‘The cult of novelty’, 1968 and all that

Luke Cooper argues that the historical experience of the post-1968 radicalisation lays down some challenges to proponents of a new, non-hierarchical left in Britain that they are yet to fully answer

Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Tuesday, January 11, 2011 18:07 - 3 Comments


By Luke Cooper

A few challenges to proponents of a New Left

After the street protests and occupations, comes a short break for thinking and reflection, at a time that is, of course, more normally associated with the merriments of the mid-winter festival. This outpouring of controversy over the future of the student movement, and more generally the wider politics around which we organise the resistance to the Con-Dem government, is a worked example of the kind of unique intellectual fruits mass movements provide such fertile ground for.

One of the main ideas raised by Laurie Penny that sparked a debate with Alex Callinicos and so many other contributors besides, is the metaphor of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ left.

Put across in the most black and white of terms in Penny’s original piece, the former represent a heterogeneous combination of Ed Miliband, “deferential unions”, the Liberal Democrats (a “last hope”), and far left “splinter parties”, most notably the Socialist Workers Party. The latter, in contrast, is the supposed de-centred horizontalism and networks, exemplified by the student uprising, which are now set to “fundamentally reimagine” the British left.

As one of the many people who fall into the undifferentiated morass of the ‘old left’ Penny invokes, I agree with much of what Callinicos has said in reply. But, to be fair, Penny’s piece probably doesn’t do justice to those who advance the discourse of the New Left. I would imagine that, in this respect, the note of caution sounded by David Wearing, co-editor of the New Left Project website, spoke for many people on ‘Laurie Penny’s side’ of the debate:

‘We are all familiar with the feeling of exhilaration generated by engaging in political activism and direct action. The experience of challenging sources of power that would prefer to see us rendered impotent is a liberating one; all the more so because of its real, historical importance. Talking-up what has been achieved so far – the damage done to the coalition, the emphatic insertion of the anti-cuts argument into political debate, the large numbers of young people brought into the campaign – is vital to maintaining morale and momentum, and the students movement has earnt the right to claim those achievements as its own. But if we are serious about this movement and the real possibilities it offers, then we must be wary of the euphoria created by the actions of the past two months curdling into a kind of unearnt hubris. The cold truth is that the students movement did not prevent the tuition fee vote from passing, and has not prevented any of the government’s other austerity measures being passed as yet. Therefore, in terms of its relations with the rest of the left, whilst the movement must continue to improve upon and learn from what has gone before, both good and bad – and whilst it must of course dispense with previous practices that have been proven not to work – this ought not to preclude a healthy respect for earlier and different incarnations of the left, which after all share the students’ values and concerns. Critique – a vital and necessary task – ought not to shade into contempt’

I can only aspire to take the same kind of balanced tone in offering a few challenges to the proponents of the New Left in what follows.

The crux of my concern is to encourage you to address the question of an alternative: how do you codify the political critique of the forces of the old left into a fully worked out and distinctive body of politics? One that not only acts as an alternative to the old left which is the subject of the critique, but also puts forward a political alternative to the existing socio-economic order?

Of course, this is a burden that doesn’t just fall on proponents of a New Left alone – it’s beholden on all of us, to develop an alternative to the existing system if we are serious about challenging it.

But the challenge is posed particularly sharply for the New Left, which, if you accept the basic, logical contours of this idea in abstract, must mean there is an element of starting from scratch, of re-establishing what exactly we in the left should stand for.

The old left might contest their alternatives – Marxism, Keynesianism, revolution, democratic socialism, and so on, and so forth – but we have them. And, in one sense, the New Left does too, but in Britain it is largely more potential than reality. There has been a wide range of horizontalist political theory spawned by the anti-capitalist movement internationally in the first part of this decade. But I have yet to see this translate into a worked out perspective and vision, a tangible theoretically primed political movement, amongst proponents of horizontalism here in Britain.

On the contrary, the propensity of the emerging forces of the New Left in the student movement is to focus in on very practical concerns, of organisation, the facilitation of meetings, forms of decision making, and so on, rather than putting across a wider vision of social and political emancipation.

