‘An appetite for the archives’: new light on EP Thompson
I’m a PhD student in the sociology department and my topic is The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, a book which Edward Palmer Thompson published in 1978. The four texts Thompson’s book collects were written over a period of nearly two decades, and consider subjects as different as the philosophy of Louis Althusser, the despair of George Orwell, the importance of lyric poetry to the British trade union movement, and the class nature of the English Civil War. Much to the discomfort of my long-suffering supervisor Ian Carter, my study of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays has morphed into a sort of potted intellectual biography of Thompson, and taken me on an inessential visit to the majestic city of Hull to study some of the great man’s unpublished writing.
When he asked me to give this seminar, Mathew suggested that members of the history department might like to hear about the material I gathered in Hull and how it could affect our understanding of Thompson. I’m not sadistic enough to inflict a discussion of all the material I found in Hull on you, so I’m just going to pick out a couple of the documents I found there, describe them, and explain how they’ve allowed me to reinterpret aspects of Thompson’s work. The first document is a short and apparently insignificant letter written to Thompson in the late ‘50s, but it was a catalyst for me to rethink Thompson’s place in the history of Marxist thought, his role in the British left, and even some of his work as a historian. The second document was written twenty years later in 1977, and it helps to explain some of the more baffling aspects of the title essay of The Poverty of Theory.
It may be hard to imagine now, but EP Thompson never intended to become a historian, and didn’t even consider himself a historian until at least halfway through his remarkable life. Growing up in interwar Oxford, under the influence of a father who was a campaigning liberal clergyman, a Professor of Sanskrit, and a much-published novelist, literary critic and poet, Thompson’s first intellectual passions were for politics and literature. As a young Communist in the years after World War Two, Thompson joined the party’s literary organisation, not the legendary group of historians that included Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and John Saville. Until the late 1950s, at least, Thompson considered his main vocation to be poetry. In a 1976 interview he recalled coming to history accidentally, as a result of his research into William Morris in the early 1950s. ‘When I wrote William Morris and [then] The Making of the English Working Class the material took hold of me’ he explained. 'I developed an appetite for the archives’ he remembered, when his fellow historian Penelope Corfield interviewed him near the end of his life.
I thought it would be hard to understand Thompson and his approach to history without doing some research in an archive myself. I also became aware, as my PhD research progressed, that a large amount of Thompson’s writing had never even been published. No amount of inter-loaning, orders from storage, and purchases from Amazon Secondhand could hope to plug the gaps that existed. This might not have worried me – after all, there ought to have been enough published material to keep me busy – if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the best studies of Thompson referred to unpublished texts.
Usually, these studies had been turned out by old friends and comrades of Thompson, who had been able to refer to their own copies of unpublished manuscripts. Thompson was both a gregarious and a disputatious man, and over the course of his life letters, internal political discussion documents, and thesis examiners’ reports all became vehicles for his insatiable need to argue with friend and foe alike.
I began to realise that this corpus of unpublished writing had been a sort of quarry for some of Thompson’s most important published texts. The unpublished Thompson cast a long shadow over the published works. It can almost go without saying that the polemical, highly conjunctural nature of much of the unpublished work makes it very important to anyone interested in a sociological analysis of Thompson’s thought. A number of Thompson’s more polemical and occasional pieces have been published, and I knew that they helped bridge the gap between the social and political contexts the man lived and worked and thought in and the studies of the past for which he is most famous.
The archive in Hull
I began seeking out Thompson’s unpublished work after reading the autobiography of his old friend and comrade John Saville late in 2004. In his book Saville mentions that Edward’s letters to him are preserved in his papers at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library, and that Thompson’s own papers are being catalogued at the Bodleian library. I e mailed both libraries, and got good and bad news. The good news was that Saville’s papers were open for business, and had just been catalogued.
I contacted Dorothy Thompson, Edward’s widow and literary executioner: she was happy to let me interview her, and even invited me to stay at her home in Worcester, but she had decided that the papers at the Bodleian should stay closed until the year
2043,the fiftieth anniversary of Edward’s death. I will be sixty nine years old in 2043, and will – fingers crossed - hopefully have finished my thesis by then, so I didn’t hold out a lot of hope of seeing many of Thompson’s unpublished works. My hopes stirred again, though, when I read through the catalogue of Saville’s enormous archive – it showed quite a number of unpublished Thompson manuscripts, as well as a huge number of letters and a lot of other intriguing Thompson-related material from third parties.
In Hull I worked my way through the Saville papers, moving from the 1950s through the ‘60s to the 70s. It was exciting to be handling some of Thompson’s own manuscripts and letters, which were often yellow, stamped by coffee mugs, and covered in corrections, exclamations, and curses in his wild handwriting. In all, I found about a dozen unpublished essays or articles, the longest of which ran to 15,000 words, hundreds of letters from Thompson to John Saville and others, and a smaller number of letters from Saville to other collaborators discussing Thompson and his work.
