Left in the Past by Alastair Bonnett

Bonnett, A. (2010) Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia, New York and London: Continuum, pp. 208.

PDF Versions: Review by Sarah Edwards, Review by Michael Richardson, Author’s Reply by Alastair Bonnett.

Review by Sarah Edwards[1]

This ambitious and wide-ranging monograph proposes that ‘nostalgia has been an important but rarely acknowledged aspect of the radical imagination’ (1). Bonnett’s study traces the politics of the left, from early English socialism in the later eighteenth century to contemporary psychogeography, and discovers a common narrative of progress. Within this often naive celebration of the future, newness and youth, Bonnett argues that nostalgia has always been present as a repressed, but inevitable, aspect of modernity.

Bonnett’s work begins with a historical and conceptual overview which attempts to delineate the shifting relationships between radicalism and nostalgia. He acknowledges the complexity of the term, observing that in a post-socialist era radicalism is as likely to be associated with ‘fundamentalist Islam or a new business plan’ as with the left (6). He also notes that many socialists and feminists have sought to dissociate themselves from the term, though he does not expand much on the reasons for this discomfort. While I accept his premise that radicalism and the left have been historically intertwined, and that is the focus of this book, it might still have been useful at the start to examine the connotations of radicalism in more depth. The book’s sub-title suggests a broader focus and situating some of the discussions on socialism, for example, within the wider cultural landscape and other forms of radicalism (whether business-oriented or religious), might further illuminate the relationships between radicalism, nostalgia and the left. Are there, for example, similar attitudes to nostalgia among groups that are either self-styled, or designated as, radicals?

Bonnett’s definition of nostalgia concurs with that of most scholars, who identify a transition in meaning from homesickness characterised by physical symptoms to a longing for another time or a ’sentimentalization of the past’ during the nineteenth century (5). Bonnett, then, accepts the premise that contemporary definitions of nostalgia are born out of the social dislocations of Western industrialisation, and that its negative connotations of political conservatism and social decline were born out of nineteenth-century progressivism. However, Bonnett draws attention to the fact that ‘damning of the past had become an expected facet of revolutionary rhetoric’ (23) and that Marx repeatedly constructed his political rhetoric around an opposition between a barbaric past and a utopian future.

Bonnett then undertakes a brief review of some of the major twentieth-century theorists of nostalgia, including Linda Hutcheon, Fred Davis and Svetlana Boym. He claims that some of these theorists’ categories of nostalgia – for example, Boym’s ‘restorative’ nostalgia which seeks to reconstruct the past in contrast to the ‘reflective nostalgia’ which is ironic and fragmentary, and Hutcheon’s ironic postmodern nostalgia (42-43) – reflect their own ambiguity about the emotion and the wider leftist tendency to value nostalgia only when it can be utilised for a specific political end. This seems a rather hasty dismissal of critics who also acknowledge, as Bonnett does, that nostalgia can be rooted in genuinely devastating loss (as Boym’s work on post-Communist cities demonstrates). I am also not convinced that Bonnett’s claims about the hierarchical relationship between nostalgia and memory studies are still valid, and indeed the works that he cites (by Lasch and Green) are nearly two decades old (43). Much recent work in memory studies, in the fields of life-writing, urbanism and politics emphasise the unreliability of memory and its representation.

On the other hand, Bonnett is undoubtedly right when he observes that serious scholarly and political interest in nostalgia has increased since the 1990s, and his claims that the failures of the left (for example, the collapse of communism and New Labour) have fuelled a sense of loss for the radicalism of the past are convincingly demonstrated. Indeed, he observes that in the twenty-first century, ‘modernity is itself an object of nostalgia’ (3). Bonnett usefully identifies the themes that situate nostalgia both ‘in and against modernity’ and left politics (1). Interestingly, he notes that ‘radical’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘roots’ and that many left political groups have both lauded ‘the people’ as a source of authenticity and solidarity in an alienated world, while retaining suspicions about localism and conservatism, while the green movement similarly locates authenticity in the natural world, yet progress is often associated with man-made technology and the subjugation of nature. By contrast, avant-garde groups such as Dadaism and Surrealism embraced the past precisely because it seemed primitive, taboo and therefore a new source of creative energy.

