Between Education and Experience

Between Education and Experience

The intellectual must work within a narrow ridge between academic hubris on the one hand; and on the other false humility, the abasement of the intellect before working-class experience, which compromises not only our own intellectual integrity, but also our own ideas. [1]

So advised the historian and campaigner E. P. Thompson nearly sixty years ago, shortly after another moment of national existential crisis precipitated by a vain and oily Conservative Prime Minister with one eye on his place in the history books of the future. Most commentators now appear convinced that just in terms of the sheer range of potentially pernicious political and socioeconomic forces it has unleashed, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union on 23 June 2016 has probably already displaced the Suez debacle of six decades earlier in the annals of great acts of domestic political hubris and self-defeat. Nevertheless, the peculiar sense of national self-exposure and disorientation which followed Anthony Eden’s wholly misconceived assessment of Britain’s continuing international standing and significance in 1956 may offer a useful referent point for those of us currently struggling to orientate ourselves in a world in which all that is solid really does appear to be melting into air.

‘Suez’, like 1956 in general, has been rightly recognised as one of the key caesuras in modern British history; amongst other things, it viscerally highlighted Britain’s waning imperial identity and global power status, the insouciance and ineptitude of its presiding political leadership, and the complicity and toothlessness of a largely docile and subservient mainstream media ‘establishment’. In cultural terms, it helped to provide the impetus for a period of sustained national introspection and critical self-examination, as new and conspicuously angry voices, hitherto marginalised or overlooked, finally came to challenge Britain’s quasi-Edwardian self-image through a series of landmark ‘social realist’ plays, novels and films. That these developments coincided with rapid technological advances in mass communications media, the end of post-war austerity and the rise of a consumer society only added to the impression of Britain as a nation on the cusp of a major, perhaps even revolutionary, period of transition.

At the forefront of those seeking to make sense of this burgeoning new atmosphere were a number of intellectuals and activists associated with the self-styled New Left. Formulated in the wake of the so-called ‘dual exposure’ of 1956 (incorporating both ‘Suez’ and the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising), the New Left was advanced as a new type of political and social movement. Eschewing virtually all prevailing political orthodoxies, not least the ‘sterile antagonisms’ associated with Westminster itself, its primary struggle, the New Left’s founders claimed, would be against ‘not this or that policy of the parties but the kind of politics in which all parties are implicated’.[2]

Echoing Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century, new leftists suggested that Britain post-Suez was a society caught ‘between two worlds, the one half-dead, the other powerless to be born’.[3] On one side lay the anachronisms and iniquities of an idealised imperial past, ‘the inertia of received opinions and entrenched institutions’, and the stultifying hand of social and political convention; on the other, however, loomed the fear and anxiety compelled by an increasingly uncertain global future that few embraced and yet which few seemed willing to define.[4] Existing political formulations, meanwhile, not least those of the contemporary Labour Party, appeared incapable of apprehending either the speed or enormity of change; indeed, according to Thompson, as early as 1950,‘conventional Labour politics’ had largely ‘narrowed to a region of legislative manipulation’, a trend further exemplified in ‘the weary self-important philistinism and the myopic “realism” of the capitalist parliamentarian’.[5] In the face of this, the older left tradition of “Utopian protest, the vision of new human possibilities constrained within old forms’, tended to be met only ‘with blank incomprehension.’[6]

As such, it was suggested, by the mid-1950s, a palpable gulf could already be seen to have opened up between the preoccupations and priorities of the parliamentary Labour Party and those of a substantial (if predominantly younger) proportion of its assumed electoral base. Whilst the latter had continued to wait in vain for a political lead capable of giving expression to their hopes, aspirations and anxieties (or, in some cases, opted out of mainstream political routines altogether), representatives of the former had apparently ‘become so mesmerised with political trivia, or [had] pushed their emotions so far down under, that they [had come to] mistake the machinery of politics for the thing itself’.[7] Correspondingly, at the very moment that Britain was obliged to begin rethinking its collective national identity and future direction in the world in 1956, some had also come to perceive themselves as in the midst of a parallel crisis of political representation and leadership.

