The History of New Socialist: Part One

EDITION: 5th Birthday.

The history of New Socialist as a way of telling the history of the last few years of the British left. Part one considers "the proto New Socialist".

This is part one of Tom Gann’s “History of New Socialist”. We will be publishing the following parts over the next few weeks.

What does it mean to try to tell the history of a publication like New Socialist (without a “the”, by the way)? Five years of a publication with a degree of influence, but certainly not a decisive one—at least on the level of national politics, on which we have been overwhelmingly defeated. There may have been influences on—little sparks, subterranean effects—or even transformations of the lives of some individuals (including of those most closely involved in New Socialist) though; and through that, wider effects. But how does one quantify that? What do we gain from trying to come to some sort of assessment of what we’ve achieved, where we’ve been limited, where we’ve failed—particularly when the history of New Socialist is incomplete (we’re not going away)?

For Gramsci, a newspaper or a review (or a group of newspapers or reviews, here perhaps is one way to pose the question of “left media”) can be a political party, or a fraction of a political party.1 Gramsci does not have a clear definition of a political party, and those points where he comes closest to defining it are if anything the weakest part of his arguments. What is worth nothing here is that when Gramsci speaks of a political party, he does not identify it an actually existing electoral formation. We certainly didn’t reach the level of a party, even on Gramsci’s understanding, either during the Corbyn period or after it, but I don’t think it overstates things to attempt to understand New Socialist as a fraction of a party. We have developed and, to an extent, organised an audience; we have a core of editors and writers, and we often have managed to raise readers to the level of writers or editors (and the point here is not an arrogant judgement of the superiority of writers and editors, but that the raised level represents a greater capacity to express struggles and demands, and a reflection on them). There are partisans—and opponents—of New Socialist; and, despite shifts in our positions and much greater shifts in the wider political environment, we have incarnated, argued for, developed, and attempted to help enact both a distinctive set of principles and a broad ethos.

Gramsci emphasises that the history of the party (or fraction thereof) does not exist in isolation: it is the history of the social group which the party expresses and organises, of its allies and enemies, of its situation within society as a whole; so that “to write the history of a party means nothing less than to write the general history of a country from a monographic viewpoint.”2 To write the history of the last five years Britain from the viewpoint of New Socialist is clearly more than this piece (or New Socialist) can bear. However, the model of condensation here is suggestive. To write the history of New Socialist is, at the very least, to attempt to write the history of the left in Britain from a particular perspective. Its struggles, successes, and failures are condensed and find expression in us, and in a qualified way, we have shaped them. To write this history through a publication, and particularly a highly-theorised publication like New Socialist, has the advantage that what happened is articulated and extensively reflected on, in contrast to the general flow of political experience. Likewise, in contrast to academic theory, the operative theory of New Socialist has always been shaped by close contact or immersion into the movement(s) on which it reflects.

To write the history of New Socialist is, at the very least, to attempt write the history of the left in Britain from a particular perspective.

The other side of this, however (and perhaps this speaks to a consistent problem of New Socialist—and, come to that, of Gramsci), is that, in writing a history of the left from this viewpoint, one risks a certain intellectualism, emphasising what has been publicly articulated (or what is close to articulation)—an intellectualism, on the one hand, against politics (or a certain mode of politics), and on the other hand, against material bases of politics, including material bases in very real suffering.

In the latter case, it is not that such material bases are not condensed in the history of New Socialist; merely that care will be needed not to understate them, as they are less directly apparent. Regarding the former: something which, in the Corbyn years, was always underemphasised in New Socialist was the private, ‘backroom’ aspects (of the sort detailed, for example, in Pogrund and Maguire’s just about competent Left Out and Owen Jones’s less successful This Land_, whose original subtitle—“the story of a movement”—is rather misleading about the book’s focus; presumably why it has now been changed to “the struggle for the left”).3 There were three reasons for this. Firstly, we weren’t privy to much ‘backroom’ chat, and what we did know about was imparted in confidence. Secondly, there was no way for our readers to intervene in these conversations, which rendered them less of a priority for a publication which wanted to have practical effects (here then intellectualism was the effect of very practical concerns). Thirdly, our largely prefigurative conception of politics meant we felt that limiting the attention paid to this kind of insider stuff might play some part in reducing its importance.