Saville and his close friend the political scientist Ralph Miliband were long-time co-editors of an annual journal called the Socialist Register. The Register, which is still going strong today, published a number of Thompson’s writings, including two of the texts in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, and the correspondence between Saville and Miliband often shone a light on the genesis and development of these works. Saville’s correspondence also reveals that Thompson could be an editor’s worst nightmare. Here’s a quote from a letter Saville sent to his fellow Marxist historian Victor Kiernan in 1972, when he was battling to put that year’s Socialist Register together:
[T]he editorial bed of nails is more probing than usual [this year]...When I tell you Edward Thompson is writing an open letter to Leszek Kolakowski of which he has only done the first 20,000 words so far, and that he has now suddenly taken off to America...you will understand the beginnings of our problems.
The Saville papers show that Thompson was an indefatigable letter writer. He would often write to the beleaguered Saville three or four times a day, and he was not in the habit of writing short letters. Near the end of a long epistle from the late ‘50s he boasts to Saville that ‘I have just broken my own letter-writing record - this is my twenty-seventh of the day’. Imagine what Thompson would have achieved in the age of e mail!
I should note that there are several other accessible sources for unpublished writing by Thompson, besides the Saville papers. Peter Searby and Andy Croft have made separate expeditions to the archives of the department of Extra-Mural Studies at the University of Leeds, where Thompson was based during the decade and a half that he spent as a roving tutor for the Workers Education Association in the West Riding region of Yorkshire. Andy Croft, in particular, was able to make fascinating use of the scores of reports, polemics, and other internal documents that the young, enthusiastic, and sometimes rather frustrated teacher of literature and history produced between the late ‘40s and early ‘60s.
When he wrote his authoritative study of the first British New Left, Michael Kenny excavated some useful unpublished texts from the papers of Thompson’s old comrade Lawrence Daly at Warwick University’s Modern Records Centre. And only a few weeks ago Carey Davies, a postgraduate student at Sheffield University, discovered more than a score of documents written by or about Thompson in the archives of the old Communist Party at the Museum of Working Class history in Manchester. After Thompson left its fold, Communist Party sometimes sent spies out to monitor his political activities, and Davies’ discoveries include some detailed, fly on the wall reports of Thompson’s appearances at political meetings and rallies scribbled by bitter old Stalinists hiding in the back row of drafty halls in St Pancras and Sheffield.
Throughout his career as a historian, Thompson emphasised the importance of careful research amongst primary sources - of 'listening' to the voices left in letters, diaries, court records, and even the reports of spies. In a 1976 interview he explained that:
I think it is like being a painter or a poet. A poet loves words, a painter loves paint. I found a fascination in getting to the bottom of everything, in the sources themselves...[the scholar] has got be listening all the time. He should not set up a book or a research project with a totally clear sense of what he is going to be able to do. The material itself has got to speak to him. If he listens, then the material itself will begin to speak through him. And I think this happens.
Thompson’s way of ‘listening’ to the material of the past is very different from the simplistic empiricism that characterized the method of some of the conservative historians he hated. Thompson had no time for the idea that the past simply disclosed itself as self-evident truth. Influenced by the dialectical method of Marx and Engels as well as the grand tradition of socially engaged English literary criticism represented by FR Leavis and Raymond Williams, Thompson saw ‘listening’ as an active, creative activity. He recognised that the scholar had to enter into a complex dialogue with the past, using and discarding different interpretative models, or dialectical abstractions, as they proved more or less amenable to the subject under study.
Thompson’s argument that the scholar should not begin a research project with a completely clear idea of where he wanted it to go is an important clue to his practice as a historian. For Thompson, documents like letters, diaries, and court transcripts mustn’t just exist to furnish prefabricated arguments with convenient examples and quotes - they must be allowed, or rather enabled, to speak to us, to challenge the prejudices we bring to them and, where necessary, to force us to change our interpretations of the past. Thompson’s work is studded with examples of changes of argument or emphasis brought on by a close examination of the raw materials of history. His famous researches into the sale of wives in eighteenth and nineteenth century England, for instance, began with the assumption that the practice was the barbaric expression of a patriachal society, and ended by showing that it was actually a strange and stylised form of working class divorce that was often initiated and controlled by the item on sale.
Trotsky on loan
I began to appreciate Thompson’s argument for open-mindedness after encountering a short and apparently inconsequential letter in an obscure section of the Saville papers at Hull. The letter dated from the second half of the fifties, a difficult but productive period in Thompson’s life. Looking back twenty-two years later, in the preface to The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, Thompson would remember 1956 ‘as the year in which I commenced to reason’. In 1956, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary and the near-simultaneous Anglo-French attack on Egypt raised fundamental questions about political systems on both sides of the Iron Curtain.