Bonnett undertakes nuanced close readings of a variety of texts from these and other movements, from manifestos to poetry and autobiography. By ‘reading nostalgia against the grain of radical history’, he identifies the narratives of loss and desire that undermine their ostensible meanings (1). He also identifies, and deconstructs, some well-loved ‘characters’ and their roles in the negotiation between radicalism and nostalgia: the ‘old radical’ who is both a symbol of commitment and of older, devalued ideas (30); William Morris, whose successful negotiation of nostalgic medievalism, socialism and empathetic humanity have cast him as the ‘father figure’ of the Labour Party (72); the young black man as a ‘repository of revolutionary hope’ in the anti-racist rhetoric of 1980s Britain, which allowed black history and socialist ideology to be meshed (122) and the situationist ‘drifter’ whose urban walking might represent both a reclamation of the street and a nostalgia for ‘struggle and popular memory’ (146).

The book’s subsequent chapters are presented as a series of case studies of radical movements, framed by a brief introduction and summary. These sections are clear and effective, and suggest that the book is also aimed at a student audience: indeed, it would make a useful textbook for senior undergraduates and postgraduates in politics, history, cultural studies, human geography and urban studies. Within the main body of these chapters, Bonnett chiefly focuses on several individuals who both shaped their colleagues’ thinking in significant ways and also demonstrate the unacknowledged tension between radical and nostalgic thinking. Indeed, the latter aim sometimes supersedes the first and therefore some of the insights about the individual’s ideas are not particularly original or convincing.

The first of these chapters focuses on three important figures in English socialism at particular historical moments from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century. Bonnett provides an excellent and convincing account of the ‘rediscovery’ of Thomas Spence, comparing the writings of Spence with later accounts to demonstrate how Spence’s ‘Plan’ about land enclosure (couched in religiously inspired language about ‘Nature’s Plan’) was used by later thinkers such as E. P. Thompson to situate him as a ‘primal’ and ‘pre-political’ figure (59-60, 66). The section on the relatively neglected Robert Blatchford and his Clarion movement also provides a convincing account of the way that Blatchford utilised a ‘national tradition of popular conviviality’ in order to effect the ‘political transformation of the clubbable individual’ (75). I do not really see any evidence, however, of the apparently ‘defensive’ nature of his nostalgic attachment to the past in his patriotic descriptions of rural England. As Bonnett says, Blatchford was not anti-modern either and nor, I believe, was William Morris. Morris is well-known as a nostalgic radical and this section provides an example of my earlier comment, that his inevitable inclusion supersedes the need to provide original insights. It is not credible to suggest that Morris ‘compartmentalised’ his nostalgia by relegating it to certain life stages, or to his literary (and therefore non-political?) endeavours. News from Nowhere, which is discussed as ‘looking forward’ to his withdrawal from politics, exemplifies his commitment to combining aspects of past and present (72).

The chapter on anti-colonialism and post-colonialism is one of the strongest sections, arguing that anti-colonialism provided a challenge to Western narratives of modernity, that indigenous forms of socialism, for example in India, developed their own nostalgic narratives and that communist colonialism has been written out of the Western socialist narrative of progress. Post-colonial theorists have rejected the essentialist focus on indigenous knowledge and the location of post-colonial studies within the academy often seems to provoke yearning for the activism of another age.

The chapter on ‘the melancholia of cosmopolis’ is also an insightful account of the contradictions of cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan supposedly transcends local attachments, yet left-identified thinkers routinely evoke the cosmopolitan neighbourhood. Bonnett provides two compelling accounts of previous readings of autobiographical and poetic texts which celebrate a warm community of ‘single voices’ and ‘irreducible singularity’. Homi Bhabha’s account of Adrienne Rich’s poem is ‘oddly innocent’, offering an ‘empathetic politics’ of victimhood and resistance (120-21). Bonnett moves on to deconstruct Paul Gilroy’s denunciation of ‘sick nostalgia’ in After Empire, suggesting that his solution, of ‘conviviality’, draws on nostalgic English socialism (125). Bonnett also critiques the focus on the young man as the focus of regeneration, indicating Gilroy’s lack of awareness of the diversity of racial or religious groups. He also indicates the absence of women in his account, although Bonnett can be charged with the same. Despite occasional and cursory references to women and feminism throughout the book, Bonnett does not consider the fact that nostalgia and its manifestations – continuity, stasis, return to nature – have often been associated with women.