I hope that trying to tell the story of the last few years through a history of New Socialist, can offer something different from the profusion of books (including the aforementioned) aiming to be complete histories of “Corbynism” and trying to draw strategic lessons. These books share a number of characteristics: a large number of insiders or privileged analysts are interviewed, and the author claims some sort of objectivity, which is not countered by their claimed authority as a participant in the events recounted.

There are a number of different voices in this history, but they are the voices of writers in New Socialist. Some (though not many) of these voices overlap with those interviewed for the various histories, but what we get from them is not an analysis looking back over the period as a whole, or their account of a specific incident, but a wider theoretical analysis, or an attempt to intervene into the situation as it was ongoing (or some mixture of the two). That offers something different; it can show aspects of the situation as it was lived (and as attempts were made to change it), and it can offer a different basis for analysis. Equally, though, many of the voices are people outside the circle of a few dozen insiders whose recollections form the basis of almost all the books. Many of our authors—and indeed our editors—are, were, and have been ordinary people on the left: activists in local parties, social movements, and trade unions, whose experiences of the last five years differ from those of the official people cited in the books.

For all the different voices, though, I make no claim whatsoever to objectivity. This is a history of New Socialist, and through that an attempt at the history of a period for the British left. It is a lens that might help us notice, analyse, and re-experience different things from some of the other histories. I claim, too, no particular objectivity and authority on New Socialist itself. I have been very and consistently involved over the period in question and I have had a fairly significant role in setting a broad editorial line, as well as in commissioning and editing work, but all of that has by no means been exclusively my work. I’m sure if other editors wrote their histories they would be different at certain points; they would likely emphasise certain things more than I have, and others less; and they might draw different lessons, and think we made different mistakes.

I wondered about giving the history the subtitle “how I learnt to worry more and become an anti-humanist”, because at least part of this piece emphasises what I learnt; how, as “an intellectual”, I was changed by the last few years. (I think there can be a certain reluctance to dub oneself an intellectual, or a sense that to self-identify as one is comic, so I should emphasise that I don’t mean “intellectual” as any term of honour, or as a means of claiming that I have some great or significant mind. I use it to describe a function: I’m involved as a writer and an editor in the production and circulation of ideas; so much so that it is now, to some extent, my job.) It’s an important commitment for me to emphasise that one learns, the situations change a person. I believe, probably in general, and definitely if a left wing intellectual is doing things properly, in the primacy of political experience and struggle over Theory. Things change, and that changes how we think. I was wrong, and New Socialist collectively were wrong, about a great deal of things. I hope we’ve learnt from that, and learnt the right lessons. We will, and I will, be wrong again, and hopefully we will learn from that. Again, I want to emphasis that this history recounts things from my perspective: our other editors will likely have been changed in different ways, or have different ideas about how and when we were wrong.

I don’t want to give the sense that the last five years were constituted entirely by the unmediated shaping of my thought by politics: a situation changed or developed, and I learnt from it. But that wasn’t all of it. The period covered by this history includes almost the whole life of my child, Patrick. It also includes me meeting josie. So on a personal level, it includes the two people who, in various ways, I have learnt most from. It also includes a lot more, the inclusion of which would turn this history into more of an autobiography—which is not my intention. But, to avoid a totally desiccated sense of things, and the sense of an individualised response to situations, these aspects are worth bearing in mind.

Some of this history might appear to be navel-gazing, and other aspects might seem uncomradely (though ‘uncomradely’ is so often used with a disciplinary intent), as if a certain omertà among left publications is being violated, or it might seem that old wounds are being re-opened, old arguments pointlessly relitigated. However, for me to consider—and consider as a materialist—the ways in which arguments on the left are made and publicised, it is necessary to consider both New Socialist (our successes and our failures) and other left publications, including their successes and failures.

To consider the history of New Socialist as a history (from a particular viewpoint) of the last five years of the British left invites a particular periodisation, a division into three parts. These are:

  1. What we might call the “Corbynism from Below” or Cultural Democratic New Socialist, running up to mid 2018;

  2. The defeat of Corbynism from mid 2018 through to Starmer taking the leadership, and then;

  3. “Bad New Times”.

