The Suicide of New Left Review (posted by Doug Henwood to LBO-Talk)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Wed May 3 12:39:17 MDT 2000


The Suicide of New Left Review
by Boris Kagarlitsky

For forty years, New Left Review was a symbol for the radical
intelligentsia throughout the world. The articles carried in it were more
successful or less so, and the points of view presented in it were
astonishing for their superficial radicalism or for their toothless
moderation. Nevertheless, for all leftists who read English, the journal
remained a source of information on contemporary Marxism. New names
appeared on its pages, and discussions of fundamental importance revolved
around views expressed there. Although NLR was published in Britain, and
most of its authors were based there or in the US, it was not only open to
writers from other countries, but in its essence, approach, structure and
ideology, constitued an international publication. Now, this journal is no
more. There is another journal which bears the same name, but this latter
periodical is fundamentally different, based on a diametrically opposite
concept.

>From January 2000, New Left Review changed its editor, design and
numbering. Before us we have number one, a little exercise-book formated in
post-modernist style. The sub-head "Second Series" seems to presume that
the journal will survive for another forty years, and that there will
perhaps be a third and fourth series. The change of concept is declared in
a foreword by Perry Anderson, under the expressive heading "Renewals".
Perry Anderson, who succeeds Robin Blackburn as editor, is not someone new
to NLR. He was present at the very birth of the journal. The makeup of the
editorial board is also practically unchanged. We are not talking about an
infusion of fresh blood; quite the reverse. Before us we have the same old
collective, who have decided to change their program and ideology. It is no
accident that the word "new" has come into fashion along with the rise of
politicians such as Tony Blair and Gerhard Schroeder. In the 1960s the "new
left" had a very clear system of principles that distinguished it from the
"old left", embodied in social democracy and communism. Meanwhile, this
political definition served to make clear that the new and old left had
something in common.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, the situation has changed. The
idea of the new is used as a substitute for all other ideas, as a symbolic
replacement for any positive identification and as an incantation freeing
those who utter it from responsibility before the past and future (and at
times, from their consciences as well). Anything whatever is justified on
the basis of its novelty. To be new, however, does not mean to be better.
Moreover, and much more important, "new" does not signify "final". The new
becomes the old, and the old, once it has been thoroughly forgotten,
becomes the new. References to a "new" program and "new" ideas are featured
precisely when people lack the intellectual and political courage to
declare openly just what this program and these ideas consist of (or when
both program and ideas are lacking). It is quite clear that Perry Anderson
is not a supporter of Tony Blair, as he prudently forewarns us in his
preface. In Anderson's view, Blairism differs little from neo-liberalism.
Precisely for this reason, the victory of Blair, Schroeder and similar "new
social democrats" is proof of the complete and final triumph of
neo-liberalism on a global scale.

According to Anderson, the old project of transforming the world, the
project which inspired the founders of NLR in earlier times, has been
exhausted. Not because the world has changed, but because there is nothing
that can be done about neo-liberalism and capitalism. All attempts at
bringing about fundamental change have failed. Society has undergone a
consolidation. All that remains for the left is to observe this and to take
pleasure in thinking critically about it. Consequently, NLR as well has to
renounce the old traditions and renew itself, adapting to the circumstances
that have arisen. Perry Anderson, a sophisticated British gentleman, sits
in his cosy office at no. 6 Meard Street and limply discusses the collapse
of the left project. He has enough intellectual honesty not to repudiate
his radical past or the ideals of his youth, but he is impassive enough not
to lament their collapse. Despite Anderson's readiness to bury the left
project of the 1960s, and along with it the first-series NLR, his foreword
contains not a paragraph or even a sentence devoted to political
self-criticism.

Everything was fine. Both when Perry together with other young radicals
tried to revolutionise social thinking and political life in Britain, and
now, when he no longer proposes to overturn anything whatever. And what, in
reality, has happened? What particular suffering has beset these people?
Have Western intellectuals really lost anything, apart from their
principles? No-one has been thrown in prison or put in front of a firing
squad. Their homes have not been blown up, nor their cities bombed. They
are not tear-gassed on the streets, they have no problems making ends meet,
and they need not stoop to begging publishers to give them free copies of
books they cannot afford to buy. Such things are part of the everyday
experience of people not just in Eastern Europe and the Third World, but
also in the flourishing West. None of this, however, affects the academic
elite in any way. For Anderson, the history of socialism is the history of
ideas, and furthermore, of ideas that have gone out of fashion. Gramsci has
lost his attraction, and Sartre has been forgotten. The new editor of NLR
writes of this without regret, while remaining completely unashamed of his
radical past, just as a prosperous businesswoman is not ashamed of having
worn ragged jeans during her student years. Times change, and so do
fashions. As a counterweight to utopian calls for changing society, and to
hopes of revolution, Perry offers "uncompromising realism".

