Crossing the Frontier
Here's a short excerpt from a long and winding PhD chapter I've just written, with a bit of an introduction to put it in context:
The second half of the 1970s was a difficult time for EP Thompson. Although still a staunch critic of Britain's political and economic elite, he became increasingly alienated from large parts of the country's left. He saw the British trade union movement and the Bennite left of the Labour Party as dominated by an anti-intellectual and amoral economism, that put the squeezing of temporary wage rises from an economy in crisis above any sort of longer-term political vision. Thompson felt that the young Marxists in Britain's universities were cut off from ordinary working class people, being more interested in abstract theorising and rhetorical support for revolutions in faraway countries. For their part, feminists were guilty of an 'identity politics' that was only fostering divisions amongst ordinary people.
Worst of all, the left was oblivious to the growth of a sinister 'secret state' that was steadily eroding civil liberties and possibly planning to remove the Labour Party from office by illegitimate means (recent revelations have suggested that Thompson's suspicions were not without foundation).
When he travelled to India at the end of 1976, Thompson got first-hand experience of life in a dictatorship. Using draconian 'emergency' powers, Indira Gandhi's police force was arresting some of the students that Thompson lectured to and some of the political comrades he met. Thompson himself was soon being tailed by plainclothes police, despite the fact that we was a semi-official guest of the Indian government (I'll post more about this extraordinary chapter in Thompson's life another time). When he came back to Britain Thompson found that some old comrades, like senior Labour Party politician Michael Foot, were public supporters of the Gandhi government. Social democrats like Foot seemed as indifferent to tyranny as the Stalinists Thompson had long excoriated. Thompson's gloom about the left was reinforced when his friend Malcolm Caldwell was murdered, probably by Vietnamese agents, during a trip to Cambodia in 1978.
Thompson's frustrations burst forth in 'The Poverty of Theory', a long and angry essay written at the beginning of 1978 and published later that year. Picking (rather unfairly) on the French philosopher and long-time Communist Party member Louis Althusser as an exemplar of 'Stalinism in theory', 'The Poverty of Theory' argues that the old unified Marxist tradition has been sundered, and that it is impossible for 'libertarian communists' like Thompson to share any causes with the sort of 'comrades' who might support, in their theory or their practice, the sort of regimes that killed Malcolm Caldwell and persecuted Thompson's Indian students.
In December 1979, 'The Poverty of Theory' was the subject of a debate at St Paul's church in Oxford that quickly became legendary. In front of a packed audience, Thompson confronted interlocutors like Stuart Hall and Raphael Samuel, accusing them of being obsessed with academic theory and indifferent to the growth of a police state in Britain and the threat of nuclear war. Thompson concluded by saying he would not have time to take part in similar debates in the future, because he wanted to give all his attention to opposing the deployment of Cruise Missiles in Europe.
‘The Poverty of Theory’ is an unusual work in the EP Thompson canon. Preoccupied with the rarefied worlds of philosophy of history and Marxology, and full of abstract, rather difficult language, the essay contrasts with Thompson’s famous exercises in social history and political polemic. Thompson himself seemed discomforted by the text: in the foreword to The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays he apologised for its ‘abstraction’, and promised a companion volume, as a sort of amelioration:
In the second volume, which may be published next year, I will bring together directly-political writings from the last twenty years, and will write a more thorough account of the political context and practical initiatives of the first New Left. This may afford some correction to a certain abstraction and lack of realist texture in the present collection…
But Reasoning never appeared. As we have seen in earlier chapters, Thompson’s thought had reached a political and intellectual breaking point by the end of the 1970s, and after the ‘bad vibes’ of the tumultuous St Paul’s debate in December 1979 he was disinclined to engage in sustained polemic with the Marxist left again. In the first years of the 1980s Thompson devoted almost all of his energy to Europe’s reviving anti-nuclear movement. By the time he stepped back from that struggle his health was breaking down, and a series of half-finished historical and literary projects beckoned.