The chapter on situationism gives a convincing theorisation of the group’s ‘rooted nostalgia’ for the political and popular memories contained in the buildings and streets of post-war Paris. Their ‘drifts’ through the streets, Bonnett argues, can therefore be characterised as a form of ‘productive nostalgia’ (145-46). The final chapter on psychogeography begins with a section on Iain Sinclair’s walks around the M25. As was the case with William Morris, Sinclair’s inclusion as ‘nostalgic radical’ is perhaps inevitable but in order to maintain the central premise of the book, his musings on industrial landscapes and ‘stuff of the previous era’ are perceived as a source of ‘tension’ (157-58). Yet Sinclair’s self-conscious awareness of these ‘tensions’ in his writing stands in stark contrast to the earlier narratives that Bonnett had to ‘read against the grain’. Sinclair is surely aligned with the ‘newly confident politics of nostalgia’ that Bonnett identifies in the magico-Marxist groups (156), although I would argue that their radical landscape preservation has links with earlier groups such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England who also sought to link conservation with reform and present-day utility.

Some images (of Blatchford’s ‘Merrie England’ or the situationist cities) would have enhanced the discussions, and the book is let down by poor copy-editing. But this is a scholarly and stimulating work, which makes a valuable and much-needed contribution to the scholarship on nostalgia, modernity and left politics.


[1] Sarah Edwards is Lecturer in English Studies at the University of Strathclyde. Her publications include articles in Women’s Writing, Journal of Gender Studies, Life Writing, Journal of Popular Culture and the Review of English Studies. She is completing her first monograph, The Edwardians Since 1910 and is the leader of an ESRC seminar series, Nostalgia in the 21st Century (2010-11), www.strath.ac.uk/nostalgia. She is also co-editing a collection of essays on literature and architecture, Writing the Modern City: Perspectives of Literature, Architecture and Modernity, for Routledge.

Review by Michael Richardson[1]


Nostalgia is an aspect of memory that is inflicted by feelings of yearning, loss and grief. Originally considered a medical illness (Bonnett, 2010 see p. 5), nostalgia – which in extreme cases could lead to death from the pain of ‘longing for home’ – underwent nothing short of a re-birth within academia throughout the ‘noughties’. Professor Bonnett’s new work has added significantly to its growing pains. This brief examination of Bonnett’s ‘take’ on Nostalgia needs to begin by contextualising the reviewer’s own introduction to this very concept. My first knowledge of nostalgia’s usage within academia came about when Professor Bonnett[2] announced a research project he was working on titled ‘Urban Memory, Nostalgia, and Use of the City Amongst Ex-Residents of Tyneside’. More recently, in a ‘Geographies of Social Change’ research cluster event in November 2010 held at Newcastle University, Bonnett presented some of the findings from this work.[3] He detailed not only his use of nostalgia to elicit memories of ‘ex-urbanites’ of Tyneside, but also detailed how the book Left in the Past came to fruition. Citing Svetlana Boym (2001, 355) Bonnett (2010, 1) states:  ‘We are all nostalgic for a time when we were not nostalgic’.

This sentiment was borne out of the ‘pursuit of radicalism’ (Bonnett, 2010, 1) in the post-communist era. In the age of ‘posts’, Bonnett believes nostalgia to be a footnote to post-modernism; that we are uprooted from traditions and we are encouraged to re-appropriate the past by picking and choosing our ‘best bits’. But for Bonnett, as Left in the Past shows, nostalgia is more than play in a post-modern framework – it is intrinsically linked with loss. In this mindset, it would be wrong to see nostalgia only after modernity. Yes, modernity produces nostalgia, tradition and traditionalism; but Bonnett points to much earlier times – the early nineteenth century – as the critical period for nostalgia’s first flowering.

Left in the Past – But where?

This book situates nostalgia within a reading of radical history. But what is this history; and how does it interest and affect those within the remit of social science? Bonnett points to three particular arenas of radical left activity: early English socialism (chapter two); anti-colonialism and post-colonialism (chapter three); and situationism and its aftermath (chapter five). It must however, be conceded that, while the author advocates this threefold focus to a better understanding of nostalgia (an approach reflecting his personal interests), no alternative interpretations are offered. Bonnett argues that late nineteenth century uses of ‘the past’ are filtered through an increasingly anti-nostalgic world view. He cites the work of backward looking socialists[4] to: ‘explore different ways that radical nostalgia became an increasingly self conscious and unorthodox political trajectory’ (Bonnett, 2010, 11).

