Monday, 4 August 2014

E. P. Thompson and English Radicalism Edited by Roger Fieldhouse and Richard Taylor. Published: February 2013 256 pages Publisher: Manchester University Press

Published in 2013 E P Thompson and English Radicalism is a collection of essays to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of E. P. Thompson’s most famous book, The Making of the English Working Class.

Manchester University has produced a stylish and very well designed book cover which reminds one of a Soviet propaganda poster from the 1920s or 30s.

The book, on the whole, has been warmly received Sheila Rowbotham called it an “eloquent set of essays manages to address, both sympathetically and critically, the many and varied aspects of Thompson’s life, as a historian, a teacher, a poet, a political activist, a Marxist and libertarian, and an Englishman and a cosmopolitan. Thompson’s legacy is hugely relevant for the troubled times in which we now live.'  Mary Kaldor, the London School of Economics and Political Science called it “A major book on Edward Thompson, who died 20 years ago, is an important reminder of the loss of English radicalism and the need to revive it."

The book has appeared at the same time as a 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 held 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[1].Lastly, Monthly Review Press  has just released  E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics Carl Winslow (Editor)

Given my limited amount of time I have not examined every single chapter of the book and will return to missed ones at a later date.  It is also impossible in the realm of this review to discuss every aspect of E P Thompson’s work as a politician and historian, some of this will be done in a review of Carl Winslow’s new book on Thompson mentioned above. The fact that his work is still being translated all over the globe that new books about his life and work appear almost daily is testimony alone to his historical and political significance.

It is clear that Thompson was a natural teacher. He had a passion for teaching. Whether you agreed with his politics or his interpretation of historical events sought to imbue in his student a passion for history and learning. He had a partisan approach to the education in that it should have a “social “purpose .“

John Rule in his Biography of E P Thompson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [2] “With his postgraduate students his relationship was excellent. They remember with affection a painstaking and inspiring mentor, and most became lifelong friends. With the university itself, relations were more strained. Resources for the center were short of his expectation; undergraduate teaching took up much time, as did boards and meetings, leading him to complain that little time was left for writing. His writing was itself undergoing a shift. The Making carried marks of having been written by someone not fully bound by academic conventions. It's invective, for example in its infamously hostile depiction of Methodism as ‘ritual psychic masturbation,' could be immoderate. He had a blind spot when it came to quantification, and a glimpse of his feelings towards some academic tendencies is exemplified in a passage which summarizes the average worker's share in the benefits of the industrial revolution as: ‘more potatoes, a few articles of cotton clothing for his family, soap and candles, some tea and sugar, and a great many articles in the Economic History Review’

Given the number of books, papers, lectures, and conferences examining every aspect of Thompson’s life and writing it is extremely disturbing that none of it has been given over to an Orthodox criticism of his work both in politics and history. It would appear that an orthodox Marxist critique of his work is still a taboo subject and has been largely airbrushed out of history. Given the current climate of hostility to genuine Marxism in academia, this is not a major surprise. For the sake of balance and the historical record and more important historical truth, an orthodox Marxist position should be given space in future books on Thompson.

Like Scott Hamilton’s recent book[3]this is not an orthodox biography of E P Thompson. It would seem that Thompson spent most of his academic career distancing himself from his life of the British Communist Party. His criticism of Stalinism was not however from an orthodox Marxist position instead he advocated what he said was a “socialist humanism” approach. Thompson at an early age rejected the classical 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.

While the Communist Party of Britain did attract a large number of distinguished historians, this was still an appalling training school and E P Thompson never entirely abandoned all that he learned there. An orthodox biography of Thompson is long overdue. The purpose of this review is to examine certain aspects of Thompson’s work mentioned in the book. Therefore the chapters discussed will not flow in numerical order.

To begin with, in Chapter 8, Michael Newman discusses what is perhaps the most significant period in Thompson’s life both from the standpoint of his political and historical development.
Thompson and the first new left.

From 1956 it is clear that the crisis that developed within world Stalinism over Khrushchev’s semi-secret denunciation of some of Stalin’s crimes had a profound effect on Thompson and other historians that were around or in the Communist Party Historians group.

Newman is correct to point out that with the development of Khrushchev‘s speech the crisis of the Communist Party brought about a realignment of radical politics. Thompson’s answer was to reject a path towards Orthodox Marxism represented by the Fourth International, he instead created the first New Reasoner and later the New Left Review (NLR).

I do not agree with Newman when he describes the NLR as an “Internationally renowned organ of Marxist scholarship” Thompson adoption of “socialist humanism” ran counter to everything orthodox Marxists stood for.

