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New Left Review at Fifty.

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New Left Review at Fifty: Is There Life in Their Politics?

Halcycon Days for the New Left

New Left Review is a “left intellectual project”. What is the nature of this undertaking? On its fiftieth anniversary can a balance sheet, and future prospects be drawn? The British New Left, respectively the original New Left from E.P.Thompson and John Saville’s New Reasoner and Stuart Hall from the University and Left Review, that combined in 1960 to found the Review, and the Second New Left, whose chief theorists, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, as well as Robin Blackburn, ran the journal after 1962, is often the object of intellectual biography. Assessing the value of the individuals’ work. Or on the magnificent set-piece battles between Thompson and the later NLR’s editors. Here there is a different object: the transition from the original New Left’s aim to “make socialists” to New Left Review’s (1962)  Editor, Anderson and his  more ambitous plans. That is, to his ultimate goal, to produce a fresh layer of left intellectuals who would help end British anti-theoretical “exceptionalism” and pave the way for socialism. History, careers, and disputes, should be seen in the light of these objectives.

Susan Watkins in the Editorial to the 61st Edition (Second Series) of the Review, talks of its launch in 1960 as “one of a myriad of small harbingers of left renewal”. Its early enthusiasm for “anti-colonialism”, Third Worldism in general and Latin American guerrilla activity and Cuba in particular, were causes championed by a much wider international New Left (notably American and French). They were succeeded by “intensive debates within Marxism” of the end of the decade. But what really brought the New Left prominence, and shaped the journal’s frame of reference, was 1968. Leading up this was the movement against the Vietnam War, whose British wing, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) had a decidedly New Left tinge. This, as we are frequently told by veterans, was a tumultuous period, at its most spectacular in May, marked by student revolts, the counter-culture, the democratic and humanist socialist resistance to Stalinism, and, above all, the stirrings of mass workers’ action in Europe. Even in ‘sleepy London’ the London School of Economics saw a student occupation – which displayed solidarity with French protests. In the VSC held a mass demonstration in September ’68, causing manufactured panic in the media, and, saw a ‘Maoist-Anarchist’ splinter faction (several thousand strong) march on Grovesnor Square. Violent clashes with the police ensued. A Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Federation (RSSF) came into being, with encouragement from the New Left’s publications. Its influence, split and reformed into various factions, rippled through British campuses in the years to come.

New Left Review engaged in theorising these events, and, also to Watkins, “helped pioneer work on women’s liberation, ecology (? There are so many claims to have been a proto-Green), media, film theory, the state.” Not that theory smothered action. The journal aimed to be a guide, an aid helping to define the political responses and strategies of its readership. Which was, in part, something to be created, not given. The Editors often defined their role as the education of serious left, to conjure up and shape a previously ‘absent’ – political – subject, in Britain above all. This was a time when many on the left considered that the political landscape had changed fundamentally: 68 had opened breaches in the fortified welfare capitalism of the post-war years – and, more ambiguously – the Eastern glacis. There would be no revolutionary movement without the appropriate theory to guide it.

This, then, was not just a matter of blazing a trail for theory, breaking ground that would eventually flower with media studies, gender and post-colonial studies, or greening the planet. The impression of being part of rising social force that needed direction accelerated in the decade following the ‘sixties. In 1977 NLR’s hundredth issue, the Editorial (worth citing at length) evoked some ideas little mentioned today. “It was not until the May Events in 1968 that the idea of the actuality of socialist revolution transformed political consciousness throughout the capitalist world. The radicalisation of significant numbers of students and young workers, the growth of the women’s movement, the Italian ‘hot autumn’ and the constant electoral advances of the PCI, the Prague Spring, and the 1970 revolt in the Baltic ports, the working-class defeat of the Heath government, Watergate, the revolutionary upsurge in Portugal in 1974-5, and above all the victorious struggle of the Vietnamese against US imperialism all combined to transform the environment of Marxist intellectual work, and has accordingly been reflected in the pages of NLR” Marxist thinkers and strategists take note: work remains to be done. The revolution is ‘actual’ – that is, following the Gallicism, present.

