E P Thompson 1960

At the Point of Decay

Source: The introductory chapter in E P Thompson (ed), Out Of Apathy (Stevens and Sons, London, 1960). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The contents of Out Of Apathy were as follows:

Norman Birnbaum, Foreword
E P Thompson, At the Point of Decay
Ralph Samuel, ‘Bastard’ Capitalism
Stuart Hall, The Supply of Demand
Peter Worsley, Imperial Retreat
E P Thompson, Outside the Whale [1]
Alasdair MacIntyre, Breaking the Chains of Reason
Kenneth Alexander, Power at the Base
E P Thompson, Revolution.

It is often said that the original ‘dynamic’ of the socialist movement derived from the ‘politics of hunger’. Now that extreme want and mass unemployment are things of the past, socialists should dilute their policies in an effort to adjust to the mood of the electorate; or they should look around for another dynamic.

It is true that absolute standards of welfare have risen (making the politics of absolute hunger irrelevant). What is false is the suggestion that the elimination of extreme want has ever been, for socialists, a sufficient end in itself. Rather, this end has been shared with the radical and with the liberal traditions. The Chartist movement was shaped by the politics of hunger, but it was not socialist. It was Lord Beveridge who wrote the Preamble to the welfare state.

The socialist end has been the creation – not of equality of opportunity within an acquisitive society but of a society of equals, a cooperative community. The prerequisite for this is the replacement of production for profit by production for use. A socialist society might be underdeveloped or overdeveloped, poor or affluent. The distinction between socialist and capitalist society is to be found, not in the level of productivity, but in the characteristic relations of production, in the ordering of social priorities, and in its whole way of life.

When seen from this point of view, contemporary British society gives as much reason for outrage as the society of the 1880s or 1930s. A decade which sat for its own portrait in Room at the Top, which adopted the motto ‘Opportunity State’, and which allowed the priorities of the salesman, the general and the speculator to override all other needs, was in a fair way to fulfilling the slogan of the old capitalist Adam: ‘To each according to his greed.’

But why, if this is true, has the sense of outrage found so little direct expression? Why has the Labour Party sailed ever closer to the wind of accommodation, and, at the same time, lost electoral favour among the people? Why do the traditional institutions of the Labour Movement suffer from the problems of ageing and of bureaucratisation?

‘Apathy.’ The answer, only too often, serves to close the inquiry. But since it is evident that apathy is a symptom as much as it is a cause, it seemed to us that it was at this point that our analysis must begin. To start at the other end, to debate the merits of rival policies, is as foolish as to argue the merits of rival courses of medical treatment before a diagnosis has been made.

If he is to follow our argument, the reader will need one or two guide-lines. We have, in part, discounted the two most common explanations of apathy. The first is that people are apathetic about public affairs because their prosperity leaves no room for discontent. The truth in this explanation readers can document from their own experience without putting themselves to the trouble of reading this book. But they can also gather, out of their own experience, all the evidence that is needed to show how inadequate this explanation is. Most British working people and many professional people are far from content with their standard of living. Once we have crossed the threshold of absolute deprivation (of food, clothing, medicine) the high-powered salesmanship of an acquisitive society tends to aggravate, not to diminish, material discontents. It is the business of the copy-writers to ensure that we are under constant solicitations to keep up with the Joneses. We need only scratch the surface of social life to find, not contentment, but envy, frustration and on occasion violence not far below. We can probe deeper, as Richard Hoggart has done, and discover more ugly propensities which are exploited by the commercial media.

What is peculiar to the apathetic decade is that people have, increasingly, looked to private solutions to public evils. Private ambitions have displaced social aspirations. And people have come to feel their grievances as personal to themselves, and, similarly, the grievances of other people are felt to be the affair of other people. If a connection between the two is made, people tend to feel – in the prevailing apathy – that they are impotent to effect any change.

