New Left Review, 1962–Present
Duncan Thompson. Pessimism of the Intellect?: A History of the New Left Review. Merlin Press, 2006.
In April 1975, North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed the South and took Saigon. American troops, who had mostly withdrawn by 1973, had no way of stemming the tide. “COMMUNISTS ENTER SAIGON,” ran the AP wire: “U.S. EMBASSY LOOTED.” “COLLAPSE IN VIET NAM,” proclaimed Time, with an image of a weeping Vietnamese child.
“VICTORY IN INDOCHINA” was the banner that ran across the New Left Review’s May–June issue of that year. Alongside the usual fare—articles on Bruno Bettelheim, Hungarian Communism, and Georg Lukacs’s relationship to Stalinism, and commentary by Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the melodramas of Douglas Sirk—the editors wrote:
Indochina has been lost to capitalism at a time of mounting disarray on every front: slumpflation, 15 million unemployed in the advanced capitalist countries, together with the diverse political convulsions which removed Nixon, Heath, Brandt, Tanaka, Selassie, Caetano, Papadopoulos and Kittikachorn in less than a year. The precise tactics and strategy which triumphed in Indochina no doubt apply only to a limited number of countries: even in many third world states the decisive battles may well be fought as much in the towns and cities as in the countryside. But the example of a socialist revolution succeeding against such formidable opposition, and after so many cruel disappointments, will stimulate the struggles of the exploited and oppressed everywhere.
Here the much-feared “domino effect” that had exercised the Johnson administration became the rallying cry of independent socialism—and the next domino would fall, so the NLR hoped, in Europe.
Events fell short of expectations. In 1976, the Portuguese revolution ended in the adoption of a disappointingly bourgeois constitution. In the United States, the Black Panther party, after a final bout of violent internal feuding, collapsed. 1978: In Italy, Aldo Moro—who had brokered a historic power-sharing deal between the Italian Communist Party and the centrist Christian Democrats—was kidnapped by a Marxist terrorist group and murdered; Communist Cambodia, the site of a genocide of at least 200,000, was invaded by Communist Vietnam. (“At last,” cried Louis Althusser, with strange satisfaction, “the crisis of Marxism.”) In February 1979, Communist China invaded Communist Vietnam; in May, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; in December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. At the end of 1980, Ronald Reagan was president-elect of the United States, and Jean-Paul Sartre was dead.
An earlier history of the NLR and the New Left, Lin Chun’s The British New Left (1993), chose to end here, with the revolutionary expectations of 1975 extinguished and the globe-transforming project of neoliberalism entrained. Duncan Thompson’s book, Pessimism of the Intellect?: A History of the New Left Review, covers the Review’s history from 1962 to 2000, when Perry Anderson took back the editorship of the journal and reorganized it for a new era—a turn that, for Thompson, can safely be demarcated as the end of the New Left’s project. The title of his book, a reference to Antonio Gramsci’s (appropriation of Romain Rolland’s) slogan, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” follows the unkillable Marxist tradition of posing questions to which the author already has an answer. Which is to say: this history of the Review discovers that it has indeed been a pessimistic organ, and has done little to gird or direct the leftist will to social transformation.
The argument is not new. From the Review’s inception in 1962, it attracted charges of “rootlessness” and “super-theoreticism” for its failure to develop strategies for confronting capitalism and making a transition to socialism. And it is undeniable that the Review has been committed to analytic rather than strategic work. So a larger question comes into view: what sort of left theory is appropriate to periods of confusion and defeat? And does the sort of politically unaffiliated intellectual work that the Review did (and still does) preserve and develop important but otherwise impossible thought, or does it simply abet the left’s ideological defeat by offering nothing in the way of a solution?
The “first” New Left Review, which ran from 1960 to 1962, was a product of the first (British) New Left: Ralph Miliband, Stuart Hall, Raymond Williams, and E. P. Thompson, among others. In the late ’50s, two journals—the dissident New Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review—served as house organs for this group of intellectuals. Both devoted considerable attention to the pressing issues of the day, especially the Bomb and colonialism. In other respects, the journals resembled their American counterpart Dissent—obsessed by Trotsky and the faltering onward march of labor. On both sides of the Atlantic, the background to all of this was a growing consumer culture—more striking in Britain in contrast with wartime austerity. In the lead editorial of the New Reasoner in the autumn of 1958, the writers complained,
Every few months we watch the skies, expecting half the human race to be cremated for some abstract futility, like the “independence and integrity” of [Camille] Chamoun, or the “honour” of [Harold] MacMillan, or the “monolithic unity” of international Communism, or the “inviolability” of the dug-outs and sandbags of Quenoy.
