Interpretation of the New Left raises a number of tricky historical and hermeneutical issues for the contemporary commentator. This current has always challenged conventional demarcations between intellectual matters and political life, and has experimented with different kinds of theoretical argument and political project. Accordingly, the New Left does not fit easily into the categories and disciplinary boundaries of the modern academy. Understanding both its history and ‘meaning’ are thus relatively complex exercises in which different levels of intellectual argument and political action need to be addressed.

Such difficulties are particularly marked when we consider the early years of the New Left in Britain, from 1956 to the early 1960s, when an unusual kind of political ‘movement’ came into being. Whilst the history of the New Left in these years is often referred to in passing, it has not, on the whole, been properly analyzed. Most interpreters have chosen to present the story of these years in terms of the choices and mistakes of key ‘actors’, though others—including myself—have tried to incorporate wider structural factors which shaped the nature and prospects of this ‘movement’.footnote1 Evaluating the worth and significance of the ideas developed in the different New Left milieux is also far from straightforward, given the eclecticism and subsequent impact of many of the concerns which were aired at this time. And, finally, there is the difficulty of excavating the recent history of a number of prominent intellectuals and activists in a period about which many are still sensitive. Some former participants remain understandably ‘territorial’ about this part of their political and intellectual lives.

These real interpretative problems, in some ways peculiar to the New Left phenomenon, have elicited very different methodological responses in the spate of recent commentary on the British movement, though they have rarely been explicitly addressed.footnote2 Any sense of them is absent from, for instance, Dorothy Thompson’s discussion of the books about the British New Left by Lin Chun and myself.footnote3 The tenor of Thompson’s contribution is clear from the outset, encapsulated in the disdainful observation with which she begins her piece: ‘The politics of the non-aligned Left of the years 1956–1962 have become fashionable of late.’ Most of her remarks about my own book suggest a rather hurried reading and rely heavily upon caricature; but in essence our differences come down to methodology and problems of interpretation. Rather than opting for the point-by-point refutation with which miffed authors traditionally reply to their critics, I want to correct her principal misinterpretation of the book’s rationale, and offer some brief comments on the interpretative problems outlined above, in the context of my assessment of the intellectual contribution of the early New Left. My book is not, and does not claim to be, a complete historical account of the different milieux within this ‘movement’. It is a study of the ideas produced by some of the early New Left’s leading thinkers in different spheres, and contains a brief narrative account of the New Left as a ‘movement’ between 1956 and 1964.footnote4 Like her, I await a published account of the history of the New Left as a ‘movement’, but find it strange that she should mistake my book for an attempt to provide one.

Of greater importance are the methodological problems facing those trying to interpret the history of the New Left in Britain. The major difficulty stems from the lack of written documents and archival materials, especially in these early years. Whilst a host of autobiographical reminiscences have been published over the years, and many brief references to the movement appear in general histories of the British Left and particular academic disciplines such as Cultural Studies, no fully documented history has been written. There is also no single archive where relevant material is collected, whilst the rather chaotic and fragile organizational efforts of the clubs and the different journals mean that record-keeping was haphazard. Surviving documents remain scattered throughout the personal papers of a few former participants. The New Left is consequently one of the most poorly documented currents on the British Left—compare this poverty with the riches assembled in the Communist Party archive at the National Museum of Labour History in Manchester. So Thompson’s reduction of the importance of this question to a discussion of her late husband’s collection of pamphlets and correspondence—which is implicitly presented as a gold-mine that would make any self-respecting historian produce a ‘proper’ account—is inadequate. I am sure that there is much of value in the collection to which she refers, but she seems unaware of the different archival sources already available, especially John Saville’s large collection of personal correspondence, pamphlets and editorial minutes and correspondence from this period.

Her treatment of the question of how to interpret the play of personalities involved in the events of these years is equally weak. Thompson is adamant that I have misread the leading characters.footnote5 Yet she says little about the issues at stake here, not least the difficulty of balancing actor-centred interpretation with consideration of hidden structural factors which may have shaped the events in which these figures took part—for instance the difficulties facing extra-parliamentary movements or the centralized character of political life in Britain. In her treatment of this theme, there is no recognition of the tangled web of personalities, politics and ideas that lie at the heart of the unravelling of the early New Left as a ‘movement’ and the problems this poses for the contemporary commentator.

Central to her argument is the assumption that the methods of the scholarly historian represent the best way of getting at the ‘true’ story of the New Left and all that it signified. This raises a third methodological problem. Whilst good empirical history is highly important, it is not clear that it alone will solve the many problems of interpretation particular to the New Left. Can the ‘meaning’ and significance of a current which has always been unconventional in political and intellectual terms be grasped within a strictly orthodox historical analysis? Personally, I doubt it. The different levels at which the New Left was operating—close personal relations and conflicts as well as high-level theoretical arguments and developments—require an equally varied analytical response.

In The First New Left I tried to capture certain aspects of the politics and ideas of the early years of this current which have been rather neglected. My concern was to challenge some of the long-established wisdom about the early years of the New Left in Britain. Much of this stems from a historiography which is either overly hagiographic and nostalgic, or unreasonably critical in its judgements, paying scant attention to the limitations and constraints facing the central players in the drama of these years.footnote6 In my efforts to avoid these traps, it became clear to me that a more balanced critical appraisal of its thinkers’ social and political ideas would be more productive, and that some of the ideas developed in the New Left milieux of this period might be fruitfully read alongside intellectual developments elsewhere. There is a surprising prescience about early New Left debates on issues such as the nature of ideology and social identity, the role of cultural politics, and concern for the value of ‘community’, as well as deep internal disagreements on these and related questions. Whilst these arguments and tensions belonged to a singular context, they can also be regarded as anticipating important subsequent moments of political and intellectual division on the Left.footnote7 The early years of the British movement, therefore, constitute a more interesting part of the story of the evolution of New Left thinking in particular and socialist ideas in general than has usually been suggested.