May 1968 in France

The New Left and the Events of May

by Hugh Roberts

A significant meeting took place in Oxford on November 14 last. Under the aegis of the Oxford University Socialist Discussion Group (not to be confused with the 0.U. Labour Club, a more purposeful body), a conference was held on the theme: “OUT OF APATHY: 30 Years of the New Left“.

No fewer than 21 speakers were listed on the programme, including such veterans of the New Left as Michael Barratt-Brown, Lawrence Daly, Robin Blackburn, Stuart Hall, John Hughes, Raphael Samuel and Peter Worsley. No speaker from Labour & Trade Union Review was invited, for the very good reason that the Review is produced by socialists who have never had any connection whatever with the New Left. But, on her own initiative, a reporter from L&TUR went along and filed a story on the day’s proceedings.

This story was not published in L&TUR No 5. Other matters were given precedence. Hit is being alluded to now, it is because the significance of the proceedings in Oxford last November can best be appreciated in conjunction with a consideration of the Events of May 1968 in France and what the British Left is currently making of their twentieth anniversary.

A vain nostalgia

What it is making of this anniversary is an exercise in nostalgia. That it is doing so is evidence of the obsessive self-absorption of the Left’s current condition. It is no longer capable of distinguishing between its ideas and reality, and it is accordingly incapable of being disillusioned. Its nostalgia for May ’68 is a nostalgia for its favourite fantasy, the revolution that never was. Because it cannot admit this to itself, it must overlook the fact that the events of May 1968 were themselves an incoherent exercise in nostalgia.

The students who took to the streets of Paris twenty years ago were self-consciously re-enacting the dramas of France’s revolutionary past – the great days of August 1792. July 1830, June 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871.

These dramas were the product of breakdowns in the state-society relationship. They were evidence of the failure of the French Revolution of 1789 to give issue to an effective political settlement that would definitively supersede the ancien régime. _ Since 1792, France has had five republics, two empires, three monarchies, the Vichy regime and the Provisional Government of 1944-1946. This history of constitutional instability and recurrent political upheaval was ended by the Fifth Republic.

The events of May 1968 were not a time-honoured response to yet another political breakdown, but a bitter protest against the regime which had made political breakdowns a thing of the past. They were the last hurrah of an insurrectionary tradition which had been made obsolete.

A British socialism which was properly oriented in the world would have had no difficulty in seeing through the events of May, if not immediately, at any rate soon afterwards.

But by 1968 the work of disorienting British socialism was already far advanced. The New Left had been in business for a decade and had already taken over much of the intellectual terrain which had been vacant since the death of Ernest Bevin and only partially and provisionally occupied by Bevanism. And it was inconceivable that the New Left would be able to see the events of May 1968 for what they were.

The Old New Left

In its origins, at least, the New Left was one of the last developments in British politics that was not inspired by trans-Atlantic fashions. Its birth in Britain was part of the complex political fall-out from the crisis in the international Communist movement which occurred in 1956.

Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin in his secret speech to the 20th Congress of the CPSU in January 1956 threw the Communist movement into unprecedented confusion. This was greatly aggravated by the Hungarian uprising in October 1956 and its crushing by Khrushchev’s tanks.

The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was unable to cope with the ferment of disquiet which these events occasioned within its ranks. A group formed around an unofficial publication, The Reasoner, edited by the historian Edward Thompson, which demanded a thorough discussion. When the CPGB leadership moved to close The Reasoner down, Thompson and his colleagues left the Party and launched the New Reasoner.  This subsequently evolved into the Universities and Left Review, by which time the New Left, as a movement of ideas and a network of clubs and discussion groups, had taken shape.

At the outset. the New Left was in self-conscious reaction to “Stalinism” and was dominated by the theme of “socialist humanism”. This theme had no positive political content whatever, and no political programme emerged from it.  For as long as Thompson was its leading light, the New Left was preoccupied with this theme and correspondingly bogged down in philosophical tail-chasing. It had no programme for reforming the CPGB, it had no programme for radicalising or re-invigorating the Labour Party and it had no programme for setting up a new party of its own. Politically. it hadn’t a clue.

No sooner had Thompson & Co. got their publishing act together and firmly oriented towards academia, however-, than they lost control of it. A new grouping, consisting of politically rootless individuals who had had nothing to do with the earlier publications. had formed within the editorial board of Universities and Left Review and, in a remarkably ruthless coup. had abruptly seized control of it.

