Lessons from the New Left

Paul Ewart on where the Left can go after Corbyn’s removal and the state of socialism now. 

The New Left is contested, largely between the domestic, or British New Left, and the more global New Left that mobilised around 1968 and its more significant afterlives, stretching from second and third wave feminism to the municipal socialism of the Greater London Council.[1] This short essay will mainly focus on what’s usually known as the British New Left, a left milieu gathered around a series of journals, clubs and institutions whose origins lay in the split from the Communists Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in 1956, and were accompanied by a second younger, more cosmopolitan, Oxford-oriented grouping, with a burgeoning interest in the politics of popular culture and consumption.[2]From the former group came The New Reasoner, a journal of Socialist Humanism; from the latter, the Universities and Left Review: if the former was born out of political developments in the Soviet Union (Hungary and the Secret Speech), the latter was informed by Suez and the emerging Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND).

Differences between the two groupings – generational, experiential and political – were never formally resolved,[3] but for a period, were held in tension by an openness on behalf of the younger grouping and the emollient influence of Raymond Williams, able by age and experience to appease the older grouping and by temperament to appeal to the youth.[4]

Despite their obvious differences, the two journals and milieux merged in 1959 around the new journal New Left Review which ran, in its initial form until 1962 when editorial disagreements and a lack of capital resulted in the journal as we know it today; a theoretical journal of the Left edited by a New Left milieu that includes Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn and Tariq Ali.

The post 1962 journal, was, in its early years defined as much by beef as by its ambitious publishing programme; Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn spent the first two years fielding attacks from a disgruntled E.P. Thompson (of the ‘first’ New Left) who accused them of cosmopolitanism and intellectualism, and, most heinously, privileging theory over History and activism, thus betraying the journal’s origins.

Stuart Hall, another target of Thompson’s ire, had, in the meantime, retired to education and cultural work for the British Film Institute, before re-emerging as the Assistant Director to Richard Hoggart at the newly founded Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) at Birmingham. His colleague, Raphael Samuel went on to found the History Workshop at Ruskin College.

Williams, Thompson and Hall were to work together once more on The Mayday Manifesto in 1967 and 1968, before going their separate ways (Hall to Birmingham and the Open University, Thompson to Warwick and Williams back to Cambridge). Thompson spent much of the 70s sniping at his erstwhile colleagues before falling out with just about everybody at a notorious event at Ruskin College in 1979, thus ending this chapter, and as Dennis Dworkin notes, the long, fragmented project that delivered a culturally-literate Marxism to Britain.

The NLR continued to produce outstanding work from the 1980s to the present, and we should be eternally grateful for Verso which continues to inform and inspire today. Similarly, the various New Lefts were able to gain institutional footholds in universities and the media (particularly the broadcast media, the early days of Channel 4 should serve as an inspiration), before declining in influence in the long ‘90s as neoliberal developments increasingly informed institutional and disciplinary practices. Finally, the legacy of each variety of British New Left was given unexpected new life in the recent Corbyn project, which was informed far more by the politics of 1968 and the Greater London Council than traditional Labourism.

If the Corbyn project resembled the New Left in its preoccupations and personnel during its rise, then it has yet more so in its collapse. Now that Jeremy Corbyn, (for the purposes of the analogy, the Williams figure) has stepped down, the trauma of defeat for the left in both general and leadership elections is being played out on social media by a frustrated and divided Left intelligentsia. The parallels become even clearer once we factor the regional divides that informed the politics and failure of the first New Left, with E.P. Thompson condemning cosmopolitan liberals from his seat in Halifax, or, later on, Ellen Meiskins Wood criticising those in the orbit of the journal Marxism Today for privileging identity over class (the justice of which claim Stuart Hall was to acknowledge, towards the end of his life). The New Left, and the Left more broadly has been riven by factionalism and disputes, and many of those mistakes, could be avoided should we learn lessons from the past.

