England: Socialism And Apathy

England: Socialism And Apathy

The British Labor movement has always been favored, or goaded, by a left wing which felt that Labor lacked full socialist consciousness; in the last decade or two this left wing found popular expression through the oratory of Nye Bevan and the agitation of the weekly Tribune. Even those who might sympathize with the general outlook of this left wing had to admit, however, that it was often characterized by an impoverishment of thought cloaked as an intransigence of belief. It reminded one but too often of Carlyle’s remark about the Benthamite Party being “so far in the rear of others as to fancy itself the van.” Recently, by contrast, there has arisen a new left wing—it calls itself the New Left —which is more thoughtful and alert.

The New Left stems from two main sources: first a group of young students and teachers who several years ago began publishing Universities and Left Review (ULR) and second, a group of intellectuals who broke from the British Communist Party after the Hungarian revolution to begin publishing The New Reasoner. Some months ago the two journals were merged, to form New Left Review.

Of the two component tendencies, by far the least valuable was the second one. Though morally in revulsion from Stalinism and breaking significantly from crucial Leninist dogma, the editors of The New Reasoner seemed still caught in a web of old half-emotional half-ideological attachments; their straining toward a redefinition of socialist politics seemed inhibited by residual piety with respect to the form, though not always the content, of their earlier beliefs. As one watched them expressing sympathy for the east European “revisionists” while anxiously searching for evidence of “progressivism” in the Communist world, one felt that they had not yet made the decisive step of questioning some of the basic assumptions of their earlier politics.

Whatever is most vital in the New Left came from the young intellectuals editing ULR. In its few years this magazine brought a remarkable freshness and animation to the socialist criticism of English Welfare State society. The ULR people had no tradition of system-building or habits of sectarian polemics to shake off: they were not weary from old battles lost; they spoke in revolt against the status quo, but in their speech one felt the force of personal experience, the force of young people who had known intimately both the benefits and the stultifying effects of the Welfare State. Their most notable contribution was a kind of impressionistic sociology. When one read the early issues of ULR it was really possible to gain some awareness of the quality of contemporary English life: the way young people feel about work and leisure, the problems of workers uprooted from traditional neighborhoods, the growth of a new “American-style” mass culture, etc., etc. They made useful and interesting suggestions both on the problem of c...