The New Left’s renewal of Marxism

Issue: 112
Posted: 12 October 06

Paul Blackledge

The birth of the New Left in 1956 marked an important turning point in post-war British history.2 For the first time since the Second World War a political space opened within which socialists could hope to make headway building a movement independent of both Labourism and Stalinism. Moreover, in struggling for this space, the activists of the New Left made the first steps towards rearticulating a democratic vision of socialism from below to which we remain indebted today. All contemporary anti-capitalists who insist in the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union that ‘another world is possible’ owe a debt to the New Left’s attempt to unpick the authentic socialist tradition from Stalinism. We are also indebted to their challenge to the narrow horizons of contemporary British society: the post-war economic boom had brought relative prosperity in its train, but it did not overcome alienation, and the New Left recognised this fact and aimed to overcome it.

Economic boom did, however, mean that the New Left emerged in a period when the British working class was less radical than it had been for generations. On the one hand, strong growth improved the bargaining power of workers and underpinned a high level of localised shop floor militancy, while, on the other hand, because these strikes were generally very short-lived, they tended not to foster advances in socialist consciousness within the working class: capitalists could afford year on year increases in pay out of increases in productivity, even if strikes were often necessary to push them in the right direction.3 The resulting working class apathy and parochialism could hardly be less propitious for the rebirth of Marxism. Yet in 1956 a political crisis exploded which challenged the ideological orthodoxies of both sides in the Cold War. Against the inhumanity of both Stalinism and Western capitalism, the New Left embraced the idea of ‘socialist humanism’, and while the ambiguities of this idea meant that for some it acted as the medium through which they bade their farewells to Marxism,4 at its most powerful it pointed beyond the morass of Stalinism towards Marx’s humanist critique of capitalism.

Marxism before 1956

Before the rise of Stalinism, Marxism developed in close contact with the workers’ movement: there was, as Perry Anderson has written, an ‘organic unity of theory and practice’.5 By contrast, Stalinism emerged as a contradictory attempt to represent the defeat of the workers’ movement as its victory. Theory and practice were consequently split asunder, and Marxism in the hands of the Stalinists was reduced to a tool which justified the actions of the Soviet bureaucracy.

The success of the Russian Revolution of October 1917 was predicated on the success of similar revolutions across Europe. In July 1918 Lenin argued that ‘we never harboured the illusion that the forces of the proletariat and the revolutionary people of one country, however heroic and however organised and disciplined they might be, could overthrow imperialism. That can be done only by the joint effort of the workers of the world’.6 Unfortunately, while revolutionary upheavals did erupt outside Russia after 1917, these movements had, by the end of 1923, been defeated. In the wake of these defeats the Soviet Union became politically isolated, and the Soviet bureaucracy, which was already evolving as a distinct social layer during the civil war, became increasingly self-conscious. It was in this context that Stalin, in 1924, invented the concept of ‘socialism in one country’, through which the bureaucracy, as Trotsky argued, came to equate the victory of socialism with ‘their own victory’.7 The importance of this development is hard to overstate. Stalin was no mere dictator who imposed his vision of the future on an unwilling Russia. He was the embodiment of the bureaucracy’s project of building a strong Russia in a world of imperialist states. And within a few years the Stalinists had recognised that a strong Russia could only be built on the backs of the workers and peasants who had made the revolution in 1917. While 1924 therefore marked an important watershed in Soviet politics, Michal Reiman has convincingly argued that the key turning point was the period from 1927-29. For it was at this point, after a period of developing structural crisis throughout the 1920s, that Stalinism took final shape as the Stalinists created a socio-political system that was ‘diametrically opposed’ to socialism.8 In contrast to Lenin and Trotsky’s strategy of fostering world revolution, from the late 1920s onwards Stalin sought to solve the problem of Russia’s historical backwardness through a process of state-led industrialisation.9

Nevertheless, despite the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism, Stalin continued to deploy the—bastardised—language of Marxism to legitimise the Soviet State by reference to the October Revolution, whilst simultaneously robbing socialist opponents of the regime of the language of historical materialism. In so doing, Stalinism marked a fundamental transformation of Marxism. As Herbert Marcuse wrote, ‘during the Revolution, it became apparent to what degree Lenin had succeeded in basing his strategy on the actual class interests and aspirations of the workers and peasants.’ However, ‘from 1923 on, the decisions of the leadership have been increasingly dissociated from the class interests of the proletariat’.10 Soviet Marxism served not as a guide to working class action, but as a justification for the actions already taken by the Soviet ruling class.11

This approach led to all manner of ridiculous pronouncements. Perhaps the most famous of these was Stalin’s attempt to square Marx’s argument that socialism would be characterised by the withering away of the state with a justification of the growing repression of the Russian state:

We stand for the withering away of the state. At the same time, we stand for the strengthening of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the mightiest and strongest state power that has ever existed… Is this contradictory? Yes, it is contradictory. But this contradiction is bound up with life, and it fully reflects Marx’s dialectics.12

Nonsense like this led the historian Edward Thompson to suggest that Stalin had transformed Marx’s historical and dialectical materialism into ‘hysterical and diabolic’ materialism. The great virtue of the dialectic, thus conceived, was that it could be used to justify just about any policy because nobody understood what it meant.

More generally, Stalin articulated a social theory that incoherently combined voluntarism with mechanical determinism. History was conceived as a mechanical story of the liberation of the forces of production from the fetters of increasingly regressive relations of production. Marx’s revolutionary theory was subsequently reduced to a general evolutionary schema: ‘the productive forces of society change and develop, and then, depending on these changes and in conformity with them, men’s relations of production, their economic relations, change’.13 Whereas Marx had understood the growing contradiction between forces and relations of production as the context within which struggles for freedom were fought out,14 Stalin judged progress not by the growth of human freedom, but by the growth of the forces of production. This allowed him to equate the industrialisation of Russia with the liberation of the Russian people. He thus twisted Marx’s critique of capital’s tendency to accumulate for accumulation’s sake into a justification of just that process in Russia.

While this model offered very little by way of a rationale for revolutionary practice, Stalin felt compelled to include an account of agency in his social theory if only to justify his own role in Russia. To his mechanical theory of historical evolution, he therefore added a model of bureaucratic activity. The ideology of ‘Leninism’,15 invented by the Stalinists in the mid-1920s, served a useful purpose here. ‘Theory’, as embodied in the party and in practice in the pronouncements of Stalin, acted as the ghost in the machine guiding Russia to liberation. As Nigel Harris put it, as a social theory Stalinism contradictorily combined ‘determinism for the masses, voluntarism for the leadership’.16

Of course, it mattered little to Stalin that his theory was analytically useless—the point was to justify the actions of the Soviet state not to explain them. Tragically, however, Stalin’s domestic policies had disastrous consequences for the international Communist movement. What had been a grouping of revolutionary organisations in the early 1920s were slowly neutered from the mid-1920s through the imposition of, first, tight bureaucratic control from Moscow, then, an ultra-leftist line in the late 1920s, culminating in the mid-1930s in a renewed form of reformism. Following the lead from Moscow, the British Communist Party (CPGB), despite being home to many of the best militants of their generation, effectively ceased to be a revolutionary organisation long before the 1950s. However, a façade of revolutionary rhetoric continued to be used to cover what was essentially a reformist political practice for around two and a half decades before the publication of the party’s new programme, The British Road to Socialism, in 1951.17 Reputedly written by Stalin, the publication of this document marked an important turning point in Communist thinking—for the first time the CP made its shift away from revolutionary to reformist politics explicit. In part, this strategic shift was underpinned by an argument, originating in Moscow, but expressed in Britain by CP general secretary Harry Pollitt, that the transitions to ‘Communism’ in Eastern Europe after the war had proved the viability of reformism. They had shown that ‘it is possible to see how the people will move towards socialism without further revolutions, without the dictatorship of the proletariat’.18 Concretely, the CPGB argued that the Labour Party, once rid of its right wing leadership, could act as the agency for the socialist transformation of society through parliament.19 Thus, the CPGB’s ‘Marxism’ justified Stalinist rule in Russia whilst being politically reformist at home.

