the working class. For example, should it follow the example of the early Bolshevik Party and send groups of specially trained comrades to work within the religious sects which have a working class membership and elements of an anti-capitalist ideology?’ (NLR 53/31)

Another symptom of the insurrectionist mood which prevailed in NLR at this time is the publication of several articles dealing with questions of military strategy and tactics. Introducing André Glucksmann’s Politics and War in the Thought of Mao Tse-Tung, Ben Brewster lamented the fact that ‘in the twentieth century West, Marxists have largely ignored military strategy and have remained obstinately oblivious of recent developments and extensions of strategic theory’ (NLR 49/35). To fill this gap NLR gave us Blanqui’s Instructions for an Uprising (NLR 65/30), and Brewster’s Armed Insurrection and Dual Power (NLR 66/59).

In all this the working class was not forgotten – or not quite. NLR did not discuss any of the sharp struggles that marked the last two years of the Wilson Government, but it found space for two articles on student support for the Standard Oil strike in Richmond USA by an American Maoist, Robert Avakian. (NLR 55/42 and 56/35). This combined a folksy style, referring to the workers as the ‘guys’ (there is no mention of gals) with long quotations from Mao Tse-Tung, as for example: ‘Already several of the guys are taking leadership, and they have shown us the truth of Mao’s statement that “The masses have boundless creative power”’ (NLR 55/47).

The 1968–69 period was the only period since 1962 when NLR seems to have conceived of some sort of activist role for itself. Members of the editorial team were active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Federation; an NLR banner was carried on the October 1968 Vietnam demo. [50] Heads were put on the block in a fashion rarely seen among the older generation of New Left academics. Two editorial Committee members were victimised, Nairn being sacked from Hornsey College of Art and Blackburn from LSE for support of student militancy. But when the euphoria died down there was no balance sheet of the experience; Blackburn’s 1971 article The Heath Government (NLR 70/3) makes no reference to students, despite the important Tory attack on student union organization. From now on theory and practice were to become ever more remote.

(vii) Burnt Fingers

By 1970 the euphoria had largely gone, and new strains and tensions were emerging in the New Left milieu. One symptom was the collapse of Black Dwarf, with which a number of NLR Editorial Committee members (Barnett, Blackburn and Fred Halliday) were involved, under the strain of political controversy. [51] There was however, no attempt at reconsideration of the 1968–69 line. Apart from Russell Jacoby’s The Politics of Subjectivity (NLR 79/37) – a critique of aspects of US Maoism and feminism – the previous positions were simply abandoned as though they had never existed. In his essay The Heath Government: A New Course for British Capitalism (NLR 70/3) Blackburn returned to NLR’s earlier preoccupation with strategy for the Labour movement. Yet enough ultra-leftism remained to make this piece (published a couple of months before the 1972 miners’ strike) singularly insensitive to the way the anti-Tory struggle was developing:

‘We should remember that in strictly Leninist terms a strike in defence of trade union rights is not a political strike but rather expresses a trade unionist and economist level of consciousness ... Given its potent ideological and material resources, the government has every chance of winning its first encounters with organized labour.’ (NLR 70/20, 22)

But the biggest crisis for NLR was to come over an international question. Up to this point it had been distinctly pro-Chinese, and some Editorial Committee members appear to have believed that there was no real difference between Maoism and Trotskyism. [52] But events in 1971, when China gave public support to the Pakistan Government in attacking the Bangladeshi liberation struggle, and to the Ceylonese Government in crushing the JVP rising [53], meant that the cracks could no longer be papered over. An editorial statement declared: ‘The deliberate diplomatic, military, political and economic support extended to the Yahya regime by the Chinese Government is an act of gross and cynical opportunism that tramples on the cause of proletarian internationalism and deals a heavy blow to the development of the world revolution’ (NLR 68/1). In criticising the Chinese role in Ceylon, Editorial Committee member Fred Halliday pointed out, quite correctly, that: ‘One of the most basic principles of Marxism and Leninism is that when the masses rise, revolutionaries support them, even if their action is adventurist, as Marx did over the Paris Commune and Lenin did over the July days‘ (NLR 69/87).

Two roads now lay before NLR; either a process of political clarification, in which questions of analysis and strategy were confronted, with almost inevitably further splits, or to continue as a review in which differing ideas co-existed rather than competed. The latter was chosen; controversy was becoming too expensive a luxury.

(viii) From Heath to Thatcher

The rest of the story may be more briefly told. NLR in the sixties, whatever its weaknesses, attempted to engage strategically with contemporary events. The NLR of the seventies increasingly remained aloof. The Themes section which opens each issue comments only rarely on contemporary events, confining itself to summarising the Review‘s contents. There is little indication that the Editorial Committee has any conscious or collective policy; several members of it have made no contribution to the Review for a number of years. Anderson and Nairn, who originally contributed much of the theoretical dynamism of the magazine, have withdrawn from their concern for the contemporary British Labour movement, Anderson into a historical study of the state, Nairn into an obsession with the varieties of British nationalism. With the establishment of New Left Books as a publishing house (in itself a positive step) NLR has often seemed to publish articles as plugs for forthcoming books rather than because of their revolutionary relevance.

NLR has continued to publish important articles on the state and on economic perspectives; it has continued to print valuable studies of the situation in particular countries. But such articles do not reflect the priorities of action; topics and themes co-exist in a swamp from which confrontation and decision are absent.

An editorial in May 1975 refers to ‘the diverse political convulsions which removed Nixon, Heath, Brandt, Tanaka, Selassie, Caetano, Papadopoulous and Kittikachorn in less than a year’ (NLR 91/4). But few of these convulsions were to be analysed by NLR. Early in 1973 it carried an interesting analysis of the contradictions of the Chilean Popular Unity government, which concluded ‘The UP experience may yet lead to a revolutionary assault on the state apparatus of capital and to the inauguration of a successful transition towards socialism’ (NLR 78/25). But to this day NLR has published no account of what was the worst defeat suffered by the working class in decades (though the SNP victory in the Govan by-election of November 1973 sparked off a whole article on Scottish nationalism [NLR 83/57]). The collapse of fascism in Portugal [54] inspired an interesting analysis from Blackburn (in which this reformed ultra-left attacked Portuguese revolutionaries for their ‘anti-parliamentary cretinism’ [NLR 87–88/41]), which ended with the affirmation that ‘Portugal need not be another Chile or another Spain’ (NLR 87–88/46). But when defeat in Portugal took a quite different form, NLR remained silent. [55] In March 1976 a special issue on Western Europe contained an editorial introduction noting ‘the seemingly inexorable advance of the Italian and the French Communist Parties towards some form of governmental participation in the near future’ (NLR 96/1). The article on Italy foretold ‘a major test of strength between the classes ... in the coming period’ (NLR 96/55). Once again, these issues simply vanished from the pages of NLR.

