The New Left’s vision for grassroots philosophy clubs

I’ve been researching philosophy clubs and the phenomenon of grassroots philosophy for an academic project I’m running called Philosophical Communities. The research has taken me in many different, interesting directions: 18th century coffeehouses, 19th century radical Corresponding Societies, the Chautauqua movement, the Lyceum movement, the Workers Education Association…and so on. It’s taken me deeper and deeper into the realm of ‘adult education’ – I’ve realised that in some ways grassroots philosophy organisations like the London Philosophy Club and Philosophy in Pubs are filling a vacuum left by the decline of organisations like the WEA and university extramural departments.

One of the things I’ve recently been exploring is the role of the New Left in trying to revive grassroots philosophy in the 1950s and 1960s. The New Left in the UK were a movement of left-wing thinkers that started in Oxford in the 1950s and spread to London and beyond in the 1960s. The New Left typically rejected the rigid economic determinism and authoritarian party structure of Marxism-Leninism, they celebrated the power of culture to shape attitudes, and they also celebrated the grassroots development of political consciousness in the working class, beyond the Communist Party, through clubs, discussion circles, lending libraries and other forms of adult education. They believed in culture, basically, as a transforming force in society.

The movement included the cultural critic Raymond Williams, who spent several years working in the Oxford extramural department on community education; the historian EP Thompson, whose The Making of the English Working Class explores the history of popular radical clubs in the 19th century, as well as Stuart Hall, Robin Blackburn, Eric Hobsbawm, Perry Anderson, Christopher Hill and others. It also led to a journal, the New Left Review, which is still going 50 years later, and to the publishing firm Verso, which still publishes a lot of radical philosophy, mainly from the continent – reflecting the original New Left’s fascination with the work of radical continental philosophers like Merleau-Ponty, Gramsci and Marcuse. You can read a fascinating account of the evolution of the New Left by Stuart Hall here.

Raymond Williams, who was deeply committed to adult education and university extension

The New Left are an interesting point in the development of the history of emotions. One of the positions some of their members took was that ‘the personal is political’ – our personal lives, including our emotions, are part of culture, therefore just as infused with politics as, say, labour conditions. Peter Brooker describes Raymond Williams’ notion of a ‘structure of feeling’:

[It was a] flexible conjunction of the two realms of ‘objective’ structure and ‘subjective’ feeling, suggesting how personal emotions and experience (‘meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt’, 1977) are shaped in the thought and consciousness, and take a social form in observable texts and practices. It differs in intention therefore from the abstract and reductive Marxist vocabulary of an earlier era and from Marxism’s later, poststructuralist and anti-humanist mode.

You can see the intellectual value of such an approach in EP Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, particularly in the brilliant analysis of the emotional structure of 19th century Methodism, which Thompson memorably described as ‘psychic masturbation’, and how that fed into the political consciousness of the working class in the 19th century (too much psychic masturbation, not enough agitation, in Thompson’s view).

But what particularly interests me about the New Left, from the point of view of my research project, is their emphasis on community engagement, adult education and grassroots discussion / philosophy. Thinkers like Williams, Hobsbawm and Thompson wrote excellent scholarly works and also dedicated themselves to extramural work.

I’m interested in the New Left’s experiments in establishing clubs. Stuart Hall tells us:

In the early years the Club (later the London New Left Club) attracted to its weekly meetings audiences of three or four hundred, drawn from the whole spectrum of the left. For a time it provided an extremely important, lively, often contentious focal point for people with no other formal political commitment. It differed from the typical left organization or sect in that its purpose was not to recruit members but to engage with the political culture of the left on a very broad front, through argument, debate, discussion and education.

The Club became an important independent centre for left politics in London, particularly after it found a permanent home—through another of Raphael Samuel’s nerve-rackingly risky but brilliantly innovative ventures—in the Partisan Café in Carlisle Street. This was the first left ‘coffee bar’ in London, with a clubhouse and library on the floors above. On the fourth floor it housed the offices of ulr, later to become those of nlr. Following the merger, a number of New Left clubs sprang up around the country. The last issue of nlr which I edited, number 12, listed thirty-nine in various stages of political health. The clubs reflected, in programme and composition, the cultural and political character of their localities: the Manchester and Hull Left Clubs were close to the local labour movement; the Fife Socialist League was linked, through Lawrence Daly, to an independent socialist movement amongst miners in Scotland; the Croydon and Hemel Hempstead Clubs had a more ‘cross-class’ or even ‘déclassé-new-town’ feel to them.

The clubs became focuses of local campaigns – against racism or slum-lords in London, for example – and also a network for national political struggles like the CND movement. And they were also places of free discussion, learning, ideas, debate. They were supposed to be non-hierarchical and grassroots, in opposition to the rigid centralised structure and block votes of the Communist Party.

The historian EP Thompson talking at Glastonbury festival, 1986

With all their weaknesses, the clubs signified the project of the New Left to be a new kind of socialist entity: not a party but a ‘movement of ideas’. They were a sign that, for us and for the left, the ‘question of agency’ had become deeply problematic…

What type of organizational leadership did these strategies presuppose? The metaphor to which we constantly returned was that of ‘the socialist propaganda’. As EP Thompson put it in the New Reasoner:

The New Left does not propose itself as an alternative organization to those already in the field; rather, it offers two things to those within and without the existing organizations—a specific propaganda of ideas, and certain practical services (journals, clubs, schools, etc).