Organisation – the debate over leadership and structure – has been the focus of the great bulk of contributions. In his piece for Ceasefire magazine for example, Markus Malarkey sums these up as the ‘key areas of discussion’,’the form that future protests and mass actions should take, and the possibility of greater organisation and co-ordination across the movement’.

Important as this is, if Laurie Penny’s claims about the emergence of a New Left are to be credible, then it requires not just the identification of new phenomena, or a focusing in on the organisational concerns we associate with it, but the active articulation of a new politics. And this, in turn, requires of its proponents that they abandon some of the rhetorical flourishes of Penny and engage in exactly the kind of ideological debate we are starting to bear witness to in the wider movement.

The ineluctable rise of the New Left?

In Penny’s piece in particular, the formation of a New Left is presented as pretty much ineluctable, even inevitable. Those of us on the ‘old left’ can but await our fate, while the New Left hold all the cards and need only wait for their inevitable triumph.

Time will tell whether these remarks prove to be apposite hypotheses, or mere wishful thinking on her part. Either way there is a real danger in this optimism for the formulation of a new politics, because this kind of confidence that history is on your side risks engendering passivity when it comes to actually advancing an alternative. It is a danger that proponents of the new left have to stock of.

Ironically, there have been no shortage of Marxists who have made just this mistake, assumed history and spontaneity were on their side and therefore lost sight of the philosophy of practice – of making history, of fighting for a set of politics – which was so important to Marx.

Even in the much more sophisticated articulations of the idea of a New Left this theme still persists, in the sense that the New Left is conceived in one way or another as reflecting the realities of the modern world – be that in the forms of its organisation, its use of technology and the media, or its apparent transcendence of old ideology. Jon Moses for example locates the political action of the movement, its apparent decentredness and spontaneity, within the realities of a ‘postmodern era’.

By situating the movement within a conception of a broader historical context, favourable to a certain politics of the ‘new’ variety and unfavourable to the old politics of hierarchy, I can’t help thinking a real and pressing tension develops in the line of argument which is put forward.

A pretty profound and all encompassing grand narrative – a vision of where the left is going, even if not yet a fully worked out conception of an alternative to its old ways of working – is put forward which sounds very ideological for a body of thought that is trying to transcend old ideologies.

Moreover, it is a grand narrative, which, like all the great ideologies of the post-Enlightenment world that Moses is anxious to disassociate our movement from, makes a set of claims about the direction of the historical process: its increasing decentredness, eliciting a breaking up of the old hierarchies.

That he does this doesn’t surprise or worry me in the slightest – I think it’s an inevitable part of formulating any set of politics. Indeed it brings to light how we will always look to history, to existing bodies of ideas, to formulate a political theory today. But it exposes the tension between the ‘detotalising’ designs of the theory and its ‘totalising’ embrace in most postmodern thought.

Nonetheless, what’s positive about Moses’ piece is that its notion of what Alex Callinicos has called, ‘the cult of novelty’ – the belief that the new movement has rendered past experience and theories obsolete, is much more tempered than Penny’s, because it looks to the past to find a tradition around which the New Left might formulate an alternative politics: the Situationists, made famous by the events of May ’68.

The lessons of ’68 and after

It is a very interesting and potentially telling parallel to draw. It exposes what’s wrong with the ‘cult of novelty’, at least in the way that Penny has put it across, for the idea of a ‘new left’ is probably as old as the left itself. The Situationists too advanced just this discourse in the 1950s and ‘60s. But, more importantly, the story of the Situationists sounds a warning for today’s advocates of a New Left.

Seeking out the unity of avant-garde art with an emancipatory politics that sought to engender a transformation in everyday life, the Situationists became most famous for their bold acts of cultural expression and the wacky slogans they daubed all over Paris in May ’68: ‘don’t ever work’, ‘boredom is counter-revolutionary’, and most famous of all, ‘be realistic – demand the impossible’.

