Sunday, 28 February 2016

Raphael Samuel and the Universities and Left Review 1957-1959-A Case of Historical Neglect

This literature review attempts to make a political and historical evaluation of Raphael Samuel's time at the ULR (Universities and Left Review) from the theoretical standpoint of orthodox Marxism or to be more precise a historical materialist viewpoint. No such study has been made before as most of the previous historiography of the ULR has been made by historians and writers who shared similar theoretical positions to the people they were writing about.

It is encouraging that the last few years have seen an increasing interest in Samuel's work. A television documentary looking at his interviews with East End people is being worked on.

Sophie Scott-Brown is currently researching an intellectual biography called Reading the Times; Raphael Samuel and the Politics of History Production in Late Twentieth 20th Century. The book when published looks like it will be written from a postmodernist standpoint. A genre which seems still to dominate modern-day history writing.

Any evaluation of Samuel must take into consideration his 'membership' of the New Left during his time at the ULR. The historian Michael Kenny has pointed out there are very significant "methodological problems facing those trying to interpret the history of the New Left in Britain."

One problem cited by Kenny is the shortage of written documents of its early years. Although this is not a problem with Samuel's time at the ULR because the archives at the Bishopsgate Institute have hardly been touched. Although one question does present itself in the fact that there has been no fully documented history of cultural studies and no single archive.

Having said this hopefully the research being carried out by The Raphael Samuel History Centre will seek to resolve this issue. In many ways, it is a fitting tribute to the work of Samuel that the centre is promoting and encouraging participation in historical research and debate not only in his work but of others.

While sources well-mined by other historian's will be used other sources decidedly unused by other historians will be searched. These will be the three archives at the Bishopsgate, The Ruskin College Papers, The Universities and Left Review Papers and the Raphael Samuel Papers.

Early days

In November 1956, the historian Raphael Samuel sent a letter to Stuart Hall suggesting they set up a magazine called 'New University Left,' Hall accepted the idea, but the magazine was to be called Universities & Left Review. To gain support for the publication which would orientate not towards the working class but to students, former CP members, fellow travellers, and various other left-wing radicals Samuel sent letters to these forces appealing for money and articles.

The appeal to ex-Communist Party members would have been logical since he had resigned from the party over Khrushchev's secret speech in 1956. 1956 was, without a doubt, one of the most critical years in the history of the 20th century. Khrushchev, who was a willing partner in Stalin's murderous purges of the 1930s, was forced to make a measured and insufficient revelation of Stalin's crimes in his "Secret Speech" of February 1956. The exposure of the Stalin's crimes caused thousands of party members to leave the party virtually overnight. The CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) also lost a significant number of its high-profile historians such and E P Thompson and Christopher Hill who both left the party.

Samuel was a teenager when he joined the CP and the CPHG (Communist Party Historians Group). "Like many Communists of my time, I combined a powerful sense of apartness with a craving for recognition, alternating gestures of defiance with a desire to be ordinary and accepted as one of the crowd. If one wanted to be charitable, one might say that it was the irresolvable duality on which British Communists find themselves impaled today."[1]

Samuel had a very romantic view of his time in the CP and had a tendency to see those times through very rose-tinted spectacles. His book The Lost World of Communism was devoid of any political analysis of the CP. Its betrayals are not mentioned. It is perhaps a little strange that he had a disdain for the undisciplined nature various left groups and publications but would later found one of them. Samuel missed the time when Stalinism had political control over the working class.

Samuel also seems to have been blind to the fact that there were significant disagreements inside the Communist Party over strategy and global politics. He indeed does not touch upon the struggle between Leon Trotsky's Left Opposition and Josef Stalin and stayed silent on Stalin's murderous purges of the 1930s.

Historical Phenomenon

Samuel was part of a historical event. Born in 1934 he had a relatively comfortable childhood and was educated at a private school. During his late youth, he would have been schooled by his mother who was in the Communist Party about the defeat of Nazi Germany, continued global economic depression and the Second World War. His teenage years would be defined by the constant rise of Stalinism, the further betrayal of the Russian Revolution, and the rise to global eminence of American capitalism.
Post-1945 America began its dominance of Britain and Europe who had been bleed dry by the Second World War. America saw its role as rescuing Global Capitalism. The Revolutionary struggles that broke out during this period were betrayed by a combination of Stalinism and Social Democracy.

British capitalism did not take its minor role in global events lightly. When Britain sought to exploit the situation thrown up by the Suez crisis in 1956 its military invention was sabotaged by the US. It was only able to maintain its global position by allying itself with the US albeit in a very junior position.

