Issue 168 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review

Edward Thompson

The making of a working class historian

Edward Thompson, who died recently, was the finest socialist historian of his generation. Duncan Hallas describes what framed his political thought, and the crisis of 1956, while Alex Callinicos looks at his later writings

An awkward man: EP Thompson addresses a CND meeting
An awkward man: EP Thompson addresses a CND meeting

He was an awkward man. He once wrote, 'For one must, to survive an unassimilated socialist in this infinitely assimilative culture, put oneself into a school of awkwardness. One must make one's sensibility all knobbly--all knees and elbows of susceptibility and refusal.'

It was one of his great strengths, but it was also the source of his greatest weakness. Fortunately he was not consistent. His greatest work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), is informed by, indeed saturated with, the notions of solidarity, of collectivity, of sacrificing one's own ego to the needs of a great cause, even when comrades in the struggle have manifest faults and failings.

His family background was religious, both his parents had been non-conformist missionaries in India, but it was also firmly anti-imperialist. Given this background, and the circumstances of the time, it is not surprising that E P Thompson joined the Communist Party in 1942. He was 18. The Second World War was at its height, radicalisation was growing in Britain and in the British armies overseas. Within a year he was a soldier in Italy.

The line of the CP at this time was extreme popular frontism. The 'anti-fascist struggle', led by Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, was the be all and end all. Yet there was a left wing undercurrent to this. The European resistance movements, the partisans, the underground, the Red Army--these were the aspects that appealed to millions.

Certainly to Thompson. His elder brother was to be executed after being taken prisoner in Bulgaria where he was serving with a partisan unit. In north Italy mass strikes rocked Mussolini's fascist state to its foundations and there was a growing partisan movement there too. Members of the various Communist Parties played a prominent role in all this.

So Thompson came back to Britain, in late 1946, an enthusiastic Stalinist. He would probably not have accepted the description. Indeed, in a sense it is misleading. For although there was ample evidence of the real nature of Stalin's dictatorship, of the carve up of Europe agreed between the three 'anti-fascist' chiefs, of their common determination to prevent the sort of liberation that Thompson and millions like him passionately believed in, this was not the evidence they saw.

So, with the onset of the Cold War in 1947, E P Thompson stayed loyal to the CP, his convictions no doubt strengthened by the marked shift to the right in the British labour movement and the growing intellectual reaction against all left wing ideas. He had been lucky to get a job as an extra-mural lecturer with Leeds University soon after the war. A year or two later this would have been impossible.

Yet any honest assessment must conclude that until 1956 Thompson was an uncritical apologist for Stalinism.

The year 1956 was a break for Thompson. Khrushchev's secret speech denouncing (some of) the crimes of the dead Stalin, and the Hungarian Revolution, marked a decisive turning point in Thompson's life.

What came out of the events is best described in Thompson's own words:

This is the bones of an account. The flesh was the massive defection from the Communist Party. For the Stalinist CP of 1956 was not like its enfeebled successor, still less like the pitiful remnant which now calls itself 'Democratic Left'. To be a CP member at that time was to be outside 'respectable' politics altogether, to be part of a persecuted but fighting minority inside the labour movement, to be an anti-imperialist at the time of British imperialism's last attempt to reconquer Egypt (the Suez expedition coincided with the Russian repression in Hungary), to be, in short, a militant, however much militancy was distorted (as it was) in the interests of Russian imperialism.

Thousands of dissidents from that background might seem to promise the revival of a genuinely revolutionary tendency and tradition. What actually happened was the rapid emergence of what called itself 'the New Left'. E P Thompson was one of the most prominent and certainly the most eloquent of its leading figures.

It was a very disparate and variegated movement that briefly sought to pull together dissidents from the CP, Labour lefts and 'youth'. Thompson's own perspective for it was expounded in the New Reasoner (Summer 1959):

In plain words, the New Left will not make any organised intervention in the struggle between left and right in the working class movement and therefore not in the class struggle day to day, because that inevitably involves a struggle with 'the bureaucracies' too. It was an utterly utopian project.

A year or so later in 1961, the late Peter Sedgewick, a member of our organisation wrote the obituary of the New Left in International Socialism (founded in 1960, the same year as New Left Review): 'From the spring of 1957 until around the summer of 1961, a British political movement which became known as the "New Left" flourished hectically before entering a fatal decline... Not the faintest murmur of this movement now remains.'

That ended E P Thompson's active engagement in organisational terms. He wrote, years later, of the original New Left team:

A vast amount of ink has been spent by both Anderson and Thompson on this dispute. Nearly all of it misses the point, which is how to relate to and participate in the actual workers' movement and the actual class struggle that goes on from day to day. Their disputes, therefore, were largely irrelevant to revolutionary socialists. Largely, but not entirely. For Thompson was moved to make some important theoretical contributions.

Anderson, Nairn and others had argued that Britain was peculiarly backward, that its bourgeois revolution (in the 17th century) was premature and incomplete, that the aristocracy still held considerable power (never having been overthrown) and that, in England, 'a supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat.'

Thompson had no difficulty at all in demolishing this writing off the working class, the English bourgeois revolution, the intellectual achievements of English bourgeois society (dismissed by Anderson as 'this blanketing English fog') which include Newton, Darwin and many other pioneers.

Thompson's victory was, intellectually, decisive.

What is Thompson's lasting contribution? It is, undoubtedly, The Making of the English Working Class.

