A new study of E P Thompson raises old debates and controversies, but does not capture the meaning and continuing value of his history and writing, argues Dominic Alexander.
Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: E P Thompson, the New Left and Postwar British Politics (Manchester University Press 2011), 293pp.
The poet Wordsworth ended his life in the approval of the ruling class as the Poet Laureate, but in his youth he had been an enthusiast for the French Revolution and described himself as being ‘of that odious class of men called democrats’ (EPT, Romantics, p.75). The transition of figures such as Wordsworth from radical through to reactionary politics is one recurring theme in E P Thompson’s political and historical writing. For one thing, it had resonance for his own generation, among whom Thompson saw too many who made similar political transitions, in record time, during the Cold War.
This sort of journey is often lazily attributed to the transition from youth to middle age, but Thompson’s various observations on the subject reveal more interesting parallels. Disillusion with the French Revolution enabled former ‘English Jacobins’ to turn towards anti-Napoleonic patriotism, on their way to the embrace of the ruling class they once despised. Similar dynamics of disappointment, this time in Stalinised communism, Thompson observed, fuelled the rapid movement rightwards of certain intellectuals in the 1950s (EPT, Poverty of Theory, pp.19-22 for example). The capitulation to the right involved a view that the working class could not generate a politics that was anything but ‘local, particular, and inarticulate’ (Poverty, p.24). It was always central to Thompson’s preoccupations that a serious working class political culture had existed and could exist. The consequence is to see that socialist intellectuals are not located in some respect outside the working class, somehow part of an ideological superstructure, but should be directly engaged as activists in the struggle.
E P Thompson himself produced a clutch of histories which managed the very difficult task of being both academically influential and politically important, and which were read remarkably widely. These studies of English working class history were certainly seen by Thompson as case studies that contributed to a larger international discussion of socialist and anti-imperialist politics. He combined path-breaking research with energetic activism, perhaps most famously in the anti-nuclear campaigns of the early 1980s. His political writings during this time show a determination not to be browbeaten into any kind of anti-Soviet position that would affirm western superiority, without thereby failing to show appropriate solidarity with internal opponents of the Eastern block states. This was a hard balance to keep, but in his writings Thompson managed it consistently and with some fine polemical style.
In this he was trying to build a genuinely European-wide mass peace movement from below, believing that only this could stop the ruling militarist machines that directed both sides of the Cold War. Many others fail to hold to this genuine internationalist space, whether in the 1790s, 1950s, 1980s or the 2000s, when faced by vociferous charges that the domestic ruling class must be supported as the least worst option in face of barbarism from abroad. This is not to say that Thompson’s positions at this point could not be criticised in some respects, but simply that his credentials as an anti-imperialist campaigner are of some significance and depth.
It is thus very peculiar to find Thompson described firmly as an ‘English exceptionalist’ in a new study (Hamilton, p.116), that, despite a complimentary beginning, appears to find failure to be the consistent theme in its subject’s political and intellectual life. Scott Hamilton’s book is intended as an intellectual biography making sense of the whole of Thompson’s life and work, but does not really escape the narrow confines of the PhD thesis where it began. On ‘English exceptionalism’, it is true that Tom Nairn, of all people, once accused Thompson of ‘cultural nationalism’ (see Thompson’s response in Poverty, p.iii, also see p.102), and other remarks can be found in a like vein. Yet it was never a convincing charge. It is not the only old calumny that Hamilton resurrects and recycles from the controversies between Thompson and other figures on the left like Perry Anderson. It is however extended into the absurd when the notion is introduced that Thompson’s arguments against Althusser in The Poverty of Theory are ‘francophobic’ in their ‘rhetoric and imagery’ (Hamilton, pp.103-4).
Thompson’s most famous work is the Making of the English Working Class (1963), and his concern with the development of class consciousness through class struggle remained the key theme in his historical research and writing for the decades that followed. This meant serious research into English history certainly, and he always argued that socialist politics must tap into existing traditions and language; intellectuals must be able to talk to the working class. Yet, he never claimed any ‘exceptional’ importance for the English socialist and radical traditions as such, unless when, in response to Anderson’s and Nairn’s characterisation of English traditions as ‘inert and regressive’, he asserted that in fact these traditions were ‘unusually large and complex... [but] they are, by no means, always resources of strength’ (Poverty, p.iv). It requires some determination to read Thompson as a nationalist through statements such as that.
Famously, in the preface to the Making, Thompson noted that ‘causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won’ (Making, p.13). This is not to be an English ‘exceptionalist’, but to see history in one place as being of use to the class struggle elsewhere. Thompson valued English working class history not because it was English, but because the particularities of a country’s individual history mattered to him. This was to see history not through abstract models and schemas, which he thought was the tendency of Anderson’s approach, not to mention Althusser’s, but to see history as subject to collective political action.