The largest Fourth International (British section, the International Marxist Group, IMG) – a strong (reciprocal) influence on NLR during this phase. Revolutionary working class upheaval, on a planetary scale, was on the cards. Or so they and other organised Marxist groups proclaimed. Counter-culturalist and proto-International Socialist, David Widgery’s call in Student Power (New Left Review/Penguin 1969), “Today the students, Tomorrow the Workers” echoed the General Line. Plans for the strategic alliances followed. Ernest Mandel advised in the 100th issue that, with dual power in prospect, and workers’ councils too, “revolutionary Marxists must be the force most committed to the strengthening of class unity and organisation.” Perry Anderson, writing in detail about Gramsci, focused in his conclusion on “winning power”. “The means of achieving this conquest – not of the institutions of the State, but of the convictions of workers, although in the end there will be no separation of the two – are the prime agenda of any real socialist strategy today”.


In 2010, its “quinquagenary year”, the present New Left Review Editor (installed, 2003), Susan Watkins, is a lot soberer. Eschewing judgements on the unrealistic projections of the 1970s, marked by the belief that a “new vanguard” that would sweep Europe, she outlines the effects of the decades-long dominance of neo-liberalism. There are “far more depoliticised cultural and intellectual environments” the market and electronic forms of social life structure this – affecting politics and debate (in ways only touched on here). “Flares of protest have been ephemeral” (though NLR has certainly played them up under its Movements rubric as far as they could go). In fact “every mobilisation they have known” from the alter-globo, climate change campaigns and mass protests against the invasion and occupation of the Iraq, “have “ended in defeat”. Marxism have veered towards a “neutralised academic discipline” also “risks being the witness of this trend”- to depolicisation and intellectual consumerism?

Marxism, and its New Left form, has doubtless been absorbed or pushed aside. Though there is more than the revolt of the Green and Social Forums on the radical planet. One would not dismiss so prematurely (as her partner, Tariq Ali, does in the same issue) say, the Iranian upsurge – which has received broad international support (not from NLR). It is is shaking the foundations of one of the ‘anti-imperialist’ religious states that heralded and sustains the present epoch of reaction. Or shirk from asking, as few of the Review’s contributors have done, why exactly a movement with the pretensions of the alter-globalisers and Social Forums, or the anti-war movement have been unable to make much of real impact. In contrast to say, the more conventionally generated advances of the Latin American left, for all their present governmental problems. That is, not in terms of yet another analysis of the ‘global conjuncture’ or the versicoloured faults of the various NGOs involved (not doubt at the moment wrapping themselves in glory after Gordon Brown’s backing for their hobby-horse the Tobin Tax). Or, as Alexander Cockburn has attempted (no 46, 2007), to blame the anti-war campaign in the US’s “inertia” on an alliance with the Democratic Party. But within a framework of their avoidance of the issues involved in the “conquest” or “winning” of power.

Watkins, however, does admit to some related problems. There has been an ‘erratic’ coverage of ecological topics. One might have expected some musings on the failings of their own (temporary?) rush to endorse “biopolitics” (Second Series, NLR No 45. 2007). Or indeed why this mixture of ecological concerns, transparently contradictory scientific and mystical expectations, radicalism and challenges to capitalism, wrapped up in a top-heavy structure of NGOs and (vacillating) state support, could ever fulfil the role once allotted by the Review to the working class and its allied intellectual cadres. This is, after all, a major bone of contention on the left at the moment, as it becomes clearer that the longed for rescue by the alter-globalisers has not materialised, and the left is stuck in roughly the pre-Seattle isolation. With, in Europe, only a few new political formations, such as the German Die Linke – a in a Germany undergoing profound political reshaping – making much headway. But no. Watkins simply, plaintively, asks, “Can a left intellectual project hope to thrive in the absence of a political movement”. She finishes curtly, “That remains to be seen. But in the meantime it will certainly have a lot on its plate.” Obviously at the moment Die Linke (or strong left blocs, such as the French Front de Gauche or the Portuguese Bloco de Izquerda) is not on the bill of fare.


