Just embarking on a new design and reconception of nlr, in early 1964 I got a letter out of the blue, saying the writer was a friend of André Gorz, and offering help in the production of the journal if it was needed. No further introduction was necessary. We needed every help we could get, and the unknown Ronald Fraser was immediately made unpaid business manager, and in short order became a central member of the editorial team. It was the most unpredictable, and perhaps most decisive, piece of luck the fledging magazine—which had a number of improbable strokes of good fortune—ever received. The newcomer stood apart from the rest of the group bringing it out, in two critical ways. He was older by a decade than the average age of the editorial committee: not in his early twenties, but early thirties, already married with a son; and he had bypassed university, out of which the rest of us had just emerged, for work as a reporter, at Reuters and later the San Francisco Chronicle. These were marked differences, accentuated by the triumphalist jeunisme of the time.
But two bonds nevertheless united us. One was a common distance from any centre of national gravity. Most of the original members of that editorial committee came from backgrounds at some angle to English life: origins immediately or otherwise Anglo-Irish, Scots, New Zealander, Deserter. Ronnie, born in Germany and by descent half-American, not only fitted this profile, but shared the general detestation of Englishry that went with it. The second tie was more personal. He had been politicized by his friendship with Gorz, met by chance some years before in Spain, whose autobiography The Traitor became a central intellectual reference for him. Gorz was one of the first European thinkers we had contacted in planning a new kind of nlr, and this was a work that had made a great impression on me too. So there was a common existentialist formation, which would come out in the journal in a number of ways—not least the inspiration of De Beauvoir’s Second Sex for Juliet Mitchell’s ‘Longest Revolution’ of 1966, kick-starting second-wave feminism, and a long interview we conducted with Sartre in 1969.footnote1 That made a natural basis for productive exchange and collaboration.
The first, and most lasting, change Ronnie brought to New Left Review was to ensure its survival. Like most small magazines of the time and since, when he arrived it was still losing money, with dwindling reserves of credit or cash to keep it going. Taking the precarious finances of the journal in hand, he devised a seven-year plan to put it on a sound material footing, which worked to a tee. By the turn of the seventies, nlr had achieved a take-off in circulation that was self-sustaining. The fact that some fifty years after his architecture, the journal supports a considerably larger staff with a positive balance-sheet—a rarity in the world of the left, or indeed of any journals with intellectual pretensions—is originally due to him. So too would be the creation in 1970 of New Left Books, which became the Verso of today, in London and New York. Setting up a publishing house is a much harder and more complicated task than running a magazine, and the fortunes of the one have always been more accidented than of the other. But there as well, the survival of any house of the left for over forty years, not to speak of the growth in its reach and reputation, is a feat for which the founding credit goes in large measure to him. To the end, he took a lively interest in its performance.
The second big difference he made to nlr was intellectual. From an early age, he wanted to be a writer, publishing a novel at the turn of the sixties,footnote2 and his primary orientation remained literary. Translations of texts from two Spanish writers of the ‘generation of the fifties’, Antonio Ferres and Luis Martín-Santos, and reflections on a novel by Michel Butor, were among his contributions to the journal.footnote3 But in him writerly ambition—frustrated—was wedded to reportorial curiosity in a single enterprise that came to unify everything he wrote: a life-long commitment to lived experience as an intellectual and political value. In nlr, that produced the finest integrated series of texts in the history of the journal: the twenty-five accounts of different kinds of work published without a break, save for a special issue on May 1968 in France, over four years between 1965 and 1969.footnote4
The subject was given editorial priority under the influence of Marx’s economic-philosophical manuscripts of 1844, then very strong on us, and introduced with a quotation from it. But Ronnie alone was capable of converting what could otherwise have remained a theoretical concern into so concrete and vivid a sequence of experiential reports, covering industrial, clerical, professional and speculative employment—car-worker, printer, steel-maker, signalwoman, miner, bricklayer, bus-driver, teacher, trawler, housewife, actor, croupière, accountant, stockbroker and more—not to speak of unemployment. They were collected in two volumes by Penguin in association with nlr in 1968–69, with introductions by Ronnie and afterwords by Raymond Williams and Alvin Gouldner respectively. They read as freshly today as when they were written.
Work I and II appeared some years before Studs Terkel’s Working in the United States.footnote5 It is a reasonable surmise that Terkel’s book, which sold a million copies, was prompted by Ronnie’s enterprise, as he was asked to write it by André Schiffrin, who knew Ronnie and would be his American publisher at Pantheon. The contrast between the two is instructive. Terkel, an irrepressible raconteur who started out life as a concierge in his father’s hotel before becoming a talk-show host on radio, taped interviews with some 130 individuals, grouped by type of activity—Cleaning Up, Watching, Driving, Counting, etc—and edited to allow their voices an average of a little over four pages each. The result is a lively and diverse mosaic, with many a graphic expression of discontent at particular jobs and the system around them, as well as of satisfaction at tasks of meaning and worth. Terkel himself was a very honourable American progressive in a Midwestern tradition—his family were admirers of Debs.footnote6 But by reason of its formal composition, analytic reflection could not be a strength of his book, in which the word ‘capitalism’ is not to be found. Ronnie proceeded very differently. He did not tape interviews, but solicited written contributions, in the belief that if these could be located, they would allow deeper and acuter capture of the lived realities of work, and more time for reflection on them. The result are reports that are longer—an average of fifteen to sixteen pages, significantly less anecdotal and more substantial; some, tours de force of literary intensity. Two that remain indelibly etched in the mind are Ronnie’s own grim description of work in the hub of Reuters—its opening paragraphs have a touch of Zola—and Tom Nairn’s unforgettable memento of existence as a nightwatchman.footnote7 The framing of both collections is unambiguously socialist.
In 1969, a few months after the publication of the second volume of Work, in one of those serendipitous moments that historians sometimes know in the archives, Ronnie saw in The Times an item reporting that the republican mayor of a Spanish village had emerged from thirty years of hiding, on news that Franco had finally issued an amnesty for suspects and opponents of the Civil War period. The village was Mijas, where Ronnie had gone to write in 1957 after quitting Reuters, and later made a home. Rumours that the mayor was concealed and still alive had surfaced now and then among the villagers, and Ronnie had in fact based a character in one of his unpublished novels on such a figure.footnote8 He decided there and then to see if a book, of fact not of fiction, could be made from the ordeal of this sequestration. Once the initial press hubbub around the mayor had died down, he returned to Mijas in the summer of 1969 and taped the life-history of Manuel Cortés, an Andalusian barber born in 1905, who became a Socialist under Primo de Rivera, was elected mayor on the eve of the Civil War, joined the carabineros at the front in defence of the Republic, and was proscribed when it fell, to endure thirty years immured in a hole in the wall of one house, and confinement to an attic; and of the wife who protected him.