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Enduring problems of class, class consciousness and political organisation are illuminated in this important new collection of E. P. Thompson’s essays, finds Dominic Alexander

E.P.Thompson

E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics, ed. Cal Winslow (Lawrence and Wishart/Monthly Review Press 2014), 333p.

The ‘left’ has been reborn many times over the last two centuries. Every renewal has carried with it traditions from past phases, with greater or lesser degrees of continuity, while establishing new relations and alliances in response to the changing structures of capitalism. This can be seen in the transition between radical Jacobinism and early forms of socialism, or between the Chartist movement and later nineteenth-century trade-union and socialist movements, and in other moments in the history of working-class politics.

E. P. Thompson was a figure who both recaptured these transitions in his historical writing, and participated in a major re-orientation of left politics after the Soviet Union’s suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956. This event created the movement known as the ‘New Left’, which can either be seen as a short-lived experiment, or a long lasting re-direction in socialist politics, leading in fruitful or disastrous directions, or possibly both, depending upon your perspective.

The break with Stalinist-dominated Communist Parties, for some, however justified, had unfortunate consequences, in that it led to the abandonment of many fundamentals of Marxist theory, even socialist commitment to the working class. Yet, it is important to remember that the New Left was an essential moment in the renewal of an independent radical left that was, for example, more open to women’s liberation and anti-racism than the labour movement had been for some time (p.26). Any vibrancy on the Left in general in the 1960s and 70s owes something to that shift. Nonetheless, a line can be drawn from the ‘cultural’ turn taken by some members of the New Left through to various postmodern revisions, the abandonment of revolutionary politics, and even to the intellectual groundwork that was laid within parts of the left for Blairism from the late 1980s onwards.

However the New Left’s trajectory is interpreted, E. P. Thompson’s political and historical project worked against the drift away from revolutionary socialism. This collection of essays from the years in which Thompson was a leading figure in the new movement reveals his agenda very clearly. An apparently minor disagreement about terminology reveals how serious Thompson was about the revolutionary nature of his politics. He objected to the phrase ‘the transition to socialism’, insisting on using the historical concept of ‘revolution’.

Thompson and revolution

He saw the more static concept of ‘transition’ as implying ‘not a change in ownership but a change of owners’. Here he was insisting on socialism as being something achieved by the struggle of the working class itself. The sociological concept of ‘major structural change’ was inadequate because ‘it suggests certain administrative measures which effect changes in institutions rather than continuing processes which arise from popular activity and participation’ (p.180).

Nor was revolution an abstract concept for Thompson at this time; it is clear at a number of points that he saw it as an imminent possibility at the time. He admitted that his ‘suggestion that “in one sense, we are now constantly living on the edge of a revolutionary situation” was either shrugged or laughed off’. He argued in his defence that it was not as if ‘we are bound to enter an early crisis which will only admit of a revolutionary solution … We might easily miss “our” revolution just as we missed it in 1945’ (p.162). Nonetheless, he saw that a political movement could open up the possibility of revolutionary change. Thus the struggle against nuclear weapons, and for ‘a British withdrawal from NATO’, was a key issue, going to the heart of British imperialism:

‘the British people will be unable to extricate themselves from this context without developing a popular struggle which will at the same time generate pressures in a hundred other directions, and awaken the political consciousness of the nation’ (p.162).

Thompson’s analysis of class and class struggle enabled him to grasp the nature of the relationship between the economic and the political and so to perceive a revolutionary potential in society.

Economic forces and social agency

The revolutionary impulse to be found in these essays is closely related to his critique of determinist thinking, which confuses the involuntary social relations in which human beings find themselves, with the human capacity, through conscious, social labour, to shape the world around itself (pp.74-5). Thus the ‘economic base’ is not an inert, technological sphere as, quoting Marx:

‘Labour is, in the first place , a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material reactions between himself and Nature’ (p.74, from Capital, I, iii, VII)[1]

To say that economic forces are determinate in society is not then to deny the importance of human agency; indeed it is rather to insist upon it, while recognising the limited choices offered to us within the social relations of production into which we are born.

