Charles 'Chuck' Taylor is a Canadian philosopher and was a key figure in the origins of the British New Left. He was born in Montreal in 1931 and in 1952 came as a Rhodes Scholar to Balliol College, Oxford. He was - with Stuart Hall, Raphael Samuel and Gabriel Pearson - a founding editor of the Universities & Left Review.
This interview on Zoom with Chuck Taylor in Montreal was conducted in February 2021. It's part of an oral history of the British New Left which I (Andrew Whitehead) am conducting. It covers the inception of the New Left from 1956, memories of Stuart Hall and Raphael Samuel, the formation of Universities & Left Review, activity in CND, the creation of New Left Review and tensions within the New Left.
It is posted here with Chuck Taylor's permission. A transcript of our conversation is posted below.
Charles 'Chuck' Taylor talking by Zoom from Quebec to Andrew Whitehead, 9 February 2021
AW: You came over to Oxford in 1952 as a Rhodes scholar -
- but were you political before that?
Yes, I was. Political in Quebec, in Canada, and I sort of - I think I became a social democrat of some kind in my last year - the time at McGill. I was at McGill for three years before, right, and then got the Rhodes scholarship. And so I came as a kind of leftist of some kind.
And this was to Christopher Hill's Balliol, which was decidedly left.
Yeah, Christopher Hill wasn't the Master then, of course. But he was, yeah, he was a major kind of figure - as a tutor. But I was always very - well, anti-communist, that's not a bad word. I'd known some people who came from Eastern Europe and it was obvious that wasn't - what I thought as part of the left. But on the other hand in Balliol we had this big mixture of different leftists, and Raph [pron to rhyme with safe] Samuel, who was one of the important figures starting the New Left Review, and Gabriel Person - we were all at Balliol together. And those two were in the Communist Party - for, until Hungary really, you see, although they were already beginning to get certain, you know, doubts about the whole thing. They only broke at that sort of very important cataclysmic moment which was the invasion of Hungary right at '56, where the New Reasoner people left the party and Raph and Gary [sic] left the party. And we got together with Stuart Hall - the only one who wasn't in Balliol (laughs) he was at Merton - to found Left Review. But we'd worked together before. // Because I remember we had I think the first anti-H bomb (laughs) campaign in the entire west - just in Oxford. And Raph was really the one who wanted to organise it. We realised that a communist, you know, was a mistake to put at the head. So he talked me into being the chair of this. And of course we made a terrible mistake and didn't warn the proctors so I was called forth and knuckles rapped. And we actually got a Tory, Michael Heseltine actually joined us as a vice-president who was a Tory. So we had this quite successful anti-H bomb campaign prior to '56 -
What was it called?
Well, it was the anti H-bomb (laughs) it was, you know, against the H-bomb - I've forgotten what the title was - it wasn't CND, CND came later in '58. right.
So this was what '54, '55?
Yeah, that's right. So this was the predecessor of that. But it was purely an Oxford movement, you know.
And what did you do?
We signed a big, massive petition. That was what - the activity. And we got people to sign it. And I suppose we sent it (laughs) to the UK government at some point - but it's kind of vague in my mind. But it made a big hoofarah and it was - our having broken the rules meant that there was a lot of excitement about it and anger from various authorities. (laughs)
What rules had you broken?
Well, you're supposed to inform the proctors and get their permission before you do anything like this, you see. Political organisation - I don't know exactly what it was put it over the edge. I suppose if you did something purely inside your college was OK but if you tried to have a pan-Oxford petition, that required permission. And we very foolishly didn't even ask for permission. And I don't know (laughs) - when we were called up we did ask and I guess I must have got it at that point. But they were very angry that we were so - took the rules so lightly (laughs) that we hadn't even bothered to inform them. But that's just to say that the basis of our working together was already more-or-less - solidified, even across this divide.
I remember also a petition about Cyprus, about Britain getting out of Cyprus, you know - that was a period when that was a very hot issue - I think that was also before '56. I remember trying to pass the petition around Christ Church (laughs) - Peckwater Quad which was probably the most foolish (laughs) political action of my life, which is saying something. But anyway, so, just to give you an idea that we all knew each other and there was a Socialist Club too which grouped everybody, alright, at the point - as well as our particular. So -
That's communist and non-communist? //
Yeah, I'm pretty sure the communists were also in this. So we - we were very, sort of, already working together.
