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Bert Cochran

New Horizons for European Socialism

(January 1958)

From American Socialist, January 1958.
Copied from the American Socialist Archive created by Louis Proyect.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

WHAT has come out of the year’s churning? In terms of organization and social influence, very little. In terms of intellectual quickening, something of importance. As explained by our British correspondent in the October American Socialist, an immediate outgrowth of the mass exodus out of the Communist Party was the so-called forum movement, and the periodical, the New Reasoner, an offspring of the Reasoner, which was the opposition journal inside the CP.

The socialist forums held a two-day conference in April of this year at Sheffield attended largely by recent CP members to try to figure out what had brought on the catastrophe and how to go about reconstructing a philosophy for the movement. As was only natural after a sudden release from an intellectual prison-house, the gathering brought forth a remarkable babel of music in which every possible instrument of the orchestra was represented. Some thought Marxism remained unimpaired. Others believed Marxism had proved ‘a defective tool.’ One delegate wondered whether there weren’t after all absolute humanitarian values. Another held out for proletarian values. Some wanted to go ahead and build a new Marxist party. Others thought the forums should not try to become a new center of political power but stimulate a new climate of socialist opinion.

Nothing could be more indispensable for the political hygiene of the ex-CP members, of course, than to purge themselves of accumulated poison. But as a catharsis, the forums had a necessarily limited function. The dilemma was well expressed, if not resolved at the conference by Michael Segal, one of the editors of the journal, Forum, when he said ‘that there was danger of having nothing at all within a couple of months if they did not organize. On the other hand, if they adopted a program and formed a party there was a danger of becoming one more little sect,’

The second conference of the forums which was just recently held in London saw a hectic debate between those who wanted to adopt a political platform and those who wanted to keep the forums as a wide-open discussion center, with the latter viewpoint winning out. But the impression is that the forums have already passed their peak and are now in a state of decline, and have become a bit of a hunting ground for some of the sects. The forums served a purpose at first when lots of bewildered CPers were looking for guidance. But many, possibly a majority, have already joined the Labor Party, and are caught up in new associations and routine.

ONE of the forum organizers proposed that the forums should become ‘a left-wing version of the Fabian society.’ This is a familiar thought. A while back we advocated a similar project in this country. But its realization is clearly beyond the forum’s powers, as it proved beyond the powers of the American Left at the time. It has to be kept in mind that the original Fabian society, for all its casualness, was not an intellectual free-for-all, but had a very definite political outlook and promulgated very specific ideas, concepts and projects. It also had a number of figures who were eminently capable, not merely of hollering for discussion, re-thinking, and new approaches, but brilliantly carrying through with a series of noteworthy pamphlets and books. The Forum movement is not equally well situated on either count. As for maintaining an organization merely to exchange opinions, people tire of that after a while, and besides in England other vehicles serve the purpose better.

The New Reasoner understood more clearly what it was about and what it conceived as its job. The editorial of the opening issue succinctly explained its approach:

‘Forty years of desperate emergencies, wars, and factional conflicts have reduced the creative body of ideas once known as Marxism to the state orthodoxy of "Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism" on the one hand, and to its stunted opposite, dogmatic Trotskyism on the other. But revulsion against these orthodoxies has strengthened the traditionally pragmatic and anti-theoretical bias of the British labor movement, and has narrowed its internationalist outlook and diminished its revolutionary perspectives.

‘The career politician, with his inevitable pre-occupation with maneuvers and expediencies, dominates the political field. And the vigorous Left movement, expressed in the main around Tribune, has itself tended to fight shy of theoretical discussion or extended analysis, preferring to trust to the robust intuition of Mr. Bevan. In doing so it has failed to win the complete confidence of that great body of socialists who desire not only to act but also to understand the context and aim of their actions. The energies of the labor movement have been weakened by the snapping of links between socialist intellectuals and those who bear the brunt of the practical work of the movement.

‘The New Reasoner hopes to make some contribution towards re-establishing these links and regenerating these energies. In the political field, we take our stand with those workers and intellectuals in the Soviet Union and East Europe who are fighting for that return to Communist principle and that extension of liberties which has been dubbed “de-Stalinization”; in Britain with those socialists of the left wing of the Labor Party, or unattached to any party, who are fighting under very different conditions, for a similar re-birth of principle within the movement. We have no desire to break impetuously with the Marxist and Communist tradition in Britain.’

E.P. Thompson, one of the magazine’s leading spirits, who is a university lecturer and biographer of William Morris, has made a notable contribution to the present British discussion in an article on Socialism and the Intellectuals that appeared in the first number of Universities and Left Review and which elicited in the following number a spirited discussion contributed by Mervyn Jones of Tribune and several university lecturers.

