New Left marches on albeit minus masters

November 3, 1995

Fred Inglis (THES, October 20) claims that, despite individual accomplishments, the latter-day New Left nevertheless lacks the commanding intellectual and moral stature of Raymond Williams and Edward Thompson, their commitments tempered by the war.

Of course he is right about this but he fails to notice the achievement of the latter-day New Left in not only following the paths pioneered by Williams and Thompson but in raising new issues to do with today's world. Take, for example, the problem of Britain. The war boosted the British monarchy and union; it fell largely to the writers of the latter-day New Left to study the peculiarities of the United Kingdom state, seeing it as a problem and source of social grief. Fred Inglis issues his dismissive encomium without even mentioning such key texts as Tom Nairn's Break-Up of Britain (1983) and The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy (1987), Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities (1983), Perry Anderson's English Questions (1992), and Raphael Samuel's Theatres of Memory (1995). Anthony Barnett's recent Charter 88 pamphlet, The Defining Moment, explains why the nature of the UK state is at the heart of our current problems while Will Hutton has confirmed its contribution to economic failure.

Inglis rightly praises the cultural materialism pioneered by Williams or the new social history pioneered by Thompson and extended by some feminist historians of broadly new left affiliation. But he fails to notice that cultural materialism lives on not only in literary criticism but in Benedict Anderson's explication of the role of print capitalism in the constitution of national communities, or the explorations of the post-modern by Fredric Jameson or Terry Eagleton. Likewise Edward Thompson's work has not only been criticised and extended by feminists but also by a new school of students of Atlantic history. Generous to a fault in referring to my "magnificent history", Inglis fails to see that it is as much about Britain as South America or the Carribean.

In fact the United Kingdom is caught up in a post-cold war international conjuncture which we continue to try to explain as best we may - Anderson in Zones of Engagement or Mapping the West European Left or the authors I assembled in After the Fall.

If Fred Inglis will have a bit more patience we may even get round to publishing those masterpieces whose absence troubles him. But even if we do not, the work goes on and may develop a shared and cumulative weight even if the heroic age of the master-thinkers is drawing to a close.

Robin Blackburn New Left Review

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