It was within this ensuing vacuum – between the compromised political machinery and decaying institutions of the traditional Labour movement, and the newly emergent ‘social energies’ contemporaneously struggling for effective political expression – that new-left intellectuals like Thompson came to conceive a unique role for themselves. Distinguishing the New Left as neither ‘an alternative faction, party [nor] leadership to those now holding the field’, its primary function, Thompson claimed, would be to build bridges of association and understanding between the existing institutions and machinery of the Labour movement and the ‘new socialist generation’ who had come to political consciousness in the wake of developments like Suez. In the process, Thompson suggested, the New Left would seek to initiate a ‘renewal of the tradition of open association, socialist education, and activity directed towards the people as a whole’; it would ‘construct new channels of communication between industrial workers and experts in the sciences and the arts’, with a view to closing ‘the gap which divides ideas from social energies’.[8] In the short term this would further entail through the production of ‘a specific propaganda of ideas, and certain practical services (journals, clubs, schools, etc.’)’; ultimately, however, new leftists foresaw the need for the creation of nothing less than a new kind of collective left consciousness, ‘consonant with contemporary reality… with a new definition of the identity of popular interests, with a new language of politics and a new moral temper, and with new organisations and the transformation of the old ones.’ [9]

Bold as this vision was, however, new leftists also recognised that, for better or worse, ‘the strategic stake in British politics’ was still (for the time being at least) ‘inextricably bound up with the fate and fortunes of [the] Labour [Party]’.[10] Correspondingly, anyone seeking to initiate a new kind of politics in Britain could not, as yet, afford to ‘stand aside from the Labour Movement, and from its immediate preoccupations and struggles, in righteous anti-political purism.’[11] Indeed, according to Thompson, the future of progressive left politics in Britain depended on, on one hand, the capacity of the ‘new socialist generation’ to clarify, articulate and broaden out their protean aspirations and perspectives, beyond their own immediate frame of reference, and, on the other, the extent to which ‘the Labour Party [could] change fast enough to keep up with what is going on outside of it.’ If either constituency refused this challenge, the prospect of further, and potentially catastrophic, left fragmentation appeared to be unavoidable. Whilst the vitality and idealism of the former would inevitably warp and dissipate, ‘for lack of channels of expression’, the Labour Party, Thompson predicted, would simply crumble under the weight of it own anachronisms – manoeuvrings within its constitutional ranks would ‘become increasingly irrelevant to the mainstream of political life.’

In the event, Thompson’s and other new leftists’ proscriptions for left political renewal proved extremely difficult to implement. Despite considerable (and lasting) cultural and intellectual gains, the realisation of a new kind of collective left political consciousness and strategy remained frustratingly elusive. Nevertheless, whilst the direct influence of New Left thinkers on the Labour Party’s strategic thinking and policy direction in the late 1950s and early 1960s would be a difficult historical case to prove, it is perhaps not unreasonable to suggest that, without this parallel independent movement of ideas and critical social and cultural analysis, the party might well have struggled to recover as well as it did from the consecutive defeats it endured during the 1950s. If nothing else, the New Left greatly informed Labour’s recognition of the need to engage with younger voters and ‘youth culture’ in the aftermath of the 1959 General Election, as well as it more generalised cultural programme in the run up to Harold Wilson’s victory in 1964. In addition, the New Left’s subsequent ‘May Day Manifesto’ campaign (1966 – 70), offered a comprehensive ‘socialist alternative’ to what had, by that stage, come to be seen by some Labour voters, as the Wilson Government’s increasingly crass and superficial programme of ‘modernisation’, and ongoing ‘pragmatic’ accommodations with the forces of mammon. As such, the New Left continues to be recognised today as ‘one of the most creative intellectual and political currents the British left has produced’.[12]

Where Are We Now?