Thompson argues that the circuit by which ideas are transformed into effective social energies has been broken by the withdrawal of the intellectuals on one side, and the bureaucratic structure of the labor movement on the other. He doesn’t think the solution is for intellectuals to simply join the Labor Party.

‘I think that the greatest need of the moment is for a new, vital, and principled movement of socialist ideas, a new two-way flow of ideas and experience between the younger generation of technical, professional, and in particular industrial workers. After the spiritual impoverishment of the past decade, I think that the star of the imagination is likely once again to be in the ascendant. And, further, that for the time being at least it will be to the great advantage of any such movement if it takes place entirely independently of the organizational machinery of either Transport House or King Street. Specifically, I am thinking of books, pamphlets, and journals; discussion groups and forums; poems and novels; a re-awakened student movement; and cultural activities ...’

IT is naturally outside the purpose of this review to subject the various articles and positions to detailed critical analyses. I am trying rather to fit the different views and periodicals into a coherent or at least discernible pattern. Thompson is obviously trying to re-establish the figure of the Marxist intellectual as a personality of independent integrity and special skill who has a distinct contribution to make to the cause by practicing his trade, not by laying it aside in favor of so-called practical activities, or prostituting himself as a technician in the service of the machines. He is trying to open up the channels of intellectual exchange. His is a ringing ‘call to arms’ to intellectuals, and may have an important influence especially on those with Communist background.

The weakness of the New Reasoner appears to be that most of its writers are still unduly pre-occupied with the world from which they have so recently broken, as evidenced in the subject matter which claims their attention, the problems that continue to dominate their thoughts, and the people to whom they are primarily addressing their writings. Moreover, trying to continue to rest on the Communist tradition by restoring it to its original pre-Stalinist pristine purity strikes me as a quixotic venture. Communism is bound by historical associations of a quarter of a century that neither god nor man can eradicate. To try to restore Communism to the meaning that it possessed in 1917 or 1848 is like trying to take Christianity away from the Catholic, Lutheran, and Calvinist churches of today and restore it to the simple virtues of the Biblical Apostles. It is a subject matter for literary exercises. It has no use as a workable tradition for the Left in Britain, much less, in the United States.

The periodical which seems to be most sensitive to the thought processes of the new generation and involved in making socialism a living, challenging movement again in a country like Britain is the Universities and Left Review. In part, it starts from similar premises as the New Reasoner. But its editors have had more success in freeing themselves from parochialism, their range of vision is wider, and they have a better feel to whom their message should be addressed. Their introductory editorial shows that a group of people has finally come along who know what the problem is, at any rate. Here is part of their opening statement:

‘The post-war decade was one in which declining political orthodoxies held sway. Every political concept became a weapon in the cold war of ideas, every idea had its label, every person had his place in the political spectrum, every form of political action appeared – in someone’s eyes – a polite treason ... Between the high citadel of Stalinist Russia, and the "welfare-state – no further" jungle of the mixed economy, there seemed to be nothing but an arid waste. In the tight compartmentalized worlds, buttressed by bans and proscriptions, suspicions and fears, supported by texts from Lenin and Stalin, mottoes from Burke and Bagehot, protected by massive armies with nuclear stockpiles and mutually exclusive military pacts, British socialism suffered moral and intellectual collapse ... It was inevitable that the post-war generation should identify socialism, at worst with the barbarities of Stalinist Russia, at best, with the low-pressure society of Welfare Britain ... The debate between those who clung to the slogans of the thirties and those who embraced the new orthodoxies of Welfare Britain, a debate which evaded the critical problems and the main frustrations of post-war society, appeared monstrously irrelevant to the post-war generation.

‘What is needed, therefore, is the regeneration of the whole tradition of free, open, critical debate. The socialist tradition ought to be the most fruitful and the most stringent of the intellectual traditions ... Those who feel that the values of a capitalist society are bankrupt, that the social inequalities upon which the system battens are an affront to the potentialities of the individual, have before them a problem, more intricate and more difficult than any which has previously been posed. That is the problem of how to change contemporary society so as to make it more democratic and more egalitarian, and yet how to prevent it degenerating into totalitarianism ...’

One can complain, of course, about all these declarations, that while they give the questions, they don’t supply the answers. It seems to me that the political mistiness, in these cases, arises not necessarily from personal failings, but the intrinsic difficulty of the times: the realization that while the old socialism – both Stalinist and welfare-statist – has reached a blind alley, a new detailed program cannot simply be sucked out of a few editors’ thumbs, but will have to come more organically through sustained efforts, exchanges, and experiences, and that a new dogmatism must be shunned. That does not mean that the Universities and Left Review is a vacuum. It would not have elicited the favorable response that it had if it did not represent something beyond the mere plea to have a discussion. By its statement of the problem, by its tone, by its very selection of writers and subject matter, it is carving out a political approach, which explains why it has struck a responsive chord and been able to constitute itself a veritable avant-garde socialist institution.

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