Friday, 1 November 2013
The Crisis of Theory: E. P. Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics- Scott Hamilton ISBN: 9780719084355 Pages: 288pp.Publisher: Manchester University Press
“ 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. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking”.
From The Making of the English Working Class
(Note; This review of the above book is a second draft .Having deciding to stop other work and review this book I realized that I fell into the proverbial historians pratfall in that I clearly bit off more than I could chew. The third draft will go into details of the theoretical dispute between Thompson and Anderson and his dispute with Althuser. Hopefully this will produce a fuller appreciation of E P Thompson).
It is clear that even a basic internet search for the name E. P. Thompson brings forth a wealth of material by and about the historian. It is without doubt that he played an extremely important part in the intellectual, social and political life of hundreds thousands of people over the last half century. He was an extremely capable historian and his work has provided us with a valuable insight into the problems of mankind’s historical development.
A cursory read of Hamilton’s book reveals that Thompson was not only a historian of note but was a political animal. Unlike many of his co-thinkers in the Communist Party Historians Group Thompson wrote major polemical essays concerning political events during the 20th century.
The book is not a full biography. It concentrates heavily on Thompson’s political career to the detriment of his historical writings. The books title The Crisis of Theory stems from Hamilton’s belief that Thompson’s break with Stalinism in 1956 was a ‘crisis of theory’ one writer believed that this was because “it effectively led Thompson away from the working class and from Marxism”.
While I believe the break from Stalinism did provoke some form of political crisis it did not lead Thompson away from the working class and Marxism. The fact of the matter is that he was never close politically to the working class and was never close to an orthodox Marxist position or group. We shall see later in the review that he was diametrically opposed to orthodox Marxism.
Scott Hamilton’s book is largely an extension of his PhD dissertation covering Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory. Hamilton spent a significant amount of time studying the writings and letters from the archive of Hull University. Hamilton offers an extremely friendly account of Thompson’s polemical battles
The book has appeared at the same time as veritable cottage industry of material relating to the life and work of E P Thompson. It is after all fifty years since Thompson published his seminal work The Making of the English working Class. Harvard University will be holding a conference on the book . Birkbeck University held a highly successful conference entitled The future of ‘history from below’: an online symposium, papers from the conference can be found at the many-headed monster blog . A new collection of essays called E. P. Thompson and English Radicalism by Roger Fieldhouse (Editor), Richard Taylor (Editor) will be published by Manchester University Press (1 Dec 2013) in celebration of the anniversary of Thompson’s book the The Making of the English working Class.
Hamilton’s book The Crisis of Theory is a valuable addition to our attempt to understand Thompson’s place in history. Hamilton has taken great care to try and locate Thompson’s life and work in the context of broader political, social and events. Even though this is not an orthodox biography he still had the foresight to do this. Also to his credit he has not created a hagiography. However this is not to say that the book does not have a number of political shortcomings and not a few mistakes for instance Thompson went to Cambridge not Oxford as Hamilton said and perhaps worse a number of historians are misnamed and their books assigned to the wrong authors.
Like all good semi-biographical books Hamilton’s takes us through Thompson’s life chronologically. He and his brother Frank were drawn at an early age to the British Communist Party. Hamilton’s evaluation of this period is very useful.
He makes clear that the two brothers joined an extremely nationalistic party. Thompson joined at a time when the British Communist Party had broken from orthodox Marxism and had adopted Stalinism as its political orientation. One thing perturbs me about Hamilton’s evaluation of the Thompson’s early politics is his tendency to romanticize the Thompson brothers national outlook and in the case of Frank a case of outright racism. During the Second World War Frank Thompson lamented that “it’s humiliating, just sitting round while Yanks, the Chinks and the Russkies teach us how to fight”.
E P Thompson did not join a Marxist party. In fact it was clear that Thompson came back from the war a convinced Stalinist. He made no statement condemning the Moscow Trials and subsequent executions of leading Bolsheviks at the hands of Stalin and his supports in the Soviet Union. In fact no statement was made in defence of the Russian working class who had its entire revolutionary leadership destroyed by Stalin.
At his time of joining the British CP had clearly broken from any traces of Marxism. It is perhaps a major weakness of the book that it does not discuss this period. Especially the conflict In the Soviet Party between Stalin and Trotsky.
Thompson at an early age rejected the orthodox Marxism represented by Leon Trotsky despite later breaking with Stalinism it is clear that Thompsons ’subsequent historical and political writings to a lesser extent were still imbued with Stalinist influences. This was a very bad training school and Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learnt there.
Thompson’s adoption of the theory of the Popular front would mould his thinking up until he died. The most finished example of this was his 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. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties”.
The book is a significant piece of history and deserves its high place in the historiography of English history. However the book has a too heavy emphasis on the subjective nature of class consciousness and not enough of the objective.
Furthermore Thompson in one preface to his book tends to right off completely the revolutionary capacity of the English working class when he says “Causes which were lost in England might in Asia or Africa, yet might be won.”