It is, naturally, quite possible, even easy, largely to ignore the political context of the 50th Anniversary. In the Guardian Review (13.02.10) Stefan Collini underlines NLR’s value, intellectually that is. It merits “respect”, for its “magnificently strenuous attempt to understand, to analyse, to theorise”. Collin, who devotes pages to the Journal in his study of British Intellectuals (Absent Minds 2006) and Perry Anderson himself, in his essays on historians (Common Reading 2008), finds Watkins’s dose of pessimism (regarding socialism’s future) congenial. He too, nevertheless, asks, of the Review, if “its present character raises again the question of what a journal of ‘the left’ should be aiming at when it is not in constructive relations with any organised relations with any organised radical or progressive movements beyond its pages.”

Indeed. If some of the NLR Editorial Board members have had close links with left organisations. Robin Blackburn stood, with courage, against the LSE authorities during the 68 events, and for his active support to socialist students lost his academic position. This was most direct, as already mentioned, in the 1970s with Mandel’s Fourth International, specifically its domestic section, the International Marxist Group. Like the IMG’s leadership, some of its Editorial Committee became engaged (to different degrees of keenness) with Bennite attempts to reform the Labour Party in the early 1980s. The Peace Movement loomed large during this period – a grass-roots moral protest against atomic missiles which I must confess I have trouble grasping with full empathy – so I pass it over. At the same time, Robin Blackburn (Editor 1982 – 2000) and others of his comrades helped form the Socialist Society in the 1980s, and participated in the last broad-based – successful – effort to tie together new left intellectuals, the left of the labour movement, intellectual strategists, Labour, Trotskyist and Trade Union activists, in the Socialist Movement of the late 1980s (Chesterfield Conferences). This is absent today.

Let us take some prominent cases. One of the NLR’s best contributors, Peter Gowan (1946 – 2009), himself ex-IMG, produced, over many years, a well-informed and incisive commentary on the unfolding crises of Eastern Europe, from the 70s onwards. He also specialised in global finance. Gowan wrote many searing portraits of the US Wall Street-Pentagon-White House Axis, and the neo-liberal fetters on the emerging European Union. But how did his politics turn out, as neo-liberalism remained dominant? All he could express (NLR 59. 2009) was the hope that a “new movement for world reform” would emerge. In which intellectuals would play a significant role. Given the diverse cacophony, frequent eccentricity, and sheer impuissance of the ‘anti-globalisation’ mouvance, on offer such delicate opacity is understandable. But it is very far from the leading role NLR allotted itself in times past. As a counterpoint Tariq Ali keeps beating the ‘anti-imperialist’ drum – pretty worn out by now – which he detects in Islamicist ‘resistance’ to the West. One does not imagine that this has much appeal, either to the Islamists or, outside the dwindling ranks of leftist admirers of the vigour of Muslim ‘revolutions’. Nor is this all: NLR has had its own defections. Which require at least some response. Unmentioned in the journal (except for oblique references to enthusiasm for NATO intervention in the former Yugoslavia) are the careers of former Editorial Committee members, such as Quintin Hoare and Branka Magaš, now associated with the anti-Communist Henry Jackson Society, or the sadder tale of Norman Geras – writer of the social-democratic pro-Western Euston Manifesto. In short, if New Left Review was once the rather clumsy and non-computerised fabrique of left strategy, its machinery in this department has long been dismantled.

Let us, nevertheless, concentrate some more on the relation between Marxism and movement. This problematic has a long history, most memorably introduced by NLR’s influential, Editor, Perry Anderson (1962 – 1982, 2000 – 2003). Since his landmark essay, The Origins of the Present Crisis (1964) the newly seated Director of the revamped review began a critique of British politics and culture, marked, on the left, by ‘subaltern’ deference to the aristocratic sodden establishment. The alternative was to foster an alternative counterhegemonic socialist culture, woven into an anti-capitalist intelligentsia. E.P.Thompson and others from the ‘First New Left’ (that is the review until 1962) chaffed at this exaggerated picture (which ignored the British working class’s rich history of self-education*). Not to mention Anderson’s own tendency to attach undue importance to moments of celebratory ‘intellectual’ fashion for the left. Stuart Hall (who describes the First (British) New Left’s efforts at creating a country-wide network of ‘clubs’ in the 50th anniversary Edition of NLR) might justifiably point to the relative, if transient, success of their injection of a radical cultural opposition in the favourable climate left by 1950s CND dissidence.

