The Left

New Left Review at fifty

This is a crosspost by Michael Weiss from The New Criterion

Facing the beginning of a long period opposition that would culminate with a pick-ax lodged in his skull, Leon Trotsky is said to have remarked to his comrade Victor Serge, “Sometimes you end up like Lenin, and sometimes like Leibknecht.”  The leader of the Red Army is not today known for his ludic folk wisdom, yet his communist in-joke captured a sentiment common to radicals of the twentieth-century; that of being both hopeful and pessimistic at the same time, morale and morbidity competing on any emotional stock exchange that runs from 1917 to 1989. Sometimes it’s difficult enough to understand the world, changing it seems an unfathomable fantasy.

No journal of opinion has better embodied this manic-depressive outlook better than New Left Review, which celebrated its fiftieth year in print in 2010. Stefan Collini at the Guardian reflects on the curious lifespan of a “little magazine” of enormous influence that has outlived all other comers by transforming itself from fiery organ of the revolutionary vanguard into platform for sober, if soporific, assessments of political and cultural realities. That change happened ten years ago exactly and it is more accurate to call the 40th anniversary of NLR the real milestone. As Colliniwrites:

Over the years, NLR had shown a proper regard for Gramsci’s celebrated motto “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”, but many readers thought Anderson’s 2000 editorial overdid the pessimism and gave precious little nourishment to the optimism. A French critic, in a reproach that must have stung the famously nonparochial and francophile Anderson, accused him of viewing things too narrowly from one side of la Manche: various forms of resistance, it was suggested, were much more visible in France, while others felt that forms of protest elsewhere in the world were similarly being undervalued. But, a decade on, Anderson’s pessimism on this score scarcely seems exaggerated: in so far as the imperium of neoliberalism is being curbed, which is not far, it does not appear to be primarily the outcome of organised and politically effective opposition.

The 2000 editorial in question, written by Perry Anderson, NLR‘s most gifted editor (and likely its main financier), sounded a funereal note that socialism was dead as a viable alternative to capitalism because there were no viable alternatives to it. “The only starting-point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat,” Anderson pronounced grandly, leading to the frisson in Left Bank corridors. But his point was elsewhere well taken among many old comrades who, if not quite ready to make the transition to the right, had at least conceded the futility of fighting the same battles in the same outmoded grammar.

The debunking of Stalinism—the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 being the New Left’s original charter—had proceeded apace with a worldwide economic evolution that this graying contingent was less equipped to anticipate much less fit into inductive “systems” of thought. Underestimating Thatcher’s appeal as both a reactionary and revolutionary gave way to a dismissal of the hybridized juggernaut of the “Third Way,” wherein free-market policies donned the softer vestments of social democracy. The Blair-Clinton program proved triumphant throughout Europe. The vogue intellectuals confined themselves to the specialized quarters of the academy where they were straightjacketed by the impenetrable jargon of postmodernism that, even amongst its finer spokesmen, never hovered far above self-parody. As Anderson phrased it, another gravedigger of radical promise was the current state of leftist writing that would “leave Marx or Morris speeechless.” The scintillating Hegelian of Rheinische Zeitung had come to dust as prophet and sage and Judith Butler was surely no replacement. Most dispiriting for those who once found time for Plekhanov and disarmament rallies was that the designated interpreter of the New World Order was not a proper member of the intelligentsia at all but a vulgate columnist for the New York Times.

Anderson’s sorrowful acknowledgment of these losses quietly coincided with an announced rethink in publishing strategy. The January-February issue of NLR, his editorial stated, would mark the first installment of an aesthetically redesigned journal that took a proper accounting of these seismic shifts:

Its general approach, I believe, should be an uncompromising realism. Uncompromising in both senses: refusing any accommodation with the ruling system, and rejecting every piety and euphemism that would understate its power. No sterile maximalism follows. The journal should always be in sympathy with strivings for a better life, no matter how modest their scope. But it can support any local movements or limited reforms, without pretending that they alter the nature of the system. What it cannot—or should not—do is either lend credence to illusions that the system is moving in a steadily progressive direction, or sustain conformist myths that it urgently needs to be shielded from reactionary forces: attitudes on display, to take two recent examples, in the rallying to Princess and President by the bien-pensant left, as if the British monarchy needed to be more popular or the American Presidency more protected. Hysteria of this kind should be sharply attacked.

Of such scolding sobriety is a kind of left-wing cultural conservatism fashioned, although that was not the conjuncture Anderson wished to pursue at the time. Yet if refusing to cushion monarchy or the executive branch are the full extent of today’s barricade struggles—even the implosion of the credit market and the global recession was greeted by the NLR masthead as a mere hiccup in the continued dominance of market capitalism—then the left could really do no other than objectively accommodate with the center and center-right elements.

Indeed, since Anderson’s essay was published, there have been some telling areas of congruence between the elder statesmen of the soixante-huitardtradition and the complicated right, even if most have occurred outside the pages of NLR itself.  September 11 happened, for one thing, and while the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were roundly condemned in the magazine using all the hoary mental categories of “imperialism” and national “resistance”—categories one would have assumed shelved by Anderson’s prescription—the study given to neoconservative thinking in other left-wing quarters has yielded at least as much sophistication as lunacy. See the work of Paul Berman, Christopher Hitchens, Michael Kazin, Michael Walzer, Oliver Kamm, Nick Cohen and others.

Alexander Cockburn’s climate change skepticism, which puts him comically out of sorts with the editors and readers of his Nation column (who must think a medieval warm period is when tempers are raised at the Palin household) is well-cited among the Telegraph-bound monitors of the University of East Anglia. Many progressives dissatisfied with the Obama administration for its perpetuation of Bush-era war policies unwittingly or complacently echo the isolationist tones of Pat Buchanan’s American Conservative. Meanwhile, Nat Hentoff—a First Amendment absolutist by any definition—describes the new Democratic president as the most dangerous yet to our republic.

Other micro examples exist. Standpoint magazine’s celebratory judgment of Tariq Ali’s writings on his native Pakistan see daylight despite Ali’s routine hosannas to Hezbollah and Hamas—those fetid zephyrs in the “radical winds of change”— that appear in the pages of… New Left Review.  The cooperation between uneasy left-liberal opponents of “anti-Zionism” and more reflexive conservative cheerleaders of Israel is another little-explored zone of ideological fusion.

Would that NLR fulfilled the terms of its renascent manifesto and addressed some of these ironies…