The most important figure to stand out in opposition to Stalinism in the 1930s was Leon Trotsky. In a series of brilliant books and articles he dissected Stalin’s domestic and foreign policies and the disastrous strategies adopted by the Communist International. Unfortunately, because Stalinism was a product of the defeat of the workers’ movement in Europe, and because Stalin’s policies led to further defeats, then, as Trotsky himself argued, the grip of Stalinism over the left was reinforced by the very vices of Stalinism: defeats left socialists feeling isolated and more likely to look to Moscow as the one hope against Hitler. The flipside of this process was, of course, Trotsky’s increasing political isolation. This objectively bad situation for the revolutionary left was made worse when a series of Trotsky’s key political conjectures were refuted after the war.20 Unfortunately, the dominant voices within international Trotskyism met this challenge by retreating into dogma. Trotsky had predicted that the war would culminate in a catastrophic economic crisis which would underpin revolutionary movements of workers who would cast aside Stalinism and social democracy. When the Stalinist and social democratic leaderships of the workers’ movement in a number of European countries succeeded in stifling the post-war upsurge in struggle,21 and when the world economy entered upon a period of intense growth, the leadership of the world Trotskyist movement responded by denying reality and vigorously reasserting what were obviously moribund perspectives.22 Of course some revolutionaries did not follow this course of action, but they were few in number, scattered in small pockets across the globe, and more or less completely isolated from the workers’ movement in the early 1950s.

In this context the Soviet regime held out an obvious appeal to Western socialists. In the 1930s Russia could appear for many as the last hope for socialism, and indeed for civilisation in the face of the growing threat of the militarised fascist regimes. Eric Hobsbawm justifiably writes that many of the best militants of his generation joined the Stalinist movement from this point onwards for precisely this reason.23 John Saville explains that against the backdrop of the Labour Government’s attacks on the unemployed in 1931 and in the wake of Hitler’s victory in Germany in 1933 ‘it is not difficult to understand why young people in the mid-thirties chose the Communist Party rather than the Labour Party’. Moreover, even the debased form of Marxism taught in the Communist Movement created ‘a growing sense of excitement at the widening intellectual horizons that Marxism offered’.24 Similarly, in the 1950s the USSR could appear to many as the one hope against the domination of American imperialism. Nevertheless, it was through a rebellion against Stalinism that the best of those men and women who had been attracted to the Communist movement from the 1930s to the 1950s opened the door to a re-engagement with genuine revolutionary Marxism.


If in the 1950s the Communist Party slavishly followed Moscow’s line in the Cold War, the leadership of the Labour Party developed a similar relationship to Washington. In fact, the Labour leadership’s right wing stance on foreign policy was just part of a consensus between it and the Tory government—labelled ‘Butskellism’ by the Economist in 1954 to highlight the continuity between the policies of the Labour and Tory chancellors Hugh Gaitskell and RAB Butler. To the extent that there existed an opposition to this consensus, its main focus was the Labour Left. However, this opposition was of a very limited kind. Led by Nye Bevan, when this layer rebelled against the leadership it tended to be over foreign and defence policies rather than on domestic issues. Moreover, once Gaitskell succeeded Attlee as Party leader in 1955, Bevan signalled an end to his opposition to the leadership. Bevan was soon to prove his reliability when, as Shadow Foreign Secretary in 1956, he described Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez canal as theft: ‘If the sending of one’s police and soldiers into the darkness of night to seize somebody else’s property is nationalisation, then Ali Baba used the wrong terminology’.25 If this act helped weaken the Labour left in the run up to the invasion of Suez, other processes were simultaneously creating the conditions for the emergence of a more radical left.

In 1956 four events occurred which helped create a political space to the left of the two faces of the Cold War. First, in February, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev made the so-called Secret Speech26 at the Twentieth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party within which he detailed some of the crimes committed by Stalin before his death in 1953. Fundamentally, Khrushchev shared with Stalin the aim of fostering economic growth in the Soviet Union so that it might catch up and overtake its Western competitors.27 However, Stalin’s methods, which, from the bureaucracy’s point of view, had proved so successful in the 1930s and 1940s, were becoming increasingly inadequate to the continuing needs for economic growth. Russia had gone through a period of primitive capital accumulation, and now needed to switch from extensive to intensive methods of growth. Khrushchev set about liberalising the Soviet regime with a view to unleashing a new period of development. Nevertheless, because he first had to ensure his position against challenges from those groupings within the bureaucracy that wanted to keep to old ways, this extreme Stalinist became Stalin’s most prominent critic.28

In authoritarian regimes, even small amounts of liberalisation can result in the crisis of the old way of ruling.29 This is exactly what happened after Khrushchev’s speech, when, first in Poland and then much more dramatically in Hungary divisions within the ruling class opened a space for the growth of a workers’ movement from below to challenge the Stalinist regimes in both countries. This was the second key event of 1956. Over the summer and autumn of that year there occurred a rapid polarisation and radicalisation in Poland and Hungary culminating, in October and November, in the emergence of a revolutionary workers’ movement in the latter country: for the first time since the 1920s workers’ councils emerged as a possible alternative form of rule.30

All this might have confirmed the hopes of those on the left who believed that the Soviet Bloc would gradually self-reform into democratic socialist states. This illusion was dashed, however, by the third key event of that year. In November 1956 Soviet troops intervened to crush the Hungarian Revolution. If this gross act of militarism had occurred in isolation, it might merely have weakened the far left in the West as members and supporters haemorrhaged away in disgust at the actions of this ‘socialist’ state. However, the Soviet intervention in Hungary was not the only act of imperialism that month. The very same weekend, British and French troops in cooperation with Israel invaded Egypt with a view of seizing the Suez Canal. That this act of gunboat diplomacy ended in fiasco did not prevent many in Britain from recognising the parallels between the imperialisms of the ruling classes on both sides of the Cold War.31 In fact, Suez resulted in the ‘largest single upsurge of political activity…in foreign affairs since the war’.32 While the initial beneficiary of this movement was the Labour Party, which followed Washington in opposing the war, the Party’s moderate anti-war slogan—‘law not war’—did not reflect the anger of the anti-war demonstrators.33 In fact, many Labour critics attacked the government, not on any principled anti-imperialist grounds, but because it ‘endangered the American alliance and divided the country’.34 The short-lived and emphatically moderate nature of the Party’s opposition to the war, alongside Bevan’s position within the leadership, ensured that those radicalised by their opposition to the invasion did not flock to their local Labour Party ward meeting. Unsurprisingly, Khrushchev’s invasion of Hungary ensured that neither did this radicalised layer look to the Communist Party.

As a response to these events, a New Left emerged out of dissident groups within the Communist Party, alongside student radicals, left Labourites and members of the tiny revolutionary left.35 While the New Left had neither fixed political positions, nor an agreed agenda, it did aim at making socialism a living force in Britain. New Leftists developed this message in a number of journals, including Universities and Left Review edited by students in Oxford and The Reasoner/New Reasoner edited by the historians and Communist activists Edward Thompson and John Saville in Yorkshire. Published initially as a dissident magazine within the Communist Party, and subsequently as an independent journal of socialist theory and practice after its editors refused the Party leadership’s demand to stop publishing, The Reasoner/New Reasoner made its name as the foremost British voice of socialist humanism. Whereas Stalin had justified his rule by arguing that history was a mechanical process of economic progress, Thompson’s socialist humanism placed real human beings at the centre of both the historical process and the struggle for socialism.

The Reasoner was originally published to discuss the reverberations of Khrushchev’s speech within the Communist Party. Khrushchev had in fact made two speeches at the Twentieth Congress. In the first, open speech, he denounced ‘the cult of the personality’ without mentioning Stalin, while in a second, Secret Speech, he made explicit and detailed criticisms of Stalin.36 While the exact content of the Secret Speech did not become public knowledge until June, everyone knew that criticism of the cult of the personality was a coded criticism of Stalin. The immediate response within the CPGB to this development was a ‘stream of questioning letters’ to the Party’s paper the Daily Worker. While some of these were published, the Party leadership attempted to quash the debate as soon as possible: the paper’s editor, J R Campbell declared the ensuing debate closed as early as 12th March.37 However, the crisis within the Communist Party was far too deep for this act of censorship to succeed. Tellingly, a week after Campbell’s declaration that the debate was over, John Saville wrote a letter to the Party’s general secretary which was sharply critical of the Party’s reluctance to be self-critical about the Stalin period.38 And once the details of the Secret Speech were published nothing could stop the increasingly loud voices criticising the leadership from within the Party.

