Whither the likely lads?

October 20, 1995

Whatever happened to the heirs of the New Left, asks Fred Inglis

In the early 1960s there was a remarkable flowering of intellectual life in Britain with the bursting into colour of the New Left. Raymond Williams, Richard Hoggart, E. P. Thompson, John Berger, John Rex, Richard Wollheim, John Saville, A. H. Halsey, Eric Hobsbawm, Stuart Hall: it is an awesome line-up. But where are the successors of these pioneers, the academics who, as undergraduates imbibed the manners and methods of dissent from these patriarchs? How fares this still far-from completed dynasty?

Several of the New Left's most handsome blooms have been prematurely cut off - when much was still looked for from their writing. Raymond Williams died in 1988 at the age of only 66, Edward Thompson in 1993 at 69, and others of the first heroes are not in good health. Richard Hoggart turns out to be immortal, still in strong voice, as The Way We Live is sure to show us in a couple of months.

A contributor to The Cambridge Review once alluded to them as "lapsed Stalinists" who were to be found in "the extra-mural boards, the community centres, and certain northern universities". There is, of course, a manifest oddity in all this since each of the fearsome ancestors (with the conspicuous exceptions of Hoggart, Halsey and Wollheim) professed a kind of Marxism, and however much it remains palpably true that Marxism was right about the moral horribleness of capitalism, its own political programme proved morally horrible on a much larger scale, and its theoretic and policy recommendations turned out to be wrong and ridiculous.

The Marxism of the New Left, however, repudiated Stalin and Stalinism, as well as Harolds Macmillan and Wilson. More to the point of their academic methodism, they each in their different subjects history, literature, sociology, aesthetics, education, film denied the polite division between culture and politics, and insisted not only on the vivid connection between academic inquiry and everyday life, but on the life of the mind as drawing its strength from an active allegiance to values. In their case these turned out to be the decidedly unacademic values of equality, solidarity, co-operativeness and a determination to claim the power knowledge confers, on behalf of a vast class which the academy had done its best to keep in ignorance.

So they rewrote their subjects and their curricula to extend recognition to whole areas of social experience hitherto denied it, and in order to insist on the presence of politics which is to say, the hard facts of power, wealth and privilege in such unpolitical forms of life as the selection of novels studied at university; the way popular songs are sung in working men's clubs; the delusive dreams of wealth cherished by desperately poor African peoples; the poaching habits of 18th-century farm-workers; the numbers of boys and girls who passed the 11-plus.

It is a relief to remember that these studies, written with the distinctive style and signature of Williams, Hoggart and company, spoke so directly to the best of the next generation of an academic intelligentsia hungry for ideas to live for and principles to live by. If Hoggart's stoical good sense and hard stamina have lasted best, it was Raymond Williams who most commanded personal allegiance and emulation. It was Williams also whose key concepts informed the theory-building of his so thorough-goingly theoretic disciples.

"The long revolution", "structure of feeling", the play of "dominant, residual and emergent" values in ordinary life, Williams' unfailing trust in those ordinary lives as our best "resources of hope": these are the capacious and flexible concepts with which Williams taught his people to interpret the world and to change it. It is hard to feel that those same people, heirs of the New Left, have come up to scratch. No doubt there is something in my saying so of chimes at midnight. Sanctimonious middle-age is much given to ringing in the end of civilisation as we know it, and to much pious mourning of the death of heroes.

Marxist Terry Eagleton, Warton professor of English at Oxford, and a student, friend and fellow socialist of Williams's, certainly has his heroic touches. "Saint Terence", as Jonathan Bate called him, has displayed protean powers of self-conception, dissolving out of Slant Catholicism into Althusserianism (breaking Williams's windows on the way), out of that into the Pentecostal tongues of deconstruction, before pretending mischievously to an indomitable Irishry. He is so gifted the books pour out, always dazzling, always funny, wonderfully voluble. But, it is a hard thing to say, they do not touch the temper of the times.

There once looked to be so many who would keep up English and speak for continuity. None was more certain to become the people's choice than Perry Anderson, professor of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, a former editor of the New Left Review and a friend of Raymond Williams. His unforgettable prose, rich with inventive invective, handsome in tribute, did more to wreck the style of his countless imitators than did Henry James. But since the publication of his grand world-history in rebuttal of Wallerstein in 1974 he has contented himself with graceful and accomplished exposition of the matres a penser of the day. Can the scourge of Sir Isaiah Berlin, the man who showed open scorn for Karl Popper, who deprecated Ernst Gombrich, be turning into the polite essayist of the Knights of the Spires?

