New Left Review: The search for theory

Issue: 115

Ian Birchall

Duncan Thompson, Pessimism of the Intellect? A History of New Left Review (Merlin), £16.95

To produce uninterruptedly, every two to three months, a socialist theoretical journal with a consistently high standard of analysis and commentary from 1960 to the present is no small achievement. Only two journals in Britain fit the description: International Socialism and New Left Review (NLR).

Though in some sense rivals, the two journals have been complementary, and on occasion—the Revolutionary Socialist Students’ Federation and the Balkans war—have cooperated. Anyone who (like myself) has a complete set of NLR since 1960 possesses a rich collection of contributions to socialist thought. The left as a whole would have been poorer without NLR; any negative comments in this review should not be seen as detracting from that.

So those interested in the history of the British left should welcome Duncan Thompson’s history of NLR. Written from a point of view of general support for the left, it makes some sharp and fundamental criticisms of NLR, but never in a hostile or sectarian manner.

NLR emerged from the aftermath of the events of 1956. In 1962 the original editorial team around the historian Edward Thompson was replaced by a group headed by Perry Anderson. Anderson proposed to make NLR the British equivalent of Les Temps Modernes, the French journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1945. He never came remotely close. In its heroic years during the Algerian War Les Temps Modernes formed a focus for the opponents of the war; it published denunciations of torture and testimonies by French soldiers about the brutalities of the war. It was seized four times by the authorities in Algeria in 1957. It is hard to imagine the police bothering to -confiscate NLR.

Duncan Thompson gives a careful account of NLR’s political evolution, aptly described as “skittish”—a series of sharp political turns made without justification or self-criticism. In its first few years NLR had more than its share of illusions in the modernising potential of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. But the emergence of the student movement in 1968 produced a sharp swing to the ultra‑left. NLR argued (rightly) that ideology was of great importance and (wrongly) that ideology was primarily the product of intellectuals. Hence the working class could not be approached directly; instead the student movement would produce a Marxist intelligentsia who would bring “theory” to the working class which was so sadly deprived of it.

The NLR of these years was a peculiar mixture of student ultra-leftism (one article urged students to “behave as provocatively as necessary and to effectively sanction the university to the extent that they need to use force, probably the police”—the author was “Baron” Triesman, now foreign office minister) and esoteric theory, notably discussion of the work of Louis Althusser who attempted a pathetic rearguard defence of Stalinism by dressing it up in pretentious academic jargon.

After a brief flirtation with Maoism, NLR turned to “Trotskyism”, though it was a Trotskyism filtered through the work of Isaac Deutscher and Ernest Mandel. But the journal became ever more remote from the actual course of political events—neither the massive industrial struggles of the 1970s nor the rise of racism made any -impression on it. (I suspect Trotsky himself would have judged NLR in the same way as he did Partisan Review: a “small cultural monastery, guarding itself from the outside world by scepticism, agnosticism and respectability”.)

Although NLR defended dissident currents in the Eastern bloc, it continued to regard Russia and its satellites as representing a higher form of society. So the “collapse of Communism” in 1989 induced a considerable pessimism, and a shift towards a far more defensive position with the advocacy of constitutional reform, tactical voting and on occasion “market socialism”. When NLR was relaunched in 2000 Anderson announced that “for the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions…within the thought-world of the West”.

The root of NLR’s failure lay in a progressive distancing from the working class movement. In its first years NLR made at least two positive contributions. One was the production of a very useful Penguin compilation, edited by Robin Blackburn and Alexander Cockburn, called The Incompatibles (1967)—a set of essays on British trade unionism (the pick of the bunch was Paul Foot on the 1966 seafarers’ strike). The other was a series in NLR entitled “Work”, overseen by Ronald Fraser. This gave first-person accounts of the alienation experienced in everyday employment by those in a wide variety of jobs. It pioneered later work in the field of “oral history”.

But with the euphoria of 1968 this attempt at concrete engagement with the working class disappeared, never to be seen again. From now on if the working class appeared in the pages of NLR it was as a concept in Marxist theory, never as the women and men in the factory down the road whom you might join on a picket line—except in the important case of an interview it ran with Arthur Scargill on the mass pickets of the 1972 miners’ strike.

NLR was never the journal of an organisation. That was its strength—as Blackburn put it, NLR was not “a journal for recycling an already established truth”—but also its weakness. NLR frequently wrote about “strategy”, but it was never clear who would implement that strategy. Hence it was never tested against reality. Lessons can be learned from a failed strategy, but an untested hypothesis can only be eternally debated.

“Left clubs” founded by the first -editorial team in the early 1960s soon evaporated. Although some members of the later editorial committee were for a time members of the International Marxist Group (IMG), there was never any close connection between NLR and IMG activity. In the 1980s there was an attempt to expand the editorial committee by adding a group of leading feminist writers. One of the conditions they proposed was the establishment of “readers’ groups”. This was promptly vetoed by the existing committee.

Duncan Thompson has no startling revelations about the somewhat secretive internal workings of NLR. He has worked on the basis of printed material, without -interviewing the main protagonists. He has, however, had access to some illuminating “internal documents”.

“Democratic centralism” is much maligned. Yet it has some merits compared to what was described as the “-common‑law variety of democratic centralism” as practised by NLR. NLR was produced by a small team—for years numbering no more than seven or eight—accountable to nobody. The dominating figure was undoubtedly Anderson, described here as “overbearing”. He is without question a man of enormous erudition, but one who often uses his knowledge to intimidate his readers rather than enlighten them. The situation was further complicated by the fact that Anderson was also the paymaster—his private income bailed out NLR in its financial crisis in 1962. There is no indication that Anderson actually threatened to take his bat home if his editorial will was denied, but it must have been a factor in the minds of those concerned.

Anderson is a somewhat reclusive individual (as one who has been active on the left for over 45 years, I have seen Anderson in the flesh just once). In this he contrasts sharply with his closest ally, Blackburn. Whatever criticisms one might make of Blackburn, he has been an activist. At the height of the student movement of the late 1960s, he put his head on the line and lost his job at the London School of Economics. In the early 1980s, when NLR helped to launch a “Socialist Society”, it was Blackburn who was the entrepreneurial driving force. Anderson made only a token appearance at the founding conference.

Though small, the NLR team was never homogeneous: there were major differences within it. But apart from periodic resignations, these were never made clear. Preserving the cohesion of the team was regarded as more important than political clarity.

The striking example is the question of Ireland. There were deep disagreements within the committee. Some favoured the slogan “Victory to the IRA”, while others, to put it mildly, were less enthusiastic. This might have been a matter for debate and, at worst, for a split. Instead, from 1970 to 1994, there was “by common consent” silence about Ireland: this throughout a time when bombs were exploding in the streets of Britain, and theoretical clarity—on terrorism, on the violence of the oppressed, on national liberation—was urgently needed.

In 1964 another of Anderson’s collaborators, Tom Nairn, declared that the English working class “needed theory”. He was right. Sadly NLR, despite its real achievements, has rarely delivered.