The invasion of Hungary had a calamitous effect on the Stalinised Communist Parties of the West. One of the organisations most affected by Hungary was the Communist Party of Great Britain, which lost a third of its 21,000 members in 1956 and 1957. The dearly departed included some of the most outstanding intellectuals in Britain, people like Thompson, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, John Saville, and Doris Lessing. Others like Eric Hobsbawm remained inside the party as 'internal émigrés' furtively hostile to the party leadership. The Communist Party Historians Group never recovered its lustre after 1956.
Out of the ruins of 1956, though, a New Left hostile to both Stalinism and NATO was able to emerge in Britain and in a score of other countries, as dissident communists teamed up with a generation of young people disgusted by the hypocrisy represented by the neo-imperialist adventure in Egypt. The massive movements against war and capitalism which were such a feature of the late 1960s had their real origins in
Thompson quickly emerged as one of the leaders of the New Left. Along with Saville, he edited a journal called the New Reasoner, which became one of the foci for the new movement, spoke at New Left Clubs up and down the country, and became a figurehead of the anti-nuclear movement that was burgeoning in the late 1950s.
The letter which I want to discuss was written to Thompson by a man named Raymond Challinor. Writing from Newcastle, where he had a job as the local Labour Party Education Officer, Raymond Challinor requested the return of several books:
I was agreeably surprised by the current issue of the New Reasoner. It is definitely making a useful contribution to socialist thought as well as helping to break down the avid factional barriers…I believe you still have some literature of mine, including Trotsky’s ‘New Course’…perhaps you’d send them back?
Challinor was a supporter of Tony Cliff's Trotskyist tendency who wrote extensively about the history of the British left and working class movement. He admired Thompson greatly, and the two men seem to have enjoyed a rapport. In a 1957 letter to John Saville that I turned up at Hull, Thompson recommended the writing of Challinor, whom he described as ‘a Trot of the milder persuasion’. In 1993, shortly after Thompson’s death, Challinor wrote to the Socialist Review to object to some of the remarks in an obituary Duncan Hallas had written for the publication. Rejecting Hallas’ claim that Thompson had ‘been an enthusiastic Stalinist up until 1956’, Challinor cast his mind back four decades:
In the early 1950s, when I edited Socialist Review, I had a number of long discussions with him. Unlike other members of the Communist Party, he was not arrogant or aggressive…he already had doubts about the latest Stalinist encyclicals on subjects like Lysenko and linguistics…as his knowledge of the British working class grew greater and greater, he found it an increasing problem to reconcile the wisdom he had acquired with the inanities of Stalinism. The thought control the Communist Party sought to impose was deeply repugnant, a violation of his very being.
Speaking to me in 2005, Challinor confirmed that he had regularly supplied Thompson with writing by Trotsky in the 1950s. ‘He took it, read it, and always found it interesting’, Challinor remembered. When I asked them, both Dorothy Thompson and John Saville confirmed that Thompson was reading Trotsky in the 1950s. Dorothy claimed that he was familiar with Trotsky’s work even before leaving the Communist Party. Carey Davies has put the icing on the cake by discovering a report written by a Communist Party spy who attended a New Left meeting in 1957. According to the unimpressed Stalinist, the hall at St Pancras was full of ‘scruffy Trots’, and Thompson and Saville both mentioned the ‘importance of reading Trotsky’ during their talks to the meeting.
The despised Trotsky
Now, you might at this point be wondering: so what? Is it really so significant that Thompson read the works of one of the most famous Marxists of the twentieth century? To ask such questions would be to forget the very strong emotions that the figure of Leon Trotsky aroused amongst both scholars and activists of the British left for much of the twentieth century. After losing the battle for control of the international communist movement to Stalin, Trotsky had been demonized as a reckless anarchist, a friend of fascists, and a man on the payroll of several Western governments. Not for nothing was he the model for Goldstein, the despised enemy of Big Brother in George Orwell’s 1984.
Trotsky was a deeply unpopular figure on Britain’s liberal and social democratic left, as well as in its Communist Party. Since the 1920s, he had been a symbol, in the minds of many liberals and social democrats, of the aggressive and alien revolution that had enveloped Russia and had seemed for a while like it might menace Britain.
In 1926 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. Trotsky saw Britain as a declining power with an increasingly moribund economy. He 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. Like Lenin, Trotsky was a fierce critic of the assimilation of Marx to this gradualist tradition by left-wing supporters of the Labour Party and the Independent Labour Party. 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. John Maynard Keynes and Bertrand Russell expressed the same attitude, when they wrote reviews of Trotsky‘s book. Brailsford, Keynes, and Russell all held to liberal and gradualist views about political change, and they smarted at the idea that a backward nation like the Soviet Union could offer its revolution as a model to advanced Britain.
