From Socialist Review, No. 9, February 1979, pp. 22–25.
Transcribed by Christian Hogsbjerg, with thanks to Ian Birchall
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays
Reading this selection of essays by one of the most outstanding marxist writers in Britain today, I was struck by the continuity in Edward Thompson’s thought.
Thompson resigned from the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956 after the Russian invasion of Hungary. One reason for leaving the party was the persecution he and John Saville suffered at the hands of the leadership for producing an opposition bulletin, The Reasoner.
Thompson was rebelling against a ‘marxism’ which denied conscious human agency any part in making history. In the last issue of The Reasoner, he wrote: ‘Stalinism is socialist theory and practice which has lost the ingredient of humanity’.
In all his writings since that time, Thompson has sought to restore ‘the ingredient of humanity’ to marxism. So in The Making of the English Working Class he is writing in opposition to the Stalinist history which sees the working class as the passive product of the workings of capitalism: ‘the working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making’.
Thompson focuses upon the formation of class consciousness. To quote from the preface to The Making of the English Working Class:
‘Class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (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. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily. Class consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas and institutional forms. If the experience appears determined, class consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law’.
It is this theoretical preoccupation with class consciousness which informs Thompson’s detailed and sensitive reconstruction of working-class experience during the industrial revolution: he is concerned to show how the English working class took conscious shape out of that experience.
Thompson’s humanistic marxism, with its stress on socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class, also runs through this collection of essays. Written with the zest and skill of a great polemicist, they are aimed at different challenges to marxism so conceived.
Thompson’s chief target is the ‘marxism’ popularised by the editors of the New Left Review. He helped to found the review in 1960, but, with other leading lights of the ‘Old New Left’ many of whom, like him, had left the CP in 1956, was kicked off the editorial board when Perry Anderson took over as editor in 1963.
One of the premises on which NLR has operated since that time is that no native British marxist tradition of any significance exists. To make up the deficit Anderson has, in the pages of the review and through its attached publishing house, New Left Books, resorted to the wholesale importation of ‘western marxism’ – the work of continental writers like Lukacs, Korsch, Gramsci, Benjamin, Horkheimer, Delia Volpe, Marcuse, Lefebvre, Adorno, Sartre, Goldmann, Althusser, Colletti.
This approach could not fail to outrage Thompson. He felt himself part of an authentic British marxist tradition, stretching back as far as William Morris (to whom he devoted a fine study, recently republished) but involving, crucially, the Communist Party.
Thompson was one of a generation of intellectuals who, attracted to the Communist Party during the Popular Front period in the 1930s and 1940s, stuck to it during the Cold War, leaving (if at all) in 1956. This group included in particular a number of brilliant historians who have made an important contribution to marxist theory in this field – the names of Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton (apart, of course, from Thompson himself) spring to mind.
Moreover, as active members of the Communist Party, they sought to unite theory and practice, albeit in a distorted Stalinist form. This sets them apart from ‘western marxism’, of which even Anderson recently admitted: ‘the first and most fundamental of its characteristics has been the structural divorce of this marxism from political practice’.
In a superb essay, first published in 1965 and reprinted here; The Peculiarities of the English, Thompson entered the ring to defend the tradition to which he belonged by examining the interpretation of English history developed by Anderson and his co-thinker Tom Nairn. As David Widgery put it, in this essay ‘the Anderson-Nairn theses were dismantled, like an elaborate but obviously defective motor-mower’.
The same concerns pervade Thompson’s long Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski, first published in 1974. Here Thompson addresses another member of the generation of 1956. Kolakowski was one of the intellectual leaders of the anti-stalinist opposition during the Polish Spring of 1956. However, since his expulsion from Poland in 1968 Kolakowski has expressed his disillusionment with marxism more and more openly.
Thompson used the occasion to reassert the validity of the democratic, libertarian communism for which Kolakowski and he had fought in 1956. He does so in opposition to the elitistm marxism of those, like Anderson, who have drunk of ‘the Cartesian well’ of Sartre and Althusser.
In The Poverty of Theory, published here for the first time and much the longest essay in the book, Thompson dives into the Cartesian well itself. He does not like what he finds.
The essay is devoted to a highly critical examination of the ideas of Louis Althusser. Thompson describes Althusser’s system as ‘an orrery of errors’ (an orrery is, according to Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary, a ‘clockwork model of the solar system’: the essay comes complete with diagrams showing how Althusser’s complicated system of concepts works – or doesn’t work).
