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.footnote 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;footnote1 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.

I have referred to ‘tendencies’ and want thereby to denote a spectrum of thought, in which are to be found many different positions and points of emphasis, put forward by people who belong to different generations, traditions, parties and movements, and who do not necessarily agree with each other on many important issues; and it is precisely this diversity which has helped to obscure the degree to which the people concerned do work within an identifiable spectrum of thought. As I read Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall, Bob Rowthorn, Beatrix Campbell, Raphael Samuel, Gareth Stedman Jones, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Paul Hirst, Barry Hindess and others, in such journals as Marxism Today, New Socialist, New Statesman and a few other publications, I note great differences between them, but I also find marked similarities of approach, of disposition and concern, and, no less important, certain common repudiations.

This new revisionism is the second such wave to occur in Britain since World War II. The first, which appeared in the fifties and reached its climax with Hugh Gaitskell’s attempt to remodel the Labour Party in rightward directions, drew strength from Labour’s electoral defeats of 1951, 1955 and 1959, but was not caused by them. The real cause was the determination of the Labour Party (and trade union) leaders to free the Party of its socialist commitments and to bolster the Right’s predominance over the Left. Electoral defeats merely reinforced the Labour leadership’s belief that such commitments were an intolerable encumbrance in ideological, political and electoral terms.

The revisionism of the present day is a very different matter, in its provenance, in its personnel and in its purpose. For most of the people concerned, Labour’s new electoral defeats have only been the occasion for an anguished interrogation of the reasons for Labour’s decline of support in the working class; and this interrogation is in turn part of a much larger questioning of Marxist theory and socialist proposals and practices. In this respect, the new revisionism in Britain links up with an international phenomenon nurtured from many different sources: the experience of ‘actually existing socialism’, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan, the collapse of Maoist illusions, Cambodia and the sour aftermath of victory in Vietnam, the withering of Eurocommunist hopes, the emergence of ‘new social movements’ born of dissatisfaction with the limitations of traditional labour and socialist movements and parties, a growing disbelief in the capacity of the working class to be the agent of radical social change, and a consequent ‘crisis of Marxism’. More specifically for Britain, there is also what has for many been the trauma of ‘Thatcherism’ and, even more traumatic, its ability to win elections.

Those who form part of the new revisionism are not rightwing social democrats. Some of them, like Eric Hobsbawm and Bob Rowthorn, are members of the Communist Party and have been for many years. Others, like Stuart Hall and Raphael Samuel, are foundation members of the New Left of the fifties: both of them were and remain strongly committed to radical change. Others are situated in various parts of the labour, feminist and peace movements, or in all three. Many retain affinities with one variant or another of Marxism. None of them has abjured socialism: on the contrary, they believe that they are helping its advance by the questions they are asking, the doubts they are expressing, the criticisms they are voicing, and the directions in which they are pointing.

Why then do I speak of a retreat from socialist positions? In order to answer that question, I will take in turn four closely related issues, which are of crucial significance for the labour movement, and which are also central in the spectrum of thought I am examining: the meaning and significance of ‘class politics’; the question of the state; socialist strategy and the Labour Party; and some questions related to defence and foreign policy. I want to remark before I begin that the new revisionism has already provoked considerable opposition. Eric Hobsbawm’s Marx Memorial Lecture of September 1978, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, first published in Marxism Today, produced a good deal of critical comment in following issues of the journal, from Communists and others.footnote2 Opposition to new revisionist writings has since then come from journals of the Labour Left such as Labour Herald and London Labour Briefing, from Labour Left figures such as Tony Benn and Eric Heffer, and from Trotskyist journals such as Socialist Worker and Socialist Action. But the main resistance has come from within the Communist Party, notably from a very traditionalist Morning Star, and also from individual party members.footnote3 The present article has benefited considerably from what has already been said in these various quarters about the new revisionism; but I will nevertheless advance here arguments which differ, in some instances fairly sharply, from those so far expressed.

‘Class politics’ has become the shorthand for much which the new revisionism most strongly repudiates: above all, it has come to stand for the insistence on the ‘primacy’ of organized labour in the challenge to capitalist power and the task of creating a radically different social order.