Others, who sympathised with Thompson out of acquaintance with the reality of a – contradictory but vibrant – socialist culture in Britain, and who resented the notion that their efforts were as dust compared to Anderson’s transient intellectual mentors, would agree only on the value of expanding the influence of an indigenous left. Anderson’s later brave tries at reconciling Thompson have not extinguished this dislike at being called, effectively, stupid. In need of intellectual re-education. But there are those from the review who still mine such a vein. Tom Nairn could – and no doubt does – reply with his own trenchant comments about the corrupting legacy of conservative Labourism and its adhesion to the British state. His position has led him to the belief today that “nations” (not the British ‘Ukanian’ prison of the people) are better vehicles for human liberation and progress than class politics, or socialism. The light shining from the Scottish National Party should no doubt bedazzle us into acquiescence with this opinion. This is an original educational programme. ‘British’ socialists are not only still fools, but imperialist cretins to boot.


Even so, as the background to a serious programme of work Anderson, Nairn, and Blackburn’s project had its merits. As a ‘publishing programme’ that is. Despite their self-conscious references to Les Temps Modernes, this had more in common with the publication of key dissident Marxisms in the French journal Arguments (1956 – 62). Its aim was to reach a larger public with what came to define the French new left – themes such as self-management, proto-feminism, critiques of social democracy, anti-Stalinism and cultural theory. The Review’s history began with a parallel ‘counter-hegemonic’ strategy. In conditions where the left was much less visible – and then confined (post-50’s) to a wasted Official Communist ghetto and some still small Trotskyist groups (not to mention other even more isolated remnants of the 1930s) – it exerted strong magnetism.

The 60s were still part of the ‘age of affluence’ and, at the same time, were a period when higher education began to expand. In Components of the National Culture (1968) Anderson lamented the “chloroforming” British intellectual culture, unable to think the “era of revolution” or even to conceive a “social totality” in the twentieth century. Those entering university at the time would no doubt have lapped up these criticisms, as they began t explore for themselves their subjects – social sciences particularly. Soon even in philistine Britain, the absence of a dissenting layer of intellectuals seemed to be ending as student revolts spread internationally in 1968, from the US New Left, to Europe and the ‘Third World’. Robin Blackburn’s A Brief Guide to Bourgeois Ideology (1969), which defined the task of the students left to reject “conformist ideas”, and to find in Marxism “the practice which is changing the world”. Importing Western Marxist theory in its pages and its press (now Verso), NLR had a genuine impact in the university milieu and more widely amongst those interested in left thinking. By the 1970s its articles were studied as part of many courses, from politics to the humanities. If some were the ‘great works’ of Continental Marxism, they came far from undigested, as the title of one New Left Book indicates, Western Marxism. A Critical Reader (1977). Changing the nature of the debate, the contentious point then became what exactly was the projected audience to do with these ideas.

There was self-evidently a lot to do. As the 1970s began Britain experienced more and more strike action, governments tumbled under the force of industrial action (the Miners’ strike of 1984 -5), and across Europe there were continuous conflicts – most acutely in the Mediterranean lands. These factors, – radical students and mounting social tension – referred to earlier, combined to produce a great leap in wishful thinking on the part of the New Left. Anderson famously judged in Considerations on Western Marxism (1976) that the failure of proletarian revolutions in post-1917 Europe, and 1930s victories of Fascism and Stalinism, led to an “ever increasing sicission between socialist theory and working class practice”. Western Marxism – that is intellectuals such as Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse, Sartre, and Della Volpe, including those initially politically engaged – such as Gramsci or Lukács – became the creators of a cultural phenomenon, research into abstract issues such as aesthetics or high theory, with only indirect relevance to politics. By contrast, during the 1970s it began to seem (heavily interlaced with conditionals) that “The eventual reunification of theory of practice in a mass revolutionary movement, free of bureaucratic trammels, would means the end of this tradition”. After the divorce, we may be able to tackle “revolutionary strategy”, “socialist democracy” and the “contemporary laws of motion of capitalism”. All of which required a “mass revolutionary movement.”


