James D Young 1967

Neo-Marxism and the British New Left

Source: Survey, no 62, January 1967. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The New Left grew out of the upheavals in British social and political life revolving round the Suez crisis, the Khrushchev revelations, the Hungarian revolution, the frustrations and alienation of ‘the scholarship boy’, and the preoccupations of socially-conscious intellectuals with the ‘pernicious influence’ of advertising and television. It was both a product of and a response to a mood of social discontent among a new generation of intellectuals, of university graduates and undergraduates in the 1950s. This mood was reflected in the universal enthusiasm with which Richard Hoggart’s book, The Uses of Literacy, was reviewed in 1957. By 1958 the political mood within the New Left had hardened, and the movement as a whole was committed to a form of neo-Marxist analysis of contemporary society. Thus EP Thompson confessed that:

I still prefer to call myself a dissident communist rather than a late convert to democratic socialism or any other hybrid. I think there is some point in some of us in the West asserting our communist origins, instead of hoping our traces will be covered by the dust of time; we may be ashamed of past gullibility, arguments and attitudes, but we need not be ashamed of our basic decision to stand on the side on which we did when faced with this historical dilemma. [1]

The Khrushchev ‘revelations’ at the twentieth congress of the CPSU was the key event triggering off the emergence and crystallisation of opposition within the British Communist Party. At that time a group of communist intellectuals published and circulated a duplicated bulletin, The Reasoner, in open defiance of the party bureaucrats in King Street; and, when the second wave of Russian tanks rolled into Budapest to crush the Hungarian workers’ rising, most of the opposition leaders within the party at once resigned. The immediate upshot of the resignation of EP Thompson and John Saville, who had roots in the industrial North of England, was the emergence of The New Reasoner — a printed ‘quarterly journal of socialist humanism’.

Side by side with this development a group of Labour and dissident communist undergraduates launched early in 1957 a new socialist journal, Universities and Left Review. Both journals were concerned with developing a socialist-humanist philosophy relevant to the times, related to what was happening in their own society and to the labour movement as a whole, and with the arts. The neo-Marxist tendency had now repudiated the concept of keeping ‘artists in uniform'; the ‘scholarship boys’ had opted out of the ‘culture of prosperity’ with its ‘bitter-sweet taste'; and they had all agreed that imaginative literature and socialist humanism were complementary. But while The New Reasoner concentrated on systematic attempts to rescue Marxism from the stifling, stultifying hand of Stalinist orthodoxy, Universities and Left Review turned its attention to sociological criticism, the cinema, literary criticism and community planning. Its pages were packed with articles and contributions from prominent novelists, artists and journalists; it attracted a large number of readers, carried regular articles and review notices on a wide range of problems worrying the whole spectrum of professional people from the school teacher to the film director; and it soon won favourable comment, high praise and enthusiastic recommendation in the glossy magazines and quality newspapers. On the other hand The New Reasoner had a much smaller circulation (estimated at about 2300 at its peak in 1959), reflecting the ‘harder’ political origins and commitment of its editors and supporters, and it therefore took a more serious and consistent interest in the goings-on of the trade unions and the Labour Party. Nonetheless there was considerable overlapping at times, as when, for example, Universities and Left Review published ‘The Insiders’, a study of ‘the men who rule British industry’ in 1957, in a determined effort to influence the Labour Party conference debate on public ownership. Conversely, The New Reasoner carried short stories by Doris Lessing, poems by Christopher Logue and Bertolt Brecht, and art supplements on the work of William Blake and Diego Rivera.

Yet The New Reasoner was the main pole of attraction for the dissident communists and the emergent non-party neo-Marxists (such as Peter Worsley) who were academics, scholars and specialists interested in bringing ‘the Marxist method’ to bear on their own research and writings. Still others among them were engaged in sociological excavations to rediscover ‘the early Marx’. Though they were always a minority within the New Left, the neo-or-revisionist Marxists had deeper roots in the labour movement than the empirical ‘socialist humanists’ belonging to the Universities and Left Review tendency, and they stamped their neo-Marxism on the New Left as early as 1957. This was, in turn, a reflection of their factional experience and political maturity, their talents and their uncompromising opposition to the values of the Establishment.

However, the neo-Marxist analysis of contemporary society to which the New Left as a whole was irrevocably committed was not generally recognised by outsiders. Only the odd discerning reader realised that the cultural sociology of Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and Richard Hoggart was becoming subordinate to the evolving ideology of the neo-Marxist tendency. Thus Professor Cameron devoted all of three broadcast talks to a scrutiny of the New Left’s political philosophy, and to a critique of its ‘vestigial Bolshevism’. Being resident in the University of Leeds, where the New Left philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre was issuing his ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’, Professor Cameron was in an unusually good position to sound out what was going on in the New Left. Those who were less discerning saw it as a cultural movement or as a political movement interested in ‘cultural’ questions, as opposed to the basic bread-and-butter preoccupations of the Old Left.