EP Thompson had first come into the orbit of the Communist Party during the ‘Popular Front’ period which lasted through the second half of the 1930s well into the ‘40s. The Popular Front saw the party abandoning some of its old criticisms of the rest of the British left, and trying to recruit the Labour Party and many liberals to a broad movement ‘against war and fascism’. During the Popular Front period, the party rediscovered native British radical traditions. The Levellers were hailed as proto-communists; the young Wordsworth and Coleridge were celebrated as prophets of democratic revolution. Trotsky was bitterly critical of the Popular Front era, but Thompson always looked back to it as an inspiration.
Thompson's first important work of scholarship, his monumental biography of William Morris, was intended partly as a political intervention: in the best Popular Front tradition, Thompson wanted to reclaim an indigenous radical from his admirers on the right. By the time he had become a leader of the Old New Left, Thompson had begun to assert that the English radical tradition that included William Morris was important not just to Britain but to the whole world.
Given all this, it’s not entirely surprising that many commentators on Thompson have seen him as hostile to Trotsky’s ideas. For them, Trotsky and Thompson have represented opposite types of left-wing politics, the one uncompromisingly militant and internationalist, dedicated to global revolution and intolerant of the idiosyncrasies of the national traditions of ‘decadent’ nations like Britain, and the other dedicated to a much more gradual route to socialism rooted in national conditions and traditions. Hostility to Trotsky and the ‘Old Bolshevik’ politics he represented has become almost a defining feature of Thompson’s political thought, in the eyes of some commentators.
In his thorough and usually insightful book Arguments within English Marxism, for instance, Perry Anderson convicts Thompson of a ‘repression of Trotsky’ which hurt his own intellectual development:
for not only did Trotsky provide the first and most durable Marxist theory of Stalinism – the prime object of Thompson’s concern after leaving the Communist Party, but he was also the first great Marxist historian...
In a review of Persons and Polemics, a posthumous collection of Thompson’s occasional writings, Chris Harman suggested that the work of Trotsky always lay ‘well outside the orbit’ of Thompson, even after he left the Communist Party. When he wrote the first of his two books about Thompson, Bryan D Palmer felt compelled to add a final chapter chiding his hero for his supposed neglect of the pre-Stalin Bolshevik tradition represented by Lenin and Trotsky.
In a long essay published last year, the young historian of Marxism Paul Blackledge reiterated the charge that Thompson and Trotsky represented opposite models of left-wing politics. Looking back over the history of the first New Left, Blackledge blamed Thompson’s supposed hostility to Trotskyism for helping to ensure the movement’s failure. Blackledge’s Thompson is a hidebound social democrat, incapable of appreciating the insights of Trotsky.
The discovery of the letter from Challinor, and its confirmation from other sources, forced me to rethink the picture of Thompson as an inveterate opponent of Trotsky and the Bolshevik model of socialism. I decided to test Paul Blackledge’s study of Thompson and the New Left by rereading the texts it cited and searching them for traces of the influence of Trotsky.
In ‘Socialist Humanism’, a long essay he wrote in 1957 to express his new disillusionment with the leaders of the Eastern bloc countries, Thompson followed Trotsky by insisting that the Soviet Union was a post-capitalist society, not a new type of capitalism. Thompson and Trotsky agreed that Stalin represented a bureaucratic caste that had taken control over the Soviet Union, but denied that the bureaucracy represented a new class. At one point in his text, Thompson actually invoked the authority of Trotsky and Trotsky’s disciple Isaac Deutscher:
In understanding the central position of the Russian bureaucracy we have a great deal to learn, from the analyses of Trotsky and even more from the flexible and undogmatic approach of Isaac Deutscher…
It is significant that ‘The New Course’, the text that Challinor mentions lending to Thompson, is one of Trotsky’s first attempts to analyse the degeneration of the Bolshevik revolution and the Stalinist bureaucracy that took over the Soviet state. Paul Blackledge spends some time discussing ’Socialist Humanism’, but he is silent about the text’s explicit endorsement of one of the key tenets of Trotskyism. I’d also somehow missed the reference, the first time I’d read ‘Socialist Humanism’. I obviously hadn’t been listening to my material, in the way that Thompson demands researchers should do.
It wasn’t only in ‘Socialist Humanism’ that I found traces of the influence of Trotsky. In ‘Revolution’, an influential 1960 essay that mapped out a political strategy for the British New Left, Thompson expresses views on the transition to socialism that suggest the influence of Trotsky. In his essay Thompson rejects a 1917-style insurrection as a route to power, arguing that it is incompatible with Britain’s long-established democratic institutions. Like Trotsky, though, he rejects the sort of gradual, reformist road to political change advocated by Fabian social democrats and liberals.
Thompson believes that the election of a radical left-wing government would usher in a series of crises - he mentions a US trade embargo as punishment for leaving NATO, and sabotage of the economy by the capitalist-controlled banks - that would show the majority of Britons that transition to a new society is necessary, as a condition for any but the most modest left-wing reforms. Such an argument recalls Trotsky’s 1930s notion of a ‘transitional programme’ of political and economic demands that were both urgently necessary and impossible to achieve within the limits of the old capitalist society. Although Thompson did not invoke Trotsky in ‘Revolution’, he mentions the necessity for a ‘transitional programme for Britain’ in letters to friends.
