New Left marches on albeit minus masters

November 3, 1995

Inglis decries the loss of writing that seems to come from the heart, that touches the soul of the people, that is informed by experience. He acknowledges that this was an almost wholly male tradition, though he does not acknowledge the romanticism in his own claim, and he cites as the exception to the general disappearance of vitality and political engagement, the work of Stuart Hall.

Inglis notes feminist scholarship, though his references are to key figures whose work emerged out of the same high moment of New Left debate, notably the work of Juliet Mitchell. The implication is that there are no new bright sparks to carry on this tradition and that indeed several upon whom this privilege might have been granted have failed to produce the goods, ie Terry Eagleton and Colin McCabe. The piece has the increasingly familiar tone of hopelessness and despair found in so many disenchanted socialist academics.

The fact is that as the world has changed, so also has the centre of gravity for writing and theory been dispersed. The tradition of which Inglis talks was an English tradition, and I personally welcome the eclipse of Englishness as having such a firm grasp on intellectual currents of the day.

If there is no longer a strong centre like that marked out by the New Left this does not mean failure, indeed it could be argued that the incredible internationalisation of debates on literature, culture and society is a sign of the great success of this tradition.

One has only got to look at the work of Paul Gilroy on the Black Atlantic to see how it is no longer tenable to think about Britain within the same framework as that assumed by Raymond Williams and Richard Hoggart. Inter-disciplinarity has also put creative writers at the forefront of theory and political debate, and increasingly they too are from "the margins".

Finally the work of feminist scholars here and abroad has resulted in an enormous expansion and proliferation of gendered thinking which, contrary to Inglis's claim, continues to connect theory with everyday life. The immensely important philosophical work of Judith Butler in the United States, written from within the point where queer theory intersects with feminism, provides us now with a feminist focus for moving beyond gender and in so doing finding ways of formulating new coalitional and alliance-based politics within a democratic socialist perspective.

There is always safety in being able, retrospectively, to recreate great traditions, even when at the time the cited work was being carried out on an ad hoc, unfunded, virtually experimental basis. If Fred Inglis cannot find a set of suitable heirs or heiresses to that tradition then this may be because the truly lasting strength of the cultural studies tradition is that it disavows such canons.

Angela McRobbie Reader in sociology, Loughborough University of Technology

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