Thursday, 28 August 2014

Forgetting E. P. Thompson (3 February 1924 - 28 August 1993)

E. P. Thomson died 11 years ago today. He was a theorist for the Communist Party of Great Britain, the founder of the Communist Party's Historians Group, and a Marxist historian, biographer, journalist, essayist, and campaigner.

Edward Palmer Thompson was born in Oxford on 3 February 1924 and was the son of Edward John Thompson, a writer and poet. Young Edward's parents were Methodist missionaries. Educated at The Dragon School in Oxford and Kingswood School in Bath, Thompson left school in 1941 to fight in World War II, in which he served in a tank unit in the Italian campaign, taking part in the final battle for Cassino. After the war, he enrolled at Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge.

Up until that point, this young man was following a normal course in life. Unfortunately, the University of Cambridge was, at this time, a cesspit of Communism, which included an infestation of pro-Soviet spies, who would later become known as the Cambridge Five.[1] It was while studying here that Thompson joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. And didn't stop here: in 1946, along with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Dona Torr, George Rudé, and others, he formed the Communist Party's Historians Group. Hill had spent ten months in Stalin's Soviet Union in 1935, and his application to be the Chair of History at Keele University had been turned down due to his Communist Party affiliations. Hobsbawm was an apologist for Stalin.[2] Hilton forced the Mediæval peasant through the grinder of Marxian theory. Dona Torr, a founding member of the CPGB, had been involved the latter's propaganda mill. Rudé came from a conservative background, but had fallen in love with Stalin's USSR and returned an ardent Communist, which would soon ensure he was excluded from British universities. Not satisfied with that, Thompson also launched a journal, Past and Present, which engaged in revisionist history, Marxian style.

Thompson's first major work was a biography of William Morris. Published in 1955, his purpose was to deflect criticism of the CPGB's status as Moscow's yes-men in Britain by drawing attention to the domestic roots of Marxism on the island. He strained to emphasise Morris' radical and socialist politics, something that had embarrassed and been downplayed by earlier writers. The biography was largely ignored. Thompson, however, partially rewrote it and the second edition, published more than twenty years later, received some attention, for by then Antonio Gramsci's 'march through the institutions' was well under way.

Like other Communists of the period, Thompson felt the pangs of conscience when, in 1956, Nikita Khrushev's 'secret speech' to the 20th Congress of the Communisty Party (CPGB) revealed that the party leadership had long been aware of Stalin's crimes. He and John Saville launched a dissident publication within the CPGB, The Reasoner, of which they only managed three quarterly issues before they leaving the party altogether in disgust at the organisation's equivocal response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

But his soul-searching lacked sufficient scope for an abjuration of Marxism: with Saville, he soon created a new publication, the New Reasoner. Thinking that the solution to Marxism's many problems was even more Marxism, this time he sought to offer alternative interpretations of Marxism to those offered by the CPGB and the Trotskyists, as well as to the socialism of the Labour Party. This journal became an organ of the New Left.

The New Reasoner didn't 'reason' for very long: after three years, it merged in 1960 with the Universities and New Left Review, a youth-oriented pacifist Cold War publication that argued against opposition to communism and for nuclear disarmament. The resulting political jounral was New Left Review, and its editor Stuart Hall, a young man from Jamaica who'd had his mind warped by Freud, Marx, and Lenin while still an at university. The magazine brought together former CPGB members, Labour Party radicals, and assorted egalitarians. On the platform at launch were novelists Doris Lessing and Iris Murdoch, a former CPGB member who awakened to the awfulness of Marxism in later life.

This arrangement was short-lived, however, for Hall left and Thompson fell out with the clique surrounding the new editor, Perry Anderson, whom he castigated repeatedly in ensuing years. Thompson hated Anderson's reliance on Continental philosophers, seemingly forgetting that Marx was from Germany.

In 1963 Thompson saw the publication of his most influential work, The Making of the English Working Class. Now, Thompson was a talented writer and this book represents his methodology of 'history from below'. In particular, he pays attention to the largely forgotten Jacobin movement in England, specifically the London Corresponding Society. However, it has been pointed out that it is also an egregious example of ideology trumping fact: he projects the beliefs of the radical working class reformers onto the whole of the working class, forgetting about what Geoffrey Best called the 'Church and King', 'flag-saluting, foreigner-hating, peer-respecting side of the plebeian mind'; vastly exaggerates attendance numbers at radical meetings;[3] overestimates the success of the second part of The Rights of Man, by the traitor Thomas Paine, not mentioning that he was outsold ten-to-one by Hannah More's anti-Jacobin Cheap Repository Tracts,[4] and that, next to Guy Fawkes, Paine is the most burnt-in-effigy figure in English history;[5] claims the Volunteer Corps was only popular with the propertied classes, when after 1796 it was largely made up of workmen, with officers drawn from the clerks and foremen;[6] and changes his tune depending on his prejudices, on the one hand claiming a desire to rescue the working class from a perception of passive victimhood when it suits his politics, but on the other painting them exactly as passive victims when he lambasts Methodist Sunday schools to gratify his atheism, describing these working class institutions as 'psychic exploitation' (1991: 411), 'psychological atrocities' and 'religious terrorism' (414-415). Fifty years on, the book remains in university reading lists.