My concern, it should be clear by now, is, that we avoid the farcical stage of History, having lived through the tragic. Many of those disputes that so disfigured the New Left are being mirrored today: in the splits within Momentum, in a lack of clarity around our relationship with the Labour Party and the Trades Union movement, in arguments around cosmopolitanism and place, and theory versus activism. If Perry Anderson had a point when he criticised the first New Left for its parochialism and its lack of theoretical rigour,[5] then Thompson was also right when pointing to the second New Left’s disdain for activism and organised political endeavour – after all the first New Left had set up groups across the country, campaigned with CND, opened a café and organised events, and supported the candidature of Lawrence Daly in the 1959 General Election. This is also the period in which Arnold Wesker’s Centre 42 (taken from Resolution 42 of the Trades Union Congress which encouraged arts in the community) toured the country before setting up residency at The Roundhouse, and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop privileged working-class plays and repertories in Stratford, East London.

The generational and formative experiences of the first New Left also have their parallels today. Thompson and Williams’ politics were forged during the Popular Front, from war experience, by adult education though the Workers Education Association (WEA), and by membership of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). Hall, Samuel et al were shaped by jazz, the burgeoning Peace Movement, and increased affluence, in this context, it is easy to see how Thompson and his peers may have seemed like cranks to the younger crowd based around Oxford.[6]

The lesson from the various New Left’s then, are salient to today’s moment. Let us avoid falling out further over the 2019 General Election, let us comprehend that it is possible to work within and without the Labour Party, let us have organisations that work both at community and organisational levels and let us insist on a vibrant presence within the digital media economy. But any Left project must also be comfortable communicating using multiple registers and platforms (Momentum’s recent commitment to eviction activism is particularly heartening here) and making room for differences. The New Left was arguably most effective, when it worked in and out of the institutions in the long 1970s making enormous gains for the working-class and hitherto marginalised communities both at a practical, political and at a cultural level and radicalising a generation of students and future teachers and activists through the CCCS and New Left Review’s publishing project (those cultural gains made from 1997 on, do not happen without the activism of the 1970s). There’s a great deal of work to do, but the lesson from the past is that we should engage with the cultural and the political and avoid interpersonal beef over issues we can no longer affect.

This short essay was written before the recent fallout from the EHRC Report which has intensified divisions among the old and the young (the ‘cranks’ and the ‘melts’) and between strategically motivated actors. Is it possible to marry material and identitarian critiques? Can one in all honesty remain in party that, to all intents and purposes, seems determined to crush the Left. What other options are available to a generation of radical activists on the wrong side of History?

Corbynism briefly held out the possibility of working within the Labour Party to achieve radical goals and, at the more utopian end of the spectrum, of hegemonizing the centre.

One wonders whether this option really exists now, or if it ever did. We are back, to all intents and purposes, in 1956, except it’s the Labour Party rather than the CPGB that is the source of disenchantment. One wonders, in the absence of successful historical precedents, and in an institutionally backwards political culture, as Nairn and Anderson correctly observed, where we go from here?


[1] This New Left can be traced through Hilary Wainwright’s politics from Beyond the Fragments (1979), to the GLC.

[2] Hall, interviewed in 2010, noted that popular culture was the site of change in the late 50s, see ‘Life and Times of the First New Left’, New Left Review 61, (2010).

[3] For more on this see Dennis Dworkin’s Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain(1997) and Ellen Meiskins Wood’s ‘A Chronology of the New Left and Its Successors, Or: Who’s Old-Fashioned Now?’ Socialist Register 31 (1995).

[4] Without wishing to be too obvious, the parallels with Momentum and the Labour Left are all too striking.

[5] See Perry Anderson ‘The Left in the Fifties’, New Left Review 29 (1965).

[6] Anderson’s response to Thompson’s critique of The Origins of the Present Crisis gives some flavour of the divide, he accuses Thompson of  ‘Wandering subjectivism … inflated rhetoric … maundering populism. The categories of this thought are so vacuous and simplistic that it is difficult to credit that they are those of the same man who could write such overpoweringly concrete history.’ ‘Socialism and Pseudo-Empiricism’, Ne Left Review 35 (1966).

Paul Ewart is a tutor and researcher at the University of Sussex working on histories of the 1970s.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s