The advent of the ‘great moving right show’ that led to Thatcher put anything other than a defensive battle – however extra-parliamentary – out of the realms of possibility in the Isles (excepting the United Ireland question – which NLR never touched on). Or, in Italy’s case, a real quasi-insurrectional atmosphere in 1969’s ‘hot autumn’ turned into the ‘years of lead’. The poisonous heritage of a decade of terrorism on the largest scale on the Continent, still lingers. Despite this, in Arguments Within English Marxism (1980), Anderson kept referred to the “transition to socialism” and the use (or otherwise) of concepts of ‘dual power’, workers’ councils, and their relation to Parliamentary democracy. The “dissolution of the existing capitalist state”, “broken” through a “revolutionary transfer of power”. In the ‘probabilistic’ hypothesis that is that there would be a form of democratic socialism to transition to.

NLR’s twenty-fifth anniversary came in 1985. The Editorial could observe with satisfaction that the journal had been “instrumental in the critical reception and diffusion of the corpus of Western Marxism in the English-speaking counties, which helped to prepare the way for the emergence of a lively and many-sided Anglophone Marxist culture”. But there was no more talk of socialist transitions. It seemed that if Eric Hobsbawn’s thesis that the “Forward March of Labour” was true or false, sociologically confirmed (declining working class) or not, politically Labour and European socialism was moving rightwards. The crushing of the mid-decade  Miners’ strike had seemed to assign both militant industrial action (by implication, the whole strategy of left-wing British trade unionism) and the prospects of feasible socialism (the Alternative Economic Strategy) to history. Neoliberalism and the market were in fashion even on the left. In the same copy Ralph Miliband attacked “the new revisionism- the forerunners of Tony Blair’s ‘modernised’ non-socialist Labour Party. At the time voices were being heard, inside the Communist Party’s Marxism Today, tearing to pieces the basic principles of the labour movement, criticising them pell-mell as elitist, out-of date and retrograde – with only the most vacuous ‘alliance; of progressives and radical democrats to replace them. Intellectually the glimmers of post-modernism and its multiplicity of ‘discourses’ began to take shape on the horizon – Marxism, a totalising ‘meta-narrative’ was overdue a burial.

The New Left took, rightly, exception to those who had belatedly found fault in the very movements they, that is the Stalinists and Labour Right-wing social democrats who joined them, had long criticised as authoritarian. It was equally galling to see those who rushed to assume the mantle of feminism and participative politics in a wholly different fashion to New Left, which had developed these ideas, not to dam the labour movement but to transform it. Post-modernism had much less weight – though provided a glib answer to Marxists who clung to the idea that history was inevitably on our side. This was not all. What counted more were the facts. NLR 150 stated that, “The labour movement in the West has been unable to resist the consolidation of regimes of the Anglo-American Right, or the emulation of their politics by governments of the Europe socialist Left.” In France a President and Socialist Party (who entered into an alliance with the French Communist Party, soon broken) had reversed its initial project – a bold version of the Alternative Economic Strategy with nationalisations and workers’ right to the fore. By this date President Mitterrand’s Prime Minister, Laurent Fabius, celebrated ‘creative capitalism’ and ‘winners’. It proved unlikely that a “cogent revolutionary strategy in the West” would have much influence in conditions where hanging onto the traditional gains of social democracy was a task assigned to Marxists and left democratic socialists fighting against…social democrats.

The signs of these times had already been visible. In 1983 Anderson’s In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, surveyed the “massacre of ancestors” – Marxist ones that is – amongst those former beacons of radicalism, French and Italian intellectuals, and a retreat to ’reformism’ by once revolutionary political strategists, (explored by Nicos Poulantzas, who, as a believer in radically democratic socialism would have rejected this lazy label). It was with some relief that he could turn to a burgeoning Marxist cohort in the English-speaking world. Anderson added however, “in recent years the very notion of socialism as an alternative form of civilisation has become effaced and remote within broad masses of the working-class in the West, and fallen into popular discredit in significant zones of the East.” Talk of linking an intelligentsia with radical action was silenced. The political thread was already broken, Western Marxism went back to its allotted role as a cultural epiphenomenon, or, more politely, serious academic research. With a little lingering pop glamour.