Occasionally a few American socialists appeared to possess a much sharper insight into the predicament of the New Left than any observers or commentators, whether critical or sympathetic, in Britain. Thus C Wright Mills touched the heart of the problem when he appealed to the New Left to scuttle ‘the labour metaphysic’. [2] A variant of this approach was seen in the penetrating comments of Irving Howe, an editor of the American socialist journal, Dissent, when he wrote: ‘I suspect that in their stress upon the working-class neighbourhood and its indigenous culture men like Williams and Hoggart are turning to something that is fast slipping away.’ But while Wright Mills wanted the New Left to repudiate the idea that the working class is an historic agency of change, Irving Howe criticised their ‘organic vision of socialism for being a bit too harmonious and, if I may risk being misunderstood, a bit too wholesome’. He and the other editors of Dissent had repeatedly expressed their solidarity with the Marxist revisionists in Poland and Hungary (as had the editors of The New Reasoner), yet even Howe was attracted to Universities and Left Review — a journal which showed little interest in the Marxist revisionists in Eastern Europe — and to writers like Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart who lacked ‘a touch of anarchist disaffection that would burst out no matter “who is the state"’. [3]

But then the cultural apparatus of the New Left was based in London, and within a stone’s throw of the great publishing houses and the quality newspapers. The Partisan ('London’s left-wing coffee house’) was situated in Soho’s Carlyle Street which also housed a socialist library and the editorial and administrative offices of Universities and Left Review. For journalists and foreign visitors, this was the New Left; and a New Left which, if Raymond Williams’ work was anything to go by, belonged to a long line of British radical dissent. In any case the New Left in London was a widespread movement, with weekly political meetings in various basements in Oxford Street pulling in audiences of 500, and reinforced by adjuncts as far-ranging as the Left Scientists group, the Education group, the History of Socialism group, the Literature group, the Social Priorities group, the London Schools Left Club (for teenagers still at school), and an International Forum.

A high-watermark of the activity and achievement of the movement was the merging of Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner into New Left Review in December 1959. In the last issue of The New Reasoner, the decision to thrust ‘forward into the Red Sixties’ (the phrase is Isaac Deutscher’s) was defended, and the foundation of New Left Review justified as a means of providing ‘a stimulus and a sense of direction to the movement’. [4] As it happened, the neo-Marxist tendency lost more from the fusion of the two journals than it gained; and nothing was heard in the pages of New Left Review of the Marxist revisionists in Eastern Europe or of the neo-Marxists or dissident communists in Britain.

At the same time Out of Apathy was published as the first of a series of New Left Books aiming at a ‘moral diagnosis of contemporary society’. It was (apart from a reprint of Irving Howe’s Literature and Politics) also the last book to be published in that series under the imprint of New Left Books.

Out of Apathy was given good reviews in the general as well as in the labour press, and held out the promise of providing dissident communists, disenchanted Bevanites and rationalist CNDers with a common rationale for their hectic and sometimes near-anarchistic political activities. Then the New Left political movement dipped towards a decline — a dip that was soon to escalate into a gallop. By the end of 1961 New Left Review had a circulation of 9000; two years later the circulation had dropped to under 4000.

By the beginning of 1959 the New Left movement had 45 clubs scattered throughout the country. Some of them were firmly tied to traditional labour organisations (that is, the trade unions and the Labour Party), and others, like the Fife Socialist League, were straddled between the Labour Party and the Communist Party, poaching members from both, injecting the ideas of ‘socialist humanism’ into the trade unions at the pit and factory level, and struggling for the soul of the labour movement. In the industrial North of England and in Scotland the neo-Marxists grouped around The New Reasoner were not content merely to assert their adherence to class struggle, socialist humanism and the role of human agency as against an impersonal historic process; they were also preparing themselves, in the phrase of Ralph Miliband, for ‘the politics of the long haul’. A New Left monthly journal called Forum was beamed at rank-and-file militants in factories, mines and workshops; and was later replaced by industrial bulletins putting the case of the neo-Marxists in the plain language of the industrial worker. Many of the rank-and-file industrial workers in the New Left cooperated with the agitational plans and projects of the Socialist Labour League, the main Trotskyist organisation in Britain, while gently but firmly chiding Gerry Healy, Peter Fryer and Brian Behan (then forming the Trotskyist high command) for their petty and unfraternal attacks on the New Left revisionist intellectuals. For example, Lawrence Daly, the most talented and influential worker in the New Left (and now Scottish secretary of the National Union of Miners), announced his ‘critical support’ (a phrase popular in Marxist circles) for the Trotskyist National Industrial Rank-and-File Conference in 1958, thus suggesting that the far-left had finally ‘made it’. A perceptive journalist in The Times had no such illusions, and committed his own prognostications to paper: ‘The composition of the group is so diverse that it would be surprising if they were to cohere for long.’ When Peter Fryer, Brian Behan and Alasdair MacIntyre (a late-comer to the Socialist Labour League) baled out of their commitment to Trotskyism a year later, the prediction of The Times was vindicated.