With regard to Britain, the lacunae are just as glaring. Anthony Barnett’s Class Struggle and the Heath Government (NLR 77/3), published in January 1973, was the last time any NLR contributor attempted an overall study of the present conjuncture in Britain. Indeed one of NLR’s many overseas readers who depended exclusively on the Review for a knowledge of events in Britain would have had to wait until January 1975 to learn that the Heath Government had fallen. (Clearly, no-one was going to make the same mistake about Wilson twice). Readers were now presented with an interview with Arthur Scargill. ‘Scargill’s views represent an intransigent pursuit of proletarian class interests that has not been seen for many decades. They will be widely debated on the revolutionary Left’ (NLR 92/1). They were not, however, to be debated in the pages of NLR, which offered no analysis of the emergence of a new form of centrism in the British trade union movement.

The one member of the NLR Editorial Committee who has continued to write about contemporary Britain is Tom Nairn. However, his tortuous and obsessive dialogue with Scottish nationalism makes his contributions, to say the least, eccentric. His massive article, The Twilight of the British State concludes in a gloomy and fatalistic manner, with little to offer for socialist strategy.

Nairn’s most recent offering, The Future of Britain’s Crisis, is even worse. It is marked, not only by complacency (‘there has never been any risk of, for instance, military dictatorship or fascism’ [NLR 113–114/59]) but by an unbelievable flippancy of tone. Thus Nairn invents a whimsical fantasy about Keynes returning to life and discovering that The Times is unavailable:

‘Hovering in the ghostly foyers of the new Times building in Grays Inn Road, he would take only a few seconds to grasp the dilemma. A management of unbending incompetence, fumbling with “modernization” techniques in a last desperate effort to break even; floors full of unusable high technology imported from California; a mutinous workforce steeped in imperialist corruption and malpractice, prepared to struggle “to the end” for the old customs. So here the “crisis” is not merely prospected. It is happening. And the best newspaper in Britain, The Sunday Times, has been washed down the drain alongside The Thunderer’s Court Circular, Bernard Levin, and the Letters Page where appeals for a National Government are habitually launched.’ (NLR 113–114/67)

That, and that alone, is what NLR had to say about one of the bitterest and most significant industrial disputes of recent years.

The one serious point in Nairn’s article is his prophecy of a National Government as the ruling class solution to the crisis (‘It is surely, virtually certain that this formula will be attempted again’ [NLR 113–114/61]). Now it doesn’t matter that Nairn has made a wrong prediction; we all do that. What is important is that he doesn’t take his own prediction seriously. For a National Government would be the one thing that could split the Labour Party, creating a new PSU/PSIUP type centrist party. Any serious revolutionary socialist who believed that a National Government was on the cards would have to develop a careful strategy towards the Labour Left. But Nairn needs no strategy; he is simply engaging in a literary diversion.

Indeed, throughout the seventies NLR has had little to say about strategy. In the early years of the decade NLR gave a number of plugs to the Il Manifesto split from the Italian CP (cf. NLR 60/96, 66/35); the subsequent split and decline of the tendency went unanalysed. [56] More recently NLR has published two articles by Louis Althusser on the development of the French CP; both contain admiring references to Thorez and the golden Stalinist past of the PCF (NLR 104/21, 109/35, 37). The second piece, What Must Change in the Party was hailed by NLR as ‘the most dramatic and eloquent intervention to date in the Communist movement’ (NLR 109/1). The series of articles, first published in Le Monde, show the final strategic fruit of the monstrous edifice of Althusserianism – writing letters to the bourgeois press complaining that a Stalinist party is Stalinist. [57]

(ix) Kiss and make up?

NLR has not analysed the Thatcher government, but there are signs that a chill wind is being felt in Carlisle Street, and the Editorial Committee is seeking to reinforce its base. NLR has always been open and eclectic in its contributors [58] but there is evidence recently of an attempt to regroup former contributors and editors. Recent issues have contained a piece on Poulantzas by Stuart Hall, the original editor of the Review (NLR 119/60), and a long study of the British Marxist historians by Raphael Samuel, a member of the original Editorial Board (NLR 120/21). Samuel was one of the founders of History Workshop, and NLR clearly sees the History Workshop milieu as an important part of its periphery (up to two thousand people attended the History Workshop Conference in Oxford last December).

The most recent issue takes the process further. It contains an article by Thompson on the nuclear threat, prefaced by an editorial statement that admits a ‘failure of focus’ on the nuclear question by NLR. (NLR 121/1) Thompson’s piece is a passionate indictment of the arms race, but the politics are to the right of the Popular Front. Thompson bases his call for the ‘broadest possible popular alliance’ on the assertion that ‘indeterminism itself is not a “class issue”: it is a human issue’ (NLR 121/29–31). In one sense, this is is a platitude; the bourgeoisie, despite deep shelters, will die too in a nuclear war. But in another sense it is nonsense; if the ruling classes of the world did not have a vested interest in nuclear weaponry which workers do not share, the whole problem would not exist.

The same issue contains an article by Mike Ruskin, another early collaborator of the Review. [59] Here the argument is openly reformist; Rustin praises Beyond the Fragments for its ‘eloquent and accurate critique of Leninism’ and asserts that ‘“Subsitutionism” and “ultra-leftism” follow inevitably from a pure politics of class’. He denounces direct action against fascists, considers the CP’s ‘broad democratic alliance’ is still too narrow, and ends by prophesying a ‘very bitter future’ (NLR 121/66, 68, 73, 77, 89).

Anderson concludes his recent book on Thompson by urging reconciliation: ‘it would be good to leave old quarrels behind, and to explore new problems together.’ [60] The sentiment is admirable, but with the sort of allies that NLR is currently courting one cannot foresee any great success. Unity is a splendid thing, but unity without programme leads only to the swamp.

The NLR’s main themes

‘What is the constitutive nature of bourgeois democracy? What is the function and future of the nation-state? What is the real character of imperialism as a system? What is the historical meaning of a workers’ state without workers’ democracy? How can a socialist revolution be made in the advanced capitalist countries? How can internationalism be made a genuine practice, not merely a pious ideal? How can the fate of previous revolutions in comparable conditions be avoided in the ex-colonial countries? How can established systems of bureaucratic privilege and oppression be attacked and abolished? What would be the structure of an authentic socialist democracy? These are the great unanswered problems that form the most urgent agenda for Marxist theory today.’ [61]

We are fortunate in having such a list, produced by NLR’s editor, of the main tasks for contemporary Marxist theory. It provides a useful check-list in assessing the achievements and limits of NLR.

In two areas at least NLR’s contribution has been significant. In the field of political economy there has been a wide range of articles from different points of view, covering a set of key problems: the relation between the internationalization of capital and the nation-state; the problem of development; the reconsideration of aspects of classical Marxist theory, such as the falling rate of profit. Whatever one’s assessment of this or that particular article, the overall achievement must be respected.

