Rethinking class: The lineage of the Socialist Register

Madeleine Davis


In 1960, the American sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote to a letter to his friends in the British New Left, published in its recently founded house journal New Left Review, in which he urged them to abandon what he dubbed the ‘labour metaphysic’ – a belief in the working class of the advanced capitalist societies as the historic agency of change – as ‘a legacy from Victorian Marxism that is now quite unrealistic’. This labour metaphysic, Mills said, ‘is an historically specific idea that has been turned into an a-historical and unspecific hope’. His phrase quickly became a classic. Much quoted, it may be seen as presaging later debates in the US New Left as well as the broader displacement of class as the major analytic of the left. Convinced that working-class agency in the advanced capitalist countries ‘has either collapsed or become most ambiguous’, Mills was especially interested in the potential of the radical intelligentsia as an agent for change, an interest often taken to be a distinguishing feature of New Left movements. Yet the early British New Left was by no means ready to follow his advice. Among the friends on the editorial board of NLR to whom Mills addressed himself were Ralph Miliband and John Saville, who three years later, following the organisational and political crisis that engulfed the early British New Left, would found the Socialist Register. Miliband, in fact, was a close personal friend as well as political ally of Mills’, but he thought his views on the question of working-class agency mistaken. Others in the early New Left took a different view: if few were ready to make the leap that Mills suggested, they were certainly convinced of the need to address questions of class composition and structure, class relations and class consciousness. As the Register revisits similar questions some fifty years later, the purpose of this essay is to reappraise the early New Left’s class analysis, to provide the reflection on the origins of the Register that such a significant anniversary warrants, and to see whether these past debates can help orient our present perspectives.

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