The politics of the non-aligned Left of the years 1956–1962 have become fashionable of late. Two at least of the writers who were prominent in the journals of the time have published memoirs, and at least two more are in the pipeline. Clancy Segal has published two romans à clef on those years, describing himself bizarrely on the dust-jacket of the second as ‘a founder member of the British New Left’. A conference was convened in Oxford in 1989 whose proceedings were published, for whatever odd reason, as Out of Apathy, the same title as the first of the New Left Books which, in 1962, was among the last productions of the New Reasoner—Universities and Left Review team. Several doctoral theses have been written on the period in the United States and at least two in Britain, and now two volumes have appeared which are written-up versions of these latter.
Since the books by Lin Chun and Michael Kenny are offered as serious works of scholarship, they should be reviewed in a scholarly manner.footnote1 Since neither is the work of a historian, and since my discipline is that of history, I am not qualified to review them on their own terms. In any case, a scholarly review, particularly of Lin Chun’s work would require me to read or re-read not only the other theses, but a number of texts and accounts of scholastic exchanges, many of which I would rather eat than read again.
What follows, therefore, may perhaps best be described as comments on aspects of both books and on the history of the years concerned, in some cases a very different reading of the evidence from that of the authors. My qualification for writing is that I took part in producing and distributing the various journals which form the main source for the books—even though I, along with many other active workers, seem to have been almost completely written out of the narrative, and that I have at my elbow a complete run of the journals, from the original Left Review and Our Time through The Reasoner, The New Reasoner, Universities and Left Review, New University, and New Left Review from the first number to the present, as well as odd copies of Temps Modernes, France Observateur, Tribune Marxiste and other journals. In addition I have a shelf of box files
As a historian working in the modern period, I know that the least reliable source of all is the personal memory of individuals. Oral evidence may take its place with other forms of evidence and has to be interrogated in the same way. We all write and rewrite our own narratives, and the occasions on which I have used our personal archive to check my memory have demonstrated this to me time and again. The work which I have just been preparing for publication is a series of lectures which Edward gave at Stanford in the early eighties, in which he recovered as far as was possible the story of his brother’s mission to the Bulgarian partisans in 1944, and used personal accounts as an example of the way in which history is used every day in the service of contemporary politics. I mention this because as well as making me re-examine the way in which personal narrative may legitimately be used by the historian, the work of editing and putting together these lectures has taken me back to the story of wartime left politics which is an essential part of the story of the emergence of the idea of a non-aligned Left in the fifties.
The first problem with both books is a semantic one. I take the term ‘Left’ to be a political term which should not be applied, except as a kind of shorthand, to philosophical, historical or even theoretical positions. The Left movement which grew up around the journals and clubs in the fifties and early sixties was a coalition of people with varied religious and philosophical belief systems who were united around the political concept of a non-aligned European movement which would work out socialist policies independently of superpower influence and control. Not only did they not represent a single ideological position, they were by no means united in their definitions of socialism—only perhaps by the negative qualities of disillusion with Soviet-style communism and West-European, especially British, social democracy.
In the title of her book, Lin Chun uses the political term ‘New Left’ to describe an essentially intellectual exercise in Marxist and marxisant theory. It is in fact a confusion which arose from the accident of nlr’s birth. The founders of ulr for some odd reason picked up the title of the 1930s journal Left Review. This was a journal mainly of artists and creative writers who were agreed on a programme of promoting a popular front against fascism. Although Communist Party members were probably in a majority among the editors and contributors, it was not a Marxist journal and made no attempt to arrive at a unified theoretical position. The word in the title of Left Review was used politically, as it presumably was in ulr. The title for the journal which resulted from the fusion of the nr and ulr combined the two titles, but did not propose itself as the organ of a New Left movement. When Lin Chun therefore calls her book, which is in essence a history of nlr, The British New
The main problem with Kenny’s book in fulfilling its claim to be ahistory the ‘First New Left’ is that he appears to start from an unstated set of assumptions about what the movement was and who were its most important members—the one list he gives of important figures on the Left who were influenced by the movement is an extremely odd one. There is for example no mention of Ken Coates and only a passing reference to the Institute for Workers’ Control, though this was one of the most important and lasting vectors of New Left politics. In her tribute to Edward after his death, Luciana Castellina recalled her excitement as a young socialist at reading in his essay in Out of Apathy the phrase ‘A European Left’. The New Reasoner group and the Institute for Workers’ Control always saw them selves as part of such a European Left—and in a Europe which included Athens and Moscow as well as Paris and London. The same point has to be made about relations with the Left in the old British Empire. It was at iwc conferences, for example, that C.L.R. James spoke when he came to Britain, and where he would meet many of the people from what Kenny calls ‘the first New Left’. These connections get no mention in his book.