In July, Saville and Edward Thompson published the first issue of The Reasoner.39 In the editorial of that issue, they wrote that ‘We take our stand as Marxists…although…much that has gone on under the name of “Marxism” or “Marxism-Leninism” is itself in need of re-examination’. More specifically, they claimed that ‘The Reasoner is a journal which is, in the main, written by and addressed to members of the Communist Party’. Beyond this, they hoped that ‘this journal will perform a practical service in loosening up the constricted forms within which discussion between Communists has taken place in recent years’.40 This last point was of the first importance. The events of 1956 had proved, if more proof were needed, that that there was very little democratic content to the CPGB’s supposed democratic centralism. The closing down of debate on the consequences of Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin, while essential from the leadership’s point of view, was frankly absurd: nothing was more important to the Party’s programme than the nature of the Soviet Union, and members found they were unable to discuss the views on this issue of the supposed leader of the international Communist movement! Predictably, the Communist Party leadership attempted to suppress the debate as it was taken up in The Reasoner. Responding to this, Thompson and Saville broke party discipline by publishing a third issue of The Reasoner in November 1956, signalling their decision, alongside thousands of others, to leave the CP rather than submit to censorship from the party’s centre.

Socialist humanism

Upon leaving the Communist Party, Thompson and Saville relaunched The Reasoner as The New Reasoner. The first issue of this new journal included Thompson’s attempt to unpick Marx’s humanism from Stalinism in his article ‘Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines’. This essay opened with the claim that ‘a quarter of the earth’s surface is a new society, with a new economic structure, new social relations, and new political institutions’.41 However, despite the suppression of private property within these regimes, the persistence of oppression convinced Thompson of the falsity of the traditional Marxist view that all forms of oppression were rooted in economic exploitation. Against such ‘economistic’ models of historical materialism, Thompson sought to re-emphasise human agency at the heart of Marxism, and to reaffirm the importance of ideas as the basis for action. Accordingly, he explained the anti-Stalinist revolt of 1956 as a rebellion of the human spirit against the deadening grip of authoritarianism, while Stalinism itself had arisen out of the weaker elements of the Marxist canon. ‘Stalinism did not develop just because certain economic and social conditions existed, but because these conditions provided a fertile climate within which false ideas took root, and these false ideas became in their turn part of the social conditions.’ Those false ideas were rooted in the classical Marxist tradition which occasionally tended ‘to derive all analysis of political manifestations directly and in an over-simplified manner from economic causations’.42 This mistake linked Stalinism to Marxism, as, in their cruder moments, Marx and Engels understood revolutions as mechanical consequences of the clash between forces and relations of production, rather than as products of the actions of real men and women.

This weakness was most apparent when Marx and Engels deployed the base/ superstructure metaphor. Thompson insisted that this was a ‘bad and dangerous model, since Stalin used it not as an image of men changing in society but as a mechanical model, operating semi-automatically and independently of human agency’.43 This ‘denial of the creative agency of human labour’, when combined with working class ‘anti-intellectualism’ and ‘moral nihilism’, acted to rob Marxism of its human element and to freeze it into the dogma of Stalinism, which was itself ‘embodied in institutional form in the rigid forms of democratic centralism’.44 Thompson wrote that Stalinism was an ideology whose characteristic procedure was to start analyses from abstract ideas rather than from facts. Moreover, this ideology represented the world-view of a ‘revolutionary elite which, within a particular historical context, degenerated into a bureaucracy’. The Stalinist bureaucracy had blocked the struggle for socialism, and consequently the revolt which underpinned the struggle for socialism had become a revolt against Stalinism. Negatively, this was a revolt against ideology and inhumanity. Positively, it involved a ‘return to man’, in the social sense understood by Marx. It was thus a socialist humanism: human, because it ‘places once again real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration’, socialist, because it ‘reaffirms the revolutionary perspectives of Communism’.45 Thompson therefore concluded that while Russia was in some sense a socialist state, its oppressive ideological and political superstructure had roots in Leninism.

The obvious problem with this form of anti-Stalinism was that it began from the Stalinist assumptions that, first, Lenin led to Stalin, and, second, that the East European regimes were in fact socialist states! The crushing of the Hungarian workers’ councils by the Soviet military in November should have blown this second assumption sky high. However, while events in Hungary led to the Reasoner group, alongside thousands of others, leaving the party,46 in his parting shot to the CPGB Thompson equivocated on this issue. He continued to believe that while the Stalinist States had degenerated, they remained in an important sense socialist. He thus bemoaned the fact that ‘Communists’ had ‘fire[d] on Communists’, and claimed that ‘Stalinism is socialist theory and practice which has lost the ingredient of humanity’.47 That Thompson believed this problem could be traced through Stalin and Lenin to the weaker elements of Marx and Engels’ thought meant that his moral critique of Stalinism culminated in a call both for a more flexible interpretation of Marx’s theory of history, and a rejection of the Leninist form of political organisation.

Thompson’s humanist reading of Marx on the pages of The New Reasoner dovetailed with a similar re-evaluation of Marx published on the pages of Universities and Left Review. In 1958, Charles Taylor returned from Paris to Oxford with a French edition of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts.48 The Marx who wrote these pages was very different to the mechanical fatalist known through Stalinism. In the 1844 manuscripts Marx brilliantly prefigured his later theoretical and political trajectory by positing socialism as the struggle of the working class against alienation, through a synthesis of what Lenin later termed the Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism: German philosophy, English political economy and French socialism. What made these three elements susceptible to synthesis was the place of human labour, understood as purposeful social activity, at the heart of each. First, the political economists had, despite themselves, acted to reveal alienated human labour as the essence of value, while, second, the French socialists expressed the collective rebellion against the division of labour. Finally, Marx reinterpreted Hegel’s discussion of the self-movement of spirit in terms of human practice.49 In sharp contrast to the caricature of Marx presented by Stalin, Marx read the resulting conflict between tendencies towards working class association and the alienation arising out of the division of labour as the contradictory essence of capitalism; and through their humanist break with Stalinism, socialists involved in the New Left suggested a reappraisal of this revolutionary core of Marxism.

While Thompson’s political optimism was framed through reference to the revolutionary workers in Hungary, the contributors to Universities and Left Review were more influenced by the apathy of the British working class. Stuart Hall, prefiguring much of what he was to write on the pages of Marxism Today in the 1980s,50 argued that there had been a ‘major shift in the patterns of social life’ in Britain, such that those factors which shaped the formation of socialist class consciousness in the past were no longer dominant. By contrast with 19th century capitalism, changes in the economic structure of society meant that the worker in the 1950s ‘knows himself much more as consumer than as producer’. Whereas in the 19th century there had been a workers’ way of life as collective producer, this had recently been fragmented into so many competing lifestyles. Hall contended that it was these multifarious ways of life, which meant that while Britain remained a capitalist country, the working class had become entrapped in a ‘new and more subtle forms of enslavement’.51

Hall’s essay brought forth two powerful responses on the pages of the next issue of Universities and Left Review. Raphael Samuel argued that Hall had mythologised the conditions of the 19th century working class and so created a straw man against which he compared the situation of modern workers: ‘the working class community was formed against pressures markedly similar to those upon which attention is focused today’.52 If Samuel pointed out that Hall’s misunderstanding of the past informed his mistaken analysis of the present, Edward Thompson powerfully argued that Hall’s model of the present situation of workers was far too static. Prefiguring criticisms he would later lay at the feet of Raymond Williams, on whose work Hall drew, Thompson insisted that cultures were best understood not as static ‘ways of life’, but rather as an active ‘ways of struggle’.53

From theory to practice54

Following from his model of life as struggle, Thompson consistently brought active political questions to the fore in his writings for the New Left. However, while he pushed for action, he was against the formation of a New Left organisation: his experience of work within the Communist Party convinced him of the folly of building a new socialist party.