A brief, and neglected, return to the old problematic of the ‘transition to socialism’ was made by Robin Blackburn in NLR 185 (1991) – Fin de Siècle. Socialism After the Crash. It explored, with fruitful insight, the nature of planning and markets in a feasible socialist economy and society. The succeeding decade threw up, nevertheless, only the vaguest descriptions of such a radical re-ordering, from Ungar’s increasingly diluted ‘utopias’ of radical democracy, to Roemer’s ‘coupon economy’ socialist market schemes, which are on all fours with the LETS programme for local economic exchanges – modern day barter. The impasse faced at the end of this avenue can be seen at present in New Leftist Hilary Wainwright’s drift towards localism and advocacy of popular democracy. This, while useful for its commitment to real practical knowledge, fails the test of replacing the traditional call for the socialisation of the means of production, distribution and consumption. Limited by a degree of ’necessary’ market mechanisms, market socialism may be better than effort to ‘see like a state’ (that is crudely interfering everywhere) but apart from this virtue  it has yet to be translated into a viable political programme. The fact that the present Conservative Party proposes workers’ co-operatives to take over public services, and Labour offers the ideas about ‘mutualising’ local government public provision shows the potential negative of attempts to marry markets with social ownership. These measures will increase inequality, let markets rips (as workers compete against each other) and as they develop, will only enrich stock-jobbers living off the public purse.

With its relaunch in 2000 (Second Series), Perry Anderson had drunk the bitter cup of the left’s failure to the lees. “The Soviet bloc has disappeared. Socialism has ceased to be a widespread idea. Marxism is no longer a dominant in the culture of the Left, Even Labourism has largely disappeared.” The neo-liberal consensus, underpinned by American capitalism’s primacy, and the failures of European social democracy, has been anchored, he argued, by the centre-left (Blair and Clinton). Anderson detected the first signs of an enduring pattern of Western military interventionism – under the guise of NATO’s protectorate in Kosovo following their armed actions and the establishment of political hegemony in the 1990s Balkan Wars. The reaction of New Left review? “Uncompromising realism”, “refusing any accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power”. Backing for reforms, local movements, “without pretending that they alter the nature of the system”. In memorable words Anderson stated that, “The only starting-point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat”. Capital has won. Some consolation may be found in the “metabolism of capital itself”.

What of the cultural platform of the New Left, the new radical intelligentsia, or of the left tout court? Not only the bond to action was ripped asunder. Its culture, amongst today’s students, was in danger of being moth-balled, “the roster of Bebel, Bernstein, Luxembourg, Jaurès, Lukas, Trotsky Gramsci, have become names as remote as a list of Arian bishops”. Faced with a wider radical left culture, from different, more diffuse radical origins than Marxism, NLR’s new series would itself attempt a “widening of the limits of its own culture”.

Such “bleak circumstances” – for New Left politics that is – have, if anything, worsened. In his Jottings on the Conjuncture (2007) Anderson suggested, somewhat mid-stream between currents-currents, that one may find answers in critical theorisations of globalisation. American hegemony may be ending, either through an extinction of the nation-state (Hardt and Negri, and New Left writers, Bull and Arrighi) or through its reassertion on a lower – human, ethnically national – level (Nairn). This is thin gruel to sustain us when one addresses the problem of political agencies, that is parties as well as movements. And gives undue credence to, Bull’s non-market civil society, Hardt and Negri’s under-theorised concept of the ‘multitude’ which supposedly is building an alternative to Empire (or even the even more slippery concept of ‘non-parties’ endorsed by Badiou, or Jon Holloway). The main difficulty remains that of the construction of the vehicles that can reach into the mechanisms of political and cultural power which New Left Review analysed in the 1970s. And still does, though largely through mordant criticisms (by a gamut of well informed authors, from Anderson – largely in the London Review of Books – to many others, including Watkins’s own Editorial) of the parties that attempt a ‘progressive’ role in Europe, and the rest of the world. We hit rock bottom with the suggestion that we look to the ‘metabolism’ of capital to provide an answer. In other words, to the eventual collapse (?) of the system under the weight of its own contradictions. Leaving the way open for socialism. This would be a throw back to the Sigismond, the Marxist translator for Bankers in Émile Zola’s L’argent (1891) – who scans forthcoming crises on the Bourse with delight, in the belief that they prepare the way for the socialisation of capital. If the New Left is a project at present leading to the longue durée, then it is there that it will have to put down more substantial roots to attain staying power. Organised ones.

