Friday, November 30, 2007

Another teaser

Here's Bill and the boys doing the demented Flying Nun-era epic 'Russian Rug' at Christchurch. This performance brings back memories of the gig at the PR Bar earlier this year: The Bilders lay down a slow, evil groove, and Bill solos endlessly and brilliantly over the top. Check out the elderly gent getting down on the far side of the stage.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

A teaser

Here's Bill Direen playing solo (the boys in his backing band The Bilders must have been at the bar) in Christchurch near the start of the national tour he'll be wrapping up this weekend in Auckland. Like Dylan, Bill is always tinkering with his songs. On the Human Kindness album (rave reviews here and here), 'Go Where the Spirit Takes You' is a poem recited in a low, grim voice over grinding, hissing free noise guitars. In Christchurch last week, though, it seems to have transmogrified into an almost jolly folk song. I half-expect Bill to wheel out a reggae version at the Party for your Right to Fight on Saturday night...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fighting their way north...


Bill Direen managed to smuggle this message out of the hippy haven of Takaka last night:

Hi Scott,

At the top of the south island, tour going well. Accident road closure on the Lewis PAss (not us) meant we had to come back around the east coast to Nelson yesterday... mucho driving.

Gigs going well. People everywhere great...


Hard on the heels of their rave write-up in the Sunday Star-Times, Bill and his mates Andrew Maitai and Otis Mace have scored an interview-profile on Radio New Zealand, which you can listen to here. Fanatical followers of this blog will remember that Bill spent a long time talking to Kim Hill last year, as Radio New Zealand's Paris culture correspondent. Don't ever say the man isn't versatile.

You can see Bill and some of his his mates live next Saturday, at the Party for your Right to Fight.

Someone who's had a slightly rockier time in the South Island is my mate and cover designer Ellen Portch, who experienced her second amateur kickboxing fight recently in Queenstown. Ellen's first tussle prompted the most prodigous debate in the history of this blog, as Richard Taylor urged kickboxers to abandon their wicked ways. Ellen comments on her latest fight:

damn it! lost on close points decision, happy though as I held my own against a more experienced and heavier fighter (don't you just love the ref :)

just a few more days till the next one in Rotorua...


Good luck in Rotovegas, Ells!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Party PR


[Here's a plug for next Saturday's gig that we're circulating. Click to enlarge the poster...]

A crew of Kiwi musicians, writers and political activists is throwing a party next Saturday night to celebrate freedom of expression and raise money for the campaign against the Terrorism Supression Act.

The Party for Your Right to Fight, which is being organised by Titus Books and Powertool Records, will be held at the PR Bar on Auckland's Ponsonby Road from seven o'clock on the first of December. Entry is free, and donations will be taken for the Civil Rights Defence Committee. The event will be headlined by Powertools musicians Bill Direen and Otis Mace, who will also use the evening to mark the end of the national tour they started in Dunedin last week.

Bill Direen is a Kiwi music legend, as well as a prolific novelist, poet, and translator. In the 1980s Bill worked with the likes of Chris Knox and David Kilgour, helping to define the Flying Nun sound that revolutionised music in this country. Bill has spent most of the last decade in Berlin and Paris, but this year he has made a long-overdue return to the stages of New Zealand. After seeing Bill perform a few months ago in Auckland, Russell Brown described him as 'magic' and a 'justifiable legend'.

In last weekend's Sunday Star-Times, Grant Smithies gave rave reviews to both Bill and Otis Mace's new albums. Smithies called Bill's Human Kindness a 'rare gift' which 'credits you with having a brain and banks on you enjoying surprises' and makes the world 'a perceptibly better place'. Besides Bill and Otis, next Saturday's bash will features some of Auckland's best writers reading from their work, and speeches by several activists involved in the campaign against police terror in Aotearoa.

The writers will include the much-published Jack Ross, who has just guest edited a controversial issue of Landfall, New Zealand's oldest literary journal. Ross has been a strong opponent of the encroachments on our civil liberties that have taken place in recent years. In 2004 and 2005 Jack helped to translate and publish the poetry of Ahmed Zaoui, as a protest against Zaoui's unjust imprisonment. Other readers will include Tourettes, the young poet, winner of the national emcee award, and drummer for popular Auckland band The Vietnam War, and Louisa Jones, who is a key member of Auckland's trade union movement as well as a regular on the live poetry scene. Next Saturday's speakers will include Justin Taua, a long-time activist in the National Distribution Union and Maori rights movement. Justin, whose whakapapa includes many members of the Parihaka movement, has often been a critic of police treatment of Maori. He was heavily involved in the fight for justice for Stephen Wallace, the young man shot in the back by a Taranaki cop in 2000. Justin also plays a mean guitar, and is rumoured to be bringing a country blues band up from the Waikato to the PR Bar...

When: next Saturday, seven o'clock
Where: PR Bar, 2 Ponsonby Rd (the Gt North Rd end)
Organisers: Powertool Records, http://www.powertoolrecords.co.nz; Titus Books, http://titusbooks.online.fr
Contact: shamresearch@yahoo.co.nz

Rick wins

Rick Kuhn's book Henryk Grossman and the Recovery of Marxism, which I reviewed a couple of months back for the Aussie journal Overland, has just won the Isaac Deutscher Prize, also known as the Booker Prize for Marxist Eggheads. I hope Kuhn's victory helps to restore the honour of the Prize, which was awarded a few years back to right-wing toff Francis Wheen's quickbake 'biography' of Karl Marx.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Saturday week

PARTY for your right
TO FIGHT!
Music/ Poetry/ Polemic

Bill Direen and The Bilders / Otis Mace / Jack Ross / Tourettes
Scott Hamilton / Justin Taua / Michael Steven
Jen Crawford / Louisa Jones / Dave Bedggood / Ted Jenner
Michael Arnold / Richard Taylor / Andrew McCully

Entry free, subversive literature and music on sale/Donations will be taken for the Civil Rights Defence Committee http://civilrightsdefence.org.nz/
Organised by Powertool Records and Titus Books

PR Bar – 2 Ponsonby Rd - Saturday 1 December 2007 - 7pm

Ka whaiwhai tonu matou, ake ake ake!


We've finally got around to sorting out the details for this little shindig, which will coincide with the end of Bill and Otis' national tour, and come a few hours after a march called to protest the Terrorism Suppression Act (details here). You can beat the streets of Auckland, then slate your thirst and soothe your hoarse throat with a beer or three at the PR Bar. If you want a poster to print out and distribute, or feel the urge to read poetry, polemicise, or juggle, then send an email to shamresearch@yahoo.co.nz

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

From the Texidor files

Last year brief printed a story by Greville Texidor, along with a fascinating essay on the background to the text. Texidor is one of the more enigmatic characters in Kiwi literary history. She fought against fascism in the Spanish Civil War as part of an anarchist militia, and then was persecuted by the British government when she fled Franco's victory.

Texidor escaped to Auckland's North Shore, where she spent the better part of a decade hanging with the Bohemian circle of writers and artists that had gathered around Frank Sargeson. She left these shores in 1948, and died by her own hand in Australia in 1964.

Texidor is perhaps most famous for holding a steak knife to Dennis Glover's throat at a boozy Auckland party, after the founder of Caxton Press had depreciated the significance of the Spanish war against fascism. She should be better known for her stories, which were championed and edited by Kendrick Smithyman and published by Auckland University Press under the title In Fifteen Minutes You Can Say A Lot.

Since Texidor's story 'San Toni' saw the light of day in brief #34, three different scholars have contacted the journal to discuss their research into her life and work. The latest is Oliver Slay, who sent us these remarkable photos, along with an explanation for his interest in Texidor:

Greville Texidor was my grandfather's first wife and I have been researching his life for about 8 years now. This started when I discovered the collection of Greville's at Auckland Uni library... (tho it took me 2 years to finally get there from London, UK). The collection contains 5 letters between my grandfather and Greville...

Greville's brother in law was John Joseph Sherry Mangan, a Time journalist, who covered Europe. I have ordered 120 letters between Manuel and 'Sherry'...and there are still over 200 letters more between Kate (Greville's sister) and Sherry and between Greville and Sherry...maybe one day I could extend this discussion further about Greville by ordering photocopies and working through the letters.

I enclose few pictures of Greville as a young dancer, as a model and above Tossa de Mar (i think) where she visited with Manuel (it was a favourite holiday place for famous artists away from Paris) and where she began her affair with Werner [Droescher]...
The photos are only a couple of the many that I have copies of...about 1999 when I started searching for the names on the list...Google brought up Auckland University and I made contact and discovered letters from my grandfather....and in about 2005 I finally made it to Auckland from England to pick up photocopies...and visit her old house in North Shore etc...


Thanks for the photos, Oliver - they're beautiful, as well as historically interesting.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A book with no class

The 214th issue of Kiwi literary journal Landfall is about to hit the shelves, and it's stuffed full of Jack Ross' drinking cronies. It'll be interesting to see whether the man gets another gig as guest editor after exposing mainstream readers to some of the weirder exponents of Kiwi lit.

I'll post more about #214 when I've digested the whole issue, but in the meantime here's the book review I did for Jack. I've already had some grief for it from Brett Cross, who complained that 'Hamilton doesn't think any book which doesn't consider obscure socialist writers in detail is complete'...

Jane Stafford and Mark Williams, Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914, Victoria University Press, 2007

Many histories of New Zealand literature begin the in the 1930s, the decade when a gang of young men on the make announced that they were the country's first serious scribblers, and convicted anybody who wasn't a drinking buddy of Dennis Glover of sentimental attitudes and sloppy writing. It's normal, of course, for young writers to try to proscribe the work of their elders. What is perhaps surprising is the longevity of the anathema cast in the 1930s. As Jane Stafford and Mark Williams note near the beginning of Maoriland, even sophisticated contemporary scholars of our literature like Patrick Evans have echoed the dismissive words of cheeky young men like Glover and Allen Curnow. The work of Kiwis who had the misfortune to write before Caxton Press and Phoenix has fallen into a sort of 'black hole', so that almost all of the texts Stafford and Williams study are out of print. Some are accessible only in the rare book collections of our largest libraries.

Maoriland
is a measured, thoughtful, but ultimately incomplete attempt to deliver a whole literary era from the enormous condescension of posterity. Surveying the period between the end of the New Zealand Wars in 1872 and the beginning of World War One in 1914, Stafford and Williams examine eight Pakeha writers, beginning with Alfred Dommett, the racist Prime Minister who wrote Ranolf and Amohia, a grotesquely long and sentimental poem about Maori, and ending with William Satchell, whose novels combine vivid descriptions of the New Zealand backblocks with the creaking machinery of the romantic melodrama. (An additional short chapter considers Apirana Ngata as a 'Maori writer of Maoriland'.)

Although they are eager to press the claims of Maoriland literature, Stafford and Williams avoid simply inverting the judgments of Glover and Curnow. Sloppy writing, sentimentality, and a too-deferential attitude towards the literary shibboleths of Victorian England all come in for criticism. The Maorilanders are worth reading, not because they produced masterpieces, but because they grappled, however inconclusively, with what are now hoary questions:

The efforts of Maoriland writers to explore their distance from both the world presented to them and the available conventions in which to write that world produced the beginnings of a literature in English distinctly marked by its New Zealand provenance...the boundaries between nineteenth century writing and modernism blur; self-consciousness and the awareness of fragmentation, loss of the sense of the world as an organic whole are not concentrated on the near side of that divide.

By beginning with Dommett and ending with Satchell, Stafford and Williams are able to show a certain evolution amongst Pakeha writers of the Maorland era. Dommett, a fanatical imperialist who wrote during the first wave of large-scale European settlement, treated the world he found in Aotearoa as mere putty to be shaped according to the requirements of historical schemas and literary conventions. The tragic distance between the romantic savages of Ranolf and Amohia and the real Maori fighting for their land at Rangiriri and Orakau did not bother this captain of ‘the stately ship of Western thought’.