Aside from the odd article from non-members of the ULR the global economic and political implications of the rise of American imperialism mostly passed the editors of the ULR by. Although this cannot be said of its work regarding Stalinism. The editorial board of ULR which consisted of Stuart Hall, Gabriel Pearson, Ralph Samuel and Charles Taylor shared the view that Stalinism was the logical outcome of the Marxism. One historian Eric Hobsbawm who stayed in the CP shared that view[2]. The ULR's editorial position was best summoned up by Charles Taylor: who said 'Stalinism did not just add itself to Communism, it was not an obvious element deflecting the mainstream of Communist development. In every real sense, it has grown out of Communism". [3]

This hostility towards orthodox Marxism was not shown towards the British Labour Party. In fact, the ULR's orientation towards the Labour Party was to try and push it in a left-wing direction. To do this the Universities and Left Review published some documents such as 'The Insiders', a study of 'the men who rule British industry' in 1957. The ULR also published others outside the magazine who shared their view. Samuel published an article by John Hughes and Ken Alexander entitled A Socialist Wages Plan. Samuel called them the "New Left's most influential contribution to Labour Party thought'."

Another orientation championed by the ULR was towards the radicalisation that was taking place inside the universities, and young people were the prime target of the editors.  While rejecting a revolutionary Marxist perspective, they sought to attract young people to the magazine on an entirely utopian socialist basis. Their uncritical absorption of the method of the Frankfurt School theorists meant in essence that Samuel and the ULR shared the same theoretical premise that the working class was not an agency for revolutionary change. They instead took on board critical theory which saw the "emphasis moved from the liberation of the working class to broader issues of individual agency."

Labour Review and the Socialist Labour League

The ULR was not the only magazine around in 1957 that sought to gain political ground from the breakup of the Communist Party. A magazine of an entirely different political calibre was founded by Gerry Healy's the Club forerunner of the SLL (Socialist Labour League) called Labour Review.

Healy's initial response to the ULR was friendly, and he sought a dialogue with them and other New Left groups. The ULR's hostility to Trotskyism soon became apparent. Samuel said "There has been an incredible mushrooming of inner-party groups. On the ultra-Left—the dissidence of Dissent—a dozen 'vanguard' parties, and as many tendencies and groups, compete for the honour of leading a non-existent revolutionary working class". [4]

Healy was not only rebuffed by the ULR, but E P Thompson's New Reasoner was equally hostile towards the SLL leaving Healy to state that a "Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism."

The knockback from the ULR did not stop the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International from doubling their efforts to gain from the crisis within the British Communist party. Healy continued to believe that Stalinism was a counter-revolutionary force. The SLL won prominent figures such as Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp, Peter Fryer and Brian Pearce out of the CP.

Pearce's article warning of the dangers of founding the New Left Review without thorough assimilation of the struggle waged by Leon Trotsky against Stalinism was prescient. Pearce warned of the dangers of an uncritical attitude by the ULR editors towards their past affiliation to Stalinism and their hostility towards the orthodox Marxist in the SLL.

"Nothing could be more dangerous today than a revival of the illusions which dominated that 'old Left.' One of the chief sources of the confusion and worse in 'new Left' quarters, and in particular of their hostile attitude to the Socialist Labour League, is to be found in the fact that though these people have broken with Stalinism they have not undertaken a thorough analysis of what they repudiate, have not seen the connection between the contradictory features of Stalinism at different times or even at one time, and so they remain unconsciously open to influence by false ideas absorbed during their period in the Stalinist camp".[5]

History from Below

An interesting topic for a PhD dissertation would be how much of Samuels academic writing or to be more precise, his philosophy of history was influenced by his philosophy of politics. It is beyond dispute that his academic work can only be rightly seen as part of a broader anti-communist response.

In his essay Class and Classlessness, Samuel attacks Hall over his belief that class that society was becoming a thing of the past. Hall believed that class was something only the Trotskyists talked about. However, Samuels understanding of class was not from the standpoint of an orthodox Marxist. He never saw the working class as a revolutionary class even in his days of the CP.

He did not deny that the Working-class did have a radical history. However, his view history was shaped by the politics of the Communist Party. They were radical in a historical sense hence his interest in the "people's history" genre but not to the extent they could overthrow capitalism.

The historical genre of "People's History" was very much a product of the Communist Party. The first example of this type of history within Britain was A.L. Morton's People's History of England. According to Morton the rebels, revolutionaries and modern leaders he wrote about were representatives of a national revolutionary tradition.