Bonnett’s chapter two discusses three of the aforementioned socialists in great detail. His focus is shaped by Morris and Blatchford – both ‘nostalgic radicals’ – and their awareness of the self’s sense of loss and attachment to the past. Conversely, Spence was not categorised under this banner, as the work of state socialists interpreted him in the progressive language employed for themselves. Spence’s ‘parochialism’, his narrow minded ‘traditionalism’ was replaced by a discourse of ‘proletarian’ and ‘embryonic’ communism (Bonnett, 2010, 77).  However; recalling that in its introduction, the book claims to structure ‘itself with reading nostalgia against the grain of radical history’ (Bonnett, 2010, 1), an exploration of Morris and Blatchford could be considered contradictory. The author feels that the relationship between modernity and nostalgia revealed by both warrants their inclusion. It is when Bonnett places Blatchford within the wider Clarion Movement[5] that we see ‘the last major effusion of radical nostalgia within British radicalism’ (Bonnett, 2010, 77).  Blatchford claimed to have ‘never read a page of Marx’ (Irving, 2010, online); instead stating that ‘English Socialism is not German: it is English. English Socialism is not Marxian; it is humanitarian. It does not depend upon any theory of ‘economic justice’ but upon humanity and common sense’. This is an interesting notion; and possibly helps explain why Bonnett places such emphasis on the work of early English socialism as nurturing the roots of nostalgia. As Bonnett states baldly, he is ‘interested in any potential overturns and challenges to Marxism’.[6]

The author continues his theoretical and ideological critique of nostalgia in the context of anti and post-colonialism. He frames it as follows: ‘The portrait of post-colonialism that I offer by contrast [to the widely critiqued anti nostalgia], suggests that its concern with essentialism has created a new lexicon of suspicion towards attachments to the past’ (Bonnett, 2010, 12). Bonnett believes that post-colonial theorists are ‘ill equipped’ to marry the concepts of loss and nostalgia. Too often, post-colonialism mirrors the left’s ‘inability’ to deal with political realities (Bonnett, 2010, 108). Post-colonialism does though display strong affiliations with nostalgia. It is the dramatisation of the anti-colonial struggle that provokes nostalgia within post-colonial writing, and what has been coined ‘the profound sense of loss’ (Bonnet, 2010, 88). Almost by definition the author points to anti-colonial resistance as a longing for a freedom of the past, the freedom of the pre-colonial era.

Chapter three links the themes of nostalgia and colonialism, articulated within/by the anti-colonial struggle. Firstly, Bonnett identifies the symbolism and imagery of the pre-colonial ‘Golden Age’ (Bonnett, 2010, 89); secondly, there is an appropriation of socialism as an ‘indigenous tradition’ (ibid); and finally, there is the notion that politics goes ‘back to the people’ (ibid). The book does not merely cite examples from the ‘Global South’, but also from post-colonial Ireland (pertinent to the reviewer’s own research interests).[7] In all three of these components, there is an association linking ‘the past’ with ‘authenticity’. Bonnett (2010, 89) uses the words of George Sigerson[8] in summary of these ideas: ‘A tone of sincerity in the ancient narratives which cannot exist in imported thought’. The author astutely and fairly reminds us however, of the romanticism often intertwined with nationalist discourse, and employs the work of Smith (1999) to restore balance. Smith talks of the ‘myths’ that are evident in not only the ‘Golden Age’ but also across numerous anti-colonial movements.

Don’t look back in anger – Nostalgia as progression

Chapter five sees the concept of nostalgia being moved away from the backward looking notions espoused by many early English socialists and anti/post-colonialists, to re-settle in a discussion of situationism and what was to follow. In looking at this ‘small band of post war avant-garde Marxists’ (Bonnett, 2010, 12), he notes the challenges they faced in balancing their attachment to the past with their radical ‘new society’ ideologies. Bonnett argues that nostalgia was both ‘productive and disruptive’ (ibid) in influencing situationist political thought, and expands on this through an examination of two major themes – the spectacle, and the critique of urbanism. As a social geographer, and with obvious interest in the latter, the author has my full attention:  ‘The Situationist International’s[9] concern for the demise of the city in the wake of modernising bulldozers suggests a different tendency of nostalgic form and object, a tendency that evokes specific places and specific experiences and memories’ (Bonnett, 2010, 12).

