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Socialist Humanism: Thompson, Saville and the New Reasoner

This article is over 15 years, 9 months old
In the first part of a new series Paul Blackledge looks at the birth of new socialist forces after the events of 1956
Issue 1994
Edward Thompson
Edward Thompson

In a recent article in the Guardian Martin Kettle wrote that “after 1956 socialism became more than ever just a matter of religious faith rather than reason”.

He claimed that Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech together with the Soviet invasion of Hungary marked the point at which left wingers should have broken with the myth of socialism.

This is, of course, nonsense. Kettle ignores just those forces that made 1956 so inspiring for socialists. It was not, in Kettle’s phrase, to Khrushchev’s “great moral bravery” that the left turned for inspiration in 1956.

Rather, the workers of Hungary showed that socialism from below was a real living alternative to the oppressive regimes of the East and West.

The British and French invasion of Egypt (with Israeli support) was evidence that it was not just the Soviet system that depended for its ultimate survival on military might.

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.

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, edited by the historians and Communist activists Edward Thompson and John Saville.

The Reasoner was published as a dissident magazine within the Communist Party, and then – retitled The New Reasoner – as an independent journal after its editors refused the party leadership’s demand to stop publishing.

The journal made its name as the foremost British voice of socialist humanism, seeking to rescue Karl Marx, and socialism, from the deadening grip of Stalinism.

Stalin had justified his rule by arguing that history was a mechanical process of economic progress, and that socialism was the liberation of the forces of production from the fetters of the profit system.

Thompson instead insisted on putting real human beings at the centre of both the historical process and the struggle for socialism.

In the first issue of The New Reasoner Thompson published a manifesto for this new position, “Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines”.

He argued that Stalinism was an ideology that represented the world-view of a “revolutionary elite which, within a particular historical context, degenerated into a bureaucracy”.

He claimed that the human revolt which underpinned the struggle for socialism had become a revolt against Stalinism, and that this revolt involved a “return to man”.

Thompson embraced humanism in an attempt to reposition “real men and women at the centre of socialist theory and aspiration”, without reneging on his commitment to socialism. He reaffirmed “the revolutionary perspectives of communism”.

Despite the honesty of Thompson’s break with Stalinism, unfortunate assumptions from his past in the Communist Party spilled over into, and weakened, his new political perspectives.

He accepted that a socialist, albeit imperfect, transformation of society had been brought to Eastern Europe by Russian tanks. Thompson’s humanism was open to the charge, made by Harry Hanson in The New Reasoner, that it was not quite so humane after all.

Thompson attempted to explain Stalinism as a consequence of the more mechanical aspects of Marxism “embodied” by the Bolsheviks “in the rigid forms of democratic centralism”.

This opened his ideas to the charge, made by Charles Taylor, that a humanist critique of Stalinism would cast a large shadow over Marxism too.

Criticisms such as these led many to conclude that socialist humanism marked a path away from Marxism.

However, it is more true to say that it marked a stepping stone towards either liberalism or a consistent Marxist rejection of “socialism from above”.

Alasdair MacIntyre took this second path in the late 1950s and early 1960s when he defended and deepened Thompson’s ideas.

Next week we shall see how MacIntyre took Thompson’s humanism to its socialist conclusion, and how he contributed to the freeing of both Marx and Lenin from the binds of Stalinism.

Paul Blackledge is the author of Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left


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