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20 Editorial: Radical Philosophy

EDITORIJlL
I have been secretary and coordinator of the
editorial collective of Radical Philosophy since
1973. In September last year I decided to resign,
though I hope to continue to work as an ordinary
member of the collective. With some miSgivings,
the editors have allowed me to offer some reflections on the magazine’s past and its prospects, as
a kind of farewell performance.

Judged in terms of sheer size, Radical Philosophy
is an extraordinary success. The scale of the
undertaking would have appalled the half dozen
people who tentatively decided to start the magazine back in 1971. We now print 4000 copies of
each of our three issues- a year; in the game period
we handle thousands of pounds and process
hundreds of articles and reviews. All the administration, distribution, pasting-up, and so on is done
in our spare time, and the magazine is financed
entirely by income from sales. The editorial
collective has never been closed, and now has
about-thirty-five members.

In spite of the success the magazine has not, I
think, faced up to the question of what our enterprise ina.mateur, collective, ‘alternative’ selfpublishing is supposed to do that commercial
.magazines or academic journals could not achieve
as well – a question not ‘so much of policy as of the
terrain on which policy ought to be defined. It was
my disappointment at our failure to confroIt these
issues – combined with a feeling that the work has
devoured enough of my life already – that produced
my resignation.

Radical Philosophy is constantly faced with a
dilemma between two lines – two conceptions of
its field of action, two models of what it means to
produce a dissident magazine. The first line
emphasises theoretical excellence, originality and
modernity; the second, effectiveness in the formation’uf a vital counter-culture. The first prizes
the p~oduction of alternatives to the empiricisms,
ignorances and evasions of British theory; the
second values campaigns aimed at shoving British
culture out of its circle of discreet and repetitious
comphcencies. The first is anxious to avoid vagueness and theoretical deviation; the second fears,
above all, ghetto…;lsation and abstruseness. The
first dismisses the second as eclectic; the second
criticises the first for being elitist.

It is simple to show that each of the two lines is
indispensable; a second-liner, who wants to build
up an effective and durable counter-culture, must
obviously make sure it is guided by sound ideas,
and not just by diffuse good-will. And a first-liner
is bound to admit that there is no point in putting
forward good ideas if no one is going to take any
notice. But in practice, the two lines can conflict.

There can be a choice, for example, between an
original but difficult article which editors might
feel proud to publish, and another article which,
though less original or less true, might be more
useful, even inspiring, for readers.

My worry (sometimes despair) about Radical
Philosophy is that the first line has increasingly
overshadowed the second. The first line gets an
unfair advantage in the argument, because it
occupies a high clear ground, where familiar
academic criteria of excellence and originality can

Jonathan Rea

be relied upon; the second line, meanwhile, leads
a fugitive, outlawed existence in the valleys, trying
to operate with awkward criteria about effective
cultural action. The first line has been obliterating
the second, not because of any take-over or deliberate re -orientation – for none has occurred – but
as a result of an insidious dialectic which seems to
be at work within us all.

The process I am talking about can be traced in
many of the magazines, movements, lives and
personalities that came out of the student movement
With the· possible exception of the women’s and the
gay movements, enthusiasms have ebbed or been
diverted into mysticism or macrobiotics; socialist
activities have become more profeSSional and more
institutionalised, and our reading, writing, speaking and publishing have come to mirror the
intellectual disorientation exemplified by the
organisation of orthodox knowledge into speCialised
academic disCiplines.

No doubt there have been some intellectual gains.

In particular, marxism has been transformed from
an object of mostly rather empty ethical gestures
into a framework for positive investigation of
society. But this has been achieved under cover of
a particularly reactionary ideology of intellectual
activity, of reading and writing – an ideology which
revolves around pious pomposities about ‘the autonomy of theory’ or the ‘political’ character of
‘theoretical interventions’. These slogans derive
their plausibility from a contrast with a bogey of
reductionism, which would dismiss all theoretical
activity as self-indulgence; but they take their toll
elsewhere – in the obliteration of the ‘second line’

– of the perception that reading and writing, or fOl’

that matter studying, striving for academic qualification, and teaching, have dimensions of which
those concerned only with the advancement of
‘theory’ know nothing.