Nonetheless the neo-Marxists, while assisting the industrial workers of their tendency by helping them to produce industrial bulletins, had not forgotten that theoretical work is the chief province of Marxist intellectuals, and their contribution to neo-Marxist creativity was impressive. A whole host of books manifesting a neo-Marxist tendency came off the printing presses before and after the abortive New Left Books venture had failed. Among them were Parliamentary Socialism by Ralph Miliband, Puritanism and Revolution by Christopher Hill, Essays in Labour History by John Saville and Asa Briggs, Scottish Literature and the Scottish People by David Craig, The Trumpet Shall Sound by Peter Worsley, The Making of the English Working Class by EP Thompson, and Victor Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, translated, edited and with an introduction by Peter Sedgwick.

The central predicament of the New Left was that as its ‘moral diagnosis’ of British capitalism was assimilated by the Establishment, and its cultural prescriptions and remedies accepted for consideration by socio-cultural committees and party committees in Transport House, a division between the two tendencies was building up. That was not, however, the only source of tension, but rather a symptom of unresolved theoretical divergences and conflicting practical aims as a whole.

The half-partisan authoritarian voices in the background kept nagging and insisting that the New Left should drop the ‘Labour metaphysic’. In an early issue of New Left Review, EP Thompson offered a stringent, though fraternal, criticism of Raymond Williams’ book, The Long Revolution, on the grounds that his model of society had made insufficient allowance for the creative role of the class struggle. In the event, Thompson’s neo-Marxist creativity met defeat in an internal factional struggle. Despite the dominant faction’s obsession with ‘images’ and cultural ‘fashions’ (Brecht, for example, replacing Sean O'Casey), the crippling voices of a sectarian past kept creeping into the pages of New Left Review. Not a few of the voices were new, belonging, as they did, to the sophisticated but politically innocent; yet the tone had been shaped in the 1930s when Stalin was enjoying his heyday.

Thus the editor of New Left Review could write of the situation in Cuba:

Elections and party government is seen now as a rupturing of the transitional period, slowing down its pace and altering its style. It would formalise the system and fracture the fraternity between people and leaders formed in the revolutionary war. With the memory of Batista’s electoral hoax fresh in their minds, the Cuban poor regard elections as a bureaucratic postponement of the revolution. [5]

Once the creative role of the working class, whether reformist labour or dissident communist, had been written off, the majority of new leftists fell back on a mythology of socialist saints and reactionary sinners. (After Labour lost the general election in 1959 Universities and Left Review held a meeting in London under the title ‘The Permanent Tory Majority’.) Hence the search for allies, enemies and revolutions as engines of history in the backward countries, where the class lines could be sharply drawn and the saints and demons allotted their historic roles. When the indigenous working class had failed to act out its preordained historic role, the substitutionalists soon found their saints and saviours in Cuba and Algeria. By the late autumn of 1961 Stuart Hall (the only full-time functionary in the New Left) had vacated the editorial chair of New Left Review and the substitutionalists had also succeeded in edging the neo-Marxists out of the New Left altogether. The New Left had died as it had begun, in a mood of weary, disgruntled defeat.

The factional fight was fierce and prolonged, and duplicated factional documents were circulated among the leadership. Yet no public statement was ever made or published concerning the differences that divided what has not inaccurately been called the old New Left and the new New Left. At the root of the conflict was a mood, just as a mood had played a large part in the evolution of the New Left in the 1950s. Not that the upheavals of 1956, with the revolt in the Communist Party and the disenchantment of the Bevanites, would not inevitably have led to a regrouping of left-wing forces in Britain. A peculiar confluence of circumstances and political forces was present at the birth of the New Left. And so at its death; for die it did, though a journal called New Left Review still issues from the old editorial offices in Soho.

EP Thompson led the attack of the defeated faction who favoured greater political activity and less concern with ‘images’ and cultural fashions. Paradoxically, the victorious faction led by Perry Anderson, the present editor of New Left Review, had come from nowhere. They had belonged to neither of the tendencies in the old New Left, and they were largely unknown outside of Oxford, where they had produced a student socialist journal called New University. Culturally and politically they are now the equivalent of the Social-Democratic Federation when it went through its worst sectarian phase — except that the SDF believed in human agency rather than passive political comment and back-seat driving. This new New Left believes in the inevitable ‘logic of history’ rather than the class struggle or labour reformism.

A page of New Left history, of strivings and searchings for a humanistic socialism built by working people themselves had closed. [6] As the New Left in Britain collapsed, a whole crop of New Left movements sprang up in America.


1. EP Thompson, ‘Agency and Choice’, The New Reasoner, Summer 1958. In this essay Thompson captured the mood of the neo-Marxists in the New Left when he wrote: ‘Marx’s greatness lies in his refusal to fall into facile economic progressivism on the one hand, or equally facile moral absolutism on the other.’

2. C Wright Mills, ‘Open Letter to the New Left’, New Left Review, September 1960.

3. Irving Howe, ‘A Mind’s Turning’, Dissent, Winter 1960.

4. EP Thompson, ‘A Pressay in Ephology’, The New Reasoner, Autumn 1959.

5. Stuart Hall and Norman Fruckter, ‘Notes on the Cuban Dilemma’, New Left Review, May-June 1961.

6. See my article, ‘The Two Faces of Socialism’, Socialist Commentary, October 1963, where I discuss the democratic and authoritarian conceptions of socialism.