If we were writing the history differently, there might be other divisions, but for our current purpose, this periodisation feels most coherent. As well as trying to assess where we succeeded and where we failed in response to events, I’d like to consider, at the end of the piece, what New Socialist has meant—both more generally as a publication, and also in terms of our role within “left media”, and in the production of intellectual work (not least given we are talking about a period where almost all the significant political or social ideas have come from the left) in Britain more widely.

The Proto New Socialist

A great deal of the initial impetus for New Socialist originated in a Twitter group DM which had been set up to gossip. This group comprised most of the comrades who became the original core of New Socialist, as well as some other well-connected, mostly younger Corbynites. This speaks to the forms of unofficial integration of that period: a social media-organised capacity for effective coherence and group formation that did not necessarily rely on close personal contact but was much more dependent on shared political commitments (and shared enemies and/or figures of fun). In many cases, friendships have followed from the shared political commitments and projects, rather than vice versa. Looking back at those discussions now, the confidence and sense of mischief that would characterise Corbynism were very much in evidence. A significant amount of ‘the new lexicon of the left’, to which we will return, was formed either by members of that group, or within the group itself.

This Twitter DM was not the only basis for New Socialist, however. Two other crucial elements were the 2016 letter criticising Corbyn for going back on a promise not to speak at a Stand Up to Racism event, and early 2017’s “Great Melting”. Let’s look at them in order.

Corbyn and Stand Up to Racism

In October 2016, Corbyn was due to speak at a Stand Up to Racism event. He was asked by various radical grassroots groups to reconsider, due to the close connection between Stand Up to Racism and the Socialist Workers Party (at the very least, it is reasonable to call them a front group). The reason for this was “the SWP’s well-documented failing of two women members who accused a then-central committee member of the SWP, known as Comrade Delta, of rape and sexual assault.” The groups who brought this to Corbyn’s attention were led to believe that he had withdrawn and thus would not be speaking at the event. However, in the end, Corbyn did speak.

Alongside other comrades, I helped put together a letter in solidarity with those groups, asking for an apology, and a commitment not to work with the SWP and their front organisations. We sent this letter privately first, but Corbyn’s office refused to engage. Hoping to apply greater pressure, we published the letter. Looking at the list of signatories, it is notable how many of those comrades either became editors of, or have written for, New Socialist. Coordinating the letter was probably a basis for what would become New Socialist and demonstrates the emerging coherences around political lines within Corbynism.

Central to the political line of the letter was a deeply-felt need for a “critical Corbynism”, as well as an agreement that this critique must come from the left—particularly in a context where Corbyn’s position seemed fairly secure, with Owen Smith’s leadership challenge having been roundly seen off the previous month. At least some of this was an attempt to make good on the emphasis in Hilary Wainwright’s work on the Labour Party—especially Labour: A Tale of Two Parties—on the need to build “democratic relationships, here and now, in the organisations for which we were in some way responsible.”4

This sense of needing to take responsibility meant that, having noticed the need for a particular intervention, we did it ourselves. It is perhaps relevant how many of us had been involved in setting up various groups and initiatives between 2010 and 2015. I remember having to deal with phone calls with people in Corbyn’s office about the letter at the same time as running a reading group on housing, which had emerged from various South London renters’ and other housing struggles.

The other aspect of the letter that anticipated parts of the New Socialist project was the attempt to build a bridge between the Labour Party and grassroots extra-parliamentary groups—including those not only critical of but radically external to Labour even in its Corbynite iteration. As we wrote in the letter to Corbyn:

We also fully back plans to reconstruct the Labour Party so that it can reach its full participative and democratic potential but, if we are to achieve this, the leadership needs to be receptive to comradely criticism from grassroots groups and respectful of the experiences this criticism expresses. We also believe that our movement must not ignore or marginalise these experiences for the sake of some spurious “unity”, or delay the resolution of these problems until some unspecified point in the future. In our movement, how we treat each other is part of our struggle.

This experience foreshadowed something which became a consistent issue for New Socialist throughout the Corbyn period: the question of how far critiques could be contained within ‘the left’. On the one hand, it is right to take responsibility, and our way of doing so was by making arguments, within the left, for better positions or relations. On the other hand, it is possible that these critiques can be taken up by those outside the left in order to make mischief. I don’t think we were wrong to take the line we did, and to take it publicly, but we were perhaps more innocent of its potential instrumentalisation than we should have been.

It is right to take responsibility, and our way of doing so was by critique, within the left. However, it is possible that these critiques can be taken up by those outside the left in order to make mischief.

