The Lefts and Letters of Peter Sedgwick: Part Two

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Sedge letter

Having joined the Socialist Review Group, Sedgwick’s perspectives were shaped by a dual loyalty. To the SRG, then a party of only around 40 people, he paid subs, he gave meetings, and he sold the Group’s magazine Socialist Review. The most likely source of recruits for the new group came from those, like Sedgwick himself, who had been members of the Communist Party. More of the former Communists found a home in the New Left, but this milieu was both larger and smaller than SRG. It was larger in its audience, its resources, its presence in the press and on television and yet smaller in the demands that the New Left made on most of its members, and in the opportunities they were given to shape the politics of the movement. In a 1964 obituary for the New Left (published in SRG’s successor IS’, theoretical magazine International Socialism), Sedgwick listed some of assets of the early New Left, starting with its offices in Soho, housed above the New Left’s Partisan coffee shop:

“The uppermost floor held the editorial-cum-administrative office for the publications and groupings of the movement; the latter included the Universities and Left Review Club (1957-8; re-christened New Left Review Club from 1959 on), which used to attract hundreds to weekly lectures and discussions in the larger basements of central London, and further regular meetings were held by such autonomous sections as the Education, History of Socialism, Left Scientists, Social Priorities and Literature groups, the International Forum, and the London Schools Left Club, a self-governing unit for youngsters still at school. Between thirty and forty local Left Clubs ran on a modest scale outside London, mostly either in the South-East or in the industrial North (including Scotland)” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1964/08/2newlefts.htm).

The best indication of sheer scale is the initial subscription base of Universities and Left Review (2,500 by the time of issue 1) and the merged New Left Review (8,000). In the same 1964 article Sedgwick spoke of the New Left’s “expansive and apparently tireless dynamism”, beside which it seems almost churlish to recall Tony Cliff’s contemporary joke: “For the New Left, what is theory? A speech by Edward Thompson. And what is practice? Going to hear an Edward Thompson speech.”

Sedgwick attended the meetings of the New Left and wanted it to flourish. And yet by early 1960, Sedgwick had begun to warn of the movement’s limits. The first issue of New Left Review had proposed in an editorial (penned by Stuart Hall) that the New Left should keep some distance from the Labour Party: “Where the candidates are good, we should concentrate our forces, swing the enthusiasm of a Left Club behind someone who will vote NO to the Bomb, when the rest of the parliamentary fraternity troop through the door into no-man’s land: where the candidate is weak, bad, compromising, we – should withdraw away from political blackmail as if from the plague.” Sedgwick replied with the fable of Lidchester Left Club, sending its canvassers to four neighbouring constituencies, where the attempt to vote as left as its members could had resulted in the Club backing four different parties.

“For the Old Left”, Sedgwick concluded (with “old left” standing for “Marxist left”, i.e. the CP at one time and the SRG now), “a vote for Labour was a vote for a national movement independently representing the working class as a social and political force. The personalities and principles of the candidates (including the leadership) might be equally repulsive, and those of his Tory or Liberal opponents enlightened and decent as far as they went (which might, in some individual cases, go quite far). Nonetheless, one voted Labour, and, given the courage of one’s convictions, got other people to vote Labour too. The Old Left primitives, unschooled as they were in contemporary thinking, would say that a mass Labour vote is an outstanding index of at least some form of class-consciousness. Reformism (or Labourism as it is now sometimes called), despite its inadequacies and betrayals, is at least a working-class ideology, involving as it does the separate organisation of the workers even for limited ends, and the participation of the trade union movement in national politics” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/sedgwick/1960/02/lidchester.htm).

The recurring theme of Sedgwick’s critique of the New Left was a rejection of its disappointment with the working class. On this occasion, that emphasis would cause him to argue for a Labour vote irrespective of the Labour candidate. As the next five years wore on, he would more often criticise the New Left for a dependence on Labour which falsely compensated for its own declining organisation.

