When it comes to academic writing I can be very lazy about references and footnotes. One of the advantages of putting a draft of a piece of work on a blog, then, is that sheer fear of being exposed as a purveyor of falsehoods will motivate me to check my references and write up my footnotes! That's the theory, anyway...This is the first half of a draft chapter from my thesis on EP Thompson. It takes the reader on a bit of a tiki tour, to use a Kiwi expression. There are some unresolved problems on show here - for example, there's my tendency to slide between the concepts of Englishness and Britishness, which is not such an easy thing to do when one is talking about EP Thompson. But, what the hell, it's a draft, and if it'll motivate me to write those damn footnotes...
EP Thompson, Marxism, and Britishness: part one
How British was EP Thompson?
In a letter he sent to the Times Literary Supplement
last year, Peter Linebaugh criticised some recent interpretations of EP Thompson's life and work. 'Thompson is being recaptured by the establishment, and reinserted into a conventional English context' Linebaugh complained. On the face of it, Linebaugh's second charge might appear odd. EP Thompson was, after all, a scholar of English history and literature who spent most of his life in England, and became famous for his advocacy of what he considered distinctly English political, literary, and scholastic traditions. But Linebaugh's charge is not as quixotic as it might at first seem. By refusing the cliched view of the man he knew as a teacher and a friend, Linebaugh asks us to ponder the possibility of a more complex relationship between Thompson and his native country. And the longer we ponder it, the more problematic Thompson's 'Englishness', or for that matter 'Britishness', becomes.
Consider, for instance, the odd relationship between the subject matter of Thompson's major works of history and their critical reception. The Making of the English Working Class
made Thompson an impressive reputation by mining new veins of English history, yet it has enjoyed more long-term influence overseas than it has in Britain. Thompson's immense popularity with historians, sociologists, anthropologists, geographers, and literary scholars in North America, South Asia, and parts of Africa belies the fierce particularism of The Making of the English Working Class
and its successors. A useful contrast can be drawn with Eric Hobsbawm, another left-wing English historian to win a vast international audience. Unlike Thompson's works, Hobsbawm's ouevre treats aspects of the histories of many societies. Where Thompson used primary sources to delve into the minutae of often-forgotten aspects of eighteenth and nineteenth English history, Hobsbawm's histories typically rely upon the synthesis of an extraordinarily wide range of secondary sources. The international success of texts like Hobsbawm's A Short History of the Twentieth Century
is far easier to explain than the rapturous reception that Thompson's excavations of obscure events in English history have received in faraway countries.
A similar paradox can be seen in Thompson's long career of political activism. Thompson tended to relate the political positions he took to a long tradition of 'radical dissent', and often compared the political struggles he was involved in to heroic parts of English working class and radical history. Yet Thompson was notably unsuccessful in his attempts to effect radical changes in British society. With the exception of a couple of years at the beginning of the '60s, he was unable even to gather a substantial local following for his 'distinctively British' brand of left-wing politics. He spent long periods feeling alienated from the British left, and and found himself unable to play a constructive role in the big political battles that shook his native country in the 1970s. But a lack of local success did not prevent Thompson's political ideas receiving wide circulation overseas. The leftist dissidents of Eastern Europe and Indira Gandhi's India often seemed more interested in Thompson's politics than either the British labour movement or Britain's left-wing intellectuals.
How can we explain these paradoxes in the reception of EP Thompson's work as a historian and as a political activist? Has Peter Linebaugh opened a can of worms with his unusual observation? In my view, some of the paradoxes in Thompson's relationship with Britain are rooted in much older contradictions. I want to try to put the problems we have been discussing into some sort of context by taking a sort of 'tiki tour' through the history of Marxism's often-troubled relationship with Britain and the British left.
