Body of radical cultural and political theories of the 1960s and 1970s.
Convergence theory promoted oligarchy, orthodoxy, and the wilting of democracy in both Eastern and Western Europe. New participatory and decentralized forms of political and social organization would be an antidote to this, feminism and industrial democracy were key elements.
Rodney Barker, Political Ideas in Modern Britain (London, 1978)
The origins of the New Left have been traced to several factors. Prominently, the confused response of the Communist Party of the USA and the Communist Party of Great Britain to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 led some Marxist intellectuals to develop a more democratic approach to politics, opposed to what they saw as the centralised and authoritarian politics of the pre-war leftist parties. Those Communists who became disillusioned with the Communist Parties due to their authoritarian character eventually formed the “new left”, first among dissenting Communist Party intellectuals and campus groups in the United Kingdom, and later alongside campus radicalism in the United States and in the Western Bloc. The term “nouvelle gauche” was already current in France in the 1950s, associated with France Observateur, and its editor Claude Bourdet, who attempted to form a third position, between the dominant Stalinist and social democratic tendencies of the left, and the two Cold War blocs. It was from this French “new left” that the “First New Left” of Britain borrowed the term.
The German-Jewish critical theorist Herbert Marcuse is referred to as the “Father of the New Left”. He rejected the theory of class struggle and the Marxist concern with labor. According to Leszek Kołakowski, Marcuse argued that since “all questions of material existence have been solved, moral commands and prohibitions are no longer relevant”. He regarded the realization of man’s erotic nature, or Eros, as the true liberation of humanity, which inspired the utopias of Jerry Rubin and others. However, Marcuse also believed the concept of Logos, which involves one’s reason, would absorb Eros over time as well. Another prominent New Left thinker, Ernst Bloch, believed that socialism would prove the means for all human beings to become immortal and eventually create God.
The writings of sociologist C. Wright Mills, who popularized the term New Left in a 1960 open letter, would also give great inspiration to the movement. Mills’ biographer, Daniel Geary, writes that his writings had a “particularly significant impact on New Left social movements of the 1960s.”
The New Left in Latin America can be loosely defined as the collection of political parties, radical grassroots social movements (such as indigenous movements, student movements, mobilizations of landless rural workers, afro-descendent organizations and feminist movements), guerilla organizations (such as the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions) and other organizations (such as trade unions, campesino leagues and human rights organizations) that comprised the left between 1959 (with the beginning of the Cuban Revolution) and 1990 (with the fall of the Berlin Wall).
Influential Latin American thinkers such as Francisco de Oliveira argued that the United States used Latin American countries as “peripheral economies” at the expense of Latin American society and economic development, which many saw as an extension of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism. This shift in thinking led to a surge of dialogue related to how Latin America could assert its social and economic independence from the United States. Many scholars[who?] argued that a shift to socialism could help liberate Latin America from this conflict.
The New Left emerged in Latin America, a group which sought to go beyond existing Marxist–Leninist efforts at achieving economic equality and democracy to include social reform and address issues unique to Latin America such as racial and ethnic equality, indigenous rights, the rights of the environment, demands for radical democracy, international solidarity, anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism and other aims.
As a result of Nikita Khrushchev’s Secret Speech denouncing Joseph Stalin many abandoned the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and began to rethink its orthodox Marxism. Some joined various Trotskyist groupings or the Labour Party.
The Marxist historians E. P. Thompson and John Saville of the Communist Party Historians Group published a dissenting journal within the CPGB called Reasoner. Refusing to discontinue the publication at the behest of the CPGB, the two were suspended from party membership and relaunched the journal as The New Reasoner in the summer of 1957.