It is at the roots of this organisation where this book points to a specific geography. The situationists’ obsession with the built environment was borne out of their passion for post-war Paris and their opposition to plans to demolish it under the name of modernisation. These road building programmes (amongst other urbanisation proposals) have overlaps with Bonnett’s work among ex-residents of Tyneside; the tension between memories of working class life and its productive and disruptive relationship with modernity. These contentions are wonderfully articulated in the book’s following chapter (six) titled ‘The Psychogeography of Loss’.

In reciting the stories of Iain Sinclair[10] walking around London’s M25, Bonnett (2010, 155) describes it as: ‘a journey in and against the contemporary landscape’. Could we therefore class this as pseudo-situationism? The author definitely points to the work as central to the ‘psychogeographic turn’. It can certainly be considered an original response to the ‘crisis of the left’. Bonnett (2010, 155) explains that pyschogeography ‘explores and re-imagines the forgotten nooks and crannies of ordinary landscapes’, fitting neatly then with the original situationists whose nostalgia longed for the old bohemian Paris in the face of the homogenous modernism.


Left in the Past adopts a usefully novel and unique approach to the better understanding of nostalgia. By tracing its roots back to early English socialism, through anti and post-colonialism, onto and beyond situationism, a well rounded discussion of the Politics of Nostalgia has been engendered. With research interests in memory, loss and belonging in this ever mobile global society, this reviewer has been provided with much to ponder. Professor Bonnett’s erudition of ‘the psychogeography of loss’ was a natural climax to my learning: ‘The double mapping of modernity and nostalgia is then used to imagine a community of creative and other cultural workers who have found a way of being ‘at home’ and finding friendship in and against an alienated landscape’ (Bonnett, 2010, 13).

Not all elements of this book (specifically chapter four and Paul Gilroy’s anti nostalgia (Gilroy, 2004) have found their place in this short review. I hope however that readers across the social sciences who share an interest in the concept of nostalgia have been encouraged to pursue their studies further. Bonnett’s book is admittedly challenging; not least, because of its (usually necessary) dense language and terminology. Readers of history and politics (among others) may well be better suited than myself to read it. But like Bonnett, I too am interested in people being ‘at home’ in an ‘alienated landscape’; my academic interests have been stimulated and my learning enhanced through the reading of this book. I highly recommend Left in the Past to anyone interested in exploring the history of radicalism and/or the politics of nostalgia.


Bonnett, A. (2010) Left in the Past: Radicalism and the Politics of Nostalgia. London:


Boym, S. (2001) The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Blatchford, R. (1908) Merrie England. London: Clarion Press:

Irving, S. (2010) ‘The Clarion Movement’. Manchester Radical History Collective,


[Accessed 30/11/10]

Gilroy, P. (2004) After Empire: Melancholia or Convivial Culture? London:


Morris, W. (1894) The Wood Beyond the World. Kelmscott Press: London

Sinclair, I. (2003) London Orbital. Penguin: London

Situationist International. (1958) ‘Les souvenirs au-dessous de tout’. Internationale

Situationiste, 2: 3-4

Smith, A. (1999) Myths and Memories of the Nation. Oxford: Oxford University


Spence, T. (1982) Pig’s Meat: Selected Writings of Thomas Spence. Nottingham:



[1] Michael Richardson is a PhD student in Social Geography at Newcastle University, UK

[2] Degree Programme Director of the MA in Human Geography Research at Newcastle University, UK

[3] See www.tynesidememories.co.uk for project dissemination

[4] Namely Thomas Spence (1982), William Morris (1894) and Robert Blatchford (1908)

[6] A remark made at the Geographies of Social Change research cluster event

[7] My PhD studies are currently titled “Irish Masculinities: intergenerationality on Tyneside” touching upon at times the post-colonial ethnicity of the Irish Diaspora

[8] George Sigerson, Irish nationalist and historian cited by Richards (1991, 120)