It was tendentious of people like Nairn and Anderson to accuse Thompson of ‘cultural nationalism’ in the first place, and it is inadequate of Hamilton to present the charge as proven with so little argument. It was refuted once by Bryan Palmer (see Palmer, Objections, pp.12-13), but there is nothing in Hamilton that engages with Palmer’s arguments to any satisfactory degree. Thompson defended his affection for the traditions of dissent and rebellion in English history by noting that an authentic socialism in this country would need to make use of it: ‘If a future is to be made, it must be made in some part from these [traditions]. It will not be made out of some Theorist’s head’ (Poverty, p. iv).
This charge of ‘nationalism’ then actually relates to a dispute over Thompson’s conception of how a Marxist intellectual should relate to the working class. In Thompson’s terms, the argument was that it is necessary to make socialism out of the materials at hand, the concerns and understandings that actually exist. Related to this dispute is Hamilton’s charge that Thompson was a ‘voluntarist’ (Hamilton, p.270). In fact, it is not entirely clear that this is meant as a criticism since Lenin himself is described by Hamilton as being ‘that most voluntarist of Marxists’ on the basis of the April Theses (Hamilton, p.137 and footnote 17, p.151).
Normally, to be a ‘voluntarist’ is to take the position that obstacles can be overcome by the will, that situations are less determined by objective circumstances, than by the conscious decision to act. The charge can be a tricky one, since in every political eventuality there are both objective constraints, and opportunities or choices to be made. We are able to change the world, and yet we would not have chosen the circumstances in which we act. The ‘subjective’ decisions of one moment result in the ‘objective’ circumstances of the next. Voluntarism as an accusation can, in the end, be merely a hidden attack on a particular political choice. To the extent which Thompson could be charged with ‘voluntarism’, this arises from his rejection of Stalinism, and his attempt to recreate an independent socialist practice. Stalinism’s mechanical determinism, paralleling mainstream reformism, had lost the revolutionary possibility lying in the social agency of the working class.
This was the meaning, of course, of the title, The Making of the English Working Class. These people in the past had an important hand in their own history, but to argue so was far from ignoring the other forces which acted on the working class. It is the dialectical understanding of class, the formation of class precisely through class struggle, which was at the centre of Thompson’s work. The importance of agency receives polemical emphasis in some of Thompson’s writings because it was stultifying passivity he was struggling against, but nonetheless the concomitant sense of social circumstances was always present.
Hamilton’s keenness to see Thompson as a ‘voluntarist’ leads to the misreading of a number of passages. In an essay on Orwell and the Cold War, ‘Outside the Whale’, the assertion is that Thompson ‘does not merely claim a parallel between “Inside the Whale” and attitudes that became popular after the war: he argues that Orwell’s essay caused these attitudes in a quite direct way. It is hard to see how his argument does not put too much emphasis on the influence of ideas in the course of modern British history’ (Hamilton, p.84). This seems to be an astonishingly flat reading of the complex argument in this essay, which concerned the reaction of intellectuals to the narrowing scope of political possibility during the Cold War. It clearly misreads the point about how Orwell’s essay was *used* by ‘Natopolitans’ to attack the left.
Thompson would never be so crass as to claim that one thing, essay or machine, on its own caused anything else ‘in a direct way’. Thompson in this essay even writes about the thirties that ‘men were not placed in some pure climate of choice, but in a context of savage counter-revolution and military politics which none had chosen’ (Poverty, p.20). This is hardly the statement of a voluntarist, but of someone attuned to the complex interactions of social being and social consciousness through which ‘men make their own history’. Some sustained engagement with Thompson’s longer historical work would further dispel any notion of his voluntarism, but Hamilton concentrates very heavily on the essays in The Poverty of Theory, to the surprising neglect of the historical works.
Later, Hamilton characterises Thompson as breaking with ‘Marxist orthodoxy by making the subjectivity – the experiences and consciousness – of the working class and “the people” more important than the “objective factors” of political economy’ (Hamilton, p.191). This is a very odd reading of Thompson’s analysis, which was precisely meant to overcome rigid and mechanistic understandings of determination, or of base against superstructure. The concept of ‘experience’ also does not belong on one side of the opposition, but was the mediating factor between productive relations and class consciousness.
Take one often quoted line from the preface to the Making of the English Working Class: ‘The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter into involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms... If the experience appears as determined, class consciousness does not’ (Making, pp.9-10). The reason why the latter does not so appear is because class consciousness is the product of the class struggle itself. Subjective actions at one point in the process of class become part of the objective conditions down the line. Thus ‘consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way’ (Making, p.10). This is not the analysis of a liberal voluntarist, as Hamilton would have it, but of a Marxist engaged in restoring the dialectical potential of the Marxist historical method from the ravages of Stalinism.