It is in the gloomy person of William Satchell that the tradition Stafford and Williams describe perhaps becomes fully conscious of itself. Satchell's novels and his later poems are haunted by the flotsam and jetsam of the capitalist settler society Dommett did so much to consolidate. Poor Maori, luckless gumdiggers, and ne'er do wells live out their lives on the margins of God's Own Country, contradicting the sanguine rhetoric of its political leaders and its literary apologists.

Satchell is a tragic, thwarted writer, because he was not able to find the right language and forms to express his growing disillusionment with Maoriland, and because he could locate no positive alternative to the jejune imperialism and muscular Christianity that sustained him as a young man. It should not be thought, though, that such an alternative was lacking, during the first decade and a half of last century. Those years saw the greatest level of social conflict in New Zealand history, as a young and militant union movement clashed with employers and the state in a series of bitter and bloody strikes. These confrontations reached a peak with the 1913 General Strike, when gun battles were fought on the streets of Wellington and miners proclaimed a revolutionary government on the West Coast. In Forging Paradise, the first installment of his two volume history of New Zealand, James Belich compares the events of 1913 with the revolutions that swept through European countries in 1917 and 1918. Throughout their book, Stafford and Williams disdain the myth of racial harmony that was a stock in trade of bourgeois politicians and writers of the Maoriland era. They fail, though, to recognise that an equally profound division existed within Pakeha society. Airy generalisations about Pakeha consciousness and culture suggest that the revolutionaries of the Red Federation of Labour and genteel members of the bourgeoisie like Dommett shared a set of attitudes towards Maori, the Mother Country, and literature. With the exception of Henry Lawson, who lived here only a brief time, all the writers Stafford and Williams study belonged to the upper layers of Maoriland society. In their preoccupations, their values, and their very language, they were not representative of their mostly working class compatriots.

Stafford and Williams appear to have entirely ignored two literary traditions which might have broadened the scope of Maoriland. They have nothing to say about the utopian socialist fiction that was produced in surprising quantities in Maoriland, and they have nothing to say about the literature written by working class autodidacts.

The writers of utopian novels and short stories tended to be university-educated, and thus usually a part of the upper layers of Maoriland society, but they nevertheless identified with a burgeoning workers' movement. The work they produced was sometimes narrowly didactic, contrasting a future paradise with a near-dystopian present, but at other times it suggested the influence of the lyrical thought experiments of William Morris, and of William Blake's revolutionary fantasies. In HM Fitzgerald's marvelously irreverent 1908 story A Trip to Hades, a socialist dies and goes to heaven, only to be barred from entry by St Peter, who is struggling to quench a workers' uprising. The bewildered soul tries hell, and discovers that it is a socialist utopia. With their combination of fantasy, humour, and political polemic, the utopian fictions produced during the Maoriland era break ground which Dommett and Stachell never trod.

If they wanted an entry point into the vast quantity of politically committed writing produced by working class autodidacts during the last part of the Maoriland era, Stafford and Williams might have usefully studied the career of Edward Hunter, or 'Billy Banjo' as he was known to the readers of the Maoriland Worker, the socialist newspaper that thrived at the beginning of last century. Hunter's satires and odes reached a massive public, and have sociological as well as literary value. Through them, we can glimpse radically different answers to the questions about race relations and national identity that interest Stafford and Williams. Hunter and many of his comrades rejected the alternately patronising and hostile attitudes toward Maori found in Dommett and most other bourgeois Maoriland writers. They saw Maori not as a threat or a nuisance, but as natural allies. Where Dommett and co. saw Maori society as either childlike or barbaric, Hunter and other socialists saw its collectivism and relative egalitarianism as harbingers of the new order they wanted to build. Socialist writers also had an iconoclastic view of the relationship between Maoriland and Britain. The bourgeois writers Stafford and Williams study alternated between an almost unreconstructed Anglophilia and shallow, sentimental celebrations of 'God's Own Country'; they were never able to find a way of talking honestly about their situation in a settler society that was neither part of nor independent from the mother country. Because they saw themselves as part of an international movement of workers, Hunter and his peers were able to link their writing about Maoriland to the Old World in a much more relaxed, natural manner, noting both continuities and contrasts between the two scenes. Hunter's poetry celebrates the bush and open spaces of the new country, but always remains acutely aware that the transplantation of an economic order bred in the old country is transforming what he lauds.

Jane Stafford and Mark Williams have done a good job of rescuing a select band of Maoriland writers from near-total neglect. It is a shame, though, that their account of this fascinating period in our literature and history is so one-sided.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Drury

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Leighton Smith virus



Back in the mists of the 1990s, Martyn Bradbury served a term as editor of the Auckland student mag Craccum. In those days he was earnestly left-wing, and full of contempt for bastions of the bourgeois media.

Bradbury also seemed to have loftier literary ambitions. I seem to remember him turning up to poetry reading in a dingy pub wearing a ridiculous bowler hat, and taking the stage to chant a poem about a girl he loved who didn't love him, because he wore a ridiculous bowler hat. I'm sure it meant a lot at the time, Martyn.

At some point since those salad days, Bradbury got a gig working as a talkback radio host, and contracted the dreaded Leighton Smith Virus. The virus is apparently incubated by the mikes in smelly broadcasting rooms, and everybody unlucky enough to imbibe it inevitably becomes a pompus, right-wing bore, incapable of organising their thoughts into any pattern more complex than a soundbite or a rhetorical question. Turn on the radio and listen for yourself.

Bradbury has been definitively diagnosed as suffering from the Leighton Smith Virus in the month since the police 'anti-terror' raids on the village of Ruatoki North and activist dens up and down the country. On the evening after the raids, this member of the 101st Fighting Keyboarders banged out a blog post denouncing the activist left for abandoning the rule of law, democracy, and other fruits of the Enlightenment, and praising the police who stripsearched Tuhoe girls for acting as the armed wing of civil society. As anger over police actions has grown, Bradbury and his chum Chris Trotter have carved out a rather narrow niche for themselves as New Zealand's 'decent left', denouncing anti-police protesters and cheering on the state in language that recalls Christopher Hitchens, Nick Cohen, and the cohort of other Anglo-American media heads who have made careers exposing the evils of the terrorist-loving, morally relativist Western left.

The latest bit of hyperventilating on Bradbury's blog comes in response to the leaking of carefully selected police allegations against a handful of the Urewera 17 by a couple of big papers. Bradbury, who had to endure the collapse of attempts to bring terrorism charges against the arrestees last week, thinks that the police leaks vindicate his stance over the last month.

Now, I've no problem if Bradbury wants to be an upstanding liberal and defend democracy and the rule of law in pious tones. But he does need to try to be a little consistent, if he wants to be taken seriously. If he believes in the rule of law, then he shouldn't judge people on the basis of hearsay and titbits from a police force with a long history of mendacity towards activists. He convicted the Urewera 17 of nefarious deeds on the basis of some titbits from some anonymous informant, and Chris Trotter convicted them on the basis that Police Commissioner Howard Broad was a mate. If Bradbury and Trotter are the ramparts of liberalism in this country, then we're all in trouble.

What can we say, then, about today's leaks? According to John Campbell, who saw the same documents days ago but was dissuaded from revealing them, a big majority of the 17 people arrested were not having the 'juicy' conversations which the police have presented. We also know that the cops were bugging scores of other activists, some of whom went through the camps.

It shouldn't be automatically inferred, then, that the camps were intended to foster actions of the sort this tiny minority was discussing. As I noted earlier this week, Justin Taua was aware of people on the 2004 hikoi talking of starting an armed struggle. Does that mean the hikoi was a breeding ground for terrorism?

The context of these leaked communications also has to be considered. The transcripts published today have been twice removed from their original context. They were edited from much longer transcripts by the police, who were naturally looking for the juiciest excerpts, and they have been edited again by the papers.

At one bail hearing I attended the defence actually used some of the intercepted communications to argue that their client was not a wannabe terrorist. They quoted a part of a transcript, which the police were apparently too dopey to expurgate, where the defendant argued against the use of violence to establish an independent Tuhoe nation. (Of course, this quote hasn't turned up in either the Dom Post or The Press.)

The defence used the quote about non-violence to suggest that the conversation which the police had recorded and edited was a very hypothetical one - the sort of freewheeling discussion where different scenarios and strategies for political change, including some quite outlandish ones, are kicked around in a playful fashion. I've certainly had plenty of conversations of this nature on long car journeys. If the cops recorded and edited them, they'd easily be able to make my words look much more sinister than they really were.

Quite frankly, I'm surprised the cops haven't been able to make more of the people they've recorded say outrageous things. And if there were one or two loose cannons that went through the camps, then that's a fairly low proportion. Certainly the nutter quotient would appear to be far lower than one finds in the army, or in the comments boxes of right-wing blogs.

The desperation of the cops, the right-wing press, and silly old Martyn Bradbury to lay a hand on the arrestees, after the humiliation of last week, is palpable. They'll play this for all it's worth, I'm sure, but the hype will quickly fade, and many New Zealanders will be able to see the essential shallowness of the police case. Bradbury shouldn't worry too much about that, though: he's got decades of redneck ranting ahead of him as a breakfast slot talkback radio host. Move over, Leighton...

Monday, November 12, 2007

Touring



Bill Direen sent me this message on the weekend:

Oamaru might be a bit quiet, but you never know. My auntie Betty won't be going (she's 83) but she tells me that:

> your name is in the High Country Herald "Bill Direen and Otis Mace"
to play in Oamaru so that is a great beginning to your tour. I hope it all
> goes well for you all.

So I don't know who reads the HIGH COUNTRY HERALD.


But why shouldn't the High Country Herald get excited? Bill's about to kick off his first tour of New Zealand in more than a decade, with an all-new incarnation of his classic band, The Bilders. The tour ends on December the 1st, at Ponsonby's PR Bar, when Bill will headline a night of music and poetry designed to raise money for the organisation defending the 'Urewera 17' against police persecution.
Another group of supporters of the Urewera 17 began their own tour today:

A protest hikoi against the police raids is heading to parliament and is expected to swell in numbers as it moves closer to Wellington...not everyone in the crowd has an allegiance to Tuhoe and they are not all supporters of its veteran activist Tame Iti, one of those charged with firearms offences after the raids. Bryan Innes says he regards this as a civil rights issue. "We've experienced the abuse of power first hand. There was no reason why we should have been raided so we know the quality of the police work that went into this whole thing," Innes says.

I've dug up an interview I did with my mates Justin Taua and Jean Ayre three and a bit years ago, at the beginning of the seabed and foreshore hikoi which ended up bringing 30,000 people into Wellington. The interview circulated on the internet, in a paper called Class Struggle, and - if I remember rightly - as a leaflet. Some of what Justin was saying in 2004 - his discussion of the possibility that Maori activists would be branded terrorists, for instance - was prophetic.

I'm not sure if Justin and Jean, who are veterans of trade union and Maori sovereignty politics, are on the latest hikoi, but I caught up with them at the big march to Mt Eden prison a couple of weeks ago. Justin plays a mean guitar, and isn't bad at the speechifying either, so I've asked him to perform on December the 1st. Here's hoping he finds time in his busy schedule...

RED AND BROWN: CLASS POLITICS IN THE SEABED AND FORESHORE HIKOI

Justin: The hikoi began today. A lot of people are talking about a repeat of the Great Land March of 1975. Some of the leaders of that hikoi are marching again. Some of the old flags are being used again. There’s a feeling of connection with that heroic past.

The current situation represents a watershed in New Zealand politics like no other – it reflects the disillusionment of a whole generation with the institutionalised politics of the Treaty process. I think the thing could snowball. There’s a lot of interest, with iwi preparing big contingents. There have been a lot of enquiries from Aucklanders wanting to travel up north to take part in the early stages.

Q: Jean, what are you as a Pakeha doing in a protest about what a lot of people still think of as a Maori issue?

