The New Left and the 1960s: 1956-66 : The Crystallisation of a Militant Left

Members of the Young Communist League outside Charing Cross station sell Challenge protesting Queen Frederika’s state visit

“The ‘first’ New Left was born in 1956, a conjuncture—not just a year—bounded on one side by the suppression of the Hungarian Revolution by Soviet tanks and on the other by the British and French invasion of the Suez Canal zone writes Phil Hearse.  These two events, whose dramatic impact was heightened by the fact that they occurred within days of each other, unmasked the underlying violence and aggression latent in the two systems that dominated political life at the time—Western imperialism and Stalinism—and sent a shock wave through the political world. In a deeper sense, they defined for people of my generation the boundaries and limits of the tolerable in politics. Socialists after ‘Hungary’, it seemed to us, must carry in their hearts the sense of tragedy which the degeneration of the Russian Revolution into Stalinism represented for the left in the twentieth century. ‘Hungary’ brought to an end a certain kind of socialist innocence. On the other hand, ‘Suez’ underlined the enormity of the error in believing that lowering the Union Jack in a few ex-colonies necessarily signalled the ‘end of imperialism’, or that the real gains of the welfare state and the widening of material affluence meant the end of inequality and exploitation. ‘Hungary’ and ‘Suez’ were thus liminal, boundary-marking experiences. They symbolized the break-up of the political Ice Age.” Stuart Hall (1)

Socialist Resistance is on February 1st holding a day school on the 1960s and the New Left with an interesting range of speakers that includes Ernie Tate (a decisive figure in the formation of the IMG – as well as the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the international Vietnam War Crimes Tribunal) as well as Ian Birchall, Penny Duggan, Jane Shallice and David Renton. Examining this period is not an exercise in nostalgia but has some important lessons in how militant left and revolutionary organisations are formed. (You can download full details here.)

Many accounts of this period just start with 1968, as if the gigantic events of that year summoned the revolutionary left into existence. In this paper I’m going to concentrate on the broader scope of events internationally from 1956 until the mid-1960s. The IS and IMG I’m sure will be dealt with in detail on February 1 and are generally ommitted here.

Of course the period between the mid-50s and the mid-60s was a period of the growing organisational strength and struggle of the unions. But with a few exceptions – the 1966 seafarer’s strike, the 1958 London bus workers strike in which 50,000 bus workers faced down London Transport and several London building workers strikes –  major set piece  battles were not the order of the day. The growing shop stewards movement in the car industry, the steel industry and engineering in particular, could call instant walkouts over piece rates and conditions, which often won rapid concessions.

The Communist Party in the mid-1950s had tens of thousands of members and a huge implantation among the stewards and lower level of the bureaucracy. At any rate the new militant left did not start to arise out of militant working class struggles. It was born of major international events and came out of the crisis of Stalinism, the fight for peace against nuclear weapons and a growing understanding of the nature of imperialism after the Cuban missile crisis and the start of the (last phase of) the Vietnam war.


At the beginning of 1956 the left in Britain was overwhelmingly dominated by the Tribune Labour Left and the Communist Party (CPGB). The CPGB had approximately 45,000 members – down a little from its wartime high of 60,000 and was especially strong in the unions. The Labour left although strong by today’s standards was on the retreat ideologically and organizationally, after the battles over German re-armament and prescription charges in the early 1950s. It organised through the weekly paper Tribune, whose key standard bearers were Aneurin Bevan and Michael Foot. The biggest of the tiny far left groups, Gerry Healy’s outfit then called ‘The Group’ worked through Tribune and Healy frequently boasted he was about to recruit Michael Foot. Michael Foot, editor of Tribune, was not the shambolic figure he appeared after his terrible car crash and political capitulations, cruelly satirised as ‘Worzel Gummidge’. He was a brilliant orator and electrified Labour conference with his denunciations of the warmongers and bankers. The right wing were afraid of him.

After the Labour election defeats in 1951 and 1955 Labour’s ‘revisionist’ wing – the crystallising Gaitskellites – wanted to redefine democratic socialism as meaning simply Keynesian welfare capitalism. Anthony Crosland’s The Future of Socialism was published in 1956 and argued that Britain was becoming a meritocracy, the class war was old fashioned and that the mixed economy, welfare state, progressive taxation and above all comprehensive education (in which the left at the time had enormous illusions) would set the seal on modern ‘socialism’. This of course was the social democratic ideology of the post-war boom but it had enormous force because it appeared to be true. Capitalist crisis and the horrors of the 1930s really did seem to be things of the past.