In the field of feminism too, NLR has made an important contribution. Juliet Mitchell’s Women: The Longest Revolution (NLR 40/11) was a pioneering study, published as early as 1966, when the discussion of feminism was largely absent from all sections of the left. There have been subsequent important discussions of domestic labour, while articles on Freud and Lacan have contributed to the debate on psychological aspects of feminism. (There has however been very little on the campaigning issues of the women’s movement – equal pay, abortion, nurseries etc.)

(i) Imperialism

NLR has always prided itself on its internationalism and anti-imperialism. Solidarity with the Cuban revolution and the Algerian liberation struggles were among the earliest themes to be struck in the journal, and provided a point of continuity between the founding Editorial Board and the Anderson team. All too often, however, anti-imperialism slipped over into a naive Third Worldism. In 1961 NLR carried two enthusiastic articles about the Belgrade non-aligned conference (featuring such countries as Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Saudi Arabia); David Ross declared that ‘by and large it was the nearest thing we have seen to a gathering of our sort of people in power’ (NLR 12/16). In 1963 NLR initiated a series of articles on the Third World with a general survey by Keith Buchanan, who wrote in praise of Cambodian ‘royal socialism’ (NLR 18/18), and ended by effectively writing off the metropolitan working class:

‘Having tasted the delights of affluence, European workers have tended to become “embourgeoise” and ever more Euro-centric in their attitudes. A Fanon may cry that the well-being and progress of Europe have been built with the sweat and corpses of black man and yellow man, Indian and Arab – but the cry is unheard amid the distractions of a new and delightful opulence.’ (NLR 18/22)

It was around this time that NLR began to produce what has been one of its most useful features, a series of articles analysing the situation of particular countries in considerable empirical detail. Pioneering examples were Anderson’s own work on the Portuguese colonies (perhaps the best thing he ever wrote) (NLR 15/83, 16/88, 17/85) and the unfortunately uncompleted study of the Algerian Revolution by Tom Wengraf and Roger Murray (NLR 22/14). [62] This is a tradition which has continued to the present; among many useful examples are Hanegbi, Machover and Orr on The Class Nature of Israeli Society (NLR 65/3) and Fred Halliday’s Revolution in Afghanistan (NLR 112/3).

But in the mid-sixties a sharper note emerged. NLR’s identification now was not so much with the ‘progressive’ regimes of the Third World as with the guerrilla fighters of Latin America and south east Asia. In 1965 an article by Regis Debray was introduced with the words ‘Guerrilla war has become at once the most successful and the most typical mode of revolutionary struggle in the contemporary world’ (NLR 33/1). Debray explicitly repudiates mass action and argues that rural warfare conditions ‘force the guerrilla to proletarianize itself morally.’ (NLR 33/22, 48). Two years later a second piece by Debray was presented with a special introduction (collectively signed ‘NLR‘) on The Marxism of Regis Debray which declared that ‘what above all distinguishes Debray’s writings is their relentlessly Leninist focus on making the revolution, as a political, technical and military problem’ (NLR 45/8).

The Vietnam War was, from 1965 to 1975, a dominant political reality for NLR. Many articles were devoted to aspects of the Vietnamese struggle; perhaps the most significant was Goran Therborn’s From Petrograd to Saigon, which tried to situate Vietnam in the total process of world revolution. In so doing it conformed neatly to the ‘student vanguard’ thesis then dominant in NLR:

‘it is no accident that all over the advanced capitalist world – in the USA, Japan, Germany, Sweden, France, Italy and England – the new social force which had been the vanguard of the struggle against American imperialism is the student, high-school and youth population. For it is precisely their age which divides them from the myths of the by-gone era of the Cold War.’ (NLR 49/9)

In 1975 NLR announced, with justified pleasure, the triumph of ‘socialist revolution’ in Indochina (NLR 91/4). Since then there has been total silence. Not a single article, whether of justification or of criticism has been provoked by the ‘boat people’, the tragedy of Cambodia (described elsewhere by Anderson as ‘an experience more terrible than that of the tyranny of Stalin’ [63]) or of the spectacle of armed conflict between ‘socialist’ states.

But for a British journal the acid test of anti-imperialism must be the role of British imperialism in Ireland. Initially NLR reacted quickly to the new phase of struggle which opened in late 1968. In May 1969 an editorial statement read: ‘The struggle in Northern Ireland has attained a higher level than on the British mainland ... If effective solidarity action is to be achieved, a considerable work of propaganda and demystification will be needed.’ (NLR 55/1) The same issue carried a transcript of a discussion between a number of People’s Democracy militants (Devlin, McCann, Farrell) which is noteworthy for its general honesty and realism, and for some acute comments by McCann on the relation of class to religion (NLR 55/3). The same issue contained a historical survey by Peter Gibbon which concluded ‘proletarian power is the precondition of national independence’ (NLR 55/41). The subsequent ‘work of propaganda and demystification’ can be briefly listed: a four-page note on the Split in Sinn Fein (NLR 60/49 – 1970), a reprinted interview with Cathal Goulding, largely devoted to criticism of the Provisionals (NLR 64/51 – 1970) and two paragraphs in Blackburn’s account of the Heath government, with more space devoted to criticising the Provisionals than the British army (NLR 70/16 – 1971). That, in more than a decade, is all that the NLR enthusiasts for guerrilla warfare have had to say about the Irish struggle. (One reason for this astonishing silence may be divergences of opinion within the Editorial Committee. Anderson has elsewhere commended Thompson for ‘rightly condemning the Provisional IRA’ [64], while Nairn apparently believes in self-determination for Ulster [NLR 101–102/61]. It is hard to imagine that the Fourth International supporters on the Committee share this view.)

To sum up: NLR has shown enthusiasm for anti-imperialist struggle and provided valuable empirical data. But enthusiasm is not enough. NLR has failed to clarify the dynamics of anti-imperialist struggle today, and retreated into silence on the most difficult questions.

(ii) Stalinism

The New Left was born of a crisis in Stalinism, yet it has never adequately resolved the problem of understanding it. The early New Left had relatively little to say on the question, apart from being generally inclined to sympathise with Yugoslavia. It was only in the aftermath of the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia that NLR began to devote a substantial amount of attention to Russian and Eastern European society. The editorial position was implacable: ‘The tasks and type of revolution to be made in Eastern and Western Europe are distinct: but the fate of each depends on the other. The complete overthrow by the masses, from below, of the total political apparatus of bureaucratic rule is the sole formula for socialist democracy in Czechoslovakia, Russia and the neighbouring countries’ (NLR 71/2).