Jean: The confiscation of the seabed and foreshore will be bad for all working class New Zealanders. The people who will benefit from Labour’s legislation will be capitalists who can afford to bid for leases on pieces of coast and buy blocks of coastal land and ultimately the foreshore itself.

This legislation might look on the surface like nationalisation, but it’s actually about globalisation and the continuing privatisation of New Zealand. Don’t forget that it all started when a Maori legal challenge disrupted a plan to give a lease for sea farming to a business group. US imperialism is ultimately driving the whole thing, and Maori understand this. I’m finding that a lot of young Maori, in particular, identify with the Palestinians. They understand that what has happened to them in the past and what is happening now, is the same as the situation for the Palestinians.

Justin: Yeah, even the more backward kids who aren’t very political, who aren’t initially sympathetic...the other week I was at a demonstration protesting the murder of the Hamas leader Yassin, and it was on at the same time and place as the Mana Day concert in Aotea square...this young Maori guy comes over, looking pissed off, and asks me, ‘Hey bro, what the fuck is going on with all these bloody foreigners whinging and moaning?’

I said ‘What do you mean bro? Didn’t you hear the news about some shit that went down in Palestine the other day? Those US backed Israeli terrorist mongrels, just blew away a Rangatira and respected Kaumatua of theirs. Just imagine if Te Atairangi Kaahu was wasted by those pricks, wouldn’t you be pissed off?’

The bro by understanding the plight of the Palestinians in simple terms in relation to a Maori example got the message. He left a more enlightened man with the simple expression, ‘Kia Kaha (Be Strong).’

Q: Is there an empathy with Iraqis, too, as another colonised people now coming under the hammer again?

Justin: Yeah, although it’s only the more articulate protesters who are actually talking about the connection. Annette Sykes made the parallel in the aftermath of the Waitangi protests, saying that the Iraqi struggle and the Maori struggle were one. It’s early days yet, though, because most don’t understand imperialism, which is the real link. Explaining the link, that’s the job of unionists, communists...we know where most ordinary people are at politically – it’s a long way from where we want them to be.

We have to be really articulate and link the local to the international, because the parallels are plain as. Brash is pushing Labour, local business leaders are pushing Brash, the US is pushing local bosses because it wants nuke ships visits; total co-operation in the War of Terror and open-slather investment.

Labour wants to be rid of Maori claims to the seabed and foreshore for the simple reason that the international trade agreements, such as the GATS and all things prescribed by the WTO it has signed up to would prefer collectivised forms of ownership to be extinguished.

Q: Some leftists who lack information about this movement imagine that it is made up of Maori capitalists – the ‘Brown table’, as they’re known. Who are the people you’re rubbing shoulders with on the hikoi?

Justin: I recently heard an interview with Tipene O’Regan of Ngai Tahu – he’s like the classic right-wing Browntable capitalist, and in recent times he’s been under a lot of fire from progressive Maori. O’Regan said that he didn’t like the people leading the hikoi – the ‘young radicals’, as they’re being called. I’d say that O’Regan’s view is representative of the Browntable’s.

The seabed and foreshore issue has woken up a lot of young people, and they have nothing to do with the Browntable. Apart from the war on Iraq and the whole war drive of US imperialism, I’d say that a key radicalising influence on these young people has been the underground youth culture that Maori have developed over the past ten years. Hip hop, for instance, has become very political, and rappers like Dean Hapeta are going to have a lot more influence over young Maori than Tipene O’Regan.

I couldn’t give you a profile of the average protester – the movement is still very fluid. There’s just this big swell of interest...one new development, which again is a result of the struggles in Palestine and Iraq, is an awareness of the need to internationalise the struggle, to get solidarity from overseas. The speeches at Waitangi this year were full of this.

Jean: We were up at the big Hui at Ahipara, the day after the Waitangi protests, and among the most vocal people there were young working class women who felt they needed to do something about their situation. They and their young men are really coming out on this. They’re giving the movement a lot of its energy. They are being backed up by older women whose politics date back to the land marches of the seventies.

Q: Do many of these new protesters identify in class terms? Do they see themselves as workers?

Jean: Maybe not as workers. Maybe more in terms of haves and have nots.

Justin: At the moment many identify more in a Third Worldist way – they quite rightly see themselves as oppressed people, like the Iraqis and Palestinians. That’s what Dean Hapeta’s politics are all about, really. Nanaia Mahuta, who is defying Labour over this issue, is a young woman. A lot of young Tainui identify with her. A lot of young Tainui would follow her out of the Labour Party.

Q: It’s interesting that Mahuta was one of the few Labour MPs to express misgivings about the invasion of Afghanistan. Of course, as you know, there’s a long history of opposition to unjust wars amongst Tainui – Princess Te Puea led Tainui opposition to the First Imperialist World War, and a lot of young Tainui men were locked up for refusing to fight...

Justin: Nanaia Mahuta as an individual can’t carry this thing. She’s had a reputation as being a very quiet MP – it’s only this issue which seems to have sparked her up. Perhaps Tariana Turia is having an influence.

But I think the big challenge for Mahuta’s supporters is to develop their own politics and break from Labour. It’s good that Labour has been put into power and exposed, because a lot of Maori workers had expectations in Labour, where they had none in National. But now that they’ve learned what Labour’s like, rank and file Maori members have to leave.

Q: Justin, in recent years you’ve been pretty critical of the political intrigue within Tainui – the proposed prison near Te Kauwhata and the army recruitment drives which are aimed at Tainui youth and held on local marae. What’s the news on these fronts? Is the seabed and foreshore movement having a flow-on effect?

Justin: My marae was the first one used by the army to promote its ‘lets mop up the unemployed among Maori youth’ programme. ‘A bloody insult’ considering the timing in relation to the US led imperialist attack on Afghanistan. The day of that first meeting, was the day the US Congress passed the USA Patriot Act which is what our own so-called Anti Terrorism Act is modelled on.

Our line in the Communist Workers Group and Anti Imperialist Coalition at the time was that the prison and the War on Terror were linked – that the government was aware it might need to lock up a lot of ‘terrorists’ in the future.

Just look at the present situation with regards to the F&S. If things get out of hand for the government in terms of dealing with militant protests and an escalation in direct actions then the likelihood of imprisonment for those concerned will be the outcome. As a communist and trade union activist, this is of particular concern. History records that it was that layer who were the first to be dealt with by the state in the event of struggle.

So there’s a link between the prisons and the ‘anti-terror’ legislation and the seabed and foreshore struggle. If this movement gets really big and radical the government might well want to brand us as ‘terrorists’. And now we have outfits like the Maori Revolutionary Army talking about armed struggle.

Q: Is there a feeling within parts of Maoridom that if the seabed and foreshore legislation goes through, and if Brash comes in and really guts basic democratic rights – the Maori seats, for instance – an armed struggle could begin?

Justin: Yeah, there’s a chance of that. But it’ll only happen if we as unionists, as socialists don’t do our job – if we lose the arguments with radicalised Maori. We have to get in there and say that being a REAL revolutionary means getting the support of the working class, Pakeha as well as Maori, and acting on a mass scale. Workers only have to fold their arms and they can bring the economy to a standstill. The support of unionists was crucial to the victory at Bastion Pt, and to the success of the Great Land March.

Don’t get me wrong – I support and the CWG supports armed struggles. I support the struggles in Iraq and Palestine. But workers have to be in charge. Look at South America – in Argentina and Venezuela workers faced with economic crisis and job losses have taken over hundreds of factories and are running them themselves, and they’re defending themselves with their own militia. That’s the way to go.

Take the Maori Revolutionary Army for example. They talk about arms stashes and so on. Problem is they haven’t organised among the working class and their organisations, the UNIONS. The MRA is not accountable to any rank and file of any kind. They don’t know the first thing about strike committees, workers councils or even workers militia.

I’m hoping to talk to this MRA crowd and say to them – if you’re a revolutionary, what have you done to organise the working class? Are you setting up committees in your workplace to support this hikoi? Are you pushing your union? If these guys talking about armed struggle can’t do the ABCs and organise workers then they’ll never get anywhere. If they are just hotheads then they need to be exposed, because they could do a lot of serious damage that will undermine the movement. The sooner we have the arguments with them the better.

[Comment: in light of recent events, it needs to emphasised that the 'Maori Revolutionary Army' that Justin and I discussed in 2004 was not in any sense a functioning paramilitary organisation. I didn't get the impression that it was an organisation of any kind, so much as a bit of hotheaded rhetoric. There was no connection between this rhetoric and the people arrested during last month's 'terror' raids. Essentially Justin was critiquing the idea of a 'Maori Revolutionary Army', not a real organisation.]

Q: At last December’s conference of the Council of Trade Unions a group of Maori unionists issued a declaration calling for trade union support for this struggle. What sort of progress has been made in getting the trade unions involved?

Justin: The Service and Food Workers Union, the Manufacturing and Construction Union, the Maori runanga of the National Distribution Union and the Maori runanga of ASTE have come out against Labour’s legislation. The NDU as a whole has not taken a position but more or less seems to support Maori. A CWG member reports that the Amalgamated Workers Union is holding debates this week on its position.

The NDU was part of a big public meeting held in Auckland just before the Waitangi protests, where unionists like Syd Keepa, who was part of the drive to put the foreshore and seabed on the union agenda, spoke about the issue. In Auckland, the International Women’s Day Committee included the seabed and foreshore in its platform and had SFWU activist Helen Te Hira as one of its official speakers. I’m hoping Mayday in Auckland will highlight the issue.

A lot of Maori trade unionists are taking this issue into their worksites as individuals. There has been support from other organisations – the Green Party, the Peace Movement of Aotearoa – but the unions are the key, and we are a long way from making the links we need to make.

Q: How will you express your communist politics inside the hikoi? Is it easy?

Justin: Not an easy job, given that among so-called left tendencies and groups, views tactics and strategies are so disparate. With the amount of historical distortion, prejudice and association with despotism that has been inflicted on our movement and the ceaseless barrage of post Stalinist era self-satisfaction from the capitalist quarter, the battle is uphill, but not impossible.

The workers' everyday experiences have to be conveyed in such a way as to have direct relevance to the purpose of the hikoi. To the politically advanced Maori worker, an objective argument has to be made to express the contradictions of some of the ideas being proposed by a few advocating on behalf of Maori. To the not so advanced, a more subjective approach might be necessary. The outcome at least would be to establish links. As a Maori and a communist I think the collectivised ideal common to both, would be a starting point.

Q: What about concrete strategy and tactics? How can we win this one? What are you arguing for?

Justin: I think Labour is determined to push this legislation through, but I don’t think it’ll end there. For me the keys are union involvement and internationalism. We need international solidarity partly to protect ourselves.

Look at working class hero and activist journalist Mumia Abu Jamal in the USA, framed for killing a cop and left to stew on death row for more than 20 years. The scumbag US justice system would have judicially murdered him long ago if he had not become the subject of international solidarity.

Then of course there’s Mordechai Vanunu in Israel (occupied Palestine), the nuclear whistle blower–he would have been killed ages ago by the Israeli MOSSAD if he had not come to the attention of the international struggle. Look at the solidarity which is developing with Palestine and Iraq.

Q: Recently at Potaka, just to the west of Hick’s Bay, a hapu of Ngati Porou were flouting regulations and setting up a sea farming operation without running it past the local government. They were planning to run the thing collectively, and share the income, and they emphasised, as Maori have done so often during the past year, that Pakeha were welcome on their foreshore. I thought of the Potaka operation as potentially a sort of homegrown equivalent of the factory occupations in South America – we don’t have many big factories, but we do have a very long coastline, and sea farming is going to be huge over the next few decades. Unfortunately the Potaka crew seem to have pulled back for now. Do you see occupations as a viable tactic for Maori?

Jean: Yes. I think there will be more of these actions but the danger is they’ll be coerced into line by the powers that be, and end up trying to work through existing regulations, which discriminate against Maori because Maori don’t have the economic resources...