The international events of 1956 blew up the Labour left-CP configuration of the British Left. These were of course the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis; the October Hungarian revolution suppressed by Soviet tanks; and Krushchev’s ‘secret speech’ made at the 20th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party in February, which blew the whistle on many of Stalin’s crimes.

The combination of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Krushchev’s speech created a crisis for all the Western Communist parties. In Britain it led to a huge internal debate and the loss of perhaps a third of the party’s 45,000 members. The nature of Stalinism and the USSR, the hierarchical nature of the ‘international communist movement’ and the internal regime of ‘democratic’ centralism were key issues discussed.

First New Left

It was out of this crisis that the first strands of the ‘New Left’ were to emerge. The losses were particularly high among the party’s intellectuals, with most of its prestigious History Group (EP Thompson, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, John Saville et al) walking out. New Left conferences and clubs abounded. Healy’s group intervened the best it could, recruiting a number of ‘red professors’ like Cliff Slaughter and Tom Kemp: the most philistine and anti-intellectual leader that the British far left has produced (aka G. Healy) declared “This is time for reading books, not burning them”.

But the Communist Party diaspora was not able to cement or reinforce any substantial political organisation. This is a frequent lesson: when people come out of a long period in a large organisation it’s hard to reorientate and start again in a small one. Often they drift to the right, or more likely drift out of politics altogether. Stuart Hall comments:

“Peter Sedgwick once acutely observed that the New Left was less a movement than a ‘milieu’. He was noting the lack of tight organizational structure, the loose conception of leadership, the flat hierarchies, the absence of membership, rules, regulations, party programme or ‘line’ which characterized the New Left, in sharp contrast with other political tendencies and sects on the far left.” (2)

Criticism of bureaucratic hierarchy is one thing, but an absence of membership, rules, regulations, party programme or line equals the absence of organisation. Indeed membership, rules, regulations (and weekly dues) are the very first things that characterised the initial organisations of the British trade union movement, as a quick glance of EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class will reveal. The new left clubs that were formed coalesced for a period into a national Club (not to be confused with G. Healy) and later a London New Left club. These were centres of independent socialist political education and elaboration and of course played a positive role overall. But they did not last long.

chicken soup

Chicken Soup with Barley

This was definitely a period of left-inclined intellectual ferment that produced political left theatre, in particular Arnold Wesker’s extraordinary trilogy Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem. Wesker directly addressed key questions of the fate of Stalinism (and in particular the fate of the Communist Jewish East End community of the 1930s), and the role of popular culture (3). He pioneered a debate about what he saw as the suffocating role of popular culture, later elaborated from a quite different perspective by Stuart Hall at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University. But in addition some much more directly political writings of importance, especially the collection Out of Apathy (4) were produced, of which more below. The ‘angry young men’ (sic) playwrights who started publishing in the mid-1950s helped reanimate a tradition of radical theatre going back to the 1930s and their work generated a debate on the role of radical theatre itself. In 1965 Roland and Claire Muldoon were expelled from the CP-backed Unity Theatre and founded the Cartoon Archetypical Slogan Theatre (CAST) of which Jane Shallice was a member. CAST projected a closer link between theatre and activism, summed up in the term ‘agitprop’. Other key left theatre groups included John McGrath’s 7:84 and the Red Ladder groups that still exists.

The most significant intellectual trends to come out of the CP crisis and the Suez crisis were the journals Universities and Left Review and the New Reasoner. These were later to merge to form the New Left Review (see below).

Stuart Hall describes the two main elements of the New Left as follows:

“The New Left represented the coming together of two related but different traditions—also of two political experiences or generations. One was the tradition I would call, for want of a better term, communist humanism, symbolized by the New Reasoner and its founders, John Saville and Edward and Dorothy Thompson. The second is perhaps best described as an independent socialist tradition, whose centre of gravity lay in the left student generation of the 1950s and which maintained some distance from ‘party’ affiliations. It was people from this layer who, in the disintegration of those orthodoxies in 1956, first produced Universities and Left Review. I belong to this second tradition.”(5)

This division was later to be reflected in an oblique and complex way in the later split in the NLR leadership which saw the elevation of the Perry Anderson team to the fore and the departure of the ‘old’ New Left types.