Marx's Faustian Pact with Capitalism
Marx's relationship with the world's first industrial capitalist society was complicated. In some ways, the tensions in Marx's attitude towards Britain highlight the key unresolved tensions in his thought as a whole. In his entertainingly unsympathetic biogaphy of Marx, Robert Payne notes that one of his subject's favourite works of literature was Goethe's Faust
. Marx could talk about the play endlessly, and when he was drunk he liked to disturb the other patrons of London bars by loudly chanting its lines in his 'rough, guttural, unlovely German'. It is easy to see how Marx might have been fascinated by the character of Faust, who makes a deal with the Devil in an effort to attain knowledge and power and change the world to his liking. For Marx - the pre-1871 Marx especially - capitalism was a Devil was both hated and necessary.
The contradictions in Marx's attitude to capitalism are perhaps most clearly evident in The Communist Manifesto
, a work whose structure was modelled on Goethe's Faust
. The Manifesto
has often been remembered only for the rousing call to revolution in its final sentence, but its first few pages are devoted to a paean to capitalism. Marx and Engels see capitalism as an engine for progressive change - for drawing 'even the most barbarous of nations into civilisation' and abolishing 'the idiocy of rural life' - yet they also believe that, once established, it became an obstacle to historical progress. For the Marx of 1848, capitalism had strong positive as well as negative qualities. It was a necessary Devil.
When Marx arrived in London in 1850, Britain was the world's pre-eminent economic power, and the stronghold of the industrial revolution. Marx was the fleeing the failure of the so-called 'springtime of the peoples', a Europe-wide revolt by shifting alliances of capitalists, peasants, and plebians against some of the more obviously reactionary features of feudalism. The Communist Manifesto
had related this revolt to the development of capitalism and the usurpation of old fedual classes by their capitalist offspring. Britain in 1850 was a much more capitalist society than Germany, or France, or Belgium. It had a far larger industrial sector and a more organised working class than any of these countries. It was not unreasonable, then, for Marx to see good prospects for social revolution in his new home. In the first decade of his residence in England, Marx made a string of optimistic pronouncements about both the English bourgeoisie and the English working class. But optimism gradually gave way to pessimism. Marx came to feel that the English bourgeoisie was incapable of confronting the backwardness that the incomplete revolutions of the seventeenth century had bequeathed to much of England and Britain's cultural and political superstructure.
Marx took longer to become disillusioned with the English working class. In the years after the foundation of the First International in 1864 he established close relations with some of the leaders of this class, and came to exercise a profound influence over one or two of them. The initial growth of the British section of the International encouraged Marx to believe that the local working class might become radicalised on a mass scale. In the late 1860s, though, the British section of the International stopped growing. Historians have argued that the extension of the voting franchise in 1867 and the positive report of a parliamentary inquiry into trade unionism in 1869 made many trade unionists believe that radicalism was unecesary in oursuit of their ends. In the 1870s a sustained economic upturn would reinforce this belief. In 1871, Marx was greatly angered by the failure of the English working class to act in solidarity with the Paris Communards. Shortly after the destruction of the Commune Marx effectively wound up the First International, and virtually retired from politial activism. He no longer held out hopes that working class revolution was in the offing in Britain or in the other advanced countries of Europe.
Disillusionment with the Devil
It can be argued that the 'failure' of the English bourgeoisie and more importantly the English working class to live up to Marx's expectations helped to create a crisis in his thinking in the years after 1871. Between 1871 and 1883 Marx published little, despite having more time than ever before for research and writing. Despite the urging of Engels and other admirers, Marx never finished the second and third volumes of Capital
, the work he had envisaged as his masterpiece. In 1867, Marx had told a supporter that he was prepared to sacrifice his life to finish to Capital; after 1871, though, he did relatively little work on the second and third volumes. Instead, he accumulated tens of thousands of pages of notes on subjects that were mostly outside the scope of Capital. Instead of elaborating his theory of capitalism, Marx spent thousands of hours studying mostly pre-capitalist societies. He became so interested in Russia that he learnt the country's language. He also made extensive notes on Turkey, India, North Africa, the Iroquois Federation, and hunter gatherer societies like those of the Australian Aboriginal peoples.