This new grouping was led by Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn. New Left Review was born, by caesarean section. and with it the New New Left. The Old New Left never really came to terms with the way in which it had been dispossessed and thrust aside, and took shelter in a new publication. the Socialist Register, from which it launched the odd broadside against its usurpers before settling down into a comfortable routine of its own.

It is conceivable that, had the New Left been able to evolve along the essentially sentimental lines indicated by Thompson, it would eventually have been absorbed into the mainstream of Labour Left politics without disrupting the latter excessively. And had that happened, it is also conceivable that the events of May 1968 would not have been so thoroughly misread by the British Left.

The achievement of Anderson, Nairn et al. is that they prevented this comparatively harmless line of development from occurring by investing the New Left with a coherent and ambitious project which involved the deliberate disrupting of Labour politics and made the misreading of May 1968 mandatory.

The New New Left

If Thompson & Co. were obsessed by what they were defecting from, that is “inhuman socialism” or “Stalinism” (also known as Leninism), and were correspondingly bereft of bearings in the British political context, the Anderson group was obsessed by this context itself and exhibited a very definite orientation to it from the start.

This orientation was comprehensively negative. The problem for British socialism, as they saw it, was the entire philosophical framework within which it had developed. The dominance of what they called “empiricism” in British intellectual life had made generations of British socialists impervious to the claims of revolutionary theory. In the absence of a revolutionary intelligentsia, British socialism was merely “Labourism”, a miserably reformist affair, not what was called for at all

Having established this basic orientation, Anderson and Nairn applied themselves to working out its ramifications both upstream and downstream. Upstream., they worked out an historical explanation of this sorry state of affairs. Downstream., they worked out a project to remedy it

The intellectual dominance of “empiricism”, the absence of a revolutionary intelligentsia or tradition. and the consequent incorrigible “reformism” of “a subaltern proletariat” all had their origin in the early, empirical and therefore unsatisfactory character of the bourgeois revolution in Britain. The problem with the revolutions which occurred in 17th century Britain was their failure to give rise to an enduring revolutionary tradition.

Jn short, British political history was all wrong. It was not what was called for at all.

The past, though deplorable, could not be changed. But the future was all for the moulding. In the absence of the proper indigenous traditions, revolutionary theory and politics self-evidently needed to be imported. This, then, was the project of the Anderson group: to bring to the attention of British leftwing intellectuals the intellectual traditions and corresponding revolutionary theory they so badly needed and with which the national culture had so signally failed to equip them.

French spirits

In short, New Left Review was in the business of ideological import-and-export. (Or, rather, re-export: there was no question of exporting British intellectual and political products. The continental and North American theories and fashions imported into Britain were re-exported, with literary value added, to the Third World, from Turkey to Tanzania and from Montevideo to Madras, with uniformly devastating results.)

This import-export trade was to blossom into a highly profitable publishing venture. But there was, notionally, a political purpose underlying and legitimising it. This purpose was the creation of a revolutionary intelligentsia. This, it was suggested, was the key to the subsequent development of a socialist politics which would be capable of really getting somewhere.

This project was a superficially coherent one. But it should already be clear that it rested upon a ridiculously abstract conception of history. Underlying the condemnation of the actual course of British political history was a dogmatic conception of the right way to run a bourgeois revolution and the right sort of working class and the right kind of socialist development, together with a profound ignorance of, and contempt for, the society and especially the working class which had so persistently got everything wrong.

There was nothing arbitrary about this abstract standard, however. Anderson and Nairn did not invent it for themselves. They found it in France. The yardstick by which the bourgeois revolution in Britain was judged and found wanting was the exemplary character of the French revolution (as they saw it). British “empiricism” was denounced in the name of French “theory” (as they, very selectively, patented the latter). And it was by the supposedly exacting standards of French socialism that the miserable performance of British “Labourism” was appraised and condemned.

These positions were stated by Anderson and Nairn in the early 1960s. The fact that, at this time, the trade union organisation, purchasing power, welfare entitlement and political influence of the British working class were immeasurably greater than those of their French counterpart was simply neither here nor there.

The return to Leninism

The implication of the view that British socialism was a sorry spectacle which had got absolutely nowhere by its pathetically empirical methods was that a proper revolution on Leninist lines was called for. The Leninism of the New New Left was entirely consistent with its predilection for things French.  Leninism represented a reversion within Marxism to the Jacobin politics of the French revolutionary tradition, after these politics had been effectively abandoned as obsolete by the mainstream of European Marxism, German Social Democracy. Thus the New Left had performed a U-turn. However muddled Edward Thompson had been. the implication of the “socialist humanist” critique of “Stalinism” had been to lead the New Left away from Leninism. Anderson and Nairn turned it round and led it back.

