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New Left Review I/150, March-April 1985

Ralph Miliband

The New Revisionism in Britain

Since the late seventies, and particularly since the arrival in office of the Thatcher government in May 1979, a vast amount of writing has been produced on the left to account for the troubles which have beset the Labour Party and the labour movement as a whole. [*] I am grateful to Robin Blackburn and Marion Kozak for some very useful comments on this article. The search for explanations—and for remedies—has become more intense than ever since the second Conservative victory at the polls in June 1983, not surprisingly as it was an exceptionally reactionary government which was then resoundingly confirmed in office—despite mass unemployment, the erosion of welfare and collective services, and a manifest incapacity to arrest let alone reverse Britain’s economic decline. Clearly, these are very hard times for the whole left, and it is very natural—and very desirable—that such times should produce intense thinking and re-thinking about what is wrong, and what can be done about it. However, I will argue here that the tendencies which have been very strongly predominant in the writings of the left in the last few years do not offer socialist solutions to the problems now confronting it: they constitute a ‘new revisionism’, to borrow John Westergaard’s phrase; [1] John Westergaard, ‘Class of ’84’, New Socialist, no. 15, January–February 1984. and this new revisionism marks a very pronounced retreat from some fundamental socialist positions. Far from offering a way out of the crisis, it is another manifestation of that crisis, and contributes in no small way to the malaise, confusion, loss of confidence and even despair which have so damagingly affected the Left in recent years. Of course, the phenomenon is not confined to Britain and has assumed much more virulent and destructive forms in other countries, most notably in France, where it has constituted not a ‘new revisionism’, but a wholesale retreat into anti-communist hysteria and obscurantism, religious and secular. Nothing of the sort has happened in Britain, for which one must be truly grateful: at least, it has not happened in regard to any of the people whose work I am concerned with here.

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