Chris Harman


Touching base

(January 1995)

Reviews, Socialist Review, No.182, January 1995.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Persons and PolemicsPersons and Polemics
E.P. Thompson
Merlin Press £12.95

The socialist historian E.P. Thompson compiled this selection of his own historical essays and articles shortly before he died last year. The result is a mixture of brilliant, stimulating and infuriating pieces.

The brilliant pieces are those where Thompson used his historical knowledge and polemical skills to hammer present day injustice and cant. This is true, for instance, of his pathmaking defence of the jury system against a previous Criminal Justice Act and his devastating onslaught on a historical study which attempts to excuse the behaviour of the magistrates and troops at Peterloo.

The stimulating pieces are the ones which throw new light on half forgotten periods and people. Notable is the essay on Tom McGuire – a member of William Morris’s Socialist League and founder of the Leeds Independent Labour Party – which shows how socialists began to get working class roots a century ago by relating to the struggles of unskilled workers. So too is the re-examination of the writings of Christopher Caudwell, who managed in two years to write four important works on poetry, culture and the crisis in physics before dying in the Spanish Civil War in 1937.

The reviews of Lawrence Stone’s well known work on the history of the early modern family and of Linda Colley’s account of the rise of British nationalism are not quite as original in their scope. But they thoroughly question both authors’ belief that you can draw conclusions about the behaviour and ideas of working people from accounts of what is known about their masters and mistresses, and will be a welcome corrective to anyone who has been carried away by the apparently awesome scholarship in both books.

There are, however, also infuriating pieces. Like most of his generation (he first became politically active in the early 1940s) Thompson received his first Marxist education from a Stalinised Communist Party. And he never fully recovered from this experience.

Not that he remained, in any sense, a Stalinist. He led the revolt against the British Communist Party’s support for the crushing of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and never looked back. His record on these matters was infinitely better than latter day opponents of Marxism like Martin Jacques and Bea Campbell who were still extolling the ‘socialist countries’ 20 years later.

But two elements of this experience continued to dominate his thinking and writing.

On the one hand there was an obsession with the Stalinist parody of Marx’s metaphor of an ‘economic base’ and a ‘political and ideological superstructure’. For the Stalinists this meant that in general the form of property in any society automatically determined the rest of social life. In particular they claimed that nationalised property in the Eastern Europe would necessarily lead to the flowering of human values. Thompson rejected this view from 1956 onwards, insisting on the centrality of ‘human agency’, and of struggle from below. But his rejection was, at times, not only of the Stalinist parody but also of the Marxist original, leading him to tend to detach the formation of people’s ideas from the material circumstances in which they found themselves.

So in one of the pieces in this collection he writes that the ‘definition of need in economic material terms tends to enforce a hierarchy of causation which afford insufficient priority to other needs: the needs of identity, the need of gender identity, the need for respect and status among working people themselves’. What he does not grasp is that it is precisely the attempts of people to make a livelihood for themselves in societies structured around a certain mode of production that leads to them developing particular ideas about ‘identity’, ‘gender’, ‘respect’ and ‘status’.

His failure to grasp this leads him to assert,

‘Marxism has so little helpful to say about so many of the great problems of the 20th century. The tenacity of nationalism, the whole problem of Nazism, the problem of Stalinism, of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, of the Cold War, which in my view does not arise out a conflict between modes of production or economies.’

Marxism has, in fact, had a great deal to say about all of these things – just think of Trotsky on German fascism, Gramsci on ‘the Southern Question’ in Italy, Bukharin on imperialism, state capitalism and the drive to war, Voloshinov on language and consciousness, Vance and Kidron on the permanent arms economy, Cliff on Russian state capitalism and Chinese Maoism. But all these works of Marxism lie well outside the orbit of the Stalinised Marxist tradition Thompson was educated in and rebelled against, and so hardly figure in his range of understanding.

The second element from the Stalinist experience which continued to influence Thompson’s thinking was the Popular Front tendency to slip from the concept of class to the concept of ‘people’. At times this was less explicit, but at others he veered a bit in the same direction, as in his famous introduction to The Making of the English Working Class where he tends to define a class in terms of its consciousness rather than its material circumstances.

The danger with such fudging of concepts is that it leads to forgetting that the power to change society depends upon finding a group that is structured inside society in such a way that it is driven by material circumstances to fight back. If revolutionaries cannot find such a group – called by Marx a ‘class in itself’ – then all the huffing and puffing about ‘agency’ and ideological struggle will get them nowhere: ‘The pump won’t work because the vandals stole the handle.’

Fortunately Thompson was anything but consistent, either in his aversion to ‘base and superstructure’ or in his confusion of ‘class’ and ‘people’. You will find in this collection excellent examples of the Marxist method properly used as well as maddening examples of a failure to understand what Marxism is really about.

One final point. The pieces are not all written at the same level of accessibility. A few are a treat for newcomers to socialist ideas, but many others presuppose an acquaintance with historical and theoretical questions. So readers who are new to Thompson’s work should not start with this book but with his wonderful The Making of the English Working Class.

Last updated on 21 December 2009