The presupposition of the view that Leninist perspectives were appropriate and necessary for Britain was that they were even more self-evidently viable in France. French intellectual life was the primary source of the ideological commodities which NLR made it its business to purvey, and French politics was the principal testing ground for these commodities.

It was correspondingly essential to present the events of May as the vindication of the Anderson-Nairn enterprise. These events could be interpreted in only two ways. As the revolution which failed to happen, or as the revolution which all but happened. There is a world of difference between these two interpretations.

The Russian Revolution of 1905 is the classic instance of a revolution which all but happened. It did not succeed in overthrowing the Romanovs, but it came very close. It was a full dress rehearsal for what happened twelve years later. And it played a large part in making 1917 possible.

A large number of books were written about the May events soon afterwards. The one which found most favour with the acolytes of the New Left Review was a book by Daniel Singer called Prelude to Revolution.

The revolution to which May ’68 was the prelude has not occurred. Twenty years have elapsed and there has been no sign of it. And there is no reason whatever to expect it.  The Fifth Republic is working.

May ’68 is the revolution that never was. It did not vindicate the Anderson-Nairn perspective, it refuted it.

Politics and the working class

Politics is, among other things, about coming to terms with realities. The British New Left has never had any politics.

Thompson’s New Left had sentiments. Anderson’s had dogmas and abstruse theories, a pretentious literary style, and an acute business sense. NLR’s Leninist predilections were predilections for a form of politics which would abolish politics. The Leninist scenario is that of seizing power by military manoeuvre in conditions of political breakdown, and then establishing a bureaucratic absolutism with which to impose policies derived from metaphysical doctrines upon a population deprived of independent political representation and rendered malleable by police terror. It is the definitive supersession of politics by an eternal and self-righteous bureaucracy. (Lenin actually stated that bureaucracy is the characteristic form of government of the proletarian dictatorship.)

The bitter hostility of Anderson and Nairn to the actual course of British history is chiefly founded upon their understanding of the significance of the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The historian of this revolution, Macauley, described it as “our last revolution.”. It was the revolution which made subsequent revolutions unnecessary, because it made continuous political developments possible. Continuous political development within a constitutional framework which allows for this development ad is therefore not subverted by it is bound to entail the pre-eminence of “empiricism” at the expense of revolutionary (and reactionary) metaphysics .. Politics is the great empirical art.

British socialism was at its most effective when it was most thoroughly empiricist, when, that is to say, its perspectives were soundly based upon the lessons it had learned from experience. The great empirical politician of British socialism is Ernest Bevin, and it was in his heyday that working class support for the Labour Party was at its peak.

The support of the British working class for empirical socialism in the 1940s and 1950s expressed its interest in a form of politics which seemed to be coming into its own and to have the greater part of its history before it. The last thing the British working class wanted was for its politics to be abolished and its history ended when it was just getting into its stride.

In its moment of truth, in May-June 1968, the French working class decided that this was its position too.

The spirit of adventure

David Owen has recently described politics as a great adventure. That is indeed what it is. Lenin was a supreme politician and a supremely adventurous one. But the defect of his great political adventure was to ensure that the Russian working class would have no further adventures. It is reported that Lenin realised this on his sick bed and died in anguish.

The great adventure of French history since Napoleon is that of Charles de Gaulle.

A socialism which aspires to abolish politics and end history, and establish a bureaucratic dictatorship which governs workers as enthusiastic but predictable cogs in a utopian system conceived for their own good, will have no time for outstanding individuals, other than its own leaders. Its attitude to the rare de Gaulles which the human race produces from time to time will be one of irritation, if not loathing.

But a socialism which conceives of itself as a grand adventure intent on increasing the power of workers to develop their individual as well as collective capacity to engage in unpredictable adventures of all kinds will not be put out by the de Gaulles of this world. It will observe them with interest and, while distinguishing its politics from theirs, it will know how to take their example of foresight, initiative, moral courage and political tenacity for an inspiration.

De Gaulle’s first Innings

De Gaulle’s political career, which began with his individualistic act of legitimate rebellion against the Vichy regime in 1940, falls into two distinct parts. In the first, he was the leader of a successful national revolution. In the second, be was the architect of a successful constitutional revolution. Each of these revolutions was wholly democratic and unequivocally progressive.

