there is nothing that I know of to match the flood of university journals which have been irrigating the newstands in recent months. Undaunted by rising costs and a high death-rate, new journals with an unexpected level of seriousness and technical proficiency have continued to flow through. One can only suspect that, given the present state of confusion in the Labour Party, a good deal of the political energy which, say, in the ’30s would have been channelled directly into a political cause or movement, is now finding expression in the printed word.
University journals characteristically suffer from three dangers. The first is that of cost. I suspect that, in spite of the air of confidence which these new publications distill, costs are the largest skeleton in the closet. The second danger is that of parochialism. Student publications are, necessarily, parasitic. But the very same qualities which make them an attractive proposition to fellow students, tend to make them unsaleable elsewhere. The third danger is triviality. It is difficult, given the intervention of examinations, the exasperated queries of tutors and the threeyear turnover, to demand a high and continuous level of seriousness. But there is no necessary compulsion to sink to the depths either. This is largely a question of editorial foresight. If the journal has no connection at all with any important stream of life in the university, but exists simply because some aspiring litterateur wants to play magazines, then undoubtedly they will find themselves scraping up bits of gossip from coffee parties, being smart and knowing about visiting speakers, and penning portraits of colourful local enfants terribles, for the sake of something to say.
An example of a magazine which has dodged in and out of the deeps of triviality is Oxford’s Isis. This has had, to put it mildly, a chequered career. There have been at least three periods, over the last four years, when, in the hands of serious editors or editorial teams, it has shrugged off its “Idols” and gossip, and pushed forward into the more ruffled waters of national politics and events. Each time it has been quartered and drawn by its commercial backers. On the last occasion, the Left were scattered from their entrenched position, and the magazine bestowed
The New University, then, has two things to its credit. First, it is a challenging and effective voice of what can roughly (only roughly, because anything else would be resented) be called “new left” student opinion in Oxford and, gradually, in other universities as well. But secondly, the ability to produce a journal of this standard has had the effect of setting the level and tone of Oxford university journalism so high, that no one hoping to compete can allow themselves to fall below it. The New University has had striking and forceful covers; it reveals a deep concern with the interconnections between politics and culture—an old theme, you might think, but justified in its pages by independent and original contributions (I think, at random, of Kingsley Shorter’s pieces on Jazz, and G. Nowell-Smith’s review of L’Avventura—the best I’ve seen anywhere). It has made an attempt—not, so far, as successful—to live up to its name, by discussing the problems of universities and teaching (F. W. Bateson on the Honours English School, Tom Wengraf on History, Brian Hodgson on Keele). Clearly, there is room for a good deal more—and more rigorous—in this field: the problem seems to be that the people most capable of thinking about the role of the university and the problems of teaching and the student are, themselves, engaged in doing something about it—like publishing the New University! It has shown an arresting concern for revolutionary movements outside of Europe—its Cuban special issue was an admirable achievement, bringing together documents, photographs and an independent analysis (Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn): and it is fully committed in the current Labour Party crisis on the side of unilateralism and the Left.
Two rather less ambitious journals, but of the same rough tendency is the Cambridge complement, Forward and Hull Left. These two make an interesting study in contrast: between them they embody the full spectrum of “new left” opinion (again, roughly) among university students. Forward is the most “open” of the three. Once again, it lives because (a) of the dedication of a small team of energetic and highly articulate students and editors, (b) it does have roots in the university—in this case, in the Cambridge Labour Club itself, and the political discussion which has increased in tempo and commitment around that point of reference. Nick Taylor, its editor, has clearly wielded a fine pen, with a careful attention to “tone”, so that where the general direction of the journal is not given by revised copy, it is given by skilful editorial intervention. He has cossetted and circumscribed his contributors, flailing them into line (not political, but stylistic) with a mixture of Christian seriousness and Cambridge brio. Politically, it is to the right of The New University, sensitive to “centre” opinion, and open to non-unilateralist “statements of the case”. It has given more coverage to local university events and speakers, it reviews films and plays locally rather than nationally (as NU has tended to do): given its format and its layout, it is of necessity more dug in to the Cambridge scene, than its Oxford sister-journal. But like the New University, it reflects a certain impatience with the narrow trough of British politics by giving over a good deal of space to foreign countries and movements. Though its serialised pieces on Spain do not match NU’s Cuba supplement, it is clearly unwilling to be penned down somewhere between Gaitskell and the Cam. Both journals have found it necessary to surmount parochial barriers, and have consequently reached out to international causes. This may be a somewhat arbitrary way of doing it, editorially, but it has paid handsome dividends in both cases.
Hull Left is far more embattled. Its main theme has been unilateralism and the Labour Party crisis. There is no dithering here with objective statements by the “other” side. When Chris Otley puts a pen, heavily steeped in inter-party warfare, to paper, it is to destroy the multilateralists with every turn of his argument. Left has also tried the method of personal statement: both David Waterman and Harry Newton have drawn on their own lives in a “Why I Am A Socialist” series. And, of all three journals discussed, only Left has shown a direct interest in Marxism and Socialist Theory. Left would undoubtedly find the political line of Forward too “loose”: Forward would probably find Left too “sectarian”. The two journals reflect a difference in tone between the two universities, I think, rather than a difference in political orientation.