there’s little in Thompson’s “Revolution Again” (NLR 6) with which one can disagree in substance. That the working class or class consciousness are not concrete slabs hoisted into Shapes by History, but subtle things that owe some, at least, of their existence to our own efforts, must be agreed. So too the possibility that class consciousness is forming among new strata in new ways. We can agree, too, with his characterisation of what he calls the sectaries, their sniff-sniff-sniff after heresy, their ambivalence towards the New Left. But since I find myself and other contributors to International Socialism included in the catch-all, I should like to say that some of us at least are as suspicious of ourselves and our potential irrelevance as we are of our “competitors!”
There is agreement in substance. Yet a whiff of mutual suspicion remains. Thompson doesn’t know what to do with IS. Include us with the Trotskyists? condemn us as quotation mongers? class us with elitists? We can’t help him except to recommend continued reading of IS.
But I too am suspicious—and here I am speaking for myself alone. I see IS in the tradition of political action, a paper designed to serve the agent of social change—the working class—and therefore necessarily devoted to problems of class and class consciousness. We are not intellectual democrats—class struggle is our overriding theme. We try to study its working, to enhance it in the form of workers’ independent activity. We try to link its phenomena through time and between countries. We don’t think this a narrow field. On the contrary, class relations and activity (or the absence of it) are the key to most of today’s major problems; what cannot be related to them, we often find irrelevant to our aim—revolutionary social change.
Not so the New Left. Here is an intellectual liberalism that makes equals of all problems. True, class and class consciousness are recognised as fields of enquiry, but so is so much else, and all so well segregated. Little is done to bridge them. I defy anyone to see in the spate of words on cinema and sentiment, painting and politics the primacy of a single galvanising element, to see in fact anything but the dislocation between the Statesman’s back and front written large. It is not that I disagree with Thompson on class, but with its weighting in what he writes; I might agree with what the New Left as a whole thinks of the matter, but I suspect that it hardly gives it a thought.
In a word, to my mind IS is geared to action; NLR is not. Action demands priorities of preoccupation; inaction can do without.