The May Day Manifesto

The May Day Manifesto, published as a Penguin Special in 1968, reflected the growing disillusionment on the left with what the authors argued to be the surrendering of socialist principles by the Labour Party, and particularly the Labour Government in office from 1964. This extract from a review of Raymond Williams by F Inglis (Routledge, 1995), published in International Socialism, June 1996, gives a sense of the background to the Manifesto:

The New Left emerged in the late 1950s out of a series of crises. Britain’s credibility as a major power was starting to crumble. The Profumo scandal had given a glimpse of the corruption festering behind the facade of the post colonial British elite, and Anthony Eden’s failed attempt to take Britain to war against Egypt after the Nationalists took over the Suez canal exposed both the weakness and the continuing nastiness of the British ruling class. Large numbers of people took to Britain’s streets in protest against the government.

The promise of post war Labourism had failed to materialise. Substantial welfare reforms and nationalisation had not delivered the kind of radical change that many had hoped for. Labour had actually lost the elections in l951 and 1957, and many on the left were looking for a way out of the suffocating consensus of post war politics. Meanwhile Khrushchev’s criticisms of Stalin and the Russian armies crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 led to serious soul searching amongst Communist Party members.

The initiative for the New Left came from a group of dissident Communist intellectuals, but ex-Stalinists were joined by an assortment of disenchanted Labour Party members, activists from the new and lively Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), sections of the revolutionary left, and a handful of literary figures. The movement coalesced around the New Left Review launched at a meeting in l960 with novelists Iris Murdoch and Doris Lessing on the platform. Fred Inglis describes the mood:

It was a blissful dawn alright. The magazine was to be the focus of a new, principled and non-doctrinal Left, stretching out reconciling hands to old CP members, new sectarians, Labour radicals, and beyond that to the well disposed and educated new generation which looked for a way to combine decent generous-hearted egalitarian ideals with the vivid satisfaction of a world full of delicious consumer goods whose plenitude really looked as though it might help in dissolving class divisions in bloody minded old Britain.’

Williams became a hero of this movement. His anti-Stalinism, his distance from the mechanism of the Labour Party as well as from the small revolutionary groups gave him a kind of aloof appeal. His combination of social radicalism with a stress on cultural change seemed a humane relief from the crude politics of the Stalinists, and was close to the hearts of the mainly middle class membership of the movement.

Unsurprisingly, no concrete strategy grew out of the New Left, just a general agreement to try and ‘remoralise’ the left, and a short lived attempt to set up a network of New Left clubs. Despite misgivings with Labour’s record, in practice a vague commitment to ‘radicalising the movement’ could only mean a general attempt to exert leftward pressure on Wilson’s new-look Labour Party.

But any illusions that Wilson had a programme for radical social change were quickly dashed after he took office in 1964. He made no break with cold war politics, introduced cuts in the welfare state, an aggressive incomes policy, and launched confrontational attacks on the unions. Williams, E P Thompson and other remnants of the New Left responded in May 1967 with a Manifesto that was both a critique of the Labour Party and an attempt to outline an alternative programme. ‘It is now clear that we shall not change that society if we rely entirely or mainly on parliamentary political parties we also need continuing and connected effort outside parliament.’

The May Day Manifesto became a new focus for those who wanted to revitalise the left. Once again conferences were called, groups were set up. But once again, the results were frustrating. One of the biggest Manifesto conferences at St Pancras town hall in 1969 attracted over 600 people, but two days of debate over the attitude to the USSR, whether students could be the agent of revolutionary change, and even whether Manifesto groups should put up candidates in the next years’ general election were inconclusive. Activists left the conference with a feeling of goodwill but no plan of action.

With his customary cynicism, Fred Inglis claims that the Manifesto groups only achievement was to help ‘in a tiny way’ Labour’s defeat in 1970. This is not true. The Manifesto groups and the New Left in general had been right to try to harness the activism and enthusiasm that was emerging in the 1960s and to hammer out a political strategy to the left of Labour and independent of the Stalinists.The fact that leading figures on the left were publicly rethinking old positions and openly looking for new ways to organise could only be positive.