Justin: We need occupations to put the government on the spot, to make them feel the heat. Like Bastion Pt did. We should seize and socialise the foreshore and also seabed-based activities – let’s run the mussel farms collectively!

Q: Any final thoughts?


Justin: I think quite a few Pakeha are being educated about this issue. The forums Maori have held around the country may be having an effect. You don’t get as much of the raw racism you got a couple of months ago. I notice some political commentators are saying Brash is going to need a new issue, that Maori bashing won’t win him the next election and that it is unsustainable.

Jean: One thing I have noticed is the way that this issue has finally united urban and rural Maori. Now they have to take it a step further and unite with working class Pakeha...

Justin: A few months back there was much more separatism than there is now. In part that was a reaction to the strength of the racism being directed at Maori. Brash’s Maori bashing was a factor. This is a complex struggle and the CWG and those who agree with us are trying to do a number of things at once – counter Maori separatism, counter racism in the Pakeha left...

What do you say to the Alliance, which has now come out behind the government’s legislation, and to Pakeha unionists who still don’t think this is their issue?

Justin: I’d say don’t confuse the sort of nationalisation the left wants with the expropriation of indigenous people. We want workers’ control of resources, not nationalisation by the bosses’ state designed to protect the rights of private business (local or overseas) and US investors.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Bad buys


A week is a long time. Last Friday I sat in the austerely gloomy surroundings of Room 8 of Auckland District High Court, listening to a sour-faced judge proclaim Omar Hamed such a danger to decent citizens that he could not be bailed, even with a twenty-four hour curfew. Five rows of family and friends wept and blew their noses. Today Omar and five others are free on bail, after the announcement that neither they nor the rest of 'Urewera 17' will face terrorism charges.

Skyler and I weren't expecting such good news on Wednesday, when we called in to the antiseptic visitors' centre at Mt Eden Remand to drop off some magazines. I told Greg, our new, 'no-nonsense NDU man' flatmate, that I'd brought Omar copies of New Statesman and New Scientist to help pass the long hours ahead of him. Greg threw his head back and guffawed. 'You're not serious, mate. You know prisoners share their zines around, they're like a currency. Do you think anyone's going to swap a pack of ciggies or a copy of Wheels or Penthouse for your friggin' New Statesman. That thing's gonna have a pretty small readership...you're not very democratic, are ya?'

I'll have to be more thoughtful next time, but I hope I won't have to go shopping for political prisoners again for a while.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The making of EP Thompson

This is another draft chapter from my PhD thesis on EP Thompson. It's supposed to go near the beginning, because it describes Edward Palmer's family and some of the important events of his youth. I've got nearly all of my thesis in draft now, and am getting into what some people ominously call 'the really interesting stage' - that it, the period when you realise how little sense the chapters make when they are read alongside each other...

The Making of EP Thompson: family, anti-fascism, and the thirties

EP Thompson is best known as the author of the Making of the English Working Class, one of the great feats of twentieth century historical scholarship. In the Making and a string of related ‘histories from below’, Thompson explores the lives of ordinary people in eighteenth and nineteenth century England with such finesse and sympathy that many of his readers assume that he had deep family roots in the world’s first working class. In truth, Thompson grew up in a comfortable suburb of Oxford.

Yet EP Thompson’s roots are not irrelevant to his life and writing. His family and the milieux it moved in gave him sympathies and interests that he would retain all his life. It may not be going too far to say that the lives and thoughts of Thompson’s father and brother, in particular, constitute a sort of preface to works like the Making of the English Working Class. There is a continuity, if not a simple identity, between the lives and opinions of the three men.


To Bethnal Green and Bankura


Edward John Thompson was born in 1886, the eldest son of Reverend John Moses, who had served as a Methodist missionary in India for many years before returning to England. A period of financial difficulties followed John Moses’ early death, and it was Edward John who was compelled to sacrifice his ambitions for the sake of his mother and his siblings. Despite winning a university scholarship, he left the Methodist-run Kingswood School to work as a clerk in a bank in the East End of London. After six unhappy years in Bethnal Green, the sensitive young man escaped to the University of London, with the understanding that he would secure a Bachelor of Arts degree before following in his father’s footsteps and entering the Methodist missionary service.
In 1910 Edward John arrived at the Methodist-run Bankura College in West Bengal. Bankura was a secondary school which would acquire a small tertiary wing, an outlier of the University of Calcutta, in 1920. The years Edward spent in India were a mixture of professional frustration and personal growth. Work at Bankura often seemed no more satisfying than work at the bank in Bethnal Green. With its emphasis on rote-learning and inappropriate, Anglophilic curricula, the college struck him as little more than a factory. Edward John felt that he was unable to pass on his love of literature and history to many of his students, and he doubted both the wisdom and effectiveness of the attempts of the school authorities to proselytise amongst their largely Hindu charges. In a letter he sent to his mother in 1913, Edward John commented wryly on the difficulties of bringing the word of God to heathens:

[O]ne boy said that at the Transfiguration Jesus had four heads…At the Temptation, ‘Shaytan was sent by God to examine the Jesus…and gave him his power. By the power of Satan he was able to [sic] many wonderful acts.’ Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and said ‘how often I would I have gathered thy children together, as a cat gathereth her chickens’.

Despite or because of his frustrations, the young teacher quickly began a study of Indian society and culture that would last the rest of his life, spawn a dozen books, and make him one of Britain’s most respected authorities on the subcontinent. In 1913, Thompson made a visit to Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali writer and educationalist who had just won the Nobel Prize for literature. Thompson, who was himself a fledgling poet, soon began to translate Tagore’s poems and stories. Tagore encouraged Thompson to translate his poems and stories, and to persist with his studies of Indian and Bengali culture. By 1913 Thompson had become fluent in Bengali; he would eventually master Sanskrit, too.

In Alien Homage, his study of his father’s relationship with Tagore, EP Thompson would suggest, with typical hyperbole, that by 1913 ‘the missionary was beginning a conversion of some sort by heathen legend, folklore and poetry’. It is probably more reasonable to say that Edward John had begun to consider himself a sort of bridge between Indian and English culture.

It is clear that Thompson quickly lost whatever sympathy he had ever had for the Methodist vision of an Anglicised, Christian India. He did not, however, simply turn his back on British and Christian culture. Instead, he had come to believe that India and Britain could complement and enrich each other. Elsewhere in Alien Homage, EP Thompson describes his father’s contradictions with more subtlety:

It proves to be less easy than one might suppose to type Edward [John] Thompson when he first met Tagore. His association with the Wesleyan Connexion was uneasy…His distaste for the introverted European community at Bankura made him eager to seek refreshment of the spirit in Bengali cultural circles, where he was even more of an outsider who sometimes misread the signals. But even if he was not fully accepted on any of the recognised circuits, he constructed an unorthodox circuit of his own…He was a marginal man, a courier between cultures who wore the authorised livery of neither.
Thompson’s attitude may have been enlightened, by the standards of the Methodist missionary service in the second decade of the twentieth century, but it was by no means radical. An appreciation of some aspects of Indian culture did not imply opposition to the domination of Indian society by Britain. The bridge the young Thompson wanted to build would connect an imperial Britain with a political outpost of the empire. Robert Gregg has described limits of Edward John’s enterprise:

Thompson certainly did attempt to cross boundaries and make ‘homages’ to Indians and Indian culture that relatively few Britons at the time were making…in doing so he nevertheless replicated imperial models…he was a great believer in the imperial system…


An aside about British intellectuals


Edward John Thompson’s optimistic liberal imperialism was hardly exceptional in the generation of British intellectuals to which he belonged. The decidedly non-revolutionary behaviour of British intellectuals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has often been remarked upon by historians and sociologists, because it seems so contrary to the mood amongst the intelligentsia of other key European countries during the same period. Russia’s intelligentsia was notorious for producing rebels and critics of society. In France, the Dreyfus affair brought intellectuals together against the government and majority opinion.

In France, Germany, and to an extent Russia, intellectuals formed their own institutions, which played an important role in public political red debate, as well as in internecine academic struggles. It is little wonder, then, that the failure of the intelligentsia to develop the institutions and self-consciousness worthy of a distinct strata of British society in the nineteenth century has also raised eyebrows amongst scholars.

To understand the oddities of the British intelligentsia, we need to understand other peculiarities of British society in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The modern British intelligentsia began to take shape in the mid-nineteenth century. Its emergence was encouraged by the growth of the British empire and state, the expansion of the reading public, and controversy over the nature of the university system.

The intelligentsia drew most of its members from the middle class professions and from the prosperous petty bourgeoisie. Many of its members had nonconformist and Evangelical backgrounds. The ‘reforming’ wing of the aristocracy was represented. Intermarriage and patronage eventually led to the emergence of what Noel Annan has called an ‘intellectual aristocracy’.

Conflict provided the stimuli for the emergence of a modern British intelligentsia. The British state grew to control the consequences of industrialisation. The foreign service grew as inter-imperialist rivalry led Britain to take direct political control of the territories it exploited economically. The debate over the role of universities was prompted by challenges to the exclusion of non-Anglicans from Oxbridge, challenges which were part of a wider call for the reform of the British elite’s institutions by an emergent industrial capitalist class .

British capitalism was stronger than its rivals throughout the nineteenth century. British pre-eminence helped limit social and cultural conflict in British society, and is ultimately responsible for the peculiar nature of the nineteenth century British intelligentsia. To get a sense of this peculiarity, we should note the situation of the intelligentsia in several other European countries.

The British intelligentsia did not enjoy a great deal of institutional and cultural autonomy – it was informally integrated with the country’s political and economic elites. The elite of the intelligentsia enjoyed an ‘Old Boys’-style relationship with the British ruling class. Old school ties, friendship and marriage were more important integrating devices than ‘public’ institutions with more or less meritocratic criteria for membership. Dissident fringes excepted, the British intelligentsia was not culturally alienated from its ruling class.

This ‘informal integration’ had its political corollary in a ‘high liberalism’ which was characterised by a belief in the progressive nature or progressive potential of British capitalism and imperialism. Economic dynamism and social cohesion made gradual social improvements possible. Intellectual influence was a matter of a word in the right ear of the elite, not a manifesto. Noel Annan summed up the peculiarities of the English intelligentsia:

Stability is not a quality usually associated with an intelligentsia, a term which, Russian in origin, suggests the shifting, shiftless members of revolutionary or literary cliques who have cut themselves adrift from the moorings of family. Yet the English intelligentsia, wedded to gradual reform of accepted institutions and able to move between the worlds of speculation and principle, was stable.



Sheets of flame



When World War One suddenly broke out in August 1914, Edward John Thompson’s optimism and patriotism were not at first affected. Like so many young Europeans, he felt stirred to ‘do his bit’ to help his country’s war effort. It was not until 1916, though, that he was able to become a chaplain in the British army. He spent time in Bombay, working with the wounded in the huge army hospital there, before shipping out for Mesopotamia, where British forces were engaged in a series of campaigns against the disintegrating Ottoman Empire. Moving up the Tigris River from Basra, Thompson’s unit was caught up in some heavy fighting. Thompson’s courage under fire earned him a Military Cross. After Mesopotamia, Thompson spent time in Lebanon, where he witnessed a severe famine.
It was while he was in Lebanon that Edward John met and courted Theodosia Jessup, the daughter of American missionaries. Theodosia and Edward John married in 1919. After the war, Thompson returned to Bankura College and resumed his teaching duties. His experiences in the army had greatly affected him, and ensured that he would not stay in his old job for long. Like so many European intellectuals, Thompson had found his faith in the progressive nature of Western civilisation had been badly knocked by the years of slaughter. Edward John was angry at the sacrifice of life he had witnessed, and believed that it must have been caused by some deep failing in the warring societies. Although he lay most of the blame for the war with the German side, he did not excuse Britain from culpability. In a letter to his mother, written near the end of the war, Thompson made his feelings clear:

If I live thro this War, I will stand, firmly and without question, with the Rebels. What we need is entire Reconstruction of Society. The old order is gone, & it was inestimably damnable when here. The East does things better, in a thousand things, than we do…this war has shown with sheets of flame that the whole system of things is wrong, built on blood and injustice.