I knew Raphael a little bit towards the end of his life, and I've got keen memories of him, but I can't really imagine him as a member of the Communist Party which requires discipline and organisation. Was he a good party member in the party's way of looking at it?
Well I don't know, because I have exactly your reactions (laughs). But they must have been willing to take his eccentricities and his sort of rushing around because he was tremendously active. For instance, this anti H-bomb thing, he started the whole thing. He pushed me to do this, and he pushed (laughs) somebody else to do that. And the same thing happened with the beginning of the Universities & Left Review. He always had these big ideas. Like it was his idea - was to have a coffee house, the Partisan, and the rest of us thought (holds head in hands): no, we have enough trouble trying to get everything, this (laughs) But he would commit us and get us forward. So I think they probably thought: this guy is pretty, you know, dangerous and can't really be fully predicted but in agitprop terms, I'm sure he's the most effective communist in the party (laughs) in the Great Britain, CPGB, at that time.
Do you remember your first meeting with Raphael?
Yeah - early on I remember we just had conversations but, you now, it fades into - they all fade into each other. Because the three of us in Balliol, we met in the JCR, we were always meeting together - and particularly being, you know, of socialist convictions. So, you know, I can't distinguish the first meeting from a whole series of meetings.
What did he look like, Raphael, at the time? What was his demeanour? What was his aura?
Well his aura was - he was short, I guess you know. He had a lovely smile. And he was very good as a first - making contact with people. But he was really driven by activist zeal. The last time I saw him - we had a reunion in the early Nineties, I think, and that's the last time I saw him. And then I learnt afterwards that he died much to my shock and horror, because he was very very young, to die at the age. So - but he completely - we had a short talk at that time and we re-met in Oxford and he said: I wasn't really a socialist then. And I said: why, what do you mean. He said the whole gender issue hadn't really dawned on him and that was something very important for him. And it's true. He really changed the entire axis of his left position - still very left position, but he changed the entire axis of his position, he was very clear about that. And I read the book by his wife, right - I jumped and bought that because it was wonderful to remember.
How did you meet Stuart - ?
Stuart? He was a kind of (laughs) we called them as refugees from other - they spent a lot of time in Balliol because there were a lot of very sympathique and interesting people in Balliol. So he come over, and things like the Socialist Club -which was not simply at Balliol, but it was a pan-Oxford association, right - So we'd met in that and we recognised a great deal of affinity. // We really developed a kind of affinity and a habituation of working together a trust for each other and so on, so there was no question about our coming together and feeling very comfortable together when we launched the Review.
But was there a distance between those who'd been in the CP and those who'd not been attracted to the CP?
No. We recognised that we'd been on different wavelengths. But there was such a reaction to Hungary, where not just those two but of course the New Reasoner people walked out of the CP, that finally all the possible differences had disappeared. They'd really taken a stand to cut their ties totally with this rather monstrous (laughs) organisation, which I had always seen it as. So - and even before, they must have felt - I'm sure they were feeling certain sort of doubts and so on which they didn't terribly want to admit to others at the time. But clearly - they had been feeling for a long time there was something really wrong with this.
In '56, the division, the rift within the Communist Party started over Khrushchev's secret speech at the Twentieth Congress and the revelation of that in the Observer. Were you aware at the time of what E.P. Thompson and John Saville were doing and the Reasoner and the tension within the CP?
No. The tension within the CP I was aware because of some of the people around me. But I didn't know - see, E.P., Edward Thompson was way up in the north, in Halifax. So we didn't really get together until we found our respective reviews. They founded the New Reasoner and we founded the Universities & Left Review. And then we recognised almost immediately that we had a lot in common. So we started to talk together and we did things together. But at the beginning we were focussed not only on the Review. We were focussed on a series of meetings. They happened in other centres too but mainly in London. And it was really extraordinary, when we had announced these meetings with a speaker and just just gads (ph) of people turned up - people who hadn't had contact with other people or hadn't been active for a long time.
And there was a feeling of - a bit of disappointment on the very left wing areas, groups, with the Labour Party as well, right. So it was a sense that - not at all the rejection, utter rejection - and some of us joined the Labour Party, I did for instance - nothing like the relation to the Communist Party - but nevertheless a feeling that this needed another voice, which was not that of the orthodox communists nor that of the mainstream Labour. And that's what we were going to explore and so on. So the exploration was both in the Review and in these interesting and very well attended meetings, I remember somewhere in Bloomsbury - I can't quite remember the hotel that we met in.
