Monday, October 16, 2006

Placating Mr Jenkins

Last year, as a callow visiting scholar from the colonies, I got into a great deal of trouble with one of the team of elderly but vigilant men who patrol the British Library for infractions. My crime was not writing graffiti on those beautiful mahogany desks, or sneaking a chocolate bar through the marble entranceway to the reading rooms, but engaging in 'inappropriate photocopying practices'.

I'd managed to track down some tattered copies of the Universities and Left Review, a journal produced by a bunch of gifted left-wing Oxbridge undergraduates in the late 1950s, and I'd been in the act of making some copies when Mr Jenkins swooped. I was accused of breaking the spines of the copies of Universities and Left Review - I had thought them pretty broken already - and threatened with expulsion from the library. In my defence I argued that the Universities and Left Review was a rare commodity, and that I needed to copy the best parts of it to take back to the Shaky Isles, where copies were as rare as, well, scholars interested in the history of the British left. And that turned out to be the right tack to take with Mr Jenkins - he was himself something of a scholar, he explained, and his researches into the hidden meanings of the Dead Sea Scrolls had been frustrated by a lack of access to source materials. He left me to get on with my photocopying, and I managed to take home such obscure treasures as EP Thompson's 1958 reply to Kinglsey Amis' derisory pamphlet Socialism and the Intellectuals, and Alisdair MacIntyre's 1959 attack on Ernest Gellner. (Yes, I know, I'm a geek...)

Now, forty-nine years after that first poorly-produced issue on smelly off-white paper, the Universities and Left Review has gone online, thanks to the labours of the Amiel and Melburn Trust Archive. The Trust has also put up Pdf versions of two other important journals, The New Reasoner and Marxism Today. The New Reasoner was founded in the same year as Universities and Left Review by John Saville and EP Thompson, who had just been forced out of the Communist Party of Great Britain for running an 'illegal' internal discussion journal called The Reasoner. The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review counted amongst their contributors some of the brightest thinkers of Britian's budding New Left, and in 1960 they fused to found the New Left Review, a journal which continues today. (In 1963 Saville, Thompson and a few others who had been involved in The New Reasoner broke away from the New Left Review to found the Socialist Register, which is also still going strong today, and has recently put its own back issues online).

Spurred into life by the controversies of 1956, the year when Krushchev's invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt threw both the left and right into turmoil, both Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner wanted to create a 'Third Way' - the term had not yet been tainted - between the 'Natopolitan' social democracy of the West and the Stalinism of the East. Neither publication was given over completely to politics in the narrow sense of the word, though - Universities and Left Review featured trailblazing analyses of post-war pop culture by the likes of Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams, and The New Reasoner published fiction by Doris Lessing and poetry by Christopher Logue and a chap named William Blake.

In these days of DIY publishing programmes and speedy printing it's worth remembering the sheer physical effort that the production of journals like The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review cost. In his 2003 autobiography, Memoirs from the Left, John Saville remembered the way that Thompson would have retype every word of The New Reasoner onto a primitive sort of printing block, then take his precious template on the train from Halifax to Hull. Saville would meet his friend at the station, stow the printing block under his coat, and ride to the office of a small publisher who offered mate's rates. After the cantankerous printing machine there had done its slow and noisy work hundreds of parcels needed to be sent to subscribers as far a field as New Zealand.

The third journal preserved on the Amiel and Melburn site is a good deal less distinguished than Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner, but perhaps just as interesting. From 1980 until its liquidation in 1991, Marxism Today evolved into one of Britain's most popular monthlies under the editorship of Martin Jacques, but the price it paid for this success was considerable.

Marxism Today was supposedly the mouthpiece of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and its trajectory was one of the main reasons for the splintering of that organisation in the second half of the 1980s. Looking through the 130 or so issues Amiel and Melburn have put online, one sees a steady movement from a commitment to class politics, albeit one compromised by Stalinism, to a fascination with fashionable concepts like 'post-Fordism', 'postmodernism', 'market socialism' and 'green entrepreneurship'. By the beginning of the nineties the journal seems more interested in the stock exchange and fashion shows than in strikes and protests - it mentions the insurrection against Maggie Thatcher's poll tax only in order to condemn that struggle's 'ultra-left' (i.e. Marxist) leadership. By 1991 the Tory Minister Norman Lamont is plugging Marxism Today , and Tony Blair is writing a guest article about his 'vision' for British politics.

In an extraordinarily pompous piece written to introduce the online Marxism Today, Jacques calls his old journal 'a tour de force' but admits casually to a 'failure to lay sufficient stress on core values of the left like equity'. Quite, old chap. In the early '80s Marxism Today still gave the odd bit of space to interesting Marxist thinking - there are thoughtful reviews of GA Cohen's and Leszek Kolakowksi's accounts of Marxism in the October and November 1982 issues, for instance - but reading the issues from the last few years is a little like watching a train crash in slow motion, or visiting the blog of Norm Geras.

But even if Marxism Today has little intrinsic value, Amiel and Melburn deserve congratulations for making Universities and Left Review and The New Reasoner available to a new generation of readers. They've probably made Mr Jenkins' job a little easier, too.


Blogger Martin Wisse said...

Actually, if we want a honest representation of the history of socialism/communism/marxism in the UK, having access to a journal like Marxism Today, no matter how flawed it became in the end (I'll take your word for it) is as important as having more "correct" journals available, if only to demonstrate the dangers of abandoning the class struggle and such.

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