The extraordinary way in which de Gaulle played his self-appointed role as the uncompromising personification of the French will to resist from 1940 to 1944 cannot be recounted here. But the essence of his achievement was to ensure that the liberation of France occurred in such a way as to re-establish both the full sovereignty of the French state and its democratic character.

This is not what ‘liberation’ was to mean in most other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe. As the leader of French socialism, Leon Blum, acknowledged in 1945, “we were lucky to have had General de Gaulle.”

By mid-1945, de Gaulle was preparing to stand down. He knew that France would return to party politics and foresaw that this would mean a succession of weak coalition governments, but he was not prepared to prolong his own power at the expense of democracy. He argued for a constitution which would compensate for the debilitating effects of coalition government by means of a popularly elected and authoritative presidency, but having failed to carry his point he resigned.

As Maurice Thorez, the Communist leader, had the grace to observe, there was “a certain grandeur about this departure.” But Thorez’s PCF was the only party to oppose de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958.

De Gaulle and Pilsudski

Revolutionary leaders (whether they are revolutionaries by ideological inclination or by force of circumstance) rarely have more than one innings. A possible exception is Mao Tse Tung, who may be considered to have had two if not three. But, these days, he is generally execrated for his last innings, the Cultural Revolution.

Another exception is Argentina’s Juan Peron. His second innings, on his return from 18 years’ exile in Madrid, was a fiasco which led rapidly to the army’s coup and the ‘dirty war of the mid-1970s.

A leader with whom de Gaulle had more in common temperamentally was the Polish socialist and national revolutionary, Josef Pilsudski. Pilsudski established Poland’s independence by defeating the Red Army on the Vistula in 1920, constituted the Polish state, relinquished his personal dictatorship out of democratic scruple. only to return to power with working class support in a military uprising in 1926. But the ambiguous state over which he presided thereafter evolved in a right wing direction after his death in 1935 and collapsed in September 1939.

A leader with whom de Gaulle had more in common temperamentally was the Polish socialist and national revolutionary, Josef Pilsudski. Pilsudski established Poland’s independence by defeating the Red Army on the Vistula in 1920, constituted the Polish state, relinquished his personal dictatorship out of democratic scruple, only to return to power with working class support in a military uprising in 1926. But the ambiguous state over which he presided thereafter evolved in a right wing direction after his death in 1935 and collapsed in September 1939.

It is quite possible that de Gaulle was consciously influenced by Pilsudski’s example. De Gaulle was one of the French volunteers who fought on the Polish side in 1919 and 1920, and in the 1920 campaign he was awarded the highest Polish military decoration, “For Military Virtue”, for his successful defence of the River Zbrucz at the head of a battalion of light infantry. In between the two campaigns he had delivered a set of lectures on military tactics to Pilsudski’s officers.

Unlike Pilsudski, de Gaulle was not a socialist in either an ideological or a party-political sense, although it should not be forgotten that he maintained excellent relations with the socialist element of the Resistance during the war, that the Provisional Government of 1944-1946 over which he presided enacted a great deal of socialistic legislation with his approval, and that he made a point of securing the support of Guy Mollet. the socialist leader, for his return to power in 1958.

De Gaulle stepped down in 1946 for exactly the same reason that Pilsudski did so in 1923. Both men were democrats by conviction, both of them recognised that their respective democracies required strong presidential guidance, and neither of them was prepared to be the powerless figurehead president which the party politicians were resolved to have. Like Pilsudski, moreover, de Gaulle returned to power in 1958 because he recognised that he alone possessed the political standing and moral authority to save the situation.

Unlike Pilsudski, however, de Gaulle took care to return to power in such a way that the regime he meant to establish might survive him. He did not himself instigate the army revolt in Algiers which precipitated the political crisis. It occurred of its own accord, in response to the prior revolt of the European settlers.

De Gaulle merely took advantage of the army’s rebellion. In doing so, he went out of his way to demonstrate his concern to observe the constitutional proprieties. And he took care to obtain the assent of the Socialists, through Mollet. It is entirely appropriate that the French Socialist Party should be the great beneficiary of the Fifth Republic.

De Gaulle’s second innings

The Fifth Republic is the solution of the historic problem of French politics since 1789. In it, de Gaulle gave France a constitution which took the constitutional issue out of the party conflict He thereby made effective party politics possible.

From 1789 to 1958, the French state oscillated repeatedly and violently between ineffectual parliamentary republics and either elective or monarchical autocracy. The parliamentary republics were ineffectual because the parties which composed the national assembly were unable to unite in acceptance of the constitutional framework of politics, while agreeing to differ on other matters.