The Great Melting

The other formative experience that made New Socialist necessary was “the Great Melting” (as one of our original editors termed it) of early 2017. This was a festival of nerve-losing, which gathered pace among various previously Corbyn “outriders” in the media following the loss of the Copeland by-election. It is striking, looking back, that this all took place not even six months after Corbyn defeated Owen Smith. Now, our licensed left intellectuals were calling for Corbyn to resign (and, in private, were engaged in trying to recruit support for a potential replacement, for a “Corbynism without Corbyn”). A very clear sense of the tone of the Great Melting can be seen in this Owen Jones video. The video depicts the crystallisation of a role (and Jones’ self-conception of that role) and set of practices of the ‘licensed’ left intellectual: an individual representing a perspective within (and therefore dependent on) an apparatus not made by us. “You’ve let yourself down,” he seems to say, “you’ve let the Labour left down, and most of all you’ve let me down.”

I’m borrowing this concept of the licensed (left) intellectual, from Régis Debray’s 1979 book Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France. The concept of ‘licensed’ here has a certain degree of overlap with Althusser or Poulantzas’s Ideological State Apparatuses,5 but it operates on a different level of abstraction. Debray uses it to analyse the working of particular sites of the ideological reproduction of capitalism (universities, publishing, the media), and, with this, the shaping of intellectual production and circulation.

In Debray’s account, there have been three cycles: the cycle of the hegemony of the universities over publishing and media, then the hegemony of publishing, and then the hegemony of the media. Licensing as a concept is most clear in universities—in the question of who is “licensed” to create doctors and university academics (teachers)—but Debray extends the concept to the hegemony of publishing as the hegemony of those who were licensed to create authors (writers), and then the hegemony of the media, of those licensed to create journalists (celebrities).6 We end up in a situation of intellectual dependence on the media: “an intellectual without media is no longer a general without troops, he is a laughing stock.”7

Licensing, then, is a capacity to communicate, to command a one-to-many mode of communication, to control the means by which ideas might reach into our homes and lives. Writing at the end of the 1970s, Debray notes, the sheer cost of establishing a serious national publication of polemic and ideas:

Ideas, ideologues and publicists have no more disappeared from the scene than have their aims and the issues at stake. What is tending to disappear is the weapons and the logistics. The battle died for want of a battleground. What forty years ago could have been done by…a group of independent writers — can now only be done by a group like Hachette…or by a great accumulation of capital. But the things a publisher of a group of independent writers might want to say are the very things that a group of financiers cannot and will not have said and done.8

This, of course, creates a reliance on the big publishing conglomerates, who control the resources and infrastructure necessary to circulate ideas to a wide audience.

Contrasting the situation of New Socialist with that described by Debray, we could note here the potentialities of the Internet and social media allow a greater capacity to reach people without being licensed by the media apparatus. We have relied (and continue to rely) on this a great deal, though it is not without negative effects. We are absolutely not in a golden age of political polemic, and I think it would be a stretch to say we are in a golden age of ideas, ideologues, and their publicists—despite the fact that we may have found new weapons and logistics.

Licensing has a decisive effect on who can be heard or read (and how), but it also sets conditions of intelligibility. It affects how things can be said, and the learnt forms in which people experience politics. How do people expect to read about politics? Do they even expect to read about it now?

Is it really possible, as many claim, to smuggle left wing ideas into the ‘mainstream’ through appearances on TV, or at right wing festivals? Debray thinks not; for him, the form (and the relations incarnated in it) is more determining than the content:

‘You don’t agree with us? Good. Come here and say so’…You start to surrender when you say yes. Going ‘there’ to explain that one disagrees means agreeing with the implicit idea that disagreements have to be channelled through the conduits of mass information…The content of what I say, or scream or whisper is of minor importance; what matters is that I say it there. What matters is that every possible message is immediately overcoded by a grid of equivalences…that makes any thesis one opinion amongst others…all truth a point of view.9

Licensing also effects what can be said, who can say it, and how. Writing about left wing personalities appearing on French TV, Debray observes that imperialism, “unequal exchange”, the very source of “French interests and the prosperity of the West in general”, is the great unsayable.10

Is it really possible, as many claim, to smuggle left wing ideas into the ‘mainstream’ through appearances on TV, or at right wing festivals? Or do "you start to surrender when you say yes"?