All that was, of course, sixty years ago; nevertheless, the parallels between Britain’s condition post-Suez, and our own situation in the immediate aftermath of ‘Brexit’ should be apparent. As in 1956, Britain again finds itself at a moment of potentially profound political and social disjuncture. The result of June 23 has not only exposed the complacency and inadequacy of the presiding political establishment, it has also fundamentally broken Britain’s imbrication in the political and socioeconomic orthodoxies that have predominated in this country and elsewhere for the last three and half decades. For better and worse, this has also had the effect of significantly increasing (if only fleetingly) the popular appetite for considering alternative forms of political representation and leadership. In such an interregnum, the call for all existing political organisations to embark upon a period of sustained critical self-examination and new thinking, ‘more consonant with contemporary reality’, should hardly require any further justification.

In the case of the contemporary Labour Party, however, a number of factors, both external and internal, are currently serving to suggest that such a critical intellectual process may prove even harder to initiate now than it did sixty years ago. Not least amongst these factors, is the pervasive climate of ‘anti-intellectualism’ that now informs numerous areas of mainstream British culture, including mainstream political culture. This itself should not, of course, be considered as anything particularly new; indeed, the recent high-profile hostility and impatience levied at ‘so-called experts’, by figures as diverse as Melvyn Bragg and Michael Gove, is, arguably, merely the latest development in an ongoing diminution of the status of intellectuals, and of specialist intellectual disciplines, that has been gathering pace in British public life for, at least, three decades.[13] Nor, perhaps, are the reasons for this diminution wholly without justification: it was, after all, a failure of ‘intelligence’ which compelled Britain’s disastrous military ‘intervention’ in Iraq in 2003; it was the failure of ‘economic experts’ to anticipate the global financial crash of 2008 that helped to yield the precarious economic environment under which we all now live; and, lest we forget, it is the ‘expertise’ of various pollsters and psephologists which has recently ensured that British General Elections and referendums can still offer up a few surprises.[14] To put it another way, if they are not offering up ‘facts’ and judgements that are either flawed or inaccurate, intellectuals have come to be viewed as simply too immersed, and too complicit, in the social and political structures they claim to objectively scrutinise.

As the public reputation and credibility of intellectuals in Britain has diminished, so too has that of popular and personal opinion increased; indeed, the fierce sense of entitlement which now accompanies public expressions of the latter strongly suggests that personal opinion could be on the way to becoming something of a sacred national cultural value in its own right. It is for related reasons that some have suggested that the respective political campaigns surrounding the EU Referendum represented the advent of an era of ‘post-truth politics’; even when so-called ‘hard’ socioeconomic facts and actualities were advanced, it was difficult to avoid the suspicion that it didn’t really matter whether they were true or not, so long as the rhetorical or emotional force of the point was registered by its intended target. [15]

The roots of these generalised cultural trends must, of course, be thought to lie far outside the Labour Party. However, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that the ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership in September 2015 with a massive 59.5% share of the first-preference vote, also owed something to the anti-intellectual, or at least anti-elitist, tendencies outlined above. Indeed, whatever else the ‘Corbyn revolution’ might be thought to represent, it is quite clearly not, as yet, a movement which places a particularly high premium on the ideas or opinions of intellectuals. Whilst numerous intellectuals have over the last ten months expressed considerable (if qualified) sympathy towards Corbyn’s Labour Party, it is apparent that they remain largely subsidiary to any strategic planning or policy discussions that may take place within it, and are, instead, invariably reduced to interpreting or justifying developments after the fact. As Corbyn himself regularly enjoys pointing out, the only opinions and judgements which ultimately matter to him are those of the ‘ordinary decent people’ who make up the current Labour Party membership and its attendant ‘social movement’.