A peculiar borrowing
Now, you might be thinking: this is all well and good, but what does it have to do with Thompson’s historical work? The histories are surely the most important part of the legacy Thompson left us, and how do involved arguments about the influence of long-dead Bolsheviks impinge upon them? To ask these questions would be to forget that, like Trotsky, Thompson was an intensely political historian. Even his most apparently disinterested works of historical scholarship were related, though not reducible, to his political ideas and activities. In an article written for the Times Literary Supplement in 1966, Thompson made his contempt for the notion of apolitical academic history clear. Claiming that ‘the seed of William the bastard still occupies most academic chairs in history’, he called for a struggle against conservative methods of history that would parallel industrial and political struggles waged by the left outside the academy. For Thompson, history was always a political battleground. This is one of the reasons why it is not only in explicitly political texts like ‘Socialist Humanism’ and ‘Revolution’ that intriguing similarities between the ideas of Thompson and Trotsky can be found.
In his famous 1964 essay ‘Peculiarities of the English’ Thompson criticises the then-fashionable interpretation of English history put forward by the young Marxist scholars Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn. Anderson and Nairn had used a series of essays and book reviews to argue that England had experienced only a very incomplete bourgeois revolution in the seventeenth century, and that the aristocracy, or elements of the aristocracy, had for this reason controlled the British state well into the nineteenth century. Anderson and Nairn believed that the supposed backwardness of English culture and political thought, and the failure of the English working class ever to make a revolution, could be traced back to the ‘premature and incomplete’ upheaval of the seventeenth century. Only the importation of Marxist ideas from countries with healthier histories - countries like Italy, Russia and France - could strengthen the British left and labour movement so that they could act to stop the decay of British society.
In ‘Peculiarities of the English’, which was collected in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, Thompson charged Anderson and Nairn with holding an arrogant attitude toward the English left and English history. He accused them of trying to judge the unique history of England by standards set in very different countries. Thompson insisted that England had experienced a genuine bourgeois revolution, even if it took a different form from the French revolution, and he defended the importance of an English bourgeois intellectual tradition that included Darwin and Smith. Thompson also condemned Anderson and Nairn for writing off the whole of English working class history as a sort of abortion, and ignoring the heroism and militancy of groups like the Chartists, as well as the dogged fight for a better life within capitalism waged by the modern labour movement.
A key point of contention between Thompson and Anderson was the nature of the
group - known as ’Old Corruption’ or simply ’the Thing’ to its radical opponents - that was the target of the Reform Act of 1832. Anderson and Nairn argued that the Reform Act was a half-hearted attempt to break the control of the state and its bureaucracies that the aristocracy had established. They suggested that the rising capitalist class refused to confront the aristocracy head-on, and instead adopted a compromise which saw the aristocracy maintain a strong influence over British culture into the twentieth century. For his part, Thompson insisted that ‘Old Corruption’ was not a distinct, pre-capitalist class, but merely a parasitic faction of the capitalist class that had managed to attach itself to the state. It was not justifiable, then, to suppose that the aristocracy had maintained a grip on English life well into the nineteenth century.
‘Peculiarities of the English’ had an immediate and devastating impact on its targets. Looking back from the vantage point of 1980, Perry Anderson remembered that the essay seemed to place the future of all his political and intellectual projects in jeopardy. Anderson quickly wrote a long, abusive response to Thomspon’s criticisms, but he would later refuse to republish this piece. Instead, he modified his vision of English history to take on board some of Thompson’s key criticisms.
Besides being one of the greatest short overviews of English history ever written, ‘Peculiarities of the English’ is a sort of rosetta stone for the masterpieces of historical scholarship that Thompson published intermittently from the 1960s through ‘til the early ‘90s. Many of the key concepts of Thompson’s histories are coined or elaborated in ‘Peculiarities of the English’. The analogy is not exact, but in some ways we can compare the place of ‘Peculiarities of the English’ in Thompson’s career to the place of ‘The Communist Manifesto’ in the work of Marx. ‘The Communist Manifesto’ introduces us to some of Marx’s key ideas, and it gives a brief, sweeping overview of a phenomenon - the development of capitalism - that Marx will study in detail for decades.