One ally that Sedgwick had kept from his time with the Communists was Raph Samuel, who had also left the CP in early 1957, and their correspondence from the 1960s gives a flavour of their continuing friendship. Just as Sedgwick was at a turning point of his political development so was Samuel. In 1962, Samuel would secure his defining employment, as a lecturer at Ruskin College in Oxford. Ruskin was a union college, and its typical course involved a year’s release for working-class students, nominated by their union for a sabbatical from their work duties. In 1967, Samuel helped to found the History Workshop movement, which pioneered history from below, starting very often with the oral histories told by Ruskin students or others from working class backgrounds. Samuel’s lectures were packed, with students from different Ruskin courses and from outside the College playing truant from their official studies to attend. Samuel was an inspiring, encouraging figure. He was also, in many respects, the very opposite of the figure of the professional insurrectionary. While revolutionaries are supposed to be disciplined and rigorous, Samuel was constantly losing himself in his latest enthusiasm, causing deadlines to be missed and projects shelved. A typical Ruskin memory would involve Samuel setting off on his lecture, shuffling his weight from foot to foot, and carrying on walking as he spoke, only to wake up from his own reverie halfway down Oxford’s Walton Street, to wonder aloud what he and his audience were doing there.

Samuel’s Theatres of Memory: volume 1, his 1994 magnum opus, reads less like the work of Chernyshevky’s Rakhmetov (who trained himself to read Marx by sleeping on a bed of nails) than Peter Jackson’s Radagast the Brown. Its positive utopia combines Camra, Covent Garden and the Body Shop in an eclectic idealisation of popular memory (“heritage”). But the Raph Samuel of the late 1950s and early 1960s remained to a considerable extent the “fanatic”, recalled by his fiancée Jean McCrindle who had won Sedgwick to Marxism, “He was a brilliant student and he wouldn’t take no for an answer when arguing with potential Party recruits.”

Samuel’s articles for Universities and Left Review included in 1958 a blistering attack on the French Communist Party for having paved the way to De Gaulle by its failure to stand unequivocally against the Algerian War: “It called for peace in Algeria—but in the spring of 1956, searching desperately for parliamentary unity with the socialists, it voted the special powers under which Mollet was to extend the Algerian war and fetter the opposition to that war … [T]he Party had a higher reason, a supreme value to which all else could be trimmed and, if necessary, sacrificed: its one absolute was the Party itself.” In the same year, Samuel responded to the 1958 race riots by questioning the response of Labour and the trade union movement: “The TUC, focussing attention upon the activities of Mosley and the Union Movement, evaded the critical problem of Notting Hill: the problem of what had happened to its people. Nothing was said about the xenophobia of many labour voters, evident at the time of Suez and swelling with the war in Cyprus, and the riots themselves. And so Notting Hill was not seen as a challenge to Labour, as a demonstration that even the most human legislation … cannot serve substitute for the wining of men’s minds in the here and now to the values of human brotherhood which must always be the principal function of a socialist movement.” And in a third Universities and Left Review article, from 1959, Samuel had bemoaned the way in which capitalism annexed ever wider areas of human experience; “we live in a business civilisation, and the boss, for the present, is in command.” There may have been phrases in any of these articles which Sedgwick would have queried; but Samuel’s tenor and general approach remained the same as his.

One letter from Sedgwick to Samuel is from 1960, “The Cliffs and [Michael] Kidron were here today & yesterday. A good time was had by all. Cliff still thinks of himself as Trotskyist and Kidron doesn’t.”

Sedgwick referred to the 1960 strike of Liverpool Seamen, part of which was a revolt by supporters of a rank-and-file group the National Seamen’s Reform Movement against the leadership of the National Union of Seamen (NUS) after the Executive of the NUS had accepted a pay offer without consulting its members. They were striking for a 44-hour week and a £4 a month pay rise. The SLL was actively supporting the seamen, as was almost everyone else on the far left, with the notable exception of Eric Heffer, a 1956-era CP-ex member, Labour councillor, recently a fellow-traveller of SRG, and a future Labour Left MP.

“The seamen are going strong”, Sedgwick wrote, “The Trades Council mediated, which meant giving a platform for [the NUS’ Assistant General Secretary] Scott to try and get the men to go back to work, with the magnanimous offer of a branch meeting after they had all gone back to the sea. Eric Heffer was, I am afraid, involved in it all to the hilt. Good job he decided not to join Socialist Review after all.”

Why would Samuel have been interested in news of a local activist who had not joined SRG, and the pending birth of a child to an SRG couple? Sedgwick clearly thought that more was at stake than merely his student friendship with Samuel. He assumed Samuel knew who Kidron and Cliff were – and while the former had been part of the left in Oxford in recent years, and had even written for the New Reasoner in autumn 1959 (https://www.marxists.org/archive/kidron/works/1960/02/limits.htm) Cliff did not have the same local or national profile. It seems that Sedgwick saw Samuel, and therefore the editors of the New Left Review, as sympathetic allies likely to be interested in news of another, friendly grouping on the left.