Thompson argues at great length that Althusser, by denying the contribution of experience to theory, of history to marxism, of self-activity to socialism, removes himself from all that is valuable in the marxist tradition. He concludes: ‘Libertarian communism, and the socialist and labour movement in general, can have no business with (Althusser’s) theoretical practice except to expose it and drive it out’.
At first sight it is a bit puzzling that Thompson should devote so much space to yet another critique of Althusser. There have been so many: Thompson adds nothing of substance to what has been written on the subject by Andre Glucksmann, Jacques Rancière, Norman Geras, Pierre Vilar, Perry Anderson and myself, although none matched Thompson’s wit and polemical vigour.
A partial answer to this question lies in Thompson’s references to the ‘bourgeois lumpen-intelligentsia’, ‘those barrels of enclosed marxisms which stand, row upon row, in the corridors of polytechnics and universities’. In other words, Thompson’s polemic is aimed less at Althusser than at his children – the myriads of academic marxists who, freed from the inhibitions of having to relate theory to practice by Althusser, produce and consume journals like Economy and Society and Ideology and Consciousness and follow that star of Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst.
Readers of this Review will be aware that we share Thompson’s reservations concerning this sort of ‘marxism’. It is difficult to disagree when he writes: ‘In the much-publicised ‘revival of marxism’ in Britain in the last two decades, a mountain of thought has not yet given birth to one political mouse’.
But what about Thompson’s alternative ‘libertarian communism’? The chief reference point is 1956. Again and again we come back to it: ‘there are some of us who will man the stations of 1956 once again’ (1965); ‘can we still drink to the fulfilment of that moment of common aspiration: 1956?’ (1974); ‘my dues to 1956 have now been paid in full’ (1978).
1968, which, as the year which marked the beginning of a new period of crisis for capitalism and the re-entry of the working class onto the stage of history after 30 years of apathy, provided the point of reference for another generation of revolutionaries, is dismissed in passing: ‘May, 1968 was over in a matter of days... there has never been a generation of socialist intellectuals in the west with less experience of practical struggle’.
Thompson continues: ‘there has been no experience of anti-Fascist struggle [really? What, I wonder, were we doing at Red Lion Square and Lewisham?], war and Resistance’. This passage gives us the key to Thompson’s political universe: the second world war.
Elsewhere Thompson writes: ‘British Communists did ... something more than is now remembered to assist in the defeat of Fascism between 1942–45’. Thompson joined the CP in 1942. Everything he says suggests that his formative political experience was participation in the tremendous wave of radicalisation which swept Britain and indeed the whole of Europe in the latter part of the second world war.
In a recent article in New Statesman Thompson denounces ‘the foul historical con’ through which the war has become the property of ‘an authoritarian right which is now, supposedly, the proper inheritor and guardian of the present nation’s interests’:
‘My memories of that war are very different. I recall a resolute and ingenious civilian army, increasingly hostile to the conventional military virtues, which became – far more than any of my younger friends will begin to credit – an anti-fascist and consciously anti-imperialist army. Its members voted Labour in 1945: knowing why, as did the civilian workers at home. Many were infused with socialist ideas and expectations wildly in advance of the tepid rhetoric of today’s Labour leaders.’
It would ill become anyone – especially someone born five years after the end of the second world war – to sneer at the hopes of that generation. The radicalisation at the end of the war was real: its signs were many – notably Labour’s massive election victory, the widespread mutinies in the British and American armed forces, the Communist-led Resistance movements in France, Italy, Greece and Yugoslavia, the biggest strike-wave in US history.
But those hopes were betrayed. Hitler was destroyed – to the profit of western monopoly capitalism and eastern state capitalism, 1945 proved in Britain to mean the road, not to socialism, but to the grey social-democratic state of today.
What is more, the Communist Party of Great Britain, through its class collaborationist policies, played its part in that great betrayal.
The CP opposed the war until Hitler invaded the USSR in 1941, after which time the Party became the most enthusiastic supporter of the war, opposing strikes and colonial revolts as disruptions of the war effort. Douglas Hyde, at the time a journalist at the Daily Worker, later to abandon Communism for Catholicism, describes a demonstration in St Pancras in 1941, when Communists carried pictures of Churchill and Stalin and bands played God Save the King and the Internationale. So caught up in this cosy all-class alliance was the CP that in 1945 it called for the continuation of the Labour-Tory coalition government into peace-time!