It may be true that Thompson sought in his political writings to distance himself from his Stalinist past but in his historical writings this not the case. This separation was almost like a Jekyll and Hyde relationship.
Thompson’s use of the concept of “history from below” owes a lot to the Popular Front policy used by the Stalinists in the 1930s. He was not alone in using the concept nearly all the Communist Party historians including Hill, Rude and Morton were influenced by it.
For Ann Talbot “the Communist Party sponsored a form of “People’s History, which is typified by A.L. Morton’s People’s History of England in which the class character of earlier rebels, revolutionaries and popular leaders was obscured by regarding them all as representatives of a national revolutionary tradition. This historical approach reflected the nationalism of the bureaucracy, their hostility to internationalism and their attempts to form an unprincipled alliance with the supposedly democratic capitalists against the fascist Axis countries. People’s history was an attempt to give some historical foundation to the policies of Popular Front—the subordination of the working class to supposedly progressive sections of the bourgeoisie and the limiting of political action to the defense of bourgeois democracy—which provided a democratic facade to the systematic murder of thousands of genuine revolutionaries, including Trotsky. It was the approach that Christopher Hill was trained in, along with E.P. Thompson, Rodney Hilton and Eric Hobsbawm, who were part of the Marxist Historians Group and came under the influence of Maurice Dobb and Dona Torre”
So for Thompson and others there was never a contradiction between the avocation of Popular Front politics and the historian’s group writing about democratic groups such as the Levellers in the vein of history from below. As Talbot says above the CPHG group tended glorify an unbroken historical line of English radicalism. This outlook permeated E P Thompson’s the Making of the English Working Class which portrays the English working class as inherently radical and therefore not needing a Marxist scientific perspective. A leading member of the Group, Dona Torr, decided to position Tom Mann in her study Tom Mann and his Times, as a figure that “was a late representative in a story of England’s long running struggle “.
This downplaying and in some cases the outright hostility to a scientific Marxist study of these radical groups is expressed in a number of pseudo left groups to day. The largest group being the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). When the SWP review any book by the members of the CPHG there is a tendency to glorify the attachment these historians had to ‘Marxism’.
One writes “Edward Thompson’s masterful The Making of the English Working Class (1963), has had an undoubtedly positive effect on historiography, the pressures of academic specialization have also led to the production of an awful lot of dross. Saville has stood out against this tendency, and for that he is to be congratulated. Indeed, his background in both the Historians? Group and the New Left seems to have left him incapable of following the traditional historians? Path of finding an archive and mining it for information irrespective of any meaning that might be attached to the published results. So, where contemporary historiography is torn by a debate between postmodernists and empiricists, Saville practices the kind of Marxist historiography that overcomes the opposition between theory and facts. Against the postmodernists, his work is steeped in a serious examination of primary evidence; against traditional empiricist history, his Marxism provides him with a vantage point from which he can justify his research method”.
This methodology was confirmed by E P Thompson who described the CPHG approach as “quaintly empirical”. I am not condemning the all the work of the historians by raising this point that would be facile as they produced some of the most outstanding historiography of any generation but it does show the handicap they were working under.
Thompson’s methodology would lead him to periods of great elation and periods of abject pessimism. Hamilton to his credit gives numerous examples of this, in his words Thompson had ‘an uneasy mixture of catastrophism and hyper-optimism’ (p. 159)
Hamilton does not go into any detail regarding Thompson’s role inside the CPHG. Despite having a close working relationship with C Hill. Hamilton seems to believe that Thompson was not close to the group. It is strange that Hamilton makes little of this relationship. Hill appears only once in Hamilton’s index.
One writer queries this “there are certain problems with Hamilton’s analytical scheme. One may ask, for instance, why the definitive moment of Thompson’s life (1936–46) is not extended to 1956. His relationship with Communist writers and historians of the period from 1946 to 1956 played a crucial role in Thompson’s Popular Frontism. Hamilton actually omits from his account the most influential group in Thompson’s life, the Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Dona Torr, the guru of the Historian’s Group and Thompson’s mentor, is never mentioned. Yet, it is highly unlikely that Thompson’s William Morris and The Making of the English Working Class would have been written without her influence”. He and Hill quit the Communist Party in 1956, and Thompson’s view of the 17th Century revolution shares some similarities with Hill’s however Thompson’s view diverged from Hill’s over the timing of the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
Thompson’s view that there was an “epochal” bourgeois revolution in England in the 17th century came under heavy criticism from his onetime colleague Perry Anderson. The reply to Anderson’s criticism of Thompson evaluation of English history took the form of a book length polemic called the The Peculiarities of the English .
Anderson wrote “The notion of an ‘epochal’ bourgeois revolution in Britain, stretching from the 12th to the 19th century, is a Ptolemaic hypothesis. It implies that capitalism can only be introduced by a classical bourgeoisie—a view parallel to the belief that socialism can only be introduced by an industrial proletariat. Both are incorrect. History has what Ernst Bloch calls a certain ‘aperity’, which allows several possible agents for a single process.  This interpretation restores the civil war to its pivotal role in modern history, without characterizing it crudely as a ‘bourgeois revolution’.
