New Left Review, 1962–Present

Duncan Thompson. Pessimism of the Intellect?: A History of the New Left Review. Merlin Press, 2006.

In April 1975, North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed the South and took Saigon. American troops, who had mostly withdrawn by 1973, had no way of stemming the tide. “COMMUNISTS ENTER SAIGON,” ran the AP wire: “U.S. EMBASSY LOOTED.” “COLLAPSE IN VIET NAM,” proclaimed Time, with an image of a weeping Vietnamese child.

“VICTORY IN INDOCHINA” was the banner that ran across the New Left Review’s May–June issue of that year. Alongside the usual fare—articles on Bruno Bettelheim, Hungarian Communism, and Georg Lukacs’s relationship to Stalinism, and commentary by Rainer Werner Fassbinder on the melodramas of Douglas Sirk—the editors wrote:

Indochina has been lost to capitalism at a time of mounting disarray on every front: slumpflation, 15 million unemployed in the advanced capitalist countries, together with the diverse political convulsions which removed Nixon, Heath, Brandt, Tanaka, Selassie, Caetano, Papadopoulos and Kittikachorn in less than a year. The precise tactics and strategy which triumphed in Indochina no doubt apply only to a limited number of countries: even in many third world states the decisive battles may well be fought as much in the towns and cities as in the countryside. But the example of a socialist revolution succeeding against such formidable opposition, and after so many cruel disappointments, will stimulate the struggles of the exploited and oppressed everywhere.

Here the much-feared “domino effect” that had exercised the Johnson administration became the rallying cry of independent socialism—and the next domino would fall, so the NLR hoped, in Europe.

Events fell short of expectations. In 1976, the Portuguese revolution ended in the adoption of a disappointingly bourgeois constitution. In the United States, the Black Panther party, after a final bout of violent internal feuding, collapsed. 1978: In Italy, Aldo Moro—who had brokered a historic power-sharing deal between the Italian Communist Party and the centrist Christian Democrats—was kidnapped by a Marxist terrorist group and murdered; Communist Cambodia, the site of a genocide of at least 200,000, was invaded by Communist Vietnam. (“At last,” cried Louis Althusser, with strange satisfaction, “the crisis of Marxism.”) In February 1979, Communist China invaded Communist Vietnam; in May, Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; in December, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. At the end of 1980, Ronald Reagan was president-elect of the United States, and Jean-Paul Sartre was dead.

An earlier history of the NLR and the New Left, Lin Chun’s The British New Left (1993), chose to end here, with the revolutionary expectations of 1975 extinguished and the globe-transforming project of neoliberalism entrained. Duncan Thompson’s book, Pessimism of the Intellect?: A History of the New Left Review, covers the Review’s history from 1962 to 2000, when Perry Anderson took back the editorship of the journal and reorganized it for a new era—a turn that, for Thompson, can safely be demarcated as the end of the New Left’s project. The title of his book, a reference to Antonio Gramsci’s (appropriation of Romain Rolland’s) slogan, “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,” follows the unkillable Marxist tradition of posing questions to which the author already has an answer. Which is to say: this history of the Review discovers that it has indeed been a pessimistic organ, and has done little to gird or direct the leftist will to social transformation.

The argument is not new. From the Review’s inception in 1962, it attracted charges of “rootlessness” and “super-theoreticism” for its failure to develop strategies for confronting capitalism and making a transition to socialism. And it is undeniable that the Review has been committed to analytic rather than strategic work. So a larger question comes into view: what sort of left theory is appropriate to periods of confusion and defeat? And does the sort of politically unaffiliated intellectual work that the Review did (and still does) preserve and develop important but otherwise impossible thought, or does it simply abet the left’s ideological defeat by offering nothing in the way of a solution?

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