Scholars like Teodor Shanin and Haruki Wada have argued that Marx's new interests after 1871 suggest a disillusionment with the more of less unilinear model of history that had been put forward in texts like The Communist Manifesto
. Citing the 1881 preface to the second Russian edition of the Manifesto
, Shanin and Wada argue that Marx had lost some of his faith in the ability of capitalism to generate progressive historical change by destroying reactionary ideas and practices and creating a revolutionary working class. The Manifesto's
blithe approval of the encroachment of capitalism into pre-capitalist societies had not been absent from parts of the first volume of Capital
. In a footnote to the original 1867 German edition of the book, for example, Marx had celebrated the attacks by capitalism on the Russian commune. By 1881, though, Marx was sympathetic to the Narodnik claim that the Russian peasant commune could become the basis for a post-capitalist Russia.
In one of the famous letters to Vera Zasulich he drafted but did not post in 1881, Marx stated that the 'historical inevitability' of the path of development outlined in Capital
is 'expressly restricted to the countries of Western Europe'. Marx went on to say that his research in the years since Capital
was published had convinced him that 'the Commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia'. Shanin sums up the change he sees in Marx's view of history when he writes that Marx moved from 'a sophisticated version of unilinearism' to 'the acceptance of multidirectionality' in history. Eric Hobsbawm talks of the late Marx's 'growing hatred of and contempt for capitalist society' and relates this attitude to the course that history had taken in the advanced countries of Europe:It seems probable that Marx, who had earlier welcomed the impact of capitalism as an inhuman but historically progressive force on the stagnant pre-capitalist economies, found himself increasingly appalled by this inhumanity.
As he lost hope that revolution was on the horizon in Britain and other economically advanced countries, Marx became increasingly hopeful about the prospects for revolution in economically backward Russia. Revolution is likely in Russia because it is less advanced than countries like Britain, Marx suggests in a number of places in his late writing. The Communist Manifesto's
equation of capitalist development with historical progress, via a progressive bourgeoisie and the revolutionary working class, is absent from the late Marx.
It should be remembered, of course, that Marx in his last years did not produce any sweeping new restatement of his ideas. Texts like the 1881 Preface
and the Zasulich drafts offer us only hints about what such a reorganisation might involve. And the Faustian contradiction that was so apparent in The Communist Manifesto
still lurked beneath the surface in some of Marx's very late work. The 1881 Preface
, for example, tempers its enthusiasm for a Russian revolution with the warning that such a revolution could not succeed unless it inspired parrallel revolutions in the advanced countries of Western Europe. Intensive capitalist development and the mass working class it creates are still, in the final analysis, prerequisites for socialism.
Reorientation in Russia
After Marx's death the unresolved tensions in his thinking were dispersed amongst different factions of his followers. Second International theoreticians like Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky championed and extended the unilinear model of history and optimistic view of capitalist development found in works like The Communist Manifesto
. The Second International's famous 'heretic' Eduard Bernstein took this optimism to an extreme by denying that capitalism was naturally inclined to crisis and needed to be sharply distinguished from socialism at all.
It was from Russia that the most creative response to the contradictions in Marx's thought emerged. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Britain was no longer the world's most dynamic capitalist economy. Industrial capital was becoming less important than finance capital, as the grandchildren of mill owners and coal barons found investment abroad increasingly attractive. Russia was one of the semi-developed countries that were targets for investors from the advanced nations of the West, and the encroachment of industrial capitalism on the country created all sorts of peculiarities. By the time the 1905 revolution erupted, Russia had some of the largest factories in the world along with a huge peasantry, a tiny and weak indigenous bourgeoisie, a set of political and legal institutions that reeked of feudalism, and a relatively small and isolated yet concentrated and extremely combative working class. The revolutionary bourgeoisie, routed feudal class, shrinking peasantry, and massive working class of The Communist Manifesto
could not be easily located in this strange new world.