Thompson believed that events in Europe and the Middle East had endangered the British project in India, by associating the ‘advanced’ Christian civilisation Britain represented with death and destruction on an unparalleled scale. In a 1919 article for a Methodist magazine, Thompson insisted that:

The War has shocked India unspeakably, has seemed a collapse. It is felt by many that Christianity is discredited…for India now, everyone agrees, the overmastering sense and atmosphere is passionate nationalism.

Thompson’s opinion of Indian civilisation was boosted by his partial disillusionment with the Western nations. He may well have been influenced in this respect by Tagore, who spent much of the war years touring the world delivering lectures critical of nationalism, imperialism, and Christianity to audiences keen to hear an Eastern verdict on the state of Western civilisation.

The end of the war coincided with an upsurge of Indian nationalism. Colonial authorities responded to calls for home rule, and even fully-fledged independence, with a mixture of incomprehension and brutality. The Amritsar Massacre of 1919, which saw British troops firing machine guns into a huge crowd of unarmed Indians, came to symbolise all that was wrong with the British presence on the subcontinent.
In Europe, the end of the war came amidst a series of revolutionary upheavals created by economic chaos and disgust with ossified political systems, as well as war-weariness. Instability spread to Britain, where unemployed war veterans staged huge demonstrations in the late teens and early twenties.

Edward John Thompson’s disillusionment and anger worsened when he returned to Bankura College. EP Thompson notes that his father had, by 1920, ‘become a misfit in the Methodist Connexion’. Edward John’s experiences in the ‘war to end all wars’ made the jingoism and religious zealotry of many of his colleagues at Bankura intolerable. He showed his rejection of their worldview by simply refusing to talk with many of them. Thompson’s relations with Tagore soon also became troubled. The great poet disliked the long-gestating study of his work Thompson published in 1926, thinking it patronising and insufficiently sensitive to Bengali culture:

Thompson’s book…is one the most absurd books I have ever read dealing with a poet’s life and writings…being a Christian missionary his training makes him incapable of understanding some of the ideas that run through my writings…On the whole, the author is never afraid to be unjust, and that only shows his want of respect. I am certain he would have been much more careful if his subject was a continental poet of reputation in Europe. He ought to have realized his responsibility all the more because of the fact that there was hardly anyone in Europe who could judge his book from his own firsthand knowledge. But this has only made him bold and safely dogmatic…

In the 1920s Thompson felt trapped between the poles of increasing Indian assertiveness and purblind British jingoism. Bryan D Palmer has summarised his situation:

Critical of brutal repression, he could lapse into a defensive posture concerning the benevolence of British rule and the care that some Englishmen, such as himself, had for Indian culture; drawn to the literary accomplishment of Eastern writers, Thompson extended them in his commentary the critical compliment of being ‘truthful’. Such a stand – for and against what was at stake in an England fractured along the lines of obvious oppositions – won Edward Thompson few allies.


From Bankura to Boars Hill


In 1923 Edward John Thompson left Bankura College and returned to Britain. His first child, whom he named Frank, after a brother who was killed at the Somme, had been born in Bengal the previous year; his second and last child would be born in Oxford, where Edward John and Theodosia settled after Edward John secured a job lecturing in Sanskrit, as part of the fledgling Department of Oriental Studies.

New frustrations were waiting at Oxford, as Thompson discovered that some of the attitudes which had infuriated him at Bankura had followed him home. Oriental Studies had little status at Oxford, where many of the Dons regarded Indian culture and Indian students with contempt. In a letter written in 1924 Thompson complained that:

There is no one to fight for Oriental Studies…every thing is a mess here. The library is in a mess, the Indian students are as un-understood and as much of a breeding place of discontent as ever, and there is no attempt to make the University and the public take India seriously.

In 1924, Thompson’s friends at Oxford campaigned for him to be awarded an honourary Master of Arts degree, which would help him get a permanent position to the university, instead of the one year contract he then had. When his friends were rebutted, Thompson felt ‘more an outsider than ever’. In 1925 he did become an honourary fellow of Oriel College, which made him feel a little more secure, but through the rest of the ‘20s he would continue to rely on short-term contracts.

In 1925 Edward John and Theodosia began to build a house on Boars Hill for their young family. Boars Hill was a stronghold of the slightly Bohemian, literary side of Oxford society, and the Thompsons lived a stone’s throw from the poets Robert Graves and Robert Bridges. Their new house became a meeting place for writers, for scholars of India, and for both Britons and Indians interested in the political situation on the subcontinent. In the 1930s, as Edward John became an active, if sometimes reluctant and equivocal, supporter of Indian independence, Jawarhal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi would both be visitors. EP Thompson would remember the ‘hushed, reverent’ atmosphere in the normally boisterous household when Gandhi visited, and the batting lessons that Nehru gave him on the Thompsons’ backyard cricket pitch.

In 1918 Edward John Thompson had promised to ‘stand with the rebels’ of the postwar world, but he did not seem to know exactly who the rebels were. Through the 1920s, especially, Thompson struggled to turn the anger and disillusionment the war had given him into a coherent political credo. He felt repulsed by the memory of war, and by the ongoing excesses of British rule in India, but he could find sympathy for neither the full-blooded nationalism sweeping post-war India nor the revolutionary socialism that seemed to threaten Britain, at least until the defeat of the General Strike of 1926. He was disgusted by the ignorant attitudes and ossified rituals of Oxford, but nonetheless craved acceptance and a permanent position there.


An Aside about Disillusioned British Intellectuals


Thompson’s rather incoherent sense of disillusion was representative of the feelings of many British intellectuals in the 1920s. The bitter experience of war and the knowledge of revolution on continental Europe had disrupted the cosy liberal consensus of the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, but most intellectuals had not adopted or evolved any new worldview. Different ideological tendencies appeared amongst intellectuals in the years since the war, but none had become hegemonic, or even popular, and none acted as a bridge between the intelligentsia and the British ruling class, in the way that pre-war liberalism had done.

The 1920s did not see a large-scale migration of intellectuals to the left. A few did join the new Communist Party of Great Britain, and others tinkered with pre-war doctrines to come up with the ‘New Liberalism’ associated nowadays with John Maynard Keynes, but many others, including some of the most famous writers of the decade, espoused right-wing, quixotically reactionary ideas, as a clumsy response to the widely-perceived ‘crisis of civilisation’ that war and revolutions seemed to have announced.

The reactionaries tended to be creative artists, rather than scientists or bureaucrats. Key reactionaries included TS Eliot, who empathised with the Anglo-Catholic section of the ruling class and with a vision of a pre-industrial capitalist Britain and Europe; Evelyn Waugh, who espoused a sort of foppish Catholic semi-feudalism; and Wyndham Lewis, whose sympathy for fascism was really a sort of ultra-elitism.

There is no contradiction in the fact that many of the most important modernists, in the United States and Europe as well as Britain, were reactionaries. Faced with crisis in Europe and malaise in Britain, many artists and writers felt they needed to create new forms to contain and transmit the cultural inheritance they valued. Innovation often had conservative motives. ‘These fragments I have shored against my ruin’, Eliot wrote near the end of The Waste Land.


An Ambivalent Rebel


The incompleteness of Edward John’s radicalisation was reflected in the books he wrote during the 1920s. Perhaps the most important of these was The Other Side of the Medal, a study of the ‘Indian Mutiny’ of 1857 that helped him win a reputation as a historian of the subcontinent. Thompson revealed a part of the purpose of his book when he complained in a 1924 letter that ‘the savagery which marks the outbursts of anti-European feeling’ in India was worst in areas that ‘were prominent in our Mutiny reprisals’.
The Other Side of the Medal condemned the brutal behaviour of the British-led forces that repressed the Mutiny, and linked these depredations to the massacre at Amritsar. But Thompson’s condemnations were not accompanied by a call for British withdrawal from India. He wanted Britain to curb its excesses in India and thus restore the confidence of Indians in the Empire. Robert Gregg has noted that, far from being an advertisement for Indian nationalism, Thompson’s book was designed to counter an explosive anti-imperialist history of the mutiny published semi-secretly by Vinayak Danodar Savarkar.

It was not until 1930, when he wrote a book called Reconstructing India to coincide with a roundtable conference in London on the future of India, that Thompson advocated India’s right to independence. Even then, he hedged his bets by hoping that an independent India would form a permanent close alliance with Britain. Despite his qualified advocacy of independence and developing friendships with Indian nationalists like Nehru, Thompson retained a certain affection for British imperialism. In his long 1935 book British Rule in India: Its Rise and Fulfilment, Thompson argued that:

Many special virtues, as well as failings, went into the building up of the British Empire…A high sense of duty, incorruptibility, a recognition of social responsibility, these may be remembered…[though] the moral and social prestige lost to the West by the war can never be removed.

EP Thompson has suggested that from the end of World War One his father felt an ‘ambivalance’ about his Britishness, and that this ambivalence would ‘confuse his most radical writing’. What Edward John seems unable to reconcile, in his writing on India and on certain other subjects, is his deep love for English culture and history, on the one hand, and the repugnance he feels for many of the policies of contemporary British governments, on the other. It was always the Britain of Shelley and Shakespeare, not the Britain of Baldwin and Lloyd George, that Thompson wanted Indians to embrace.

Despite his halting movement to the left after World War One, Edward John never came to see the working class – and in India the peasantry – as a potential agent of progressive change. Despite his disappointment with successive post-war governments, Thompson remained wedded to the pre-war liberal notion that enlightened intellectuals could persuade the British establishment to follow progressive economic and political policies, if only the intellectuals framed their arguments well. This belief was generalised to other societies. Near the end of British Rule in India Thompson argued that:

Whatever degree of democracy may be condeded…India’s immediate future will depend, as in other countries, upon the wealthy and the educated. It must be many years before the villager gains a direct and decisive voice in provincial and federal affairs.

A year after he wrote these words, Edward John sent a stern letter to his youngest son about the boy’s alleged lack of manners, claiming that ‘it is one of the things that mark the Englishman of class, that he is careful and proper always’. The former missionary could not slough off all the snobbery and national chauvinism he had learned.


‘Past all usefulness’



After a new world war broke out in 1939 Edward John showed his ambivalent, conflicted attitude towards Britain and its Empire by rejecting the political positions of the Quit India movement established by his friends Nehru and Gandhi. Nehru went to prison for opposing the war, on the grounds that Britain would not grant India immediate independence. Thompson, though, was eager to support the war effort, and soon became a YMCA worker attached to Royal Artillery Troops undergoing training in Britain.

Despite his strong desire to see a British victory, Edward John was plagued by continued doubts about the direction of his country, and of Western civilisation in general. In a 1940 letter to ‘Palmer’, as he called his youngest son, the former missionary argued that the world needed the sort of new direction that that only a ‘blazing faith’ could supply. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had that faith, even if it took a negative form, but ‘democracies’ like Britain did not – they were ‘self-indulgent and dithering’.

Thompson’s experiences in the YMCA seemed to bring back some of the frustrations he had felt decades earlier at Bankura. He gave lectures and religious counsel to the young soldiers, but claimed that neither did much good. When he gave a barracks hall lecture on ‘Greece and Its Importance to the World’, his audience was ‘one man who had wandered in by mistake’. The army, he complained, treated the YMCA as ‘well-meaning chumps who do a fine job in the tea and bun line’. Despairing of his efforts to help defeat Hitler, Thompson decided that he had lived ‘till past all usefulness’. He would die of cancer in 1946, shortly after receiving a letter of sympathy and thanks from Nehru, who was about to become the first Prime Minister of independent India.


The Making of Frank Thompson


In Beyond the Frontier, a book which investigated the last weeks of his brother’s life, EP Thompson described the atmosphere in the home that Edward John and Theodosia established at Boar’s Head:

That Frank Thompson was my brother tells us something: we shared the same parents and the same Oxford home which was supportive, liberal, anti-imperialist, quick with ideas and poetry and international visitors.