NLR’s greatest contribution in this area has been in the reproduction of significant documents from Eastern Europe. The transcript of the meeting between Gierek and Polish workers at Szczecin in 1971 (NLR 72/35), Miklos Haraszti’s I Have Heard the Iron Cry (a first-hand account of piecework in a Hungarian factory) (NLR 91/9), Rudolf Bahro’s The Alternative in Eastern Europe (NLR 106/3) – these and others are indispensable raw material for any student of Eastern Europe.

Yet, as in other fields, such material is eclectic. For instance, NLR has published several articles on Russia by the brothers Medvedev. These are always well-informed and valuable to read; none the less their standpoint is clearly reformist; they have been well-described by Tamara Deutscher as ‘Soviet Fabians’ (NLR 62/48). Thus in a recent interview Zhores Medvedev states that his general assessment of the Brezhnev period is ‘moderately positive’ and he actually blames low quality of production on the ‘absence of competition’ (NLR 117/3, 17).

But documents are no substitute for analysis, and on the question of actually explaining Stalinist society, NLR’s record has been much weaker. One important attempt to confront the historical questions was an article by the Editorial Committee member, Nicolas Krasso, called Trotsky’s Marxism. Krasso argued that Trotsky suffered from the vice of ‘sociologism’ (an overemphasis on the importance of social classes); he concluded that ‘the superiority of Stalin’s perspective over Trotsky’s is undeniable’ (NLR 44/72, 79). This provoked a wide-ranging debate, with Ernest Mandel defending Trotsky (NLR 47/32) and Monty Johnstone of the CP claiming that Stalin had led ‘the development and defence of the economic and cultural foundations of Socialism’ (NLR 50/121). (A contribution by Chris Harman, putting the ‘state capitalist’ point of view, was rejected for publication.)

In general contributors to NLR have vacillated between two positions: that Russia, etc. are some form of workers’ states, albeit imperfect and bureaucratised (a position argued most eloquently by Ernest Mandel), and that they are some new form of society, ‘post-capitalist’, but neither capitalist nor socialist; thus Lucio Colletti concludes unhelpfully that ‘the countries we call socialist are only socialist metaphorically’ (NLR 56/25). [65] Charles Bettelheim’s view – that Russia became state capitalist after the death of Stalin – is refuted in an editorially commended article by Ralph Miliband (NLR 91/2, 57). But the more substantial body of anti-Stalinist ‘state capitalist’ theory – the work of Tony Cliff, Nigel Harris, C.L.R. James [66], Raya Dunayevskaya, Bordiga or Kuron and Modzelewski – has neither been presented, nor discussed, nor refuted – it has simply been ignored.

On the question of China NLR’s record has been rather more erratic. From the mid-sixties onwards there began to appear a number of pieces expressing ecstatic admiration for Chinese society (NLR 30/61, 50/93). But the reactionary turn in Chinese foreign policy in 1971 (discussed above) led to a reconsideration. From now on articles on China were largely critical. In 1975 two French articles on China were translated with a stern editorial warning about the ‘process of debilitating and ignorant myth-making about post-capitalist societies, fostered with equal assiduity by the regimes in power in them and by those in the capitalist world who substitute models of “socialism” elsewhere for a revolutionary strategy closer to home’ (NLR 89/2). But the analysis of what exactly a ‘post-capitalist’ society is has not been taken very far; a long article by Editorial Committee member Fred Halliday ends with little more than an injunction to ‘free ourselves of illusions prevalent a decade ago’ (NLR 100/192). More recently Tamara Deutscher has written an account of a visit to China, which, with exemplary modesty and simplicity, manages to inform us that Chinese workers have no holidays, and that there is no free education or health service in China (NLR 120/117, 121/22) – facts which longer and more pretentious articles had not brought to our attention.

NLR has given us a wealth of documentary and empirical material on Russia and China. But those looking for an answer to Anderson’s question (cited above) ‘What is the historical meaning of a workers’ state without workers democracy?’ will look in vain in the pages of NLR.

(iii) The British Working Class

It has been a persistent theme of NLR that the British working class is deficient in theory. It is a sad paradox that, when it has approached the day-to-day problems of the British labour movement, NLR has almost invariably abandoned the tasks of theory in favour of empiricism and impressionism. Workers’ daily experience is fragmentary and isolated – the employers and the division of labour ensure that. The task of theory is to draw together the experiences and to generalise. In what ways has rising unemployment affected militancy in the workplace? How has the growing number of full-time convenors affected the form and function of shop stewards’ organisations? What is the nature of the left-wing trade union bureaucracy? It is questions like these that socialist militants need an answer to and which they have a right to see discussed in a review of socialist theory.

NLR was never centred on the industrial struggle. Industry was never more than one interesting topic among others. None the less, in its early years the Review published some interesting discussions of industrial questions. Denis Butt’s Men and Motors (written with assistance from Jack Jones) discusses the key role of shop stewards in the car industry (NLR 3/10). Tony Topham’s Shop Stewards and Workers’ Control had some interesting material on steward organisation and strike patterns (NLR 25/3). In the mid-sixties Ken Coates was a regular contributor of short notes on industrial and trade union matters, presenting for example, an account of the internal politics of the AEU from the viewpoint of the Labour Lefts around the paper Voice of the Unions (NLR 42/63). However, the loose links (in terms of shared contributors) that seem to have existed between NLR and the Institute for Workers’ Control were broken at the time of the ‘student vanguard’ turn and no comparable contacts have since been established.

Between 1965 and 1969 NLR presented some twenty-five short essays under the rubric Work. These were first-person accounts of various jobs, involving a variety of manual and white-collar occupations. The anonymous contributors were frequently not socialists, and in most cases had no political or trade union involvement. These highly personal accounts of oppression and alienation in the workplace were often revealing, moving or humourous; they had a vigour and concreteness in sharp contrast with the normal NLR style. Yet necessarily all the items in the Work series remain below the level of trade union, let alone political, consciousness. The Laboratory Technician, for instance, gives a graphic account of the gulf in status and conditions between teachers and technicians in further education (NLR 46/55); it does not even raise the questions as to whether it is possible, despite this, to have trade union co-operation between the two groups of workers.

The Work series came to an end in NLR 53, the issue devoted to ‘Red Bases’. Since then there have been only spasmodic attempts to engage with the problems of the Labour movement; a transcript of a discussion with four car-workers (NLR 80/29); an interview with Arthur Scargill (NLR 92/3); a participant’s account of the Camden council workers’ strike of 1979 (NLR 116/83). Each in itself interesting, but a thin record of a decade that saw two miners’ strikes, Grunwicks and the social contract.

On the one hand analyses, at a high level of abstraction, of the social and economic structures of contemporary society; on the other, descriptions of individual work experiences. Both of these NLR has done, and on occasion, done well. What is lacking is any mediation between the two, a mediation which could be provided only by strategy.

