“Guerrilla engagements on cultural questions”

Whatever EP Thompson says in the inaugural issue of NLR in his response to Alasdair MacIntyre’s “reproof to the New Left” is quite fair, especially:

1. Any serious engagement in cultural or political life should not dissipate, but generate, socialist energy. Because:

2. We do not have one “basic antagonism” at the place of work, and a series of remoter, more muffled antagonisms in the social or ideological “superstructure”, which are in some way less “real”. We have a class-divided society, in which conflicts of interest, and conflicts between capitalist and socialist ideas, values, and institutions take place all along the line. They take place in the health service and in the common room, and even—on rare occasions—on the television screen or in Parliament, as well as on the shop floor.

However, if we understand “basic” (as essent-ial) in a logical sense then the danger of which MacIntyre talks about lingers prominently even today (perhaps more prominently, with overproduction in the virtual free market of ideas) as in the 1950s-60s:

“The danger is that one will fight a series of guerrilla engagements on cultural questions which will dissipate socialist energy and lead nowhere. What one hopes is that opening up these questions will lead one to see the basic antagonism in our society at the point of production.”


Reading Miliband’s “The Sickness of Labourism” after 50 years

There simply isn’t enough wind in present-day Labourism to fill the political sails of another Labour administration.

While Papa Miliband had already concluded this in 1960 (even before that), Miliband sons are busy filling the political sails of the Labour Party, which papa had declared to be a “sick party”, with something else.

Ralph Miliband’s decent commentary on the Labour defeat in 1959 in the first issue of NLR, “The Sickness of Labourism”, must be distributed to the new Labour leadership. In this article, he started with a quote from Tawney (1932):

“The Labour Party is hesitant in action, because divided in mind. It does not achieve what it could because it does not know what it wants”.

Miliband considered it to be a mild judgement in 1960. For him, things had further changed within the Labour Party. This hesitation and ambiguity might have existed on the part of the Party itself, however, its leadership knew what it was aiming for.

“It is true that leaders reflect tendencies. But there are times when leaders can powerfully re-inforce tendencies and greatly help to give them sharp political content. To ignore this in relation to the recent history of the Labour Party is to fall into the crassest kind of determinism.”

It was in the 1944 annual conference that the rank and file could force the leadership to the nationalisation programme for the last time, and,

In an historical perspective, the achievements of the Labour administrations of 1945—51 may well come to be seen as the maximum expression of Labourism in action.

His comments on the Tories too are astute:

The Tory Party has always been a much more complicated and sensitive animal than Labour has made allowance for. It has been, is and will remain, the main political expression of ruling class power—the party of property and privilege. It is also (and in this it really differs from the Labour Party) the political repository of much civilised savagery; a high proportion of its activist rank and file, as indeed of its parliamentary representation, can safely be relied on to express, publicly, but even more, privately, views and opinions which often seem to be part of the domain of psychopathology rather than of politics.

Were this all, the Tory Party would not be the most successful conservative Party in the world; indeed, it would long have ceased to occupy a significant place in political life.

But this is not all. The Tory Party is a deeply class-conscious party, much more so than the Labour Party, and its class-consciousness includes an awareness, however reluctant, however delayed its effects, that if the essentials of the social system it serves are to be preserved, some concessions have to be made to the pressures of the democracy. Thus the Tory Party adjusted itself to an extended suffrage, to trade union growth, to welfare services, to the emergence of the Labour Party as Opposition and as Government, to State intervention in economic affairs, even to the nationalisation of public utilities. It is now well advanced in the process of adapting itself to a mean, half-hearted, messy kind of labourism.

This flexibility at least helps to explain why a substantial proportion of the Tory Party’s electoral clientéle and of its support in the country has always included masses of people who had neither power, nor property, nor privilege.

Well, with hindsight, the state of the Labour Party as described by Miliband in 1960 resembles much of the parliamentarian left in India.

Stuart Hall’s editorial for the inaugural issue of NLR

It is sometimes useful to read the older texts of socialist movements. They provide insights into our socio-ideological reality too. Stuart Hall’s opening write-up for NLR in 1960 is a decent piece to ground an effort like NLR in its contemporary context. We are still in the need to undertake the same tasks:

What we need now is a language sufficiently close to life—all aspects of it—to declare our discontent with “that same order”.

How very true, the language of discontent should be sufficiently close to life. If they are not so, it is once again ideological like any other ideology.

Now, on the dialectic of theory and practice:

At some point, the distant wariness between intellectual and industrial workers must be broken down.

The gap is seen as between workers, which is institutionalised through the so-called division of labour.

What we need are not only discussion groups, but centres of socialist work and activity—rallying points of disturbance and discontent within the local community, the nerve centres of a genuinely popular and informed socialist movement.

We definitely need “centres of socialist work and activity” grounded in concrete locations, today.

The last refuge of scoundrels today is no longer the appeal for “patriotism”, but the cry that we must sink our differences in the interests of Party Unity. Socialists should cease to squander their energies upon scoundrels, and should cease to allow them to betray the enthusiasm of the young.

How much we have wasted our energies in preserving Parties’ Unities (!), we know that.

And finally,

The Labour Movement is not in its insurrectionary phase: we are in our missionary phase. [We] must pioneer a way forward by working for socialism as the old missionaries worked: as if consumed by a fire that is capable of lighting the darker places in our society. We have to go out into towns and cities, universities and technical colleges, youth clubs and Trade Union branches, and—as Morris said—make socialists there.