Then the crisis blows over. People turn off the TV and yawn. It all made a splendid spectacle on “Panorama.” What’s next.
Still: “The work of the analyst must go on.”
It was typical of both journals—unlike the later NLR—to focus on the effects of mass culture upon the working class, which they still hoped would take on its promised role as the main agent of historical change. The mature New Left Review would never explicitly write off the working class—but more promising substitutes would gradually claim its attention, as the NLR followed ’60s radicalism generally by concentrating on students in the first world and impoverished masses in the third.
In 1960, New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review merged to form the New Left Review, the inaugural number of which bore a cover image of a British MP inspecting a nuclear warhead. Stuart Hall’s editorial began and ended with a quote from William Morris, the Victorian socialist and craftsman—decisively establishing the magazine as a British one, firmly rooted in native traditions of socialism. Hall explained that the magazine would include anatomies of political power, class, and ideology, but would also discuss “the cinema” and “teen-age culture,” so as to get closer to the “imaginative resistances of people who have to live within capitalism” and “meet people where they are.”
By 1962, acrimony divided the editors as the journal lost subscribers. Though events abroad—the Cuban revolution, the protests against France’s colonial war in Algeria—might have been promising, at home the wind had been stolen from the sails of independent socialists. The Labor Party, under Harold Wilson, performed a triangulation to soften tensions between its right and left factions, without satisfying either. The British Communist Party, still somewhat aligned with Moscow, had regained the membership that departed after 1956. “What is wrong with the New Left?” the journal had asked in 1961.
In 1963, an extremely young group of New Leftists took over the journal. Whether a “coup” (E. P. Thompson) or “an abdication” (Perry Anderson), this meant the end of the old regime. The modest gap in years but tremendous difference in outlook that separated the first New Left Review from the second probably has its closest American analogy in the difference between the Old Left of Dissent and Commentary and the New (primarily student) Left of the 1960s—of Ramparts and Students for a Democratic Society. As depression and fascism had been decisive for the old groups, so would advanced capitalist prosperity and decolonization be for the new ones. Anderson and his co-editor Robin Blackburn were 24 and 23 when the Review became theirs; the Second World War had ended before they turned 8, and the Spanish Civil War was someone else’s memory.
Thompson is quick to note that the second New Left Review’s opening years were inauspicious: the first three issues after the takeover each arrived over a month late, and twice in two years a volume was missed (only five issues were printed). Left with virtually nothing in the way of an editorial inheritance, the Review survived on its wits—and Anderson’s extensive private means, inherited from a wealthy Anglo-Irish family.
By 1968, the Review had found its footing, and was even running a budget surplus. And once issues began arriving with regularity, it became clear that the second Review was going to emphasize a refinement of a socialist theory far beyond the modest attempts of its predecessor. This was done by importing older Continental work: Georg Lukacs’s critique of Bukharin (from 1925), Walter Benjamin’s “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century” (from the 1930s), and Gramsci’s “Soviets in Italy” (from 1919–20). These texts, along with more recent writings by Frankfurt School theorist Herbert Marcuse and French Communist Party philosopher Louis Althusser, were evidence of the journal’s commitment to “Western Marxism,” a highly philosophical descendant of the classical tradition, which tended to neglect economics and politics proper in favor of an ever more involved theory of capitalist culture. Not that Western Marxism was the only source of theory in those years. Thompson notes that the Review made important assessments of Claude Levi-Strauss and C. Wright Mills—though he fails to add that C. Wright Mills had published his famous “Letter to the New Left” in the first New Left Review, in which he argued that the New Left would do well to move past what he called the “labor metaphysic” (the tendency to focus exclusively on the labor movement) and consider other agents of historical change. In 1965, the spirit of Mills’s sentiment was appropriated by Anderson in “The Left in the Fifties,” which repudiated the model of intellectual life that the first New Left practiced. “Once [the New Left] had ceased to be a purely intellectual grouping,” Anderson wrote, “the hope of becoming a major political movement haunted it, and ended by dissipating its initial assets. . . . Theoretical and intellectual work were sacrificed for a mobilizing role which perpetually escaped it.” This was precisely the mistake—to forego theory for praxis and end up with neither—that Anderson was determined to avoid.