As it is, conceivably, for many of his supporters, it is precisely Corbyn’s lack of intellectual pretensions and conventional leadership attributes, combined with the picaresque amateurishness of his political presentation and campaign style, which continues to stand as amongst his primary appeals. As Tom Crewe has recently discovered, such traits are taken as evidence not only of Corbyn’s personal political sincerity and integrity, but also as ‘a signal of his break with a bankrupt political orthodoxy, with the spin and slickness of New Labour (‘straight talking, honest politics’, the slogan goes).’[16]

Yet, sincerity, alone, can only take us so far; indeed, as a singular political virtue, sincerity – the unwavering commitment to one’s personal convictions and beliefs  –  is liable to constrain and foreclose the possibility of alternative voices and perspectives being heard as much as it opens it up. Moreover, in Corbyn’s case, there is real cause to suspect that the reason he can afford to be so indifferent to the alternative political visions, criticisms, and doubts that have dogged his leadership, is because he is already absolutely assured that his solutions are the right ones. To what extent this may or may not be so, is beyond the scope of this article. Nevertheless, it is, this air of personal and ideological intransigence which is currently, as much as anything, serving to undermine, not only Corbyn’s claim to the leadership of the Labour Party, but also, the tentative social movement which has been formulating around it.

For those of us who have been inspired or invigorated by the vibrant and diverse social and political energies unleashed over the last ten months – if not necessarily by the figure of Corbyn himself – the perpetual confrontation with this palpable lack of intellectual curiosity and critical self-awareness, produces a peculiar kind of dilemma; having spent years (in some cases decades), longing for some kind of meaningful breakthrough or challenge to the prevailing assumptions and routines of British political, we’ve no wish to squander what, despite the odds, still remains the best hope at bringing about such a transformation in a generation. Nor is there any desire to add any succour to the numerous forces which have sought to undermine, trivialise and degrade Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party from the start.  Indeed, confronted as they are with the overt political bias, hostility and condescension of the mainstream media and existing political establishment, incorporating large sections of the so-called ‘left/liberal’ commentariat and the PLP itself, it is understandable if some of Corbyn’s supporters have felt obliged to suppress or deny whatever critical doubts or reservations they might feel regarding his leadership, or at least defer them to a time when his position is seen as less threatened and precarious.[17] They know, after all, that there is no shortage of individuals ready to identify every apparent lacuna, evasion and deficiency that might exist – and even some that don’t.

Yet the belief that a more propitious moment for critical analysis and reflection is likely to come anytime soon is itself indicative of a refusal to face up to present British political and cultural actualities. Internal challenges notwithstanding, Corbyn’s Labour Party faces unprecedented political difficulties. Labour’s defeat at the 201o election was, according to some, as significant as that which befell the Party in 1931 and 1983, whilst Ed Miliband’s loss in 2015 was ‘worse still’.[18] As things stand, Corbyn is the most unpopular opposition leader in British political history. Recent opinion polls have put Labour as far as 16 points behind Theresa May’s Conservatives.[19] Corbyn’s own characteristic response when confronted with such apparently uncompromising evidence is to offer a wry smile, before suggesting that people shouldn’t believe everything they read in the newspapers. True enough, but the question still stands: what does he intend to about those voters who do still believe most of what they read in the newspapers? What, for that matter, does he intend to do about those hostile individuals and institutions who operate the main media of communication in this country? What does he intend to do about those voters for whom terms like ‘socialism’, ‘nationalistaion’, ‘economic redistribution’, represent an assault on their most cherished notions of personal liberty, progress and British ‘common sense’? What, in other words, does he intend to do to counter the profound hegemonic forces aligned against him and his particular social and political vision for Britain?

