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New Left Review I/121, May-June 1980

Michael Rustin

The New Left and the Present Crisis

This paper is a reflection on the present condition of the Left, and on its recent history. It is meant to address our current situation, and indeed to suggest action, but I have not found it possible to do this without thinking about previous initiatives of the earlier new left, and comparing them with the theory and practice of later tendencies. I regret that this may make the argument seem rather obsessively preoccupied with this recent past, both for those who did not experience it, and for those who did but who no longer regard it as an instructive reference point. Others have remained more in touch with active currents of thought and organization than I have, and the perspective of a Rip Van Winkle may or may not be politically illuminating. However, while the differences between ‘early’ and ‘late’ new left positions are very important to this argument, they are not presented in a spirit of recrimination. What are now required are new initiatives, drawing on the whole of our political experience. As I hope the argument will make clear I think there have been indispensable contributions in recent years even from tendencies with whose overall political direction I have strongly disagreed. The politics of the left in Britain at the present time give one some sense of déj`vu. This is not because of the nature of the present political crisis, which is qualitatively different, and worse, than any faced by this society since the war. Inasmuch as new political initiatives on the left have previously emerged in response to crises, as with Suez, Hungary and Vietnam, we must hope that the more local threat to the post-war political truce in Britain will make possible some comparable reaction of outrage. What is repetitious is the experience of the left itself, in the familiar career of a defeated Labour Government, in the response to its failure by the Labour left, and more encouragingly in the response of tendencies that one can identify as of the ‘new left’.

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