The Suez crisis was an enormous blow to the complacent amour propre of the British establishment and had a profound effect on the left. The attack on Egypt followed the President of Egypt Nasser’s decision of 26 July 1956 to nationalise the Suez Canal, after the withdrawal of an offer by Britain and the United States to fund the building of the Aswan Dam – which in turn was in response to Egypt’s new ties with the Soviet Union and recognizing the People’s Republic of China during the height of tensions between China and Taiwan.

The aims of the attack were primarily to regain Western control of the canal and to remove Nasser from power, and the crisis highlighted the perceived danger that Arab nationalism posed to Western access to Middle East oil. The cynicism of the attack was shocking; Israeli troops launched the first invasion and the French and British intervened to ‘separate the warring parties’. Western troops shooting Egyptian civilians in Port Said who took up arms to defend their country added to the shock. But just one week after the attack the French and British were forced to withdraw because the Americans told them to. Open opposition from came from US President Eisenhower, using the UN call for a ceasefire, and Britain was isolated internationally. One week after the Tory dominated Commons had voted in support of the invasion, they meekly voted to support the pull-out.

The Labour Party called an enormous demonstration in Trafalgar Square, addressed by Hugh Gaitskell and the vastly popular Aneurin Bevan. For many attending the rally, the biggest in London since the second world war, this was also a new experience: the first time many had experienced being jostled and charged by police horses as the November evening darkness drew in. Something new was in the air.

CND and Clause 4

Eighteen months after the Suez crisis the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) (6) was formed. CND was a crucial step in the formation of a new left. Although it mobilised an enormous array of political forces, particularly focused on the Labour Left, the CP and the left trade union bureaucracy, it allowed a major political space for the development and intermingling of heterodox political forces.

CND was forged around an electrifying political line and a brilliant publicity mobilising schedule and symbolism. It’s electrifying political line was unilateralism – the idea that Britain should give up its nuclear weapons first, and if necessary alone, because by definition nuclear weapons were immoral. It derived a logical consequence from that, the idea that Britain should withdraw from NATO. CND immediately got the allegiance of most of the Labour left (although not Nye Bevan who shocked all his allies and never politically recovered from his capitulation to Gaitskell on this issue) hundreds of intellectuals and church people, actors, pacifists of course and most wings of the militant left.

To have significant Commons support for this position was considered anathema by the political establishment and the Labour leadership.  For CND struck at the holy of holies for the political leaders of the bourgeoisie – the Atlantic alliance that had since WWII been the cornerstone of British foreign policy. CND’s line implied neutralism between NATO and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact (and even among some more sympathy for the latter) and this was heresy of the worst sort, striking at the core of post-war capitalist ideology – anti-communism.

The symbolism and schedule of CND involved several strokes of genius. First was its ubiquitous logo and badge, worn by tens of thousands as a daily political statement and secondly were the annual four day Easter Aldermaston marches from the nuclear weapons research establishment in Berkshire, finishing on Easter Monday in London. These events were mobile political debates and expressions of youth rebellion, symbolised by duffle coats, men with beards, polo neck jumpers and guitars for folk songs. Long-submerged political cultures like anarchism, militant pacifism and of course the different strands of Trotskyism could make their appearance.

But from the early 1960s onwards the base of the peace movement itself became radicalised by a series of international events that pushed it closer to explicit identification with the political left and militant action – particularly the Suez crisis, the state visit of Queen Frederika of Greece, the emergence of the Committee of 100 and mass sit-downs and the 1963 Spies for Peace affair. But first back to the Labour Party.

Gaitskellism at Bay

The late 1950s and early 1960s were a time of tumultuous conflict in the Labour Party, with the last great surge of the Tribune left before its domestication in the Wilson government of 1964. The two big issues over which the Gaitskellites and the Tribunites fought were Clause 4 and unilateralism. The Gaitskellites faced a big obstacle in the form of the left trade union leadership, in particular the Transport and General Workers Union led by Frank Cousins. Right wing concern about and denunciation of the ‘block vote’ stems from this period. At the 1960 Labour Party conference CND’s policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament was passed, leading to Gaitskell’s famous ‘fight, fight and fight again’ speech; the policy was overturned in 1961. But Gaitskell never got anywhere with Clause 4. The debate between the Gaitskellites and Tribunites was overcome by the election of Harold Wilson as Labour leader following Gaitskell’s death in 1963. The Tribunites were domesticated with a significant number of them (for example Barbara Castle) being put on the front bench and then becoming cabinet ministers in the Wilson 1964-70 government. Wilson’s operation confirmed the cynical common wisdom of the time: Labour is best led from the left. Elect a leader with previous left credentials (7), incorporate some other left figures, and right wing policies can be pursued with impunity.