Conditions, Anderson’s declaration of ‘realism’ in mind, are not favourable. The Fall of Official Communism in the East – and its adaption to capitalism in the Middle Kingdom – has been followed by even more right-wing turns, affecting the Labour Party – its adaption in the 1990s of the market state and the ‘Third Way’, the disintegration of social democracy under its present leader Gordon Brown – and, to cite but one case, the disintegration of the PCI and the Italian left and its doomed reincarnation as an avatar of the – equally flailing – American Democratic Party. Yet is not the announcement of defeat more than an observation, but in itself the outline of a programme? One that retrenches, retreats to a figure Gregory Elliot noted, to the “watch tower”. Where his observations attain their greatest clarity? In this Anniversary issue Anderson offers a brilliant panorama of historical and economic sociology – directed to the fate of Russian Official Communism and its aftermath, and the Chinese State’s present-‘capitalist-communism’. But in his account of the ‘matrices’ of these revolutions, Anderson avoids analysing the role of Leninism, of the Bolshevik conception of the Party. That is, a key element in his earlier call to join intellectual and political work in a socialist project. Perhaps he simply dismisses its relevance – the deeper tides of history run over organisations. Or maybe it is that Leninism, like the socialist movement generally, is again a permanent ‘absence’, like the non-existent British ‘Second revolution’ – needed to bring these isles up to the modernised levels of ‘other countries’, like France and the USA.

Thus, if there is a case against capitalism, and yet no socialist movement to replace it, then his widely remarked ‘Olympian’ attitude comes into its own. That is not to wait for a crisis of global proportions, but to quietly assist in saving what can be saved from the present-day wreckage of the left. And to make a contribution to scholarship on world affairs, that such detached lucidity permits. But if there is an underlying consistency in the Anderson’s sharply poised intellectual parti pris, against Gregory Elliot, we have to observe that there has never been a reckoning with the years when it was intended to serve grander political ambitions than rescuing a savoury remnant of left culture. Back indeed to the writings on the revolutionary – or otherwise – transition to socialism. **

NLR’s contemporary intellectual ambitions appear, then, less thunderous. The Review has recognised the truth that if Marxism had – briefly – become “naturalised as a central intellectual tradition” it now looks as Stefan Collini has noted elsewhere, “shallow”. Students confront it as only one tray in a tempting buffet of radical snacks, from Jean Baudrillard, Giorgio Agamben, to Green and ‘alter-globalisers’ of promiscuous ideological fancies. The Journal continues to publish excellent, thought-provoking material on a variety of topics, from abstract theory, literature, to the central problems of the world economy (such as Robert Brenner), and insightful aperçus of European and world politics. Even Frederic Jameson, ever trend-chasing, supplies some cultural vim. But unfortunately this is garnished with less than valuable exercises in clever futility, perhaps summed up by its role as vehicle for the ageing Baufrdillard, who would not have been given house room in previous decades. Thus New Left Review has played its part in the fast food expansion of radical catering, publishing the beyond-time and reason ‘ontology’ of Alain Badiou, the (amusing but weightless) musings of Slavoj Žižek on world politics, universal philosophy, communism and a few things in addition. It would be beyond parody to imagine their ‘communist hypothesis’ and fidelity to the ‘event’ of their own dream-time to imagine them supplying a real political perspective. Though anyone is welcome to come and sit at these maîtres’ feet.

