Life and Times of the First New Left

StuarthallStuart Hall in The New Left Review:

The ‘first’ New Left was born in 1956, a conjuncture—not just a year—bounded on one side by the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks and on the other by the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal zone. [1] These two events, whose dramatic impact was heightened by the fact that they occurred within days of each other, unmasked the underlying violence and aggression latent in the two systems that dominated political life at the time—Western imperialism and Stalinism—and sent a shock wave through the political world. In a deeper sense, they defined for people of my generation the boundaries and limits of the tolerable in politics. Socialists after ‘Hungary’, it seemed to us, must carry in their hearts the sense of tragedy which the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism represented for the left in the twentieth century. ‘Hungary’ brought to an end a certain kind of socialist innocence. On the other hand, ‘Suez’ underlined the enormity of the error in believing that lowering the Union Jack in a few ex-colonies necessarily signalled the ‘end of imperialism’, or that the real gains of the welfare state and the widening of material affluence meant the end of inequality and exploitation. ‘Hungary’ and ‘Suez’ were thus liminal, boundary-marking experiences. They symbolized the break-up of the political Ice Age.

The New Left came into existence in the aftermath of these two events. It attempted to define a third political space somewhere between these two metaphors. Its rise signified for people on the left in my generation the end of the imposed silences and political impasses of the Cold War, and the possibility of a breakthrough into a new socialist project. It may be useful to begin with genealogy. The term ‘New Left’ is commonly associated with ‘1968’, but to the ‘1956’ New Left generation, ‘1968’ was already a second, even perhaps a third, mutation. We had borrowed the phrase in the 1950s from the movement known as the nouvelle gauche, an independent tendency in French politics associated with the weekly newspaper France Observateur and its editor, Claude Bourdet. A leading figure in the French Resistance, Bourdet personified the attempt, after the war, to open a ‘third way’ in European politics, independent of the two dominant left positions of Stalinism and social democracy, beyond the military power blocs of NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and opposed to both the American and the Soviet presences in Europe.

This ‘third position’ paralleled the political aspirations of many of the people who came together to form the early British New Left. Some of us had met Bourdet in Paris, at a conference called to consider setting up an International Socialist Society, across the divisions of Western and Eastern Europe. The main protagonist of the idea in Britain was G. D. H. Cole, an austere and courageous veteran of the independent left, who was at that time still teaching politics at Oxford. Although he was a distinguished historian of European socialism and a student of Marxism, Cole’s socialism was rooted in the cooperative and ‘workers’ control’ traditions of Guild Socialism. His critique of bureaucratic ‘Morrisonian’-style nationalization was enormously influential in shaping the attitude of many socialists of my generation towards statist forms of socialism.