The Committee of 100, the mass sit-downs and the Cuban missile crisis

Bertrand Russell (centre) leads the first sit-down

Bertrand Russell (centre) leads the first sit-down

The Committee of 100 was formed in 1960 to carry out non-violent civil disobedience against nuclear weapons. Part of the original group came from the Direct Action Committee against Nuclear Weapons that had been formed in 1957, for example Pat Arrowsmith, Michael Randle and Michael Scott. But key impulse in propelling the Committee of 100 was the link up with Bertrand Russell and his energetic private secretary Ralph Schoenman. Ralph Miliband was involved in the initial discussions, although never played a significant role in the organisation. Russell resigned his position as national chair of CND to lead the Committee.

The 100’s first sit down outside the Ministry of Defence was largely ignored by the police but the second sit-down in Parliament Square April 1961 led to 826 arrests. Multiple sit downs followed outside American bases in England and Scotland, and in central London, with thousands of arrests. In 1962 six key leaders of the 100 were arrested and tried on conspiracy charges.  Ian Dixon, Terry Chandler, Trevor Hatton, Michael Randle and Pat Pottle were sentenced to 18 months and Helen Alagranza to 12 months. Eventually the 100 declined because politically it had nowhere to go. It had just one tactic and in the face of massive repression could not elaborate a political way out that was much different to CND as a whole, although some supporters were later involved in putting forward nuclear disarmament candidates in elections, with little success.

The key thing about the Committee of 100 experience was what it showed to young people in the movement about the state in general and the police and judicial system in particular. The experience of being thrown into the fountains in Trafalgar Square by the police and rough handling from the same source on many sit downs opened a lot of eyes.

Betrand Russells’s later endorsement of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and the opening of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation  with his money, which adopted a militantly anti-imperialist stand, I’m sure were influenced by the experience of the Committee of 100 and the Cuban missile crisis. The events were helping to cement an anti-imperialist sentiment and milieu.

Like CND the Committee was affected sharply by events of 1962-3. The Cuban missile crisis in October 1962 was experienced by millions in the West as something which could easily lead to imminent nuclear war. It is difficult now to imagine such a scenario, but the decision by President Kennedy to impose a physical blockade on the island of Cuba to stop Soviet ships reaching the island led to a widespread expectation of a military clash between the two superpowers in the Caribbean. Kennedy’s action was clearly an act of war under international law, and the Soviet Union sending nuclear missiles to Cuba with Cuban consent was perfectly in accordance with international law (whether it was politically a good idea ins another question). But among the majority in the left and the peace movement, even if they opposed sending the missiles to Cuba,  the United States was seen as the aggressor and protest at the time was largely directed at the Americans. The crisis helped identity the peace movement with the militant left.

Without doubt the main inspiration for the turn to non-violent direct action was the civil rights movement in the United States. Like the South African anti-apartheid struggle, the civil rights movement enjoyed 100% support on the British left, although some disagreed with non-violence as a strategy. The violent repression with which the movement was met in the southern states was a crucial factor in shifting big sections of public opinion away from sympathy with the United States. It would be hard to overstate the impact on young people open to moving towards radicalism of the images of the extreme violence used by US police forces in the South.

The paradoxical outcome of the Cuban missile crisis was unexpected. Nuclear war did not take place. When Khrushchev backed down and recalled the ships (8) an enormous wave of relief flooded over Europe. The world had been to the brink of nuclear war. But ‘mutually assured destruction’, ie catastrophic consequences for both sides in the case of nuclear war, seemed to have worked to prevent an apocalypse. Then in 1963 the major nuclear powers signed the nuclear test ban agreement. The Conservative Party published newspaper advertisements showing protestors with ‘Ban the Bomb’ placards and the heading ‘Meanwhile the Conservatives signed the Test Ban Treaty’.

