This article discusses the political current which first defined itself as the New Left, and which emerged in Britain from the co-incident crises of the invasions (by Britain, France and Israel) of Suez, and by the Soviet Union of Hungary in 1956. This formation is sometimes referred to as the 'first New Left', since New Left Review, after 1962 when Perry Anderson succeeded Stuart Hall as its editor, developed a somewhat different intellectual and political project from that of the earlier journal and its New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review precursors (1).
Reflections on the recent past
This article focuses on the May Day Manifesto, which was published in May 1967, and in an expanded version as a Penguin Special in 1968 (2). It was first edited by Stuart Hall, Edward Thompson and Raymond Williams, each founding figures of the 'first New Left' of the mid-1950s. Various (then) younger people, such as Terry Eagleton and myself, contributed, in particular to the activities after the two launches, including the founding of May Day Manifesto groups in various towns, which followed, though on a smaller scale, the example of the New Left Clubs of the years prior to 1962. The Manifesto arose in part from a desire to maintain the active political engagements which had characterised the early New Left, and which its authors felt had diminished through the change in the orientation of New Left Review. The latter now adopted a more global perspective on prospects and strategies for the left, and was less concerned with local political involvements. But the Manifesto also arose from strong feelings of disappointment and disillusionment at what was happening to the Labour Government elected under Harold Wilson's leadership, in an atmosphere of promise, in 1964. The Manifesto was in part a critique of what it saw as the ongoing collapse of that government in the face of the pressures on it from international markets, from corporate capitalism, and from the continuing Cold War consensus.
Its main interest, looking at it now, lies in its argument that a holistic analysis of the then state of capitalism was necessary, and that without a grasp of the nature of the whole system and its interconnections, specific policies and reforms would fail. Indeed, it was held in 1967 that they were already failing. The 1964 Labour Government was already retreating from its own programme (for example for a National Plan) in the face of economic difficulties which culminated in the enforced sterling devaluation of November 1967.
Some of the themes of the Manifesto of 1967-68 remain current today. Its arguments citing the work of Peter Townsend on the persistence of poverty and inequality now have a renewed relevance. The critique of the excessive weight of the financial sector in the economy, and the weakness of British manufacturing--reflected in that pre-North Sea Oil era in chronic balance of payments problems--remain constants between these two periods. This argument was taken up most vigorously and effectively by Will Hutton (1995) in the intervening years, although the economic problems and imbalances have since become worse. Neo-imperialism also remains an issue throughout this entire epoch, with recurrent military interventions from the Falklands to the Iraq wars, Afghanistan, and Libya. The Manifesto writers were concerned with a growing divergence between single-issue, 'post-class' social movement campaigns, and a more traditional, Labourist 'working class' politics, and one of their main hopes was to see a reconnection of these 'new' and 'old' kinds of political movement. Its interest was in attempting to develop a unifying political narrative which took account of social and political diversification, while still remaining essentially socialist in its framing of the issues. One could say that its project was to show that new and old forms of oppression still had capitalism as their primary cause, while seeking to understand this as an evolving system, as a 'new capitalism'. The Manifesto's insistence on the necessity for a socialist frame of reference is a reminder of how the terms of debate have changed since 1967, and especially since the rise of New Labour in the 1990s.
In fact these different kinds of politics did soon become reconnected in reality after 1968 and through the 1970s, but in much more turbulent ways than the May Day Manifesto authors had...