In 1961, Samuel telephoned Sedgwick to ask him to participate in the New Left Review, from which Edward Thompson was being slowly removed, in favour of the man who we now know would be his long-term successor, Perry Anderson. Sedgwick was unable to take the call and responded by letter:

“I had not realized that it was so important for you that I contribute in some sort of way to the new NLR. I find it heart moving that you should phone me about it, although I also feel that it argues some isolation on your part that my participation on your part should be so keenly asked. Of course you must understand that I am in at least two minds over NLR, even NLR with you and Denis [Butt] and Gary and Perry [Anderson] running it. And I don’t think I’m alone in this, nor even that it’s a matter of IS people. NLR has had a long run for its money, and an awful lot of people have been wounded or even embittered by the ancient regime, and in any case have evolved a political life and set of habits in which NLR has not loomed at all large.”

“Of course I am pleased that the good fight has been fought and (so far as we see) won on the NLR E[ditorial] B[oard], and especially that you have been fighting and winning it. Only today, writing a review for IS, I found myself referring to the new left in the third person. I corrected it, but after some thought.” Sedgwick welcomed Anderson and Samuel’s present ascendancy over Thompson, but expressed his scepticism that there was any more an audience for the New Left Review.

“[T]here is no longer a rank-and–file New Left (as distinct from a new Left). The malaise of the Clubs, I am sure now, is something deep-rooted and irreversible. People are just too busy on activities to be able to afford the time and the concern with politics-as-a-whole that we would like to see. Either that or they are played out, either obviously or under the guise of Labour Party Politics. If not in the Clubs, where is there a readership for the portmanteau politics-and- life periodical? Where else can one flog it for one thing? I don’t despair of this centrifugality (I think that this is the [Michael] Kidron term), but it probably has to be dealt with as S[ocialist] R[eview] is doing, but latching on to the bits that are flying apart and flying with them, part of the way at least (by having a Y[oung] S[ocialists’], and an industrial, and a theoretical, and a general journal).”

IS had not achieved all this yet; but plans for a set of publications were in hand: the YS journal would be Young Guard (jointly run with the foreunners of Militant), the industrial journal Labour Worker, ultimately Socialist Worker. The theoretical magazine Socialist Review was giving way to a quarterly, International Socialism.

Sedgwick continued with a call for a magazine that felt less culturally middle class, comparing New Left Review to the sorts of articles that you might find on the Third Programme (ie Radio 3) or in a Sunday newspaper: “Then too I have a feeling that the Left’s publications should have some flavour of scruffiness and unestablishment; [and] should be right outside the intellectual currency of the Third programme talk and the fashionable reference in the weekly culture-dispenser. NLR has a hell of a past to live down in this respect, and I don’t know if it can fade into a decent obscurity among people who matter.”

“All this is horribly negative, and (believe me) I am aware of the potentialities, prospects, etc, on the other side. I have in fact been arguing with Mike about it, he being very much more sceptical about any good coming out of the new NLR.”

A further letter from July 1961 returned to Samuel’s difficulties on the NLR board:

“I have seen no evidence”, Sedgwick replied, “to suggest that NLR can in fact recover. EP T[hompson]’s organisational proposals are, as you say, the resuscitation of a corpse by a corpse. On the other hand, your and Dennis [Butt]’s proposals for a change of heart are useless without a change of personnel…”

Sedgwick’s solution was preserved for his next letter: “A pity if you trap yourself inside NLR … There is a lot of much healthier activity incipient. Sooner or later, Edward [Thompson], you and IS will have to amalgamate.”

Could the idea of an IS-New Left merger have worked? Thompson rarely had good words to say about any Trotskyists; while others in his close circle, notably John Saville, were more inclined to distinguish carefully between Healy and the rest.