On the final day of the Aldermaston March in April 1964, Stuart Hall declared from the Trafalgar Square plinth: “People say CND is dead. If that’s true there are 20,000 corpses in front of me”. Of course CND was not dead and twenty years later would come back enormously reinforced during the crisis over the stationing of Cruise and Pershing missiles in Europe. But for the moment the nuclear disarmament issue ceased to be the focus of the left’s attention on international issues. During 1965 and 1966 it became clear it had shifted to Vietnam.

‘Go Home Queen Fred’ and ‘Spies for Peace’

Before the nuclear disarmament movement left centre stage for a while, it had in July 1963 another couple of bursts of demonstrations which drew major public attention. The first was the Spies for Peace affair and the second was the protest against the July 1963 state visit of Queen Frederika of Greece (‘Frederika of Hanover’) – a distant relative of both the Queen and Prince Philip.

People associated with the Committee of 100, notably Nicholas Walter (father of feminist writer Natasha Walter), discovered that the government had set up a series of Regional Seats of Government (RSGs), underground shelters from which government would be exercised in the event of nuclear war. The guest lists for these RSGs was limited to the great and good, and top politicians, police, senior generals etc. Spies for Peace published a pamphlet blowing the gaffe on this, and during the 1963 Aldermaston march led a section of the march – against the wishes of moderate CND leaders like Cannon John Collins -to hold a demonstration outside the RSG at Warren Row, near Reading.

Grigoris Lambrakis

Grigoris Lambrakis

Greece’s Queen Frederika was a notorious right winger (she had an affair with CIA director Allan Dulles), had been a member of the Hitler Youth during her early years living in Austria, and intervened vigorously against the Greek  left, through her husband and then her son King Constantine. Her visit to London coincided with two things. First the aftermath of the assassination of leading Greek left social democrat MP and peace campaigner Grigoris Lambrakis, that had caused international outrage. And secondly the national campaign run by the Communist Party for the release of Greek seafarer’s leader Tony Ambetelios, who had been imprisoned for 18 years. His wife Betty (née Betty Bartlett) was a former central leader of the CPGB and toured the country gathering widespread support for the release of Greek political prisoners.

For a week during Frederica’s stay every evening demonstrators assembled in Trafalgar Square with the ambition of marching down the Mall to Buckingham Palace. Each time the police blocked them and there were running battles around adjacent back streets. The CPGB and especially the YCL were very much to the fore in these demonstrations, as was of course the CND-Committee of 100 milieu. These events once again associated the peace movement with the left.

A sequel to these events was the unmasking of the activities of the notorious Met police inspector Harold Challenor.

“Challenor met his match on 11 July 1963 when he arrested Donald Rooum, a cartoonist for Peace News, who was demonstrating outside Claridge’s hotel against Queen Frederika of Greece. He told Rooum ‘You’re fucking nicked, my beauty. Boo the Queen, would you?’ and hit him on the head.  Going through Rooum’s possessions, Challenor added a half-brick, saying, ‘There you are, me old darling. Carrying an offensive weapon. You can get two years for that.’ Rooum, a member of the National Council for Civil Liberties who had read about forensic science, handed his clothes to his solicitor for testing. No brick dust or appropriate wear and tear were found and Rooum was acquitted, although other people Challenor arrested at the demonstration were still convicted on his evidence.” (9)

Keep Left and Young Guard

Pre-Blairite Labour always had problems with its youth wing. The Labour League of Youth, set up in the 1930s was heavily influenced by the CP and shut down in 1954. In 1960 the Labour leadership set up the Young Socialists and it was almost instantly dominated by the supporters of two newspapers – Keep Left, produced by the Healyite SLL and Young Guard, supported mainly by the pre-SWP International Socialists but also formally by the proto-Militant RSL. This latter alliance was not to last. At first virtually all the leadership positions were taken by the Keep Left. The formal mechanism of Keep Left and Young Guard was sponsorship by YS branches; each garnered dozens of sponsors, and some branches sponsored both.