Without the second, illustrative volume Thompson promised, ‘The Poverty of Theory’ has remained an enigmatic text in the Thompson oeuvre, a work which cannot be readily connected to the famous histories and straightforwardly political works.
Thompson’s essay inspired furious debate in print, and in the freezing hall of St Paul’s. Even today the text inspires fervent admirers and equally fervent detractors. But if they have disagreed passionately about the arguments of ‘The Poverty of Theory’, commentators have tended to agree, albeit tacitly, on certain matters relating to the text’s place in Thompson’s career and oeuvre. One point of agreement has been expressed well by Eric Hobsbawm:
[Thompson] suspended the remarkable studies of eighteenth-century society begun after The Making [of the English Working Class]…to plunge into years of a theoretical struggle against the influence of a French Marxist, the late Louis Althusser…
Commentators have generally shared Hobsbawm’s view that Thompson set aside his historical work and took a fairly lengthy ‘detour’ to research and write ‘The Poverty of Theory’. Hobsbawm laments Thompson’s detour; others, like Bryan D Palmer and John Saville, have regarded it as necessary and valuable. Few commentators, though, doubt that Thompson did indeed ‘suspend’ his historical work during the period in which he produced ‘The Poverty of Theory’.
It is a little-known fact that EP Thompson did not put his historical research on hold to write ‘The Poverty of Theory’. As we have seen, Thompson did spend three weeks at the beginning of 1978 solely focused on writing up the text. Through much of 1976 and 1977, though, he researched ‘The Poverty of Theory’ at the same time as he pursued major investigations into the background to William Blake’s thought and poetry, and into the circumstances surrounding the death of Frank Thompson in Bulgaria in the middle of 1944. Besides countless hours in research libraries, the Blake project involved journeys to Kent to meet a retired fruit farmer called Philip Noakes, who was the last living member of the Muggletonian sect. Intensive research into the fate of Frank Thompson led Edward all the way to te backblocks Bulgaria in the summer of 1979.
Both research projects bore fruit: in 1978 Thompson gave three lectures on Blake and Muggletonianism at the University of Toronto, and in 1981 he delivered three lectures on Frank Thompson at Stanford University. Thompson always intended to publish both sets of lectures, but first the peace movement and then ill health interfered with his plans. The work on Blake would be published as a slim book called Witness Against the Beast in 1993, the year of Thompson’s death; four years later, the lectures on Frank would see the light of day as an even slimmer book called Beyond the Frontier. The Toronto lectures on Blake were reworked in 1988 and 1989, when Thompson was a visiting scholar at the University of Manchester, but the lectures on Frank have come down to us barely altered.
The time it took the two sets of lectures to reach print no doubt helps to explain why so few people know that Thompson was engaged in historical research at the end of the 1970s. It must be acknowledged, too, that Witness Against the Beast and Beyond the Frontier have not achieved the renown that belongs to Thompson ‘classics’ like the Making of the English Working Class. The Blake study was respectfully reviewed in English literary studies circles, but failed to attract significant cross-disciplinary and non-academic audiences. Beyond the Frontier was lightly reviewed, and has been fairly called ‘Thompson’s least-known work’.
The neglect of Witness Against the Beast and Beyond the Frontier is lamentable. Entertaining and informative in their own right, these books open a door on Thompson’s practice as a historian in the period when he researched, penned, and defended his famous treatise on the philosophy of history. The two books, and the best of Thompson’s subsequent historical and political writings, can be considered a sort of de facto ‘companion’ to ‘The Poverty of Theory’, because they concretise the theoretical points made in that work.
Beyond the Frontier exemplifies the style and attitudes of the ‘late’ EP Thompson. In 103 pages of taut, understated prose Thompson probes the circumstances surrounding his brother’s untimely death, sifting through sources with a caution borne of an awareness of the duplicity and myth-making inherent in all the official accounts of World War Two and its complicated subplot in the Balkans.