What is the essence of this realism? Accepting the truth of any garbage at
all, provided it is published in the Wall Street Journal. Apart from
affirming the collapse of the left movement, the article says nothing of
substance. In essence, there is no analysis here. There are neither
reflections on the nature of modern capitalism, nor efforts to understand
the dynamic and contradictions of globalisation. The "analysis" boils down
to recapitulating mainstream editorials; the picture of the world offered
by the Wall Street Journal and the Economist is taken for granted, without
even the slightest effort at critical reading. At best, this recalls the
classic school exercise: read through and retell in your own words. The
main source of inspiration in this case is commentators of the neo-liberal
school; Perry does not hide his admiration for them. The left, he
considers, is now incapable of proposing anything "new". "By contrast,
commanding the field of direct political constructions of the time, the
Right has provided one fluent vision of where the world is going, or has
stopped, after another - Fukuyama, Brzezinski, Huntington, Yergin, Luttwak,
Friedman. These are writers that unite a single powerful thesis with a
fluent popular style, designed not for an academic readership but a broad
international public. This confident genre, of which America has so far a
virtual monopoly, finds no equivalent on the Left" (p. 19).

It is revealing how Anderson's words repeat, almost verbatim, utterances of
Communist Party of the Russian Federation leader Gennady Zyuganov, who has
set out to establish in this way the "modernity" of his racist, nationalist
and anti-Marxist positions. But this is not what the debate is ultimately
about. One might, of course, consider that Huntington has a better style
than Anderson, though to be honest I cannot see any difference. The
essence, however, lies elsewhere. We are not talking about who commands a
bigger print run, or whose sentence structure is more felicitous. In any
case, the left has never been short of commentators and popularisers. What
is really involved is theoretical discussion requiring a certain
intellectual level, and here Fukuyama and Huntington are completely
helpless. Twenty years ago, no intellectual considered Brzezinski a serious
theoretician. Now, alongside Huntington and the half-forgotten Fukuyama, he
has become almost a spiritual mentor for the intellectuals. The success
enjoyed by these authors has nothing to do with their merits as thinkers.
This is why the phenomenon is so interesting in sociological and
culturological terms. This needs to be thought and written about, but
Anderson has no intention of doing so. Moreover, he clearly does not intend
to allow such absurd and "outmoded" discussions into his journal.
Uncompromising realism consists in the absence of the slightest attempt at
critical thinking. Marx considered that philosophers explained the wor ld,
while the need was to change it. Anderson considers that it is not
necessary even to explain the world, but that it is enough to describe it.

In essence, what we have before us is a very refined, gentlemanly form of
unconditional capitulation to an ideological foe. Perry breaks his sword
and surrenders himself to the mercy of the victor, but as a true gentleman
he does this with dignity and style. He does not reflect, of course, on
what the victorious enemy will then do with his "territorial forces". The
ideologue shuts himself away voluntarily in his "ivory tower". The rest of
us, remaining outside, are of no interest to him. Such thinking is born of
a total lack of contact with the real movement, and at the same time, is
used to justify the lack of such contact. The left movement is in crisis,
but precisely for this reason, radical action and critical thought are
essential as never before. There is a need for an overarching strategy, for
principled positions - in the final analysis, for ethical foundations. In
place of this, Perry discusses in detail the rules for footnotes in the
"renewed" NLR, then goes on to inform us that from now on the journal's
authors will not necessarily be from the ranks of the left. All that
remains is to change the name to New Left-Right Review. It is obvious that
a gentleman cannot be a labour organiser or a street fighter (though
curiously enough, this was possible twenty years ago). No-one, however, is
demanding that "left" professors mix it with police on the streets. It
would be quite satisfactory if they were to busy themselves with their
accepted task: thinking critically. Admiration for rightists and calls for
intellectual union with them (to judge from everything, on the basis of
their positions) is the perfectly logical consequence of a fundamental
approach at whose heart is a refusal to critically analyse the myths of
neo-liberal capitalism.