To my knowledge, in none of his writings does Thompson discuss the role of the CP in defusing the war-time movement, let alone the wider role of Stalinism in stemming the revolutionary tide throughout western Europe. He attributes, in a recent interview, the defeat of this ‘lost moment of history’ merely to the cold war and ‘Morrisonian statist labourism’.
Moreover, he does not examine the peculiar character of this wartime radicalism. It was a radicalism powerfully infused with patriotism. Anti-fascism merged with nationalism: a mood exploited by the CP, which reached the peak of its membership and influence in those years. Even George Orwell, who remained highly sceptical of the patriotic cant of the time, offered, in The Lion and the Unicorn, a programme in which nationalism and socialism were intertwined.
It was in the 1940s that the Communist Parties, busy propping up the shaky capitalist order in Europe, brought into the foreground of their strategy the concept of different national roads to socialism based on collaboration, with ‘patriotic’, ‘progressive’, sections of the capitalist class. The CPGB’s programme of national reform, The British Road to Socialism, although only adopted in 1951, was a logical continuation of the policies of the war-time years.
The concept of internationalism, which was such a powerful element in the wave of radicalisation during the first world war, culminating in the foundation of the Third International, proved much weaker in the 1940s (although not dead – it was an element in the post-war mutinies in India, Aden and Egypt). It survived, in the perverted Stalinist form of subordination to Moscow, or, at best, the ideal defended by Thompson and Saville in The Reasoner of Communist Parties independently pursuing their own roads to socialism. The latter ideal is, of course, an important component of the ideology of eurocommunism.
Thompson’s failure to examine critically the nationalist strand in the radicalism of the war years is a major weakness. He tends to treat British marxism as a largely self-sufficient tradition to which continental marxism has very little to offer, certainly as concerns the problem which has provided the focus for Thompson’s work as a theorist and a historian: ‘the intersection of determination and self-activity ... – the experience of determination, and the ‘handling’ of this in conscious ways’.
The crux of this problem, according to Thompson, lies in the different value-systems which people construct to make sense of their experience. Althusser and Co have nothing useful to say on this question, since they see questions of value as mere bourgeois morality. The same is, Thompson claims, largely true of Marx: in this respect Capital is at one with the political economy it criticised: ‘political economy has terms for use-value, for exchange-value, for monetary value, and for surplus-value, but not for normative value. It has no terms for other areas of consciousness’.
Thompson’s attempt to restore ‘a missing term’: ‘human experience’ to Capital involves developing a moral dimension to marxism ignored by its founders. Hence William Morris’s importance for Thompson, who sees him as a profoundly original thinker precisely because of his concern for moral questions.
It seems to me that Thompson misrepresents Marx here. Marx did not ignore moral questions: he broke with a socialist tradition saturated with morality, stuffed full of Utopian visions. The pre-marxian socialists developed a moral critique of capitalism as a perversion of human nature and sought to construct models of society in which human nature would be fully realised. In this respect, Fourier (despite being a ‘Cartesian’ Frenchman) was a much more profound and original Utopian thinker than Morris.
Marx broke with Utopian socialism because it provided no analysis of the nature of capitalism as a form of class society and therefore no guidelines for replacing it with communism. Marx’s greatness lies in the fact that he filled this gaping hole in socialist theory.
Thompson would not, of course, deny this – indeed, he is a masterly practitioner of marxist concepts when it comes to writing history. But, in The Poverty of Theory he seems blind to the importance of Marx’s discovery of the laws of motion of capitalism, content to dismiss this discovery as an ‘anti-political economy’ sharing the same assumptions as Ricardo.
Yet unless we concern ourselves with the problem of understanding capitalism as a system the meaning of the experience and the struggles which Thompson records does not emerge clearly. Marx, like Thompson, saw the self-emancipation of the working class as the heart of socialism. But, unlike Thompson. Marx saw that unless rooted in an analysis of capitalism and the tendencies within it which give birth to socialism, socialist politics is little more than moralism.
Moreover, there is a difficulty with moral categories that Thompson ignores – that they take the form of universal rules applicable to everyone and derived from human nature as such. The trouble is that, since Marx showed that there is no such thing as human nature, moral concepts tend to provide a smokescreen behind which lurk the values of bourgeois society: man in capitalist society is taken for the model of human nature in general.
