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Reply to Angus Hone
From International Socialism (1st series), No.25, Summer 1966, pp.16-17.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
I ought to have nothing to say in reply to Mr Angus Hone’s semi-hysterical attack (IS 24) upon my unpretentious review of E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class (IS 23). I can only conclude after carefully rereading his letter many times as well as rereading my original review that Mr Hone’s churlishness was based on his antipathy to Marxism, his antipathy to E.P. Thompson and his fear of attacking Thompson directly, and his fear of the working class. It is very hard as one reads his tirade to see why he never cites any evidence for his assertions. He is obviously bothered by Thompson’s fine book but is so filled with a sense of awe faced with that monumental work that he resorts to an attack on some foreigner who is not likely to thrash him publicly.
Let us, however, for the sake of international socialist understanding, deal with his points, such as they are.
- He suggests that the matter of the cost of living and wage indices in the period are very complex matters. Indeed, indeed. So they are. I asserted that Thompson ultimately destroyed the opposition. Hone is not convinced. My assertion is based on Thompson’s argument. Hone’s assertion is based on a great deal of erudition, which having nothing to do with anything in question can only be seen as a verbal smokescreen. (Hone understands academic life. If you have nothing to say, make many references to the complex bibliography of the subject.) But when we conclude reading Hone’s barrage and Rawick’s review we discover that Rawick likes Thompson’s evidence, Hone isn’t very certain about it. Which leaves the reader of this grimy battle of words the task of reading Thompson’s book, which would make of an otherwise absurd experience for the gentle reader, an occasion of significance.
- He suggests I have not read Smelser’s The Family in the Industrial Revolution very carefully. I assert that I have. So what? The main point is that Thompson deals brilliantly and carefully with Smelser’s neo-conservative sociological analysis – Smelser, the very bright disciple of Talcott Parsons, is virtually the only anti-Marxist sociologist of the first rank worth taking seriously enough to debate – and once again the reader is left with Hone’s assertion, Rawick’s assertion, and E.P. Thompson’s careful discussion.
- Mr Hone engages in a very long and rather boring tirade to prove that the main points of Thompson’s book deal with the period 1790 to 1832, not 1750 to 1832. The point has some slight merit, but only one of pedantic accuracy, similar in quality to Hone’s profound correction, for which I thank him, that the soldiers at Peterloo charged with sabres instead of shooting at the demonstrators. Neither of these overthrow the basic theoretical comprehension of Thompson that the English working class in making itself, led the nation to a widening of democracy. And that is, in my opinion, a reworking of Postgate and Cole who are so involved in demonstrating the solid plebian virtues of the working class that they never really comprehend its truly revolutionary character. And while Thompson’s book does not make Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class any less important – nor does it replace Marx’s Capital – it certainly broadens and deepens our comprehension of their basic points.
- Mr Hone does not think that the English working class in the period held the possibility of revolution. He cites ‘any’ reading of Georges Lefebvre’s work on the French Revolution as ‘leading’ one to suspect that revolutionary ferment in England was no substitute for revolutionary crisis in France. Ignoring the logical problems in that comment, and attempting to understand that what he means to say is that there was no revolutionary crisis or potential crisis in England, I must be allowed to disagree with Hone’s reading of Lefebvre. For that matter, my reading of Lefebvre and Thompson together leads me to the opposite conclusion – how close, in fact, seen from below, from the vantage point of the labouring men and women, the two situations really were. In fact, my reading of the history of the modern working class in many countries leads me to conclude that the modern working class is always in a revolutionary situation; indeed, that is true equally of the American working class today as it was then, and is now, of the English working class. (In an original draft of my review of Thompson’s book I made this point, but then left it out when the editor of IS seemed a bit surprised about the matter. I did not have the time to make the point adequately then and still don’t. But I must assert it.) Revolutions are strange events. Hardly anyone – except for some revolutionaries – ever expects them to occur. For example, it is only with historical hindsight that we see how the events of the night of 4 August 1789, in France, came about. No one expected them to occur. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were surprised when their disagreement with the British Crown and Parliament led to the events at Lexington and Concord. Lenin believed in January 1917 that he would never live to see the Russian Revolution and in April 1917 it was only Lenin – and myriads of unknown workers – who believed that the working class could soon take power. In the late nineteen-forties the social scientists proved that the eastern European working class could not rise against a totalitarian regime and even after the workers of East Berlin in 1953 demonstrated that this was false they continued to make the same analysis until the workers of Budapest proved – in action – that they were wrong. Who in 1955 would have believed that the refusal of a Negro woman in Montgomery, Alabama, to stand in the segregated section of a bus would set off that ongoing revolution of Negro Americans which has taken the world by storm?
A final word. The main point is that Thompson’s book is magnificent fork deals with the heart of the revolutionary process – the self-activity of the working-class – and that it ought to be widely read and studied.
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