Ideas and consciousness are not then a function of a ‘superstructure’ to be dismissed as ‘symptoms (passive mirror-reflections) of class being’ (p.59), but are rather produced by real experience. It is through active struggle that full class consciousness can thus appear:

‘We re-learn (what Marx surely understood) that man [sic] is human by virtue of his culture, the transmission of experience from generation to generation; that his history is the record of his struggle truly to apprehend his own social existence; and that Marx and Engels, through their discoveries, hoped to assist in the liberation of men from false, partial, class consciousness, thereby liberating them from victimhood to blind economic causation, and extending immeasurably the region of their choice and agency (p.59).

The interaction of the social forces of production and the social relations of production presuppose ‘culture’, ideas and consciousness, but this does not mean that Thompson was on a journey away from economics and class as the basis for socialist politics. It was rather that he was attempting to rediscover the revolutionary content in the original ideas of Marx and Engels. The political nature of the Marxist understanding of class had been lost in the deterministic readings of the Second International period. That perspective reached a kind of apogee in the Stalinist determinism Thompson was critiquing in this essay quoted above, ‘Socialist Humanism’.

Class and class consciousness

This discussion needs bearing in mind when reading Thompson’s discussion of class and class struggle. He was working against static, academic understandings of class which could only understand the concept as a category, defined in positivistic terms, rather than being ‘an historical concept, which bears in mind the interaction of objective and subjective determinants’ (pp.171-2). Class is something that happens:

‘this process of definition is not just a series of spontaneous explosions at the point of production (though this is an important part of it); it is a complex, contradictory, ever-changing and never-static process in our political and cultural life in which human agency is entailed at every level’ (p.172)

This ‘abstract’ exploration of class is filled out with a discussion of working-class consciousness and Chartism in the nineteenth century. He notes that it was not just a factory proletariat that was significant, but also hand-loom weavers as the ‘shock troops’ of the Chartist movement. Moreover the ‘vast area of radical London’ drew upon a wide range of artisans’ trades and other occupations. The high tide of working-class consciousness in the 1840s is not explained in ‘the emergence of the factory system by itself’ (p.173). The long history of radical, popular politics was essential to the development of class consciousness.

The lesson to take from this is not that objective conditions do not matter, but that what we do matters and can shape the context in which class consciousness is formed, or fails to form. Associated with this argument is Thompson’s insistence at several points on understanding ‘the working class’ in a broad sense. Only thus can a wider hegemony be achieved, to use Gramsci’s term where Thompson did not, but might easily have done. We should:

‘cease to play the game of the Establishment by drawing an abstract line between the “real working class” of heavy industry, and the teachers, the technicians, the draughtsmen. The white-coated workers and the rest. We do not want the jealous neighbourhood community which erects barriers; we want the socialist community which includes all’ (p.112).

Thus there is no turn away from class in Thompson, but rather a re-discovery of the dialectics of class and class-consciousness; its dynamic and active character.

It is important to emphasise that it is clear that Thompson does not in fact represent a ‘cultural’ turn in theory in which ‘subjective’ factors are stressed at the expense of an ‘objective’ analysis of class. Many academic followers of Thompson and other figures of the New Left may have gone down this root later on, but in so far as this turn was directly related Thompson, it was necessarily based on a misapprehension of the dialectic between the objective and subjective poles of class that he was attempting to revive, against mechanical readings. A telling demonstration of where Thompson stood on this comes in the essay in this volume critiquing Raymond Williams’ book The Long Revolution. Williams is the figure who more appropriately can be held to account for a ‘cultural’ turn, and Thompson politely upbraids him precisely for evading Marx unnecessarily in this respect (pp.197-9).

The problem of the formation and reformation of class has been a perennial one for the socialist movement, as capitalism itself continually changes form, and breaks up old social formations as it forms new ones. The objective nature of the working class has changed many times since capitalist social relations became dominant, but the experiences and traditions of labour and socialist movements are essential to the continuity or even re-foundation of class consciousness. It is in this sense that a radical political tradition, or ‘culture’, is crucial to class and class consciousness, without this being in any way a departure from Marx.

Problems of organisation

Yet there is no disguising the fact that in its initial terms the New Left failed to form a cohesive new movement, and while Thompson himself is hardly to blame for this, there is an important lacuna in his thinking which points to a wider problem that is also relevant today. This is the issue of organisation, which, it should be plain, is crucial to the continuities that working-class politics need. In the context of the New Left, for those who left the Communist Party in 1956, it was clearly a natural reaction to question the form of organisation they had left behind.