Who organised these meetings? What was the umbrella or the organisation that - ?
It was the four of us, and of course - (laughs) Raphael was also very very active in that. But it also - yeah, it did develop its own executive after a while, that is the meetings and so on. The thing was really under the aegis, auspices and so on of the Review and it bore the name, Universities & Left Review meeting.
When Suez happened, which was almost the same time as Hungary, did you get involved with the anti-Suez agitation or go to the anti-Suez demo?
Yeah - now. the thing was - I have to get the months right - there was definitely, people were involved with that. But I think that I was out of the country then. Because I tell you what - I'm trying to reconstruct it exactly. I did my - I did schools in '55, right. And then I came back and already was in a doctoral programme. But I think that by the autumn of '56, I was already in Paris. I spent a year or so in Paris - right, yes. And - I was in Paris even from the spring '56. So I lived Suez in a Paris context rather than the Oxford context.
And then I probably would have spent a lot more time in Paris. But I got myself a fellowship in the autumn of '56 at All Souls. And so that meant I moved back. And so there's no doubt in my mind that - except that, except that, I stayed away for another further period because I was in a NGO that helped refugee students and there was a mob of refugee students coming across the border of Austria, Hungary. So I was in Vienna for about six months as the kind of field officer of that particular NGO. Finding scholarships, finding housing, for students. Getting students out of the general population and finding emigration possibilities, scholarships, flights and so on - for them
Whose idea was Universities & Left Review?
Oh, I'm pretty sure that Ralph thought of it first, yeah. But we kind of all jumped at it. I think, he was always ahead of us in the sense of saying: let's go, you know (laughs) - with an initial hesitancy on the part of some of the others who were coming a little bit later (laughs) - I'm sure he drove it but Stuart was very keen on it too. Very very keen.
Was it hard work?
Oh yeah. I mean, staying up very late at night, organising, as well as running the Partisan and so on, deciding what documents and - eventually, Stuart became full-time. And we also had Suzy Benghiat, who was a kind of a secretary in the office, and Janet Hase, so - and we had an office just above the Partisan, right, in Soho. So he became really full-time and the rest of us - the rest worked very hard and I remember you know, late nights, lot of smoking - people did in those days - staying up very late, planning this, planning that, planning a number on this a number on that etcetera.
Was it exciting?
Oh, very, very. You had a sense that great possibilities were opening up. We also had a link with Paris. There was Claude Bourdet - I don't know if the name means something to you? - but he was, started something called La Nouvelle Gauche, so frankly we plagiarised them. We were - we followed them, just translated it into English. Same idea. We start a new kind of left-wing stream, it'd neither communist nor SFIOin their case, and so it -
How long before you felt that the Universities & Left Review was working, was delivering, was achieving a resonance?
Oh, right away. You see the resonance came - I think even from the first number, it was produced by the number of people who turned out to these meetings. So obviously there were a lot of people looking for something like this. And they just jumped on it. I mean, if we hadn't - if the four of us hadn't existed - if Raph hadn't existed - somebody would have done something of this kind, I'm convinced, on the bigger scene.
I've got the first issue here - which is, the contents are wonderful, the design as you can see on the cover is, shall we say, a little bit basic. It's got a touch of design but it's very basic. And then over a short run - only seven issues of it - it had photographic articles, it published some of Roger Mayne's photographs, it had designed covers. It seemed to become a much more confident and stylish publication.
How did that happen?
How did it happen? Well, because the idea of - the issue of development of culture, high culture if you like, in the country was very very central to having a socialist outlook, you know, generally accepted and generally understood. So we had the famous first editorial about socialism at the widest stretch, I've forgotten if that's the expression, something of that kind. So we immediately got interested in the movement - various , you know, the film industry, people in design, and art and so on. And so they rushed in and gave us a tremendous contribution - gave us wonderful advice, or their work for free, or - See, the very self-giving vocation of the magazine meant that there was an outreach to people with all those skills.
It covered popular culture, it covered history, it covered philosophy, it covered political philosophy, it covered international affairs - it was trying to put an awful lot into quite a thin magazine.