For the orthodox Marxists or Trotskyists in the Fourth International which was led in Britain by Gerry Healy of the Socialist Labour League (SLL), the crisis within the British Communist party was an opportunity to insist on the counter-revolutionary nature of Stalinism. Healy went on an offensive to win the most important cadre from the breakup of the Communist Party. Those figures who had not been entirely corrupted by the years of lies and calumny of the Stalinist regimes throughout the world were won to orthodox or classical Marxism. Cliff Slaughter, Tom Kemp and Peter Fryer to name but a few.

Suffice to say Thompson was not one of them despite Newman’s attempt to portray Thompson as being at the centre of a “Marxist revival.” Marxists inside the SLL were hostile to the New Reasoner’s politics but were open to 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 said “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 some new ideas that they have developed independently. This new development on the left reflects a particular phase in the elaboration 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 years of Thompson’s magazine New Reasoner, it was clear that he did not intend to have a debate with the Trotskyists. Despite Healy 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 within the Communist Party except one soiled old suitcase labelled anti-Trotskyism.” 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 throughout its history.

At the same time that Healy sought to clarify the issues involved in the crisis of world Stalinism Pseudo Left groups such as the Socialist Workers Party started to muddy the water and tried to argue that despite Khrushchev’s speech there was “a process of self-reform” going on and that under the pressure from the working class Stalinism would move in a revolutionary direction.

Thompson would get a warmer reception from groups such as the British SWP who broke from the Fourth International in the early 1940s. The SWP also sought to profit from the crisis in world Stalinism. The New Left was courted by the SWP, and some of its leaders spoke at numerous SWP events. The SWP has for the last 50 or so years sought to give these emigrants from Stalinism a left cover and justified their reformist-nationalist adaptation and orientation.

According to SWP member David Mcnally E P Thompson, “was the greatest Marxist historian of the English-speaking world and had a “political commitment to freeing Marxism from the terrible distortions of Stalinism, a commitment which originated in the battles of 1956 within the official Communist movement”[4].

Thompson founded the New Reasoner 1957 along with historian John Saville. The group was made up of ex- and current members of the CPGB, a varied group of common elements which left the Fourth International, members of the Labour Party. The group was characterized by its opposition to the orthodox Marxists represented by the Fourth International.

Thompson and socialist humanism

Thompson was avowedly hostile to an international revolutionary perspective and sought to imbue his new publication with an “English Marxist” tradition. As Kate Soper outlines in chapter 6, Thompson rejected orthodox Marxism, and in its stead, he offered up a form utopian socialism entitled socialist humanism. To distance himself from orthodox Marxism, he entered into a series of reckless, stage-managed and convoluted polemics against a series of academics, intellectuals who in one form or another had been mistakenly labeled Marxists.

It is not in the realm of this review to go into detail Thompson’s polemics, but an evaluation of Thompson’s socialist humanism is overdue.  Firstly it must be said that this theory has nothing to do with Marxism.  Thompson’s critique of Stalinism had as one writer said a “certain sense of vagueness.” To Thompson Trotskyism was just another “variant of Stalinism.”

Despite McNally’s glorification of Thompson, he makes an interesting point when he noted that Thompson had a “The lackadaisical attitude toward scientific rigour.  'For all its moral and political fervour, there was something remarkably imprecise about his attack on Stalinism. Thompson described his as a 'moral critique of Stalinism' - and there is much to be said for that.

Whatever its limitations, revolutionary socialists can only applaud a critique which refuses to countenance slave labour camps, show trials, mass murder, a police state regime of lies and crimes against human rights, as authentic forms of socialism. But alongside the vigour of moral denunciation, one needs a clear analysis of the nature of the regimes at issue. At no time did Thompson offer the latter.”

At no stage of his chequered history did Thompson and his friends in the New Left advocate the need to build a Leninist-type party. To do so would as Thompson believed would lead directly back to Stalinism. The New Left explicitly rejected Lenin’s theory of the vanguard party, which was blamed for the development of Stalinism. On this matter Thompson invited a former  Stalinist turned Labour Party bureaucrat Eric Heffer to write an article in the New Reasoner in 1959,  Heffer’s views fitted in nicely with Thompsons when he wrote that  “The ‘Vanguard corresponded to a given historical need but is not essential today: in fact, it is a definite hindrance”.

E.P. Thompson and his New Left Review colleagues sought to imbue every article he wrote with the spirit of a new “humanist” version of Marxism. As Julie Hyland points out “In the ensuing decades, it acted as a meeting place for Stalinist-influenced historians and other academics and members of the pseudo-left groups such as the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Its various authors offered combined advocacy of Western Marxist philosophies, the Frankfurt school, French structuralism, Maoism, anarchism, post-modernism, and various other petty-bourgeois theories of student radicalism.[5]

The possibilities of Theory-Thompson’s Marxist History

As Theodore Koditschek writes Thompson began a “lifelong engagement with the politics of socialism and Marxism.” It should be clear that Thompson’s Marxist had nothing to do with the “dogmas of orthodox Marxism as Koditschek puts it... “Class rather Classes is a highly misleading phrase.