Here we are brought to the second most common explanation of apathy: it is an expression of the impotence of the individual in the face of contemporary institutions – the small man in the vast corporate enterprise, the single citizen confronted by the state, the individual trade unionist within the union ‘machine’. We are very far from discounting this important feature of an ‘overdeveloped society'; people are, in fact, apathetic because society looks like this, from below, and especially to the postwar generation which finds itself confronted by institutions which originated in a prewar context, set in their routines and ideas, and officered by older men. But these facts must also be put into their context, and important qualifications must be made. The isolated individual has always felt himself to be impotent to change his social environment, except when in association with other individuals. British society is warrened with democratic processes – committees, voluntary organisations, councils, electoral procedures – but in recent years fewer and fewer people have felt it worthwhile to work their way through these passages. The important words here are ‘worthwhile’ – ‘It’s not worth the racket.’ – ‘I'm not bothered.’ – ‘Let it drop.’ – ‘What can you do?’ – ‘They're all the same.’ And behind these phrases there is the unspoken assumption that any results which may accrue from public action are bound to be disproportionate to the effort involved. The institutions themselves have become so deeply involved in the maintenance of the status quo that the energies of dissent become dispersed within them long before they touch the centre of power.

But, alongside this, the increasing complexity of industrial organisation, and the size of the modern private or public corporation, bring with them a new vulnerability. As The Times complained in a leading editorial (’the Disruptors’, 27 January 1960):

... a strike of 200 Birmingham crane drivers and slingers threw some 6000 others out of work... a stoppage of about 300 door assemblers made nearly 9300 other workers idle... The [motor] industry has become so interlocked that a strike by a handful of men in one factory can affect thousands of others in the same and other factories.

Colliery engine-winders can halt the pits: bus or tube drivers can disorganise the metropolis: a few score electricians can cut off power supplies to a whole industrial region. Nor is there any inherent constitutional or institutional reason why the status quo might not be challenged, from the top as from the bottom. The TUC might call a General Strike tomorrow – if it were not for the apathy of its members. A breakaway socialist group might contest a by-election – if it were not that the electorate accept the conventions of the game.

So that the apparent immobility of ‘the Establishment’ conceals points of extreme sensitivity; and, equally, the bureaucratisation of public life (most noticeable in the Labour Movement) is as much a product of apathy as a cause. And where a part of the public has agitated for some important change, it has not found itself to be wholly impotent. So far from an imperturbable Establishment brushing off all attacks with a bored Edwardian gesture, we find that it is only necessary for a shop steward to ring a hand-bell in Briggs Motors, or for several score Direct Action demonstrators to go outside the conventions of ‘the game political’, to send it into a dither. So long as discontent expresses itself within the authorised institutional channels, and participates in what Ralph Miliband has called ‘a BBC world of minor disagreements’, it appears to encounter immovable forces. When discontent expresses itself outside these channels – not anywhere outside, but at the right point with the right lever – the Establishment appears to rest upon an equilibrium of forces so delicate that it is forced to respond to determined pressure. In twelve months of consistent agitation a few thousand members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament failed to attain their objectives; but they brought the Labour Party to the verge of crisis, sent its leaders hurrying to emergency meetings, created a furore in a million-strong union whose name had become a by-word for bureaucratic centralism, modified the tone of our intellectual life, expedited the ending of nuclear tests, and contributed a new stock of wary, peace-loving platitudes to the politicians’ vocabulary. For the politicians can only keep the public apathetic by pretending to want very much the same things as the public wants, and by pretending that they, in turn, are prevented from achieving these aims by their own impotence in the face of overwhelming circumstances – Russian intransigence or the inflationary spiral – which hem them in.

So impotence turns out to be only a rephrasing of the question: the individual’s sense of impotence consists, at least in part, in the apathy of other individuals. And people are apathetic today because they do not want to act; they may not be contented as they are, but they do not believe that there is any workable alternative, or they very much dislike any alternative (such as Communism) which is proposed. This being so, they will make their own lives in their own way. And they are indifferent to politics because – if there are no real alternatives – it does not matter very much which lot gets in. The politicians have proclaimed for so long that they are at the mercy of circumstances that circumstances might just as well pick the next Cabinet.

But perhaps the apathetic are right? Perhaps there is no viable alternative to the present uneasy equilibrium of forces within a class-divided acquisitive society? Or perhaps it is in the interests of ruling powers to induce the belief that there is no alternative, and since these powers control the media which form public opinion, the dissident individual is indeed impotent in the face of an apathy mass-produced from above?