We have seen that by the 1930s Edward John Thompson had become an established part of Oxford’s social and intellectual scene. A more secure contract and a string of well-reviewed books had helped make him feel more secure, and his home was a watering hole for writers, for liberal Dons, and for Indian nationalists. Both Frank and Edward Palmer Thompson were powerfully influenced by their parents’ interests and attitudes. They soon came to share their father’s great love of literature, as well as some of his political views. In a 1992 interview, EP Thompson explained how he had seen his father’s beliefs:

I acquired from my father the view that no government was to be trusted…that all governments were, in general, mendacious and should be distrusted.

What comes through in this remark is EP Thompson’s awareness of his father’s deep but also unfocused disillusionment with British society and politics. Edward John’s failure ever to discover an alternative to what he deplored is reflected in his belief that governments ‘in general’, and not just governments representing one or another political ideology, are mendacious.

Edward John’s feelings must be understood in their context. Like other Western countries, Britain was affected badly by the Great Depression that began with the Wall Street crash of 1929. A minority Labour government elected in 1929 collapsed after only two years in power, and both the Labour and Liberal parties split, with a minority of Labour MPs and about half the Liberal MPs joining the Conservatives in a new ‘National Government’ which held power for the rest of the 1930s. This government has long been symbolised in the popular imagination by its last leader, Neville Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s name has become a byword for cowardice and incompetence, yet he was heading for a landslide election win when World War Two broke out in September 1939. Neither the Labour Party and its trade union allies nor the radical left succeeded in advancing a credible alternative to the National Government’s combination of economic austerity at home and appeasement of fascism abroad.

The bold ‘experiments’ of the Soviet Union’s five year plans and Roosevelt’s New Deal contrasted starkly with the British bourgeoisie’s tepid response to the Great Depression. No British Roosevelt or Hitler emerged to reorder British capitalism, and the hopes of some left-wing poets for ‘an English Lenin’ proved forlorn. Harry Pollitt disappointed Stephen Spender, and Oswald Mosley disappointed Lord Rothermere.

A peculiar mixture of frustration and impotence was felt in the 1930s not only by intellectuals like Edward John Thompson, but by sizeable numbers of people from all classes. Britain in the 1930s did not experience the sense of crisis common in many parts of Continental Europe, where the Great Depression and the polarisation of left and right opened up the prospect of social transformation, for good or bad. There were obvious deep-seated problems in 1930s Britain, but there was no sense that these differences would be resolved by social conflict. After the defeat of the General Strike of 1926 the threat of working class revolution had receded, and under the cynical and dull National Government that ruled for most of the thirties a sort of unhappy apathy reigned.

Even without his father’s influence, Frank Thompson would have been well aware of the malaise afflicting British and European society by the time he reached the end of his years at Winchester College in Hampshire, where he had proved a superb classical scholar and linguist, and begun to contemplate studies at his father’s university. In the autobiography he called Disturbing the Universe, the physicist Freeman Dyson gave an account of Frank at Winchester:

Among the boys in our room, Frank was the largest, the loudest, the most uninhibited and the most brilliant…One of my most vivid memories is Frank coming back from a weekend in Oxford, striding into our room and singing at the top of his voice, “She’s got…what it takes.” This set him apart from the majority in our cloistered all-male society. At fifteen, Frank had already won for himself the title of College Poet. He was a connoisseur of Latin and Greek literature and could talk for hours about the fine points of an ode of Horace or of Pindar. Unlike the other classical scholars in our crowd, he also read medieval Latin and modern Greek. These were for him not dead but living languages. He was more deeply concerned that the rest of us with the big world outside, with the civil war then raging in Spain, with the world war that he saw coming.

In the middle of 1936 war broke out in Spain, after a half-successful military coup against the country’s democratically elected government. The struggle in Spain would soon become a cause celebre for the left across Europe. With their contempt for democracy and brutal tactics, the forces led by General Francisco Franco showed the mendacity of the creed that had already won state power in Italy and Germany, and had recently come close to power in France.

The war in Spain also revealed the ineptitude and cynicism of the government in London, which refused to sell arms to the Republican government fighting Franco, and made it difficult for Britons who supported the fight against fascism to travel to Spain to offer their own assistance. Some members of the British government seemed to see the war as an obscure and irrelevant foreign affair; others were openly sympathetic to the fascist cause. To patriotic liberals like Edward John Thompson, who saw their country as an incubus for democracy, liberty, and civilised values, the attitude of the National government felt like a betrayal of Britain as well as Spain. The old wounds of World War One were reopened, as Britain once again seemed complicit in the needless slaughter of young men.
Some of Edward John’s neighbours on Boar’s Hill shared his opinions. Two young members of the Carritt family, which had lived next door to the Thompsons for years, took matters into their own hands and went to Spain as ambulance drivers attached to the British section of the International Brigade. Noel Carritt returned wounded, but his brother Anthony was not so lucky. Frank and Edward Palmer had grown up with the Carritt boys, whose father was a professor of philosophy at Oxford, and Frank had often discussed politics with Anthony.

Frank wrote poems to mark Anthony’s departure and death. In the first poem, written in the summer of 1937, Frank is aware of the distance between the pleasant life he is living in southern England and the situation in Spain. He is able to admire, but not share, Anthony Carritt’s urgent convictions:

Here, in the tranquil fragrance of the honeysuckle
The gentle, soothing velvet of the foxgloves,
The cuckoo’s drowsy laugh, - I thought of you,
The ever-whirring dynamos of your will,
Body and brain, one swift harmonious strength,
Flashing like polished steel to rid the world
Of all its gross unfairness. – But the grossest
Unfairness of it all is that tomorrow,
When both of us are gone, my sloth, your energy,
The world will still be cruelly perverse.
- Why not enjoy the foxgloves while they last?


By the time he records Carritt’s death in the depths of December 1937, Frank feels that the horror of the real world encroaching on his pastoral England. He understands that his friend’s decision to fight in Spain might have been rational, as well as courageous. Yet he still cannot share Anthony Carritt’s creed:

A year ago in the drowsy Vicarage garden,
We talked of politics; you, with your tawny hair
Flamboyant, flaunting your red tie, unburdened
Your burning heart of the dirge we always hear –
The rich triumphant and the poor oppress’d.
And I laughed, seeing, I thought, an example of vague
Ideals not tried but taken on trust,
That would not stand the test. It sounded all too simple.

A year has passed; and now, where harsh winds rend
The street’s last shred of comfort – past the dread
Of bomb or gunfire, rigid on the ground
Or some cold stinking alley near Madrid,
Your mangled body festers – an example
Of something tougher. – Yet it still sounds all too simple.



The changing face of communism


It is not surprising that Frank Thompson initially found Anthony Carritt’s politics hard to comprehend. The Communist Party had had little presence in the cloistered worlds of Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s and early ‘30s. Those Oxbridge students and academics who were attracted to the party often found it a hostile place. Their class origins and their culture made them suspect, in the eyes of the party’s leadership. During the ultra-radical ‘Class Against Class’ period of the early thirties, when they followed Stalin’s lead by denouncing other organisations on the left and predicting imminent revolution, communist parties often demanded that student members give up ‘worthless’ academic work, become ‘proletarianised’, and devote virtually all of their time to political work.

The general failure of the ‘Class Against Class’ policy has come to be symbolised by the accession of Adolf Hitler to power in 1933. Together, Germany’s Communist and Social Democratic parties won more seats in the Reichstag than the Nazis in elections held at the end of 1932, but the Communists refused to work with their rivals against the threat of fascism. Declaring the Social Democrats ‘social fascists’ and coining the slogan ‘First Hitler, then us’, the party ensured its own destruction. Communists in other countries experienced less calamitous declines in their fortunes as a result of pursuing Class Against Class policies. In Britain, for instance, party membership plummeted, despite the onset of the Great Depression and mass unemployment.

In 1934 Stalin responded to the failure of Class Against Class and the complaints of communists by endorsing a policy of political regroupment which aimed to create very broad ‘Popular Fronts’. The new policy, which was formally adopted at the seventh and last congress of the Communist International in 1935, saw communists attempting to work not only with social democrats, but almost any political tendency opposed to ‘fascism and war’. In his unsympathetic study of the Popular Front, Brian Pearce noted the enormity of the policy shift it represented:

Between the beginning of 1933 and the middle of 1937 the international communist movement underwent one of the most startling transformations of policy in all its history. From relegation of virtually all other political trends, and especially the social democrats of all shades and grades, to the camp of fascism, it moved to a position of seeking a broad alliance inclusive of bourgeois and even extreme right-wing groups. From abstract internationalism it swung over to criticism of other parties for not being patriotic enough.

Eric Hobsbawm has spelt out some of the assumptions that underlay the Popular Front strategy:

[T]he working class had been defeated [in Germany] because it had allowed itself to be isolated; it would win by isolating its main enemies…The policy assumed that fascism was a lasting phase of capitalist development, that bourgeois democracy was permanently abandoned as no longer compatible with capitalism, so that the defence of bourgeois democracy became objectively anti-capitalist.

The Popular Front turn in party policy implied quite a different orientation toward once-scorned ‘bourgeois intellectuals’. Academics, writers, and artists who might be sympathetic to the party’s call for a broad anti-fascist alliance were assiduously courted. Margot Heinemann has described the logic behind the party’s new attitude:

To reclaim the best in past cultural traditions needed a broader and more flexible Marxist approach to history and the arts. What indeed would be the point of defending the cultural heritage against the Nazi book burners if it contained nothing but illusions and errors?

James Klugmann, who trained as a historian before becoming a leading member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, used almost rhapsodic language to describe the effects of the Popular Front policy on communist intellectuals:

We became the inheritors of the Peasants’ Revolt, of the left of the English revolution, of the pre-Chartist movement, of the women’s suffrage movement…It set us in the right framework, it linked us with the past and gave us a more correct path for the future.

In his history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Francis Beckett notes that Willie Gallacher, a leading party member, visited Cambridge shortly after the turn to the Popular Front and told communist students there that ‘it’s pointless to run away to factories’. Gallacher urged students to do well in their studies, announcing that the party needed ‘good scientists, historians, [and] teachers’. Beckett notes that, after the beginning of the Popular Front policy:

[T]he Communist Party and intellectuals felt close to each other…Poets, novelists, playwrights, actors and musicians, as well as economists and political philosophers, tried to make themselves comfortable in the Communist Party.

In several European countries, Communists deployed the Popular Front with considerable success, in the short term at least. In France, for instance, the Communist Party helped forge a very broad anti-fascist alliance, incorporating political forces from the ‘patriotic right’ as well as the moderate and radical left, that set the stage for the accession of the Socialist Party’s Leon Blum to power in 1936.
In Britain, by contrast, the Popular Front never managed to unite even a sizeable minority of Britons in an alliance against fascism and ‘monopoly capital’. Except for a left-wing minority led by Stafford Crips, the Labour Party was indifferent to Communist blandishments. The party did attack the National government over its attitude to Spain, but it showed little interest in immersing itself in a Popular Front like the one that existed in France. Labour would not even wholeheartedly support the Aid for Spain campaign the Communists established. The Liberal Party was even less interested, and ‘patriotic’ Tories proved hard to find.

But the very failure of a Popular Front to take hold in Britain made the Communist Party an attractive proposition to young men and women who would never previously have thought of joining it. To a generation of Britons disillusioned by the failure of the establishment and its moderate opposition to confront the menace of fascism, the Communist Party suddenly seemed like the only organisation interested in defending democracy and liberty. With its calls for the defence of democracy across Europe, its invocation of Britain’s radical traditions, and its new-found enthusiasm for intellectuals and the arts, the party seemed to be defending territory ceded by more traditional parts of the British left. Walter Pierre put it well when he wrote that:

[W]ith the rising tide of the Depression and the collapse of the Labour Party…there seemed nothing to put between Europe (including Britain) and a generalised fascism except solidarity with the only remaining organised opposition, and that meant the still untarnished Communist Party.

