Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A quarterly for Marxist theory

Much has been made of the fiftieth anniversary of New Left Review (see for example the eulogy by Stefan Collini in the Guardian last week) and the commemorative issue (61, Jan-Feb, 2010) is indeed really excellent - with contributions from everyone from Perry Anderson and Tariq Ali through to Mike Davis and Robin Blackburn via Eric Hobsbawm and Stuart Hall and so on. The editorial by Susan Watkins is also noteworthy, and end as follows:

When the Review was founded, as Stuart Hall vividly evokes in this issue, forging a ‘new left’ was an immediate practical project; in the second decade of the 21st century, it is one for the longue durée. But the journal can still think about how to prefigure the general intellectual culture that an effective—therefore, pluralist and internationalist—left would require. By definition, such a movement would defend the conditions for a broader and richer critical culture, a more engaged political practice, a more conscious economics; would be as hard-headed and determined as the power it confronts. However notionally, this is the horizon to be borne in mind as a younger layer comes to the fore. In its early years, the Review benefited a great deal from the overlap of political generations in the two journals that came together to found it, as a joint project. The editors of the New Reasoner, born in the 1920s, fought in the War and mainly acquired their political education through the cpgb. The young writers and critics around Universities and Left Review were more attuned to the new cultural currents and social rebellion. Today the generational overlap stretches much farther—the ageing society proving an unexpected boon for the left. Hobsbawm, Hall and others share its pages with writers not yet born in 1960: Malcolm Bull in the fields of aesthetics and philosophy; Gopal Balakrishnan, Dylan Riley or Benno Teschke on political theory; Zhang Yongle on Chinese intellectual history; Tony Wood and Forrest Hylton on Russia and Latin America; Cihan Tuğal and Ece Temelkuran on Turkey; Kasian Tejapira on Thailand, Peter Hallward on Haiti; Sebastian Budgen or Alexander Zevin on France; Tom Mertes and Naomi Klein on new social movements; Sven Lütticken, Julian Stallabrass and Emilie Bickerton on the visual arts.

If anything, the inter-generational contrast is starker now than it was in 1960. The editors who saw the Review through its first few decades came of age in a still strongly delineated national culture and public sphere, in which social classes were tangible realities; they hit their intellectual stride in the mid-60s, a time of intense commitments on the left, with victory seemingly within reach; positions were forged and argued within a highly politicized and internationalist milieu. Today’s young writers have grown up within far more depoliticized cultural and intellectual environments, structured by the market and mediated, for better or worse, by electronic forms of sociability. Flares of protest have been ephemeral; every mobilization they have known—alter-globo, climate change, marches against the invasion of Iraq—has ended in defeat. But perhaps the very rarity of a serious left forum in these times makes a journal like nlr more valued. The thought-world of the West is increasingly patterned by Atlantic-centred structures of wealth and power. University disciplines—international relations, economics, law, social sciences, area studies—derive their curricula from the narrowing perspectives of its rulers’ needs. A neutralized academic Marxism risks being the unwitting reflection of this trend. nlr stands outside this world, defines its own agenda. Can a left intellectual project hope to thrive in the absence of a political movement? That remains to be seen. But in the meantime it will have plenty on its plate.

The tone is still overly pessimistic, but the attack on 'a neutralized academic Marxism' is interesting, while the discussion of inter-generationality and the Left is a critical matter - as the recent passing of the likes of Peter Gowan, John Saville, Daniel Bensaid, Chris Harman and Howard Zinn - to name only some of the most notable has only too sadly made apparent. Anyway, on a more cheery note, it is also worth remarking that much of the entire first series of International Socialism - which celebrated its fiftieth birthday a little while back - is now online over at the Marxists Internet Archive, and in honour of this I will reproduce the very first editorial dated from 1 September 1958 and entitled - in a very down to earth and unpretentious manner, Introducing the journal

The shocked generation in Labour movement history is slowly passing on. The decline in Western Capitalism – however protracted – is steadily undermining the stranglehold of Reformism, its servant, over the working class. Stalinism – the ideological expression of the State Capitalist world – is losing its potency as an alternative. Once again, the international working class is looking to its own resources for strength and inspiration.

In this, Marxism has a crucial role to play. A science of action, constantly assimilating and formulating the experiences of the international working class, it is the most biting weapon in the struggle against class society on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

We present International Socialism as a small contribution to Marxist thought. Its function is to bring the traditions of scientific socialism to bear on the constantly changing pattern of class struggle, to help clarify its nature and conversely, to keep the science of working class action a living one and not the compendium of quotations to which it is so often and so tragically reduced.

One limitation will be obvious to readers. This first issue will be found too heavily biased towards economic problems. We hope, in future, to grow in scope to include every aspect of working class activity, that is, every aspect of the class struggle and the fight for socialism.

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