From International Socialism (1st series), No. 2, Autumn 1960, pp. 32–33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Out of Apathy
Edited by E.P. Thompson
Stevens & Sons, 1960, 15s.
It would be difficult to find a better description of apathy than E.P. Thompson’s, in his introductory essay, namely that it is the state in which people look for private solutions to public evils. The essayists proceed to enlarge and refine the description. Ralph Samuel documents the ascendancy of private business as the huge feudatories in ‘bastard capitalism’; Stuart Hall describes the insane priorities inherent in it, which net advertising and wrappings greater expenditure than education; E.P. Thompson gives a slip-by-slip account of British intellectualism’s fall from public service to the corrals of (American) private foundations; Alasdair MacIntyre analyses the ideology of apathy as it is evolved in the universities (a brilliant contribution this). Altogether – a string of sensitive, fresh probes into the shape of apathy, but very little to do with its roots.
We must presume that if people look for private solutions to public evils they have sensed that such solutions offer some semblance of an answer to the problems they meet or are likely to meet. Surely collective action has always resulted from the demonstration of individual inadequacy when faced with certain problems? Put in this way, a discussion of apathy seems valueless without a consideration of the conditions which permit private and real solutions to be congruent tq some degree, in other words the conditions which relax the imperative for collective action and allow its replacement by an aggregate of individual acts.
What are these conditions? Collective action by whom? How do conditions and collective action react on each other? It is a weakness of the book that nowhere does it give a systematic exposition geared to these questions. True, one paragraph in Thompson’s introduction might be considered to refer obliquely to the problem. ‘The reasons why capitalism has been left to rot on the bough’ he writes, ‘are implicit in reformism’s ability to win substantial concessions for the people in the context of dominant imperialism; implicit in the revulsion from Stalinism which came to be associated with the transition to socialism; in the consequent hardening of reformism – seemingly the only alternative to Stalinism – into a dogma; and in capitalism’s latter day war-nurtured stability.’
These may or may not be the underlying features of our age; they are certainly not immediately relevant to the rule of apathy. First, whatever else reformism is, it is not nor has it ever been, a movement divorced from collective action; in this sense it is not Stalinism’s antithesis. Second, it is not very meaningful to relate factors such as a war economy to apathy without reference to apathy’s positive – consciousness. This is not merely to state that apathy and consciousness are antonyms; in politics they are that but also more: while they can both be defined in terms of the status quo, the one implicitly accepting its continuance, the other questioning this continuance, the one is a phenomenon of individuals while the other is a phenomenon of class. If the war economy and the other factors mentioned by Thompson have anything to do with apathy, as I believe they have, it is not some wondrous alchemy that transforms them into personal withdrawal. The chaotic boom has affected different regions and different industries differently, war-sustained technical innovation has accentuated the disparity of conditions in different places of work; the anomalies of union structure and complexities of industrial structure have added their tangles, to the end that the common fate of being exploited and employed tends to be lost in the detail of being exploited in this particular manner and employed by this particular firm. Sectional loyalties burgeon in this soil and go so far, as Dennis Butt pointed out in his interesting article on the motor industry (NLR3), as to overwhelm class loyalties in some cases, and certainly go some way to blunting class consciousness and loyalty in general. It is this decline of class consciousness, this tendency towards fragmentation of the class struggle into its local constituents, which has corroded not only revolutionary socialism in this country, but also reformism and Stalinism which, in their twisted way, also owe their existence to some degree of class consciousness in .the ranks of the workers. It is the filter through which capitalist prosperity must percolate to become apathy. Unfortunately, it is something whose existence does not seem to have been noticed by the authors of this volume, or if noticed, not considered sufficiently important to warrant full-length treatment.
