Over the past few weeks (Socialist Humanism and Of Marx and morality), I have argued that the socialist humanism of the British new left in the 1950s acted as a kind of fork in the road—some took the road towards liberalism, while others deepened the break with Stalinism into a re-engagement with revolutionary Marxism.
For Edward Thompson, socialist humanism was itself the end of the road begun with the humanist critique of Stalinism. He neither broke with socialism nor embraced revolutionary politics.
While this was in many ways an admirable position, the malign consequences of the elements of his old Stalinist politics that spilled over into his new perspectives eventually proved debilitating for the new left.
One aspect of this can be seen in the new left’s criticism of Lenin. In The Reasoner journal, Ken Alexander claimed that Leninist revolutionary parties were outdated. Socialist transitions in Eastern Europe, he argued, had proved that revolutions were unnecessary in the modern world.
Alexander set the tone of the new left’s rejection of Lenin, including that of Thompson, on the Stalinist assumption that the Eastern European states were “socialist”.
The short term political consequence of the new left’s anti-Leninism was a general disavowal of the project of building a socialist organisation independent of the Labour or Communist parties.
Thompson famously wrote, “The [Labour and trade union] bureaucracy will hold the machine, but the new left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation.”
However, practical politics is never kind to such abstract propositions, and the new left was quickly forced to make a choice for or against the Labour Party.
While many supported Lawrence Daly’s successful independent socialist campaign in West Fife, this was seen as a local aberration with few wider lessons.
At a national level, the new left was drawn into campaigning for Labour against the Tories as the 1959 election approached. At one level there was very little else a small group of socialists could have hoped to achieve at this juncture.
Nevertheless, the rejection of revolutionary politics within new left circles helped foster the belief that socialism could be achieved through parliament, if the Labour Party could be won over to socialism.
After defeat at the polls, most of the new left threw themselves into activity within the Labour Party. Initially, this strategy seemed to pay off as the left won conference decisions in 1960 on unilateral nuclear disarmament and to keep Clause IV of the party’s constitution.
However, a year later the Labour Party machine had its revenge, and the new left stumbled out of the 1961 conference defeated and demoralised.
Years later Raymond Williams commented, “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.”
Indeed, it was on the back of the defeat of the left at that year’s conference that the new left fragmented and collapsed.
Within a year, it no longer existed as a movement, and its house journal, the New Left Review, had been transformed from a magazine that aimed to unite a movement into an austere journal of high theory.
Commenting on this development some two decades later, Ralph Miliband wrote, “The New Reasoner ‘rebellion’ should have been followed by a sustained and systematic attempt to regroup whoever was willing into a socialist association, league or party, of which the journal might have been the voice. But this is no more than hindsight, and there was then no steam behind any such idea.”
But why build a new socialist party if the reformist road to socialism was a possibility?
There were already two reformist parties in Britain in the 1950s, Labour and Communist, with no room for a third.
For socialist humanism to underpin the project of building a new socialist party, it needed to break with the left reformism it inherited from the Communist Party. But this implied a deeper critique of Stalinism than most of its leading members were prepared to countenance.
Last week I argued that Alasdair MacIntyre made a fundamental contribution to such a deepened version of socialist humanism, and while his voice remained isolated within the new left, it is one that repays rereading today.
Paul Blackledge’s latest book, Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History will be published by Manchester University Press next month