(iv) Race and nation

‘The theory of nationalism represents Marxism’s greatest historical failure’ (NLR 94/3). Thus wrote one of the most prolific contributors on the Editorial Committee, Tom Nairn. Certainly NLR has not been notably successful in its attempts to come to terms with the problem. Over the past twelve years it has devoted a disproportionate amount of attention to the phenomenon of Scottish nationalism, apparently being unduly impressed by transient electoral phenomena. Nairn’s first treatment of the theme, in 1968, has some sharp criticism of contemporary manifestations of Scottish nationalism (‘Sporranry, alcoholism and the ludicrous appropriation of the remains of Scotland’s Celtic fringe have been celebrated in a million emetic ballads’ (NLR 49/9), but he concludes by arguing that ‘for Scottish socialists, these contradictions will be murderous unless they build up their own Nationalism to oppose the SNP and – beyond immediate politics – to come to terms with Scotland’s complex cultural inheritance’ (NLR 49/16).

By 1975, however, Nairn seemed completely bewitched by the problem of nationalism. His article The Modern Janus involves a total, and pessimistic, revision of the Marxist tradition:

‘After the revolution in Russia, the Third International engendered what was really an extreme intensification of the myths: internationalism had failed through lack of will-power and organisation – for subjective reasons ... Socialism was a premature birth. So far from being ‘ripe’ (or even ‘over-ripe’) for it, as its protagonists told themselves, conditions in the earlier half of this century were to remain locked in the vice of primitive, uneven development and nationalism.’ (NLR 94/21)

Nairn lurches into a crude psychologism (‘nationalism is the pathology of modern developmental history, as inescapable as “neurosis” in the individual’) and ends up citing Walter Benjamin’s visions of angels.

One thing can be said for Nairn’s article; it was not as bad as a subsequent piece by Regis Debray (a man whose agility in changing positions is equalled only by his arrogance in asserting them). After defending nationalism by analogies with thermodynamics, Debray concludes: ‘Sometimes I even wonder if the whole “anti-Boche” mythology and our secular antagonism to Germany may not be one day indispensable for saving the revolution, or even our national-democratic inheritance’ (NLR 105/41).

Nairn’s views are his own, not those of NLR collectively; when The Modern Janus appeared the editorial introduction sternly admonished us: ‘It is of course, an irreducible tenet of revolutionary socialism that there exists a material basis for internationalism which is not merely a pious hope or abstract principle’ (NLR 94/1). But assertions prove nothing; and the only critique of Nairn so far published has come, not from within the Editorial Committee, but from Communist Party member Eric Hobsbawm, who reminded Nairn, in Lenin’s words: ‘Do not paint nationalism red’ (NLR 105/23).

Yet for a journal which has given so much importance to nationalism, NLR has been extraordinarily complacent about that most pernicious form of nationalist ideology today, racism. Introducing a useful study of The Function of Labour Immigration in Western European Capitalism by Castles and Kosack (NLR 73/3), NLR argued that Powellism is often ‘misconceived as essentially a rabid phobia about colour. In fact this racism in the strict sense is a secondary and contingent manifestation of the structural mechanisms of the labour market and reactionary bourgeois nationalism that are everywhere turned against the sub-proletariat in the imperialist states, of whatever colour’ (NLR 73/1). Immigration is a crucial question, and NLR went on to publish extracts from John Berger’s The Seventh Man (magnificent description, but short on strategy) (NLR 87–88/49). But on the level of political practice racism cannot be so neatly dissolved into immigration. Yet in the last decade NLR has published only one study of British racism – Nairn’s Enoch Powell: the New Right. This makes an interesting analysis of Powell’s ideas through a study of his poetry, before concluding that Powell is not a fascist [67] and that ‘it would be absurd to talk about an English fascism’ (NLR 61/26–27). I can only suppose that Nairn is bemused by an excessive concentration on the question of state power. Because the fascists are not making an immediate challenge for state power, he simply neglects the threat they pose to the labour movement and to the immigrant population on other levels. What other theoretical error could so blind NLR to the significance of British racism in the seventies?

(v) Culture

One of the distinctive features of the New Left from the beginning was its concern with the cultural aspects of the struggle for socialism, aspects which the rest of the Left had often ignored. There are a number of cultural tasks which a journal like NLR could perform: to develop a socialist critique of the existing bourgeois culture; to develop a critique of the function and ideology of the mass media and so-called ‘popular culture’; to encourage the production of new work from a socialist standpoint. [68]

Initially NLR attempted all these tasks with enthusiasm. The first twenty issues will disclose, among many other things, articles on Camus, Picasso, D.H. Lawrence, socialist poetry, Iris Murdoch and John Arden, as well as short stories, drawings by Paul Hogarth and an interview with jazz musician Bruce Turner. There were some interesting critiques of the mass media, for example Colin MacInnes’ analysis of Daily Express cartoons (NLR 2/39).

However the discussion of popular culture often took on a more elitist tone. The very first issue carried a piece by Brian Groombridge and Paddy Whannel called Something Rotten in Denmark Street (NLR 1/52), which made an ill-informed and insensitive attack on current popular music – ‘noise of an unbelievable ugliness is wrung from saxophones and guitars with sadistic cruelty and finally processed in the laboratory’. Raymond Williams adopted the same tone of middle-aged paternalism:

‘Can we agree, perhaps, before passing on to the more difficult questions, that football is indeed a wonderful game, that jazz is a real musical form, and that gardening and home-making are indeed important? Can we also agree, though, that the horror-film, the rape-novel, the Sunday strip-paper and the latest Tin-Pan drool are not exactly in the same world ...?’ (NLR 5/53)

The cultural theory that lies behind this is necessarily reformist. For if the working-class youth can be so easily and so totally manipulated by the record companies, then there can be little hope that the working class will ever actually emancipate itself. Hence it comes as no surprise that in 1961 NLR solemnly presented a set of detailed proposals to the Pilkington Committee (set up in 1960 by the Tory Government to advise on the future of radio and television). This went so far as to make detailed suggestions – for example, that there should be more records by Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald on Juke Box Jury (NLR 7/40).

This kind of patronising nonsense could not survive the Beatles, and by 1964 NLR was developing a broader and more sensitive approach to a range of cultural products. There were short notes on a range of musicians extending from John Cage to Blind Lemon Jefferson, while Lee Russell contributed a series of analyses of cinema directors.

A more sympathetic attitude to popular music was now adopted; in 1966 Alan Beckett discovered that ‘the introduction of rock ’n’ roll in the middle ’50s was a real revolution’ (NLR 39/89) – something many of us had noticed at the time. By 1968 the Rolling Stones were being incorporated into the NLR thesis on British culture:

‘Britain today is a society stifling for the lack of any art that expresses the experience of living in it. Our theatre is a quaint anachronism, our novel is dead, and our cinema a mere obituary of it. Perhaps the only art form which has an authentic expressive vitality in England is pop music. It at least reflects back to us the immediate constituents of experience, even when it does not illuminate them. It is no accident that it is the one product of contemporary British culture which has any international currency. For how long?’ (NLR 47/31)

But the dead hand of theory extended its grip. Lee Russell’s series of short notes on the cinema culminated in a lengthy piece Cinema – Code and Image (NLR 49/65), in which the actual experience of the cinema was drowned in semiological analysis. A little later NLR reproduced – from the unlikely source of a US magazine called Cheetah – a diagram called The Rock Garden, in an attempt to classify different currents of rock music. The diagram is good for a laugh, but NLR appended three pages of solemn commentary (NLR 54/80).