The extreme conditions that existed in Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century threw down a gauntlet to local followers of Marx. Plekhanov and many others failed the challenge, and continued quixotically to expect their country to follow a path of development not dissimilar to that trod by Britain and other advanced countries. By the time of the 1905 revolution, though, Leon Trotsky was rejecting this dead end by developing the first draft of his theories of combined and uneven development and permanent revolution. Eventually these would become 'general' theories, supposedly applicable to every developing country, but in 1905 they were primarily exercises in Russian particularism. Trotsky counterposed the new conditions in Russia to the unilinear model of development beloved of Plekhanov and the majority of the Second International's theorists. He insisted that the development of capitalism on a global scale - a development that Lenin would later explain to Trotsky's satisfaction with his theory of imperialism - had played havoc with the unilinear model of historical development, and ensured that societies like Russia could develop in a manner very different from the model outlined in Capital
. Russia could not be Britain.
By arguing that features of the recent development of capitalism had invalidated unilinearism, Trotsky avoided a confrontation with the authority of Marx. He was able to argue that he was complementing rather than revising classics like Capital
. Yet Trotsky's claim that the 'new' conditions he described meant that a socialist revolution could break out in Russia before it succeeded in the West was even more iconoclastic than Marx's 1881 Preface
, which had suggested that a Russian revolution would have to be accompanied by revolution in the West.
In 1917 key parts of Trotsky's theories were by adopted Lenin and, eventually, the rest of the Bolshevik leadership. Kautsky, Plekhanov and other aged leaders of the Second International were outraged when the Bolsheviks took power and declared their revolution socialist. They still insisted that socialism could only exist in nations with highly advanced economies, like Britain or Germany. Even the young Italian iconoclast Antonio Gramsci was initially puzzled by the Bolsheviks' seizure of power, declaring it 'the revolution against Capital'.
After the Bolsheviks took power Trotsky spent considerable energy clarifying and generalising the theories of combined and uneven development and permanent revolution. By the mid-1920s he was engaged in a bitter struggle with Joseph Stalin, whose doctrine of socialism in one country clashed sharply with the internationalism of the theory of permanent revolution. Yet, viewed from one perspective, the two theories have some important similarities. For instance, they share a rejection of the notions that socialism can only exist in an advanced country, and that socialist revolution in the advanced countries is a prerequisite for socialist revolution in less advanced countries. Trotsky's rejection of these notions is explicit, though it is qualified by his argument that a revolution in an isolated and backward nation like the Soviet Union can only survive by exporting itself, preferably to the advanced countries of the West.
Stalin's views are complicated by his argument that in backward countries a 'stage' of capitalist development featuring a 'progressive' indigenous bourgeoisie is a necessary prerequisite for a transition to socialism. Yet his insistence that socialism could be built 'in one country', ie in the Soviet Union, is an unmistakable rejection of the applicability of Kautsky and Plekhanov's views to at least one backward and isolated country. Whatever faction of the party they belonged to, the Bolsheviks were emphatic in their affirmation of the socialist nature of their revolution, and in their belief in the importance of this revolution to world history. The success of their party in taking and holding on to power led to a rapid 'Russification' of Marxism, as Marxists in both the developed and developing countries looked to Moscow for inspiration and in many cases leadership.
The Russification of British Marxism
British Marxism was thoroughly Russified in the years after 1917. In the early 1920s, Moscow was instrumental in the fusion of a number of Britain's small Marxist groups into the Communist Party of Great Britain. The centralised, disciplined new party soon took control of or marginalised many of the traditional instititutions of British Marxism. Importantly, the formerly decentralised institutions for workers' education in Marxism and related subjects were quickly absorbed into the party or marginalised.