I want to argue that the development of Corbynism and its non-licensed intellectual institutions (as well as its formation of personalities and audiences), has led to a situation very different to that we faced when setting up New Socialist. Back then, the term ‘left media’ was implicitly understood to denote something at a distance from, or fully independent, of the licensing apparatus and its personalities—even the left wing ones. We now face a situation where this distinction is increasingly blurred.

On the obvious level, the personalities that have been formed in part or entirely by left media (in contrast with, for example, Owen Jones) now appear regularly within that licensed world. They go from ‘here’ to ‘there’. But they also come back again, and this is where the licensing apparatus impacts on ‘left media’. When they return from ‘there’ back to ‘here’, they bring with them the reflected glory of the licensing apparatus. And those who are licensed have more capacity to draw in readers or viewers or listeners within left media. When a personality from, say, Novara appears on national television, that impacts positively on their role and authority, and therefore on Novara’s role and authority within left media. This has become particularly apparent post-Corbyn, where there is little growth in left media as a whole, meaning that there is less of a chance that TV appearances will draw in new audiences for left media. In this climate, TV appearances (or national newspaper columns, or big publishing deals) tend to serve as a means of winning over audiences within left media, serving the concentration of resources and increasing the market share.

This is not particularly to criticise individuals; it’s just the way things work. As Debray says, “no one is being unpleasant: there is no plot, boycott or cabal. The media work automatically.”11 I am aware, too, that this could be read as jealousy. It is worth examining one’s own motivations for taking up positions, so to be clear: I would like New Socialist to get more attention and more resources. I think the arguments we make are valuable and useful, and that they are more valuable and useful than some of the arguments made on the left that get more attention. I would like to be able to worry less about money, both personally and in terms of New Socialist. I would like us to be able to do everything we want to do, and do it quicker than we do it now, and that requires money. Equally—and perhaps this speaks to a tendency of New Socialist that has limited us—I and other editors have a degree of intransigence about certain things. I have had chances to be a left personality ‘over there’, and turned them down.

To return to the “great melting”, what, by this point, I think it is reasonable to describe as the “proto-NS” did not disagree that the situation was serious, that there had been a substantial and frustrating drift following Corbyn retaining the leadership and many of the energies of that campaign had been wasted. We were also terrified that a huge, quite possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for socialists in Britain was being squandered, and we thought that it was necessary to develop a capacity to intervene. I’m not sure even if we had a great deal of hope that things could be put right – it would be easy to say we did, and that the election result three months later vindicated us, but I don’t think that would be fair (though I think we grasped quite early in the 2017 campaign that something surprising was happening). What we did grasp was the implausibility, on a number of levels of “Corbynism without Corbyn”, and (anticipating some of the work around Tom Blackburn’s “Corbynism from Below”,which clearly was the defining text of the first period of NS) we retained, unlike the licensed intellectuals of the left, an orientation towards the movement we were part of. We understood the drift as being less a question of failures of “competence” and media strategy, but rather a consequence of an undeveloped movement and decades of defeat. If there were solutions to the drift, they were more likely to come from below than be imposed from above.

We retained, unlike the licensed left intellectuals, an orientation towards the movement we were part of. We understood the drift as being less a question of failures of “competence”, than a consequence of an undeveloped movement.

As well as a certain resentment at the idea of the proposed stitch-up, we also thought it unlikely that the left membership would accept such a move. On the one hand, people resist; they cannot always be slotted into the neat plans they are meant to slot into. On the other, anticipating what we later came to conceptualise as the ‘bus queue’ formation,12 we viewed “Corbynism” as, if not quite a “personality cult”, certainly as something inchoate, and only superficially cohered, largely by Corbyn himself. Individual members of the group, considered alone, remained largely untransformed.

Another reason to reject “Corbynism without Corbyn” was that, whilst there was a chance of maintaining the domestic policies of 2017, it clearly represented an attempted break with any anti-war or anti-imperialist commitments (we could refer back to Debray here: what is it that is unmentionable even by left personalities within the licensed apparatus). The posited successor to Corbyn was none other than Clive Lewis—a man who, a few months earlier, had punched a wall in frustration at not being allowed to reaffirm Labour’s commitment to Trident.