Now NLR no longer even makes a fool of itself. Verse translations and original fiction have long since disappeared from its pages. Discussions of popular culture, of cinema and music, has likewise gone. Nothing remains but pure ‘theory’. The reprinting of Marxist texts from the thirties, the aesthetic debates of Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and Adorno, has been useful, but it hardly replaces the confrontation with contemporary culture. Recently NLR published an article by Terry Eagleton on the literary criticism of John Bayley, Wharton professor of English Literature at Oxford (NLR 110/29). This in fact contains some interesting remarks on Thomas Hardy, a writer still widely read by working people. Unfortunately they are camouflaged from view in an obscure polemic with an academic nonentity. At a time when movements such as Rock Against Racism have made popular culture more directly political than ever before, NLR has simply abandoned the terrain.

(vi) Language

NLR has long been notorious for its obscure and pretentious style. [69] It is important, however, to be clear on the kind of criticism that is appropriate. Marxism, like any science, requires a technical terminology; serious socialist theory cannot be written in the language of the Daily Mirror. Capital is not a simple book to read, but this is is a quite different matter from the unnecessary contortions of much NLR prose.

Anderson is indeed very much aware of the problem of language:

‘By contrast, the extreme difficulty of language characteristic of much of Western Marxism in the twentieth century was never controlled by the tension of a direct or active relationship to a proletarian audience. On the contrary, its very surplus above the necessary minimum quotient of verbal complexity was the sign of its divorce from any popular practice.’ [70]

The second sentence is a graphic illustration of the problem stated in the first. But awareness of the problem has not aided Anderson to solve it. Writing of the English Revolution, he states:

‘It can, perhaps, be said that it was a clash between two segments of a land-owning class, neither of which were direct crystallisations of opposed economic interests, but rather were partially contingent but predominantly intelligible lenses into which wider, more radically antagonistic social forces came into temporary and distorted focus.’ (NLR 23/28)

(If any readers can tell me what an ‘intelligible lens’ is, I shall be grateful to hear from them.)

NLR has often bemoaned the lack of theory in the British working class. Perhaps the final and most serious indictment of the Review that can be made is that, by its style and manner, it has turned working-class militants away from theory by convincing them that it is irrelevant and inaccessible.


Replying to Alex Callinicos’ criticism that NLR has neglected the struggle to build the revolutionary party, Robin Blackburn replies: ‘To this charge, NLR must plead guilty: but one wonders whether even Callinicos believes that it would have been a better journal if it had been subject to the direction of the SWP?’ [71]

Blackburn has a serious point, which deserves a serious answer. There are grave obstacles to the development of theory in too close association with an activist political organisation, especially a small one. Firstly, tomorrow’s picket is always more vital than the elaboration of a long-term theoretical analysis. Secondly when faced with factional attack from within or without, a political organisation will tend to go on the defensive rather than being ready to discuss and modify them in the light of experience (if the WRP is the most obvious example of such a tendency, no organisation is wholly free from it).

Yet despite these disadvantages, the story of NLR confirms that theory cannot develop in isolation from revolutionary organisation. First of all, theory developed in isolation has no discipline of priority. Only constant feedback from an organisation involved in day-to-day struggle can tell us which questions need answering, which problems need analysis. Of course this will happen indirectly. Workers on the factory floor will not (unless they are ‘industrialised’ economics graduates) spontaneously ask questions about the falling rate of profit. But they will ask questions about the current crisis, its potential duration and effects, which will tell us how and in what context to confront the question of the falling rate of profit. A journal under the discipline of an organisation rooted in the factories could not, in 1979, devote twenty pages to the Mafia (NLR 118/53) and not a word to the National Front. The discipline of an organisation would also mean that the journal would have to have a team of writers (known in scientific parlance as ‘hacks’) willing and able to write on whatever subject the conjuncture requires, rather than only on their private interests and research areas. At one time NLR seemed to have such a team, but as its editors have grown more eminent and more specialised it has lost its capacity to respond. This is not to ask that NLR should turn itself into a news magazine, simply to demand some relation to the needs of current struggle.

Secondly, the absence of links to a political organisation allows political analysis to be completely irresponsible. When NLR developed its ideas on Wilson or ‘Red Bases’, there was no group of people actually putting the strategy (if it was clear what the strategy was) into practice. There is no-one to come back and demand a settling of accounts because the analysis was wrong, no-one to vote out the editors because their leadership was inadequate. Tom Nairn can predict a National Government, but no-one is going to do anything about it. He might just as well predict the Black Death or a Martian invasion.

For Anderson the absence of a revolutionary party seems to be accepted fatalistically as an unchangeable given. ‘The structural divorce between original Marxist theory and the main organisations of the working class in Europe has yet to be historically resolved’ (NLR 100/78). The need for a mass revolutionary party is admitted, but there is no suggestion as to where it will come from. [72] With the solitary exception of a chapter in Nairn’s essay on The Left Against Europe? (NLR 75/94). NLR has studiously ignored the existing organisations of the revolutionary left in Britain. When under pressure on the question of political activism, Anderson invokes the Fourth International [73] but he has not put himself or his journal under the discipline of that organisation. [74]

It is no use waiting for the revolutionary party; it has to be built. The task of developing Marxist theory cannot be separated from the building of the party. The British left would indubitably have been the poorer over the last twenty years if NLR had not existed; yet over the last few years it has become less and less relevant to the priorities of struggle. The choice now before NLR is whether it will collapse completely into the passive academic Marxism trapped in the ghetto of higher education social science departments; or whether it will seek to work and debate with those of us trying to build a revolutionary organisation in the working class. The latter choice will not be made without splits and confrontations of a sort that NLR has striven to avoid over the last ten years, but it is our duty to encourage the comrades of NLR to make it.


In the course of writing this article I have had valuable discussions with Norah Carlin, Peter Goodwin, Duncan Hallas and John Merrington. None of them are in any way responsible for the content or conclusions of what I have written. I am also grateful to Tom Wengraf for allowing me to read and refer to his MA Dissertation An Essay on the Early New Left Review.

All references to New Left Review are given in the text in the form (NLR 59/110), the first figure referring to the number of the review, the second to the page. Where a whole article is referred to, reference is to the first page. Dates are not normally given, but where they seem significant I have included them in the text. All other references are given in footnotes.