It should be remembered that by the early 1960s Gerry Healy had given up the alliance with Tribune and launched the Socialist Labour League with The Newsletter as its paper. In 1960 the SLL and the Newsletter were proscribed and after expulsions the SLL began to regroup as a public organisation. Keep Left was the last gasp of the Healyites as an entrist organisation. In 1962 Keep Left was in turn proscribed and expulsions begun. By the end of the year the ‘Young Socialists’, Healyite variety, was a public organisation that specialised in intervening among the youth on council estates with dances and football competitions. From the mid-1960s onwards most of the far left regarded the SLL as a side show, mainly outside of the main political developments of the left, whatever its party-building successes.

The departure of Keep Left meant that Young Guard carried the torch of Marxism in the YS. By 1964 the Militant had walked out of Young Guard to organise around their own paper. For a period in the mid-1960s IS supporters produced a paper called Rebel. But in reality they also were on their way out of the Labour Party and YS.

Out of Apathy and the New Left Review

Finally some comments on intellectual developments on the left. 1956 unblocked the total Labour left-CP domination of the left and undoubtedly this gave space for more open and creative Marxisms to emerge. We could say that in terms of major works of history and cultural studies, the writings of EP Thompson and Raymond Williams stand out, particularly the former’s Making of the English Working Class published in 1963. But a significant statement of ‘where the new left has got to’ was the 1960 collection Out of Apathy edited by Thompson.

Raph Samuel and Stuart Hall addressed the issue of Keynesian social-welfare capitalism and why it was not the road to the millennium. Peter Worseley took on modern imperialism and Thompson argued for ‘positive neutralism’, ie the necessity to break with the NATO-Atlanticist consensus. The whole book is a sort of Anti-Crosland, targeting the main theorists that capitalism had fundamentally changed and socialism was outdated. Perhaps the most interesting essay however is Alasdair MacIntyre’s Breaking the Chains of Reason. MacIntyre, an academic philosopher who in the not too distant future would abandon Marxism for Moral Re-Armament, had come via the CP and SLL to the editorial board of International Socialism. His target in Out of Apathy was the fact that “There is not too much enthusiasm abroad among British intellectuals for the day that the last king will be strangled with the entrails of the last priest” (10). He denounced the profound middle-class complacency of the British intelligentsia and strongly defended the Hegelian tradition, and the lineage that comes from the Enlightenment, to Hegel and then Marx. This tradition he counterposed to the predominant positivist trend of American social science: he obviously had in mind Talcott Parsons, but he also criticized from a Marxist perspective the left-leaning American sociologist C. Wright Mills. Most of all he denounced empiricism – the inability to construct over-arching theories based on deep historical trends and rather counterposing ‘low level generalisations’ based on limited empirical data. En passant he took numerous side-swipes at Karl Popper. His essay is a bracing affirmation that:

“The individual cannot win his freedom by asserting himself (sic) against society; and he (sic again) cannot win it through capitalist society. To be free is only possible in some new form of society which makes a radical break with the various oppressions of capitalism.” 

It was a terrible shame that MacIntyre departed from Marxism: just as he was leaving in the late 1960s the stifling late ‘40s and 1950s intellectual conformity was beginning to break up. Marxism started to become significant intellectual trend in the Anglo-Saxon countries.

Careful observers of the list of contributors to Out of Apathy will see they all have one thing in common. It wasn’t until the mid-late 1960s that any section of the left began to interrogate women’s oppression.

Which brings us to New Left Review. Numerous Marxist studies of the evolution of the NLR editorial team have been published (11) so just a few comments here. The early 1960s split in the New Left Review team, which saw Perry Anderson and his associates (in particular Robin Blackburn, Quintin Hoare and Tom Nairn) take over, erupted with an intellectual political fight of some obscurity. Anderson and Nairn had in their essay ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, republished in the Towards Socialism collection, argued that the British bourgeois revolution was unfinished. The feckless British bourgeoisie had not, unlike its French counterpart, made a clean break with the aristocracy and feudalism, and via the Glorious Revolution of 1689 made a compromise leading to a bastard feudal-capitalist state. This was the source of Britain’s economic and political backwardness, and a non-hegemonic bourgeoisie had produced a ‘supine’ working class. A lack of sufficient radicalism all round. This could only be solved by a new hegemonic project from the left, in which the working class would complete the bourgeois revolution. (No prizes for guessing the inspiration of that theory). For a very short while it seemed as if NLR thought these hegemonic intentions could be assumed by a Labour government under Harold Wilson, but this thought was momentary.