In an interview near the end of his life, Edgell Rickword explained why he became a communist:

[T]he Communist Party seemed to be the only one that was actually doing something…Hitler was obviously beginning to run Germany along fascist lines, and was truly frightening, and the only organisation that seemed to take this at all seriously was the Communist Party…it represented something that was diametrically opposed to fascism. That was why I joined.

The ‘new’ communism of the Popular Front era had an additional, subtler appeal for some intellectuals. In his 1937 book Forward from Liberalism, Stephen Spender explained why he and others like him had become sympathetic to the Soviet Union and its local allies:

[T]he liberal bourgeois individualist…suspects – and may suspect rightly – that this class to which he is confined and which possesses the treasury of all the world’s greatness, is nevertheless dead and unproductive, partly no doubt because its members are spiritually dried up by their common isolation. The real life, the real historic struggle, may, in fact, be taking place outside this country of fantastic values…he must express himself in the symbolic language of the existing culture, which is bourgeois…[yet] the future of individualism lies in the classless society. For this reason, social revolution is as urgent a problem for the [bourgeois] individualist as it is for the worker.

For Spender, the liberal democratic discourses initiated by Godwin and Paine had foundered on the rock of capitalist class relations. Liberalism had atrophied because it was not possible to revolutionise the political and cultural superstructure of British society without changing the economic base of that society. The bourgeoisie and many of its intellectual defenders had not unnaturally drawn back from undermining the basis of their own power.

Spender cautions that the workers’ movement may not always be a force for civilization and a potential ally for intellectuals – he explains fascism as a symptom of the disappointment of the hopes of ‘the people’. Spender also warns about the potential for a philistine communism. It is important for intellectuals to intersect with workers, and to show workers the correct use of the cultural resources their coming accession to power will give them. The workers’ movement and the Communist Party was a place where bourgeois intellectuals and the best parts of the culture they represented might survive.

In his memoir of Cambridge in the 1930s, Marxist historian Victor Kiernan remembered a ‘very uncritical, almost mystical’ belief in ‘the working class and its mission to transform society’ – in the interests of intellectuals, as well as workers. Kiernan recalled the appeal of the Communist Party:

That capitalism was in its final stage appeared self-evident; the question was whether it would drag civilisation down with it in its collapse…The party was a twentieth century ark…

Writing in the mid-thirties, John Strachey was blunter:

The middle classes of any country are much swayed by the same motives as other classes; and one of the most important, and most human, of the motives upon the strength of which men choose their political alignment, is the desire to be on the winning side.

Like many intellectuals of his generation, Edward John Thompson had struggled to reconcile the slaughter of the First World War and the stagnation of inter-war Britain with the optimistic, nationalistic liberalism he had learned during the Edwardian era. Edward John felt that the civilisation he had loved and entertained such hopes for was in grave danger, but he could identify no force capable of defending it. For thousands of young British intellectuals in the second half of the thirties, though, the Communist Party and its international allies suddenly appeared to be the defenders of all that was healthy in British and European civilisation.


The crisis comes to Oxford


In Beyond the Frontier, EP Thompson notes that by the time Frank went up to Oxford in 1937 he ‘had become very aware of the crisis of European politics’. The specters of fascism and war hung over the comfortable, sometimes frivolous life Frank enjoyed at Oxford; eventually, the threat these specters posed would persuade him to defy his parents and many of his friends by abandoning his studies and his old way of life.

At Oxford, Frank continued to show his outstanding ability as a classical scholar and a linguist; he also stepped up his production of poetry and performed in a series of amateur theatricals. A significant part of his time, though, was taken up by political activism. Frank developed a circle of close friends, including Iris Murdoch and the future historian and Labour Party politician MRD Foot, who shared both his intellectual appetite and his anti-fascist convictions. Although some of these friends supported organisations further to the left, Frank initially chose to join the Liberal Party’s university club. When he was made club secretary he tried hard to use the position to raise members’ awareness about Spain and the danger of fascism, but he soon became disillusioned, believing that campus Liberals were ‘too frivolous’. The dinner parties, dances and polite debates that party members enjoyed contrasted starkly with the relentless political activism of Oxford University’s Communist cadre. The Communists were a major force in the university’s Labour Club, which they had been allowed to join a couple of years earlier, in a rare Labour concession to Popular Front politics.

In September 1938 the ‘Munich Crisis’ brought Europe to the brink of war, and exposed the cynicism and cowardice of Neville Chamberlain’s government, which was prepared to allow Hitler to swallow Czechoslovakia rather than strike an anti-fascist alliance with the hated Soviet Union. Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement suddenly ignited political debate across Britain. Drusilla Scott remembered that:

The country was bitterly, passionately divided on this issue, and the split ran through the lines of party, family, class and all the usual groupings, in the same sort of way it did eighteen years later in the Suez crisis…there was certainly very widespread dismay and revulsion.

In October, Oxford became the centre of the struggle over Chamberlain’s foreign policy, as AD Lindsay, the liberal former vice chancellor of the university, took on the Tory appeaser Quentin Hogg in a bitter by-election. Lindsay stood as an ‘Independent Progressive’ candidate, but his platform of opposition to Munich and support for a military alliance with the Soviet Union won him the backing of the Labour, Liberal, Communist parties, as well a few anti-Chamberlain Tories like Winston Churchill. It seemed as though a Popular Front might be coming into existence, in Oxford at least. Even the local Anarchist Union wrote a letter to Lindsay that offered a sort of backhanded support:

[T]he Anarchists of the University find it impossible to support your parliamentary campaign. In fact we are preparing a campaign against voting in any election. As, however, you are prepared to oppose Chamberlain, we would like you know that we will attempt to dissuade from voting only the supporters of Q. Hogg.
Both Edward John and Frank Thompson were strong supporters of AD Lindsay. Frank and his friends threw themselves into the short but intense election campaign, canvassing and distributing leaflets across Oxford, and watching while Lindsay and Hogg spoke to large and impassioned crowds on street corners. The ‘most hectic ten days in Oxford since the Saint Scholastics’ riots in the fourteenth century’ ended with a win for Hogg. The Tory majority had been halved, but Frank and his friends were bitterly disappointed. In a memoir called ‘Snapshots of Oxford’, Frank remembered the night Hogg’s victory was announced:

We felt glum that night…we were like rags soaked in cold vinegar. Someone grew bitter: ‘I hope North Oxford gets the first bombs’…Michael [MRD Foot] looked fiercely at the ground…’There are only two alternatives now – to join the Communist Party or abdicate from politics. I can’t swallow communism so I’ll abdicate and take up psychology.’

Frank Thompson was in no mood to abdicate from politics, even when the defeat of Lindsay was followed a few months later by the final collapse of Republican Spain. In a poem written early in 1939, Frank sees the defeat as merely ‘the first round’ in a struggle that he will soon join:

We shall enter, the new protagonists,
Not forgetting, not forgiving:
This time the winds may whisper across the sierras
‘At last they are coming to give you the freedom they owe you.
Very late, very late they remember to help their friends.


By the time he had written these defiant lines, Frank Thompson had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. Iris Murdoch, whom he had nicknamed ‘Madonna Bolshevika’, had suggested he join the party after hearing him complaining about the other left groups on campus at a drunken party. Frank threw himself into work for the communists, attending meetings, selling the Daily Worker, and helping recruit other students. Joining the party did not, however, imply any sudden conversion to Marxism. Frank, who by 1939 could already read four languages, liked to boast that he had never opened Marx’s Capital. In Beyond the Frontier EP Thompson makes the nature of his brother’s politics clear:

Frank Thompson can scarcely be defined as an orthodox communist…in 1939-40…[t]he basis for the commitment [to the party] lay in an internationalist anti-fascist contestation, in an era of Western ruling class appeasement, non-intervention (but effective complicity with reaction) in Spain…[and] inertia in the face of depression, unemployment and severe hardship of every kind…The Communist Party was seen, first of all, as the universal organiser of resistance…The commitment to something called Communism was political and internationalist. In Britain at least it entailed…rather little commitment to any doctrinal orthodoxies…There are few references to Marx and Marxism in Frank Thompson’s letters, and more than one of these is ironic.

Like many young Oxbridge students, Frank joined the party not because he believed in the tenets of ‘dialectical materialism’ or the political economy of Capital, but because the party seemed like an ‘ark’, in which the best aspects of the Old World might be protected, even as the New World came into being amid apocalypses of economic collapse and war. The ark would be staffed by ‘the people’, a shifting ensemble recruited from all classes and all nations, but led, nominally at least, by an idealised working class. The revolutionary role of the ‘the people’ derived not from some ‘objective’ economic position that they occupied in capitalist society, but from an awareness of the struggles for freedom in the past and a knowledge of the necessity of defeating fascism in the thirties.


‘I simply want to fight’


On the second of September 1939 – a day after the Nazi invasion of Poland, and a day before the British declaration of war – Frank Thompson shocked his friends and family by enlisting in the army. Frank’s parents argued that he was too young to fight, and ought to finish his degree, while Iris Murdoch pointed out that the Soviet leadership and – after a week of confusion – the local Communist Party had characterised the war as ‘social imperialist’, and ordered members not to fight in it. Frank explained himself in a poem called ‘To Madonna Bolshevika’:

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 to-day 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.

In ‘Snapshots of Oxford’ Frank gave an account of his last night at Oxford which captures the contradictions in the life he had led there:

In Corpus [Christi, Frank’s college] everyone stands one’s drinks and I was pretty whistled…After I had two tulips in the quad and bust a window, they dragged me into Leo’s room and sat on me. I clamed down and they thought I was safe enough to take on the river. The red clouds around Magdalen tower were fading to grey, when we met two people we didn’t like. We chased them and tried to upset their canoe. We got slowed up at the rollers, and then I dropped my paddle. With the excitement all the beer surged up in me. Shouting the historic slogan ‘All hands to the defence of the Soviet fatherland!’ I plunged into the river. They fished me out but I plunged in again. By a series of forced marches they dragged me back and dumped me on the disgusted porter at the Holywell gate.

After quoting this passage in his biography of Iris Murdoch, Peter Conradi adds that:

After Frank had burst into an ‘important meeting of the college communist group’ Comrade Foot, by unanimous vote, was given ‘the revolutionary task of putting him to bed’.


‘The blackthorn will soon be out’


Frank continued to support the Communist Party, and was naturally pleased when it fell in behind the war effort after the invasion of the Soviet Union in May 1941, but his commitment to a radical liberal politics rooted in his reading of English history and literature trumped his commitment to the party line. For Frank, the new war was a colossal struggle between the forces of civilisation and democracy, spearheaded after May 1941 by the Soviet Union, and the forces of tyranny and obscurantism. Communism was simply the culmination of the struggle to preserve all that was best in European civilisation from the fascist monster spawned by capitalism’s breakdown in the thirties. To the extent that it was valuable, Marxism was not a break from liberalism, but a development of it.

It should be clear from our earlier discussion of Popular Front communism that Frank Thompson’s views were by no means eccentric at the end of the thirties and in the early forties. Eric Hobsbawm, who was an undergraduate at Oxford at the same time as Frank, has described the same type of thinking in the young members of what would eventually be called the Communist Party Historians Group:

We were always (at least I was, and several other people, I’m sure, also were) instinctively ‘popular fronters’. We believed that Marxist theory was…the spearhead of a broad progressive history…We saw ourselves as trying…to push forward that tradition, to make it more explicit…

In his study of the Communist Party’s relationship with writers and artists, Andy Croft commented perceptively on the syncretism of the young intellectuals attracted towards the party during the Popular Front era:

[N]o one should be surprised if British Marxists…blended liberal, Romantic, non-conformist and socialist utopian traditions with Marxist theory. These were simply the traditions which best answered the desire to close the widening gap between the world as it was and the aspiration of writers and artists for a humane society.