Thompson next jumped onto Saville's new vehicle, the Socialist Register, which the latter co-founded in 1964 with Ralph Miliband, 'the man who hated Britain',[7] according to the Daily Mail, and father of Ed, the current leader of the Labour Party. And it wasn't long before Ed's predecessor, Harold Wilson, disappointed everyone on the Left for not being far enough to the Left, even though he had decriminalised gay sex, abolished capital punishment, introduced the Race Relations Act 1965, outlawed corporal punishment in prisons, enacted suspended sentences, created the Community Relations Commission (endowing it with £300,000 for propaganda and similar purposes), and used the tax system to take money from the middle class to give it to the poor. In response, Thomposon, Raymond Williams (a former CPGB propagandist), and others responded with the May Day Manifesto in 1967. Their conferences dissipated in endless hair-splitting by tedious gas-bags, however, and naïve middle class student activists, who were rather looking for a legitimisation of vandalising urges, were bored. The same applied to the industrial workers, whose bellies needed actual food, not just a diet of Marxist theory.[8] Meanwhile, the capitalists at Penguin cashed in by publishing the Manifesto in book form. Those guys never miss a trick.

During the 1970s, Thompson engaged in polemics. Firstly, he flounced off Warwick University when it was found—during a student sit-in—that the administration kept track of the students and academic staffs political views (unsurprising, given that Thompson had been a Stalinist for ten years) and had ties to local industry. Secondly, he fired off a book-length diatribe, evidently without reflection, since it was scribbled down in two weeks and published while events were still in progress. After this, he made a career as a trans-Atlantic visiting lecturer, and turned to free-lance writing. New Society, Socialist Register, and historical journals accepted his contributions. The New Society deserves a mention here: its founder and editor was Timothy Raison, who would later become Conservative MP for Aylesbury and serve twice as minister under Margaret Thatcher. The magazine was allegedly non-partisan and refused to endorse any political party, yet liberals perceived it as 'centre-Left' and Raison's successor, Paul Baker, the one who accepted Thompson's contributions, enjoyed the approval of Eric Hobsbawm, the obdurate Stalinist. So much for a neutral point of view.

Still with a taste for invective, in 1974, and completely unprovoked, he attacked Leszek Kołakowski in a bizarre 100-page open letter, published in the Socialist Register,[9] which began

Dear Leszek Kolakowski,

First, I must introduce myself, since this is an unusual kind of letter.

You don't know me, but I know you well. This must be familiar enou"g h to a man with an international reputation. He must often be beset with the importunities of strangers.

But my claim is more insistent and vulgar than that. I am the stranger who walks into the house, slaps you on the back, sits down at your ;able, and jests about your youthful escapades, on the pretext of a claim to distant relationship of which you know nothing. I am, in political terms, your mother's brother's stepson. I am an impossible and presumptuous guest, and an uninvited one—you may even suspect that I am an impostor—but the courtesies of kinship disallow you from throwing me from your house.

Thrown in were all manner of personal grievances and oximoronic statements like 'the most human face of communism'.

Not missing a beat, Kołakowski ripped him a new one in a highly amusing reply of just 1/5 the length, published in the following issue.[10] He pointed out that Thompson refused to analyse words, deliberately confouding issues with terminological hybrids; that Thompson used double standards, depending on what suited his politics; and that he was averse to facts when they were embarrassing or inconvenient—all Leftist clichés. He also pointed out that Franco's Spain gave vastly more freedom than any socialist country (except perhaps Yugoslavia). Kołakowski knew what he was talking about: though by then an opponent of Communism, he'd once been a Communist himself, until he'd visited the USSR and seen the reality. He'd also been to Spain twice. His experience lent added authority to his monumental three-volume work, Main Currents of Marxism (1976 - 1978), in which he would argue that Stalinism and totalitarianism were not deviations, but followed logically from Marx. Even Tony Judt, who'd began as a Marxist Zionist, considered Kołakowski's rejoinder so devastating as to conclude that 'no one who reads it will ever take E. P. Thompson seriously again'.

That really shut him up as far as Kołakowski was concerned, for Thompson dared not challenge him again, and for the following issue wrote about a Marxist poet instead.[11] All the same, the unrepentant Communist stood uncorrected, and in 1978 he launched a 303-page attack on Louis Althusser, a psychopath and former Stalinist who would end up murdering his wife and getting locked up in mental ward—in other words, a much weaker opponent. Thompson disliked Althusser's structuralist Marxism, and in the book (Poverty of Theory: An Orrery of Errors) called him and his followers 'Geschichtenscheissenschlopff, unhistorical shit'. Althusser didn't bother to reply, so it was left to his old enemy from the New Left Review, Perry Anderson, to try to shut him up again with a 218-page riposte.

Not all of Thompson's work consisted of revisionism or polemics. One meritorious work was Writing by Candlelight (1980), in which he criticises state suppression of dissident voices. Of course, his criticisms are coming from the Left, and he wrote during Jim Callaghan's premiership, which he, amazingly, deemed authoritarian and conservative, considering the BBC a paid-for instrument of conservatism, but what he said applies just as well to dissidents on the Right. Even a broken clock is right twice a day, so there is something to be learnt here.

As the Thatcher era dawned, Thompson's became obsessed with nuclear war and got involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Now, of course no one wants a thermonuclear holocaust, particularly anyone who has seen films like Threads (1984) or The Day After (1983), but this man wanted the United Kingdom—nay, the whole of Europe—to disarm unilaterally while Leonid Brezhnev and Ronald Reagan had their fingers on the Red Button. Combined, these gentlemen had 21,000 nuclear warheads at their disposal, adding up to 8.2 teratons of radioactive devastation. One would think that this would make any thought of unilateral disarmament somewhat preposterous, since it's unlikely there would've been anything left after a nuclear exchange of that size. Yet, Thompson was not averse to turning a negative into a positive, and he pumped out no less than three volumes of articles and essays on this topic alone. Thus, comrade Thompson cashed in on a fashionable trend, thanks to—his words—that 'old bitch, consumer capitalism'.

Exhausted from the polemics and the activism, Thompson moved to calmer pastures, and tried his hand at fiction. If only he'd stuck with it! An attempt at aping Jonathan Swift, at least he got good reviews without irritating anyone.

E. P. ThompsonThompson died on 28 August 1993, aged 69, but looking twenty years older. As with the portrait of Dorian Gray, an ugly ideology had left its mark.


[1] See Jonathan Bowden, "The Cambridge Cell at Cambridge University", published on Wermod and Wermod: Part 1, Part 2.

[2] David Evanier, "Stalin's cheerleader". The Weekly Standard. 19 May 2003.

[3] Referring to the meeting of the London Corresponding Society's meeting of 26 October 1795, at Copenhagen Fields, Islington, London, Thomson writes 'The claim that 100,000 to 150,000 attended cannot be dismissed' (157). Yet, other accounts refute this. In Britain in the Early Nineteenth Century, A. D. Harvey quotes a visitor, who later wronte, 'In the course of the day many thousands were doubtless in the field; but never at one time.--I was there between 2 & 3 & I don't believe there were 500 in the field, & I saw it at the fullest time as far as I can understand' (82). And in Stress and Stability in Late-Nineteenth Century Britain, I. R. Christie writes that the meeting was a small crowd, and that "[t]he idea that there was any mass support in London for the London Corresponding Society may be consigned to oblivion" (5o).

[4] Hannah More also wrote a rebuttal to Paine's The Rights of Man, titled Village Politics (1792).

[5] Robert Dozier, For King, Constitution and Country: The English Loyalists and the French Revolution (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1983) 91.

[6] Chris Evans, Revolution Debate: Britain in the 1790s. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006) 62.

[7] Geoffrey Levy, "The man who hated Britain: Red Ed's pledge to bring back socialism is a homage to his Marxist father. So what did Miliband Snr really believe in? The answer should disturb everyone who loves this country", Daily Mail. 27 September 2013. Web. Retrieved 27 August 2014.

[8] 'The May Day Manifesto', An Emotional Involvement: Chronicles of the student occupation of Liverpool University Senate House, March 1970. Web. Accessed 25 August 2014.

[9] E. P. Thompson, 'Open Letter to Leszek Kołakowski', Socialist Register 10 (1973).

[10] Leszek Kołakowski, 'My Correct Views on Everything', Socialist Register 11 (1974).

[11] E. P. Thompson, 'Caudwell', Socialist Register 12 (1975).

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