So long as we conduct the argument in conventional terms, both propositions are true. The present equilibrium of forces is precarious, and any sudden shift of power could precipitate crisis. A necessary part of that equilibrium is that political energies shall be confined within the authorised conventions of public life. And the media controlled by the Establishment (including the orthodox Labour Establishment) exert a continual persuasive influence to assert the conventions of the game, and to ridicule or isolate or ignore all those who step outside them: in brief, to induce public apathy. But if we conduct the argument in different terms we discover that neither proposition need remain true, and at the same time we find a way out of apathy.

* * *

This is what is attempted in this book. What is proposed here is that Britain is over-ripe for socialism. Over-ripe, not ripe. ‘Ripe’ might suggest only that the objective preconditions for forms of socialist ownership and social organisation had matured, and that we might effect a transition to socialism whenever public opinion concurs. But by ‘over-ripe’ something else is intended – we have passed the point of maturity and processes of decay have set in. Apathy is the form which this decay takes in our public life. Any vigorous initiative which probes beyond the conventional limits of party controversy calls in question the continuance of the capitalist system. If we nationalise engineering and the motor industry as well as steel, we may tip the balance against the private sector. If we tax the rich more severely and divert resources to the non-profit-making public services, we may slow down the metabolism of a capitalist economy. If we contract out of NATO, we would run the risk of complete economic and political disorientation. At each point the initiative might provoke repercussions which would necessitate a total transformation of relations of production, forms of power, alliances and trade agreements, and institutions: that is, a socialist revolution. But for such a transformation public opinion is unprepared; and least prepared of all is the orthodox Labour Movement which (despite the debates on Clause 4) has for years undertaken no serious thinking about the practicability of an immediate transition to socialism.

The reasons why capitalism has been left to rot on the bough are complex. First, in the context of dominant imperialism it was possible for liberal reformism (sometimes mistaking itself for ‘socialism’) to continue to win substantial benefits for the people. Second, the experience of the Russian revolution made the concept of a revolutionary transition – any transition – to socialism appear to be synonymous with bloodshed, civil war, censorship, purges and the rest – a confusion which the apologetics of indigenous Communists did a good deal to perpetuate. Third, this experience hardened the doctrines of reformism into dogma, to the point where the British Labour Movement has become largely parasitic upon the capitalist economy, with deep vested interests in its continuance, since all local reforms (whether for more wages or more welfare) are seen as dependent upon its continued health and growth. Finally, the capitalist economy was given a fresh lease of life in war, postwar recovery, and next-war preparations, while the flagrant corruptions of postwar Communism diminished still further within Britain the desire to consider any revolutionary alternative. So that British people find themselves today, with the assent of orthodox Labour, within the grand defensive alliance of international capitalism, and exposed on every side to the ideology of apathy.

Perhaps we should now find a different analogy for the over-ripe apple, since we are dealing not with one organism but with two – the declining capitalist, and the immanent socialist. ‘Last-stage’ capitalism is not a healthy growth; rather, it is like a cramped apple tree, starved of sun and air, which has begun to ‘shoot’ at the top. And the immanent community of socialism, which is expressed in the powerful institutions of the Labour Movement and in a hundred forms of democratic association and control, is like a man whose psychic and physical energies are exhausted because they are exerted in a struggle against himself, in an effort to bring the demons of rebellion within him under control. Throughout the movement there are inhibitions, checks, taboos, constitutional impediments, designed to prevent the democratic organisations of the people from fulfilling active democratic functions; restraining or turning back upon themselves energies which might otherwise flow rebelliously outwards into public life. The impulse is divided from the function; Labour constituency workers are headed off from any action outside the conventions; the industrial power of the people must be salted down into reserves; the nationalised industries instead of being pace-setters must service the private sector. And, since there are prohibitions thrown across all the natural lines of growth, the movement itself is in danger of dying at the root.

Of all this the public is more or less aware. Certainly, people are more aware of prohibitions and of inhibitions than of opportunities. When the Conservative Minister of Defence informs them that Britain’s minimum ‘insurance’ against war is 1500 millions (on war preparations), people recall that the same prohibition was implicit in Mr Gaitskell’s and Mr Bevan’s rejection of unilateral nuclear disarmament. The Tory electoral jibe that Labour was offering more than the nation could ‘afford’ stuck because people were aware that this system will cease to work if profits are taxed beyond a certain point – and no alternative was offered. Striking crane drivers and oxygen workers are aware of their own power; but since this power is not felt to be part of any overall strategy of social advance, and since the employers, the state, the press and the TUC unite in telling them that the use of their power is unfair, undisciplined or criminal, they feel their own power to be anti-social.

