Issue 169 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1993 Copyright © Socialist Review
In his obituary of Edward Thompson, Duncan Hallas writes, 'Any honest assessment must conclude that until 1956 Thompson was an uncritical apologist for Stalinism'.
Frankly, this is untrue. In the early 1950s, when I edited Socialist Review, I had a number of long discussions with him. Unlike other members of the Communist Party, he was not arrogant or aggressive. He respected points of view with which he disagreed. What is more, he already had doubts about the latest Stalinist encyclicals on subjects like Lysenko and linguistics.
A number of things went to make Edward Thompson a rebel. First, there was the influence of his father, one of the leaders of the struggle for Indian independence. In the course of that campaign, he had learnt to work with comrades whose political principles differed from his own. Toleration and mutual understanding were necessary ingredients of success.
Second, as his knowledge of the British working class grew greater and greater, he found it an increasing problem to reconcile the wisdom he had acquired with the inanities of Stalinism. The thought control the Communist Party sought to impose was deeply repugnant, a violation of his very being.
I would like to thank you for the article on E P Thompson in Socialist Review.
Having left an English public school equipped with the mental architecture of an English Whig, I discovered EPT via the following rather unconventional route:
Swallows and Amazons
The Autobiography of Arthur Ransome
William Morris biography by E P Thompson
The Making of the English Working Class
I was liberated by Thompson and owe him so much that I am undoubtedly rather uncritical. Your more balanced article was fascinating and invaluable.
Isle of Man
Alex Callinicos and Duncan Hallas hit the right balance in their appreciations of the work of Edward Thompson. There is much to praise in his historical work but less so in his politics.
I am surprised however that more attention is not paid to the specific politics of Thompson's historical work which is likely to be his enduring legacy.
Thompson's Peculiarities of the English is a resounding riposte to the still peddled nonsense that the British working class never really existed and a celebration of the epic struggles of that class. But it ducks the question of how the struggles it so eloquently describes are to be organised in the future.
Equally, the legacy of Stalin affected Thompson's history in other areas too. In the current History Workshop Journal for example there is a sharp exchange between Thompson and Raphael Samuel which centres on whether or not Thompson has ignored the issue of women's history.
Thompson would no doubt have been displeased by the sugary obituaries which appeared to him, even extending to the Daily Telegraph. It is the job of socialists to celebrate and learn from his work but also to build on the legacy of historical work that he has left.
Tom Delargy (October SR) says that 'rather than denying outright the possibility of a genetic component to sexual orientation, it would be better for socialists to assert the irrelevance of such evidence.'
The problem with this is that if you accept that our sexualities are, or may be, a product of our genetic make up, you make concessions to some very reactionary ideas underpinning the 'gay gene' research. As Tom points out, the research is used by bigots to promote the notion of a fixed, natural (hetero) sexuality and an abnormal (homo) sexuality.
The genetic argument makes no sense if we recognise that the ways in which we define our sexuality are conditioned by capitalist society, and that in a socialist society definitions of sexuality would be entirely different.
Of course many people would still choose to live in exclusively straight or gay relationships. But sexualities wouldn't be defined solely on the basis of particular relationships people are in, but by how people choose to live their lives under socialism.
The idea that gay sexuality is a behaviour that can be isolated to a specific section of the population is completely erroneous.
Jay Woolrich is quite wrong to read my obituary of Pierre Naville as an attack on André Breton. Breton's record, as a poet and theoretician of revolutionary art, is an admirable one. But admiration for Breton should not lead us to ignore the problems posed by his political evolution.
It was not Breton who led the surrealists towards Communism; it was Naville who pointed the way. And Breton was much slower than Naville to recognise the rise of Stalinism. Breton was never a member of any Trotskyist organisation. The real issue was not the independence of surrealism, but the fact that Breton tried to make the surrealist group into a political organisation in its own right.
There is no simple formula, in Trotsky's works or elsewhere, for the relation of artists to revolutionary politics. Artists who involve themselves in revolutionary politics will necessarily be torn by a contradiction between competing obligations--a contradiction that cannot be resolved this side of the revolution. Such figures as Sartre, Serge, Brecht and Gorky show different--but partial--responses to the contradiction. Once that is understood we can learn from both Naville and Breton.
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