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Alex Callinicos

An active process

(October 1993)

From Socialist Review, No. 168, October 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Edward Thompson, who died recently, was the finest socialist historian of his generation. Alex Callinicos looks at his later writings

Edward Thompson was probably the greatest of the extraordinary group of Marxist historians who emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain after the Second World War. Like many of them, he left the party as a result of the crisis of 1956 which, it is clear from Thompson’s later writings, formed henceforth the main political reference point of his life. He sought to make the break with Stalinism he had then made into the basis of a rethinking of Marxist theory.

This projected reconstruction of Marxism did not take the form chiefly of philosophical treatises, but rather informs his historical writings. The fact that traces of the Stalinist past can still be detected in Thompson’s thought and in his approach to politics should not take away from the scale of his achievement.

Thompson sought on various occasions formally to defend his version of Marxism, most notably in The Poverty of Theory, his great polemic against Louis Althusser’s attempt to give an ‘anti-humanist’ reading of Marx. Marxism is not, Thompson insisted, about the unfolding of objective economic laws, the impersonal development of the productive forces. Rather at the heart of Marxism is ‘human agency ... men and women as subjects of their own history’.

Nowhere was this view of Marxism more movingly stated than in the famous Preface to The Making of the English Working Class: ‘I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’

This statement is sometimes misinterpreted as mere sentimentality or antiquarianism. Rather it reflected Thompson’s political and theoretical insistence that the English working class was not merely the passive product of impersonal economic mechanisms but took shape in ‘an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning. The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making.’

People over-impressed by various Parisian philosophers would from time to time tax Thompson with empiricism, with a slavish obsession with facts. (I’m afraid that, in my thoughtless youth, I was counted among their number.) He was, however, no mindless fact grubber. He had the gift of the really great historian of being able to elicit from obscure concrete details complex and wide ranging interpretations of entire societies. Nowhere was this put to better use than in Whigs and Hunters, where Thompson built up, from a study of the Black Act, a particularly vicious piece of 18th century penal legislation, a stunning portrait of Hanoverian England and its internal strains. He pursued this study in his recent Customs in Common whose long introductory essay is as sparkling and exciting a piece of historical interpretation as anything Thompson ever wrote.

The quality of Thompson’s work as a historian is beyond dispute. But did he succeed in rethinking Marxism? A number of left wing academics have argued that to a large extent he did. They are, however, mistaken. Most obviously, as numerous critics have pointed out, in seeking to correct the dire intellectual effects of Stalinism, Thompson ended up so stressing (theoretically at any rate, his historical writings are generally more careful) the role of subjectivity – of consciousness, culture and agency – that the objective context of human action virtually disappeared. He went as far as to try to drum out of historical materialism Marx’s great economic works, the Grundrisse and even to some extent Capital, because they were concerned, of necessity, with analysing the objective structures of capitalist exploitation and accumulation.

As so often happens, what Thompson kicked out of the front door climbed back through the window. In the early 1980s he suspended his historical studies in order to become active in the peace movement, which had been revived by a new hotting up of the Cold War. This action was greatly to his credit. Nevertheless it was theoretically justified – for example, in Notes on Exterminism – by the claim that the arms race between the superpowers had developed into a distinct social system, operating according to its own logic largely independently of the class structure of American and Russian societies. It followed that ‘exterminism’ (as Thompson named this new system) could not be combated, as Lenin and Trotsky had argued imperialist wars should be fought, through class struggle, but through building broad alliances which transcended class.

The historian of human agency built up a picture of exterminism as so powerful and autonomous an objective structure (one is almost tempted to apply to it Althusser’s formula of ‘a process without a subject’) that only the rallying together of (more or less) the whole of humanity could defeat it. By setting the peace movement’s sights so high Thompson may have caused as many people to despair as he inspired to act. Certainly, when the Cold War did come to an end it was caused by a straightforward social and political collapse in the Stalinist bloc.

It is striking, however, how far Thompson’s call for ‘an alliance that takes in churches, Eurocommunists, Labourists, East European dissidents (and not only dissidents), Soviet citizens unmediated by Party structures, trade unionists, ecologists resembles the kind of popular fronts pursued by the Communist Parties during the 1930s and 1940s, usually to disastrous effect.

Thompson joined the CP during the Second World War at the height of left wing enthusiasm for nationalist resistance to Hitler, and, for better or for worse, never completely overcame its influence. Even his writings on the 18th century tend to uncover coalitions of dissident gentry and disaffected artisans and peasants struggling against the Whig ascendancy that was grinding down the old ‘moral economy’ by promoting the spread of capitalist social relationships. Thompson’s analyses of these struggles are extraordinarily subtle and illuminating, but one does sometimes wonder if he half consciously projects them forward as the ancestors of the 20th century popular fronts.

The CP shaped Thompson for better as well as for worse. In a television interview a few weeks before his death, he described how still, after almost 50 years, he missed being in a party which united workers and middle class intellectuals in discussion and activity. For all his faults, Thompson was a socialist fighter and remained so till the end. Customs in Common contains some splendid pages of polemic against Michael Ignatieff and other intellectual apologists for the market. Edward Thompson is dead, but we still have his wonderful books to read and learn from.

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