It is not really a comprehensive and consecutive history of the period it seeks to cover (up to 1830 more or less) but rather a series of brilliant essays. Yet, to paraphrase Thompson, worth any ten volumes of bourgeois academic or Andersonian New Left writing.

There are of course some controversial matters which are not resolved in the book. 'And class happens when some men, as a result of common experience (inherited or shared) feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.' This of course is Marx's 'class for itself as opposed to the 'class in itself. But what about the reality of the 'class in itself'? Other criticisms could be made.

No matter. This is Thompson's lasting monument.

An active process

Edward Thompson was probably the greatest of the extraordinary group of Marxist historians who emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain after the Second World War. Like many of them, he left the party as a result of the crisis of 1956 which, it is clear from Thompson's later writings, formed henceforth the main political reference point of his life. He sought to make the break with Stalinism he had then made into the basis of a rethinking of Marxist theory.

This projected reconstruction of Marxism did not take the form chiefly of philosophical treatises, but rather informs his historical writings. The fact that traces of the Stalinist past can still be detected in Thompson's thought and in his approach to politics should not take away from the scale of his achievement.

Thompson sought on various occasions formally to defend his version of Marxism, most notably in The Poverty of Theory, his great polemic against Louis Althusser's attempt to give an 'anti-humanist' reading of Marx. Marxism is not, Thompson insisted, about the unfolding of objective economic laws, the impersonal development of the productive forces. Rather at the heart of Marxism is 'human agency... men and women as subjects of their own history'.

Nowhere was this view of Marxism more movingly stated than in the famous Preface to The Making of the English Working Class: 'I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.'

This statement is sometimes misinterpreted as mere sentimentality or antiquarianism. Rather it reflected Thompson's political and theoretical insistence that the English working class was not merely the passsive product of impersonal economic mechanisms but took shape in 'an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning. The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.'

People over-impressed by various Parisian philosophers would from time to time tax Thompson with empiricism, with a slavish obsession with facts. (I'm afraid that, in my thoughtless youth, I was counted among their number.) He was, however, no mindless fact grubber. He had the gift of the really great historian of being able to elicit from obscure concrete details complex and wide ranging interpretations of entire societies. Nowhere was this put to better use than in Whigs and Hunters, where Thompson built up, from a study of the Black Act, a particularly vicious piece of 18th century penal legislation, a stunning portrait of Hanoverian England and its internal strains. He pursued this study in his recent Customs in Common whose long introductory essay is as sparkling and exciting a piece of historical interpretation as anything Thompson ever wrote.

The quality of Thompson's work as a historian is beyond dispute. But did he succeed in rethinking Marxism? A number of left wing academics have argued that to a large extent he did. They are, however, mistaken. Most obviously, as numerous critics have pointed out, in seeking to correct the dire intellectual effects of Stalinism, Thompson ended up so stressing (theoretically at any rate, his historial writings are generally more careful) the role of subjectivity-of consciousness, culture and agency-that the objective context of human action virtually disappeared. He went as far as to try to drum out of historical materialism Marx's great economic works, the Grundrisse and even to some extent Capital, because they were concerned, of necessity, with analysing the objective structures of capitalist exploitation and accumulation.

As so often happens, what Thompson kicked out of the front door climbed back through the window. In the early 1980s he suspended his historical studies in order to become active in the peace movement, which had been revived by a new hotting up of the Cold War. This action was greatly to his credit. Nevertheless it was theoretically justified--for example, in Notes on Exterminism--by the claim that the arms race between the superpowers had developed into a distinct social system, operating according to its own logic largely independently of the class structure of American and Russian societies. It followed that 'exterminism' (as Thompson named this new system) could not be combated, as Lenin and Trotsky had argued imperialist wars should be fought, through class struggle, but through building broad alliances which transcended class.

The historian of human agency built up a picture of exterminism as so powerful and autonomous an objective structure (one is almost tempted to apply to it Althusser's formula of 'a process without a subject') that only the rallying together of (more or less) the whole of humanity could defeat it. By setting the peace movement's sights so high Thompson may have caused as many people to despair as he inspired to act. Certainly, when the Cold War did come to an end it was caused by a straightforward social and political collapse in the Stalinist bloc.

It is striking, however, how far Thompson's call for 'an alliance that takes in churches, Eurocommunists, Labourists, East European dissidents (and not only dissidents), Soviet citizens unmediated by Party structures, trade unionists, ecologists resembles the kind of popular fronts pursued by the Communist Parties during the 1930s and 1940s, usually to disastrous effect.

Thompson joined the CP during the Second World War at the height of left wing enthusiasm for nationalist resistance to Hitler, and, for better or for worse, never completely overcame its influence. Even his writings on the 18th century tend to uncover coalitions of dissident gentry and disaffected artisans and peasants struggling against the Whig ascendancy that was grinding down the old 'moral economy' by promoting the spread of capitalist social relationships. Thompson's analyses of these struggles are extraordinarily subtle and illuminating, but one does sometimes wonder if he half consciously projects them forward as the ancestors of the 20th century popular fronts.

The CP shaped Thompson for better as well as for worse. In a television interview a few weeks before his death, he described how still, after almost 50 years, he missed being in a party which united workers and middle class intellectuals in discussion and activity. For all his faults, Thompson was a socialist fighter and remained so till the end. Customs in Common contains some splendid pages of polemic against Michael Ignatieff and other intellectual apologists for the market. Edward Thompson is dead, but we still have his wonderful books to read and learn from.


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