Perhaps the intellectual culture NLR has encouraged, somewhat limply, is summarised by ‘post-secularist’ Gregor McLennan, who has spent his life commentating on commentators. In NLR (60, Nov/Dec 2009), he reviews a recent book by Peter Dews on the ‘Idea of evil’. Dews, a rigorous critic of the ‘deep structures of modernity’ and defender of Critical Theory against the ‘logic of disintegration’ has delved ever deeper. One learns, amid the thick undergrowth of this text, that the book claims, “religious understandings are not to be taken as necessarily opposed to secular understandings.” Whatever its virtues this slide into “metaphysical experience” – origins unknown – is part of a general tend. Plates of Theodicy, and indeed theology, in the shape of a self-described ‘Marxist’ Messianism have been regularly served by the Journal’s traiteurs. Post-secularist ambitions aside the position on religion of many contributors to NLR looks suspiciously like a very classical form of British deference towards the clergy. That is, a reluctance to wound the refined sensibilities of the intellectually faithful, and a flirtation with religious populism not unlike earlier Third Worldist moments in New Left Review’s history


In 2007, reviewing a book on the history of New Left Review (Duncan Thompson, New Left Review. The Search for Theory.), Ian Birchall stated that the Journal was marked by a “progressive distancing for the working class movement”. *** As for its claims to help produce a Marxist theory that could serve the British working class, it “rarely delivered”. This is unfair: NLR has not had enough contact with the working class to be anything but  distant from  it. A couple of paperback book collaborations in its revolutionary hey-day  and rather more articles aside it enver ‘melded’ with the British labour movement. It never pretended directly to led and arm the proletariat with theory. This was the task, as Birchall rightly underlines,  of intermediaries (an early case of ‘outsourcing’). Not stduents (asw he claism) but the intelligentsia in a wider sense. Such vehicles are now lacking, but the ambition to train them remains. It is just that new directions, not fixed to austere journals, but toe equally rigorous and ferocious debates, are being found on the left. Marxism continues to exercise some attraction even amongst the new generations – some highly talented individuals as well have emerged, below NLR’s radar no doubt. Perhaps they too, with the briefly cited reference to new forms of electronic communication, are finding their own role on the Web – as the traditional left factions are discovering to their chagrin, with Blogging anybody can become an ideologue and organic intellectual at the touch of a keyboard.

New Left Review’s central fault lies in the lack of a clear role for those it wished to supply with munitions. NLR wished to conjure up, and made serious efforts to do so, a radical intelligentsia informed by Marxism. Yet after that initial step towards a different left movement,   it hovered and wavered. For all its closeness to the Fourth International, it could not align itself with any Party for long: none would accept its authority in any case. And the hard grind of suffering fools (obligatory in all forms of politics from whatever side) was hardly to the Editors’ taste. At present there is some revival of Marxist ‘scholarship’ in different quarters, in the pages of Historical Materialism. This has even more reduced ambitions: it is the academic writing for the academic. But has NLR fared better by courting a wider audience – recognising the limited appeal of such pressing topics as labour ontology, debate about ‘Gewalt’, and abstract dialectics? Far from being a ‘totalising’ journal, it has splintered its contents into many different shards. Anderson himself, like the majority of his fellow-contributors, is more enlightening about particularities, details, surveys of the latest literature, studies of definite polities, and at his most etiolated and feeble when attempting to fulfil the role of a “portion of bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.” (Communist Manifesto).

* See: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class. Jonathan Rose. Yale University Press. 2001.

** Olympus Mislaid? A Portrait of Perry Anderson, Gregory Elliot. Radical Philosophy. 71. 1995.

*** Review of Duncan Thompson’s New Left Review. Ian Birchall International Socialism 115. 2007.

New Left Review


Written by Andrew Coates

February 19, 2010 at 11:47 am

3 Responses

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  1. […] Verfasst von entdinglichung am 19. Februar 2010 Dem New Left Review zum 50. Geburtstag alles Gute (auch für die näxten 50 Jahre), einen Artikel zur Feier gibt es bei Tendance Coatesy: […]

  2. […] a century of the New Left Review: Coatesy has a long and fascinating critical elegy, and Entdinglichung reminds us of the 1960 edition. Michael Weiss has a different […]

    Poumunk « Poumista

    February 21, 2010 at 12:48 pm

  3. I don’t know if this is actually the best place to ask but do you folks have any ideea where to get some professional writers? Thx


    June 22, 2011 at 7:06 pm

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