The basic narrative of the last weeks of Frank Thompson’s life is not in dispute in Beyond the Frontier. Frank, a brilliant classical scholar and linguist and the hub of a circle of Oxford undergraduates that also included Iris Murdoch and Michael Foot, had volunteered for service against his parents’ wishes shortly after the outbreak of World War Two. In a poem called 'To Madonna Bolshevichka', Frank explained his feelings to Murdoch:
Sure, lady, I know the party line is better.
I know what Marx would have said. I know you're right.
When this is over we'll fight for the things that matter.
Somehow, today, I simply want to fight.
That's heresy? Okay. But I'm past caring.
There's blood in my eyes, and mist and hate.
I know the things we're fighting now and loathe them.
Now's not the time you say. But I can't wait.
After serving as an Intelligence Officer in North Africa and Sicily, he parachuted into south Serbia in January 1944 with the mission of liaising with Yugoslav partisans and aiding the fledgling Bulgarian partisan movement, which had been sheltering in parts of Serbia liberated from the Nazis.
In May Thompson entered Bulgaria with a small group of partisans which he hoped would be the nucleus of an anti-fascist army capable of changing the government in Sofia. After being quickly identified and attacked by local fascist forces loyal to the Bulgarian government the partisans were forced to undertake an epic and ultimately futile march into the interior of the country in search of allies. Thompson was taken prisoner on May the 21st, and executed on June the 5th, after torture and a show trial had failed to make him cooperate with his captors. Frank died singing 'The Internationale' and giving the clenched fist salute of the Popular Front to the fascist firing squad.
The speedy identification of the partisans after they crossed the Bulgarian frontier and the decision of the fascists to execute a uniformed British officer have given rise to rumours that Frank Thompson and his comrades were betrayed, but there has been no consensus about who the culprit might have been. In Beyond the Frontier EP Thompson is unable to find definitive proof of an act of betrayal, but he shows that both the Soviet and British governments had reasons to wish that Frank Thompson’s mission failed.
It is instructive to compare Beyond the Frontier with the conclusion the young EP Thompson wrote to There is a Spirit in Europe, the collection of his brother’s writing he edited for publication by Victor Gollancz in 1947. In the heady aftermath of the war, Frank was acclaimed in Bulgaria as a communist hero, and in Britain as a martyr of the struggle for democracy against fascism. A train station in Bulgaria was named after him, at the same time as Beyond the Frontier received an admiring review in the Times Literary Supplement.
Frank Thompson was one of the heroes of what his brother liked to call the ‘voluntarist decade’ that lasted from the eruption of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 to the first beginning of the Cold War. The ‘voluntarist decade’ was a time when the will of millions of men and women seemed to be turning history on a new hinge, as the forces of democracy and communism – the relationship between the two words did not yet seem problematic, to either the left or a large part of the right –sought to defeat the menace of fascism, and open up a path for a new post-war world. Considering Beyond the Frontier in the London Review of Books, Arnold Rattenbury was old enough to remember that:
after the war Frank became for many of us an emblem of anti-fascist heroism - a glorious simplicity where much was soon to become murky.
The title of Frank Thompson’s posthumous books comes from a letter he wrote to his family on Christmas day, 1943:
My Christmas message to you is one of greater hope than I have ever had in my life before. There is a spirit abroad in Europe which is finer and braver than anything that tired continent has known for centuries, and which cannot be withstood…It is the confident will of whole peoples, who have known the utmost humiliation and suffering and who have triumphed over it, to build their own life once and for all…There is a marvelous opportunity before us, and all that is required from Britain, America and the USSR is imagination, help, and sympathy.
Considering these words three and a half decades later, Frank’s younger brother is filled with sadness:
Nothing now reads as a sicker epitaph for the second world war than that. It was a young man’s illusion, cancelled utterly within a few years by the oncoming Cold War.