The New Left were trying to forge a better relationship between intellectuals and the people (though of course that very project presupposes a gap to be crossed):

The notion of a ‘socialist propaganda of ideas’ was, of course, borrowed directly and explicitly from William Morris and the relationships forged in the Socialist League between intellectuals, struggling to make themselves what Gramsci called ‘organic’, and the working class.

As we put it in the first issue of nlr:

We have to go into towns and cities, universities and technical colleges, youth clubs and Trade Union branches and—as Morris said—make socialists there. We have come through 200 years of capitalism and 100 years of imperialism. Why should people—naturally—turn to socialism? There is no law which says that the Labour Movement, like a great inhuman engine, is going to throb its way into socialism or that we can, any longer . . . rely upon poverty and exploitation to drive people, like blind animals, towards socialism. Socialism is, and will remain, an active faith in a new society, to which we turn as conscious, thinking human beings. People have to be confronted with experience, called to the ‘society of equals’, not because they have never had it so bad, but because the ‘society of equals’ is better than the best soft-selling consumer capitalist society…

This position may seem naive and has certainly been dubbed ‘utopian’ and ‘populist’ since. But it was populist in the Narodnik sense of ‘going to the people’ and in terms of what they/we might become, rather than in the sense of massaging popular consent by cynical appeals to what the people are said by their betters to want…As Edward Thompson, its main architect, put it in the New Reasoner:

What will distinguish the New Left will be its rupture with the tradition of inner-party factionalism, and its renewal of the tradition of open association, socialist education and activity directed towards the people as a whole . . . It will insist that the Labour Movement is not a thing, but an association of men and women; that working people are not the passive recipients of economic and cultural conditioning, but are intellectual and moral beings . . . It will appeal to people by rational argument and moral challenge. It will counter the philistine materialism and anti-intellectualism of the Old Left by appealing to the totality of human interests and potentialities, and by constructing new channels of communication between industrial workers and experts in the sciences and arts.

This sounds to me a fascinating project. Of course, you can see where it could go wrong. The Narodnik metaphor is revealing: that was a movement in 19th century Russia of aristocratic intellectuals going to the people to educate them and teach them to read (while also learning from them how to farm etc). But some of them got beaten up for being suspicious metropolitan radicals and perhaps for being patronising. There’s a tension there between the intellectual and the people, which I think public thinkers like Williams felt when they re-visited their working class roots. But at least they had the guts to confront it rather than retreating into institutions or their own sophisticated cliques.

Another potential problem: were these clubs allowed to develop their own ideas, or was it still a question of correctly learning the ‘propaganda’ made by the Oxford intellectuals at the centre? Hall writes:

We hoped that the clubs would develop their own independent organization, leadership and channels of communication (perhaps their own news-sheet or bulletin), leaving the journal free to develop its own project. But we lacked the resources to bring this about, which exacerbated in the clubs feelings that they had no control over the journal, and in the editorial board the fear that a journal of ideas could not be effectively run by committees. It was, in effect, this last issue and the cross-pressures associated with it which finally precipitated my own resignation from the editorship of New Left Review in 1961.

Of course, the New Left was a failure. It helped pave the way for the student uprisings of 1968, which were also a failure. It also helped prefigure the Occupy movement, which will be a failure. It seems to me that adult education, like the history of socialism, is a series of failures, but the failures accumulate and maybe something is gained over time. And, in times like ours, it is inspiring to look back on moments where a generation of thinkers were filled with hope, idealism, energy and a belief in popular human consciousness and its capacity to grow and improve society. At least they tried.

Where is the New Left now? Verso Books (which grew out of the New Left) seems to have retreated into philosophical sophistication focused entirely on continental poseur-sophists like Slavoj Zizek, and to have lost any interest in connecting with ordinary people. I emailed them asking if they’d like to suggest speakers for the London Philosophy Club. They were pretty snooty and patronising. Verso constantly ridicule Alain de Botton (quiet rightly) but what does it say about them as a socialist publisher that a Swiss multi-millionaire is doing more community engagement than they are? There’s also the New Left Project, which includes the young polemicist Dan Hind, who has written a book called Common Sense calling for more community assemblies. I also asked him to speak at the London Philosophy Club – he was apparently too busy trying to get media coverage.

There are still some members of the New Left with that old spirit of grassroots community engagement. I met Derek Tatton, who runs the Raymond Williams Foundation, at the Philosophy In Pubs conference in Liverpool on Friday. He still runs discussion circles in his hometown of Leek, with support from the website Open Democracy. You can read an article about it here. Derek wondered about the term ‘philosophy club’, and prefers discussion circles – after all, there are many such organisations which discuss science, or literature, or economics, or psychology, or all these topics. Fair enough – I guess my definition of philosophy involves the practice of reflection and discussion rather than any particular topic.

What’s interesting about such clubs today, by the way, is how they often combine philosophy with psychology and even (horror of horrors) with self-help and personal development. Look at the Occupy London movement, for example, which would have seminars on ‘body work’ and meditation side-by-side with talks on Marx or Gramsci. Interesting times…

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