I say “unfortunately” in no patronizing tone. The New Left has brought two very real treasures to the socialist movement: a sensitivity to the falsities and contradictions which go to make contemporary society east and west of the Iron Curtain, and a tireless assertion of human agency and human (as distinct from class) consciousness as the creators of history. These two characteristics are alone, eloquent protest at the indignities heaped on socialist thought by the orthodoxies of Stalinism and Social-Democracy; for this alone, given the miserable scale by which we measure such things today, the New Left is a potent force for good in British socialism. But these are not enough in themselves. What is needed is an analysis of contemporary capitalism in terms of its impact on working class consciousness, prescriptions tailored to the weakness and strength of class consciousness today; in fact the recognition that class consciousness is the material with which we deal as socialists with a view to transforming it into a material force in its own right. Without this at its centre, socialist analysis loses its coherence and socialist programs their reality. Both afflictions can be seen in this volume of essays. I have touched on the first; I might have done more to show how their belittling of the material constraints to social formation and the material culture for class consciousness makes for the New Left’s bewildered posture in the face of so many current problems. Leaving aside the roots of apathy, have four decades of Russia plus the Hungarian revolution not elicited the suspicion from, say, Ken Alexander that Stalinism might not be socialism? Can – this is addressed to Peter Worsley – Ghana, India, etc., really be ripe for socialism, even with the addition of the British arms budget, unless there occurs a revolutionary change in the rest of the world. Are there, comrades of the New Left, really no material factors which define what is, and what is not, possible? The crucial weakness of the essays is the absence of a program. I don’t mean that the essays are devoid of concrete proposals and demands. On the contrary, a vast range is covered from Peter Worsley’s call to implement the “paper plans for SUNFED on an enormous scale”, to Thompson’s demand for a withdrawal from NATO. What I do mean is that each demand is put forward as a good idea in itself unrelated to material considerations of class power and consciousness, lacking in the coherence that derives from class activity and therefore unable to link up and sustain the fragments of class struggle which are always with us into a broad, integrated and thus socialist, movement. I shall take E.P. Thompson’s concluding essay, Revolution, to substantiate this thesis.  There is no quarrel with his rejection of the schematic, toy-soldier approach to revolution and social change held by the sectarian Left; I agree that “it is necessary to find out the breaking point (in capitalism – MK) ... in practice by unrelenting reforming pressures in many fields, which are designed to reach a revolutionary culmination”. It is true that “this will entail a confrontation, throughout society, between two systems, two ways of life” and that “in this confrontation, political consciousness will become heightened”. All this is well stated, but something is missing. Confrontation between whom? One presumes, one hopes, that Thompson means Labour and Capital, the working class and the capitalist class (not the idea of progress and the idea of stasis), but it is nowhere clearly stated. And the tiny fuzz that surrounds this question spreads rapidly: the moment Thompson directs the working class offstage in his social confrontation, the state of that class’s political and social consciousness becomes of no immediate concern to him. It then becomes easy for Thompson to fix that consciousness: to give it its goals, to – and this is the crux – ignore the material factors in its development, (just like the “vanguardists” and “voluntarists” which he inveighs against with such vigour). And so he blithely writes off “disaster as the prelude to advance” forgetting that by disaster socialists have always understood those crises of capitalism – economic or political – which have fused individual and sectional struggles into classwide struggles, which have heightened consciousness of class and of the power of collective action; in other words, by disaster socialists have always understood precisely those conditions which bring together those “unrelenting reforming pressures in many fields” at a time when they can be satisfied only through a “revolutionary culmination”.
But Thompson will have none of this talk of ‘conditions’ and suchlike in his sweeping revolt against determinism and ends up by more or less equating the struggle for socialism with the struggle for a change in attitudes within the socialist movement: “What is required is a new tense of immediacy”; “a break with parliamentary fetishism”; “research and discussion”. Yes; but how? It is time to sum up. Out of Apathy contains a lot of the good and a lot of the bad in the New Left. It is fresh and keenly sensitive to the more subtle brutalities of capitalism; it is passionate in asserting man’s responsibility for history, man’s creativity. But it shies away from a class analysis; it is blind to the material power of working class consciousness; it belittles the factors which impinge upon that consciousness. It has ideas, but unless these ideas become working-class ideas aimed at working class power they will remain irrelevant to the socialist movement and powerless to advance it.
1. This essay and another by Ken Alexander, Power at the Base, constitute the ‘programmatic’ section of the book. I have chosen Thompson as antagonist rather than Alexander, for no other reasons than that I have already had a fair crack at the latter on an essentially similar issue (See The Limits of Reform, Socialist Review, mid-June 1959, reprinted in New Reasoner 10) and because of Thompson’s rare gift for distilling an argument into a few sentences. Alexander’s essay is, in fact, a most thoughtful and stimulating contribution and, indeed, the only one likely to be recognised by working-class militants as bearing on their problems.
Last updated on 17 February 2017