It’s worth looking in more detail at the specific institutional and, therefore, class positions of the Great Melts, and this category of ‘licensed’ left intellectuals. Debray writes of how, in the world of letters, “dependency works from above to below,”13 and its forms of dependency help constitute while also being constituted a kind of journalists’ guild-consciousness; whereas politics at least has a minimum of dependency from below to above, a politician is dependent on voters, a licensed intellectual, even a left-wing one, has no such minimally democratic dependence. This non-dependence on the below for the licensed left intellectual affects the arguments made, and, particularly, their focus, what registers to the licensed intellectual. In the “great melting” we saw the focus of analysis rooted in a world of personal contacts, privileged knowledge (especially of LOTO office politics and rivalries deemed decisive for general politics and the subject of Jones’s This Land despite its original now dropped subtitle), a shared professional ethos, “hack drinks”, “professional idiocy ensnares the most generous of men” (Debray again).14 As well as determining the form of frustration with Corbyn (he’s let me down in front of my peers), this determined the focus of the criticism: the problems of Corbynism were those that impacted on journalists (and on the public through journalists): an incompetent media strategy. The problem then was also a technical problem, a bourgeois or petty bourgeois problem of inadequate management and inadequate skill, not a question of the movement, the wider political situation, let alone the broad social relations condensed in a political situation and movement. A non-licensed left intellectual strategy, by contrast, required a (continued) immersion in the movement along with as a cohered capacity to try to affect it, as well as being affected by it.

The other side of our assessment of the situation, including how to think through what genuinely was a crisis – the great melters weren’t wrong that there was a crisis – and an intervention was necessary, was a sense of a un- or under-utilised potentiality within the movement—particularly intellectual potentiality. It was very apparent from Twitter and some longer form writing (on Medium, etc.) that Corbynism had inspired large numbers of people to theorise their situations and understandings of politics. But there was little capacity to publicise, organise and cohere these experiences and reflections, and no means of bringing together (and blurring the distinction between) writers and readers. What was needed was half publication, half political party. The sort of atomised intellectual production that was typical meant that the movement was mostly ‘represented’ by licensed intellectuals. It was clear to us, then, that Corbynism had helped create a readymade set of potential readers and writers; and we conceptualise(d) our situation as deviating sharply from the strict writer/reader (or leader/led) distinctions upheld by the licensed intellectuals of the left in the whether in the media (notably the Guardian, the bad NS) or in academia.

Corbynism had inspired large numbers of people to theorise their situations. But there was little capacity to publicise, organise and cohere these experiences and reflections.

A conception that was crucial in our diagnosis of the situation, and in our sense of how New Socialist could intervene, was Gramsci’s argument that a political party comprises three elements: “mass element” at the base, a leadership, “the principle cohesive element”, and, crucially, “an intermediate element, which articulates the first element to the second and maintains contact between them, not only physically but morally and intellectually.”15

For us, at least some of the problems of Corbynism in late 2016 and early 2017 could be found in the failure to develop this intermediate element, and, more generally, in the articulation of the base to the leadership. It was striking how much energy and enthusiasm was generated by the 2015 leadership contest, the Owen Smith challenge in 2016, and the 2017 General Election campaign. Equally striking was how quickly that energy dissipated.

We might want here to draw two separate arguments of Gramsci’s together here – problems of Corbynism essentially suggests their connection – in a critique of both Croce and of anarchism, Gramsci points out that a conception of politics that reduces it to passionate action in a crisis16 (and Corbynism was characterised by a very strong capacity for this) and ignores or is actively hostile to institutionalisation in a Party, both analytically and normatively imposes significant limits on itself. Corbynism had a profoundly “anti-party” character (and this bears on the failure to institutionalise Corbynism by transforming the Labour Party), and this anti-party character was to some extent a question of the insignificant presence of Gramsci’s “intermediate element”. Outside of periods of crisis, there was an operational incapacity. The project was cohered by Corbyn as an individual figure, and the set of hopes and needs he represented, and this tended to lead to a politics of spontaneity and authenticity instead of a politics of thought and democratised strategy – on the one hand a spontaneous base, on the other strategy determined by a leadership, with very little in between.

