New Left, Old Pessimism
By James Heartfield
In Duncan Thompson’s book, Pessimism of the Intellect: A History of the New Left Review, he painstakingly reconstructs the journal’s long-term engagement with the British left from its reconstitution after the Prague Spring right up until today. Despite the intra-left skirmishes and role reversals it relates the bigger picture that emerges, writes James Heartfield, is of the British left’s historical inability to act
The late John Merrington told me a story about his first day on the editorial board of the New Left Review, being interviewed by Perry Anderson in an office with a large map of the world behind him. All over the map were little red flags stuck in with pins. ‘Are those all outlets’, asked Merrington in wonder? ‘No, they are places that we have written about’, said Anderson.
The New Left Review started life as a college-based journal mostly edited by dissident members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, notably the historian E.P. Thompson and the founder of Cultural Studies Stuart Hall in 1960 – an amalgamation of two preceding titles, the Universities and Left Review and Thompson’s New Reasoner. The duo that gave the journal its style though were two younger recruits, Anderson (Eton and Oxford educated, who edited from 1962 to 1983, to take up the reins again in 1999) and Robin Blackburn (also Oxford educated, who edited it in between, 1983-99). Anderson’s Anglo-Irish father made some modest fortune as a customs official in China, which capital would subsidise the magazine in its early years.
The New Left Review was possibly more important than its editors understood at the time, becoming the defining voice of the New Left. It was the New Left Review that opened up the possibilities of a radical left that was organisationally distinct from the official Communist movement, and denouncing the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, avoided responsibility for the disgrace that all-but destroyed the membership haemorrhaging CPGB.
The journal was carried on a wave of trad-jazz listening, duffel-coated CND activists, radicals who felt as constrained by the strait-jacket of East European Stalinism as they did by the thirteen wasted years of Tory misrule (1951-64). Embarrassed by the pedantic style of the CP-influenced trade union leaders, these (then) younger radicals fed on the satire boom, and looked forward to a left that was, well, cool and trendy. The NLR sustained a reputation for exotic and challenging work, introducing British audiences to such European intellectuals, living and dead, as Antonio Gramsci, Georg Lukacs, Claude Levi-Strauss, Mikhail Bakhtin, Lucio Colletti, Louis Althusser and Walter Benjamin, as well as giving a launch pad here for Francis Mulhern, Terry Eagleton, and Americans like Mike Davis, Doug Henwood and David Roediger. Anderson’s commitment to translating and popularising these different thinkers helped the journal to be more than a political journal. It served the growing Cultural Studies movement that was developing across North America, and today NLR is financially buoyant because of the library subscriptions from American colleges.
The longevity of the NLR meant that one did not always pay attention to the editorial line that was often buried under some otiose rhetoric. When political conflict was high in Britain, the NLR sometimes seemed like so much irritating background noise – a reaction that might be philistinism, or just common sense. In writing this admirably clear and compelling book Duncan Thompson seems to have done the obvious and remarkable thing: he has read through the NLR in its entirety. His access to the internal documents sheds some light, but most compelling of all is his reconstruction of the intellectual journey the review took over its 47-year history.
As well as a determination to educate the English philistines, Anderson showed a talent for setting out the big picture, and was not bad at asking the question where are we at, particularly homing in on the paradox that the Communist left had won out in the worst possible circumstances, the underdeveloped East, while capitalism held sway where the working class was most advanced. But despite the grandiose statements, the underlying weakness of the NLR was its own sense of inadequacy to the moment, which gave rise to a tendency to invest great hopes in new social forces.
[Texto completo en: http://www.metamute.org/en/New-Left-Old-Pessimism]
New Left Review 1, January-February 2000
As New Left Review enters its fifth decade, a stock-taking of the journal. Where has it come from, and where is it going? How should the political and cultural scene of the nineties be assessed? A manifesto for the new series of NLR that begins with this issue.
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