New Left Review at Fifty

New Left Review at Fifty

Jeffrey Williams: New Left Review at Fifty

According to the New Left Review, neoliberalism has won and the Left has lost.

The Jan/Feb 2010 issue (no. 61) of the British-based magazine reflects on its history, from its founding in 1960 to its reconstitution ten years ago to its position now. It includes an essay by Stuart Hall, a legendary figure in cultural studies, on the political situation when it was founded (he was its first editor), and a statement by the new editor, Susan Watkins, assessing the current situation of the Left. Her assessment is bleak: ?Meeting no opposition, the neo-liberal programme has actually advanced through the [financial] crisis.?

With an impressive command of political economy around the globe, Watkins identifies three striking features of neoliberalism: its ?American-ness,? despite the decline of the United States?s relative economic share; its lack of rivals; and its widespread success. Of its lack of opposition, she remarks that ?the Kremlin?s economic policy run by Friedmanites; the General Secretary of the CCP lauding the stock market,? and the like would have seemed like science fiction fifty years ago. But ?the genius of neo-liberalism has lain in the destruction and expropriation of existing structures and goods,? such as public utilities, unions, and most capital controls.

Watkins observes that the early editors of NLR ?came of age in a still strongly delineated national culture and public sphere,? whereas ?today?s young writers have grown up within far more depoliticized cultural and intellectual environments, structured by the market and mediated, for better or worse, by electronic forms of sociability.? The problem for the journal, as well as the Left at large, is what to do ?in the absence of a political movement??

Watkins? editorial echoes Perry Anderson?s in the 2000 issue, which marked the ?renewal? of the journal (it inaugurated a new series, beginning at number 1). Anderson, the leading Marxist historian of his generation, has a long affiliation with NLR, as a long-time editor and also as part owner, and in the 2000 issue he delivered this stark judgment: ?The only starting-point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat.? That is because, ?For the first time since the Reformation there are no longer any significant oppositions?that is, systematic rival outlooks?within the thought-world of the West,? particularly after the fall of communism. (In no. 61, Anderson makes the interesting observation about China that, ?Viewed in one light, communism has not just survived, but become the success story of the age.?) In the face of defeat, Anderson recommends that the Left become ?uncompromising,? ?refusing any accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power.?

Hall?s essay fills in the early history that Watkins? alludes to: he recounts how the New Left was formed not by the sixties but by the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, which disabused the Left of the virtues of the Soviet Union, and the Suez crisis, which brought home the imperialism of liberal European democracies. Hall also recounts how the New Left differed from the Old in holding that ?the cultural dimension seemed to us not a secondary, but a constitutive dimension of society.? One interesting strategy he recalls is NLR?s sponsoring numerous clubs across Britain to win the ?socialist propaganda of ideas.? I?m not sure how one might do that now, but it suggests one practical avenue?and we surely need to get across the idea that capitalism has grossly inequitable if not sometimes inhuman consequences.

New Left Review started a few years later than Dissent, but it shares the turn away from Soviet communism of the 1950s. NLR, however, retained a fealty to a Marxist tradition more so than Dissent?which might relate to its British situation, where socialism was absorbed into the Labour Party rather than so thoroughly stigmatized. Though Irving Howe remained a socialist, Dissent has tended toward the liberal side of the Left. New Left Review shares with Dissent a charge to report on international politics, although NLR has tended more toward cultural and theoretical debates, recovering a Left intellectual tradition, particularly through the 1960s and 70s, and reporting on structuralism, postmodernism, postcolonialism, and so on from the 1970s through the 90s. Lastly, NLR and Dissent have tended to represent the generation formed in the 1950s and 60s. Both have recently brought into their pages and onto their mastheads some new recruits from subsequent generations. For them to stay vital, they both need to find a way to provide a forum for the generation to come rather than the generation past.