The problem was not the initiative itself, but the leading figures’ conception of the movement. It was a time of growing activism, thousands were marching for civil rights in the US and Ireland, and against the bomb and the Vietnam War in Britain. In France student action had detonated a semi-insurrectionary general strike. And there were stirrings amongst British workers too. Indignation at Labour’s attempts to increase productivity and to aid the employers offensive had been growing for years. In 1966 seamen went on official strike and Wilson turned the strike into a test of strength with the unions. In 1968 miners lobbying the Labour conference burst into the conference hall carrying banners reading ‘Halt pit closures now before it is too late’. By the end of the l960s large sections of workers were in open revolt against local productivity deals and the national incomes policy. In 1969 the CP called a national one day stoppage to lobby the TUC which was followed by a quarter of a million workers. Fords workers struck for higher wages and miners went out on unofficial strike against a national productivity deal signed in 1966. Workers’ grudging loyalty to Labour, traditionally brokered by the trade union leaders, was showing signs of strain. The modest but significant growth of the revolutionary groups showed there was an important audience for genuine socialist ideas.

The New Left reflected this wave of activism, but because they didn’t base themselves on it, or try and develop it, their deliberations were often dry and unnattractive to many newly radicalized young people. Debates about how to reinvigorate Labour or whether to stand parliamentary candidates didn’t appeal to the most militant students fresh from demonstrations or the most political workers smarting under attacks from the Labour Government and looking for ways to build resistance.

Worse still, the New Left combined an obsession with debate with a toleration of fudge and false unity. Fred Inglis, along with many of William’s admirers, sees William’s powers of conciliation as one of his great strengths. Williams was the movement’s favourite chair because of his ‘ability to see and seize what unites factions rather than divides them and to insist upon this unity before the conference terminates.’ Despite the initial enthusiasm and excitement, the end result was a movement with a vague attitude towards practical action and little or no theoretical clarity. It is little wonder that its only achievement was the creation of a journal of theoretical discussion, the New Left Review.

In his hilarious dissection of the New Left, Peter Sedgwick blames its shortcomings on its class basis. The movement represented ‘the false consciousness of the middle class meritocracy’ the politics of ‘the professionalised radical (who) appoints himself as observer and dispenser to society’.  But there was also a connected theoretical dimension. A number of critics have noted Williams’ tendency to believe you can bring about change by just arguing for it. Lin Chun for example, points out that the May Day Manifesto, for all its radical vision ‘failed to investigate the way to get there, especially in terms of the obstacles.’ But the recent discussions of Williams in the New Left Review seem to regard this as a minor problem, or even at times a source of strength. In fact the question of agency, of how to achieve change, which is always skated over in Williams’ work, must be fundamental to any serious socialist theory. The academic gurus of the New Left, among them Thompson, Williams and Hall were all searching in their different ways for a socialist politics which rescued human agency from the mechanical determinism of Stalinism. The problem was, in the course of rejecting Stalinist distortions, they tended to undermine a key Marxist concept. They all continued to talk about the workers, but lost sight of the economic factors which underpin their position as the revolutionary agent of change.

May Day Manifesto – Preface

Preface by Raymond Williams to the Penguin edition, 1968:

The original May Day Manifesto was published in 1967. For its publication by Penguin, it has been revised, developed and extended, to about twice its previous length. In this preface, I want to explain, briefly, how and why it was written, and why it is now being offered to a wider public.

In the summer of  1966, a group of socialists met to discuss the possibility of a political intervention. They had no official positions in politics; they were mainly teachers, writers and research workers, the majority from the universities. Nor did they belong to any constituted group, though again a majority of them had been associated, at different times over the previous ten years, with what is usually described as the New Left.

As a result of the meeting, it was decided to publish a manifesto, which was at that stage conceived as a bringing together of existing socialist positions and analysis, as a counter-statement to the Labour government’s policies and explanations. Three editors were appointed: Edward Thompson, who had been one of the founders of the New Reasoner; Stuart Hall, one of the founders of Universities and Left Review; and myself. We began

work, but it soon ~ecame apparent tha~lough much useful material existed, it was more than a matter of putting it together; indeed at certain critical points of connexion it had all to be reworked. The original group was extended, through succesive drafts, and finally, with money subscribed in small sums by members of the group, the Manifesto was privately published and distributed. The response was so considerable that it had to be reprinted several times, and we were overwhelmed by letters and requests for speakers. From many other countries, also, we received letters and comments, and the Manifesto has been translated, in whole or in part, into several languages.