Innovative and imaginative in the extreme it certainly was, but the Situationists were to learn the hard way that overcoming the old hierarchies required more than mere bold acts of artistic endeavour.

They found indeed that the hierarchies of the old (reformist) left, notably the French Communist Party, had a remarkable power of endurance, despite the enormous radicalism of the May days.

Many people today have drawn the parallels between ’68 and the new student movement. As James Meadway has argued the events of that year act as an inevitable point of historical reference, because it is ‘still the totemic student struggle, the mark against which all others become judged’.

The socialist left however seek to keep alive a distinctive memory and picture of the ’68 movement that is largely at odds with the prevalent collective memory of the time. Anthony Barnett offers a more conventional account, as he emphasises the liberalisation of values, the ‘generational gulf’, the sense of excitement about progress and modernisation, along with rejections of the hierarchies and moralities of older generations. It is this imagery that is kept alive in the popular imagination, one that associates ’68 with the shifting of values that occurred throughout the boom times of the 1960s.

There is a great deal of truth in this picture, but it misses out the revolutionary political aspirations for emancipation that imbued the ’68 movement and led many young activists in the 1970s to increasingly orientate to the working class and look to socialist and anti-capitalist politics.

At first the Situationists gave expression to this feeling, but in 1972 the Situationist International was dissolved. Why? Well, it certainly can’t be explained with reference to a downturn in the movement. Across the decade, western European states remained in state of huge social and political ferment.

The problem was their basic ideas – of subjective emancipation in everyday life, with particular reference to artistic creation, and their fierce critique, to the point of sectarianism, of traditional workers’ organisations – didn’t fit well with the reality of the period following ’68, where the spontaneity they had so embraced had run up against its limits.

The conclusions drawn were diverse. In West Germany and Italy sections of the movement turned to terrorism. Others orientated to the workers’ movement and its traditional, ‘hierarchical’ organisations. Whilst others, turned to social movement activism, as the forces that would later crystallise into the western Green Parties took shape. But whatever the forms this took, and the rights and wrongs of these different trajectories, there was a pervasive recognition that a conscious politics had to be generated to make real the revolutionary aspirations of the ’68 movement.

At least in its early stages however, in the radicalisations of the 1970s, the principle trajectory was towards a regeneration of the politics of classical socialism, often acting as a corrective to the stultifying ‘official communism’ of those parties tied to the Soviet Union.

A growing feeling thus existed in the movement that the working class had to be won to a struggle for political power, as the means to elicit a thoroughgoing anti-capitalist transformation.

To put it another way, what’s so important about 1968 is that it actually led to a powerful resurgence in the idea of socialism. In Britain this either took a Trotskyist colouration or the democratic socialism of the Labour left, but in other countries it could just as easily be Maoist or some other sub-stratum of radical socialism. Even the Situationists represented a distinctive current of Marxism and combined their artistic focus with elements of traditional socialist politics, like the call for factory occupations and workers’ management of industry.

Whatever its specific forms, though, these were all expressions of a general feeling within the post-68 movements that fundamental socialist change was possible and urgent.

It is this dimension to ’68 that is all too often forgotten. No wonder then, that ‘68ers like Hugo Radice, lament the contemporary presentation of those radical days:

‘The prima facie evidence that socialism, as a movement of and for the working class, has been written out of 1968 can be found readily enough in the contemporary written and broadcast media in Britain. The Tet offensive is remembered as the moment when the USA began to understand that it faced defeat in Vietnam, rather than as the dawn of victory for the people of that country. In the recollection of Enoch Powell’s speech on immigration, we remember the workers who marched in support of Powell, but not the simultaneous opposition to capitalism within organised labour, and especially the then-influential shop stewards’ movement. The May events in France are now seen simply as a student rebellion on the Left Bank, forgetting the millions of workers all over the country who occupied their factories, initially in solidarity with the students but rapidly formulating their own demands. The Prague spring is likewise seen as primarily a movement of intellectuals and artists pressing for political change within the Czechoslovak Communist Party, while the vital role of factory-based committees, in supporting reform and later in defending its leaders, is pushed aside. And if some of the most cited events of 1968, like the assassinations of King and Kennedy, the Democratic Party convention in Chicago, and the Tlatelolco massacre in Mexico City, had less direct connection to workplace and union politics, they too encouraged many radical students to look for such connections with a view to broadening the base of their opposition to those in power’ (Radice 2010: 29-30).

