New Left Review at 50

New Left Review at 50

The journal’s sustained critique of neoliberalism remains indispensable.


"It is hard not to be intimidated by New Left Review," Stefan Collini wrote recently in the Guardian. He’s right: first there is the intellectual range and analytical power of the NLR writers, and now there’s the fact that it has been publishing for fifty years. The fiftieth anniversary issue–the 299th–reviews the magazine’s history, announces its current agenda and displays the qualities that have made it so significant over the past half-century. (Note: I’ve been a friend of several of the editors for years, and NLR has published book reviews of mine.)

The journal began as part of a mobilization of students in Britain at the end of the 1950s. In the new issue, Stuart Hall, the first editor, describes the forces that "nourished its initial cohort." They are evident in the first issue–January 1960–which included two pieces on the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, critiques of Britain’s Labour Party by Ralph Miliband and Clancy Sigal, and discussions of the English working class by Richard Hoggart, Raymond Williams and Edward P. Thompson.

Two years later, a new group, led by Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn, took over the editorial leadership. Their focus was more international and their approach more theoretical. As the movements of the ’60s reached a climax in 1968, NLR followed closely what looked to many of us like revolution. In the decade that followed, the Review became the place young people in the United States and Britain learned about "Western Marxism," from Gramsci and Lukács to the Frankfurt School to Althusser. The range of articles broadened to include extended essays on economics, aesthetics and philosophy, and unforgettable work by Mike Davis on Los Angeles and Fredric Jameson on postmodernism. After the NLR editors launched New Left Books in 1970 (later Verso), a new generation of students read the works of continental Marxist theory as they eagerly awaited–and then debated–each issue of the journal.

In 2000 the journal was relaunched with a new political tone and a sharpened focus. After two decades of triumphant Reaganism and Thatcherism, editor Perry Anderson declared, the political baseline for NLR had to be "a lucid registration of historical defeat." The journal, Anderson said, would nevertheless continue its "refusal of any accommodation with the ruling system."

Susan Watkins, who has been the editor since 2003, opens the fiftieth anniversary issue with an editorial that considers the recent global financial collapse and the absence of a concerted left response. In a sentence that exemplifies NLR‘s political-intellectual stance and its literary style, she writes, "That neoliberalism’s crisis should be so eerily non-agonistic, in contrast to the bitter battles over its installation, is a sobering measure of its triumph."

Assessing the magazine’s last decade, Watkins finds that NLR‘s "record on ecological questions has been erratic," while its "record on social issues has been just as uneven, not least on what was once the Woman Question"–all true. But there has also been strong work during this period by Robert Brenner on economic turbulence and by a number of writers on China.

The lead article in the new issue is Mike Davis’s discussion of environmental politics after the failure of the Copenhagen summit. "We must start thinking like Noah," he writes. But "since most of history’s giant trees have already been cut down, a new Ark will have to be constructed out of the materials that a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science and forgotten utopias."

In a surprising development, the publication of Davis’s article prompted Alexander Cockburn to resign from the editorial committee. Cockburn, who started writing for the Review in 1963 and joined the editorial committee soon thereafter, told me it bothered him that the fiftieth anniversary issue "should be signaled by a particularly uncritical and unscientific embrace of climate catastrophism–now sadly the prime obsession of what passes for the left." Davis appealed to him to reconsider, writing in an e-mail, "Something as trivial as my opinions should not be a cause for severing a moral and political relationship as profound and long-standing as your association with the NLR." But Cockburn’s name will not be on the masthead when the next issue appears.

The biggest article in the new issue is Perry Anderson’s "Two Revolutions," a dazzling piece contrasting the failed Soviet state with the People’s Republic of China, now "an engine of the world economy." China today, he writes, represents something new in history: "never have so many moved out of absolute poverty so fast. Never have…. workers, till yesterday theoretical masters of the state, [been] treated at will so ruthlessly–jobs destroyed, wages unpaid, injuries mocked, protests stifled." "Emancipation and regression," Anderson concludes, "have often been conjoined in the past; but never quite so vertiginously as in the China that Mao helped to create and sought to prevent."

The rest of the issue includes longtime editor Tariq Ali’s fierce critique of Obama’s foreign policy, which, he argues, continues Bush’s in every significant way; an interview with Eric Hobsbawm, still brilliant at 92, on the big questions historians should seek to answer in the aftermath of the cold war; and Robin Blackburn’s insightful essay on why no socialist movement developed in the United States in the late nineteenth century.

The new issue shows that the 1960s cohort is still as strong as ever–and also that the Review has recruited new generations: Gopal Balakrishnan, who is 44 and a member of the editorial committee, has a fascinating piece on Obama’s strange connection to Reinhold Niebuhr, the theologian of midcentury cold war liberalism. The masthead includes 33-year-old deputy editor Tony Wood, who writes on Russia and Latin America. Emilie Bickerton, another member of the editorial committee, who writes on French film, is in her 20s, as are several others who have written for the magazine over the past few years.

NLR has often been criticized for being too theoretical, and also too pessimistic. Of course, the absence of a vigorous left-wing movement can make all radical thought seem irrelevant. But the journal’s sustained critique of neoliberalism remains indispensable, for understanding the present and for imagining a different future. To do work of this quality during these dark decades is a tremendous achievement–and for that, we thank the New Left Review.

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