After he was posted abroad in 1941, Captain Frank Thompson sent home a stream of letters and poems which showed that his core political beliefs had not changed. Patriotism, anti-fascism, and staunch support for the Soviet Union often rubbed shoulders in these communications. A letter written during a pause in the campaign to liberate Sicily showed how romantic and intense Frank’s sense of Englishness could be:

It’s humiliating, just sitting round while the Yanks, the Chinks and the Russkies teach us how to fight…At home the blackthorn will soon be out. Blackthorn symbolises for me, more than any other flower, the loveliness of the English spring. It symbolises, too, the light-hearted strength and cleanliness of spirit which has been one of England’s best features, and will, I hope, be so again. That sounds rather stilted, but I guess you know what I mean.


For communism, and for liberty


In the middle of 1944 Edward John wrote to his youngest son, who was fighting his way up the Italian peninsula as commander of a tank brigade:

This is a sad letter to write to you, Palmer, old chap. Yesterday we read a wire that Major WF Thompson has been ‘missing’ since May 31…We do not even know where Frank was…He deliberately did the most dangerous and adventurous job there was, and he did it magnificently.

The Thompson family eventually learned that Frank had disappeared while serving as an Intelligence Officer amongst a group of partisans in Bulgaria. Frank had volunteered to act as a link between the British army and the anti-fascist fighters of the Balkans, and had already fought bravely in southern Yugoslavia before crossing the border into Bulgaria. The war was nearly over in Europe by the time that Edward John and Theodosia received the news that Frank had been executed by a fascist firing squad in a remote part of Bulgaria, after being captured with a few partisans and given a show trial. After the war, an eyewitness to Frank’s last days was able to flesh out the bare report offered by the British army:

When he was called for questioning, to everyone’s astonishment he needed no interpreter but spoke in correct and idiomatic Bulgarian. ‘By what right do you, an Englishman, enter our country and wage war against us?’ he was asked. Major Thompson answered, ‘I came because this war is very much deeper than a struggle of nation against nation. The greatest thing in the world now is the struggle of Anti-Fascism against Fascism…I am ready to die for freedom. And I am proud to die with Bulgarian patriots as companions’…

Major Thompson then took charge of the condemned and led them to the castle. As they marched off before the assembled people he raised the salute of the Fatherland Front which the Allies were helping, the clenched fist. A gendarme struck his hand down. But Thompson called out to the people, ‘I give you the salute of freedom’. All the men died raising this salute. The spectators were sobbing.


It is characteristic that Frank Thompson, a Communist Party member who had been fighting alongside Bulgarian party members, should present his beliefs as anti-fascist, rather than communist or Marxist. It is not that Frank would have been ashamed of his membership of the party, or the beliefs of his comrades in arms. It is simply that, for him, communists were the vanguard of the global struggle of the forces of liberty against the forces of fascism. The fight for communism was understood as a part of the fight against fascism. A similar sentiment is found in one of the last poems of John Cornford, another Oxford Communist who died fighting fascism:

Raise the red flag triumphantly
For communism and for liberty.




EP Thompson’s inheritance



Let us try to draw together some of the threads of the stories of Edward John and Frank Thompson, and relate them to the story of Edward Palmer Thompson. Edward John had been a fairly typical liberal British intellectual, until he was radicalised by his experience of British imperialism in India and the First World War. His own difficulties as a junior lecturer at an ossified Oxford and a jobbing writer in a philistine culture reinforced his discomfort with key aspects of British society. But Edward John’s awareness of the deep malaise in British society was not matched by a commitment to a radical alternative to the status quo. The former missionary had little faith in Britain’s political elite, but he had even less faith in the ordinary people of Britain and India.

Edward John remained a liberal, albeit an embittered, radicalised liberal. His youngest son inherited many of his attitudes and sympathies. Even before he left school, Frank Thompson was aware of the threat that fascism posed to the values and culture he had been raised to love. At Oxford Frank came to realise that Britain’s political establishment and its traditional left-wing parties were unwilling to face down the fascist threat. Some parts of the establishment even seemed to welcome the success of fascism in Spain. The Munich crisis of September 1938 stirred debate in Britain about the fascist threat, and briefly pushed the Labour and Liberal parties leftward, but the defeat of AD Lindsay in Oxford’s by-election showed that much of the population still supported Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement.

We have seen that Frank’s disillusionment with the miserable Britain of the interwar years did not stop him from being a patriot. Like his father, Frank cherished Britain’s liberal political tradition, as well as the cultural tradition represented by names like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, and Ruskin. Like many young men and women in the 1930s, Frank came to feel that the best parts of British and European civilisation could no longer be defended by either the liberal or conservative ends of the traditional political establishment. It was in the Communist Party of the Popular Front era, which presented itself as the guardian of British culture and British radical history, and the local vanguard of the international fight against fascism, that Frank Thompson eventually found a political home.

It would be wrong to conflate the characters, interests and abilities of Frank and Edward Palmer Thompson. A comparison of the brothers’ early poems shows that Edward Palmer’s are demotic and full of down to earth imagery, while Frank’s are characterised by rococo rhyme schemes, Latinate phrases and allusions to classical literature. The different styles reflect important differences of chracter. Edward Palmer lacked his older brother’s passion for antiquity and aptitude for languages. He was ill at ease with Frank’s over-refined Winchester friends, doubted whether university would suit him, and in the middle of 1939 briefly alarmed his parents by announcing he wanted to drop out of school and work on a farm.

Despite these differences, there is no doubt that Frank exerted a profound influence on his younger brother, before and after his departure to the war. EP Thompson himself has remembered admiring his elder brother ‘as one can only admire a genius’, and appreciated the way that Frank Thompson’s entry into the Communist Party ‘made it easier for me’. The two men shared a commitment to the politics of the Popular Front, and to the conception of the Communist movement as an outgrowth of a long indigenous tradition of radical liberalism. Both men saw the Popular Front as the alternative to the disillusioned negativity that their father often exuded. The Popular Front were a way of renewing the optimistic liberalism that Edward John had lost long ago, by marrying a radicalised liberalism to a belief in the power of ordinary people to determine the course of history.

Edward Palmer’s respect for his elder brother was not unreciprocated. In a 1941 poem called ‘Brother’, Frank leaves no doubt that he considered his seventeen year-old sibling a comrade and co-thinker:

To keep aloof, my comrade, my brother from you
And others, not of our blood, but brothers too
With whom our roots are locked. Why is the hill
Larch-lovely, split with hostile coppices?
Why is there limit set on our goodwill?
Make this our task – out of a time-stained world
Often invoked but rarely true, to weld,
A slogan that will galvanise the world.


In one of the last letters he sent home, Frank told Iris Murdoch that at the end of the war, ‘whether I’m here or not’, she should collaborate with his younger brother on a work of political theory. The clear implication is that Edward Palmer holds many of the same ideas that Frank and Iris have shared.

The seventeen year old EP Thompson came up to Cambridge at the beginning of 1941. A few months earlier the Chamberlain government had finally imploded under the weight of its ineptitude and cowardice, and Winston Churchill had formed a new, much more broadly-based administration that aimed to unite the whole country against the Nazi war machine that had rolled to the edge of the English channel. In bringing Labour politicians and trade union leaders closer to the centre of power and agreeing, albeit reluctantly, to recognise the Home Guard militia that had sprung up around the country, Churchill fulfilled some of the demands that advocates of a Popular Front against fascism had made of the Chamberlain government. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union a couple of months after Edward Palmer reached Cambridge, the Communist Party had no hesitation in dropping its anti-war stance and throwing itself completely behind the Churchill administration.

By 1941, the ‘frivolity’ that had annoyed Frank had vanished from Oxbridge. Students like Edward Palmer were aware that their studies would soon give way to military service, and they took a keen interest in international politics and the course of the war. Cambridge boasted a thousand-strong Socialist Club which united Labourites, left-wing Liberals, and Communists.

If anything, the politics of the Popular Front were stronger in the Communist Party during the war years than they were during the second half of the thirties. The party still identified itself as the continuator of an indigenous British tradition of radicalism with roots in the seventeenth century, the young Wordsworth, and Chartism. It saw victory against fascism as a precursor to a post-war social transformation that might now be achievable without violence.

Strikes were discouraged, party factory branches were abolished, and Trotskyists who preached opposition to the Churchill government were denounced as Fifth Columnists and beaten up. The party became so wedded to the idea of a Popular Front government that during the 1945 election campaign they argued that a new Labour-led government should share power with Tories as well as Communists.

In 1940, Christopher Hill had brought the Popular Front into academic discourse by publishing the first draft of his reinterpretation of English history. Hill’s notion of the English Civil War as a revolutionary struggle against obscurantism and tyranny had a powerful appeal for a generation of intellectuals facing the menace of fascism. In the last interview he gave, EP Thompson remembered being inspired by Hill’s study when he was still a schoolboy. Thompson was also strongly influenced by the Handbook of Freedom, an anthology of radical writing edited by Jack Lindsay and Edgell Rickword. In 1979 he would pay tribute to the text:

This extraordinarily rich compendium of primary materials was selected from twelve centuries of ‘English Democracy’. It is impressive for its length of reach (one hundred pages, or one quarter of the book, precedes 1600); the diversity and catholicity of the sources drawn upon, bringing, with a sense of recognition, unlikely voices into a common discourse; the generosity of the editorial minds which called such diverse values into evidence; and the implicit intellectual command not only of these various sources but also of the wider historical process out of which these voices arose.

I think that the Handbook of Freedom was among the two or three books which I managed to keep around with me in the army. Certainly I know that others did so.


It is significant that Rickword and Lindsay were both poets, and that their book drew on poetry as much as political economy. EP Thompson had learned a deep love of both literature and his British heritage from his father and brother, and he would have been impressed by the Popular Front-era Communist Party’s attentiveness to both.

When he returned from the war in 1945, EP Thompson set to work editing a collection of Frank Thompson’s poems, letters, and journals. There Is A Spirit in Europe was published by Victor Gollancz in 1947, with an introduction, conclusion and extensive notes by Frank’s younger brother and an afterword written by Edward John Thompson on his deathbed.

By 1947, many of Frank Thompson’s hopes for the postwar world had been betrayed. The Cold War was beginning, Europe was being divided, Britain and the other old imperial powers still clung to most of their empires, and new wars were brewing in the far East. Inside the Communist parties of the West, the Popular Front policy was in disarray, and intellectuals were being subjected to Zhdanovism, the new Kremlin dogma which insisted on a sharp divide between ‘bourgeois’ and ‘proletarian’ culture and science.

But There Is A Spirit in Europe was not just a memorial to Frank Thompson and the ideas which were so cruelly mocked by the post-war world. For Frank’s brother, the book was also a manifesto. For almost five decades, Edward Palmer Thompson would remain loyal to the ideas he had learned from his father, his brother, and from the Communist Party of the late 1930s and the first half of the 1940s. Thompson would take these ideas into a succession of political organisations and campaigns, refine and rename them in a score of polemics and meditations, and apply them with enormous success to the study of history and literature, but they had their origin in the first era of the Popular Front, when the Communist Party of Great Britain briefly seemed to offer a bridge between the radical liberal tradition of the ‘freeborn Englishman’ and the twentieth century struggle against fascism and decrepit capitalism.

Frank Thompson died near the end of the golden age of the Popular Front against fascism, but his younger brother would hold on to the ideas in There is a Spirit in Europe despite heavy criticism from left and right. These ideas were a constant stimulus to Thompson’s scholarship, as well as his political activism; their shadow hangs over the Making of the English Working Class as well as New Reasoner and the May Day Manifesto.

Only at the end of the 1970s, under the pressure of insuperable intellectual and political contradictions, would Thompson withdraw from the battle for the ideas he acquired in the ‘heroic decade’ between the mid-30s and the mid-40s, and search half-heartedly for a new synthesis of ideas capable of integrating his political and scholarly work, and of giving his life meaning.