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E.P. Thompson: A Giant Remembered

E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics. Edited by Cal Winslow. Monthly Review Press, 322pp, $18pbk.

It is surely difficult now to grasp, for young people in the UK let alone the US and elsewhere, that thirty years or so ago, radical historian-activist Edward Thompson was by opinion polls intermittently the second or third most popular Englishman or Englishwoman, shortly after the Queen Mother. After all, the British establishment, to say nothing of American Cold Warriors (liberal or conservative) had slandered him for decades and why not? He had led massive protest movements of ordinary people against their government. Worse, in cloistered academic quarters he was viewed as having reorganized the whole idea of social history and turned it over to ordinary people! More than anyone else in the English-speaking world, he made the history of such people important.

He had also and more specifically for the 1980s, written Protest and Survive (published in the United States by Monthly Review Press), a hugely read pamphlet against the placement of US Cruise Missiles in Europe–and delivered the message tirelessly at public meetings, on television and radio, with charming humor as well as ardent insistence. Meanwhile, Making of the English Working Class, his classic work, had become basic reading in British history for a generation or two. Shaggy haired, gaunt and handsome into not-so-old age (he died at 69), he had the look and the sound of a prophet, as well as a personal modesty that rarely goes with that status. We could not know, in those years, that he faced illness and decline not far ahead, urgently struggling to finish his writings on that old favorite, William Blake, along with fellow poets Shelley and Wordsworth. He wanted to spell out his message one last time: working class struggle and Romanticism (literary, artistic, and social-intellectual) had never been far from each other through centuries of British history. They needed each other and each would thrive only when entwined with the other, partners and lovers.

No single volume, not even the grand biography not yet written, is likely to make this last point as clearly as the collection of Thompson’s “New Left” era work, edited admirably by Cal Winslow, a former student of Thompson, Director of the Mendocino Institute and sometime labor journalist. There is so much richness in these pages, and a seeming strangeness that takes some unraveling, mainly because we now live in a world so changed, with political assumptions so different, from that of the 1940s-60s. The bakers’ dozen essays are usefully annotated, with footnotes short and long, the book introduced by an essay with its own independent value. Most of the essays appeared in small journals or long-forgotten volumes, one of them (a 1963 memo-response to the crisis in New Left Review that left him on the outside) never previously published.

We should dig into this book while keeping in mind how important Monthly Review was to Thompson, and how important Thompson was to Monthly Review. In particular, Thompson had a friend and admirer in MR coeditor Leo Huberman, also a “peoples’s historian” (the Howard Zinn, so to speak, of the 1930s and ‘40s), who shared Thompson’s admiration for William Morris, and helped chart the shift in the United States from the Old Left to the New. But there is more.  The New Left Clubs that Thompson helped launch in the wake of 1956 found offshoots in a half-dozen American campuses, associated in a general sense with the journal The American Socialist. These clubs did not last, but the magazine actually folded into Monthly Review in 1960 and one of its erstwhile editors, Harry Braverman, joined MR Press as a most distinguished editor and author. Decades later, in 1979, Thompson hailed along with the “indomitable intellectual vitality of Gramsci in his prison notebooks,” the “dogged intellectual independence displayed by the Monthly Review” for keeping Marxist ideas alive under difficult conditions.

Let’s start our consideration of the book under review with a then-recent memory that serves as a leit-motif in Thompson’s thinking and, more precisely, his response to critics.  The postwar Labour Party victories were, or seemed, simply tremendous. The railway, mines and electrical services were all nationalized by 1951. One could be forgiven for thinking that socialism was (in the phrase of the day) “on the agenda.” The same Labour Party avidly supported US foreign policy, openly and in secret, while British union leaders cheerfully became part of the expansive CIA projects. Nevertheless, the victories could be seen as culmination, in part, of a centuries’ long struggle, intimately connected through the lives and countless sacrifices of communities and extended families, for a cooperative society.

No one knew that struggle as well, as deeply in its infinite details, as did Edward Thompson. No one so clearly connected it with the growth of British radical movements across the centuries, and with the rise and fall of British socialist and communist parties. We might as well say here that Thompson’s first classic work, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955)—in its US edition one of the earliest Monthly Review Press books (another was the publication of William Morris’s News from Nowhere and still another was the publication of R. Page Arnot’s William Morris: The Man and the Myth that backed up Thompson’s interpretation.). Thompson’s William Morris now at its sixtieth anniversary and third edition, made his own clearest, fullest statement of leftwing political history. The first edition is still important because it included large amounts of material later discarded. The difference between the first edition and the later ones—the main changes were in the 1976 edition—are partly a reflection of Thompson’s own political shifts in this period from the left of the Old Left to the New Left. Suffice it to say that the first edition was published a year before the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The essay in E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left, “The Communism of William Morris,” rehearses these circumstances and bears the weight of redeeming Morris from being either a mere romantic lost in Marxism or a socialist overwhelmed by utopian fancies. By the early 1890s, as Thompson says, British labor had become a reformist movement with specific, limited goals, but Morris never for a moment ceased to envision communism, the egalitarian post-capitalist society, as the real goal.