Perry has not only managed to ignore the crisis of neo-liberalism in the
late 1990s (despite the Russian default, the Zapatista uprising in Mexico,
and in the US, the rise of a new mass left movement that demonstrated its
strength on the streets of Seattle in the autumn of 1999). He even waxes
ironic over writers who have observed these phenomena! The crisis of
neo-liberalism would be far more acute were it not for the cowardice and
treachery of a significant section of the left. The treachery has
historical roots, such as the capitulation of the Second International in
1914, but this does not change the ethical character of what has occurred.
In one of the stories of Yevgeny Shvarts it is remarked: we have all
studied in the school of evil, but who forced you to be a star pupil? The
"renewed" leftists have turned out to be the star pupils in the school of
neo-liberalism. From this it follows that a renewal of the left is
indispensable. Not in the mongrel Blair-Schroeder-Zyuganov sense, but on
the level of a decisive and uncompromising break with such "renewers", and
of a turn to the mass movement that is assembling literally before our eyes.

The need for an alternative ideology, directed against neo-liberalism, is
extremely acute. The radicalism and protest have to acquire a theoretical
basis. It would seem to be just the time for the intellectuals to make an
impact. But alas, they have nothing to make an impact with.... The most
amusing part of Perry's editorial is its conclusion, where he declares,
with impeccable political correctness, that he would welcome more
non-Western contributions. Here, he continues to rebuke the "old" NLR,
which, in his view, failed to open its pages sufficiently to
representatives of the non-Western and non-English-speaking world. It is
enough, however, to take from one's shelves a selection of the "old" NLR to
find that the reality was quite different. NLR published authors from Latin
America, Eastern Europe, South Korea, India and Africa. For the "new" NLR,
meanwhile, serious problems in this regard are inevitable. Why should
people from the non-Western world write for a journal that is
demonstratively indifferent to the vital questions of their existence? Why
should authors who do not belong to the inner circle of trans-Atlantic
intellectuals collaborate with a journal whose positions are alien and
hostile to them? Perry laments the intellectual narcissism of Anglo-Saxon
culture, while himself manifesting it to the fullest extent. A true
gentleman, of course, is ready to give a hearing to foreign ideas, but we
foreigners are assigned the role of a politically correct decoration, or
still worse, of "civilised natives", who are required to insert themselves
into a ready-made cultural context. It is a quite different matter that
there is absolutely no intellectual point to such an operation; why publish
foreign authors if they are no different from your own? In an old Soviet
joke, the head of the personnel department says: "If we give a job to
Rabinovich, don't expect he won't be a Jew." Here it is just the same.

If you want to publish authors from the "periphery", then don't be
surprised if they are unimpressed with the vanity and intellectual
feebleness of Western ex-radicals. The "old" NLR did not meet with problems
as a result of being published in the West, since it was internationalist
in its concept, in its view of the world. The "new" NLR admits from the
outset its character as a thoroughly provincial publication, since such a
journal is of interest to no-one apart from a few hundred former radicals
scattered around god-forsaken American university campuses. The "old" NLR
had something to teach us non-Western leftists, since it represented
everything that was best in radical European and American culture. In this
sense, the more Anglo-Saxon the journal was, the more interesting we in
other countries found it. The "renewed" NLR, to judge from Perry's
editorial, will scarcely be able to offer us anything apart from a
retelling, "in its own words", of the articles in the Economist and the
Wall Street Journal. But why do we need a retelling, when we can have the
original? Politically correct multicultural discourse has nothing in common
with a dialogue between cultures. I have no interest in reading a British
journal in order to find out the attitude of a fashionable French critic to
the modern Chinese cinema. This does not mean that the cinema is
unimportant, or that the sociology of culture is uninteresting. The point
is simply that there are dozens of journals in English that analyse these
matters better, in more detail, more professionally, and most important,
without political-intellectual intermediaries. The "old" NLR was an
international journal of modern Marxist theory and political analysis, a
meeting-place for socialist intellectuals.

>From Perry's point of view, this project is dead. Millions of people think
differently. This, however, is not the point; one person can be right,
while millions are mistaken. The point is different: why do we need New
Left Review, when the editor himself has cheerfully and triumphantly buried
the original project? If Perry Anderson felt the need for a new journal
with a thrust different from the earlier NLR, it would have been more
honest for him simply to have shut down the former publication and to have
begun a new one. I am reluctant to think that the main reason for keeping
the title was a wish to hold onto a familiar brand name. But in acting as
he did, Anderson consciously or unconsciously dealt a profound personal
affront to large numbers of people whose political and intellectual
positions took shape under the influence of New Left Review. By
transferring the old name to a new journal, Perry stole a part of our
common past, of our shared history. This can no longer be forgiven. It is
good that the design and numbering have been changed; here, Anderson has
shown his professional honesty. For substantial numbers of authors and
readers, this will act as a signal. A familiar, well-loved journal no
longer exists. It has died, or more precisely, its own parents have killed
it. The new journal can seek new readers for itself - among the subscribers
to the Wall Street Journal.



Louis Proyect

(The Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org)





More information about the Marxism mailing list