Yeah, I know, I know. In some ways crazy. And that's what led eventually to the idea of a fusion with the New Reasoner. Because there was some differences of sensibility, really because - Edward Thompson's really a figure all to himself, and - extraordinarily innovative and not narrowly Marxist. But there were other people who were still a little bit more narrowly Marxist who looked on us as being very uncertain (laughs) - not uncertain subjectively but very - not clear really, and cleaved to the line all the way through. So there was a certain amount of tension and distance.
And there was a generational divide?
Yeah - then we had the great generation handover. Because - I went away at that point, '56 [sic], but exactly at that point is when it was handed over to really Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn. Who at the beginning were very uncertain exactly what they wanted to do - and felt that really they were going to continue in the same line, asking anxiously for advice and so on. But turned out to have a very different take on the whole thing, very rapidly, which very much angered Edward, you know. He thought this was totally a travesty in relation to what he - Edward was the one who was, thought of himself as anchored in the British labour movement, right, the real labour movement. And there was his book, you know, really was the classic - still is one of the classics about this. And their turning towards a certain kind of very high flown theory, Althusser etcetera, a little bit looking down on the British labour movement as being theoretically yokels (laughs) - not really understanding Gramsci and the Italians and Lukacs and the Germans etcetera. So there was a deep rift there. But that happened after I left.
E.P. Thompson wrote a lot about socialist humanism and he saw himself as a political philosopher. Would you say that you were influenced by what he wrote? Or admiring of what he wrote? Or critical?
I was admiring of what he wrote but critical. I think he was - you know, I've never been very keen on Marxism as a theory. So I think I tried to say it all - they gave me a place, an article I wrote for the New Reasoner talking about Marxism as a humanism and saying what I thought were the lacks there, right. So I was always on a different wavelength from them. But, you know, you can't help but admire the work of Edward Thompson who was so terrifically exciting - his bringing in Blake (laughs) and bringing in the working class history. So I have a great admiration, and really enjoyed meeting him and talking to him and so on. But I always felt there was a philosophical difference.
When do you think the New Left became capital initials the New Left? When it actually saw itself as not simply something new but something which was defined by its innovation, its new spirit?
Oh, I think very very soon. I mean the premise of the whole thing was that the vehicles everyone had been counting on, namely the Communist Party and in a much less severe way the Labour Party, were not adequate, right. So we were going to be (laughs) - there was tremendous, like, chutzpah - we were going to be the creators of a theory of a new left. The words obviously just sprang - but we did get them from Claude Bourdet, but they were so obvious to what we were trying to do, right. A new definition of what a left movement should be, socialist movement should be, in our time. So I don't remember a time before the words were ringing in our ears.
Were you still around when the New Left Review started under Stuart Hall's editorship? Were you still in the UK or had you left by then?
No. I left in the summer of 1961, right. Yeah.
So the New Left Review was just getting going then. And Stuart Hall talks in some of his writing about him being in quite a difficult, unhappy place in the early Sixties before he got together with Catherine. I just wondered if you got any sense of that at the time, because the euphoria and the excitement obviously had a countervailing force of at times a sense of anguish?
Yeah, well I tell you Stuart had a terrible time then because really of feedback, reactions from Edward which were - Edward was an extraordinarily hard person to deal with, because he would fly off in a tremendous sense of criticism which he - and he wrote beautifully, right (laughs) but could be very wounding and actually when you got down to what the difference was, when he calmed down, it wasn't necessarily that great.
But Stuart wasn't used to this kind of way of relating, right. There are some people that are used to that and you can tell them "you son of a bitch, you -" - and then half-an-hour later you're drinking a glass of wine together. That's not Stuart's style. He was very shaken up by that. And sp I mean he used to come into the office and he would show me what Edward had written (laughs) - I could see that a lot of it was just Edward's style. But if you took it seriously, it was quite wounding. So here he was, Stuart, for the short while he was the editor of the magazine, situated in London, doing all the donkey work and so on. And then you got this various, in some cases, some directions, 'encouraging, great, go on' and so on, but from Edward regularly there were some terrible criticisms about not doing enough of this, not doing enough of that. And I think already the importance of the English labour movement and so on and - was part of the criticism. But it was also very dramatically expressed, very exaggeratedly expressed and that - Stuart found that very hard to deal with.
How close were the four of you during the ULR and early New Left Review period? Were you a sort of 'band of brothers'?