For most of modem French history, party political divisions have not been about how the state should be governed but about how it should be constituted. Each party has stood for a different constitution, and these differences have been bitter and irreconcilable. They have precluded the development of effective party politics of a kind upon which stable representative government might be based.

It is the great achievement of de Gaulle’s second innings that he established constitutional arrangements conducive to the development of effective party politics, and that he personally supervised the development of the Gaullist movement into the major party of the Right. The great irony of this achievement is that the development of effective party politics was promoted by a man who personally detested party politics. There was no paradox in this, only vision.

The Gaullist movement was, socially and ideologically, a highly ambiguous affair. A political leader motivated by a partisan interest would have acted to maximise this ambiguity in order to preserve the Gaullist movement in power indefinitely. By resolving it into a progressive conservative party, de Gaulle achieved a thorough reconstruction of the French Right at the expense of its reactionary wing, and induced the French Left to begin to overcome the internal division between Socialists and Communists which had kept the working class out of power for most of the century.

The unification of the Left

The leftwing politician who recognised the implications of de Gaulle’s constitutional revolution most clearly was Francois Mitterand.

Mitterand was not a member of the old socialist party of Blum and Mollet, the SFIO (Section Francaise de l’lnternationale Ouvriere). He was the leader of a small centre-left grouping of his own which had prospered in the days of coalition politics, Mitterand himself being an almost permanent fixture in the cabinets of the Fourth Republic.

By about 1963 he recognised that those days were gone for good and set about uniting the SFIO and the PCF behind his candidature in the presidential election of 1965. In effect, if not in name, the Union de la Gauche was born. In the election, Mitterand did well, forcing de Gaulle into a second ballot in which Mitterand obtained 45 per cent of the vote.

The next presidential election was due in 1972. It is unlikely that de Gaulle would have sought a third term, for he would have been 81 by that stage. It is entirely possible that Mitterand would have become president in 1972, had it not been for the events of May. And if a socialist government had been formed in the comparatively favourable economic conditions prevailing in 1972 (or even earlier; de Gaulle died in 1970), it would probably have been able to achieve far more than Mitterand’s government was ultimately able to achieve in the 1980s.

The PCF in May

The events of May disrupted the process of unification of the Left and kept France under rightwing government for the next thirteen years.

The student revolutionaries did not only attempt to subvert the government Although the spice of the movement was furnished by its anarchist element, personified by Dany Cohn-Bendit, and, in particular, by a colourful group of street theatre merchants known as the Situationists, its politically coherent and purposeful elements were the Trotskyists of Alain Krivine’s Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire and the Maoists of the Union de la Jeunesse Communiste (Marxiste-Leniniste). These set out to subvert the Communist Party’s control of the trade union movement, with considerable initial success. The old anarcho-syndicalist reflexes of the French working class were stimulated by the students’ defiance of the state, and a wave of unofficial sit-in strikes and factory occupations got under way with active student encouragement.

By forcing the Communist-led Confederation Generale du Travail (CGI’) to call a general strike in order to reassert its leadership of the working class, the student leftists made it possible thereafter for the French Right to question the PCF’s commitment to democracy and constitutional political change.

This set up a dilemma which it took the French Left more than a decade to resolve. The Left could not win an election without the PCF and it could not win one with it. The spectre of a powerful Communist presence in government inhibited many people from voting for the Socialist Party who would otherwise have done so.

It is Mitterand’s great achievement that, while adhering to and sustaining the strategy of the Union de la Gauche, he gradually established the ascendancy of the Socialist Party within it, such that the Communist bogey had lost its force by 1981. This bogey had largely faded by 1965, but had been revived with a vengeance in 1968, when the Communists actually behaved in such a way as to preserve the Fifth Republic while unavoidably leaving themselves defenceless against the charge that they had done the opposite.

The PCF leadership knew that de Gaulle would fight to defend the Fifth Republic and that he could probably count on the army if need be. They also knew that the mass of the working class was in no mood to overthrow the state. The greatest general strike in history (in terms of man-days lost) was an entirely un-revolutionary affair.

France’s Glorious Revolution

The revolt of the student left in May 1968 was a revolt against the Fifth Republic. Whatever its subjective content, that was its political content. As such, its political content

was entirely negative. It had no clear – let alone plausible – alternative to the Fifth Republic in mind, which is why there was a massive popular vote in defence of the Fifth Republic in the June 1968 general election.

The great slogan of the student left was “L’Imagination au Pouvoir !” This overlooked the fact that the man in the Elysée Palace was the most imaginative French ruler since Napoleon, if not since Louis XIV.