It was through the development of the intermediate element (which we viewed ourselves as being part of) and its/our capacity for knitting together the leadership and the base through ideas and organisation, that we hoped to find some way out of the impasse of the situation. We wanted to get beyond the fragmentation and seriality of bus-queue Corbynism. Equally, it was in that intermediate element, in its capacity for articulation and communication, that we located a hope for wider effects. We have never imagined that New Socialist could do much in communicating directly with unpoliticised people, with “floating voters” (etc). It takes a great deal to have that reach, including certain dependencies on the licensing apparatus, even if one is attempting it from a base within left media and our style of argument would probably be incompatible with it anyway. In that sense, the idea that left media should be exactly like traditional media, but with left content, was never one that we felt was available to us. However, if we could communicate with people who were already fairly politicised, helping to build their capacities and understanding, to clarify arguments so that they were able to make arguments to other people (work colleagues, friends and family, local CLP members…), we might be able to help open up a capacity to act. Equally, potential points of contact with the leadership would allow for the making of more radical demands, and opening up of space on the left, along with making arguments for internal Party democracy. Here, then, the task of a critical Corbynism and our aim to work on and through the intermediate level of the Party (such as it existed) overlapped to a significant extent. A further significant aspect of this intermediate element, aided by social media, especially Twitter, was its capacity to break out of silos of the structure of the Labour Party in which knowledge and action flows vertically (branches, CLPs, regions, national…, and back again), to share experiences and knowledge, at least part of what we imagined for NS was developing that capacity for lateral communication.

In early 2017, we had a shared, coherent diagnosis of the situation and a group of people with a broadly shared set of political principles and commitments. Most of us were within the Corbyn project, but on its left, and in many cases we had at least half a foot in extra-parliamentary struggles and ideas. With this, we had a strong sense of the need for a project like New Socialist, and this was a huge part of what galvanised us. Many of our editors already had fairly wide Twitter platforms and certain useful contacts, which meant we had the ability to connect with the potential readers and writers that Corbynism had created. Importantly, we also benefitted from a broad level of goodwill among parts of the left, including outside of Corbynism. Offline, many of our group’s political activities, inside and outside of Labour, further broadened our basis of ideas, and offered new ways to develop readers and writers. Equally, we encountered a situation in which the expense and difficulty of setting up a political publication and finding a good number of readers were very low relative to how it had been even a decade earlier, let alone further back.

In early 2017, we had a shared, coherent diagnosis of the situation and a group of people with a broadly shared set of political principles and commitments.

On the other hand, there were a set of problems and weaknesses to confront, some of which remain problems to this day. Firstly, although we had considerable strengths in enthusiasm and analytical capacity, and the technological developments impacting on left publishing covered for some of these limits to a degree, we lacked fairly important technical skills. With the exception of some comrades who had been involved in the now-defunct New Left Project, none of us had very much experience at all of commissioning and editing work—and of the NLP comrades, it was only Rhian E. Jones who remained in much of an editing role, whereas other comrades wrote for us and offered incredibly useful advice. Almost all of our learning about the editing process has been done on the job, and looking back at many of the early pieces, for all the quality of the arguments, this shows. On the other hand, over time, and with the acquisition of technical editing skills, I think we’ve developed a style of NS pieces that has not been limited by conventional media demands and shaping. This has been, largely, though not entirely, a good thing. Equally, our design and website skills collectively were very limited; it has taken a great deal of work from editors who joined later for us to improve in these areas.

The other side of running on enthusiasm and benefitting from the very low costs of publishing (and publicising) work online was that we also had no money. It’s possible to run on enthusiasm for a while, but ultimately the pressure of having to fit NS work around paid work, childcare and family responsibilities and other political work began to tell. (At least one “beef” we got in early on was because my baby son woke up from his nap, so a clarifying tweet I had intended to post remained in the drafts.) Five years on, we remain substantially underresourced. Although we are able to pay two of our editors an amount which covers some—but by no means all—of their work, that is the limit of what we are able to pay for editing. Likewise, though we do pay writers, and have done so almost since the very beginning, we pay much, much less than we would like to, which again imposes restrictions.

