Faith, flag and the 'first' New Left: E. P. Thompson and the politics of 'one nation'.

Author:Kenny, Michael

The New Left has made a rather unexpected comeback in current political discourse, catching the interest of figures associated with Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour Party, notably the Chair of its Policy Review, Jon Cruddas, and his collaborator Jonathan Rutherford (1). For those involved in the New Left, especially its early phase when it was a movement of people as well as ideas, this sudden renewal of interest is probably a surprise (for accounts of the early years of the New Left see Linn, 1993; Kenny, 1995). For while the New Left was for forty years one of the major intellectual engines on the British left, since the 1990s it has all but disappeared from view, retreating behind the walls of its one surviving institution, the heavyweight journal New Left Review (NLR).

The main motivation for today's interest is a search for intellectual roots on behalf of today's communitarian and patriotic proponents of 'One Nation Labour'. Cruddas has expressed his own solidarity with the ideas of the New Left 'mark 1', notably its attempt to recuperate English cultural traditions, and his alienation from the New Left 'mark 2', when, under the influence of Perry Anderson, the emphasis turned to the wholesale importation of continental Marxist theory into the supposedly conservative cultural backwaters of Britain.

One important question posed by this renewal of interest is whether such a 'Cain and Abel' picture of the New Left represents an accurate representation of what some see as a more singular and evolving current than the language of 'first' and 'second' New Lefts suggests (Davis, 2006). Another related question--which is the main issue I want to explore in this essay--is what the attempt to reclaim English traditions, which formed one of the key impulses within the early New Left, offers to those interested in fleshing out further the intellectual dimensions of a 'One Nation' approach. In order to do so, I consider the thinking of one of the iconic figures within the early New Left, whose work appears to fit best with the 'New Left mark 1' model--that of the historian, activist and intellectual Edward Thompson. I conclude that his work does indeed supply a valuable and stimulating guide for today's progressive patriots, and explore the challenging insights he provided into the political character of progressive patriotism.

The 'first' New Left

The first phase of the New Left movement was home to a variety of contending impulses and ideas, some of which were decidedly wary of the radical patriotism advocated by figures associated with The New Reasoner (NR) journal in which Thompson was prominently involved after 1958 (Kenny, 1995). Literary critic and cultural theorist Raymond Williams, whose major work, Culture and Society, published in 1958, also fits with the radical-patriotic template, subsequently renounced this kind of approach and moved towards a more Marxist-inflected mode of critical thinking. And Stuart Hall, another major figure from the early New Left, became a consistent critic of the imperial mindset and ethno-cultural residues that infused English national identity, and has remained sceptical about the prospects of reclaiming the national past for progressive ends (Hall, 2012).

The leading figure within this current whose work does appear most congruent with the image of the first New Left projected by Cruddas is the historian and activist Edward Thompson. His major intellectual dispute during the 1960s with the young intellectual and critic Perry Anderson, and his talented collaborator Tom Nairn, provides important evidence for the contention that a fundamental schism over the values of patriotism and the nation were indeed central to the different phases and factions of the New Left.

Below, I revisit the main issues at stake in that dispute. In particular, I explore the terms of Thompson's rejoinder to the cosmopolitan Marxism proposed by Anderson and Nairn, and point to his emphasis on the left's need to embrace lived experience and the democratic capacities of ordinary people. I also consider those facets of Thompson's position which offer an interesting supplement to current forms of progressive patriotism. In particular I examine his highly political account of the nature of the struggle over the national past, which is in important respects quite different to the call of figures like Paul Kingsnorth (1999) for the re-discovery of an authentic and endangered English past. For Thompson, the national story needed to be re-fashioned as much as re-located.

The Thompson-Anderson dispute recalled

The major intellectual and political dispute that erupted between Thompson and Anderson was one of a number of prominent theoretical disagreements in which New Left thinkers were embroiled during the 1960s and 1970s. Yet this particular argument stood out both for the quality and clarity of the contributions it elicited on both sides, which gave expression to deeply embedded tendencies within intellectual life in general and socialist thinking in particular.

At one level, this was a disagreement about the nature of the New Left itself, and its most precious asset and visible presence--NLR. Thompson had been one of the two editors of the NR, which had provided a major gathering point for former Communists who had left the party in disgust after the Soviet invasion of 1956, as well as for Labour sympathisers in search of new ideas and inspiration. After months of often difficult negotiations, NR merged with a very different publication--the more metropolitan and theoretically orientated Universities and Left Review (ULR)--and NLR first appeared in 1960.

Although he was the obvious candidate for the position, Thompson opted not to become its inaugural editor. Instead, this role went to the talented (though inexperienced) Stuart Hall, then a doctoral student at Oxford University who had been integral to the work of the ULR. Thompson identified closely with the political mission of the new journal, which set out with considerable ambition to bridge the chasms that tended to bedevil socialist politics--between theory and practice, culture and politics, and parliamentary party and broader movement. And, though he was disappointed with what he deemed to be the lightweight content of some of its early issues, Thompson had committed a good deal to the New Left, and was convinced that it had a future as a political, not just intellectual venture.

But the new journal was plagued by the perennial nightmare of left periodicals lacking wealthy benefactors--the lack of a stable financial base. Anderson emerged as the journal's potential saviour, a role that his own wealthy background enabled him to play. What began as a delicate negotiation between him and the NLR Board ended in acrimony, with Thompson feeling that a coup of sorts had taken place, and most others seeing Anderson as the only choice available if the...

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