The termination of World War II by the dropping of US atomic bombs not only destroyed the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki but the wartime alliance which had brought victory over fascism in 1945. The Cold War now split the world into two ‘camps’, each of which tried to impose rigid discipline over its component satellites. Wartime struggle had enabled the USSR to survive the disillusion brought about by the Nazi-Soviet Pact, and won widespread popular support for not only socialism but even communism, in Western Europe. In Eastern Europe, the Soviets installed puppet governments - only one nationalist, independent version of communism, that of Yugoslavia, broke from Soviet control. Even in China, where the Communist Party had come to power via its own armed struggle, the new state, despite its size, was still weak and needed Soviet support.
But in 1956 came a turning point: a double conjuncture. In Europe, Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ sparked off resistance to Soviet domination in Eastern Europe, which culminated in the Hungarian Revolution, and further split Communist Parties in the Western world. The invasion of Suez by Britain, France, and Israel, in an attempt to crush the new nationalism of Nasser’s Egypt, shattered traditional loyalties in imperialist countries, including Britain.
On the Left, resistance to Soviet orthodoxy within the British Communist Party was led by two academic historians, E.P. Thompson, in Halifax, and John Saville, in Hull, who produced an unauthorised cyclostyled publication entitled The Reasoner, for which they were disciplined by the CP leadership. Refusing to recant, and lacking any established constituency, they launched a printed successor, the New Reasoner, which appealed not only to those disillusioned with the CP but also to a new generation many of whom had been hitherto politically inert, but had by now become disillusioned with both capitalism and Soviet communism.
As befitted a pair of historians, the journal situated itself within the traditions of British radicalism and the British Labour movement. Its title harked back to a nineteenth-century publication, but it also identified with the more recent heroic anti-fascism of the Spanish Civil War which had given rise to the International Brigades and to the journal of the 1930s, Left Review.
In early issues of the New Reasoner, the cosmic events in Eastern Europe were naturally to the fore, including contributions from Hungary and other Eastern-bloc countries: poems, stories, and political statements, mainly translated by Alfred Dressler, establishing relationships which were to last well beyond the epoch of the New Reasoner into the epoch of the European Movement for Nuclear Disarmament in which E.P. Thompson played a crucial part. In Western Europe, Claude Bourdet, Editor of the Nouvel Observateur, was a contributor to the journal, and Dorothy Thompson went to Paris to speak (in French!) at the foundation conference of our counterpart in France. In the USA, Cedric Belfrage was an early contributor, and Monthly Review a natural ally.
But Thompson’s article on ’socialist humanism’, in the very first issue, went beyond a critique of Soviet repression and control over Communist Parties to a theoretical questioning of orthodox Marxism as a whole and attempted to develop a new kind of socialist humanism.
It also went far beyond a purely political commentary. Largely due to Thompson’s influence, its pages were always full of ‘arts’ contributors: poets from the 1930s, new novelists like Doris Lessing and Mervyn Jones, and illustrated articles about artists from William Blake to Diego Rivera, while the covers, by Paul Hogarth, were brilliantly modern. Thompson also wrote the swingeing editorials (and even - to avoid filling the whole journal with his name - wrote on Blake under a pseudonym). Martin Eve’s Merlin Press published NR pamphlets and books, including Thompson’s later The Poverty of Theory.
Some ex-Communists joined Trotskyist groups; a few, notably Jim and Gertie Roche in the West Riding, identified with the New Left, while the miners’ leader, Lawrence Daly, stood for Parliament as the New Left candidate of the Fife Socialist League against both Labour and the Communist Party. But the New Left was primarily a movement among intellectuals, who now began a new debate with Right-wing Labour (and within the New Left) about the significance of the Welfare State (hitherto characterized on the Left as mere ‘reformism’ or ‘palliatives’) by Saville and others, including Dorothy Cole on pensions policy, while economists like Ronald Meek, Michael Barratt-Brown and John Hughes, and political scientists like Ralph Miliband, produced innovative studies of the distribution of economic and political power, which they used to develop arguments for a complete reorientation of British economic and foreign policy, notably a Socialist Wages Plan which included workers’ control in industry.
Within the new and rapidly-growing Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, what was now becoming known as the ‘New Left’ played a major part. John Rex’s pamphlet ‘NATO or Neutralism’ linked the neutralism which had emerged in Europe as a response to the Cold War to the new, mass movement.
Neutralism was also now extended to include support for anti-colonial liberation movements everywhere. Some colonies, notably Indonesia, had achieved their independence via large-scale armed revolution. Others, such as India, had been granted it by the imperial Power since holding down a whole sub-continent had become impossible. During the ‘wind of change’ period in the early ‘sixties, more than a dozen new states got their independence in two years in Africa alone.
Some were easily brought into line either by using force (as in the Congo) or, more usually, because, despite their new-found political independence, their economies were still dominated by the West. The more radical of the new states, however, gave support to movements in countries that still remained colonies, a coming-together which emerged as the ‘non-aligned’ bloc, and, later, as the ‘Third World’, and which now became the focus not only of a negative neutralism opposed to the Superpowers, but of a more ‘positive’ form of neutralism, which the New Left in Europe strongly supported. Recognition of this solidarity came in 1958 when the New Left was invited to a Conference hosted in Accra by newly-independent Ghana; Rex went to represent CND, and Worsley on behalf of the New Left.
All these strands of policy had emerged in parallel in the pages of a new journal emanating from Oxford University - Universities and Left Review - under the aegis of people who had not been part of the revolt inside the Communist Party. The two journals now combined forces and established clubs of supporters and readers in more than forty towns and cities. The New Left even became fashionable, even ‘trendy’,hosting screenings of the new Free Cinema at the National
Film Theatre against a background of modern jazz, and had its own coffee-bar, the Partisan, in Soho, which also housed a library full of discarded Left Book Club volumes, ventures which soon brought the New Left to financial crisis.
ULR had also produced serious analyses of British economic structure, such as The Insiders, largely by Raphael Samuel, Stuart Hall, Charles Taylor and Peter Sedgwick, with a major input from an important trade union leader, Clive Jenkins. This work might well have come from the New Reasoner, though, conversely, that journal was discovering the theories of Antonio Gramsci about cultural hegemony, and - inspired by Richard Hoggart’s writing about working-class thinking and popular culture and by new sociological research into British society - had begun to explore the role of the media (hitherto often dismissed on the Left as mere ‘superstructure’) in British society.
The two journals, which had introduced joint subscriptions were by now also producing joint publications. They had become so convergent that they inevitably amalgamated to become, under the Editorship of Stuart Hall, New Left Review, later continued by Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn - to this day.
Peter Worsley, April 2006