New Reasoner

New Reasoner

During the crisis of the 1950s within the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), John Saville and E.P. Thompson created a journal of dissident Communism named the Reasoner. They took the title from an early 19th century publication, created by John Bone, which had been an attempt at renewing and reinvigorating a flagging Jacobin Radicalism. In Thompson and Saville's Reasoner, the editors attempted to rekindle the embers of the dying opposition to Stalinism. They posed their critique of Stalinist Communism, at the point of its moral decay.

Producing the first copy of their dissident journal at the end of July 1956, the editors proposed the use of the journal as a forum for the discussion of "questions of fundamental principle, aim, and strategy". Over its five months of existence, the journal angered many within the leadership of the CPGB.

Thompson and Saville, centred their editorials on their resentment of Stalinist practise, and the CPGB's dogmatic analysis of domestic and foreign developments. In their view, Stalinism stood condemned for six essential reasons:

  1. The mechanical notion of the Dictatorship of the proletariat;
  2. The unmistakable tendency to regard all disagreement and controversy as counter-revolutionary action;
  3. The perversion of Socialist ideals by a military vocabulary;
  4. The stifling of discussion and the reification of leadership, most evident in the cult of personality and the dominance of the bureaucracy;
  5. The theory of the infallibility of the Party resting on a wrong-headed notion of democratic centralism, or discipline;
  6. The outmoded theory of consciousness expressed in the dichotomy: base/superstructure.

These criticisms would permeate their general attack on Stalinism:

The subordination of the moral imaginative faculties to political and administrative authority is wrong; the fear of independent thought, the deliberate encouragement of anti-intellectual trends amongst the people is wrong; the mechanical personification of unconscious class forces, the belittling of the conscious process of intellectual and spiritual conflict, all this is wrong.

Thompson believed it was these theories, which had brought on the crisis within the International Communist Movement.

From its publication in July 1956, the Reasoner had irritated the Old Guard of the CPGB. Because of this, Thompson and Saville were ordered to cease publication of their dissident journal, an order they chose to defy. Because of their refusal, Thompson and Saville were suspended from the CPGB.

In November 1956, the armies of the Soviet Union entered the streets of Budapest; on October 23, the people of Hungary had revolted against their Soviet puppet regime. There were mass demonstrations by students and workers, as the demonstrations spread throughout the country, workers councils were established. Fearing the loss of control along its borders, and an end to Soviet hegemony in the region, Nikita Khrushchev resurrected Stalinist practices and invaded the neighbouring state. By the time the uprising was put down, there were an estimated 30,000 dead.

Thompson and Saville, along with many others, resigned from the CPGB in protest against its support of the Soviet Union's actions. They believed "that the Party was now wholly discredited"[1]; over the following months, 7,000 members of the CPGB (that is, one in five) left the Party. With their departure, the CPGB was to lose almost all of its members who could lay claim to middle class standing.

Their departure from the CPGB did not silence Thompson and Saville. They did not abandon working class politics: instead they began again in new ways.

In 1957, they began the publication of a new journal, named the New Reasoner. The opening editorial, centred on a reaffirming of their commitment to the British Marxist and Communist tradition. They allied themselves with the European workers, who were fighting for 'de-stalinisation', and for the rebirth of principles within the movement. The New Reasoner was created with the express purpose of contributing to "the re-discovery of our traditions, the affirmation of socialist values, and the undogmatic perception of social reality".

In 1960 the New Reasoner became New Left Review, after a merger with the Universities and Left Review journal.


  1. ^ B.D. Palmer, E.P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions, New York: Verso, 1994, p. 73.

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