Yet Thompson’s famous defence of English particularism may have taken one of its key arguments from a Russian Marxist. In an obituary for Thompson, his fellow historian Eileen Yeo noted that ‘Peculiarities of the English’ borrowed one of the arguments of ‘Socialist Humanism’. Although she doesn’t mention Trotsky, Yeo notes the parallels between Thompson’s interpretation of ‘Old Corruption’ and the view he advances in ‘Socialist Humanism’ of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union and its satellites. Like the Stalinist bureaucracy that ran the Soviet Union, the corrupt group that had a grip on the British state before the reforms of 1832 was not a separate class, but rather a layer of one class. Just as the Soviet Union in 1957 was ultimately still a workers’ society, despite the parasitic layer of bureaucracy that had attached itself to the state, so the Britain of 1832 was a capitalist society, despite the ‘Old Corruption’ that Anderson and Nairn had mistaken for the old, aristocratic class. Trotsky’s argument flows through ‘Socialist Humanism’ and into ‘Peculiarities of the English’.
To make the case for the influence of Trotsky on Thompson is not to argue, of course, that Britain’s greatest twentieth century historian was some sort of secret Trotskyist. It is to suggest that Thompson was capable of a greater eclecticism and subtlety than both his opponents and proponents have sometimes allowed. His strong belief in the uniqueness and importance of indigenous English radical history and thought did not preclude a sympathetic interest in a thinker as un-English as Leon Trotsky.
Into the ‘70s
I hope that the example of the letter from Challinor to Thompson shows how ‘listening’, in the Thompsonian sense, to one small piece of evidence can lead to the reconsideration of a whole tradition of interpretation and argument. The second document from the archives at Hull that I want to discuss is a very different sort of artifact. It’s much more substantial than Challinor’s letter, and it is obviously rather than insidiously important to interpretations of Thompson’s life and work. If the Challinor letter whispers to researchers, the text I’m about to discuss fairly screams.
Since the document I’m going to discuss was written in the second half of the 1970s, I need to give a quick account of EP Thompson’s political thought during that decade. Thompson’s two best-known political pieces from the 1970s are the ‘Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’ and ‘The Poverty of Theory’; both of them express his pessimism about the health of Marxist practice and theory. ‘The Poverty of Theory’ is a venomous polemic, even by the standards of the British left. Thompson wrote the two hundred page essay in two weeks in February 1978; by the end of the following year Stuart Hall felt able to describe it as ‘a remarkable political and intellectual event’. ‘The Poverty of Theory’ was seen as one salvo in a larger battle, a battle fought by armies gathered under the rival banners of ‘humanism’ and ‘scientism’, ‘early’ and ‘late’ Marx, 'French structuralism’ and ‘English empiricism’.
The resonant but sometimes obscure abstractions of Althusserian Marxism, and the dismissal of the discipline of history evinced by some of the more gauche young philosophers, political scientists, and literary scholars attracted to Althusser’s thought were both connected, in Thompson’s mind at least, to a disregard for the history of the left, and the long tradition of struggle that had won democratic freedoms and a relatively high standard of living for Britain’s working class. ‘The Poverty of Theory’ was a passionate, and sometimes indiscriminate, attack on the excesses of Althusser and his followers; it was also a plea for the importance of the craft of history, as an example to other, less empirical disciplines, and as a sort of insurance against attempts by malign governments and political movements to distort the past for ideological purposes.
‘The Poverty of Theory’ attracted heated critics and equally heated defenders. For many left-wing historians, sociologists, and anthropologists bewildered by the byzantine world of high Marxist theory, ‘The Poverty of Theory’ was a blessing, and a sort of manifesto. Critics charged Thompson with merely giving a left-wing gloss to a very old British tradition of philistinism and antipathy to abstract thought. What Thompson himself called ‘my violent and bitter attack on Stalinism in theory’ climaxed at a notorious debate held at St Paul’s church in Oxford in December 1979, at the end of a History Workshop conference. Raphael Samuel has described the scene:
Crammed with an audience of hundreds, the temperature boosted by the largest blow heater imaginable, the conference settled down to its main task...Bright spotlights increased the sense that a theatrical performance was demanded...[Thompson] proceeded to a demolition job on his critics which caused evident personal pain and discomfort to many of those present.
By the time of the St Paul’s debate Thompson had become convinced that Britain was heading for disaster – he talked of the imminence of a police state and the danger of nuclear war – and he believed that much of the left was complicit in the coming catastrophe. He was particularly angered by the left’s alleged failure to take the erosion of civil liberties seriously. Bryan D Palmer has suggested that St Paul’s debate marked the end of Thompson’s interest in Marxism. Certainly, Thompson refused subsequent invitations to discuss 'The Poverty of Theory' and the controversy it had stirred.
There are two main interpretations of the course of Thompson’s political thought in the ‘70s – we can call them the ‘forward march’ view and the ‘downward spiral’ view. Advocates of the ‘forward march’ view, who can be represented by Palmer, see Thompson’s politics in the ‘70s as broadly consistent with his earlier polemics against Stalinism and for socialist humanism – they suggest that it was the British left, and not Thompson, which had changed, and which was responsible for the bitterness of ‘The Poverty of Theory’ and St Paul’s.