I often wish that people who work on left -wing
publications would study some of the efforts of their
predecessors – would read, for example, some old
volumes of Plebs, The Communist, or Labour
Monthly; the Reasoner, the New Reasoner or New
Left Review. Admittedly, these magazines differ
from most of those started since 1968 in that they
were not aimed at a largely academic audience;
but there are still lessons to be learnt from the;n.

In the 20s and 30s, for instance, the contributors
to Plebs, Labour ‘Monthly, and The Communist
invested most of their energy and anger in the lines
they adopted on particular political questions, or on
theoretical debates about the relevance of Dietzgen
to marxism, or the importance of the latest Russian
pronouncements on dialectical materialism; and so
forth. But the real Significance of the magazines lay
in dimensions of their activity of which most of the
participants were unaware. Thei~ different ways of
writing, or laying out their magazines, and of
presenting controversies or contributions from
readers, made each of them represent, propogate
and support different ideas of how ·marxist culture
ought to develop and grow in Britain. Labour
Monthly, for example – dominated by the- edicts of
Palme Dutt, backed by the political and philosophical authority of Lenin and Stalin – promoted
a bossy and dogmatic style· of thought and discussion
1

whilst Plebs stood for an amiable and trusting
diffusion of revolutionary ideas amongst all who
wished the labour movement well.

Half a century later, these differences of presentation, language, and sense -of-audience seem far
more important than the theoretical debates which
they conveyed. The lesson this suggests is that it
doesn’t matter too much if Radical Philosophy
propounds precisely true or original positiOns in
theory – whether it is guilty of ‘idealist deviations’,
for instance, or of ‘vulgar materialism’, of humanistic vapourings or of anti-humanist murders: the
real stakes are different, and the important
struggles, for a magazine like Radical Philosophy,
are on a different terrain: amongst the valleys of
cultural action, rather than the peaks of theoretical
excellence.

In practical terms, the centre of our field of
action has to be defined in terms of the intersection
of two groups of people – on the one hand, leftists
(aligned and unaligned) , and on the other hand,
readers and writers of philosophy (professional and
amateur). This immediately suggests the outlines
of a programme for Radical Philosophy: namely, to
engineer a confrontation between leftism and philosophy – to disturb the dusty etiquettes of philosophy
by left-wing criticis m, to find exits from its coy
precisions, its self-indulgent conceits, and its
tedious repetitions; perhaps, also, to use philosophy to disrupt the smug conventions of leftist
thought and language. At any rate, to create a
space where individuals may discover or devise
w~ys of speaking and writing in which both philosophical awareness and political anger, political
awareness and philosophical anger, can be

developed.

I would suggest that Radical Philosophy ought to
consider carefully its relationship to philosophy,
as an institutionalised intellectual tradition which
is se’curelyemplaced in British c’:llture. For, in
company with other movements on the new intellect ..

ual left, Radical Philosophy has moved away from
dialogue with particular bourgeois disciplines
towards the elaboration of generalised and selfreferring marxist theory. However, British
philosophy still exists, and is in some ways rather
healthier than it was a few years ago. Unfortunately”
Radical Philosophy relates to it decreasingly: .it is
uninterested; and the feeling is mutual.

‘Unfortunately’ because it could be valuable to
inject the philosophical ideals of clarity and explicit
ness into marxist culture as it exists in Britain
today – particularly in view of the fact that all the
varieties of modern marxis m (whether veteran
communist, middle-aged humanist, or up-andcoming anti-humanist) centre on philosophical
slogans (‘dialectical materialism’, ‘human praxis’,
or ‘the death-of-the-subject’) which are simply
lifted from mainstream, orthodox philosophical
discourse. And because it would be crazy to yield
the w.eapons of philosophical criticism to the right.

At the moment Radical Philosophy is a decent
magazine with a few interesting articles. But any
effectiveness it may have in shifting’the deadweight
of British culture is purely coincidental. If the
magazine continues to drift in this direction (but
there are signs that the movement is being
reversed), it will become little more than a mirror
in which marxists gaze at their own reflections,
while the rest of the world goes about its business,
unperturbed.

16 Apri11978

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