As for Sedgwick’s view of his proposed IS-NLR smychka, his 1964 obituary for the Left explained in detail the moves which Samuel had been describing to him:

“The confederate New Left fell apart in the autumn of 1961; the explosion was characteristically muffled. No statement was ever published on the differences around NLR which were brought to a head shortly before the retirement of the editor Stuart Hall and the radical reorganization of the movement … Edward Thompson became the chief spokesman for that section of New Left opinion that was eager for a more activist and purposeful approach; after six months of argument up and down the country, the journal was re-structured. Instead of a large and amorphous editorial board (which in practice had left the running of NLR to a metropolitan in-group with ill-defined responsibilities, subject to overwork and drift), the review was entrusted to a small team of four with a mandate to re-establish New Left journalism as a serious source of ideas. The projected series of New Left Books was written off, having in two years produced one collection of essays and one literary-critical reprint from the United States. Little was to heard henceforth of the Left Clubs.”

“By a mixture of design and default, NLR shortly became the preserve of a younger wave of New Left writers, most of whom had been involved in the production of New University, a student socialist journal edited from Oxford. Their elders on the New Left Board, lacking even a token editorial function, dispersed to catch up on their research, emigrate, help run CND, or just vanish. With the organizational passing of the Old New Left, whatever was distinctive in its ideas has perished also.”

What lay behind the decay of the New Left’s once vigorous organisation? Sedgwick blamed the movement for reconciling itself too easily to its own weakness. Rather than maintaining the Left Clubs, and rather than seeing the self-activity of its members as the left’s key asset in the war against capitalism, the New Left had allowed itself to drift into the role of supplying to the Labour leadership a series of technical reports into the functioning of various aspects of capitalism. “The New Left is almost consciously acting as a dynamizing Left Centre to the putative Centre-Left of Wilson, Callaghan, etc. What is particularly staggering is its failure to imagine that it might be out-manoeuvred; pursuing a tactic of total theoretical entry, all its eggheads have marched into the single basket of Left reformism, and are now busily appealing to the waverers outside, especially in the trade-union movement, to jump in as well. But the unknown factor in Left-reformist strategy lies not only in the possibility of sabotage or enticement from the business world. Equally doubt-provoking is (a) the immense responsibility that would attach to the leadership in a campaign of administrative encroachment; combined with (b) the desperate unlikelihood of any foreseeable Labour Cabinet that would answer to the part.”

For his part, Raph Samuel was to retain an (admittedly distant) interest in International Socialism and its successor the SWP for many years. He knew Sedgwick’s closest ally in the next generation of SWP-ers, David Widgery, and on Widgery’s encouragement attended the 1977 Rock Against Racism Carnival, describing it later as “the most working-class demonstration I have been on, and one of the very few of my adult lifetime to have sensibly changed the climate of public opinion.” Thirty years after his letters from Sedgwick he was still extremely encouraging to young socialists from the SWP who expressed any interest in history.

Into the mid-1990s Samuel would even speak occasionally at the SWP’s annual Marxism events. I remember one talk he gave, in 1996 or so, which ended with him frustrated by repeated contributions from the floor to the effect of “if you’re a Marxist, you should be in the SWP.” Samuel accused the audience of sectarianism and said that the SWP was incapable of holding any allies – whether philosophical, literary or artistic. Perhaps he saw in us the same fanatical and closed spirit with which he, and Peter Sedgwick, had once been young Communists.

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3 responses »

  1. There are few things more irritating than nit picking criticisms about the minutiae of the history of the revolutionary left. But … lets nit pick. Your fascinating Peter Sedgwick correspondence is spot on about the evolution of the NLR. BUT, the New Left Clubs, were, briefly of considerable significance and help politically gestate many of the Young Socialists who gravitated to Socialist Review. The Socialist Review paper was certainly not at that time a “theoretical” magazine: that role was played from 1959/60 by IS magazine. Although at the time you are talking about the last editor of SR was Alasdair MacIntyre. It was renamed Labour Worker to reflect the fact that the growing ranks of SR was almost entirely then active in the Labour Party. Industrial Worker – whose editor was Karl Dunbar – was a premature attempt to reach out to the increasingly radicalised ranks of the shop stewards movement in industry. In all of this the ebbing of NLR’s tide was due to complex factors (among which the rise of the pseudo left Harold Wilson as leader of the Labour Party was just one). For my money the side splitting funny satire by Peter in the IS journal about the pretensions of the “new” NLR under Perry Anderson (which focused on the alienation of a worker in a public toilet) is still worth reading for a good laugh. Peter would, however, have been the first to pay tribute to the hugely important role of NLR – including Stuart Hall, Edward Thompson and so many others – in those early years.

    John Palmer

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