Lenin was personally involved in debates about the new party's programme and organisational structure. Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder
dwells for many pages on his differences with 'ultra-left' members of the new party like Sylvia Pankhurst, who opposed work in the trade unions and the giving of critical support to Labour candidates at election time. The prestige that the Bolsheviks enjoyed as leaders of a successful revolution ensured that Lenin's criticisms were taken very seriously by British Marxists. But Lenin and other Bolshevik leaders like Trotsky were not only interested in Britain's relatively small Communist Party: they analysed British society as a whole, and urged British Marxists to accept their analyses as well as their tactical advice. In 1926, for example, Trotsky published Where is Britain Going?
a book that ranged the length and breadth of British history to explain the crisis that produced the failed 1926 General Strike.
Lenin and Trotsky's Britain was radically different from the society Marx had perceived. Marx had observed in Britain the world's most dynamic economy, and come to link that dynamism with first the great potential and later the general apathy of the British working class. In the third decade of the twentieth century Lenin and Trotsky saw Britain as a declining power with an increasingly moribund economy. They believed that the country was ripe for revolution, but only if an increasingly immiserated working class broke with the Labour Party and the gradualist policies that had characterised British trade unionism since the end of Chartism. Lenin and Trotsky were fierce critics of the assimilation of Marx to this gradualist tradition by left-wing supporters of the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party.
Lenin and Trotsky's interventions into British politics were widely regarded, even on the non-communist left, as hostile incursions by an alien and rather barbaric political tradition. In his introduction to the London edition of Where is Britain Going?
, AN Brailsford called Trotsky 'a man from another world' and expressed unease at his 'Russian methods' of polemic. In his review of Where is Britain Going?
John Maynard Keynes expressed the same attitude:Trotsky sees, what is probably true, that our Labour Party is the direct offspring of the Radical Non-conformists and the philanthropic bourgeois, without a tinge of atheism, blood and revolution and revolution. Emotionally and intellectually, therefore, he finds them intensely unsympathetic.
Bertrand Russell was more sympathetic to Trotsky's book, but nevertheless felt that its author was 'a patriot when it comes to the pinch' and wanted to subordinate a Soviet Great Britain to the objectives of the Soviet Union. Brailsford, Keynes, and Russell were members of the left who held to liberal and gradualist views, and smarted at the idea that a backward nation like the Soviet Union could offer its revolution as a model to advanced Britain. Many of Marx's most famous writings had seemed to make Britain the model for the developing world; now the Bolsheviks seemed intent on reversing things. In his response to Keynes' review, Trotsky commented on the irony of the situation:The majority of British critics of my book see its chief failing in that the author is not British and that consequently he is incapable of understanding British psychology, British traditions and so on...
Today, when we are victorious, British and European. socialists in general are inclined to permit us to be left alone in view of the peculiarities of our country and its national culture. They want in this way to erect an essentially ideological barrier along the same frontiers where Lloyd George, Churchill, Clemenceau and others attempted to set up a material barbed wire blockade. 'It may be all right for Russians', so the 'lefts' say to all intents, 'but just let the Russians dare to cross the Russian frontiers with their experience and their conclusions'. The peculiarities of the British character are introduced as a philosophical justification for the theory of Bolshevik 'non-intervention'. Fabian and other critics do not know that we have been well tempered by all our past against arguments of this brand. But the irony in it is that while the Fabians are agreed nowadays, that is after our victory, to recognize Bolshevism, that is Marxism in action, as corresponding to the national peculiarities of Russia, the old traditional Russian ideology and not just that of the government but that of the opposition, invariably regarded Marxism as a creature of western culture and would proclaim its total incompatibility with the peculiarities of Russian national development.
My generation can still remember how the overwhelming majority of the Russian press declared the Russian Marxists to be ideological aliens who were trying in vain to transplant Britain's historical experience on to Russian soil. On every pretext we were reminded that Marx created his theory of economic development in the British Museum and through observing British capitalism and its contradictions. How could the lessons of British capitalism have any relevance to Russia with its enormous 'peculiarities', its predominantly peasant population, its patriarchal traditions, its village commune and its Orthodox Church? Thus spoke the Russian reactionaries and the Russian populists with appropriate right and left variations.
Thanks largely to the influence of Bolshevik leaders like Lenin and Trotsky, Marxism came to be identified in 1920s Britain with the October revolution and the society that it had created.