Among these prohibitions and inhibitions apathy sets in. But, in the absence of an alert public conscience and democratic participation in social life, active decay may spread to the point where the very conventions of the ‘game’ are themselves eaten away. Capitalist society can then become atomised, and a cockpit for rival groups of ultras who seek to hold the community to ransom in their own private interests. The ultras may be Kenya settlers, price-fixing monopolies, take-over-bid financiers, irresponsible press magnates, or even key industrial workers deprived of any overall socialist strategy and striking blindly in their own interests. When this point is reached (and we may be close to it now) apathy could lead on by rapid stages to the authoritarian state.

The alternative is a reorientation of British democratic thinking, and of the institutions of the Labour Movement, towards the attainment of a democratic socialist revolution. By this we mean, not the iron dictatorship of the proletariat and the rest. No socialist revolution is conceivable in Britain unless we can fashion a new and humanised image of a socialist society within our reach, which is clearly distinguished from both the Communist experience and the experience of over-centralised bureaucratic state monopoly. But this is the ‘image’ for which we should be looking. It is necessary to follow through each line of thought to the point where it breaks through the conventions within which our life is confined. What will happen if we go naked into the conference chamber? What will happen if we cease to pay ‘insurance’ and opt out of the alliances of the ‘Free World'? What will happen if trade unionists begin to use their strength within an overall strategy of advance? What will happen if the economic equilibrium is disturbed? And then each line must be brought together in the knot of revolution.

If our argument is valid, then this is not a distant but an immediate problem. It is no longer possible to accept the Fabian prescription of gradual evolution ‘towards’ socialism by means of episodic reforms stretching over the horizon into some never-never land in the twenty-first century. We must draw a firm line beneath the Fabian era. If the alternative appears ‘Utopian’, it is less Utopian than the attempt of socialists to pull themselves up by the bootlaces of capitalism, and more realistic than the strategy of nuclear stagnation within which the present folly of politicians and apathy of the public are contained.

While there are points at which we disagree (especially Alasdair MacIntyre, who as a Trotskyite differs in some ways from all the other contributors) we have attempted a real collaboration. In the first section, we examine the ‘foreground'; the private and public face of the Business Society. In the second section, we examine the international and ideological ‘background'; the diplomatic and intellectual dogmas which restrain us. In the final section we examine more directly the question of the ‘transition’ to socialism.

Some readers may complain that our argument is remote from the hard facts of contemporary political life. Why no detailed discussion of political means, no declaration of allegiance with this or that group within the councils of the Labour Party? There are two answers. First, this discussion will be the subject-matter for future books and is a continual theme of the New Left Review. Second, our allegiance lies with the ‘rank and file’ of the Labour Movement and with those young people who are acting already against the imbecilities of our society but who are not satisfied with the traditional routines of Labour. The former have, by their stubborn defensive ‘holding actions’ over the past fifteen years, made it possible for us to consider the strategy for a renewed offensive. The latter, by bringing back into public life the unconditional temper of the Aldermaston marches, have given us hope that this strategy will be successful.

We are not (as no doubt we may be represented) aloof and academic critics. We have been in there in the defensive battles; we have all done our envelopes, canvassed, served on committees, marched and the rest. And we may ask questions in our turn. How much longer can the Labour Movement hold to its defensive positions and still maintain morale? Is the aim of socialism to recede for ever in the trivia of circumstances? Are we to remain for ever as exploited, acquisitive men? It is because the majority of Labour politicians have ceased to hold any real belief in an alternative to capitalism that their kind of politics has become irrelevant. And it is because we have taken our share in the chores of the movement that we have a right to question their credentials. Who are they? Where are they going? Are they leading us anywhere at all? Or are they just apathetic bailiffs, waiting for the old master to die and the new to inherit the estates?


1. Available on the MIA at < https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1978/outside-whale.htm >.