Thompson’s rejection of a historical materialist method in examining historical phenomena underpins his most famous work the making of the English Working Class. The book is deeply flawed in the absence of any materialist understanding of the development of the working class.

Despite the popularity of the book, Thompson’s methodology has caused significant damage. His use of the history from below genre is now being revitalized by a growing section of historians, and radical groups such as the British Socialist Workers Party.

History from below or people’s history genre has become increasingly popular during the current social, economic and political turmoil caused by the latest crisis facing the capitalist system. It is not to say that this genre does not have its merit. Books that are written well can add to our understanding of complex historical events or processes.

But books and more precisely the historians who have written essays using the methodology either underestimate or deliberately leave out not only the origins of this type of history but the politics of such history writing.

Perhaps the most damaging aspect of the genre is its disdain for an understanding of the role consciousness plays in history. To be more precise how that knowledge comes about. It is one thing to rescue the working class from the past it is another to understand not only where it came from but how and where it gets its ideas from.

Stuart Hall who collaborated with Thompson on the New left project writing in NLR in 2010, shared Thompson’s downplaying of the need for historical materialist understanding when it came to the origins of the working class.  “We had a deep conviction that against the economism of the Stalinist, Trotskyist and Labourist left alike, socialism was a conscious democratic movement and socialists were made, not born or given by the inevitable laws of history or the objective processes of the mode of production alone.”[6]

If historians writing about Thompson had bothered to read what Karl Marx had actually written on this subject then perhaps Thompson would no longer be labelled a Marxist historian so freely. Writing the German Ideology Marx and Engels had this to say.

[7]The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura, this phenomenon arises just as much from their actual life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their natural life-process.

In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and by their actual life-process, we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. In the first method of approach the starting-point is consciousness taken as the living individual; in the second method, which conforms to real life, it is the real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness. This method of approach is not devoid of premises. It starts out from the real premises and does not abandon them for a moment. Its premises are men, not in any fantastic isolation and rigidity, but in their actual, empirically perceptible process of development under definite conditions. As soon as this active life-process is described, history ceases to be a collection of dead facts as it is with the empiricists (themselves still abstract), or an imagined activity of imagined subjects, as with the idealists.

Thompson also had a tendency to romanticize the working class which in turn led to his glorification of spontaneity. He admitted to having a very empirical outlook. Historians even those who have criticized him have done so in the belief that he was a Marxist. This description has done enormous damage.

Nina Power’s chapter examines Thompson’s conception of Class. The making of the English Working Class “was a highly influential work which contributed significantly to a revolution in the way history was studied, not only in Britain but in many countries. Instead of viewing history solely regarding kings, courtiers, aristocrats and politicians, historians began to consider the perspective of the ordinary people”.

“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”.

When you cut through the hyperbole written about Thompson’s conception of class in The Making, it is clear that Thompson and others were hostile to the understanding that socialism is based on the working class.

As Paul Bond puts it, His “Marxism” was an ideology purpose-built to meet the requirements of the “left” petty-bourgeoisie, discontented, looking for “space,” but tied by a thousand strings to the existing order. [8]

It is tough in this short review of the above book to estimate Thompson’s politics and historical preferences, let alone his place in history. He is a historian worth reading and his books will be read by future generations looking for answers to complex political and historical problems of our day. I would recommend that E. P Thompson and English Radicalism gets a broad audience and does give us a limited but ultimately closer approximation of the historian and his work. This review has at times taken on the role of a polemic against Thompson, but this is only in so much that he is routinely labelled a Marxist when in reality he was closer to Hegel than he was to Marx. My wish in the future when other essays are being prepared that an orthodox Marxist is allowed to put his or her viewpoint.

[2] John Rule in his Biography of E P Thompson for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
[3] The Crisis of Theory: E.P. Thompson, The New Left, and Post-war British Politics
Scott Hamilton Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2011, ISBN: 9780719084355; 288pp.; Price: £60.00
[4] E P Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism by D Mcnally Issue 61 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1993 Copyright © International Socialism
[5] Embittered row between UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband and Daily Mail over his father, Ralph
By Julie Hyland 2013-
[6] Stuart Hall Life and times of the first New Left  NLR 2010,
[7] The German Ideology
[8] Cultural theorist Stuart Hall (1932-2014): A political career dedicated to opposing Marxism

By Paul Bond 5 March 2014