Moreover the choices seemed invidious, with neither the bureaucratic Labour or Communist Parties appearing as viable environments for the revolutionary activism Thompson hoped for: ‘Nor am I asking people to “root themselves in the labour movement” by conducting parasitic factional activities within organisations which are dying through bureaucratic paralysis and lack of an influx of the young’ (p.115). If socialist organisation seemed to be failing in general, then this was not for the lack of interest in politics, Thompson continued: ‘People are looking for new ways, new forms of political expression’. At points like this, the parallels with the problems of our own time seem very clear.

Thompson was somewhat sceptical of both the ‘sterile formulations of the Old Dogma or the seedy solicitations of the New Glossy’, or was at least prodding both to recognise each needed something from the other (p.116). He hoped indeed that the New Left would be able to provide a new beginning, against problems of ‘political power and of bureaucratic degeneration; the problem of economic power and of workers’ control’ (p.127). However, he provided no clear answer to the problem of organisation except a distrust of ‘vanguardism’ (p.28), and a sense that neither the Labour Party nor the Communist Party ‘provide a congenial atmosphere for setting on foot a principled movement of socialist ideas’ (p.98). However much Stalinism had tarnished the term ‘vanguard’ in the eyes of people like Edward Thompson, an organisation of the class-conscious vanguard is precisely what he was asking for here.

It is apparent how questions of revolutionary organisation became tangled up with the analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union. Consequently, it seems, there was a failure to distinguish Leninist principles of organisation from the degenerated nature of the party which had come to rule state-capitalist Russia (see p.52 in particular). This failure set up an unresolvable antinomy between ‘bureaucracy’ and any organic movement from below, which in turn created a debilitating distrust of formal organisation in itself. It is uncharacteristic for Thompson seemingly not to have perceived the dialectic in this issue, which seems partly due to the lack of a consistent distinction between Lenin and the Stalinist caricature of Leninism (pp.154-5).

Otherwise he was able to grasp quite precisely where the Left tended to get stuck in false oppositions: ‘It is not a case of either this or that. We must, at every point, see both.’ Here, he was highlighting the absurdity of positions which see reform as simply the ‘supreme cunning’ of the system in bribing the workers (a problem which highlights the differences between that time and the present), yet noting that the opposite position was equally untenable: there is ‘the strength of the trade unions and their parasitism upon capitalist growth’ (p.155).

The dialectical approach to the role of trade-union organisation could have been extended to that of the political organisation of revolutionary socialists. There needs to be organisation in order to maintain and develop consciousness and the kinds of political traditions Thompson wrote about so effectively. That organisation needs to relate in a supportive way to broader movements, or it risks becoming a sectarian irrelevance, or strangling genuine struggles where a bureaucracy does become powerful. Like every working-class institution, a revolutionary organisation needs to negotiate this dialectic, and certainly failures are bound to occur. Yet without coherent organisation, socialists risk other ideological forces becoming influential. This perhaps partly describes the trajectory of many of the New Left, particularly those in the academy. 

While Dorothy Thompson was surely right to reject dismissive claims that the New Left was a failure (p.32), at the same time it did not live up to Edward’s revolutionary hopes. Surely a part of the explanation for this was the inability of the new current to create coherent new organisation which could operate as a pole of attraction for new activists, and from there to re-orientate the wider movement. This problem remains an issue in the present, but while Thompson falls short of seeing the need to rejuvenate the original principles and practice of the revolutionary party, the overriding tendency of his thinking here, its grasp of the interplay of the political and the economic in working-class history for example, should lead naturally to an understanding of the need for revolutionary organisation.

This collection of essays could be regarded simply as having historical interest for the thinking of a key figure of the New Left. There is no question that it is that, but it is also much more. These essays were an attempt to engage with and guide a movement which had huge potential. Thompson’s approach to class, and his understanding of the dialectical tensions within which a revolutionary movement must be built, remain of tremendous value.

Notes

[1] This is from the opening page of section 1 of chapter VII.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He has been a Stop the War and anti-austerity activist in north London for some time. He is a published historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages, a social history of medieval wonder tales

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