1. Lenin, Collected Works, XXIV, 43

2. p. Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, London, 1974, p. 173.

3. NLR 1 was dated January–February 1960; the latest issue to hand at the time of writing is NLR 121, May–June 1980. There have been four double issues.

4. Fred Inglis, Times Higher Education Supplement, 25 August 1978; Pierre Birnbaum, Le Monde, 30 September 1977; Richard Gott, The Guardian, 8 March 1977.

5. London, 1978. Thompson’s book contains discussion of a broad range of questions; this article will touch only on those directly relating to the history of NLR.

6. E.P. Thompson, Writing by Candlelight, London 1980, pp. 280, 166, 281, 171, 199; The Poverty of Theory, p. 99.

7. P. Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism, London 1980, pp. 115–6.

8. Cf. C. Harman, The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, IS 2 : 4, especially pp. 82–4.

9. P. Anderson, Problems of Socialist Strategy in P. Anderson & R. Blackburn (eds.), Towards Socialism, London 1965, p. 270.

10. London 1976, p. 106.

11. In adopting this two-fold structure I am, of course, fudging a problem that has worried many NLR contributors – the relation between the synchronic and the diachronic.

12. On the events of 1956 and their repercussions in the 1956–60 period see D. Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956–1968, London 1976, pp. 43–97, and I. Birchall, The British Communist Party 1945–64, IS 50; there are valuable accounts by participants (Saville, MacEwen, Heinemann, Jones) in Miliband & Saville (eds.), The Socialist Register 1976, London 1976; there is a perceptive if pro-Stalinist review of the debate, with ample quotations, in The Cult of the Individual, British and Irish Communist Organization, Belfast 1975. For the internal debate in the CP, with contributions from many who subsequently left the Party, see the files of World News (predecessor of Comment) for 1956 and 1957.

13. J. Saville in The Socialist Register 1976, p. 15. One of those who put the boot into Thompson and Saville was Tom Driver (World News 1956, p. 706), who went on to exercise his talents on a wider stage as General Secretary of NATFHE.

14. The Reasoner, 3 November 1956.

15. The Socialist Register 1976, p. 19. Esprit is a French left Catholic review founded by Emmanuel Mounier in 1932.

16. The New Reasoner, No. 10, 1959.

17. According to the testimony of teddy-girl Val Clarke, Socialist Worker, 1 December 1973.

18. Cf. Lawrence Daly, Fife Socialist League (NLR 4/69).

19. C. Taylor, Socialism and the Intellectuals, Universities and Left Review 1/2, 1957.

20. Editorial, The New Reasoner, No. 10, 1959.

21. World News, 1956, pp. 408–10.

22. Cf. World News, 1956, pp. 655–6.

23. Editorial, The New Reasoner, No. 1, 1957.

24. E.P. Thompson, Through the Smoke of Budapest, The Reasoner, No. 3, 1956.

25. E.P. Thompson, Socialist Humanism, The New Reasoner, No. 1, 1957.

26. For a debate on the pamphlet, featuring a vigorous ‘class struggle’ opposition by Eric Heffer, see the anthology A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 85–108.

27. The pioneering analysis of the first four years of NLR, to which any subsequent account must be indebted, is Peter Sedgwick’s The Two New Lefts, IS 17, reproduced in Widgery, op. cit., pp. 131–53.

28. For a classic example of sectarian megalomania see the SLL-controlled youth paper Keep Left (August–September 1959), which compares expulsions from the Labour Party with executions in Hungary: ‘Youth such as these in Streatham, Norwood and Hungary, who fight, and face expulsion or death, for their principles.’ However, the SLL had some more serious things to say. Cliff Slaughter’s What is Revolutionary Leadership? (Labour Review 5/3, 1960), which develops the ideas of Gramsci and Lukacs on the revolutionary party, raised the debate on organization far higher than anything published in NLR.

29. A list of Left Club addresses appeared up to NLR 23 (January–February 1964). However, there had been no amendments to the list since NLR 16 (July–August 1962), suggesting either a degree of political and domestic immobility unparalleled on the left, or – more likely – that the list was a fiction. Individual clubs may have survived for some time – my own recollection is that the Bradford Left Club was still functioning in the summer of 1963.

30. The Poverty of Theory, p. 35. The essay from which this passage comes, The Peculiarities of the English, first appeared in The Socialist Register 1965 in a slightly shortened form; the passage here quoted was published for the first time in The Poverty of Theory. Dr Beeching, incidentally, was the head of British Railways in the early sixties who ruthlessly closed unprofitable lines.

31. Arguments within English Marxism, p. 135.

32. The Poverty of Theory, p. 101.

33. Arguments within English Marxism, pp. 135–7.

34. I have not been able to ascertain whether authorship of the Socialist Wages Plan was a factor in Sir Kenneth Alexander’s achievement of knightly distinction.

35. Tom Wengraf has argued in his unpublished MA Thesis An Essay on the Early New Left Review (Birmingham 1979) that what he calls ‘NLR 2‘ (extending from 1962 to 1964) had distinctive features separating it from both its predecessors and successor. This distinction, he argues, was to be found in its concern with ‘comparative country studies’ of a ‘totalising strategic’ sort. ‘NLR 2‘, he claims, ‘gave a definite primacy to the study of the empirical, the concrete, the historical’, as distinct from NLR’s later concern with ‘theory’ (p. 4).

Wengraf’s view – as an Editorial Committee member at the time – is interesting, but not wholly convincing. First of all, the ‘comparative country studies’ led directly to Anderson and Nairn’s work on the specificity of England, which centred on the weakness of the theoretical tradition; this led directly to the decision to import Western Marxism (see (iv) & (v) below). Secondly, ‘NLR 2‘ was no clearer about the dividing line between revolution and left reform than any other phase of the journal.

36. Obviously there is no space here for a critique of Anderson’s numerous propositions about British history. As far as the seventeenth century is concerned, some aspects of Anderson’s thesis are dealt with in N. Carlin’s Marxism and the English Civil War in this issue of International Socialism.

37. Many critics have shown that Anderson underestimates the British working class. He also grotesquely romanticizes developments on the continent. Thus he claims (NLR 23/26) that France had a working-class party (the Parti Ouvrier) by 1876, whereas Britain did not have a Labour Party until 1900. In fact in 1876 the French working-class movement was in disarray after the defeat of the Commune; most of its leaders were still in exile. The 1876 Congress (which incidentally excluded all intellectuals on principle) set up only one of the many competing groups which were to exist in France before a united Socialist Party was established in 1905.

38. In fairness it should be said that in 1964 the cult of Harold Wilson’s personality was pretty widespread. Thus the same issue of NLR carried a Pergamon Press advertisement for Harold Wilson: A Pictorial Biography by Michael Foot, the photographs in which included ‘even one of him doing the washing-up!’ The cult was not, however, universal: ‘Wilson’s record as a political manipulator up to this point makes Guy Fawkes seem a brilliant conspirator by comparison.’ (Alasdair MacIntyre, Labour Policy and Capitalist Planning, IS 15, 1963).

