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’.

The Labour Government of 1974–79 failed in ways somewhat similar to the failure of its predecessor of 1964–70. In each case, a Government founded on a pervasive but weakly-based and untheorized radical mood abandoned its more radical strategies of economic intervention (the National Plan in 1964, Planning Agreements in 1974) under the pressure of local and international capital. Both Governments accepted a curtailing of their more radical economic options, and finished up with the control of labour via industrial legislation (In Place of Strife), in 1969, and incomes policy (the five percent pay limit), in 1979, as their sole remaining economic remedy. Where even a strong government of the centre might have sought to combine (a) control of capital at home, (b) assertion of national interests against foreign capital via devaluation, import controls, or insistence on independence vis-mvis the eec., and (c) the incorporation of trade unions into economic planning, this government displaced the entire weight of economic adjustment on to labour. In neither case did Labour’s electorate tolerate the consequent failure to deliver economic progress. And defining the unions in each case as being principally to blame for Britain’s economic problem was naturally a position more effectively taken up and argued by the Tories. It seems unlikely that Labour Governments can ever retain power in elections if they cast their organized supporters in the role of the main source of their own and the country’s difficulties. One of the few positive reasons for hoping for their victory in 1979 was the hope that the trade unions, thus vindicated by the electorate, might have been more forceful in pressing their own alternative economic strategy on a Government whose incomes policy they had just broken.footnote1

On the Labour left, in each case, the argument was made after the Labour Government’s fall that more left wing policies were needed. Clearly as an argument about alternative ways of conducting an election this is not very convincing as far as 1979 was concerned; the damage was done long before the election was announced. As an argument about how the Government was conducted, it is a different matter. But though valid, the argument is regrettably limited in scope. Since the 1979 election, the left has sought to increase its relative leverage over the leadership and party policy, on the grounds that if its constitutional powers were greater, the Party leadership might be better controlled in future. There is a proper recognition in this that organization has got something to do with the problem. But the argument is characteristically superficial. Increasing the influence of the existing Party membership over reselection of mp’s., over the election of the leader, and, through the National Executive Committee, over the election manifesto of the Party does not begin to get to the roots of the recent failures. It is no longer true, if it ever was, that merely increasing the relative strength of the existing left-wing membership of the Labour Party will suffice to create the conditions for a different outcome to a Labour Government’s election than has been achieved since 1964. This is regardless of the merits of the particular proposals now causing such bitter argument, which, with modifications, are in themselves no doubt to be supported.

The choice of the ground of the constitution of the Party on which to have the post-election argument was already an indication of the gravest weakness in the analysis and strategic grasp of the Labour left. A similar battle was misfought on this ground in 1960–61, after the cnd unilateral disarmament victory at the Labour Party Conference. While Gaitskell ‘fought and fought and fought again’, the Labour Left conducted its resistance on the principle of respect for conference decisions. The argument and sentiment which had won the original victory were thus pushed to the margin, and with them the much larger body of extra-party support which had created the whole climate of the debate, and made possible its outcome. People are only interested in the sovereignty of Conference decisions if they are already deeply committed to the party apparatus whose conference it is, and there have never been enough of these to sustain a major swing of political direction in the Labour Party, in isolation. The truth of the matter is that there are not enough left wing activists in the Labour Party, or indeed outside, to make possible a sustained political advance to the left. It is only the involvement and mobilization of people currently not active in the Labour Party which can lastingly affect the balance of argument within it, and of people not now active in left wing politics at all which can affect the balance of political conviction in the country as a whole. There is even quite a lot to be said, on this point alone, for the arguments of Labour Party right wingers that if there is to be greater involvement of party members in selection of mp’s and so on, it should be of all party members, not merely the regular attenders of ward and general management committee meetings. Between the ‘iron law of oligarchy’ which confers power on the Parliamentary Labour Party and its leadership, and the lesser law of oligarchy which would confer power on the present number of party militants, there is something to choose, but not enough; it is the mobilization of a larger membership that is required, not merely strengthening the power of present activists. Thinking needs to be much more outward-looking than this. As the Labour vote steadily declines, election by election, and as Party membership similarly dwindles, it becomes insufficient to fight for control over what remains. And besides, if there were as little support as there is now for a left that was victorious in this constitutional struggle, there is little chance that its continued dominance could be sustained. The prominence accorded to ‘moderate’ political leaders, and the amplification of their positions through the mass media, will ensure their triumph unless the wider terrain of political argument is changed. Unfortunately, constitutionalism within the Party is the equivalent of parliamentarism within the State, in its inhibiting effects on political understanding and action.

A second area in which a recapitulation of past themes is now becoming evident is in the discussion of what used to be called the ‘extra-parliamentary movement’ and its importance. An eloquent and accurate critique of Leninism, and sectarian forms of organization, has been presented, in Beyond the Fragments,footnote2 by Sheila Rowbotham, Hilary Wainwright, and Lynne Segal, and this argument rediscovers many of the insights and positions of the various earlier versions of the new left, though now with a significant rootedness in the experience of the feminist movement. The arguments of the three contributions to this book are critical both of Labourism and its limitations, and especially of the political assumptions and organization of the Communist Party and Trotskyist sects of the time, and the somewhat different form of democratic centralism practised, as the unlikely figure of R.H.S. Crossmanfootnote3 pointed out, in the Labour Party. Beyond the Fragments identifies the need for a politics of ‘linkage’, recognizing the weakness of single-issue movements, and of wholly locally-based groups, from hard personal experience. It argues for some form of non-sectarian, federal, and tolerant association of socialists, to try to make common political sense and strategy out of their different experiences of oppression and conflict. It is a lucid, appropriately personal, and most hopeful and constructive statement.

We do however have to recall, on reading it, that we have been there, that is to say at this point of realization and commitment, twice before. In 1956 and for about five or six years afterwards, the first ‘new left’ tried to create such an open, unsectarian and broadly-based politics of the left, outside the framework of the existing parties and groups. It was, of course, at the beginning of the post-ice age, modern period of the left in Britain, and, despite CND and the cultural renaissance of the left, the resources that were catalysed (often of currents of feeling and thought that seemed to have been dormant since the 1930’s) were then relatively small.

It is now history that this tendency failed as a political movement, though echoes of the failure and the disagreements that went into it are still remarkably resonant, for example in controversy emanating from Edward Thompson. While the original tendency was exceedingly fertile in ideas, and in subsequent, especially cultural, forms of activity (the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies and History Workshop being examples of more or less direct progeny) no lasting political organization developed from it. The succession of Perry Anderson to the editorship of New Left Review in 1962, and the complete replacement of its editorial board, was accompanied by the abandonment of the Review’s ventures into loosely-conceived ‘movement’ politics, which were in any case in no very vigorous condition by this time.