In 1964, Anderson, along with Tom Nairn, had for the first time defined what their “theoretical and intellectual work” should be—in lieu of the mobilizing role that still remained out of reach. The so-called Nairn-Anderson theses argued that England had had its bourgeois revolution (the Revolution of 1640) prematurely; it had taken place a century and a half prior to the Industrial Revolution, during which the newly enriched industrial bourgeoisie merely accommodated itself to the aristocracy. The capitalist class had thus failed to produced a modern bourgeois ideology, against which a proletarian ideology could define itself; even the turn against capitalism took an agrarian form. The 19th-century “Romantic Revolt”—Ruskin, Carlyle, Morris—was reactionary and nostalgic, longing to restore a pre-capitalist idyll that never existed.
This contrarian account of English history placed its emphasis on the transformative function of culture rather than economics or politics. But this alone would not have cemented the Review’s “super-theoreticism.” It took a furious, even unhinged polemic by former NLR board member E. P. Thompson, writing in the Socialist Register, to radicalize positions on both sides. Thompson reaffirmed the conventional wisdom that the British state had made its full passage to modernity, dismissing Nairn and Anderson as “hunting . . . an aristocratic snark.” Even worse, their revisionism represented the abandonment of an indigenous, popular socialist tradition. The spirit of the Nairn-Anderson theses was, in Thompson’s view, Anglophobia combined with “marxistentialism” from the Left Bank.
Nairn and Anderson would have none of this. “The English working class,” Nairn wrote, “immunized against theory like no other class, by its entire historical experience, needed theory like no other.” He added: “It still does.” The New Left Review had committed itself to the task of supplying this missing theory, and to looking abroad if it could not find a serviceable tradition at home. Over the next decade, the journal’s primary intellectual inspiration—as for British and American intellectuals for decades to come—would be French.
By the early 1960s, the recent discovery of Marx’s 1844 “Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” had begun to provide traction for depictions of a more “humanist” or feeling Marx than the cold economist of Capital. Louis Althusser, a philosopher and loyal member of the French Communist Party, made it the task of his career to combat this “humanizing” view of Marx—which, he explained, was nothing more than “a war-horse for petty bourgeois intellectuals in their struggle against [true] Marxism.” Althusser placed great stock in the “scientific” claims of Marx’s work, and held that the revolutionary turns of history operated independently of deliberate human aims. History was a “process without a
subject.” This stark perspective—aligned with French structuralism generally, for which, in Lacan’s famous phrase, the individual subject was a mere “effect of structure”—would make Althusser the most famous Marxist philosopher in the Western world, whose reputation survived in England and America after it had been eclipsed in France. The New Left Review did the most to make Althusser’s writings available to English readers, and his project was essential to the Review’s own approach throughout the ’60s and ’70s. The Althusserian inflection, together with a faith in third world revolution, accounts for the some of the ideological rigidity to be found in the NLR of these years.
Althusser’s first major book, For Marx, situated the intellectual within the broader historical context of Marxist philosophy after Stalin. Althusser insisted, in particular, on the theoretical work that remained to do:
Those who make Stalin responsible in addition to his crimes and faults for all our deceptions, our mistakes and despair in any sphere might be very upset to realize that the end of intellectual dogmatism hasn’t returned to us the Marxist philosophy in its complete form. After all, it is never possible to liberate, even from dogmatism, more than already exists. . . . What the end of dogmatism has restored to us is the right to assess exactly what we have, to give both our wealth and our poverty their true names, to think and pose our problems in the open, and to undertake in rigor a true investigation.
It is a sign of Althusser’s popularity that these lines are delivered almost verbatim by a character in Jean-Luc Godard’s
La Chinoise, from 1967. Godard’s film, widely seen as presaging the student revolts of May 1968, depicts a group of middle-class French youth, the children of Althusser and Coca-Cola, who hole up in a relative’s apartment for the summer holidays and form a Maoist cell.
In fact, for Althusser Maoism was forbidden. The French Communist Party (PCF), closely connected to Moscow at a time of strained relations between the Soviet Union and China, did not abide open professions of support for Mao or the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution” launched by Mao in mid-1966. Nevertheless Althusser had gleaned something from Mao. He referred enthusiastically to Mao’s essay “On Contradiction,” in which Marx’s emphasis on the single contradiction between “the productive forces” and the “relations of production” gives way to a plurality of contradictions that drive history—including contradictions that are principally theoretical in nature. In such an interpretation, ideological changes could affect the economic base. For Althusser, this seemed to confirm his working goal, which was the development of an autonomous Marxist philosophy, one that had little or no contact with day-to-day political wrangling, labor movements, or economics (which he derided, in a Leninist turn of phrase, as “economism”): he wanted la théorie pour la théorie. Little did it matter that “On Contradiction” was one of Mao’s only significant theoretical essays, and that it would have been unknown save for Mao’s undeniable practical achievement—the capture of power in the world’s most populous country.