If the current Labour leadership and its supporters continue to act as if such questions can be deferred indefinitely, or else confined only to private, internal discussions between ‘likeminded’ comrades; if they continue to project hope, optimism, enthusiasm, in place of thought, critical analysis and communication, then they have, conceivably, already – regardless of what happens in September  –  renounced any claim to the future political orientation of the United Kingdom.  Or to put the matter another way, unless the tentative social movement, of which Corbyn hopes to be a principal political beneficiary, is rapidly accompanied by an equivalent movement of ideas, incorporating far-reaching strategies of communication and association ‘directed towards the [British] people as a whole’, then the prospect of major, and potentially devastating, political defeat moves ever closer.

If such a parallel movement of ideas to emerge, however, leftwing intellectuals desperately need to reassert their essential critical independence. By definition, this means being as critical of their own ‘side’ as that of their ostensible political enemies. Now, as much as ever, intellectuals must resist any temptation to defer their critical faculties in the face of social movements and popular feeling, even – or especially –  that with which they find themselves in sympathy. As things stand, there appears to be an overwhelming deficit of such thinking across all sections of the Labour Party.

For those struggling to maintain a faith in progressive politics in Britain the seriousness of this deficit can hardly be overstated; Labour, the principle parliamentary vehicle of progressive leftwing politics in Britain for over a century, is currently divided between, on one side, a PLP that shows little or no comprehension of the profound social, cultural and demographic shifts taking place around it; and, on the other, an embattled and ideologically intransigent leadership with seemingly no interest in either communicating or extending its political vision or project much beyond any constituency other than that of its own immediate support base.[20] Between these two poles Labour members (at least those deemed eligible to cast a vote) now take their choice. Meanwhile, any pretence to the actual hard thinking, contemporary social analysis and communication that so urgently needs to happen seems hard to detect.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that polarisations of this sort are something confined exclusively to the Labour Party; rather they are indicative of something far more widespread in contemporary British society, and of which Brexit itself was just one exposure. Whatever we may feel about the result of June 23, that exposure cannot be undone. There is no going back. Cracks and fissures that have been proliferating beneath the surface of British culture and society for at least three decades have been rent into full-scale chasms. In the ensuing light, some of us are clearly surprised at just how far apart from each other we appear to have been cast. If those distances (socioeconomic, geographical, cultural, generational, etc.) are ever to be overcome, however, it will not be enough to simply gather together in self-isolating enclaves of ‘likeminded’ people: once again, we have to try and know each other, understand each other, and, dare I say, love each other too. If we fail to work that narrow ridge the chasms that currently stand between us are likely to engulf us all.


Further Reading

Cal Winslow (ed.), E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics (New York 2014).


[1] E. P. Thompson, ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals’, in Universities and Left Review, No. 1 (Summer 1957), p. 35.

[2] E. P. Thompson, ‘The Segregation of Dissent’, in New University, No. 6 (May 1961), p. 13; reprinted in E. P. Thompson, Writing By Candlelight (London, 1980), p. 2.

[3] Lindsay Anderson, ‘Get Out and Push’, in Tom Maschler (ed.), Declaration (London 1957), p. 164.

[4] Thompson, ‘The Segregation of Dissent’, p. 2.

[5] E. P. Thompson, ‘Revolution’, in New Left Review, No. 3 (May-June 1960), p. 6.

[6] Ibid.

[7] E. P. Thompson, ‘The New Left’, in New Reasoner, No. 9 (Summer 1959), p. 3.

[8] Ibid., p. 16; Thompson, ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals’, p. 35.

[9] E. P. Thompson, ‘Revolution Again! Or Shut Your Ears and Run’, in New Left Review, No. 6 (November-December 1960), p. 27.

[10] Stuart Hall, ‘Life and Times of the First New Left’, in New Left Review, Series II, No. 61 (January-February 2010), p. 193.

[11] Thompson, ‘The New Left’, p. 16.

[12] Madeleine Davis, Can One Nation Labour Learn From the British New Left’, in Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2013), p. 7.




[16] Tom Crewe, ‘We Are Many – Among the Corbyn Supporters’, in London Review of Books, Vol. 38, No. 16 (11 August 2016), p. 14.





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