Yeah. Really we were, yeah. And we didn't - sometimes we got impatient with Raphael because he was rushing ahead and so on but, you know, that was Raphael (laughs). And we really enjoyed each other's company. And - it was, Gabriel Pearson // the last time we saw each other was when we had, you know, the sort of wake for Stuart and that was in early 2013 or something //
Universities & Left Review - I think of that as, in essence, the founding expression of the New Left. You could argue about whether the Reasoner was but nevertheless it was just so totemic. And then in most people minds, when you mention the New Left of the Sixties, they immediately think of New Left Review in its second guise and of Perry Anderson and Robin Blackburn and this great emphasis on theory and on Gramsci, and I just wonder whether you feel that that label was stolen, wrested away? Whether there was a sense of a movement being subverted, forced down a different channel?
Well, no, I didn't feel possessive of it like that but I think - there were all sorts of channels, all sorts of things to explore, there are many - hundred flowers bloom is my - but it definitely [word emphasised] wasn't my, wouldn't be my first choice. I mean, I thought Althusser was a lot of very muscle-bound, gobbledygook, structuralist kind of stuff which - there were other examples on the Paris scene (laughs) - which I feel just had, zero light was cast, I think, on the actual situation of workers and the left and so on by that kind of theorisation. Gramsci's another matter. But Althusser, I thought this is really (laughs) - there I very much agree with Edward, you know, let go broadsides against this. So I didn't - I wouldn't have been happy if I'd been still collaborating. I'd have said: let's have a few articles (laughs) on something a little bit more relevant. But it was their direction and I though they've got to have their chance to - to give their mark and to, you know, explore what they felt was really important to explore.
The New Left is also now - it's the umbrella terms which is seen as feeding into CND and direct action, Aldermaston marches, to some extent the libertarian aspect of the counterculture, in the anti-Vietnam war movement, into the rise of identity politics and particularly feminism and the women's movement. And as somebody who was a participant in the very early stages, I wonder if you think the New Left is being given too big a central role and whether it's an attempt to link disparate aspects of a new politics not all of which were in any real sense linked to the New Left of which you were a founding part?
Yeah, well I think what happened in all these similar movements is that people suddenly began to realise that there was a real injustice involved in the way women were treated - and then coming to realise it was progressively different kinds of exclusion. In this they were part of a very very big movement happening in all western societies, right. And to the point where at a time T no one recognised it at all, and at a time T plus two or three years everybody was looking back and saying: why the hell didn't these people realise that there was a real problem over women for instance and so on.
I think that the New Left was just the kind of media that was absolutely ideal for making those successive discoveries and - as we were saying before, you know, Raph was saying: I wasn't a real socialist because I didn't really have an understanding of the plight of women and so on. So it's somewhat like analogous movements in the United States as elsewhere where you get this gradual waking up and gradual moving forward to a more - to a broader - but it did, it did change the - it just changed the atmosphere on the left.
I remember already we were laughing at certain ex-communists who hadn't been - weren't very ex- left. And our joke was that you put a problem to them and they would say: comrades, first seize state power! (laughs) - and then you'd could get on to the problem, etcetera. And we already, you know - that was a laughing stock, a joke we made among ourselves. Because we had this idea of socialism at its widest stretch. But the widest stretch was wider than we recognised, then. However that kind of ambition set you up to go through that kind of education - educational experience. So it's absolutely normal that -
When you look back on your time politically in Oxford, in England, in the late Fifties and very early Sixties, what's your sentiment? How do you view that period in your life?
Well it was a wonderful period because, for many reasons. First of all, I tremendously enjoyed this particular movement, the New Left, and the friends I madeand the education I got from that. And then - and that's all at the same time as I'm re-transforming myself as a philosopher, getting totally new ideas. My reaction to the majority philosophy in Oxford was: God, if this is philosophy, you know - But I got on to Merleau-Ponty - he had been a formative influence on my philosophy, phenomenology and particularly Merleau-Ponty - and that's why I went to Paris. And that whole period is a period of tremendously exciting growth - of new ideas, new initiatives. And I came back to Canada, Quebec, which I always intended to - I just can't, you know, can't get myself separated from this background, but with a whole lot of new ideas and new ambitions and new avenues to explore, politically and - because I became involved with the New Democratic Party in Canada so, right away, I was in politics as well as in theory, yeah. //