That is: “As socialists see Marx’s genius in transforming the traditions of English economic theory and German philosophy, so they should see how Morris transformed a great tradition of liberal and human criticisms of society, and how he brought them into the common revolutionary stream.” British Communists, growing more defensive and dogmatic with the gloomy events of the early 1950s climaxing the Hungarian Rebellion of 1956, had never been comfortable with the expansive view of these “liberal and humane criticisms,” and elsewhere in the volume, Thompson seeks to spell out some of his ideas of what a real “socialist humanism” beyond the limits of occluded official British Communist views, might look like. He insists that socialists need to be less dogmatic than they had been in days confident about Russian leadership of world revolution, more willing to listen than preach to ordinary folks, also more urgently involved in the anti-nuclear movement and the moralism that it projected–without embarrassment. Neither narrow Marxism, nor the “practical” submission of the Labour Party to the demands of British capitalism and the White House (i.e., CIA), would serve the ends of humankind or the possibilities of English history, either.

The more narrow and specialized sections of this book concern the conflicts Thompson had with the British New Left, specifically the intellectuals who had taken over the journal New Left Review, an indirect successor to the New Reasoner, launched by Thompson and his friends in 1955. The NLR of the middle 1960s seemingly found little of value in English traditions, discovering its own theoretical nirvana in French philosophy transitioning from Sartre and Frantz Fanon toward dense theoretical Althusserian constructions with new-fashioned terminology. Thompson’s version of the New Left was admittedly more pedestrian, in the end more old fashioned. At any rate, the strong nexus between Thompson and Monthly Review continued. In 1978 Monthly Review Press published Thompson’s major theoretical-polemical work, The Poverty of Theory.

Thompson wrote not for Monthly Review itself but for The Socialist Register, edited in Britain by Ralph Miliband and John Saville and distributed in the United States by Monthly Review Press. The Socialist Register steered a course that represented a non-doctrinaire, historical Marxism in the British tradition. In this regard, it was the heir to what has been called the first New Left, in which Thompson had played such a large role; and was in many ways more historically grounded than the second New Left that was to follow. For Thompson, history never ceased to be a revolutionary force, and meaningful radical action could only come out of the remaking of working class culture.

Seen in another light, Thompson was not so old fashioned at all. Against the sectarians of the Left, Thompson insisted, for instance, that the growing white collar zones of technicians, teachers and others had as much claim upon working class traditions as the (diminishing) industrial workforce. Against the claims of a stultified Marxism that either a “mistake” or the greedy claims of a new class had brought Stalinism to Russia, he insisted that as a system of idealist beliefs forced upon a complex reality, the East Bloc version of reality demanded understanding in its own terms. C.L.R. James sought to make similar distinctions en route to abandoning the Trotskyist movement some years earlier: only by grappling with the degeneration of Bolshevism as a part of the process of modern history could socialists move onward to tasks ahead.

Perhaps this is an obvious point now, when leftwing presses emphatically including MR publish works exploring the limitations of older formulations and of their state sponsors. It did not seem so in the 1950s and 1960s because the Depression and the War Years, no less then postwar social experiments in Britain, were so close in the past. Thompson’s practical point, “in the end, we can only find out in practice the breaking point of the capitalist system, by unrelenting constructive pressures within the general strategy within the common good,” was his keynote. No formulae, however brilliant, could alone meet and overcome the crisis posed by the twinned dilemmas, Russian disappointments and Western capitalist recovery. It was no good to demand that the huge anti-nuclear movement of the 1950s conform to class-struggle guidelines, or to withdraw from the struggles of working class life on the basis that only a capitalist collapse could ready these people to become socialists and revolutionaries. “The problem is not one of ‘seizing power’ in order to create a society in which self-activity is possible, but one of generating this activity now within a manipulative society.”

Thompson was suggesting, seeking to build a vast protest movement from West to East upon, an assumption he did not quite seem to spell out (he come close in his “Notes on Exterminism,” an essay regrettably not in this volume). The historic moment of the Vanguard Party, Lenin style, had really passed, most especially for the United States. Communist parties had flourished in the most recent period, the 1930s-40s, when they made themselves part of wider movements. They lost their effectiveness, not only from changed circumstances, but also when they sought to subordinate the social movements around them to their own party-building (or demands from abroad). The New Left years and after have reinforced this conclusion. Unfortunately, the alternatives have been, from Students for a Democratic Society to local Women’s Liberation Union groups to Occupy and Anti-Austerity movements to current Peace in Gaza mobilizations, just as intermittent as they are, for a moment, truly brilliant and inspiring.

Thompson had his own persona to fall back upon. He was as fine a thinker and leader as any British movement, European peace movement or movement for universal rights through the East Bloc, would find in a non-revolutionary moment of history. His followers and the rest of us were not so fortunate. As political grouplets had their appeal, usually not in a lasting manner, other organized efforts or models to turn protest into sustained mobilization came and went, come and still go.

We are not going to find any magic formulae in E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left, but it is quite a wonderful book. Reading it closely is to tap E.P. Thompson, the thinker, the revolutionary, the visionary romantic, and come away enriched in every meaningful way. For those of us lucky enough to know or even having heard Edward speak, reading the book will renew memories that will always inspire.