On the other hand, the ‘downward spiral’ view, which can be represented by the American scholar Dennis Dworkin, faults Thompson for failing to move with the times and understand the dynamics of the so-called ‘New New Left’ of the late '60s and '70s, with its increased emphasis on gender and race-based politics and on Third World national liberation movements. Thompson, these critics suggest, failed to engage constructively with the people who should have been his comrades. With his romantic talk of the radical tradition of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ and his nostalgia for the Popular Front, Thompson was locked in a style of politics that owed more to the 1940s than the 1970s.
At Hull, I discovered letters from the mid-'70s which contradict both these views. Writing to Saville in August 1976, shortly before his return home from an eighteen month spell teaching in the United States, Thompson remarks on how much he misses 'British politics, which is so much better than the awful politics over here, in this godforsaken free market society'. Later in the same letter Thompson makes the startling statement 'I think British society is poised for a transition to socialism'. The letters of 1976 also contain evidence that Thompson had ‘made up’ with many of the leftist intellectuals he had quarreled with in the 1960s and early 70s, including his old arch-rival Perry Anderson.
Six weeks in India
Even without knowing about the thaw of the mid-70s, many commentators have been baffled by the ferocity of Thompson’s criticisms of the left in 1978 and 1979. Anyone who reads the optimistic, conciliatory words of 1976 must even more insistently ask the question: how could Thompson have expressed himself with such bitterness and such pessimism less than two years later, in 'The Poverty of Theory'? How could the reconciliations of 1976 have become the repudiations of 1978 and 1979?
This question nagged at me during the first days of my stay in Hull. The answer came in the form of a long, strange document called ‘Six Weeks in India’, which was included in a file of wildly dissimilar miscellaneous items in the Saville papers.
I was quick to try to have ‘Six Weeks in India’ photocopied by the staff at the Brynmor Jones library. Thompson had written ‘Strictly Confidential’ on the front of the document, and asked that it not be reproduced, so the archivists at Hull spent some time arguing about whether I should be allowed to read, let alone copy it. In the end they relented, realising that the passage of time had removed any danger that might come from the circulation of the details and names contained in the text. The passage of time had not, however, made the contents of ‘Six Weeks in India’ any less shocking. The text is forty-eight pages long, and consists mostly of a vivid, angry, but remarkably analytic account of a journey EP Thompson made around India, from Delhi in the north to Calcutta to Kerala and back to Delhi, in December 1976 and January 1977, the twilight of the period in the country’s history known nowadays as ‘The Emergency’.
In 1975, in response to major industrial unrest in the cities, a Maoist insurgency in the countryside, and declining popular support for her government, Indira Gandhi had introduced Emergency Law, locked up tens of thousands of her political opponents, and begun a period of dictatorial rule. Thompson had been invited to India by the country’s Historical Association, whose members were keen to hear him lecture, but he also found himself welcomed by the government, because his father had been a scholar of Indian society and a friend of Jawaharlal Nehru, who had been India’s first Prime Minister as well as the father of Indira Gandhi. Indira was building a cult around her family in an effort to bolster her rule, and Thompson found himself being asked to put on tape his childhood memories of Nehru, who used to visit the Thompson home in Oxford when he was in Britain and give the Thompson boys cricket lessons in their backyard.
As he traveled around India Thompson became increasingly disturbed by the effects of Indira Gandhi’s rule. He was shocked, for instance, by the persecution of many left-wing students, including some of the students who turned out to see his lectures and seminars. In ‘Six Weeks in India’ he recalls one particularly upsetting incident:
On my third day in Delhi I had given a rather loose talk on the uses of folk-lore in social history: a member of the seminar took a perfectly proper (and, I think, justified) objection to the looseness of my thought...I was glad he had stood up to me: and I can still see his sensitive face and nervous gestures. Even this, seemingly abstract academic question had a certain political relevance...In any case, that man (a sociologist) was arrested a couple of hours after the seminar...the incident had a sobering effect on me.
In a university in Bengal, Thompson was shown the spot where an anti-government Maoist student had recently been knifed to death by campus police on the desk of the vice-Chancellor; later in his trip he learned the story of a young man who had been picked up by the police, castrated, and dumped in the street. Thompson himself became a target of the Indian state: after he began to meet with groups of dissident students and trade unionists to hear their views, he noticed that people began following him. He was forced to take elaborate measures to cover his tracks whenever he left the relative safety of the lecture hall. He became, by his own admission, ‘somewhat paranoid’.
It is easy to understand, even at this distance, how shocking Thompson must have found his experiences in India in the bloody twilight of the Emergency. An analogy can fairly be made with the effect of the invasion of Hungary twenty years earlier: once again, a party and an ideology which had long been dear to Thompson were shown in a new and shocking light, inviting denunciation and disillusionment. If anything, Thompson's father's long involvement with the Indian independence movement and friendship with the Nehru family probably made the shock of 1976 more profound.