It is telling that the editors of New Left Project, in their farewell reflections, concluded that “sustainable alternative media takes time and costs money. If we want a more diverse media landscape – and at this point few things are needed more – we had better start figuring out how to fund it.” Part of this argument related to who it was possible to commission with no resources to pay; in the case of NLP, this led to a substantial reliance on left academics. We have been substantially less reliant on academics (although plenty have written for us); that is in part the result of being able to pay writers (though, again, less than we would like to pay), and partially the result of the broad politicisation of Corbynism hugely expanding the range of potential writers open to left media publication. Nevertheless, problems remain, and not only in terms of who we afford to commission. Whilst, in the last few years, some left media has grown to be relatively well-funded, limits and financial struggles remain, and not only for us (and post-Corbyn finding audiences and subscribers is becoming harder, in general, although some institutions are doing very well – bad market conditions leading to concentration).

A final aspect of the proto-NS that is perhaps worth mentioning are the lessons we drew from music. The first of these was a certain DIY ethos derived from punk (something supported by how many of us had initiated political projects in the grim 2010-2015 period). Instead of “this is a chord, this is another, this is a third, now start a band”, we had, ‘this is Twitter, this is Wordpress, now start a publication’. The second lesson derives from the very specific influence of the Manic Street Preachers. As a teenager in the 1990s, being a Manics fan opened up whole worlds of culture and theory—the quotations on record sleeves, the references in lyrics. They were what Mark Fisher (and our comrade and regular contributor Owen Hatherley) might call a “portal band”. We had a certain sense of NS as potentially a portal publication in that we wanted readers to follow the traces. We wanted NS to open up histories, theorists and cultural work to recently politicised left Corbynites. We have, for this reason, always tried to be scrupulous about referencing, this is less shaped by academic conventions, more by Generation Terrorists.

A particular vulnerability of New Socialist was our close entanglement with Corbynism. Although many of us had connections and groundings in extraparliamentary struggles, and although, as we did survive the collapse of Corbynism, its collapse before we had even published our first piece would probably have been terminal, and such a collapse looked more likely than not when Theresa May called the General Election in April 2017. I remember coming back from the supermarket in Seville, where I was living at the time, hearing the news, and being utterly terrified that this would be it, both for Corbynism and for New Socialist (in the latter case, it would have been the end for NS without having managed to publish anything). In fact, both for Corbynism and for NS, May calling the election was the best thing that could have happened.

For our subscribers, there is a podcast discussion between josie sparrow and Tom Gann of some of the themse of this piece, as well as an audio version of an earlier form of the piece.

  1. Antonio Gramsci. [1929-35]. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London: Lawrence and Wishart. p.148. 

  2. Gramsci. Prison Notebooks. p.151. 

  3. Tom Blackburn and I were going to review these books for New Socialist, which I imagined as an attempt to present a McDonnell defended not only against certain critics on the left but against his devotees (and increasingly, given his post-defeat positioning, himself) argument but ultimately the task felt too pointless and depressing. 

  4. Hillary Wainwright. 1987. Labour: A Tale of Two Parties. London: The Hogarth Press. p.173. 

  5. See Louis Althusser. [1969]. 2014. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. London: Verso. p.75. Althusser suggests, provisionally, eight ideological state apparatuses, including, as with Debray, publishing, the information and news apparatus, and the scholastic apparatus (though that goes beyond universities), but also the family, the religious apparatus, the associative apparatus i.e. trade unions, professional bodies (etc), the political apparatus (most notably, but not only, political parties) and the Cultural apparatus. 

  6. Régis Debray. [1979]. 1981. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities: The Intellectuals of Modern France. London: New Left Books. p.40. 

  7. Debray. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. p.77. 

  8. Debray. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. p.77. 

  9. Debray. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. p.148. 

  10. Debray. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. p.148. 

  11. Debray. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. p.148. 

  12. i.e. after Sartre’s [1960] description and analysis of the “serial group”, in The Critique of Dialectical Reason, Volume 1: Theory of Practical Ensembles, a grouping of essentially isolated individuals, differing in all sorts of ways, but unified in their focus on an exterior object, the bus to come, but not “integrated through work, through struggle, or through any other activity.” And, decisively, not changed or differently subjectivated through the bus queue. (London: Verso, 2004), p. 256. What we are living through now is, in part, the disarray of the bus queue, when the bus never came. 

  13. Debray. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. p.177. 

  14. Debray. Teachers, Writers, Celebrities. P.178. Indeed, of course, generosity may indeed be the means by which this ensnaring happens: clubbability, not wanting to rock the boat, upset friends… 

  15. Gramsci. Prison Notebooks. p.153. 

  16. Gramsci. Prison Notebooks. p.138.