A Deeper Shade of Red
The era from the end of the 1920s to the mid-30s is known to historians of communism as the 'Third Period', and regarded as a time of unparralleled sectarianism and ultra-leftism on the part of communists loyal to Moscow. It is certainly true that, under the self-interested leadership of Stalin, the Communist Parties of the West, in particular, often behaved in an extreme, almost hysterical manner during the Third Period. Lenin's lessons in Left-wing Communism
were forgotten, as parties rushed to condemn their social democratic rivals as 'social fascists' and to scorn even left-wing trade union leaders as 'lackeys of capitalism'. In Britain and most of the other countries of Western Europe, Third Period Communists stood candidates against social democratic rivals, even when they were bound to receive derisory votes, and struggled to build 'red' unions independent of the mainstream workers' movement. An almost religious belief in the imminent collapse of capitalism replaced analysis. The best-known result of Third Period policies was the refusal of the German Communist Party to form an alliance with their rivals in the Social Democratic party to keep Hitler out of power in 1933. Using the slogan 'First Hitler, then us' the German communists condemned themselves to disaster with their sectarianism and hyperoptimism.
If the Third Period was in important respects a departure from the policies urged on Marxists by Lenin and Trotsky, it also had certain intriguing connections with the ideas in texts like Where is Britain Going?
and Left-wing Communism
. For example, the frenzied dismissal of Britain's gradualist left and its trade union and Labour Party leaders by the Third Period Communist Party is in certain respects only an intensification of the attitudes Lenin and Trotsky had struck during their interventions in British politics. While Lenin had urged communists to make certain alliances with the Labour Party, he had made no secret of his complete contempt for its politics. Trotsky had accepted the need to work within the traditional trade union movement, but he had made no secret of his desire to see that movement 'Bolshevised' as a step towards a 'Soviet Britain'. With its aggressive dismissal of the Labour Party and the trade unions and its counerposition to them of 'Soviet communism', the Third Period party took some of the tendencies in Lenin and Trotsky's polemics to an extreme. Recent 'revisionist' histories of the Third Period have shown that ultra-left policies commanded considerable support amongst long-time Communist Party members, who clearly did not see its policies as a bolt from the blue.
Back to Britain
Third Period policies were no more successful in Britain than they were in the rest of Europe. Despite the beginning of the Great Depression and a sharp rise in unemployment, Communist Party membership dropped steadily in the early '30s. By the middle of the decade, Moscow was intent on ending the Third Period and inaugurating a new policy of the Popular Front, or the 'Popular Front against war and fascism' as it was often called. During the Popular Front era, which is usually dated from the Seventh and last Comintern Congress in 1935, Communist Parties sought to create alliances with social democrats and 'progressive bourgeois' parties, and tried to focus attention on 'progressive national history' as well as the October revolution and the achievements of the Soviet Union. The French Communist Party, for instance, revivied the slogan 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity', and began waving the tricolour rather than the red flag at demonstrations. I have noted elsewhere how Britain's Communist Party used the Popular Front era to 'rediscover' its country's non-Marxist radical history, and to attempt a rapproachement with the Labour Party and with liberals like Russell and Keynes.
The turn to the Popular Front saw the Communist Party encouraging its intellectual members and sympathisers to see a continuity between the best parts of Britain's intellectual tradition and Marxism. The great Marxist thinkers were related to some of the great British non-Marxist intellectuals; for instance, the party rediscovered the comparison Engels had made between Capital
and The Origin of Species
in his eulogy for Marx. The Popular Front era saw, then, a reversal of attempts to 'Russify' the British left. Instead of making the October revolution and Bolshevism the sole relevant models for the British left, the Communist Party began to draw upon an indigenous tradition of radical and democratic politics and talk of a unique 'British road to socialism' that passed through institutions like Westminster. After World War Two, some Popular Front policies were tempered, but others were institutionalised, and became virtually unquestionable parts of party doctrine. The British Road to Socialism, for instance, became the title of the permanent programme the party adopted in 1951. The small minority of party members who rejected the institutional legacy of the Popular Front era were forced out of the party. Edward Upward, who got his marching orders at the end of the '40s, made a reasoanble point when he claimed that Lenin would not have recognised the Communist Party of the postwar era.