The constitution of the Fifth Republic was an historic achievement and a wholly progressive one. 1958 is France’s 1688 in that sense, its most political and its only bloodless revolution, and its last revolution, the revolution which made continuous political development possible and further revolutions UIU1ecessary.

The objective political content of the revolt of May 1968 was Reaction. (It was Marx who devised the category of “Reactionary Socialism” and there can be little doubt that he would have known who the reactionaries were had he been around twenty years ago.) The French Left had no business rebelling against the Fifth Republic and has since come to terms with this fact

Since Mitterand took over the old SFIO in the early 1970s and reconstituted it into the Parti Socialiste, the Left has prospered within de Gaulle’s constitution. The PS has a future in French politics for some time to come. But. while the Colm-Bendits and the Krivines have been marginalised, their British counterparts have exerted a growing influence on the Labour Party which has tended to reduce Labour to a marginal factor in British politics.

The disruption of “Labourism”

De Gaulle achieved his heart’s desire and French socialism is now enjoying a share of his legacy proportionate to its part in his achievement. The British New Left has come nowhere near achieving its notional goal, a British re-enactment of October 1917, but it has all but achieved

the destruction of its great enemy, “Labourism”, British Socialism. Perhaps this was really its heart’s desire all along, and the rest a mere pretext.

In so far as “Labourism” had theoretical organs, they were Tribune and the New Statesman. Tribune was taken over from the Bevanites by the Bennites in the late 1970s. Bennery was an eccentric and demagogic leftwing development out of Wilsonism rather than a variant of New Leftism, but Benn’s movement subsumed New Leftist elements and derived much of its energy from their virulent enthusiasms. It failed, but by forcing the Bevanites to become the Party Establishment. it ruined Tribune.

Bennery never took over the New Statesman. But New Leftism has done just that, at the fag end of both of their careers. Stuart Weir is a superficial product of the New Left era and milieu. His political columnist. Ben Pimlott, was a member of the most extreme development in New Left publishing, the Althusserian Theoretical Practice clique. He later became a historian and a professor. New Leftism has become respectable and politically aimless.

Weir announced his defection from the Labour cause a year ago when, as editor of the New Socialist, he declared his support for the Tactical Voting ’87 bandwagon to nowhere. He now describes himself as a “Republican”. His heart’s desire is the abolition of the monarchy, the ultimate in displacement activity. And in a recent issue. (New Statesman, March 11, 1988), he gave six pages over to a furious diatribe against the British constitution and its great elucidator, Walter Bagehot.

The author of this splenetic outpouring was Tom Nairn. Still crazy, after all these years.

Oxford revisited

The conference last November was a wake. The vitriolic division between Old New Left and New New Left has been overcome, it appears, since both were represented in Oxford. The New Left has nowhere to go but home.

Instead of developing the ideas and perspectives upon which a further major advance could be made by the working class on the basis of the achievements of the 1945-51 Labour government, the New Left movement threw British socialism into a state of subjective confusion that has few if any parallels and from which it is yet to recover.

The people who gathered in Oxford were not capable of admitting such things to themselves. They had made careers out of New Leftism, in academia, journalism and the arts, and for many of them these careers are not yet over. John Hughes even suggested that they could congratulate themselves on the part they had played in preventing the great working class advance which was in prospect in the 1970s. Would the then MP for Bedwellty have opposed the recommendations of the Bullock Committee on Industrial Democracy, had the New Left, and John Hughes in particular, indicated to him that this was not the fashionable leftwing thing to do ?

So the conference in Oxford did not regard itself as a wake. For its elite participants, it was more in the nature of a mutual 8llminbon society establishing and then celebrating the fact that it still exists, reinforcing its collective cohesion by recalling the heady days of its youth, and telling itself that it still matters. It only looked like a wake to anyone with eyes to see, such as the reporter from L&TUR.

Still Crazy After All These Years” is a Paul Simon Song. Simon and Garfunkel were dismissed as “pretentious rubbish” in New Left Review No 54 (March-April 1969), perhaps rightly. But their “Bookends” LP, released in late 1967, included a song whose refrain sums up the New Left pretty thoroughly:

“I’ve just been/akin’ it,
“Not really Makin’ it.”

These locusts have had their day. Can “Labourism”, British socialism, recover from their depredations?


This article appeared in April 1988, in Issue 6 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  For more from the issue, see

Huge Roberts separated from us years back, but his comments here remain of interest.