No one would propose we can turn the clock back or relive the experience of ’68. But the tremendous revolutionary aspiration of the ’68 movement poses questions for proponents of the New Left. How radical should our grand designs be – do we need an emancipatory vision and, if so, what is it? In all Enlightenment thought there is a search for a rational organisation of the human condition and unless we keep hold of this, then, surely, we will be left with little more than a politics of un-ending resistance – the curse of ‘anti-everything’, without a positive articulation of what we stand for. Hugo Radice again sounds a cautionary note for the New Left in this regard too. He argues the universalism of the socialist ideal is essential given the challenge humanity as a whole faces in the 21st century:

‘Many on the left have long since given up any aspiration to a singular socialist politics, which they regard as irredeemably tainted by the Soviet experience, and instead settled for engagement with a multiplicity of social movements, each pursuing a different issue. But the present crisis has come upon us at a time when it is increasingly clear that humanity as a whole faces the possibility of major social collapse—literally, the end of civilisation as we know it—as a result of anthropogenic climate change. In these circumstances, it seems essential that we return to a politics that is universal in scope and aspiration, embracing all aspects of society’s self-organisation but focused on the provision of livelihood’ (Radice 2010: 29).

Then and now – the idea of socialism and the New Left

It would be foolish to think that the experience of the post-68 left poses only questions for the New Left. The ones it poses for the ‘old left’ are if anything far greater.

We have to account for the failure of 20th century socialism, in its penumbra of revolutionary and reformist varieties, and of how it was that neoliberalism triumphed when capitalism appeared by the end of the 1970s to be truly on the back foot amid a wave of socialist radicalisation.

The result of these defeats has impacted on the very idea of socialism itself – it no longer has a hold in the consciousness of millions of people as the left could reasonably claim in the 1970s. Of course, I am well aware this is hardly new to the proponents of a New Left, but on the contrary it forms a key part of the argument of those who argue for a move away from such old ideologies.

It is however worth remembering that while many of Penny’s pieces on the student movement have been optimistic to the point of hyperbole, in its modern form the idea of the New Left can be traced to the mood of pessimism in much of the left as the defeats mounted in the 1980s. It was encapsulated by the rise of eurocommunism, focused in Britain on the magazine Marxism Today, in the unions by business unionism and, in the academy, the emergence of the postmodernist critique.

Leaving the historical origins of modern New Left discourse to one side my appeal in the end is to open a discussion of what our alternative anti-capitalist vision is and how this impacts on our practice.

The question for the British New Left is, if not socialism then what?

Whilst, in contrast, the old left has to account for the failures of 20th century socialism, if it is to convince a new generation of it again.

Meadway in his piece on the student movement, argues that whilst left-wing organisation is weaker, ‘the direction of travel is parallel’ to the radicalisation of ‘68. I agree, but it just underlines how important the debate on our alternative in the movement is, because on this question neither side of this debate can rely on spontaneity. It has much more to do with agency, for those who put forward the clearest and most powerful vision of an alternative, will be able to win the debate in the movement over our goals, strategies and tactics.

But once we pose the questions in these terms, it exposes how unhelpful the distinction between the old and new left is. I have accepted it here, simply for the sake of argument. I actually don’t think the distinction between the old and new left works at all.

The New Left isn’t new. Whilst on both sides of this dichotomy, such a diverse range of political outlooks are lumped together almost to the point of absurdity.

This is revealed sharply when we ask this question about what we stand for, because we are likely to draw very different answers and conclusions, whether or not we are commonly ‘new’ or ‘old’.

Depending on what exactly is meant, I’m sure every single one of us would like to think we are in favour of a new left. There are many things about the existing left, I for one would want to change and I’m certainly not alone. But to actually add political substance to these terms, we need to open a debate about our goals and how we might get there. And that’s the simple appeal, I’m making here.