If the degeneration of the Congress Party shocked Thompson, the role of the pro-Moscow Communist Party of India and its intellectuals in the Emergency must have confirmed a number of beliefs he had held since 1956. 'Six Weeks in India' pillories the party's Moscow-directed support for Indira Gandhi's regime, and explores the role of party intellectuals in coining 'airy theoretical abstractions' to justify the worst abuses of the Emergency. Thompson may also have perceived parallels between Indian Communist apologies for the Emergency and certain ideas popular amongst socialist intellectuals in Britain. Since at least 1974 Thompson had been deeply suspicious of Althusser and the influence he wielded in Britain, and the popularity of Althusser amongst pro-Soviet Indian communist intellectuals did not escape his attention.
'Six Weeks in India' expresses considerable unease at the response of the British left to the Emergency. ‘Six Weeks in India’ seems to have been written partly for Michael Foot, a senior Labour Party politician who was an old friend of the Thompson family. Thompson was disturbed by Michael Foot's public support for Indira Gandhi. He also worried about the influence of British Stalinism on Indian intellectuals - he pointed out that Palme Dutt's dogmatic and voluminous writings on India had been staple reading for many Indian intellectuals, thanks to the wide circulation the Communist Party of Great Britain and its allies gave them.
Thompson's concern at the erosion of civil liberties, fear that the left did not understand the importance of defending those liberties, suspicion of Stalinism and its intellectual apologists, and mistaken belief that Althusserianism had to represent a sort of highbrow Stalinism were all greatly strengthened by his experiences in India. 'Six Weeks in India', then, helps to explain both the bitterness and the urgency that Thompson showed in 'The Poverty of Theory', as well as the greatly increased amounts of time he gave to the defense of civil liberties in the late 1970s and early '80s. It is only by ‘listening’, in the Thompsonian sense, to the angry and frightened voices of ’Six Weeks in India’ that we can fully understand the fear and anger that suffused ‘The Poverty of Theory’, and that motivated Thompson’s extraordinary behaviour at St Paul’s on that cold night at the end of 1979.
After St Paul’s
Once again, somebody who is interested in EP Thompson as a historian, rather than as a Marxologist or political activist, might ask: so what? Thompson’s experiences in India may have been extraordinary, and they may have left a deep mark on his political thinking, but how are they relevant to the works of historical scholarship for which he is mainly remembered today? I would answer this question by once again asserting a connection between Thompson’s politics and his scholarship, and by arguing that the course of his career as a historian was fatefully influenced by his shocking experiences in India and the gloomy turn in his political thinking.
EP Thompson did not put his historical research on hold to produce ‘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 his brother Frank Thompson in Bulgaria in the middle of 1944.
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 his activism in the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980s 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 Thompson have come down to us barely altered.
Beyond the Frontier and Witness Against the Beast are very different from the more famous histories of the 1960s and early ‘70s. Like ‘The Poverty of Theory’ itself, they record a fundamental break in Thompson’s thought. It may not be going too far that all three works represent the start of a distinct ‘late’ period in Thompson’s work.
The most general characteristic of the late scholarly work is a deep and abiding pessimism. Thompson is famous for emphasising that human history is the product of a dialectic between agency and structure, but in works like The Making of the English Working Class he argued that humans determinedly, frequently, and often successfully resisted oppressive social, economic, and political structures. The late histories still celebrate human agency, but they are much more pessimistic about the ability of individuals and progressive collectivities to resist and reverse the onslaught of oppressive structures.
Beyond the Frontier exemplifies the style and attitudes of the ‘late’ EP Thompson. In one hundred and three 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 sub-plot 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. 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.
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.
The young EP Thompson’s first publication was There is a Spirit in Europe, a volume of his late brother’s writing which he edited and introduced for Victor Gollancz in the heady aftermath of World War Two. That book presented 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 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. 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.
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 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, and the very real anti-historians who used fashionable theoretical jargon to give pseudo-Marxist excuses for the nightmare of Emergency India. The view that Beyond the Frontier is a sort of corollary to ‘The Poverty of Theory’, and that the two works are both shadowed by ’Six Weeks in India’, 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…
It is possible to relate the key characteristics of Thompson's late scholarly and political work to the arguments he made with such feeling in 'The Poverty of Theory'. It was in 'The Poverty of Theory' that Thompson rejected the notion of a Marxist tradition; bewailed the ability of social scientists influenced by Althusser and other malign Marxists to manipulate source materials into multiple proliferating systems of interpretation; expressed deep pessimism about the very future of the left and its emancipatory political project; and reached out to the liberal political tradition of his father and the homely empiricism of mainstream British history.
Like ‘The Poverty of Theory’, Beyond the Frontier was written when Thompson’s experiences in India were fresh in his mind. It is hard not to attribute the pessimism of both works, and of much of the late political and historical writing that followed them, to the nightmare created by Indira Gandhi and strengthened by some self-styled Marxists who should have known better.