Perry Anderson: Problems of Socialist Strategy (1965)

Our History 86

This essay was published in Towards Socialism by New Left Review. Other contributors were Thomas Balogh, Robin Blackburn, Ken Coates, Richard Crossman, Andre Gorz, Tom Nairn, Richard Titmuss, John Westergaard and Raymond Williams. Anderson and Blackburn were joint editors. Anderson was editor of the New Left Review, having succeeded the first editor, Stuart Hall. The review was a bi-monthly journal founded in 1960 as a merger of the New Reasoner (edited by E. P. Thomson and John Saville) and the Universities and Left Review. The New Reasoner had been published by a group of Communist dissidents, often referred to as the ‘first New Left’. The Universities and Left Review had been the journal of a group of young Oxford University Marxist academics: Stuart Hall, Gabriel Pearson, Raphael Samuel and Charles Taylor.

Towards Socialism was the New Left Review’s first book, published by Fontana, and attracting contributions from a wider range of academics: for example, Crossman, a Minister in the Wilson government and former leading figure in the Keep Left group, was not a member of the New Left Review editorial board and his essay, ‘The lessons  of 1945’, had previously been published in the New Statesman. Thomas Balogh was economic adviser to Harold Wilson. Richard Titmuss was Professor of Social Administration at the LSE, where John Westergaard was a sociology lecturer. Raymond Williams, an English lecturer at Cambridge, had already published Culture and Society and The Long Revolution. A history of the New Left Review was published as Pessimism of the Intellect? by Duncan Thompson in 2007. A study of Perry Anderson, Marxism and the New Left was published by Paul Blackledge in 2004. The New Left Review is still published bi-monthly.

The editors’ introduction to Towards Socialism set out the book’s two basic ideas: “that the advent of political democracy in Britain has not created a true equality of power in British society”, and that “socialism in rich societies of the West must move beyond the traditional preoccupations of the labour movement, towards a political programme which conceives men in their entirety, and tries to liberate them in their whole social life”.

“The Left in Britain has always been open to the damaging accusation that it lacks any strategic perspective. It is difficult to deny the charge. The Left has never, historically, been able to offer a convincing or coherent answer to the question: how is socialism to be achieved? It is striking that in all the debates and conflicts of the fifties, strategic arguments proper played almost no role at all. All sections of the Left were alike in this: the basis of their politics was a moral critique of society, disassociated from the complex historical process in which values can alone ultimately find incarnation. This attitude, with all its characteristic strengths and weaknesses, has been a hallmark of the British Left since the foundation of the ILP. Its best thinkers – Morris, Tawney, Cole – have never departed from this tradition. Today, however, it has become urgent to surpass it. The lack of any strategic perspective has been one of the key reasons for the eclipse of the Left since 1961 – its swift and sudden effacement before the rise of Wilson. For Wilson above all has offered a strategy to the Labour Party – it is this that has enabled him to temporarily cancel the divisions within it and dominate the party. A strategy for the Labour Party as it exists today, however, is one thing; a strategy for socialism is another. It is precisely in this that so much difficulty lies.”

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