Jacques Rancière, a former student of Althusser, would later explain his teacher’s extreme theoreticism as an outgrowth of 1960s France—a situation we might be more apt to identify simply as life in the rich countries after the Second World War. Few French militants, Rancière pointed out, had any hope of a political revolution in an advanced capitalist nation; all the socialist takeovers had occured where the industrial proletariat were fewest and the bourgeoisie least entrenched: Russia, China, Cuba, and—soon—Vietnam. There were no models for engaging with the complicated strata of the advanced capitalist state; even less was there an adequate Marxist theory of the bourgeois state. The task of first-world Marxists would be to develop one.
In May of ’68, the unthinkable—an apparent revolution within an advanced capitalist state enjoying prosperity and relative peace—suddenly flashed out across France, as protests, originally over free speech for university students, migrated from the dormitories of Nanterre to the shop-floors of factories all over the country, culminating in a general strike by all major trade unions. France was momentarily crippled and seemingly on the verge of revolution—a possibility that all the theories had explicitly ruled out. And where was Althusser? Sick with some kind of nervous malady, it would later turn out, and unable to participate. Graffiti on the walls of the École Normale Supérieure, where he was a professor, called him out: “A quoi sert, Althusser? Althusser, Plekhanov, même combat!” [What’s the use of Althusser? Althusser, Plekhanov, same deal!] Plekhanov, in the midst of 1917, had declared Russia unripe for revolution.
By the time Althusser returned to health, the “events” of May ’68 had fizzled out. Fearing their future electoral strength would be compromised, Communist Party officials denounced the revolt as the work of anarchists, and strenuously demobilized the strike, locking factory gates all over the country to prevent further occupations. It was no use: the PCF lost heavily to the Gaullists in the ensuing June elections. Althusser himself was cautiously optimistic about what the May events signaled—but he could not square this optimism with his theory. His output after 1968, markedly diminished in power, argued for “class struggle in theory,” reducing the magnificent sentence of The Communist Manifesto (“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle”) to an inter-academic debate, largely among people of the same class.
The New Left Review was a strong and—by its standards—passionate supporter of the French strike. Its issue-long treatment of the Paris spring, which made a somewhat sluggish appearance five months after the fact, carried a lead editorial promising a future for revolutionary socialism in wealthy countries: “Now Berlin, Rome, New York, London, San Francisco stand alongside Tunis, Montevideo and Mexico City.” But if articles from the journal throughout the early ’70s confirm the sense of absolute joy in the possibilities of upheaval, the NLR nevertheless for the most part took the long view, rather than seeing revolution around the corner. The Review’s theoretical work had become free and autonomous, without expected political consequence: in other words, Althusserian. E. P. Thompson, in his second great attack on the NLR, “The Poverty of Theory” (1978), made this point explicit: ostensibly focusing on Althusser himself, he found the NLR guilty by association.
The journal’s aloofness persisted even when articles reflected the first New Left’s goal of “meeting people where they are” by discussing cultural matters. During the ’60s, the Review ran many reviews of contemporary literature, music, film, and theater, including an impressive series on jazz, giving particular attention to Sonny Rollins and Cecil Taylor. Under the pseudonym “Richard Merton,” Perry Anderson made a case for the Stones over the Beatles. But as the ’70s wore on, reviews of new work in any artistic medium dropped out altogether. Writing on culture became relegated to authors like Frederic Jameson and Terry Eagleton: among the most astute literary critics of their generation, but possessed of a distant, professorial gaze.
The ’70s seemed at the time to be the Review’s heyday. Thompson quotes from internal editorial documents which suggest that the organization had never achieved such consensus. In 1974, the confidential “Decennial report” claimed that “NLR might be said to have finally attained relative ideological maturity—a stabilisation of its outlook on the basis of an open and critical revolutionary marxism.” Six years later, a memo reflecting on the intervening time suggested that the journal had reached “a more compact and reasoned political consensus within NLR than at any time in its past.” Meanwhile, a third of the world was either non- or anti-capitalist, and it seemed briefly that the rest might be moving the NLR’s way. The decade would see the publication of overdue work on socialist feminism by Sheila Rowbotham; Ian Steedman on Piero Sraffa’s challenge to Marx’s theory of value; Robert Brenner on the “Origins of Capitalist Development”; and more translations of Adorno, Lukacs, Althusser, Lucio Colletti, and Nicos Poulantzas, bringing to completion its “Western Marxist” phase.
