The Partisans of the New Left
This wonderful photo of sixty years or more ago - posted here courtesy of Jean McCrindle - shows two of the key figures of the British New Left ... outside an iconic venue of the New Left.
The writing on the back says: 'Ralph [Raphael Samuel] + Edward Thompson + Ernest (the tall guy) + John, Two of the ULR coffee bar people, watching'.
E.P. Thompson (1924-1993) was a Marxist humanist, a peace campaigner and the most distinguished historian of his generation, the author notably of The Making of the English Working Class. He was a member of the Communist Party but in 1956, after the revelations of Khrushchev's 'secret speech' at the 20th Congress of the CPSU denouncing Stalin's 'cult of personality', he - along with another Yorkshire-based historian, John Saville - set up what was in effect a dissident journal, the Reasoner.
After the Soviet-led invasion of Hungary later in the year, both Thompson and Saville left the CP. They closed the Reasoner after three issues but the following year they started the New Reasoner. It was the birth of the British New Left.
Raphael Samuel (1934-1996) was also a historian and the founding figure in the History Workshop movement. He was also a member of the Communist Party, again leaving in 1956. And early in 1957 he - along with Stuart Hall, Chuck Taylor and Gabriel Pearson - set up Universities & Left Review, similar in scope to the New Reasoner, but brighter in design, more concerned about culture and aiming for a slightly younger and less party-oriented readership.
The two journals coalesced at the beginning of 1960 to form the New Left Review. It wasn't an easy alliance and Edward Thompson was at times lacerating in his criticism of Raph and of Stuart Hall, the initial editor of NLR. But those early issues of the Review are a world apart from the theory-heavy (indeed, all round heavy) NLR which emerged out of a 'palace coup' a couple of years later.
And the iconic venue?
Well, one of Raph Samuel's more quixotic ventures was to establish a ULR coffee bar, the Partisan, in Soho. It lost money - quite a lot of money - but kept going from October 1958 to early 1963 (though it was in some decline after 1961). It was a remarkable venture, a 'socialist coffee house', an 'anti-espresso bar', a meeting place with linked offices above which became the heart of a national New Left Club movement.
And all this in Soho - where Marx once lived, where generations of political emigres published and agitated, and which was seen as on the cutting-edge of cool. The coffee house was in Carlisle Street - and that fits with the photo ... it's Soho Square that looms in the background on the right.
The historian Mike Berlin made a radio programme about the Partisan - it's below - and his illustrated account of the club published to accompany an exhibition of Roger Mayne's commissioned photos of the Partisan (held at Four Corners in 2017) is worth seeking out.
The date of the photo - well probably 1958-60.
And Jean McCrindle (born 1937)? Well, she - like Raph - was brought up in a Communist household and joined the CP herself (and also left over Hungary). She was active in the New Left Clubs in Scotland where she was a student.
According to Raph (he says he changed his name to Ralph for a while because fellow-YCLers in North London found his real name impossible to pronounce), he and Jean first met at the CP headquarters on King Street in Covent Garden in the underground room where student 'aggregates' were held. He also recalled proposing to Jean when aged 21 at the summit of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh - though Jean's memory is more that they talked about getting married.
There's a celebrated photo of the couple taken at Trafalgar Square in 1956 ...
... there's no doubt about the location - you can see the National Gallery in the background. And the occasion? Uncertain - but the big political gathering in Trafalgar Square that year was the anti-Suez demonstration on 4th November.
By the end of that month the engagement was over.
Jean McCrindle - who I met this week - has herself been a lifelong activist, pioneering feminist and teacher and twice stood for Parliament.
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