Political decisions followed from this, and are discussed in this new version. But also, the necessary process of intellectual work, developing the Manifesto’s analysis, was continued. The group, now considerably enlarged, set up specialist working groups, and a new editor and editorial committee. The present version is the result of that extended study and discussion, and takes into account all the other discussions, in meetings in different parts of the country, which followed the original publication.

This is the internal history of the Manifesto, and it is worth recording because the fact of a self-organizing, self-financed socialist intellectual organization is important: not only against misrepresentation, which is always probable in politics; but also as a specific kind of achievement. What has then to be described is its wider dimension.

This Manifesto is, we believe, the first connected and closely argued statement of socialist views in the very specific and changing Britain and world of the sixties. As such, it ought obviously to get the widest public attention and discussion. The original version was described in the Sunday Times as ‘certainly the longest, most carefully thought-out statement to come from the Left for several years’, and in Le Monde as ‘distinguished by the rigour of the analyses presented, the lucidity of the judgements made on contemporary Britain, the realism of its proposals’. But for reasons which will become clear in our actual analysis, acknowledgements of this kind, which we were not looking for, are very different from what we are really interested in: the effective introduction, into political argument and activity in Britain, of a contemporary socialist case.

That is what we meant, originally, by a political intervention: for though socialism survives, as an idea, and socialist activity goes on, in different minority areas, it has been a main effect of the existing political, economic and cultural system that the substance of socialism is continually bypassed, deflected, or, as in the case of the present Labour government, reinterpreted until it has lost all meaning. It is not at all a question of preserving some holy writ or some original sacred doctrine; we are ourselves very critical of much past socialist analysis, and we believe that Left institutions, in failing to change, have exposed themselves to containment or defeat. That was always the sense of the description  ‘New Left’, but we were more successful, in certain books, journals and essays, in communicating a new current of thought, which has indeed been widely recognized, than in finding the self-sustaining institutions, the widening contacts, the effective confrontation with official politics, which were so urgently needed.

By the publication of this Manifesto – indeed by calling it a manifesto, and making it that kind of challenge – the New Left, which had continued throughout as a movement of writers and thinkers, and which in the early sixties had attempted new local kinds of political organization, was at once reconstituting and changing itself. We have no particular attachment to the name; it is mainly what others have called us, and it has become known: in Britain through certain books and journals; in the United States, where we had contact in the beginning with a newly active generation, through a wide movement. The bearings of what can be called a New Left analysis on political organization in Britain are discussed, in detail in the Manifesto, and need not be anticipated here. But it is worth saying that what we are attempting is not a revival of  ‘the New Left’, considered as some specific organization which it has never really been, but a development of what we are content to call the New Left emphasis, which has continued throughout, in specific work, but which in the present crisis leads necessarily to a different kind of political manifestation.

We present this Manifesto, therefore, not as an internal document, but as a public statement and challenge. It does not complete our work, but begins a new phase. It is intended to have not only theoretical but practical consequences. We expect and shall welcome considerable agreement. At the same time we not only expect opposition, but demand it: this is an argument, right in the open, that has been delayed too long, and that now must take place, with as many people as possible joining in.

All the work that has gone into the Manifesto, all the expenses involved in the original publication, in research and in meetings, have been voluntarily given. The people involved are not looking for political careers, and have no established interest or party. In the one identity that they have, as intellectual socialists working in universities, technical colleges, schools and research institutions, they find also their purpose: to present, to clarify and to continue the widest kind of political argument; and to accept, in the urgency and seriousness of the present crisis, a responsibility and a commitment to all the actions to which the argument leads. They are experienced already, in many different ways, in the practical work of politics: as active members of existing parties and campaigns. But now they put this first: to bring the theory and the practice together, and so to meet new people and to begin new activity.

Raymond Williams

May Day Manifesto Committee,

11 Fitzroy Square, London, WI

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