At the moment I cannot go into a lot of detail of this debate but some points can be made. It must be said that Anderson’s position is remarkably close to a large number of revisionist historians in the field of the early modern English history who in one way or another down played the significance of the English revolution.
Another thing is Anderson’s use of the work of J H Hexter against Thompson. To say the least Hexter was a very right wing historian who attacked Marxist historians such as Christopher Hill with a ferocity that would have not looked out of place in a boxing match
Anderson says “One cannot help wondering if Thompson has kept up with the literature on the subject since that date. Has he, for instance, ever looked at Hexter’s devastating essay The Myth of the Middle Class in Elizabethan England? Is he even aware of Hexter’s famous critique of precisely the notion of an ‘epochal’ bourgeois revolution? His text is innocent of the smallest echo of all this. He would surely have shown more misgivings in pronouncing the English landowners of the era of Lord North a ‘true bourgeoisie’, if he had assimilated the lessons of this body of work. He would also have been less surprised at the stress laid in our essays on the pre-eminence and perdurance of the English aristocracy (in the sociological, not the titular sense) well into the 19th and 20th centuries”.
Having read Hexter’s essay I am not sure it is all that devastating. And to use it against Thompson is Anderson’s right but he should have chosen his friends in this argument with a little more care.
To give Thompson’s his due he knew a little more about the English revolution than Anderson. Having said this I do not give him a blank cheque. More work needs to be done on his differences with Christopher Hill. In a further draft of this article I will elaborate more on this matter.
If the time spent in and around the Communist Party was Thompson’s first critical period of influence. His involvement with the New Reasoner/New Left projects were undoubtedly his second most critical time
New Left- G Healy
After his resignation from the CP Thompson was one of a number of left wing intellectuals who founded the New Reasoner which was the forerunner of the New Left Review. The latter journal is still published today as a bi-monthly. In reality the New Reasoner was a home to anybody who was opposed to orthodox Marxism.
As I do not know Scott Hamilton’s politics I will be generous in making my next point. While the book concentrates on Thompson’s polemic against other political rivals such as Louis Althuser, Tom Nairn and Perry Anderson to name a few it says nothing on Thompson’s attitude to the orthodox Marxist groups at the time such as G Healy’s Socialist Labour League. Maybe this is an error that will be corrected by Hamilton in future projects.
If Hamilton had spent a little time at the British Library which contains a number of the Socialist Labour Leagues theoretical journal Labour Review it would have given him a much closer approximation of Thompson’ political and for that matter historical proclivities.
Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to the New Reasoner’s politics (Thompson’s earlier magazine) but were open to a debate. In an article from Labour Review October –November 1959 Healy was mindful of the sharp polemics that Thompson had been involved in and sought in his article called - The New left Must Look to the Working Class to open a debate with Thompson and his supporters.
Having said that Healy did not mince his words, when he says “What strikes one immediately on reading E P Thompson’s article is that he entirely omits the working class; consequently there is no attempt to analyze the relationship between the left of today and the working class. One would imagine that the New Left had just arrived and existed in a world of its own. The opposite of course is the case. The New Left is not just a grouping of people around a number of new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the development of the crisis of capitalism, which for socialists is the crisis of the working class movement. Like movements among intellectuals and students in the past, the recent emergence of the new left is the advance warning of a resurgence of the working class as an active political force in Britain. The crisis which is the basis of such action finds its first reflection in the battle of ideas”
From the early origins of Thompson’s magazine New Reasoner it was clear that he was not intending to have a debate with the Orthodox Trotskyists. Despite trying to have cordial relations with Thompson and his supporters it became increasingly clear that Thompson did not see the Trotskyist’s around Healy as being a part of the working class. Healy’s response was to say that “Comrade Thompson seems to have cast away all the luggage, he was equipped with in the Communist Party except-one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism”.
That analysis of Healy despite his subsequent political degeneration is true now as it was then. Thompson’s response to the SLL was to accuse it of factionalism. An epithet I might add that has been levelled at the Trotskyist movement since time immemorial.
We live as then in stormy political times an examination of the differences between Healy and Thompson would greatly strengthened the book. To conclude this review it was never my intention at this moment to go into fuller detail of the disputes which occurred in the left during Thompson’ lifetime. That will be done in much greater detail when I write further on E P Thomson. My main criticism of Hamilton is that he omits whether deliberately of by accident this history which does a disservice to an otherwise competent book.
1. The Global E P Thompson Reflections on the Making of the English Working Class after Fifty Years-Harvard University, October 3-5, 2013
3. The Peculiarities of the English (1965) From the Socialist Register 1965, pp.311-362.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
4. An Unreasonable Reasoner Editorial Labour Review Vol 3 No 2 March April 1958
5. The New Left Must Look to the Working Class Gerry Healy Labour Review Oct- Nov 1959
Further Reading Suggestions
1. Bryan D. Palmer, E P Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (1994)
2. E P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963)
3. The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978)
4. Harvey J Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis (1984)