During this time, many of the Review’s editorial members worked on other publications, particularly student broadsheets. These side projects have an air of passion and liveliness—in short, of youth—that this period of the Review distinctly lacks. But each folded in less than two years. According to internal reports quoted by Thompson, these failures were felt as major setbacks; in losing these external libertarian socialist venues, the NLR lost allies that carried its influence farther than its own format ever could. Meanwhile the decade slid into disappointment. Worst of all was the failure of the Portuguese Revolution, where the chances for an advanced socialism—of abundance rather than scarcity—had seemed best. In 1976, the Review published Anderson’s “Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci,” a seventy-page analysis and critique of one of the journal’s main theoretical forebears. It was meant to be, as Anderson would later describe it, “a balance-sheet of the last great strategic debate of the international labour movement, for struggles still pending.” But—written in the wake of the Portuguese disaster—its effect was somewhat different. “When it appeared,” Anderson has recalled, “I received a letter from my friend Franco Moretti in Italy, the country still most buffeted by social turbulence, telling me that I had written a farewell in fitting style to the revolutionary Marxist tradition. In those days, this was not a verdict I was disposed to accept. But, not for the last time, his judgment proved better than mine.”
Every story of a periodical has a villain: histories of the New Yorker cite Tina Brown, the crass popularizer; for Commentary’s drastic right turn, it’s Norman Podhoretz; and for Duncan Thompson, the NLR’s fatal “pessimism” comes directly from Perry Anderson.
No term of opprobrium better captures Anderson’s achievement than the one used frequently to describe him and his journal: “Olympian.” He writes from a great height, with conviction and unyielding forcefulness, like a god. Christopher Hitchens, a former NLR contributor, recently described Anderson as “the most polymathic, and at the same time the most profound, essayist currently wielding a pen” (muttering, in the same breath, that by opposing the Iraq war and other American interventions he had placed himself on the wrong side of history). In the last fifteen years or so, Anderson has developed an impressive late style, simultaneously epigrammatic and expansive, flexible enough to deliver in a few thousand words a definitive intellectual biography or sum up the life of a nation. His generous assessment of Frederic Jameson’s style—“the spacious rhythms of a complex, yet supple syntax . . . enact the absorption of so many variegated sources in the theory itself; while the sudden bursts of metaphoric intensity, exhilarating figural leaps with a high-wire éclat all of their own, stand as emblems of the bold diagonal moves, closer to a poetic than analytic intelligence, with which this work unexpectedly cross-connects disparate signs of the total phenomenon in view”—better describes his own.
In Thompson’s history, these virtues do not receive their due. Instead, Anderson is considered the source of the Review’s overwhelming “pessimism of the will.” Thompson attempts to substantiate his charge against Anderson through brief close readings of his published work—more exhaustively done by Blackledge and Gregory Elliott—and through gossipy accounts of the Review’s internal history.
From Anderson’s “coup” in the early 1960s through the end of his first editorship in the early 1980s, when he took up a teaching position at UCLA, Anderson set and rigorously maintained the Review’s intellectual bent. When the Review was supposedly running at its smoothest and when its outward appearance was most confident, the peace was due to Anderson’s “overbearing presence,” as Thompson puts it. The outward calm sometimes masked serious internal disputes: board members diverged from Anderson on several published articles, to little avail, and, as a result, “personal relations deteriorated,” according to an internal report. In many cases, the final products bear the scars of what one former editor has described as Anderson’s “ruthless comradely criticism.” Essays would emerge from the Review office “heavily processed,” overwhelmed by Althusserian-Maoist injunctions that did not necessarily reflect the author’s intentions. In 1977, New Left Books (now Verso) suffered a walkout of its employees and the resignation of its director in solidarity, in a crisis “precipitated,” according to an internal report, by Anderson—the same report called this “the worst crisis in the history of the [R]eview.” In 1980, Anderson confidentially admitted the need for “a different kind of editorial temperament” than his own, which arose out of “conditions of isolation and beleaguerement [sic]” and “the stockade mentality” of the NLR’s past.
