What initially inspired me to study the British New Left was not just an awareness of the intellectual importance and political urgency of its legacy, but a curious attraction to its charismatic personalities. As a matter of fact, and understandably since he was personally involved, Gareth Stedman Jones did not tell me more than what was absolutely necessary—preliminary reading and where to find the people whom I wished to interview. He rarely made comments about them, certainly never any gossip. As a result, and also because of my own tendency to feel nervous about bothering others, I frequently worked from common-sense knowledge of a culture which was nonetheless unfamiliar to me, and sometimes got hung up on trivial details. Before I met him, I remember being puzzled by the names Ralph Samuel and Raphael Samuel, for example, and only turned to my supervisor to confirm that they were the same person after hours searching in the library. I have always considered the History Workshop movement to be an extraordinarily valuable undertaking, as was its journal as a socialist and feminist publication—despite the recent dropping of its subtitle. Another case was my tracing of the influence of the English tradition of literary criticism on Raymond Williams, from Leavis and Scrutiny to the otherwise remote Bloomsbury group of which I knew nothing except the names of its famous members. The visible outcome in the book of all my effort at an extensive reading of Bloomsbury was no more than a footnote, but I was pleased to have done it without troubling Gareth with elementary questions. He taught me, rather, a great deal in a more general and fundamental way, about historical study. I was fascinated by his graduate course on Utopian socialism, for instance, not to mention his highly acclaimed Outcast London or The Language of Class; over the latter there has been a continuously exciting controversy. Dorothy Thompson is also an expert on Chartism, although with a dissimilar style and approach. Seeing her—generous praise aside—firmly excluding my book from the realm of history, I felt sad but not resentful.footnote1 After all, it is not easy to be a good historian, especially when you try to write a story under the very noses of its most rigorous protagonists! They, moreover, would have little consensus on almost any subject in a straightforward narration of their own experiences—as John Saville warned me years ago.

Of course, I have always had the highest respect for that remarkable generation of communist historians. As I noted in my book, Marxism in Britain had its greatest success in the history profession; and it was those around the Communist Party historians’ group who first came out against Stalinism.footnote2 I have exchanged letters with some of them including Edward Thompson whose name, by the way, along with a few of his contemporaries including Eric Hobsbawm and Ralph Miliband, is well known in China. Much to my regret, I was never able to make the pilgrimage to Worcestershire. I missed many others, too, and still feel truly sorry for I am sure that what they would have had to tell me would have been particularly valuable. Yet I did have the fortune to meet quite a number of the leading participants—going to Hull, for instance, to see John Saville, a founding father of the British New Left, where I greatly appreciated his guidance on a wide range of questions. I was also impressed by the innovative approach of his Northern Historians’ Group which I intended, but turned out to be unable, to pursue.

In all honesty, I do not follow Dorothy Thompson’s implicit discomfort with the identification of at least a core part and a crucial period of the British New Left as Marxist. Why, I wonder, given the shared intellectual and political background of Edward Thompson—despite his increasing mistrust of ‘systematized’ Marxismfootnote3—and the other ‘brave people’ (Dorothy, quoting Picasso) during and after the war years which were movingly recalled in her review? Yes, there were varied beliefs and preoccupations especially over the non-aligned movements of cnd and end. But in talking about the main figures and publications of the New Left, as I did, I remain convinced that it was the Marxist tradition, developed in various directions, that was the movement’s strongest feature. I am referring here not only to the younger generations’ celebrated theorizing around and beyond ‘Western Marxism’ but also to the more ‘English’-centred works, as diverse as Thompson’s interpretation of class consciousness, Miliband’s conceptualization of the state, Williams’s cultural materialism, and Stuart Hall’s Gramscian discourse theory. Lively and regular debates and discussions of Marxism appeared not only in the second New Left Review, but also in its predecessors, the Reasoner and the New Reasoner—though this is not to dismiss the importance of the creative writers on their editorial committeesfootnote4—if not so much in the Universities and Left Review, and surely Socialist Register. This is precisely because for the New Left thinkers Marxism was not, as Dorothy Thompson put it, an ‘ideological position’; much effort was made to recast it in the light of other theories of social science and of contemporary conditions.