In her introduction to Frank Thompson’s Selected Poems Dorothy Thompson unhappily charts the vicissitudes of Frank’s reputation since the end of the ‘voluntarist decade’, noting how in Bulgaria the war hero soon became an agent of Anglo-American imperialism, before being ritually rehabilitated, and then castigated as a stooge of the Soviet Union in the new, anti-communist generation of Bulgarians that emerged in the 1990s. Edward did not live to record the latest turn in his brother’s posthumous fate, but Beyond the Frontier does treat the preceding vicissitudes in a manner that is both sad and sardonic.
It is not only the Bulgarian government and its pet historians who are charged with multiple distortions of Frank Thompson’s memory in Beyond the Frontier. EP Thompson’s research has made him aware that, even in 1944, there were figures within the Churchill government and its War Office who saw Frank as a communist subversive, not a brave young man determined to fight fascism, and who would prefer to see his mission in Bulgaria fail rather than contemplate a communist-dominated government in Sofia. Beyond the Frontier shows that the bureaucrats in the Kremlin also acted with abominable cynicism, pressuring the Yugoslav communists to proceed with ill-advised operations across the border with Bulgaria out of selfish Soviet concerns. It seems that both the principal players in the Balkans theatre of the war were determined to pursue courses of action inimical to Frank Thompson’s principled anti-fascism:
There were the strongest reasons of state - of both states - why the British mission and its leader, Frank Thompson, in particular were seen to be expendable.
Where There is a Spirit in Europe showed Frank Thompson as a hero of a global anti-fascist struggle, a man honoured in both East and West, Beyond the Frontier presents him as an isolated, tragic figure, a victim of the sinister machinations from both sides of an already-descending Iron Curtain. The Frank Thompson of Beyond the Frontier is still a hero, but he is a hero who works on the margins of history, against near-insuperable odds, rather than in the vanguard of a historical juggernaut. The political voluntarism reflected in Frank’s commitment and sacrifice is still celebrated, but its power to change history is not exaggerated. In the eyes of the late EP Thompson, human agency is no match for states and their war machines.
The style of Beyond the Frontier also marks the distance its author had travelled by the late 1970s. Thompson’s contribution to There is a Spirit in Europe is almost rhapsodic, a hymn to heroic sacrifice and a glorious future; the author of Beyond the Frontier is restrained, preferring irony to rhapsody, and suspicious of generalising too far from the historical details he has laid his hands on. For Thompson, not only political but historiographical certainties have evaporated:
‘Facts’ can still be codes and myths, one must already know a great deal to be able to sift evidence from romance; and what one may, most helpfully, gain from oral evidence is most often the marginal, the contingent, the ‘colour‘ of an event. Historians must still depend most heavily on written evidence, not because it has any special truth, but because it is most likely to contemporaneous with the event.
Beyond the Frontier is full of references to ‘anti-historians’ – sinister figures who have impeded EP Thompson and other scholars by pre-emptively ‘weeding’ documents from archives in the name of ‘national security’ and feeding false leads to investigators. One of these ‘anti-historians’ is a high-ranking officer in the Bulgarian army, who ‘offers’ Edward and Dorothy Thompson a ride in his large black Volga car and a line in dissimulation; another is a faceless MI5 hack who has torn pages out of War Office records.
It is tempting to believe that Thompson sees these ‘anti-historians’ as the real-life cousins of the theoretical anti-historians he inveighed against in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ at about the same time as he was writing Beyond the Frontier. The view that Beyond the Frontier is a sort of corollary to ‘The Poverty of Theory’ is bolstered by a passage on its very first page:
I am not so much concerned with historical epistemology – with what is ‘fact’, what is interpretation – as with more humdrum questions: the activities of anti-historians, how sensitive evidence is destroyed or screened, how myths originate, how historical anecdote may simply be a code for ideology, how the reasons of state are eternally at war with historical knowledge. I’m concerned with these humdrum questions…
Those were anyting but humdrum questions in 1978, and they remain vitally important today.