In 1983, 1986, and 1993, during Robin Blackburn long tenure (1983–99) as official editor-in-chief, there were more crises, both financial and editorial, in which major editorial figures were forced to leave. The most recent crisis, in which thirteen board members were ejected and majority stakes in the magazine were transferred to Perry Anderson, his brother, the historian Benedict Anderson, and former board member Ronald Fraser, became the subject of a lurid feature story in the Guardian, larded with post-Soviet sarcasm. The New Left Review—or the What’s Left Review, the Few Left Review, et cetera—was being prepared for the infamous dustbin of history.
If the ’80s and ’90s were an era of political defeat for the left in general, it was an era that Anderson had seemed to anticipate. In 1976, he published the slim conspectus Considerations on Western Marxism, which criticized the tradition that the Review had promoted: Lukacs, Benjamin, Adorno, Karl Korsch, Althusser, Colletti, della Volpe. Born out of the defeat of European labor movements, Western Marxism, Anderson argued, was itself a philosophy of pessimism and defeat. Confined largely to philosophy, rather than the classical Marxist heritage of socialist strategy and economics, it was the profession of children of the bourgeoisie, confined to universities, who had little faith or interest in the working class. Gramsci alone was excepted—before being dispatched a year later. Considerations was the closest that Anderson came to a wholesale self-indictment—after all, the NLR under his editorship had inflated the stock of Western Marxism like no other journal.
Meanwhile the historical situation of an intellectual-socialist journal had changed. In retrospect, the unprecedented postwar expansion of the universities in England and America—which for a time produced a student population that saw itself as in league with the working class—had been an important precondition of the New Left, and this expansion had decisively slowed. At the same time, the new Right, especially in the US but also in Britain, had launched its long “culture war,” one that by the early ’80s had successfully cast intellectuals as despisers of the working class. Those who claimed to wish to improve the lot of workers now incurred charges of condescension, or worse, with monotonous regularity. And as the habits of the rich themselves became plebeian—dressing poorly, using “bad” language, watching “bad” movies—it came to seem that intellectuals rather than the rich were the enemies of working-class culture. Not to make a million dollars a year but to pronounce correctly a word like Althusser identified the foe. All of this testified to the correctness of the NLR’s belief in the decisive importance of theory and culture—but not in the way they had imagined.
And yet the NLR’s analyses of the ’80s were angrier, tougher, and more immediate than previous work. Blackburn’s editorship was personally and financially rocky, but under his direction the NLR ran some of its most impressive essays, including Mike Davis on Los Angeles; Ernest Mandel on the Soviet economy, which provoked major debate on planned economies and market socialism; and Frederic Jameson’s epoch-defining “Postmodernism; or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.” Tariq Ali and Davis, a peace and a labor activist respectively, joined the editorial board, and their contributions proudly bore the marks of their political experience—even if it was experience of failure. The principal alternative philosophy in those days was post-structuralism, which the socialists at the NLR saw as obscurantism. Their resolute opposition to fashion sharpened and clarified their own now distinctly unmodish work. It was as if the loss of political hope proved unexpectedly energizing.
For his part, Anderson relinquished his hopes gradually. In the 1982 Wellek Library lectures, collected under the title In the Tracks of Historical Materialism, Anderson redefined “the crisis of Marxism” as a mere “crisis of Latin Marxism” confined to France, the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy; in Germany, the work of Jürgen Habermas, and in Britain and the United States, Marxist historiography, evinced a robust, even resurgent Marxism. It was here that Anderson’s “super-theoreticism” had most visibly failed to keep up with his lucid understanding of the world. The “crisis of Marxism” was not a crisis in theory, but a historical crisis of politics and economics. “Actually existing socialism” had failed—repeatedly—to produce a society that was more attractive than societies under capitalism, in any sphere: political freedom, availability of goods and services, cultural vibrancy. As Marxist writing approached, asymptotically, a theoretical perfection, the consequences of its essential correctness became less and less evident. In 1989, the lucid, pained recognition that Anderson might have had in 1982 came to him belatedly, as it came to many that year. With a brilliant 100-page essay on Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, Anderson seemed truly to bid farewell to revolutionary Marxism. He acknowledged the fragmentation of the labor movement; he pointed to the danger of European social democratic parties remodeling themselves along the lines of the American Democratic Party; he conceded the unviability of centrally planned economies and made modest suggestions about integrating markets into socialism. He sounded like—as one of the characters in La Chinoise might have put it—“a bourgeois revisionist.”