The New Left does not offer an alternative faction, party or leadership to those now holding the field…once launched on the course of factionalism, it would contribute, not to the re-unification of the socialist movement, but to its further fragmentation; it would contribute further to the alienation of the post-war generation from the movement; and the established bureaucracies cannot be effectively challenged by their own methods… The bureaucracy will hold the machine; but the New Left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation’: in fact socialist intellectual work was not best ‘accomplished by joining anything’.55

This perspective emerged out of the break with Communism made by those around The Reasoner. Given the hasty closure of debate on the repercussions of Khrushchev’s speech on the pages of the Daily Worker, it seemed only natural that one of the key essays published in the first issue of The Reasoner addressed the issue of democratic centralism.56 Penned by Ken Alexander, this essay expressed a peculiar limitation of the New Left’s break with Stalinism. Alexander pointed to a contradiction within Communist strategy between Lenin’s insistence that democratic centralist parties were necessary to smash the old capitalist state, and Moscow’s claim, repeated by Communist Party general secretary Pollitt, that peaceful transitions to socialism had occurred in Eastern Europe and could occur in Britain. Taking the Stalinists at their word, Alexander concluded that the party’s militant reformism no longer implied the need for a Leninist party. Moreover, as Leninist parties had been the source of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution, then dropping the democratic centralist structure could only be a good thing.57

While, Alexander’s argument informed Thompson’s rejection of Leninism,58 the problem of political organisation could not so easily be evaded. Precisely because the New Left was much more than a theoretical tendency, its activity brought it into conflict with the Communist and Labour parties. If this tendency was most apparent when Lawrence Daly set up, with a degree of electoral success, the Fife Socialist League,59 it was also true of the broader New Left’s relationship to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). From 1958 onwards New Left activists threw themselves into activity around the newly formed CND,60 whose marches saw thousands of dissatisfied youth come into conflict both with the government and the leaderships of the Labour and Communist parties.61 If in CND the New Left gained a mass audience for their ideas, they also experienced the pull of reformism which was ultimately to break the New Left as a movement. Regretably, Thompson’s socialist humanism was ill equipped to deal with this problem.

Thompson outlined the strategic consequences of his thought in his essay ‘Revolution’. Leninists, he argued, had seriously misconstrued the nature of the coming revolution, and were consequently incapable of adequately preparing for it. He argued that the past century had been witness to a series of structural reforms that had been granted by capital to labour. These reforms were not the product of capital’s philanthropic nature; rather they were a corollary of its instinct for self-preservation: capital retreated, inch by inch, before the pressure for reform that originated at the base of society. The weakness with reformism did not lie in the belief in the possibility of reform; these all too palpably existed, but rather in its misdiagnosis of their cause. Leninism, meanwhile, was incapable of reorienting to the changed situation. In particular, Leninists could not comprehend the implications of the enormous reforms that had been brought about through the war: for it was in the period from 1942 to 1948 that the most significant reforms had been won. These changes allowed Thompson, just like the Communist Party, to look forward to a ‘peaceful revolution in Britain’.62 In fact, Thompson suggested, radical change could be instituted relatively easily:

the Establishment appears to rest upon an equilibrium of forces so delicate that it is forced to respond to determined pressure…if we nationalise…if we tax…if we contract out of NATO… At each point the initiative might provoke repercussions which would necessitate a total transformation of relations of production, forms of power, alliances and trade agreements, and institutions: that is, a socialist revolution.63

If such a peaceful ‘revolution’ was possible, then what of the Labour Party, Britain’s traditional vehicle of reformist socialist aspirations? Against Thompson’s earlier rejection of the case for socialists joining any organisation, others prominent members of the New Left argued that as the Labour Party was ‘still a mass movement of the British working class’, and ‘a battleground in which opposing trends are free to contend for leadership’, socialists should join it.64 These arguments seemed to be confirmed in 1960 when, in the wake of defeat in the 1959 general election, the Labour Party leadership was defeated by the left at the party’s conference on the issues of Clause IV of the Party’s constitution and over unilateral nuclear disarmament. Ralph Miliband, a New Left activist and the author of one of the most powerful critiques of Labourism, argued at the time that ‘it is not inevitable that the Labour Party should continue towards the political graveyard’. He suggested that socialists might act to transform the party into a socialist organisation, ‘before it was too late’.65 Furthermore, in an argument first published in 1961, he claimed that ‘the leadership whose purpose it is to reduce the Party’s commitment to socialist politics can no longer rely on the trade unions to help it in achieving its aims’.66 By 1960 Thompson appeared to have gravitated to a similar position. In fact, he suggested that the transformation of Labour into a socialist party was not only possible, but also that this potential was being realised as he wrote: ‘Labour is ceasing to offer an alternative way of governing existing society, and is beginning to look for an alternative society’.67 He argued that the New Left’s role should be to encourage this process, while remaining aware that if his more optimistic perspective for the transformation of the Labour Party were frustrated ‘then new organisations will have to be created’.68 Consequently, in the late 1950s Thompson moved to accept both the viability and desirability of working to transform the Labour Party into an organisation capable of realising the transition to socialism.

The bulk of the New Left enthusiastically joined the fight to transform the Labour Party. Concretely, leading members of the New Left believed that a Labour government be the agency of both a ‘positive neutralist’ foreign policy,69 and a socialist incomes policy. Raphael Samuel suggested that the New Left’s ‘most influential contribution to Labour Party thought’70 was John Hughes and Ken Alexander in A Socialist Wages Plan, published under the imprint of both the Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner. This pamphlet argued for the creation of ‘an alliance of government and trade unions’ to redistribute incomes by taxation, to maintain stable prices, and to raise real wages and salaries.71 Defending their arguments against criticism from Mike Kidron,72 Alexander wrote that a suitably transformed Labour Party could wield ‘government power…behind an egalitarian incomes policy if sufficient political pressure were built up to insist that it were’.73 For his part, Thompson interpreted the alarm bells sounding in the national press as an indication that bourgeois society was becoming anxious of the developments within the Labour Party, developments which should therefore excite and energise the New Left.74

At its heart this perspective greatly underestimated the power of the right wing of the Labour Party. In fact, once the right mobilised its forces at the 1961 party conference the left was easily defeated. This defeat might not have proved fatal for the New Left had it not believed so fervently up to that point in the possibility of transforming the Labour Party. Regrettably, this is exactly what it had done, and consequently it was dragged into the vortex of the Labour left’s defeat.75 The medium through which the right’s victory was secured at the 1961 conference was the trade union bloc vote.76 This came as a huge surprise to most of the New Left’s leadership, who had come to believe that the trade union bureaucracy would no longer play its traditionally conservative role.77 That it had played this role, and after two years of almost continuous advance for the left in the party, was hugely disappointing. Raymond Williams argued, ‘the reversal of the vote on nuclear disarmament in 1961 came as an astounding blow. There was no idea of the strengths of the labour machine, or of the political skill with which the right was able to organise for victory within it’.78

Like the New Left, CND had gravitated towards a programme that aimed to win the Labour Party for unilateral nuclear disarmament, and because they too hoped for so much from this strategy they were also hugely disappointed by the defeat of the vote on unilateralism at the 1961 Labour Party conference. If this defeat effectively signalled the beginning of the end for both CND and the New Left, the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 sealed their fates. Impotent before this global crisis, the very fact that war was averted ‘was a blow to those who had based five years of their political life on the’ belief that nuclear annihilation was imminent.79 In these circumstances, the erstwhile activists of the New Left grasped at any sign, however meagre, of a revival in the fortunes of the left. While Thompson was initially enthusiastic about the revival of direct action against the Bomb, with Gaitskell’s early death, and Harold Wilson’s election to the leadership of the Labour Party in 1963, the reformist illusions which had previously opened the door to the New Left’s unsuccessful strategy of transforming the Labour Party into the agency of socialist transformation, now led them to believe that even in defeat the left had been victorious. Wilson it seemed was going to lead the left to the Promised Land; and from that point onwards ‘all hopes were now focused on Labour’.80 Indeed, Perry Anderson, the new editor of New Left Review, wrote that Wilson had stepped into the fray just as the objective circumstances favoured the left as they had never done before. Therefore, he argued, Wilson ‘may in the end represent a certain moment in the auto-emancipation of the working class movement in England’.81

A revolutionary alternative?