In Thompson’s case the danger is that his reinjection of morality into marxism will wash out the issue of class as the central question of marxist politics. There are plenty of ‘marxist’ academics around who claim that politics is nothing to do with class. Thompson would have nothing but contempt for them – but does not his endless moralising have the same effect?
The cause to which Thompson has eloquently attached himself to recently is the growth of the ‘secret state’: in his own words, ‘under the cover of a labourist rhetoric a dominative and manipulative and, in many cases secret, state formation has been developing which effectively commands great areas of our lives and which is beyond democratic control’.
Thompson has written articles in New Society and the New Statesman denouncing this secret state and Labour’s complicity, superb pieces of political pamphleteering, written with a pen dipped in vitriol.
But even this fight is taken up within a pessimistic perspective in which ‘E.H. Carr is completely correct to say that this country has been moving to the right since 1950’ and the next 30 years will be dominated by the struggle against the secret state.
These are strong claims. They should be approached with care. They imply that the epic of rising working-class struggle in the late 1960s and early 1970s, culminating in the fall of the Heath government, was a mere episode in the expansion of the secret state.
E.H. Carr’s claim that Britain has been moving right for the last 30 years reflects his general scepticism about revolutionary prospects in the west. He told New Left Review recently: ‘in the west today, the proletariat ... is not a revolutionary, (but is) perhaps even a counter-revolutionary force’.
Carr is entitled to his opinion. But is it one that Thompson, who, like us, sees socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class, can share?
Thompson’s preoccupation with the secret state suffers also from a lack of political realism. Read the journals of the ruling class – the Economist, the Financial Times, (should it ever reappear) the Times. What is it that worries them? Duncan Campbell? With all respect, surely not.
The central issue of bourgeois politics in Britain today is, as it has been for at least the last ten years, how to yoke the powerful organisations workers have built up since 1940 to the priorities of British capital. This goal will be achieved less by the insidious undermining of democratic rights (although this will, no doubt, play a part) than by enlisting the leaders of workers’ organisations to the cause of the ‘national interest’.
This issue should be our chief concern as well. How to deal with the ruling-class attacks? How to strengthen the forces committed to class struggle rather than class collaboration within the labour movement? How to combat the spread of the right wing within the trade unions?
Yet Thompson has not one word to contribute on these questions. Why?
The causes to which Thompson has lent his name today (opposition to the secret state, solidarity with the persecuted East German socialist Rudolf Bahro) are those which fit as comfortably the language of liberalism as that of marxism. They engage more questions of universal human rights than the problems of political strategy to which the great marxists devoted themselves.
This is not to dismiss the struggle for democratic rights as an irrelevance, but to simply say that it is secondary compared to the objective of marxist politics: the conquest of power by the working class.
This statement will invite Thompson’s wrath, encourage him to dismiss me as one of those ‘sectaries’ he despises.
And yet: his marxism seems trapped within political horizons little different from those of the English jacobins and the radical pamphleteers whose heroic battles with the authorities he records in The Making of the English Working Class. This is an honourable tradition, a tradition of anti-authoritarianism and anti-imperialism. But it is a limited one, in which moral protest is the dominant note.
Marxism is less generous. The commitment to the self-emancipation of the working class is married within it to the careful study of the laws of motion of capitalism and to the cold calculations of revolutionary strategy and tactics. This is the heritage of Marx and Lenin. It is no less morally powerful for being geared to the struggle for power which is the only road to human emancipation.
I suspect there is also in Thompson’s marxism a residue of the left nationalism of the 1940s – a nationalism which rejected fascism and imperialism (even though the latter exploited it) but which blurred the sharp divisions of class into a broader people’s front. To an extent he is still a prisoner of Stalinist categories – of the consequence, the strategy of different national roads to socialism.
Thompson’s writings are a corrective to the fantasies of those are a corrective to the fantasies of those (and there are plenty of them around – see the recent article on ‘marxism and the British Labour Movement’ in Socialist Challenge) who believe that marxist theory only takes the form of translations from the French or the Italian published by New Left Books.
The danger, though, is that Thompson’s example will lead others, less gifted than he into a complacent parochialism as arid as NLR’s spurious cosmopolitanism. The fact that Thompson has largely avoided this trap is a tribute to his greatness, not the soundness of his method. Read these essays – carefully.
Last updated: 28.12.2011