For Duncan Thompson, it is this trajectory—Olympianism to pessimism—that defines the journal overall. And yet it is as he reaches end of his story that Thompson’s category of “pessimism” rings most hollow. How would it have been possible for someone of Anderson’s political views to greet 1991 with optimistic forecasts for socialism? “Pessimism” is one word for this attitude, but reasonableness or sobriety might be another. The New Left Review can’t fairly be tasked with failing to advance the socialist stratagems that would have defeated neoliberalism unless those stratagems indeed existed, and were neglected by Anderson and his colleagues. Pessimism makes sense as a charge only where optimism would have been credible. And in the absence of any realistic program for mobilizing socialism, the Review could only fall back on what Marx called the ruthless criticism of all that exists.
In 2000, the journal inaugurated a new series, starting over with number one. In the first issue, Anderson described two dominating reactions to the new steel-hard shell of the neoliberal order. One was “accommodation,” in which one submitted to capitalism’s ineluctable victory; the other was “consolation,” in which moist but unfounded thoughts of future utopias merely greased the system’s wheels. A footnote briefly indicated another, less common reaction: “resignation—in other words, a lucid recognition of the nature and triumph of the system, without either adaptation or self-deception, but also without any belief in the chance of an alternative to it.” Thompson takes this to be Anderson’s and the New Left Review’s own position.
Such a low estimation goes too far. If Anderson argues that “no collective agency able to match the power of capital is yet on the horizon,” a few sentences later he notes that “only in the evolution of this order could lie the secrets of another one.” Both statements are irrefutable, and neither is evidence of resignation. An unyielding attention to the dynamics of capitalism, a commitment to searching out and finding movements that may yet challenge the ruling order: these are the traces of a still resilient belief in another world, even if more immediate hopes have been terribly, but realistically, diminished.
In 2005, the most successful American journal of the postwar period closed after a distinguished history. The Public Interest was founded in 1965, edited by Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol. From the outset, it had been devoted to a putatively anti-ideological program. This meant that it would, as the lead editorial of the first issue put it, “make room for the ‘dull’ article that merely reports the truth about a matter under public discussion.” It had strict rules on content: everything was to relate to domestic policy in the United States. It would publish no articles on Vietnam, the Cold War, or other issues of major interest in those years. Public busing, school funding, city planning, standardized tests, tax policy: these were the severely boring topics that it addressed. It would also be a magazine aimed exclusively at middle-aged, middle-class people. “Young people tend to be enchanted by glittering generalities; older people are inclined to remember rather than to think; middle-aged people, seasoned by life but still open to the future, do seem to us—in our middle years—to be the best of all political generations.”
Surely no other magazine has begun with so little excitement. And yet as it crept from middle age to old age, and its members moved predictably from a critical liberalism to neoconservatism (the ideological change prompted Bell to resign as editor in 1973 and from the publications committee in 1982), it managed to wield a greater influence on public policy than any comparable journal. The Public Interest was the first space to devote serious attention to, and eventually to advocate, the folly of “supply-side economics.” As Irving Kristol tells it, the tedious explanations of rising tax revenues guaranteed by lower tax rates found support in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page editor, Bruce Bartlett, who presented the theory in a more popular form. In this way Arthur Laffer’s curve migrated from a bar napkin to the desks of Reagan and Thatcher. Neoliberalism—“the most successful ideology in world history,” Anderson called it—drew strength from The Public Interest. The case for welfare reform had its first airing there in the work of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democratic senator from New York, and Charles Murray, a professor of sociology. President Clinton—like Moynihan, a Democrat—would sign a draconian welfare bill into law in 1996, a feat which Reagan himself was unable to accomplish. These organic connections to power, which might have embarrassed a journal of the left, only confirmed The Public Interest’s middle-aged, bow-tied clear-headedness. It was one of the favorite magazines of the sinister David Brooks.
Reading the New Left Review now, something of a “middle-aged”-ness might seem to have come over it as well. In its new design, it no longer carries banner headlines, and editorials are written by individuals, not any kind of “collective.” Its special issues are devoted to academic topics. If pessimism does not account for this change, mere age—Anderson, for example, is 71—might. But where The Public Interest grew comfortably into its role as a generator of immediately useful ideas, no comparable movement has taken place with the Review. Thompson seems to desire such a transformation—if not from the Review, then from the socialist left more generally—but none appears forthcoming.