There is an unfortunate tendency on the part of many students of the British New Left to dismiss the role of Trotskyism within it. One reason for this attitude is the academic orientation of these authors, which, as Dorothy Thompson has powerfully argued, acts to emphasise the theoretical and philosophical dimensions of New Left activity at the expense of an analysis of its, primary, political nature.82 By contrast with this standpoint, it is useful to remember that a number of key working class activists, alongside some equally impressive journalists and intellectuals, found their way into the Trotskyist movement after leaving the Communist Party in the wake of 1956.83 Unfortunately, another reason for academic dismissals of Trotskyism during the New Left period is that the perspectives of the largest Trotskyist organisation, the Club/Socialist Labour League (SLL), were even more unrealistic than were Thompson’s hopes for the Labour Party. Nevertheless, in the late 1950s and early 1960s the Club/SLL attempted to offer an alternative perspective for the left, and for a short period after 1956 it showed what might have been achieved had it been able to break from both its sectarianism and its catastrophic political perspectives.

The trump card played by the Trotskyists in 1956 was Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. First published in 1936, this book was a powerful Marxist demolition of the socialist pretensions of Stalinism, which ended with a call for a political revolution in Russia to overthrow the bureaucracy and remake democratic socialism.84 For those who had first joined the Communist Party in the belief that it was a revolutionary organisation and then left when they discovered their mistake, the message of The Revolution Betrayed was, in Duncan Hallas’s words, ‘manna from heaven’.85 Among those who were to gravitate towards Trotskyism at this juncture was Peter Fryer. Fryer was the Daily Worker’s correspondent in Hungary when Russian tanks suppressed the revolution in November 1956. After two of the three reports he filed for the paper were not used, and the third ‘severely cut’, he resigned from the Daily Worker and was shortly afterwards expelled from the party.86 Subsequently, Fryer joined Britain’s main Trotskyist organisation, known as the Club, and in May 1957, he launched The Newsletter as an ‘independent socialist weekly’. Over the next two years this publication gained a reputation as an excellent socialist newspaper. Indeed, The Newsletter, alongside the Club’s more theoretical Labour Review, through a combination of socialist agitation, propaganda and intelligent debate, came to act as a serious Trotskyist pole of attraction to those ex-Communists who were breaking with Stalinism. Between 1957 and 1959, the socialists who produced and distributed these two publications managed to pull around them a significant grouping of revolutionaries, such that when they launched the SLL in May 1959 this new organisation represented what was a potentially significant breakthrough for the revolutionary left.

Unfortunately, the potential of the SLL was not to be realised. If the most important role for revolutionaries in 1956-57 was to explain to ex-Communists why Russia was not socialist, the Club was able to do this admirably. However, once this grouping moved from a negative critique of Stalinism to a positive presentation of their own perspectives, the limitations of orthodox Trotskyism became all too apparent.

The Club was the dominant local faction to emerge from the crisis of the international Trotskyist movement in the wake of the falsification of a number of Trotsky’s key programmatic predictions during and after the war.87 Led by Gerry Healy, the only way that it was able to maintain Trotsky’s catastrophic political perspectives was by expelling all those who pointed to the simple fact that history had refuted the economic analysis upon which they were based. In the early 1950s this meant expelling those, such as Tony Cliff and Ted Grant, who challenged both these perspectives and Healy’s leadership.88 By 1956, the details of these old struggles seemed ancient history, and the Club, as the largest Trotskyist grouping in the country, was able to draw on Trotsky’s undoubted moral authority as a critic of Stalinism to attract to it many of the best activists who had recently left the CPGB. However, the undemocratic structure of the Club/SLL ensured that even after the influx of new recruits in the wake of 1956 anyone who challenged Healy’s catastrophic perspectives was impotent to do anything about it. Consequently, while by 1959 the SLL had seemed to offer the promise of the creation of a viable anti-Stalinist British Marxist party,89 within a year Healy had managed to expel or hound out of the organisation just about anyone independent enough to question his absurd perspectives. Indeed, by the autumn of 1959 he had even managed to take Fryer’s place as editor of The Newsletter.90 Healy’s undemocratic tactics and unrealistic perspectives therefore made it easy for those like Thompson who rejected the project of building a new socialist party to dismiss Trotskyism as a type of anti-Stalinism in the sense that there once existed anti-Popes: the same but different, and with a much smaller congregation.91

Similarly, a number of those who had briefly gravitated towards the SLL in the late 1950s reacted to the absurdities of Healy’s posturing by rejecting any attempt to unpick Lenin’s ideas from the ideology of Leninism. This essentially was the starting point of the grouping around the magazine Solidarity, who, under the influence of the French journal Socialisme ou Barbarie, embraced the idea that socialism would emerge, more or less spontaneously, from the struggles of the working class at the point of production. While the positive side of the democratic thrust of this reaction to orthodox Trotskyism cannot be denied, like the SLL, Solidarity tended to greatly underestimate the barriers to the growth of socialist ideas within the working class. For instance, in 1961 Solidarity’s leading figure, Chris Pallis, argued that workers’ struggles opened not the possibility but the certainty of the growth of socialist consciousness within the working class: ‘people in struggle do draw conclusions which are fundamentally socialist in content’ (emphasis in original).92 Unfortunately, arguments such as this, by downplaying the difficulties involved in socialist activity, fostered a tendency towards the substitution of radical slogans for the long hard work of extending the influence of socialist ideas within the working class. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that, despite their formal differences, Solidarity shared with the SLL a weak model of socialist activity: if Healy one-sidedly stressed socialist leadership at the expense of the spontaneous movement from below, Solidarity tended to invert rather than to correct this mistake.

This was unfortunate, for what undermined the SLL, beyond Healy’s famously authoritarian personality, was not the fact that through it socialists attempted to build their own organisation, but rather that it adhered to a set of catastrophic political perspectives.93 Understood thus, the SLL had more in common with both Thompson’s dominant form of New Leftism and Solidarity’s extreme left alternative than either would have liked to admit. They were all hamstrung by unjustifiably optimistic perspectives: the SLL and Solidarity for revolution; Thompson for radical reform of the Labour Party and then the British state. What none of these perspective was able to offer was a compelling answer to the rational core of Hall’s dismissal of the revolutionary potential of the British working class.

Out of the impasse

In his contribution to The New Reasoner debate on socialist humanism, Alasdair MacIntyre formulated a deeper break with Stalinism than that imagined by Thompson, which simultaneously pointed beyond Thompson’s domestic political perspectives without collapsing into the dogmatism of orthodox Trotskyism. In ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’, MacIntyre argued that what Marx suggested when he deployed the base/superstructure metaphor was neither a mechanical nor a causal relationship. Rather, he deployed Hegelian concepts to denote the process whereby society’s economic base provides ‘a framework within which superstructures arise, a set of relations around which the human relations can entwine themselves, a kernel of human relationships from which all else grows’. Indeed, MacIntyre wrote that in ‘creating the basis, you create the superstructure. These are not two activities but one’. Thus, the Stalinist model of historical progress, according to which political developments were understood to follow automatically from economic causes, could not be further from Marx’s model. For, in Marx’s view, ‘the crucial character of the transition to socialism is not that it is a change in the economic base but that it is a revolutionary change in the relation of base to superstructure’.94 If, through this model, MacIntyre criticised the Stalinist attempt to evacuate Marxism of its revolutionary core, he also pointed to weaknesses with Thompson’s anti-Stalinism. Whereas Thompson accepted that Stalinist Russia was characterised by an oppressive political superstructure atop a socialist economy, MacIntyre argued that the Soviet Union was reactionary from top to toe: he insisted Marx’s model of socialism as working class self-emancipation ‘marks a decisive opposition to Fabianism and all other doctrines of “socialism from above”’.95 MacIntyre’s rejection of the idea that Russia as a socialist or a workers’ state, in turn provided a basis from which one might criticise Thompson’s militant reformist hopes for Labour Party. For, if the East European states were not socialist, then the Communist Party’s assumptions about the possibility of a Marxist justification for a reformist strategy for socialism which had found their way into the New Left thinking were undermined. This, in turn, led MacIntyre to begin to rethink Lenin’s legacy, and to unpick his model of democratic leadership from the ideology of Leninism.96

