by Alan Finlayson, July 2022

Soundings was established in 1995 under the editorship of Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Mike Rustin (key thinkers whose work can be found in several of the publications available in this archive). Marxism Today had ceased publication in 1991, Bill Clinton had become President in 1992 and in 1994 Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party proposing to ‘modernise’ the party by rejecting social democratic redistribution in favour of equal rights to win and lose in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’. With a new form of Capitalist globalisation accelerating, dismantling much of what had been central to the post-war “Fordist” settlement, and with America seemingly the sole global hegemon, the journal sought to hold open the space for open-ended, non-dogmatic and left-wing critical thinking.

In their opening editorial Hall, Massey and Rustin made explicit the continuities between this and other projects of the New Left, of which they had been key parts. The journal, they hoped, would be a place to think through – to take soundings on – “the relation between political thought and action, conventionally conceived, and the larger social processes which shape and limit their possibilities”. That entailed appreciating the importance of mainstream electoral and Parliamentary politics but also being clear-eyed about its limits and its potential to be in conflict with with transformative and democratic energies expressed in struggles around race, gender, sexuality, culture, place and planet. Holding true to is subtitle - “A Journal of Politics and Culture” – Soundings would include essays, photography, reportage and poetry.

Looking back – a quarter of a century later – we can see the journal identifying and addressing issues and phenomena that would become more prominent. Among many essays from its first year are critiques of “neurogenetic determinism” and of the medicalisation of mental health, celebrations of ‘gender confusion’ (what we might now call ‘gender fluidity') and of queer masculinity, calls for accountability for NGOs in the global south and warnings about the militarisation of the police. There also particularly nineties concerns with, for example, DIY culture, dance music and the politics of Ecstasy.

This archive holds copies up to the year 2000. These are documents from the heart of the period Jeremy Gilbert has called ‘the long nineties’ when the top-down imposed ‘consensus’ of reformed social democrats threatened to erase the socialist and social democratic tradition. In time – as some Soundings writers foresaw - it was technocratic progressive centrism that would be crushed: by endless war in the Middle-East, a global financial crisis of its own making, and by reactionary populisms that grew in the democratic void it mistook for good governance.

Hall, Massey and Rustin would step down from their editorial role in 2004. The journal continues in the present day (see here), a space for critical reflection outside of the academy, beyond the limits of Westminster and without regard for the lines separating politics, culture and economy”

Alan Finlayson (Professor of Political & Social Theory at the University of East Anglia and Vice Chair of the Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust)