From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993, pp. 20–22.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
He was an awkward man. He once wrote, ‘For one must, to survive an unassimilated socialist in this infinitely assimilative culture, put oneself into a school of awkwardness. One must make one’s sensibility all knobbly – all knees and elbows of susceptibility and refusal.’
It was one of his great strengths, but it was also the source of his greatest weakness. Fortunately he was not consistent. His greatest work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), is informed by, indeed saturated with, the notions of solidarity, of collectivity, of sacrificing one’s own ego to the needs of a great cause, even when comrades in the struggle have manifest faults and failings.
His family background was religious, both his parents had been non-conformist missionaries in India, but it was also firmly anti-imperialist. Given this background, and the circumstances of the time, it is not surprising that E.P. Thompson joined the Communist Party in 1942. He was 18. The Second World War was at its height, radicalisation was growing in Britain and in the British armies overseas. Within a year he was a soldier in Italy.
The line of the CP at this time was extreme popular frontism. The ‘anti-fascist struggle’, led by Churchill, Stalin and Roosevelt, was the be all and end all. Yet there was a left wing undercurrent to this. The European resistance movements, the partisans, the underground, the Red Army – these were the aspects that appealed to millions.
Certainly to Thompson. His elder brother was to be executed after being taken prisoner in Bulgaria where he was serving with a partisan unit. In north Italy mass strikes rocked Mussolini’s fascist state to its foundations and there was a growing partisan movement there too. Members of the various Communist Parties played a prominent role in all this.
So Thompson came back to Britain, in late 1946, an enthusiastic Stalinist. He would probably not have accepted the description. Indeed, in a sense it is misleading. For although there was ample evidence of the real nature of Stalin’s dictatorship, of the carve up of Europe agreed between the three ‘anti-fascist’ chiefs, of their common determination to prevent the sort of liberation that Thompson and millions like him passionately believed in, this was not the evidence they saw.
So, with the onset of the Cold War in 1947, E.P. Thompson stayed loyal to the CP, his convictions no doubt strengthened by the marked shift to the right in the British labour movement and the growing intellectual reaction against all left wing ideas. He had been lucky to get a job as an extra-mural lecturer with Leeds University soon after the war. A year or two later this would have been impossible.
Yet any honest assessment must conclude that until 1956 Thompson was an uncritical apologist for Stalinism.
The year 1956 was a break for Thompson. Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing (some of) the crimes of the dead Stalin, and the Hungarian Revolution, marked a decisive turning point in Thompson’s life.
What came out of the events is best described in Thompson’s own words:
‘.... With John Savile and others, I was involved in producing a duplicated journal of discussion within the Communist Party, The Reasoner. Reasoning was disliked by the leadership of the Party and the editors were suspended from membership. Since this suspension coincided with the repression of the Hungarian Revolution (October-November 1956) – and the exodus of some 10,000 members from the British Communist Party – it was decided that our offensive activities might best be continued outside that structure and with the aid of other comrades, The New Reasoner was founded in 1957. This quarterly journal continued for two and a half years. It then merged with Universities and Left Review to form the New Left Review.’
This is the bones of an account. The flesh was the massive defection from the Communist Party. For the Stalinist CP of 1956 was not like its enfeebled successor, still less like the pitiful remnant which now calls itself ‘Democratic Left’. To be a CP member at that time was to be outside ‘respectable’ politics altogether, to be part of a persecuted but fighting minority inside the labour movement, to be an anti-imperialist at the time of British imperialism’s last attempt to reconquer Egypt (the Suez expedition coincided with the Russian repression in Hungary), to be, in short, a militant, however much militancy was distorted (as it was) in the interests of Russian imperialism.
Thousands of dissidents from that background might seem to promise the revival of a genuinely revolutionary tendency and tradition. What actually happened was the rapid emergence of what called itself ‘the New Left’. E.P. Thompson was one of the most prominent and certainly the most eloquent of its leading figures.
It was a very disparate and variegated movement that briefly sought to pull together dissidents from the CP, Labour lefts and ‘youth’. Thompson’s own perspective for it was expounded in the New Reasoner (Summer 1959):
‘... the Clubs and discussion centres will be places beyond the interference of the bureaucracy, where initiative remains in the hands of the rank and file... Their influence will pervade the labour movement, as the Campaign [CND] is coming to pervade it, but because this influence derives from ideas it will elude administrative control. The bureaucracy will hold the machine; but the New Left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation.’
In plain words, the New Left will not make any organised intervention in the struggle between left and right in the working class movement and therefore not in the class struggle day to day, because that inevitably involves a struggle with ‘the bureaucracies’ too. It was an utterly utopian project.
A year or so later in 1961, the late Peter Sedgewick, a member of our organisation wrote the obituary of the New Left in International Socialism (founded in 1960, the same year as New Left Review): ‘From the spring of 1957 until around the summer of 1961, a British political movement which became known as the “New Left” flourished hectically before entering a fatal decline ... Not the faintest murmur of this movement now remains.’
That ended E.P. Thompson’s active engagement in organisational terms. He wrote, years later, of the original New Left team:
‘We had reached a point of personal, financial and organisational exhaustion; and at this moment, the agent of history appeared in the form of Perry Anderson. We were exhausted: he was intellectually fertile, immensely self-concentrated, decisive. We saw, in a partnership with him and his colleagues, an opportunity to regenerate the review and to recuperate our own squandered intellectual resources. We did not, as it happens, anticipate that the first expression of his decisiveness would be to dismiss the review’s founders from its board.’
A vast amount of ink has been spent by both Anderson and Thompson on this dispute. Nearly all of it misses the point, which is how to relate to and participate in the actual workers’ movement and the actual class struggle that goes on from day to day. Their disputes, therefore, were largely Irrelevant to revolutionary socialists. Largely, but not entirely. For Thompson was moved to make some important theoretical contributions.
Anderson, Nairn and others had argued that Britain was peculiarly backward, that its bourgeois revolution (in the 17th century) was premature and incomplete, that the aristocracy still held considerable power (never having been overthrown) and that, in England, ‘a supine bourgeoisie produced a subordinate proletariat.’
Thompson had no difficulty at all in demolishing this writing off the working class, the English bourgeois revolution, the intellectual achievements of English bourgeois society (dismissed by Anderson as ‘this blanketing English fog’) which include Newton, Darwin and many other pioneers.
Thompson’s victory was, intellectually decisive.
What is Thompson’s lasting contribution? It is, undoubtedly The Making of the English Working Class.
It is not really a comprehensive and consecutive history of the period it seeks to cover (up to 1830 more or less) but rather a series of brilliant essays. Yet, to paraphrase Thompson, worth any ten volumes of bourgeois academic or Andersonian New Left writing.
There are of course some controversial matters which are not resolved in the book. ‘And class happens when some men, as a result of common experience (inherited or shared) feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.’ This of course is Marx’s class for itself as opposed to the class in itself. But what about the reality of the ‘class in itself’? Other criticisms could be made.
No matter. This is Thompson’s lasting monument.
Last updated on 24 February 2017