MacIntyre’s revolutionary articulation of socialist humanism drew him into the orbit of, first, the SLL, from whence, in 1960, he joined the International Socialism group: the forerunner of the Socialist Workers’ Party. According to Thompson, International Socialism was ‘the most constructive journal with a Trotskyist tendency in this country, most of the editorial board of which are active (and very welcome) members of the Left Club movement’.97 In a generally unsympathetic survey of the politics of IS, Martin Shaw argued that at this juncture it ‘came to represent the polar opposite to the SLL: realistic in economic perspectives, able to explain the failures of labour bureaucrats as well as to condemn them, non-sectarian towards other socialists, the champion of thorough working class democracy in all areas of practice’.98 This perspective was, as Shaw suggests, informed by the break made with orthodox Trotskyism by IS’s main theoretician, Tony Cliff.

Whereas Trotsky had characterised the Soviet Union as a ‘degenerate workers’ state’, and his ‘orthodox’ followers had generalised this model to account for the essentially similar regimes created in Eastern Europe and China after the war—‘deformed workers’ states’, Cliff insisted that it was nonsense to suggest that a workers’ state could be created without a workers’ revolution. Moreover, as these states were locked into a process of military competition with the West, and as the producers within these states remained wage labourers, the East European states could best be classified as bureaucratic state capitalist social formations.99 According to Cliff, beyond its specific effects in Russia, military competition between the East and West had created a global ‘permanent arms economy’100 which underpinned the post-war boom, and consequently gave reformism a new lease of life.101 Nevertheless, Cliff was insistent that a contradiction existed between workers’ self-activity at the point of production and the ideology of reformism:

Every struggle of the working class, however limited it may be, by increasing its self-confidence and education, undermines reformism. ‘In every strike one sees the hydra head of the Revolution’. The main task of real, consistent Socialists is to unite and generalise the lessons drawn from the day to day struggles. Thus can it fight reformism.102

Thus, as opposed to the SLL, Cliff’s model of socialist activity was founded upon a model of the spontaneous movement from below, while, as opposed to Solidarity, it recognised the limitations of the movement from below and the important role to be played by socialist activists in the growth of working class class consciousness.103

According to Alex Callinicos, Cliff’s theory of bureaucratic state capitalism afforded his Marxism a number of advantages over orthodox Trotskyism. First, in characterising the Soviet social formation’s capitalism through its military competition with the West, Cliff was able to lay the basis for a powerful theory of the post-war boom. Second, this model of post-war capitalism in turn suggested a modification of the classical Marxist theory of imperialism, which immunised his followers from the worst excesses of ‘Third Worldism’; the belief that that Western workers had somehow been bought off, and that central locus of the struggle against capitalism had shifted from the point of production to the national liberation movements in the South. Third, Cliff’s model of the post-war boom informed his analysis of the changing locus of Western reformism: parliamentary parties of the left were becoming increasingly irrelevant as the most visible improvements in workers’ standards of living were won not through the ballot box but through their self-activity at the point of production: ‘reformism from below’ was undercutting reformism from above.104 Indeed, this perspective allowed the International Socialism group to explain the apathy noted by Hall without dropping their revolutionary politics. While the arms economy had temporarily stabilised capitalism by underpinning the post-war boom, this boom was beset by contradictions, and therefore apathy would be challenged as these contradictions were played out. This standpoint laid the basis for IS’s long-term orientation towards the working class, without entailing that it share either the SLL’s or Solidarity’s simplistic models revolutionary politics.


When, in 1960, The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review merged to form New Left Review, Thompson envisaged that the new journal would act as a ‘point of juncture’ between various radical struggles, highlighting their ‘inter-connections’. It was thus aimed at facilitating the growth of a general socialist consciousness out of the multiplicity of anti-capitalist struggles.105 Unfortunately, as the political upturn associated with the birth of the New Left and CND subsided, this perspective was increasingly undermined. At this juncture it became essential that the New Left explain the objective barriers to socialist activism if they were to hope to regroup their forces and orientate towards the long-haul. Unfortunately, neither Thompson nor any of the other leading members of the New Left were able to offer an adequate explanation for their defeat.

In this context the New Left collapsed, and in 1962 a new editorial team transformed New Left Review from an activist magazine into an austere theoretical journal which aimed, in part, to make sense of the decline of the first New Left. Unfortunately, in distancing itself from the weaknesses of the first New Left, this second New Left around Perry Anderson came to embrace a more theoretically coherent version of Hall’s political pessimism.106 If it is not too far fetched to claim that the new New Left Review therefore continued the Universities and Left Review tradition, in 1964 John Saville and Ralph Miliband launched The Socialist Register with a view to rekindling something along the lines of The New Reasoner tradition.107 However, without a clear understanding of the failings of the first New Left, and without something like the New Left movement to nourish it, this journal too lost the activist focus that had so enriched The New Reasoner.

The British left had to wait until the period after 1968 when an upturn in political and industrial struggles created a space for a third New Left. Unfortunately, Thompson distanced himself from the radicalism of 1968,108 and it was left primarily to the International Socialism grouping to begin to realise the hopes of 1956: of building a socialist current independent of both Labourism and Stalinism.109 In 1970 Saville commented that a new socialist party was needed, and that International Socialism might possibly become such an organisation if it moved from being ‘a fairly open sect to something approaching a small party’.110 While International Socialism was able to make this move by explaining the apathy noted by Hall and going beyond both the SLL’s and Solidarity’s caricatures of revolutionary politics and The New Reasoner’s interpretation of socialist humanism,111 it is also true that it was indebted to the New Left for creating a political space within which an independent left could begin to gain a hearing.112