Lenin and Marx may not have recognised the mid-century Communist Party of Great Britain, but some of the old tensions in Marxist thought still lurked in the organisation. There was, for instance, an incorrigible tension between British particularism and British universalism which harked back to some of the conflicts in Marx's thought about the country. The Communist Party's programme held that Britain's unique history meant that it could advance toward socialism on a road different to that travelled in many other places. Yet the party often offered its own experience and the history of its own country as guidelines for comrades overseas. The British party was a particularly powerful influence on sister groups in the British colonies or ex-colonies - for many of the leaders of these parties, the British organisation's headquarters on London'd King St were a sort of 'mini-Kremlin', and British communist leaders sometimes had an authority that rivalled that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The detailed advice that emanated from King St would frequently draw upon the peculiarities of British history. When the British urged their comrades in India to remake their alliance with the Congress Party after World War Two, for instance, they claimed that there were important similarities between the Indian independence struggle and the fight of the working class, middle class, and 'progressive' bourgeoisie for democratic reform in nineteenth century Britain. A Communist-Congress alliance would parallel the alliance the Chartists had struck with the 'progressive' parts of the middle class and bourgeoisie, the British claimed.
EP Thompson and the British commoner
I have described elsewhere how EP Thompson's mature political convictions were formed during the Popular Front era, a time when William Morris and the young Coleridge as well as Marx and Lenin were lauded by the Communist Party, and the Levellers and Chartists were allotted places in the same pantheon of heroes as the Bolsheviks.
From the beginning of his career as an activist and as a scholar - as I've noted elsewhere, the two pursuits were for him indissolubly linked - EP Thompson seems to have been convinced of both the interest and the importance of British history and culture, and of the relevance of this history and culture to contemporary political practice. Thompson's first important work of scholarship, his monumental biography of William Morris, was intended partially as a political intervention. In the best Popular Front tradition, Thompson wanted to reclaim an indigenous radical from his admirers on the right; he also believed that Morris' 'revolutionary romantic' politics could help counter certain tendencies toward economism and philistinism in the postwar British left. By the time he had become a leader of the Old New Left, Thompson had begun to assert that the tradition that included William Morris was important not just to the British left but to the left everywhere. At the end of 'Revolution', a text that was widely read in the Old New Left, Thompson asserted that:It would be foolish...to underestimate the long and tenacious revolutionary tradition of the British commoner. It is a dogged, good-humoured, responsible, peaceable tradition: yet a revolutionary tradition all the same. From the Leveller corporals ridden down by Cromwell's men at Burford to the weavers massed behind their banners at Peterloo, the struggles for democratic and for social rights have always been intertwined. From the Chartist camp meeting to the dockers' picket line, it has expressed itself most naturally in the language of moral revolt. Its weaknesses, its carelessness of theory, we know too well; its strengths, its resilience and steady humanity, we too easily forget. It is a tradition which could leaven the socialist world.
When he published The Making of the English Working Class
in 1963, Thompson prefaced the work with a famous assertion of its heuristic value for both scholars and political activists in the developing world:[T]he greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialsation, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this passage is suggesting British history, or at least a certain period in English history, as a model for the development of large parts of the developing world. English history and the situation of 'the greater part of the world' are being made commensurable. Thompson's claim for the relevance of his book to the situation of many developing countries is one of the reasons for the tremendous popularity it has enjoyed, not only amongst scholars in the Third World but amongst First World social scientists and political activists concerned with the problems thrown up by capitalist development in the Third World. For many readers, Thompson is not just describing the distant history of the world's first industrial power; he is saying something about the situation of hundreds of millions of people alive today.
[part two in a few days...]