Luke Cooper is postgraduate student and assistant tutor in International Relations at the University of Sussex



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Old Prof
Jan 15, 2011 16:36

Dear Mr. Cooper,
My attention was attracted by bellow selected texts from your article:
The question for the British New Left is, if not socialism then what?
Whilst, in contrast, the old left has to account for the failures of 20th century socialism, if it is to convince a new generation of it again
I agree, but it just underlines how important the debate on our alternative in the movement is, because on this question neither side of this debate can rely on spontaneity. It has much more to do with agency, for those who put forward the clearest and most powerful vision of an alternative, will be able to win the debate in the movement over our goals, strategies and tactics.
But once we pose the questions in these terms, it exposes how unhelpful the distinction between the old and new left is. I have accepted it here, simply for the sake of argument. I actually don’t think the distinction between the old and new left works at all.
Depending on what exactly is meant, I’m sure every single one of us would like to think we are in favour of a new left. There are many things about the existing left, I for one would want to change and I’m certainly not alone. But to actually add political substance to these terms, we need to open a debate about our goals and how we might get there. And that’s the simple appeal, I’m making here.

You realized the need for replacement of capitalism with an alternative. This is the first step on the way to achieve this. The second one is to open a debate about our goals and as a result a detailed project of the alternative system to be worked out. Next is how we might get there, i.e. programme for actions which to facilitate the replacement. The following step is to organise political education of masses presenting essentials and advantages of the alternative and necessity of democratization of governing the state and economy. This is basic precondition to mobilize people to support radical changes in the socio-economic system.
Working on these problems for more than 40 years I know very well how difficult and complex are problems related to construction of a new socio-economic system. If New Left in Britain are interested in ideas about the alternative I am ready to share the results of my efforts in this direction.

Prof. Lozan Stoimenov

Jan 19, 2011 10:49

All the examples of anti-capitalist movements in this article are taken from European history, which of course is more in tune with the “old” left. Exploring the movements in Latin America (Zapatisa, MST or worker-run factories in Argentina for example) which have been operating for decades and with great success, would make it difficult to argue that the new left is, as the author argues, “novel”, “anti-everything” and “no longer has a hold on the conciousness of millions of people”.

Johnny Blaze
Jan 21, 2011 4:12

This article is right to dismiss Laurie Penny’s optimism about the inevitability of the triumph of the “New Left” and the idea that this non-hierarchical forms of organizing are the result of a recent “fundamental re-imagining” by the British Left. However the author then repeats Penny’s mistake of interpreting such forms of organizing (and related ideologies) as something novel when he asks the “New Left” “if not socialism then what?” Ignoring the fact that the new left has never posited itself ideas as an alternative to socialism but rather a more authentic form of socialism (ie. workers’ control of production and local control of communities) than that of Lenin’s elitist views of professional revolutionaries, vanguard parties (which are starting to creep into the student movement) and state control.
The article continues on this theme when it describes the Situationists legacy as, paradoxically in the authors view, leading to a “resurgence in socialism” and cites British Trotskyism and Maoism as examples. This clearly betrays the author’s mistaken assumption that “Marxist” Leninism (with Trotskyism, Maoism etc. as offshoots) has a monopoly on socialism. This is repeated when the Situationists call for strikes and factory occupations are described as representing as “distinctive current of Marxism” as if these acts are only consistent with currents of Marxism.
The Situationists (as with the new left) are/were socialists; that is their “alternative anti-capitalist vision.” If you would like to know more about what non-Leninist socialists stand for read some Kropotkin, Bakhunin or Chomsky or from a Marxist position read some Leon Czolgosz, Rosa Luxembourg, Anton Pannekoek or Paul Mattick (who all represented mainstream marxism prior to 1917 and regarded leninism as a right wing deviation from socialism because of its elitism) but don’t act, like Penny does, that this tradition doesn’t exist or doesn’t have alternatives. There are plenty of alternatives to Corporate and State capitalism

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