Like many of the subscribers to this journal, I have bought it since it first came out. For many years, of course, the latest number has arrived in its tidy polythene wrapper through the post but, in 1960, just having left Cambridge and fired by David Holbrook and Denys Thompson and the last chapter of Culture and Society to turn English literature into the politics of secondary-school classrooms, I rushed to buy New Left Review across Hudson’s counter in New Street, Birmingham. The new reasoners had dissolved into the newer culturalists, and the thrill of politics ran as keenly through Humphrey Littleton’s jazz cellar as through the daring new coffee you could buy in the darkness of the Partisan espresso bar.
I summon up this short memoir with no condescension to myself or my generation. New Left Review spoke directly to an idealism deeply shaped in childhood by the moment of 1945 and to a sunny, delighted optimism about the delights of the new, safe, audacious culture of the metropolis which would bring Parisian street life to post-austerity Britain. The stout-hearted, cheerful novels of the day (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Room at the Top), the terrific vitality of the new black-and-white, genteelly socialist-realist movies (Billy Liar, A Taste of Honey) and beside these, a new kind of social theory which you could read as though its classics were really novels (The Uses of Literacy, The Making of the English Working Class), were quite unlike the solemn tomes on the official syllabus, but gave an utterly unlooked-for mass and energy to one’s happy dallyings with political opposition and to taking an unreflective place outside the Odeon or inside the local New Left Club. Above all, there was cnd, a single, simple issue with which to challenge bloody old England and the preposterous old buffers who pretended that these infernal weapons must keep us safe from a socialism which, turning on the historical wheel of long revolution, would one day deliver the joy offulfilling work, a secure livelihood, and the lively safety of a classless street culture to everyone.
The New Left and its Review grasped and held this glowing, fighting moment in the trenchant idiom of Stuart Hall’s editorials. Even when the Change came, and the Anderson cadre cut out the pictures, tightened the timetable and set the journal for nearly thirty years in Monotype Garamond behind the austere ranks of names on the cover, the Review remained the moral measure of both day and age; it brought its bracing,
There is a cue for this brief elegy. It is Lin Chun’s astonishing and exemplary book.footnote1 And one important reason for praising it is that it raises so much larger matters than the mere, gripping history of the New Left movement, its several journals and its singular cavalcade of characters. Even when most endorsing the whole venture of anti-capitalist dissent, of rewriting theodicy in order to fashion a different theory of this world and the next, Lin Chun anticipates a rejoinder to her narrative which will, or will not, vindicate the whole project. Was it worth it? Who is our theory for—let alone, what is it for? Did all that incredible busyness with which we filled up our time on May Day Manifesto come to utterly nothing? Has, indeed, the two hundred-odd issue longevity of the Review, the far-from-completed labours of its doyens and doyennes—of Anderson, Blackburn, Ellen Wood, Kate Soper, Mike Rustin, oh of everybody, all the celebrities of the corner of intellectual life in Carlisle and Meard Streets—any consequence for bringing nearer the good society? The British New Left was nothing if not a vehemently collaborative and public-spirited effort to turn theory into momentum, to help capture the runaway monster of the materialist day and make it work for the common good. Shall we settle for calling the outcome a fairly honourable defeat, or downright failure?
The question is, of course, posed by more than Lin Chun’s admirable study. For it is surely by no accident that hard on her heels come two further researches into lost time, Michael Kenny’s, telling much the same story as Lin Chun, while Ioan Davies turns himself into the Colonel Blimp of the New Left, giving us an after-midnight memoir of the life and death of cultural studies.footnote2 Let it be added that there is no dishonour in his playing this role. Davies is as self-referential, garrulous, endearing, preposterous as Roger Livesey was, as well as being just as passionate a man throttled by the clichés and good form of his stiff, archaic diction.
Not, of course, that the New Left has ever proved itself unready to turn its present into its own history. The exigencies of the intellectual market and the ferocity of its competition in bright new ideas and ever more comprehensively deconstructive methods have demanded of its many
Raymond Williams contributed an essay to nlr in 1983 to which the editors gave the title ‘An Epoch’s End’. Williams was, as usual, right. The epoch which opened in 1917 and turned into the hideous, three-cornered struggle between Stalinism, fascism and—let us call it—liberal consumerism, ended in Berlin and Beijing and at the grave of Imre Nagy in 1989.