Thompson was especially important in bringing the concept of a “New Left” to the United Kingdom in the summer of 1959 with a New Reasoner lead essay, in which he described
“…[A] generation which never looked upon the Soviet Union as a weak but heroic Workers’ State; but rather as the nation of the Great Purges and Stalingrad, of Stalin’s Byzantine Birthday and of Khrushchev’s Secret Speech; as the vast military and industrial power which repressed the Hungarian rising and threw the first sputniks into space. …
“A generation nourished on 1984 and Animal Farm, which enters politics at the extreme point of disillusion where the middle-aged begin to get out. The young people … are enthusiastic enough. But their enthusiasm is not for the Party, or the Movement, or the established Political Leaders. They do not mean to give their enthusiasm cheaply away to any routine machine. They expect the politicians to do their best to trick or betray them. … They prefer the amateur organisation and amateurish platforms of the Nuclear Disarmament Campaign to the method and manner of the left wing professional. … They judge with the critical eyes of the first generation of the Nuclear Age.”
Later that year, Saville published a piece in the same journal which identified the emergence of the British New Left as a response to the increasing political irrelevance of socialists inside and outside the Labour Party during the 1950s, which he saw as being the result of a failure by the established left to come to grips with the political changes that had come to pass internationally after World War II and with the post–World War II economic expansion and the socio-economic legacy of the Attlee ministry:
“The most important single reason for the miserable performance of the Left in this past decade is the simple fact of its intellectual collapse in the face of full employment and the welfare state at home, and of a new world situation abroad. The Left in domestic matters has produced nothing of substance to offset the most important book of the decade – Crosland’s “The Future of Socialism ” – a brilliant restatement of Fabian ideas in contemporary terms. We have made no sustained critique of the economics of capitalism in the 1950s, and our vision of a socialist society has changed hardly at all since the days of Keir Hardie. Certainly a minority has begun to recognise our deficiencies in the most recent years, and there is no doubt that the seeds which have already been sown will bring an increasing harvest as we move along the sixties. But we still have a long way to go, and there are far too many timeless militants for whom the mixture is the same as before.”
In 1960, The New Reasoner merged with the Universities and Left Review to form the New Left Review. These journals attempted to synthesise a theoretical position of a Marxist revisionism, humanist, socialist Marxism, departing from orthodox Marxist theory. This publishing effort made the ideas of culturally oriented theorists available to an undergraduate reading audience.
In this early period, many on the New Left were involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), formed in 1957. According to Robin Blackburn, “The decline of CND by late 1961, however, deprived the New Left of much of its momentum as a movement, and uncertainties and divisions within the Board of the journal led to the transfer of the Review to a younger and less experienced group in 1962.”
Under the long-standing editorial leadership of Perry Anderson, the New Left Review popularised the Frankfurt School, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and other forms of Marxism. Other periodicals like Socialist Register, started in 1964, and Radical Philosophy, started in 1972, have also been associated with the New Left, and published a range of important writings in this field.
As the campus orientation of the American New Left became clear in the mid to late 1960s, the student sections of the British New Left began taking action. The London School of Economics became a key site of British student militancy. The influence of protests against the Vietnam War and of the May 1968 events in France were also felt strongly throughout the British New Left. Some within the British New Left joined the International Socialists, which later became Socialist Workers Party while others became involved with groups such as the International Marxist Group. The politics of the British New Left can be contrasted with Solidarity, which continued to focus primarily on industrial issues.
Another significant figure in the British New Left was Stuart Hall, a black cultural theorist in Britain. He was the founding editor of the New Left Review in 1960.
The New Left Review, in an obituary following Hall’s death in February 2014, wrote “His exemplary investigations came close to inventing a new field of study, ‘cultural studies’; in his vision, the new discipline was profoundly political in inspiration and radically interdisciplinary in character.”
Numerous Black British scholars attributed their interest in cultural studies to Hall, including Paul Gilroy, Angela McRobbie, Isaac Julien, and John Akomfrah. In the words of Indian literary theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Academics worldwide could not think ‘Black Britain’ before Stuart Hall. And in Britain the impact of Cultural Studies went beyond the confines of the academy.”
Among Hall’s New Left works were the May Day Manifesto, which reflected a “growing disillusionment on the left with what the authors argued to be the surrendering of socialist principles by the Labour Party” and Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order, which contemporary book reviewer John Horton described as “nothing less than an analysis of how the British state is managing the current ‘crisis of hegemony'”
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