The New Left Review has released its 50th anniversary issue, celebrating a whole half-century of the journal. I’m not sure what qualifies it as a re-launch, but Susan Watkins’s editorial positions this issue as marking a new era. Watkins devotes the vast majority of her piece to an in-depth summary/analysis of the current crisis moment, from the bailouts to the potential for capital’s further expansion in coming years in Chinese and Latin American markets. It’s a concise history of the present, and a pleasant read. Until the last couple paragraphs.
In the last two paragraphs, Watkins turns her attention to the Review itself in a shockingly tone-deaf conclusion,
“When the Review was founded, as Stuart Hall vividly evokes in this issue, forging a ‘new left’ was an immediate practical project; in the second decade of the 21st century, it is one for the longue durée. But the journal can still think about how to prefigure the general intellectual culture that an effective—therefore, pluralist and internationalist—left would require.”
Briefly noting the emphasis on the “longue durée” that I think is misplaced (for more on this, see Alain Badiou on the comparative importance of courage v. patience at the present moment), I want to focus on the Review and this prefigurative call. I’m honestly not sure in which way I can read the second sentence in good faith. Either it is circuitous and Watkins is suggesting that the journal act prefiguratively – to make the world they want present in their current relations – or she is actually suggesting that the Review’s task is only to think about how to prefigure. The lines that follow sadly indicate the second meaning.
In order to point to the Review’s youth, Watkins lists a number of scholars who weren’t born at the journal’s founding. That is, who are under 50 years old. Left politics has been dominated historically by the young, in number and fervor if not always in power, so to brag that some of your writers – almost all published professors and para-academics – are under 50 seems underwhelming. (And made all the more painful by the Review’s black-text-on-coral site that just screams: “Hosted by GeoCities!”) Unlike most paper publications, the bi-monthly journal seems to have decided to ignore any communications technology invented after 1998. Even the London Review of Books has a twitter. The New Yorker is on freaking tumblr. Acting prefiguratively requires more than patting yourself on the back for being accessible to 40 year-olds. More importantly, much of the Review’s content is behind a pay wall. A journal is only so “general” if you can’t access it without a £34 subscription.
Watkins’s concluding paragraph lays out what she sees as the role of the NLR at the present moment, and it’s grim:
“If anything, the inter-generational contrast is starker now than it was in 1960. The editors who saw the Review through its first few decades came of age in a still strongly delineated national culture and public sphere, in which social classes were tangible realities; they hit their intellectual stride in the mid-60s, a time of intense commitments on the left, with victory seemingly within reach; positions were forged and argued within a highly politicized and internationalist milieu. Today’s young writers have grown up within far more depoliticized cultural and intellectual environments, structured by the market and mediated, for better or worse, by electronic forms of sociability. Flares of protest have been ephemeral; every mobilization they have known—alter-globo, climate change, marches against the invasion of Iraq—has ended in defeat. But perhaps the very rarity of a serious left forum in these times makes a journal like NLR more valued. The thought-world of the West is increasingly patterned by Atlantic-centred structures of wealth and power. University disciplines—international relations, economics, law, social sciences, area studies—derive their curricula from the narrowing perspectives of its rulers’ needs. A neutralized academic Marxism risks being the unwitting reflection of this trend. NLR stands outside this world, defines its own agenda. Can a left intellectual project hope to thrive in the absence of a political movement? That remains to be seen. But in the meantime it will have plenty on its plate.”
I think it’s been demonstrated that a left intellectual project can hope for anything it wants, but whether it can thrive in the absence of a political movement I don’t particularly care. At a time of crisis in capital, the left’s premiere journal suggests continued hibernation in Ivory Tower cubbyholes. There is no “risk” of a neutralized academic Marxism; we have actually existing neutralized academic Marxism! If the NLR “stands outside this world” – an exceptionally odd declaration from a Marxist – and “defines its own agenda,” then what prevents its members from being the revolutionaries for whose movement they patiently wait? With spiking unemployment it seems at very least unseemly to brag about having plenty on one’s plate.
The New Left Review does have a number of highly talented scholars doing relevant work – I’ve had Gopal Balakrishnan’s “Speculations on the Stationary State” in a tab for a few days now and look forward to reading it – but the form matters. When I think of a prefigurative intellectual culture, I think of the North East regional Students for a democratic Society convention last year. The DC contingent went to Rochester, NY with boxes full of xeroxed copies of three pamphlets: “Communiqué from an Absent Future,” The Coming Insurrection and the critical response “Why She Doesn’t Give a Fuck about Your Insurrection.” We passed out all we had and spent the evening discussing them and their relevance with friends new and old. With beer. I don’t think this qualifies as the kind of “serious left forum” Susan Watkins writes that the situation demands, but all the texts and the contexts for their discussion came from struggle and I came out energized and thinking. The texts were tools of communication and inspiration, not goals unto themselves. If left intellectual culture is supposed to resemble the society we want, then I’ll take a room-full of passionate drunk teenagers sitting on the floor talking at 3 a.m. over an editorial board of serious credentialed professionals any day. As to which group is more likely to overthrow capitalism, I wouldn’t bet on the latter.