Hamilton frequently imposes strange and simplistic readings upon Thompson’s writing. None are more persistent than a short quotation from a long discussion of wartime left politics, where Thompson wryly noted that ‘it was a decade of heroes, and there were Guevaras in every street and in every wood’ (Poverty, p.264). Thompson was evaluating both the positive and problematic in the impact of World War II on the communist movement, and was not uncritical of the ‘voluntarist’ aspect. Hamilton however endlessly repeats the phrase ‘decade of heroes’ throughout the book, stripped of the original irony, so that he can therefore portray Thompson as some sort of radical liberal trapped within a nostalgia for the popular front period (Hamilton, pp.38-9, p.190, pp.270-1).
It follows naturally for Hamilton to assert that one of Thompson’s ‘hardcore’ ideas is the necessity for there to be a ‘political unity that transcends the barriers of class’ (Hamilton, p.269). Now perhaps aspects of Thompson’s involvement in the anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s could be criticised as owing too much to a popular front approach. Yet Hamilton discusses neither Thompson’s political action nor his writings from that period. Otherwise, to whatever extent Thompson’s political strategies or rhetoric may be criticised at one point or another, the clear thread in his arguments return to the centrality of the working class, and the struggle against exploitation and power.
Hamilton makes various ambiguous claims linking Thompson and liberalism, for example; ‘elements of Marxism that were contiguous with radical liberalism were assimilated by Thompson and became part of the texture of his thought’ (Hamilton, p.253). It would be rather fairer to say that Thompson’s historical analysis showed the centrality of class struggle to the emergence of an opposition between liberal and socialist political ideas in England. At this same point Hamilton makes another ill-supported claim that ‘the crisis and collapse of Thompson’s long-time “Research Programme” was recorded in the Poverty of Theory’. The purpose of this surprising statement seems to be to support the claim that since Thompson’s supposed popular frontism had failed, and because he regarded his historical and political work as deeply connected, both must have failed. To substantiate these arguments, Hamilton should at least have confronted existing and quite different expositions of Thompson’s work, such as those of Bryan Palmer, and Harvey J Kaye (Kaye does not even appear in the bibliography), neither of whom perceive any such catastrophe descending upon Thompson’s research.
The discussion of the dispute between Thompson and Althusser is diagnostic of the flawed approach of this book, because what we receive here is a discovery that there were some ‘correspondences’ between the two figures, including a break from ‘orthodox’ understandings of the base-superstructure model (Hamilton, p.187), and an emphasis upon ‘ideas, ideology and intellectuals’ (Hamilton, p.191). This does not seem to be a useful characterisation of either side of the debate. The key issue to discuss, in any case, was their sharply different understandings of history, and indeed of the use or value of history. Instead Hamilton observes that mostly it was intellectuals who formed the opposition to Stalinism in 1956: ‘Leading relatively small groups of radicalised intellectuals, isolated from a bureaucratised and largely apathetic working class, Thompson and Althusser not unnaturally tended to emphasise the possibility that intellectuals and intellectual work could bring political change’(Hamilton, p.192). In this stunningly one-dimensional understanding of what either figure was up to, it is possible to see a legacy of that determinism and mechanical structuralism that Thompson railed against.
The book is seemingly always intent on finding faults and limitations, or suggesting pat psychological explanations for Thompson’s historical and political projects. Now certainly Thompson can be criticised, but much of the discussion here is trivial, and often personalised; the problems of the early New Left Review appear at points to be down to Thompson’s bad temper (Hamilton, p.99). The tide of relentless criticism is however necessary to substantiate the claim that Thompson’s intellectual and political project was a failure. The claim appears to be that the break with Stalinism in 1956 was a ‘crisis of theory’ indeed, because it effectively led Thompson away from the working class and from Marxism.
Hamilton’s thesis can only be maintained by lopsided concentration upon a few essays, bypassing the major issues of Thompson’s historical work, particularly his understanding of class and class conflict. A rather more positive understanding of Thompson’s work could be arrived at through appreciating his considerable influence on the many historians who followed in his wake, not least Palmer and Kaye for example. Thompson’s importance lies in his attempt to develop a credible and robust Marxist understanding of history in a way that would be relevant to an active socialist politics. That we are still discussing him and his legacy is one indication that his project bore some fruit.
Harvey J Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis (1984)
--------, The Education of Desire: Marxists and the Writing of History (1993)
Bryan D. Palmer, E P Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (1994)
E P Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963)
--------, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978)
--------, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age (1997)
Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire book, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018).
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