Light on the New Left
[Reprinted from Land & Liberty,
PART of the trouble with being a revolutionary is that there are lots
of other revolutionaries about, and they all want to make different
kinds of revolutions. Thus, if a revolution does happen, it is most
unlikely to be one of your own favourite kind. (Sorry comrade! The
first tumbril is reserved for revolutionary heretics, not for
The current brand (or rather, brands) of revolutionary politics
constitute what is known as the "new left." It is
inordinately difficult to discover what the "new left" wants
to do, not least because there are several groups who all want to do
different things, and frequently hate each other like poison. Where
the "new left" is of interest, however, is not in the
blueprints for a new society which it offers (for these are often very
blurred indeed), but in its criticisms of the existing one.
It is this power of criticism which makes Counter Course* a
fascinating book -- at least in patches. It is a mass of articles,
written by many different hands, and equipped with a bibliography
designed to make even the academic mind indulge in a quiet little
boggle. The whole thing is written by students and recent ex-students
who are linked more or less closely with various groups of the "new
left." It provides a searching critique of the academic
disciplines which they are required to study.
There can be very few people who would fully understand all of it.
Your reviewer freely admits that he curls up when he sees calculus
equations freely scattered over pages of print. On the other hand,
some parts -- notably the very funny essay, "Doing Eng. Lit.,"
are really worth reading. The articles on medical training and
chemistry also appealed to him. It is probably wrong, however, to try
picking out bits from a work of this kind; it must be seen as a whole.
Parts of it, one suspects, are little more than examples of bright
undergraduates pretending to be even brighter than they are. Other
bits do really throw useful light on the sacred asininities of some
academic courses, and university teachers will ignore those bits at
Running through the whole work is a sort of zany, Alice-in-Wonderland
logic -- at times palpably insane, at other times illuminating dark
and murky places. If one may give some serious advice to these people,
it is that they should consider their reader's state of ignorance more
than they do, and not use jargon words without explaining them.
Has the book a message? Yes, it has. It is all too easy to look at
almost any academic discipline from the angle of the Top People -- to
think, for example, of sociology and social psychology as subjects
which study how workers behave, rather than subjects which could study
how bosses behave. To take a widely different discipline, it is very
easy to learn quite a lot of chemistry, and yet never ask oneself why
one selects certain chemicals for study and neglects millions of
others. Is the selection based on economic use -- possible
profitability -- or what?
So by all means go and read it. Great masses of the book are
gobbledegook, but here and there you will find gems. When you get to
the bits that float over your head, do what your reviewer did, and
skip them. Oh, and by the way, as these people obviously have no clear
idea about what should be done to make things better, they are
presumably receptive of suggestions. Perhaps some readers of this
magazine may be able to help them. ...
Counter Course: a handbook for course criticism. Edited by
Trevor Pateman. Penguin Educational Specials, 75p.