[9] See Situationist International (1958) “Les souvenirs au-dessous de tout” translated according to Bonnett, 2010, 150 as “nostalgia beneath contempt”

[10] The British Novelist, Film maker and Poet, Iain Sinclair – see Sinclair (2003)

Author’s Reply by Alastair Bonnett[1]

Left in the Past emerged from a long-standing interest in the dilemmas of the left.[2] This interest was, in part, sparked by the fact that, even though it seems to have won the moral high ground, the left has, for the past forty years, been a political failure (at least as a set of political parties and movements). I don’t think we can understand why capitalism has won the day without looking at this failure and, hence, finding new and critical ways of narrating left history. This is a controversial undertaking and I expected Left in the Past to have a bumpier ride than it has so far been given. It seems that a lot of people have been thinking in similar ways (and my two reviewers are both pretty positive about the book). At the heart of these concerns is the question of plausibility. The left is not plausible today and we need to work out why. I think Sarah Edwards hits on something very important in her review when she suggests that the book could have usefully explored the wider context of the idea of radicalism. For it is true that ‘business-oriented’ and religious radicalism have stolen a march on left radicalism. They are plausibly radical. The left, including liberal-left progressivism, constantly claims to be provocative and to own the future. But its ideas are more comforting than shocking. Moreover, it seems ill-equipped to deal with the present, never mind taking on the years ahead. Radical ideas that come from other directions are producing a strange and interconnected mixture of commercialism and post-secularism. Although they appal me, I recognise them as far more radical, far more socially destabilising and disorientating, than anything being spoken of by the left.

I tried to defend my interest in radicalism as a left tradition in Left in the Past, by suggesting that the affiliation of the left and radicalism remains widely understood. Yet I suspect, and admit, that the dissemination of radicalism may one day exceed this argument. For me this only highlights the necessity of analysing the left, of opening it up to new questions.

Jon Cruddas MP has picked up on Left in the Past and talks enthusiastically about it in a recent critical assessment of the way New Labour abandoned its traditions for neo-liberalism.[3] Cruddas sees the book as helping to open up intellectual territory for the return of the past to socialism (and perhaps for the return of Labour too). I hope he is right. It is certainly true that in chapter two I offer a sympathetic reading of figures like Robert Blatchford, for whom socialism was a set of popular traditions. Yet readers of the book cannot miss that I am interested in the paradoxes of denying attachment rather than in offering a manifesto. I approach Blatchford as someone wrestling with these issues at a time when ‘the modern left’ was busy closing down nostalgia (and patriotism) as irredeemably suspect. These turn of the century critical traditionalists are fascinating because we see in them how popular memory and attachment – so long taken for granted in 19th century radicalism – were transmuted into ‘tradition’ and ‘heritage’, to be identified and defended. As this implies, I stand by the idea that Blatchford, and Morris, were politically defensive (contra Edwards). Indeed, the evidence for this is pretty solid. It would be odd, in an era that saw the rise of modern, technocratic socialism and Marxism, if they were not.

If there is a place in these two reviews where I myself feel defensive it is in the passage in Richardson’s, when he segues from nationalist quotes by Blatchford to what appears to be an anti-Marxist remark I made at a seminar. This seems to take me deep into ‘Blue Labour’ territory. Richardson’s review is very positive and I do not think that he is intending a critique by running the latter attributed quote from me after Blatchford’s tub-thumping. However, I will take it is an opportunity to distinguish between the book’s opening up of nostalgia, as a chronic facet of political life, and the idea that nostalgic radicals were right and the modernists were wrong. As I hope I make clear, I do not argue that nostalgia is a good thing but that it is inevitable, and that it needs to be acknowledged. It follows that those left political projects that do acknowledge it – even if that makes them paradoxical and odd – attract my sympathetic attention. I judge them to be more honest, more human and more politically interesting, than anti-nostalgic left politics. It is their attitude I value, not their political programme. This is the context for my interest in Blatchford, who is certainly an overlooked and extraordinary phenomenon. But I reject the impression, that readers might receive from Richardson’s alignment of Blatchford and me, that I am motivated by an omnivorous hostility to Marxism or that I think Blatchford’s ‘Little England’ socialism makes sense (indeed, as the quote from Richardson shows, it is a bit barmy). The remark from a seminar which Richardson quotes (in which I apparently claimed to be ‘interested in any potential overturns and challenges to Marxism’) does not do me any favours (it is a crass thing to say) and is not one I remember. But I don’t intend to be precious about it. I do want to insist, however, that this remark be set in its proper context: that is, my critique of the inability of Marx and many Marxists to acknowledge the place of the past and nostalgia in socialist thought. This failure has compromised Marxism, both intellectually and politically. However, as I think the book makes clear, Marx was one of the most far-sighted social theorists of his day. He analysed the revolutionary power of capitalism in a way that is still powerful. What he didn’t recognise were the paradoxes of communism. This is the nub of the matter. ‘The left’ has not developed a critical social history of itself. Perhaps it is absurd to expect a political project to be properly critically reflexive. The ‘project’ comes first. Critique is a tool in the service of the project. In Left in the Past ‘the project’ and ‘the left’ are called into question.