39. House of Commons, 20 June 1966.

40. There was no extended discussion of the seamen’s strike in NLR. In 1967 NLR published a volume of essays on trade unionism (The Incompatibles, ed. R. Blackburn & A. Cockburn, Penguin), with contributions by Jack Jones and Clive Jenkins. The piece on the seamen’s strike was entrusted to Paul Foot.

41. As listed by Anderson in his Considerations on Western Marxism (London 1976), pp. 25–6. This is an interesting text for students of the contradictions in Anderson’s thought. After an extensive account of Western Marxism, Anderson produces, like a rabbit from a hat, the apparently superior tradition of ‘orthodox Trotskyism’. He then adds an Afterword, regretting that his text might invite an ‘activist’ reading which would be ‘scientifically untenable and politically irresponsible.’ (ibid., p. 109).

42. Interestingly, Anderson’s colleague Robin Blackburn constructed a rather different history for the same tradition: ‘In the twentieth century the modern classics of Marxism have emerged from the most diverse surroundings, all of which emphasize its vocation to change the world: from the Vyborg suburb of Petrograd on the eve of the October Revolution (Lenin’s State and Revolution), from the embattled Budapest Commune of 1919 (Lukacs’ Changing Function of Historical Materialism), from the prisons of Mussolini’s Italy (Gramsci’s prison notebooks), from the caves of Yenan (Mao’s On Contradiction) and from Havana, capital of the free territory of America (Che Guevara’s Socialism and Man in Cuba) and from the Paris students’ Marxist-Leninist Study Circle in a Sorbonne soon to be the storm centre of the French insurrection of May 1968 (Lire le Capital, Althusser, Balibar and others).’ (R. Blackburn, A Brief Guide to Bourgeois Ideology, in Student Power, ed. R. Blackburn & A. Cockburn, London 1969, p. 213).

43. Considerations on Western Marxism, p. 53.

44. Cf. Arguments within English Marxism, p. 115, replying to The Poverty of Theory, p. 404.

45. Obligations of ‘entrism’ meant that at this time Mandel’s Trotskyism was still a closely-guarded secret.

46. NLR was not, however, alone in the field, this journal too can take some credit – cf. E. Gerlach, Karl Korsch’s Undogmatic Marxism (IS 19); G. Lukacs, What is Orthodox Marxism? (IS 24 & 25); C. Harman, Gramsci, (IS 32); L. Goldmann, Is there a Marxist Sociology? (IS 34).

47. An interesting study could be made of the source of many of Althusser’s ideas in Zhdanov’s lecture On Philosophy delivered on 24 June 1947.

48. Juliet Mitchell, in her pioneering essay on feminism Women: The Longest Revolution (NLR 40/16) invokes the Althusserian concept of overdetermination. But it is not clear that this means anything more than a rejection of a crude and immediate reduction of women’s oppression to the class struggle. Does one really need Althusser for that?

49. Triesman is now a member of the National Executive of NATFHE. Doubtless his role in this capacity will be to ensure that the staff do not ‘come in too soon’ in future struggles.

50. Widgery, op. cit., p. 512.

51. Cf. Red Mole, No. 1, 17March 1970.

52. Cf. The attack on Blackburn by the New Zealand section of the Fourth International cited in Intercontinental Press, 11 May 1970, pp. 447–48.

53. Cf. letters by Chou En-lai reproduced in NLR 68/46 and 69/91.

54. It is both tragic and symptomatic that Anderson, who in 1962 produced a very valuable study of Portuguese imperialism (NLR 15/83, 16/88, 17/85) had not a word to say when the Empire finally met its deserved fate.

55. There were brief comments on Portugal (NLR 100/107–110) and Chile (NLR 100/128–9) in a reprinted interview with Ernest Mandel in which he described the Portuguese revolution as having been ‘blown off course’ by the Republica struggle.

56. Cf. C. Harman, The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left, IS 2 : 4, pp. 67-69.

57. In 1970 NLR published a critique of The British Road to Socialism by Bill Warren (NLR 63/27), which had previously been presented to the Smith Group, a discussion group of CP members and others. Warren, who became a frequent contributor to NLR, was a member of a right-wing pro-incomes policy grouping in the CP. (Cf. J Bearman, Anatomy of the Bennite Left, IS 2 : 6). However, there is no evidence that NLR’s concern to reform British Stalinism was ever more than incidental.

58. Inviting, for example, a book review from the anti-Marxist Tsarist ‘émigré’ Michael Postan (NLR 103/72).

59. Rustin describes himself as a ‘Rip Van Winkle’; certainly most of us imagined he had broken with what could on any reasonable definition be called the ‘left’ some ten years ago.

60. Arguments within English Marxism, p. 217.

61. Considerations on Western Marxism, p. 121.

62. Some of these early studies were encouraged by the ‘African Research and Publications Bureau’ run by a Tanzanian exile Dennis Phombeah (cf. Wengraf, op. cit., p. 21).

63. Arguments within English Marxism, p. 121.

64. Arguments within English Marxism, p. 203. Anderson’s worst enemy would not accuse him of having a limited vocabulary, and when he says ‘condemn’ he does not mean ‘criticize’. Incidentally, in the passage referred to (Writing by Candlelight, p. 171), Thompson denounces both wings of the IRA as ‘terrorist’, but Anderson apparently endorses only the condemnation of the Provisionals.

65. For the current reflorescence of Shachtmanism see P. Binns and M. Haynes, New theories of Eastern European class societies, IS 2 : 7.

66. A short novel review by James appeared in NLR 25/74.

67. Other than on the level of demonstration chants, I do not think any section of the British Left ever supposed he was.

68. Contrary to Colin Sparks (Art and Revolution, IS 2 : 5), I see no good reason for privileging one of these tasks over others.

69. The best parody remains Peter Sedgwick’s Pseud Left Review, IS 25.

70. Considerations on Western Marxism, p. 54.

71. New Statesman, 18 July 1980; Callinicos’ piece appeared in New Statesman, 27 June 1980.

72. NLR’s former belief that the Labour Party could inaugurate a process that would spill over into a revolutionary transition, and its more recent flirtations with Il Manifesto and the Althusser tendency in the PCF suggest a belief that the existing reformist or Stalinist organizations can be transformed by the dynamic of events into revolutionary parties. There is a scientific name for this view, unfortunately spoilt by misuse. It is Pabloism.

73. Cf. Considerations on Western Marxism, pp. 98–101, and Arguments within English Marxism, pp. 152–55.

74. Of the Editorial Committee Blackburn and Hoare are or have been members of the Fourth International; Rowthorn is a member of the Communist Party.

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Last updated: 10.9.2013