More important, in no way was this New Left engagement with Marxism a merely intellectual and apolitical tradition.footnote5 So it is a bewildering charge that by discussing Marxism I was not treating the New Left as a political movement. I never had the slightest doubt about the political nature of my subject, and I still cannot see how it might be otherwise. The entire New Left project, as I understood it, which is perhaps also the only point on which we might have everybody’s agreement, was to find an alternative ‘third way’ in the context of the political impasse of the old left mainstreams. I devoted many pages of my book to real political activity, including each topic mentioned by Dorothy, along with others, such as the New Left economic policy proposals for Labour and missions for peace or Third World liberation carried out by different New Left groups.footnote6 Their diverse connections with the labour movement was certainly a focus for me—to tell the truth, anyone like me who had an education in which the ‘working class’ enjoyed very nearly a sacred status, could hardly miss anything of these links, or issues concerning the class identities of the New Left. From Lawrence Daly, his Fife Socialist League and idea of workers’ community self-management to the Movement for Workers’ Control led by Michael Barratt Brown, John Hughes and Ken Coates among others; from Richard Hoggart’s lament over the class culture of local workers to Williams’s pride in his railway signalman father, what I found was a deep-rooted ‘labour metaphysics’ in much New Left thinking which sustained a (fading) faith in the organized working class as a central counter-force to capitalist domination.footnote7 My very rewarding trip to Nottingham and Sheffield to interview Coates and Barratt Brown was motivated as much by their respective family and personal backgrounds—miners and wea teachers—as their prominent roles in iwc. In fact my enthusiasm for Perry Anderson’s theoretical work was greatly reinforced by his earlier analysis of incomes policy, the welfare state and workers’ control.

Besides, as is now widely accepted, the cultural is hardly not political or, more precisely, can be politically constructed and articulated. My lens for seeing either ulr or the first wave of cultural studies initiated from the Birmingham Centre as an ‘interventionist engagement’, for example, was anything but apolitical.footnote8 This might be seen especially in my treatment of Hall’s line of argument. A quick glance at my book should be sufficient to establish that it is really not ‘in essence a history of nlr’ but of the ideas and movement of the political New Left. Just one more note here on the international dimension. Dorothy mentioned the existence of a European Left to which many British Leftists saw themselves as belonging. I discussed this in some detail, and also in relation to the ambiguity toward an integrated Europe felt and debated among many on the New Left. I was nonetheless also critical of the weak awareness within the first generation of the New Left—with only a few outstanding exceptions—of the significance of capitalist globalization: today’s watchword was yesterday’s reality, too, though that reality was somehow distorted and disguised by the retreat of the colonial empires.footnote9 One can indeed easily observe a peculiar internationalism that was simultaneously parochial—my heroes were mostly European in their personal attitudes and perspectives in one way or another; their outlooks, ironically, tended to be profoundly metropolitan and even Eurocentric, Eastern Europe included. While I do not necessarily share much of the critique of ‘orientalism’ fashioned in more recent academic discourse, I did then have difficulty with, for instance, the exclusion of keywords such as ‘imperialism’ and ‘nationalism’ from Williams’s original list.footnote10 The controversial attitude of ‘Third Worldism’ affected mainly the 1968 generation.

This leads me to the next point that Fred Inglis fairly identified as my ‘disappointment’ over the demise of the New Left. The English concept ‘demise’, however, is not in the vocabulary of my own native language. I used it, as the dictionary allows, in the sense not of death but of transfer. So in my epilogue, entitled ‘From the New Left to the new social movements’, I summarized the political and intellectual continuities of the two. Even ‘transfer’, I admit, certainly signifies subsidence. I described this as a full stop to a distinct ‘New Left’ history when the movement ‘began to drift further from the political scene’ which was to be dominated by the New Right from the late 1970s.footnote11 I would agree with Inglis and Thompson that ‘failure’—maybe I misused the word—is probably the wrong characterization. Perhaps the phrase ‘political defeat’, which I also used, was more accurate. The present-day significance of the New Left legacies was exactly the focus of my argument; otherwise, what was the point of writing such a book? Moreover, I felt that my subject was also highly relevant to the experiments of socialist reform movements in places as geopolitically distant as China—with which I have been intimately concerned. A Chinese New Left is actually developing, among its other serious programmes, the idea of an economic democracy sustaining a kind of ‘stakeholder society’ which is more than merely a shallow joke.

It may sound strange that my hidden comparative scale, which Inglis cannot see, was China. That is why he misunderstood my central question to be about the ability of intellectual undertakings to achieve social changes. No, as someone from a country where elite Communist Party intellectuals occupied virtually all the posts in the Politbureau and the Red Army Headquarters over a prolonged revolutionary period—not to mention Plekhanov, Lenin or Trotsky in Russia—I have always believed in the dialectical potential of the ‘weapons of criticism’. The communists rebelled within and without the academy and eventually changed the world by formulating ‘minimum’ and ‘maximum’ programmes and by educating and organizing the masses—we will have to leave aside such concerns as the nature of their success, the definition of ‘intellectuals’ or ‘organic intellectuals’ and state assimilation. But we all know too well that Britain was a million times different and did not need ‘criticism of weapons’. Here is the core of my question: how could a society, as democratic, affluent and civilized as Britain was be (further) changed in a socialist direction? Indeed what was fundamentally wrong with the British socio-economic system, polity and public consciousness which required radical changes? Where to forge the social forces and struggles for these changes? I thought my ‘figures of dissent’ (to borrow Inglis’s phrase)—many of them feminist and anti-racist authors as well as campaigners on peace and the environment—provided some far-reaching answers. We must therefore ‘listen to the creative thinkers that the New Left movement was able to produce, who became main voices of late twentieth-century British socialism’.footnote12