You look hopefully, helplessly round, for the succession; but you find only celebrity. Colin MacCabe, director of research at the British Film Institute, shot to fame by the mid-1970s row over whether or not he should be granted permanent appointment as an English lecturer at Cambridge, hovers in mid-Atlantic between the British Film Institute and Pittsburgh, but has done little except film talk at the airport.

Patrick Parrinder, professor of English at Reading University, a student and colleague of Williams's, keeps up English and puts down Theory, but does not try to lay hands upon the century or fight in the battle of the books. Robin Blackburn, editor of the New Left Review and managing director of Verso Books, told his magnificent history of South American empire, but has a publishing house to run. Francis Mulhern, senior lecturer in English literature at Middlesex University, Williams's editor, turned his beautiful phrases into his splendid classic on Scrutiny, loving, hating, caustic, witty, and was then, alas, struck dumb. Stephen Heath, fellow in English, Jesus College, Cambridge, a student of Williams, keeps up French and movies, and quietly comes nearer, in another metropole, to the compilation of an oeuvre. He too refuses grand style and grand theory. Only Stuart Hall, professor of sociology at the Open University, Williams's friend and fellow socialist, youngest of the old, still fights in public, and a good fight on the old terms, and as he says himself, such work is hardly original intellectual labour; it is not even politics; it is just life.

As so many people have energetically said, and most of them women, there was one large silent area in the old New Left politicisation of culture, and its theorisation of everyday life. It has been the feminists who have most energetically taken to heart the lesson of the old New Left, that if it was to vindicate its own best values, it must keep the blood flowing from its heart into the history of the day.

There can be little doubt that if the best energies of socialism have gone anywhere, they have gone into a women's movement which is of pretty well the same age as socialism in any case. For the time being, intellectual feminism looks like the only field left where people care about equality.

The first wave of feminism which was set rolling by Germaine Greer and Sheila Rowbotham started out explicitly from the old New Left. Indeed, Juliet Mitchell borrowed Williams's most famous trope in her extended essay "Women the Longest Revolution". In the 1970s, this kind of inquiry bent itself to the devising of a praxis which would combine women's emancipation with theories of class struggle. But men of the same social class and economic interests turned out to be so at odds with the emancipation of women, whether as trade unionists who would not pay the housekeeping money or stockbrokers who kept the house and would not pay the alimony, that the effort floundered. It was disabled from the other end, as its pioneers Mitchell and sociologist Ann Oakley drily observed, by "a move towards rigidity and inflexibility . . . which results from a premature codification of personal insights as political rules".

Although there is no doubt that many of the lenses through which the human sciences are viewed, in particular those of the study of literature, have been completely reground by feminism, these achievements have still failed to nourish a body of work with the volume, the affirmation and the solidity of the masterpieces of the first wave of the New Left. The interpretation of the romantics by Marilyn Butler, now rector of Exeter College, Oxford, the study of Erasmus by Lisa Jardine, professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield college, and of Wordsworth and Blake by Heather Glen, lecturer in English at Cambridge are all sedulous and scholarly works, excellent fellows to be sure, but not capable of seizing the day. What is missing in the intellectual life of Britain, at least in those subjects which are actually addressing the soul of people, is not so much allegiance as experience. It was a key concept for the old New Left. They were all men, and they mostly wrote as if only men mattered, but as Williams said of his father and his friends, "I have never seen such self-confident men since".

Hoggart, Williams, Thompson, Hobsbawm and company came from very different but very manly backgrounds. They learned interdependence and rootedness, and family love also. And then, in the strange fraternity of a civilian army at war they learned it again, and equality to boot.

Then they came home to Attlee's Britain in order to teach and write down what they had found, which had made them what they were.

What is now missing is precisely the subject of David Hare's admirable play The Absence of War. Goodness knows how that absence may be filled by a different kind of intellectual highmindedness in the human sciences; but that is what is needed.

Fred Inglis is professor of cultural studies at the University of Warwick. His biography Raymond Williams is published by Routledge, price Pounds 19.99.

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