The publication of several books about the New Left has triggered a querulous chorus from the broadsheet press. Despite the contemporary resonance of the watchwords of the New Left—culture and community, participatory democracy, mobile privatization—it is felt to be part of the old world.
Thus, writing a ‘Master Class’ for the Independent on Sunday, Tom Paulin attacked what he saw as the ‘old-style labourism’ at the core of Raymond Williams work: it was part of ‘a culture of piety, romantic notions of the working class, and worship of Clause Four.’ Since Williams was a well-known critic of Labourism and pioneered a non-statist model of social ownership in his work on communications, these shafts are wide of the mark. Apparently Williams’s work is felt to be a reproach to the world of the Late Review and Sunday colour supplements. Paulin, the chastened republican radical, continues: ‘I have never read a page of his work without being filled with boredom and itchy rage—how dreary! how decent! how morally self-righteous that unemphatic, uninflected manner is. It has no kick and no skip. None at all.’
As Britain’s broadsheets compete with the Daily Mail and the Sun no one could accuse them of lacking ‘kick’ and ‘skip’—especially ‘skip’—and are pleased to find writers of Paulin’s stature to brighten up their pages with a bit of kick. Is no other, more reflective way of writing to be tolerated? ‘Let us take Clause Four and the collected criticism of Raymond Williams and gently place them in some heritage museum, then appoint Raphael Samuel curator and lock the door.’ This obsessive rhyming of Williams and Samuel with Old Labour reveals the political equivalent of a cloth ear.
The New Left-inspired school of media criticism may explain some of the animus. Reviewing Fred Inglis’s biography of Williams, John Mullan in the Guardian writes of his shock at the critic’s lofty habits: ‘Perhaps few of his readers realized that the analysis of the role of the press, radio and television in the formation of culture was written by a man who, at the time, did not take a newspaper or have a television.’ Williams’s failure to observe the obligatory daily prayers of modern man is evidently damning enough—but prompts the disturbing thought that, away from media surveillance, Williams developed a set a standards (no doubt decent and dreary in character) with which to assay the mediocracy. In the same vein, jenny Turner reviewing Michael Kenny’s The First New Left writes of Thompson and Williams’s ‘sentimental attempt to find an inherently socialist strand in English history’—Paulin’s piece was entitled ‘Solid Sentimentalism’—and criticises the ‘luxury’ of ‘academics making hot air’ and writing unreadable books in a ‘vague, mushy vocabulary’. In a distant epoch, Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson themselves often reviewed for the Guardian; strangely enough its book pages were then more read and respected than they are today.
The articles we publish here from Fred Inglis, Dorothy Thompson and Jim McGuigan do not treat the New Left as a homogeneous entity and evidently approach it from different standpoints. In our last issue we had two articles on New Left economic ideas, a topic barely mentioned here, and in future issues we will continue to elaborate a tradition which, however uncomfortable this may be to some, remains a living force.