1: Thanks to Kristyn Gorton, Chris Harman, John Molyneux and Mark Thomas for comments on a draft of this essay. For anyone interested in reading more of the New Left’s original literature, complete collections of The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review can be found online at The Amiel and Melburn trust is to be congratulated for making the content of these magazines widely available.
2: The emergence of ‘New Lefts’ was an international phenomenon after 1956. Considerations of space mean that I can only deal with the British variant.
3: T Cliff & D Gluckstein, The Labour Party: A Marxist History (London, 1996), p257. This situation would only contradict the textbook parody of Marxism as a form of mechanical materialism. By contrast Engels pointed out that socialist class consciousness does not mechanically rise and fall with the ebb and flow of industrial militancy; the class struggle operates at a number of different levels—the theoretical, political and economic—and each of these levels retains a degree of autonomy from the others. F Engels, ‘Supplement to the Preface of 1870 for The Peasant War in Germany’ in K Marx & F Engels, Collected Works vol 23 (Moscow, 1988), p631.
4: It is a weakness of much of the academic literature on the New Left that this aspect of its politics is stressed almost to the exclusion of any other of its strands. See, for instance, L Chun, The British New Left (Edinburgh, 1993), p191; M Kenny, The First New Left (London, 1995), pp200-206; G Foote, The Labour Party’s Political Thought (London, 1997), p296. Interestingly, in their eagerness to portray the New Left as a way out of Marxism, all of these studies downplay Alasdair MacIntyre’s important contribution to the New Left debate on socialist humanism. In his most recent discussion of the subject, Foote has gone some way to remedy this gap in his earlier argument, but while he comments on MacIntyre’s early Marxism, he does so merely to dismiss it (G Foote, The Republican Transformation of Modern British Politics (London, 2006), p45).
5: P Anderson, Considerations on Western Marxism (London, 1976), p29.
6: D Hallas, The Comintern (London, 1985), p7.
7: L Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed (New York, 1972), p32.
8: M Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism (London, 1987), pp119; 122.
9: M Haynes, Nikolai Bukharin and the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (London, 1985), p110.
10: H Marcuse, Soviet Marxism (London, 1958), p124
11: As above, pp17; 128; N Harris, Beliefs in Society (London, 1968), p152.
12: Stalin quoted in N Harris, as above, p162.
13: J Stalin, Dialectical and Historical Materialism (1938) available at
14: P Blackledge, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History (Manchester, 2006), ch 2.
15: For my comments on this see P Blackledge, ‘What Was Done: Lenin Rediscovered’, in International Socialism 111 (Summer 2006).
16: N Harris, as above, p156; H Marcuse, as above, p121.
17: CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London, 1952). On the Comintern’s break with revolutionary politics see D Hallas, The Comintern, pp106; 126; 141.
18: Harry Pollitt quoted in J Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics (Oxford, 1987), p163.
19: J Gollan, Which Way for Socialists? (London, 1958).
20: A Callinicos, Trotskyism (Buckingham, 1990), pp23-29.
21: I Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith (London, 1974), pp37-8; I Birchall, Bailing out the System (London, 1986), p35.
22: D Hallas, ‘Building the Leadership’ International Socialism 1: 40, (October/November 1969).
23: E Hobsbawm, Interesting Times (London, 2002), p127.
24: J Saville, Memoirs from the Left (London, 2003), pp8-9; E Hobsbawm, Interesting Times, pp127-151.
25: T Cliff & D Gluckstein, as above, pp261-270. The quotation is taken from p268.
26: N Khrushchev, ‘The Secret Speech’ at
27: H Marcuse, Soviet Marxism, p140.
28: T Cliff, Russia: A Marxist Analysis (London, 1964), pp195-204.
29: A Callinicos, The Revenge of History (Cambridge, 1991), pp49-50.
30: G Eley, Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000 (Oxford, 2002), p334. On the workers’ councils see A Anderson, Hungary ’56 (London, 1964), pp66-72, B Lomax ‘The Workers Councils of Greater Budapest’ The Socialist Register 1976, and C L R James, ‘Letter 10th February 1957’ in A Grimshaw (ed), The C L R James Reader (Oxford, 1992), p265. The best first-hand account of the Hungarian Revolution remains Pete Fryer’s Hungarian Tragedy (London, 1997). For a more analytical discussion see C Harman, Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83 (London, 1988), pp119-186.
31: On Suez see J Newsinger, The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire (London, 2006), pp164-181
32: N Harris, et al, ‘Labour and the Bomb’ International Socialism 1: 10, (Autumn 1962), p24.
33: J Hinton, Protests and Visions (London, 1989), p155.
34: P Worsley, ‘Imperial Retreat’ in E P Thompson, (ed), Out of Apathy (London, 1960), p135.
35: Peter Sedgwick famously described the New Left as a ‘milieu’. P Sedgwick, ‘The Two New Lefts’ in D Widgery (ed), The Left in Britain: 1956-1968 (London, 1976), p143. This classic analysis of the New Left by one of its most prominent participants was originally published in International Socialism 1: 17, (Summer 1964).
36: I Birchall, Workers Against the Monolith, p84.
37: W Thompson, The Good Old Cause (London, 1992), p 100.
38: J Saville, ‘Edward Thompson, the Communist Party, and 1956’, The Socialist Register 1994 (London, 1994), p22.
39: The prominent part played in the formation of the New Left by members of the Communist Party Historians’ Group has been widely noted. For instance, see B Schwarz, ‘“The People” in History: The Communist Party Historians’ Group, 1946-1956’, in R Johnson et al (eds), Making Histories (Minneapolis, 1982), p84.
40: J Saville & E P Thompson, ‘Editorial’ The Reasoner 1, (July 1956), pp1-3.
41: E P Thompson, ‘Socialist Humanism’, The New Reasoner 1 (Summer 1957), pp105.
42: As above, p108.
43: As above, p113.
44: As above, pp132, 121.
45: As above, pp109.
46: ‘Between February 1956 and February 1958 membership slumped from 33,095 to 24,670’. I Birchall, ‘The Terminal Crisis of the British Communist Party’, International Socialism 2: 30, (Winter 1985), p75.
47: E P Thompson, ‘Through the Smoke of Budapest’, The Reasoner 3, (November 1956), reprinted in D Widgery (ed), The Left in Britain, pp72; 69.
48: L Chun, The British New Left, p34; M Kenny, The First New Left, p58. It is often thought that Taylor was the first to introduce the arguments of Marx’s 1844 manuscripts to an English speaking audience. This is a mistake. Alasdair MacIntyre referred to the German Edition National Ökonomie und Philosophie in his Marxism: An Interpretation (London, 1953), a text which formed the core of his Marxism and Christianity (London, 1968).
49: This point is spelt out by Chris Arthur in his The Dialectics of Labour (Oxford, 1986).
50: C Sparks, ‘Stuart Hall, Cultural Studies and Marxism’ in D Morley & K Chen (eds), Stuart Hall: Critical Dialogues in Cultural Studies (London, 1996), p78.
51: S Hall, ‘A Sense of Classlessness’, Universities and Left Review 5, (Autumn 1958).
52: R Samuel, ‘Class and Classlessness’, Universities and Left Review 6, (Spring 1959), p44.
53: E P Thompson ‘Commitment in Politics’, Universities and Left Review 6 (Spring 1959), p52; See also E P Thompson, ‘The Long Revolution’, New Left Review 1: 9, (1961), p33. For Hall’s response, see his ‘The Big Swipe’, Universities and Left Review 7, (Autumn 1959).
54: This section draws on my article ‘Reform, Revolution and the Question of Organisation in the First New Left’ Contemporary Politics vol 10, no 1 (March 2004).
55: E P Thompson, ‘The New Left’, The New Reasoner 9, pp15-7 (Summer 1959); ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals’, Universities and Left Review 1, p34 (Spring 1957).
56: W Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p102.
57: K Alexander, ‘Democratic Centralism’ The Reasoner 1, (July 1956), p9.
58: For the influence of this essay on Thompson, see his ‘Socialist Humanism’, p136.
59: I have discussed the New Left’s relationship to Daly’s candidature in ‘Reform, Revolution and the Question of Organisation in the First New Left’, pp26ff.
60: P Duff, Left, Left, Left (London, 1971), p128.
61: Both Labour and Communist parties initially opposed CND’s demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament. W Thompson, The Long Death of British Labourism (London, 1992), p116, and W Thompson, The Good Old Cause, p64.