In this regard, the particular age in which the New Left generation lived might also be, in the final analysis, determining. Ellen Wood, a former Review editorial member, argued persuasively in a 1995 article in the Socialist Register that the moment of greatest possibility for the left—1968—may have been due to the fortuitous coincidence of two autonomous trends: the height of labor militancy and the radicalization of the student population due to the Vietnam War. But neither depended on the other; the merger of the two into the “chemical formula” that the Review championed in 1968 was, again, coincidental. The inexorable drift of radical students into the academy, where they could escape or postpone the consequences of neoliberalism, confirmed their distance from the labor movement, which went on to crushing defeat in the early ’80s without many of its former student allies around to stand up and protest.
But defeat is native to Marxism, the product of a German émigré who fled the defeat of 1848 to write his works in exile. It goes without saying that Marx’s own work inflects the Review—and books about the Review—like no other. The indebtedness shows itself in constant allusions to Marx’s most famous lines. “Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the Prophets”; “Capitalism comes into the world dripping from head to toe in blood and dirt”; “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”—these quotes weigh like a nightmare on the mind of the New Left Review. It is Marx’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach, however, that critics of Anderson and the Review wield most often and effectively: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it.” It is thus, under the crushing burden Marx laid upon his followers, that the New Left Review is most often taken to task. Why did the journal never make common cause with existing social movements? Why were all its major battles conducted in the realm of analysis, rather than strategy? This, in the view of people like Duncan Thompson, is to side with interpretation rather than change.
But beneath the claim that thought is not enough by itself, that a battle on the level of ideas is not “actual politics,” lies a sinister anti-intellectualism (the companion of a persistent demagogic strain in left politics). Debates about theory, in such a view, have no effect unless they are tied from the outset to some actual movement on the ground. This is a claim without merit. Thompson criticizes Anderson for calling neoliberalism “the most successful ideology in world history,” without any real rivals in the “thought-system” of the West: the problem, in Thompson’s view, is that Anderson again makes the “thought-world” his privileged subject, rather than the real world. But it is Thompson who is politically out of touch here. Neoliberalism won as an ideology, with Friedrich von Hayek and Milton Friedman as its brilliant expositors and The Public Interest as one of its journals, long before it had its dazzling political debut in the figures of Reagan and Thatcher in the global North, Deng Xiaoping and Augusto Pinochet in the global South. Marx himself was tied to politics (and a failed politics) only in the first and last thirds of his adult life; in his most productive period, when he wrote the first volume of Capital, he was a theoretician. And for the years that immediately followed Capital’s publication, it could be said—as E. P. Thompson said of the Review’s “Western Marxist” phase—that a “mountain of thought” failed to give birth to “one political mouse.” Except that thought does not die with a thinker, and Marx’s revenge came in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949, in Cuba in 1959, in Vietnam in 1975—and now, it seems, in 2009, when neoliberalism has suffered a spectacular crisis that must have caught Thompson, like everyone, unawares.
Yet it turns out that the Review itself—nearly alone among left-wing journals—had been waiting for the moment all along. As early as 1992, in his Fukuyama essay, Anderson noted that capitalism was masking its declining dynamism with an enormous and reckless expansion of credit. Similar notes were sounded in Mike Davis’s “Reaganomics’ Magical Mystery Tour,” Robin Blackburn’s “Finance and the Fourth Dimension,” and Giovanni Arrighi’s analysis of the US as the latest in a line of debt-encumbered declining capitalist hegemons, stretching from the Italian city states through the Dutch United Provinces of the 16th century and Britain during its long imperial summer. In 1998, the NLR devoted an entire issue to Robert Brenner’s audacious analysis—amply vindicated by recent events—of the American inflation of asset prices and the Japanese-style bust he believed would ensue. Work of this left-wing tenor and analytic seriousness was hard to find in any other general interest publication. The New Left Review may not, in fact, be the journal of the moment—it betrays no signs of a generational renewal, with nearly all of its editorial committee over the age of 60—and of course no one journal will suffice for thinking through the crisis. Still, it has left a tremendous archive of material for guidance—nearly fifty years of a generation’s best political thought. Neoliberalism’s success lasted about thirty years, or about the period between generations, from Reagan’s and Thatcher’s victories and Deng’s first liberalizing moves, through the crash of 2008. During this period, the intellectual prestige enjoyed by neoliberalism was an important part of its legitimacy. If now, after the darkest years in a century and half of Marxism, a powerful socialist way of thinking remains part of our thought-system, we have principally the New Left Review to thank. What seemed like mere interpretation may yet be rescued for change.