A natural response is, where does this get us? If the ‘us’ is the orthodox left, then the answer is not very far. But if the ‘us’ is people looking for a more honest and contemporary form of co-operative and democratic politics, then I’d hope that Left in the Past does perform a useful task. Either way, the book is both of the left and against it. It is not a happy combination for those looking for pat political answers. But it is I think a necessary one.

I’d like to thank both reviewers for their thoughtful and constructive contributions. Richardson largely offers a summary of the book’s parts, so I have less to say about his review. He usefully raises the links between the book and my subsequent attempts to look at nostalgia for the city amongst ex-residents. I admit that so far I have not been able to connect the two empirically, in part because the ‘ordinary’ people we have spoken to just aren’t very interested in ‘the left’. It is an academic issue these days (in every sense).

There are though a few specific issues raised in Edwards’s review that I shall now turn to. I would defend myself against Edwards’s important point about the difference between memory and nostalgia. She argues that today memory is not treated as a reliable form by scholars and, therefore, trying to challenge the exclusion of nostalgia from memory is to pitch-fork a straw man. I admit that the book doesn’t spend much time on the large volume of work produced recently on memory. Moreover, the terms nostalgia and memory are sometimes used interchangeably, which supports Edwards’s point that by reaction is overly defensive. However, I think the central idea, that memory is routinely valorised and nostalgia is not, remains valid. Indeed, even the key texts in ‘nostalgia studies’ – such as Boym and Hutcheon – display considerable anxiety over the term. This is why they go to such lengths to separate out ‘good nostalgia’ (reflexive, postmodern etc) from ‘bad nostalgia’ (simple, unreflexive etc). If even the key texts have their doubts, then Memory Studies will have to work hard to demolish the hierarchy which I challenge. In any case, my argument was not that memory and nostalgia should be collapsed but that ‘fond memory’ contains a nostalgic component.

A minor correction: I did not, I think, claim that Marx ‘constructed his political rhetoric around an opposition between a barbaric past and a utopian future’ (as Edwards says). My argument is that Marx – young and old –  set his face against the past yet, at the same time, used the past as a repository of values and hopes (e.g.; in primitive communism). It is this to-ing and fro-ing that interests me in the book.

Finally, Edwards points out my ‘cursory’ treatment of ‘women and feminism’. This is true. I try to make it clear how often nostalgia has been dismissed by being associated with women, home and hearth (and how the future has been associated with flinty-eyed and adventurous young men). The topic is big enough as to warrant its own book. However, a real regret of mine is that I did not pick up on it in the later chapters, where I write about the avant-garde. The split between Debord’s macho revolutionary postures and the more cultural situationism developed within less sexist situationist grouplets is a great topic and, for me, a missed opportunity. Although it sounds rather obscure, the history of this split would have helped me unpack the avant-garde’s curious and deeply gendered relationship to nostalgia.


[1] Professor of Social Geography, Newcastle University.

[2] Starting with Bonnett, A. 1993 Radicalism, Anti-racism and Representaton (London, Routledge)

[3] Cruddas, J. 2011 ‘Full transcript | Jon Cruddas | LJMU Roscoe Lecture | Liverpool | 3 March 2011’, available at: http://www.newstatesman.com/2011/03/labour-book-noonan-tradition; see also Bunting, M. 2011 ‘New Labour insisted that the past be left behind. What a mistake that was’ The Guardian, 3rd April, available at: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/03/new-labour-local-elections-nostlagia