62: E P Thompson, ‘Revolution’ in Thompson (ed), Out of Apathy, p302. Perry Anderson rightly pointed out that Thompson’s politics at this juncture, and thereafter, had much in common with the perspectives he learnt in the Communist Party. P Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism (London, 1980), pp145-146; 191.
63: E P Thompson, ‘At the Point of Decay’ in Thompson (ed), Out of Apathy, pp8-10.
64: R Hilton, ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals—Four’, Universities and Left Review 2 (Summer 1957), p20; M Jones, ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals—One’, Universities and Left Review 2 (Summer 1957), p16.
65: R Miliband, ‘The Sickness of Labourism’, New Left Review 1: 1 (1960), p8; M Newman, Ralph Miliband and the Politics of the New Left (London, 2002), p76.
66: R Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism (London, 1972), p346.
67: E P Thompson, ‘Revolution Again’ New Left Review 1: 6 (1960), p19.
68: As above, p29.
69: I have discussed the bizarrely utopian positive neutralist strategy in ‘Reform, Revolution and the Question of Organisation in the First New Left’, p29. See also P Sedgwick, ‘NATO, the Bomb and Socialism’, Universities and Left Review 7 (Autumn 1959).
70: R Samuel, ‘Born-Again Socialism’ in R Archer, et al (eds), Out of Apathy (London, 1989), p49.
71: J Hughes and K Alexander, A Socialist Wages Plan (London, 1958), p7.
72: In a debate first published in Socialist Review (the precursor of International Socialism) in 1959, Kidron argued that nowhere did Alexander and Hughes ‘so much as suggest that a future Labour government would be any different to its predecessors’ (M Kidron, ‘The Limits of Reform’ in The New Reasoner 10, (Autumn 1959), p81). More substantially, Kidron challenged the terms of Alexander and Hughes’ argument. He noted the close ties that existed between the British state and private industry, and insisted that, as capital would prevent the state from overturning the rule of the profit motive, these links negated the reformist perspective. He concluded that Alexander and Hughes’ perspective was utopian: they ‘attempt to substitute a concept—the state—disembowelled of any reality, abstracted from society, for a social force as the agent of reform’ (p86). Answering Alexander’s claim that Kidron believed that reforms were impossible under capitalism (J Hughes & K Alexander, ‘Reply to Critics’ in The New Reasoner 10 (Autumn 1959), p103), Kidron replied that as ‘reforms are palpably with us’ his aim was not to deny their reality, but rather to ask whether they were best won by revolutionary or reformist means (M Kidron, ‘A Note on the Limitations of Reforming ‘Realism’’ in J Higgins (ed), A Socialist Review (London, 1965), p106).
73: K Alexander, ‘Socialist Wages Plan’ in Higgins (ed), A Socialist Review, p91; J Hughes & K Alexander, ‘Kidron and the Limits of Revolution’ in Higgins (ed), as above, p103.
74: Thompson, ‘Revolution Again’, p19.
75: P Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism, p136.
76: P Anderson, ‘The Left in the Fifties’, New Left Review 1:29 (1965), p16.
77: J Rex, ‘The Labour Bureaucracy’, The New Reasoner 6, (Autumn 1958).
78: R Williams, Politics and Letters (London, 1979), p365.
79: R Bulkeley, et al, ‘Fighting Against the Bomb in the 1950s and 1960s’ International Socialism 2: 11 (Spring 1981), p9; J Hinton, Protests and Visions (London, 1989), p178.
80: R Fraser, 1968: A Student Generation in Revolt (London, 1988), p61. Dorothy Thompson, speaking at The British Marxist Historians and the New Social Movements conference at Edge Hill College in June 2002, recounted the story of the night that she, Edward Thompson, Robin Blackburn and Perry Anderson euphorically celebrated Wilson’s victory in the 1963 Labour Party leadership election.
81: P Anderson, ‘Critique of Wilsonism’ New Left Review 1: 27, 1964, p22.
82: D Thompson, ‘On the Trail of the New Left’, New Left Review 1:215 (1996), pp94-5.
83: J Callaghan, British Trotskyism (Oxford, 1984), p72. Names included Peter Fryer, Cliff Slaughter, Peter Worsley, Brian Pearce, Ken Coates, Peter Cadogan, Chris Pallis (aka Maurice Brinton), Bob Pennington, and Alasdair MacIntyre. Of particular importance was the building worker and ex-CP industrial organiser and executive member Brian Behan, who Alasdair MacIntyre later described as the ‘best man who was a revolutionary socialist in Britain in the last 25 years’.
84: L Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, p288.
85: D Hallas, ‘Building the Leadership’, p30.
86: P Fryer, Hungarian Tragedy, pp1-3.
87: A Callinicos, Trotskyism, pp23-38.
88: S Bornstein and A Richardson, War and the International (London, 1986), p231.
89: D Hallas, ‘Building the Leadership’, p31.
90: D Widgery, ‘The Double Exposure: Suez and Hungary’ in Widgery (ed), The Left in Britain, p63.
91: E P Thompson, ‘Socialist Humanism’, pp139.
92: M Brinton [C Pallis], ‘Revolutionary Organisation’ in M Brinton, For Workers’ Power (London, 2004), p46. This essay was first published in Solidarity 1, 6 (May 1961). For the politics of Socialisme ou Barbarie see C Castoriadis, Political and Social Writings I & II (Minneapolis, 1988).
93: D Hallas, ‘Building the Leadership’, p31.
94: A MacIntyre, [1958-1959] ‘Notes from the Moral Wilderness’ in K Knight (ed), The MacIntyre Reader (Cambridge, 1998), p39. This essay was originally published in two parts in New Reasoner 7 (Winter 1958-9) and New Reasoner 8 (Spring 1959). For more on MacIntyre’s early Marxism see my ‘Freedom, Desire and Revolution: Alasdair MacIntyre’s Early Marxist Ethics’, History of Political Thought vol XXVI, no 4 (2005).
95: E P Thompson, ‘Agency and Choice’ The New Reasoner 5 (Summer 1958), p93; A MacIntyre, ‘Marx’ in M Cranston (ed), Western Political Philosophers (London, 1964), p106.
96: A MacIntyre, ‘Freedom and Revolution’, Labour Review (February/ March 1960).
97: E P Thompson, ‘Revolution Again’, p22.
98: M Shaw, ‘The Making of a Party?’, The Socialist Register 1978, p104. Shaw’s essay was written as a critique of Ian Birchall’s ‘History of the International Socialists’ International Socialism 1:76 & 1:77, (March/April 1975). Birchall responded to Shaw’s criticisms in his ‘A Premature Burial: A Reply to Martin Shaw’, The Socialist Register 1979.
99: T Cliff, ‘The Nature of Stalinist Russia’ in T Cliff, Marxist Theory After Trotsky (London, 2003 [1948]). Cliff’s arguments built upon those of N Bukharin as presented in his Imperialism and World Economy (London, 2003). On the relationship between Bukharin’s and Cliff’s theories see P Binns, ‘Understanding the New Cold War’, International Socialism 2: 19 (Spring 1983), pp22-27.
100: T Cliff, ‘Perspectives for a Permanent War Economy’ in Cliff, Marxist Theory After Trotsky. This essay was originally published in Socialist Review (May 1957). See also M Kidron, ‘Reform or Revolution’ International Socialism 1:7, (Winter 1961); Western Capitalism Since the War (London, 1968); Capitalism and Theory (London, 1974). Cliff’s essay was but one published in Socialist Review in the 1950s developing this argument. See also the essays by Mike Kidron and Seymour Papert (latterly professor of artificial intelligence at MIT) collected in Higgins, (ed), A Socialist Review.
101: T Cliff, ‘Economic Roots of Reformism’ in Cliff, Marxist Theory After Trotsky. Originally published in Socialist Review (June 1957).
102: As above, p185.
103: See T Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg (London, 1959), and his ‘Trotsky on Substitution’, International Socialism 1: 2 (Autumn 1960). Both of these essays are reprinted in T Cliff, International Struggle and the Marxist Tradition (London, 2001).
104: A Callinicos, Trotskyism, pp79-85.
105: E P Thompson, ‘The Point of Production’, New Left Review 1:1, 1960, pp68-70.
106: P Blackledge, Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left (London, 2004), pp12-18.
107: E Meiksins Wood, ‘A Chronology of the New Left and Its Successors, Or: Who’s Old-Fashioned Now?’, The Socialist Register 1995.
108: E P Thompson, The Poverty of Theory (London, 1978), pp309ff. Tragically, MacIntyre had broken with revolutionary Marxism by this point and elaborated a similarly elitist critique of the movement that erupted in 1968: A MacIntyre, Marcuse (London, 1970), pp61; 89.
109: C Harman, 1968: The Fire Last Time (London, 1998), pp257-261.
110: J Saville, ‘Prospects for the Seventies’ The Socialist Register 1970, pp212.
111: For my thoughts on why neither Saville nor Miliband were able to make this shift see, on Miliband, P Blackledge, ‘On Moving On from “Moving On”: Miliband, Marxism and Politics’ in C Barrow, P Burnham & P Wetherly (eds), Reflections on Ralph Miliband’s Contribution to State Theory (London, 2007); and on Saville, P Blackledge, ‘A Life on the Left’ International Socialism 2:105, (Winter 2005).
112: See R Bulkeley et al ‘Fighting Against the Bomb in the 1950s and 1960s’, pp25-28.