The real innovation in this somewhat odd theorizing was not momentary judgements about Harold Wilson by the concept of hegemony itself, at a time when the vast majority of the British left was totally innocent of Antonio Gramsci. Indeed it was the whole project of turning the NLR into an ‘import-export agency for foreign Marxisms’ that annoyed Thompson and his fellow thinkers. In retrospect it is now obvious that the de facto project that the Anderson team had set themselves – the renovation of theoretical  Marxism in the Anglophone countries by organising an encounter with European Marxisms – was dramatically successful. Thompson’s critique of this project in The Poverty of Theory (1977) provoked a friendly but intellectually devastating reply by Anderson in Arguments within English Marxism (1980). Thompson’s assertion that Althusser and his school , who NLR had done a lot to introduce to the English-speaking world,  is theoretical Stalinism was frankly eccentric. His war against “all such Marxisms” was misplaced.

In general the far left too was snipingly critical of the NLR and seemed to imagine that all the theoretical tools necessary for the future were already in place, or could be generated from their own organisations, which were invariably ‘the real Marxist tradition’. This reached its low point of stupidity in the 1970 claim by the French OCI that Trotsky’s transitional programme was “the highest point of development of human thought”.

Towards 1968

The period 1965-7 saw a series of escalating student struggles in British universities: a number of these were over calls for dis-investment by universities in apartheid South Africa. Indeed South Africa was prior to Vietnam, the one international issue that united the left over a long period. The raw material that saw an explosion of radicalism was coming together through the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and student radicalism, ignited by events in Vietnam, Czechoslovakia and France. In the late 1960s there was of course a huge influx of students towards radicalism and a major renovation of the left. But in fact few of the leaders of 1968, especially from the far left organisations themselves, were ‘68ers in any literal sense. Most were products of prior struggles, who were already politically active by the mid-1960s and before. It was their formation in the small far left organisations of that period, that give them the political skills to be able to engage with ‘1968’ in whatever form that appeared in their country. A good account of how this panned out in France is given in Daniel Bensaid’s autobiography An Impatient Life. And in many ways the ability of the far left organisations to intervene in the 1968 process was a result of what they had already achieved in terms of Marxist theory, cadre formation and political activity. To quote John Chambers, chief executive of Cisco Systems: “To be successful you have to be lucky. But you have to make the preparation to give yourself the chance to be lucky”.



2)      Ibid

3)      Wesker’s answer was to form an organisation for taking culture to the masses, Centre 42, based at the Camden Roundhouse.

4)      Out of Apathy, Stevens and Sons, edited by EP Thompson 1960.

5)      Hall, Op Cit

6)      See the account on the CND website

7)      Wilson had resigned from the Atlee government over its imposition of prescription charges.

8)      Only later was it revealed there was a secret deal in which the Americans agreed with withdraw their Thor missiles from the Turkish border with the Soviet Union.


10)   Alasdair MacIntyre, Breaking the Chains of Reason, in Out of Apathy op cit

11)   See for example Ian Birchall, The Autonomy of Theory,



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3 Comments on The New Left and the 1960s: 1956-66 : The Crystallisation of a Militant Left

  1. Phil is absolutely right to highlight the importance of CND in terms of radicalising youth. I can remember as a young boy of 10 being impressed by my older brother’s CND badge intererest in trad jazz and duffel coat even though he was not particularly involved politically. We should not underestimate the influence of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Bob Dylan in spreading progressive democratic ideas through the newly emerging youth culture.
    Another eye-opener for younger readers must be the completely different social weight and political influence of the CP/Labour Left at that time. The relationship of forces between that sort of left and what you might call the radical, independent left outside the LP today has changed very signigficantly — without of course ourselves being able to occupy the same influence of that former old left.
    Enjoyed the article a lot, very informative and pertinent lessons about taking full advantage of any possible recomposition of the left. Particularly how quite impressive intellectual currents do not necessarily build anything substantial in real political terms.

  2. Mike Cleverley // 2nd February 2014 at 2:52 pm // Reply

    Interesting… far as it goes!

    Where are the working class in this analysis? Is any discussion about the Marxist Left relevant that leaves the working class out?

  3. ‘MacIntyre, an academic philosopher who in the not too distant future would abandon Marxism for Moral Re-Armament …’

    Moral Re-Armament is a well-known reactionary quasi-cult. What evidence is there that MacIntyre was ever part of it?

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