Commentary Magazine


New Left Reviewed

New Left Reviewed

To the Editor:

I’m tempted by Jonathan Miller’s attack on the English New Left—which dominates his dismissal of Bernard Kops’s admittedly distasteful autobiography, The World Is a Wedding [Nov. '63]—to examine Miller’s qualifications for the hasty social and political analysis his review offers. Certainly, the disappearance with barely a quiver of the spasm of English “satire” Miller once heralded in a now embarrassing article in the Observer indicates the correctly Establishment nature of the entertainment Miller and his Cambridge mates provide; no one aware of the radical perception which motors genuine, savage satire (Lenny Bruce, for example) can fail to understand the success of the arch and fey variety that Miller and his crew have imported to Broadway. (Imagine Lenny Bruce playing for months at the Golden.) But the uncoordinated, chaotic, ofttimes pretentious and unsophisticated movement styled the English “New Left” deserves more than dismissal.

I’m admittedly biased; from 1960 to 1962 I served as assistant to the editor of New Left Review. I think I understand something of the shallowness and the romanticism which colored our attitudes, and which angers Miller. But what he does not understand is that the rapprochement on the English Left, after Hungary and Suez, brought together an older generation of activists who had repudiated Stalinism but not socialism with a much younger generation, almost apolitical, which felt its protest directed toward the ossified institutions, decayed cultural forms, and general flabbiness in emotion, thought, and style which characterized the English middle class. The New Reasoner and Universities and Left Review, Victory for Socialism and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, made chaotic partnerships; on individual levels, arguments about Mayakovsky disturbed folk singers—the resulting styles of the movement were certainly uncoordinated, many times pretentious and silly, sometimes bizarre. But it is dangerous to dismiss a movement because of its excessive or discontinuous style; one must examine what the New Left meant, to English politics, English theater, English cinema, English fiction, English cultural criticism. Few intelligent radicals dismiss the Negro protest movement because evangelical, emotionally unsophisticated Negro churches are an integral part of it. I can only suggest that CND’s contribution to a transformed English political context is enormous; that the English stage, since Osborne, Wesker, Arden, Anderson, Gaskill, Dexter, and even Tony Richardson have appeared, has been basically (though not completely) transformed; that the film directors who pioneered the Free Cinema movement (Karel Reisz, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Richardson) have dominated the “new” English cinema. The contemporary critical examination of primary and secondary education, television, public housing, and England’s snarled transport system are all conducted out of a “New Left” ambience, and a quick check of New Left Review‘s contributors reduces Miller’s ready labels (“anti-intellectual left-wing populism,” “a revolt against modernism,” “political pre-Raphaelitism”) to sour, cheap phrase-making. May I protest, in the strongest terms, at the dubious practice of using a review to smear a movement, and urge COMMENTARY to offer analysis of what occurs on the English Left?

Norman Fruchter
New York City

_____________

 

Mr. Miller writes:

Mr. Fruchter is tempted to examine my qualifications as a social analyst. I wish he had yielded to the temptation at hand instead of getting drawn off into an irrelevant diatribe against my theatrical success. I am tempted myself to examine Mr. Fruchter’s credentials for making such an analysis, but I shall stick to the point and try to answer the central part of his criticism.

It is always possible, by tearing phrases out of context, to make a review look spiteful and shallow. What I wrote was not intended as a dismissal of the New Left in England, nor was the review of Bernard Kops’s book intended as just a convenient vehicle for such an assault. The work as it stands seems to me to represent, in a rather vivid form, some of the looser and more anti-intellectual aspects of contemporary left-wing thought. The fact that Mr. Fruchter himself was honest enough to recognize these failings for himself does not mean that the matter is thereby closed to any further comment, nor does my position as an Oxbridge graduate put me in any jeopardy as a critic by contrast with the supposedly privileged status of an ex-editor of the New Left Review. With his glib remarks about “Cambridge mates” and “correctly Establishment nature,” Mr. Fruchter himself falls into the unpleasant role of “sour, cheap phrase-maker” with an extra dollop of paranoia for good measure.

My aim, in this review, was to point out that there existed on the Left similar styles of thought to those found on the far Right—a sentimental rejection of modern complexity, a regression to oversimplified primitivism, and an undue dependence on conspiratorial theories of politics. Since I was not, in this particular piece, trying to review the Left as a whole, I did not consider it necessary to balance my criticism with an account of those areas with which I am in entire agreement. Mr. Kops’s book illustrates the sentimental abuses of socialism, and since this was the work under consideration, any other matters would have been irrelevant.

So much for the shrill tone of Mr. Fruchter’s letter. Now for some of his more specific “points.”

He claims that CND made large contributions to the transformation of the English stage and screen. Mr. Fruchter only reveals a. touching ignorance in making a claim like this. The unquestionable change in the English performing arts was wrought by social upheavals which lie widely scattered, a long way upstream of the nuclear controversy. Subsequent alliances formed between the new writers and the CND are certainly a feature of the present scene, but no one in his right mind can claim that the CND produced the cultural transformation. In fact, where CND feelings have impinged on their work, these artists have generally fallen below their usual high quality and broken the back of their own best work with interludes of pamphleteering brashness. To say this, of course, is not to dismiss the CND, with which I am anyway in a large measure of agreement. I simply wish to protest at a display of sloppy, and I suspect, rather uninformed social and political analysis. The origins of the current transformation in the English theater and cinema are not to be found in the annals of the CND but in the history of such apparently unrelated institutions as the Royal Court Theatre, Stratford East, the provincial Reps, and even in the (dare I say it?) in the postwar setups of the Oxford and Cambridge dramatic clubs. A close look at the work of the shrewdly commercial Woodfall film company would also pay handsome dividends here. A consideration of these blending streams would make a valuable contribution to the cultural history of England since the war, and I suggest that Mr. Fruchter repair his own sociological credentials by paying some attention to this insead of embarrassing himself by shows of angry ignorance.

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