Left perplexed by the times

February 21, 1997

What must be true for the left to be possible? None of the contributors to the four issues of Soundings that have so far been published asks this Kant-like, abstract question; but the reader - this reader, at any rate - cannot help hearing it in many of their reflections on Blair, globalisation, communitarianism, social justice and diverse other topics addressed in this substantial, well-written and welcome new journal. In many of the articles, including one by Stuart Hall, there seems to be a puzzlement, verging at times on panic, at the direction that modernisation has taken within Labour. A subtext running throughout Hall's article, though never explicitly addressed, is whether a recognisably left politics can be consistently sustained in present circumstances. That question suggests a deeper, still harder interrogation: what does being on the left mean, when socialism as a distinct economic system is redundant, when the cold war artefact of European social democracy is palpably in meltdown and the global mobility of capital and production have set new limits to the ability of sovereign states to control their domestic economies?

Many of the contributors are concerned to establish what a left politics is not, and cannot be, in such circumstances. In the first issue Beatrix Campbell delivers a memorable broadside against communitarianism. She links the anxiety about social breakdown which much communitarian theory articulates to the familial fundamentalism of right-wing libertarians such as Charles Murray. This may be a defensible view as far as it goes, but it suggests another question: why have the British political classes over the past 20 years, on both the left and right, been so keen on American nostrums? Are the resources of our own intellectual and political traditions, and those of other European countries, really as exhausted as is implied by this feeble reliance on questionable transatlantic infusions? What does the dominance of American discourse - as much in cultural theory and political philosophy as in quotidian politics - tell us about ourselves?

Some of the contributors are unconvinced that the left policies and institutions of an earlier generation are really beyond rehabilitation. They reject the thesis of globalisation - the claim that the scale and depth of interconnections between economic activity throughout the world are now such as to preclude many of the policies and methods of national economic management associated with the European left in the postwar period. This is a thesis I myself endorse; but Paul Hirst and Grahame Thompson argue resourcefully against it in issue four of Soundings, in a short article that should be required reading for anyone interested in what promises to be the central question in post-socialist political and theoretical debate. Yet its political subtext is backward looking. Like their indispensable book, Globalisation in Question (1996), Hirst and Thompson's Soundings article is animated by nostalgia for social democracy. It expresses the anachronistic hope that European institutions can succeed, where national governments have already failed, in putting some variant of social democratic government back on the road. This is a common delusion on the soft left, but it is odd to find it in the work of former Marxists.

The interest of Soundings is at once intrinsic and circumstantial. An illuminating analysis of Dennis Potter's The Singing Detective by David Bell, a sober dissection of the "new world order'' by Fred Halliday, these and similar articles on C. L. R. James, Mary Wollstonecraft, Raymond Williams and Tommy Cooper, an arresting review of Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's magnificent book Millennium, would be well worth reading in other historical circumstances. In our current historical context they are unmissable.

In Soundings we are witness to an attempt by political theorising to catch up with political practice. It cannot be said with any confidence that the contributors to Soundings have yet caught up with practice - still less that they have surpassed it. If they fail to articulate any compelling theoretical perspective, they reflect the most important political fact of the age - that political life is developing at a far faster rate than any variety of political thought. Soundings will continue to be worth reading - even as Labour in power confronts realities whose constant transformations will make any "left'' critique an exercise in unmeaning conservatism.

John Gray is professor of politics, University of Oxford.

Soundings: A Journal of Politics and Culture (three times a year)

Editor - Stuart Hall, Doreen Massey and Michael Rustin
ISBN - ISSN 0 85315 819 3
Publisher - Lawrence and Wishart
Price - £35.00 (indiv.) £70.00 (inst.)
Pages - -

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