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Radical Nostalgia

Alastair Bonnett argues that radical nostalgia has played a larger role in the formation of English socialism than Marxist historians – and New Labour – allow.

Nostalgia does not get a good press. Politicians seem to have a particular allergy to the condition. Outlining the New Labour project in 1997, Peter Mandelson helpfully explained ‘We are defining ourselves by the future’. It sounds almost plausible. After all, it is widely imagined that the past is done and dusted. It is the future most people worry about. Yet despite our apparent love affair with all things modern and forward-looking, nostalgia refuses to wither and die. A sense of loss permeates the contemporary cultural atmosphere. Indeed, it can sometimes seem as if the whole of Britain is in a state of mourning for its own past.

When we look at nostalgia a little more closely it becomes apparent that there is far more to it than mere hostility to change. Its role within nineteenth-century English socialism has often been noted but then dismissed as an aberration or charming oddity. Yet what if nostalgia was something more than this? What if nostalgia was one of the central, constitutive aspects of the radical tradition? The implications are far-reaching, especially for today’s political class, who appear to have an unquestioning faith that ‘radicalism’ is a synonym for ‘modernization’.

William Morris concluded his socialist ode The Pilgrims of Hope (1885) with the lines
I cling to the love of the past and the love of the day to be,
And the present, it is but the building of the  man to be strong in me.
It is a sentiment entirely at odds with Peter Mandelson’s heroic futurology. It also contradicts the political instincts of one of Mandelson’s more unlikely intellectual ancestors, Karl Marx. Appalled by the fact that the English masses seemed inclined to ‘revert to a bygone form of society’, Marx famously declared in 1852 that

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