As Ann Talbot points out "This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly liberal capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People's history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defence of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. [6]

Another by-product of Samuel's position regarding class was his work in the early development of Cultural Studies. Samuels avocation of People's History and Cultural Studies would colour his work until the day he died.

The early issues of the ULR were given over to discussing the theoretical merits of Cultural Studies, Hall, and Samuel each borrowed conceptions from the Italian left-winger Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci's notion of "cultural hegemony" was used as a guide for political activity.

Gramsci's attack on economic determinism, his hostility towards Trotsky's theory of the Permanent Revolution and his acceptance of the nationalist character of Stalinism was very attractive to Samuel and Hall.  As Gramsci would say "To be sure, the line of development is toward internationalism, but the point of departure is 'national' —, and it is from this starting point that one must begin." [7]

From the beginning, Cultural Studies became part of an attack on revolutionary Marxism. Samuel's academic and political writing would seek to shift social criticism away from class and onto other social formations. Such as identity politics and the early stages of gender studies.

Hall believed that a consumer boom which the working class had bought into meant that the old outdated class-based analysis could no longer be valid during this period. The wealth produced by the boom created what he termed a "people's capitalism." In an entirely extraordinary statement Hall elaborated his position further "This journal has no political 'line' to offer: it cannot have, for it seeks to provide a forum where the different fruitful traditions of socialist discussion are free to meet in open controversy. 

It tries to reach beyond any narrow sectional appeal in the search for new ideas and new writers. Can we bridge the gap between the Thirties and the 'Fifties? Do new ideas, new writers and new readers in fact exist? This is the calculated risk we take. If this Review can attract serious attention and avoid the bankruptcy of labels and pigeonholes, it will have achieved the purpose for which it has been started" [8]

Hall and Samuel's new readers and writers would not come out of the working class but would come from pseudo-left radicals and utopian socialists. One such figure was Herbert Marcuse (1898 –1979) Marcuse welcomed the New left and especially welcomed the groups such as the ULR that adopted the new Cultural Turn.

According to Marcuse, "The New Left was concerned with the emancipation of imagination from the restraints of instrumental reason. In opposition to the alliance between realism and conformity, the forces of the New Left created the slogan: "Be realistic, demand the impossible." This is where the high aesthetic component of the movement originated: art was seen as a productive emancipatory force, as the experience of another (and ordinarily repressed) reality.[9]

Marcuse who was a neo-utopian theoretician concurred with the figures inside the ULR that the working class should no longer be regarded as a revolutionary class. That it was a political or even backward mass. Like Hall, he believed that it had been bought off by capitalism and was too intimately connected to capitalist society to be revolutionary. The working class had become consumed by the mechanisms of consumerism and the domination of the media.

Marcuse, who was a pupil of Martin Heidegger and a member of the Frankfurt School was seen as the "Father of the New Left," went even further than Hall or Samuel in putting forward that there was a "proto-fascist syndrome in the working class."

Marcuse also believed that "The "revolution" would not be made by the working led by a vanguard party along the lines of the Bolsheviks in 1917. Like Samuel, he saw other social forces such as the intelligentsia, social fringe groups or guerrilla movements as the motor force of the revolution. The revolution would not be brought about by the class contradictions of capitalist society, but by the critical thinking of a progressive elite. The changing of attitudes towards social, culture and sexual habits would be a precursor to the successful transformation of society and the precondition for the social revolution.


Despite a plethora of material written about the ULR and the early New Left from a Stalinist or left radical standpoint nothing outside of few articles from the Trotskyist Socialist Labour League exists of an examination of the ULR from an orthodox Marxist perspective. The archives held at Bishopsgate have hardly been touched and evaluated. Using these files, I will seek to achieve an entirely new understanding of Raphael Samuels early political and historical life.

[1] New Left Review, No.154 (November/December 1985), p.53.
[2]See David North-  Leon Trotsky and the Fate of Socialism in the Twentieth Century,
[3] C. Taylor, Socialism and the Intellectuals, Universities and Left Review 1/2, 1957.
[4] Samuel Raphael, The Lost World of British Communism Verso 2006
[5] Some Lessons from History: The Left Review, 1934–1938(November 1959)
[6] "These the times ... this the man": an appraisal of historian Christopher Hill-By Ann Talbot 2003
[7]  Stephen Gill: Gramsci, Historical Materialism and International Relations, Cambridge 1993
[8] Universities & Left Review Spring 1957 Vol.1 No 1
[9] The Failure of the New Left? * by Herbert Marcuse