EP Thompson today
When we consider the longevity of some of Thompson's peers, the magnitude of the loss we suffered when he died at the age of only sixty-nine becomes clear. John Saville, Thompson's old comrade in the fight against the Stalinist leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1956, and later his wonderfully patient editor, died last year at the age of ninety. Christopher Hill, whose pioneering left-wing reinterpretation of the English revolution inspired the young Thompson to take an interest in history, died in 2003, at the age of ninety-one. Eric Hobsbawm, who like Thompson has tried to fuse a life of political activism with a life of scholarship, is still writing opinion pieces and doing historical research in his ninety-second year.
But even if he died far too early, Thompson has much to teach the scholars and activists of the twenty-first century. Reproduced below is a short excerpt from the introduction to my book The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics, which will be published later this year by Manchester University Press.
EP Thompson was a man of many enthusiasms and wide expertise. Thompson’s scholarly work covers a remarkable range of subjects. He was as comfortable writing about food riots as the manuscripts of William Blake, and he was fascinated by the Soviet Union as much as Wordsworth. Thompson was famous for his books about eighteenth and nineteenth century England, but late in his career he delved skilfully into the twentieth century history of the Balkans and India. Up until the 1960s, at least, Thompson considered himself primarily a poet, and his literary legacy includes scores of poems, a number of short stories, and a science fiction novel.
Thompson was a man of action as well as a man of books, as self-assured on a soapbox as in an archive. Thompson’s political career began in the late 1930s, when he was almost expelled from his Methodist boarding school for propagandising on behalf of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Thompson turned the party’s anti-fascist rhetoric into action when he led a tank group up the Italian peninsula during World War Two. After leaving the Communist Party in 1956, Thompson became a public face of the first New Left, a brief, dynamic movement that questioned the political orthodoxies of both sides of the Cold War. In the early 1980s, Thompson became well known to a new generation as the most eloquent leader of Britain’s revived anti-nuclear movement. Thompson’s activism always involved writing, as much as speaking and protesting.
I began researching this book in the middle of 2002, about the time that millions of protesters took to the streets of Caracas and other Venezuelan cities to deliver an unprecedented defeat to a CIA-backed coup against their left-wing government. I wrote my first, fumbling draft of a chapter at the beginning of 2003, when Anglo-American troops were massing on the southwestern border of Iraq, and anti-war protesters were taking to the streets around the world, and I finished revising the text in 2009, as a global financial crisis unprecedented for eighty years destabilised nations as different and distant as Iceland and Fiji. The spectacle of neo-colonial wars in the Middle East, the new popularity of socialist ideas in several South American nations, and chaos on financial markets have all helped to undermine the belief in the superiority of American-style capitalism over any possible rival which was so popular in the decade after the end of the Cold War. This book may be a study of a man who died in 1993, but its themes and its arguments are unavoidably influenced by the world of the twenty-first century.
As I read my way through Thompson’s oeuvre, I was continually impressed by the relevance of his preoccupations to our own age. When I read Thompson’s denunciations of the impact of right-wing ‘modernisation theory’ on the Third World in the 1960s and ‘70s, I thought about the contemporary anti-globalisation movement’s complaints against the ideology of bodies like the International Monetary Fund. When I found Thompson decrying the attacks on the jury system of 1970s British governments, I knew what he would make of the curtailing of civil liberties in his homeland during the age of the ‘War on Terror’. When I pondered the scores of articles Thompson wrote against the deployment of American and Soviet nuclear weapons in Europe during the Cold War, I remembered that a new generation of American and Russian leaders are engaged in an arms race in eastern Europe and in central Asia. Thompson’s sympathetic but critical treatments of intellectuals like Auden and Wordsworth, who became spokespeople for power and privilege after becoming disillusioned with the left, have continuing significance in an era when ‘recovering Marxists’ like Christopher Hitchens, David Horowitz and Norman Geras act as cheerleaders for imperialist wars in the Middle East. Thompson’s oft-repeated concerns about the growth of philistinism, and his belief that poetry is as important to human progress as economics, are more relevant than ever in an era when the market and the mass media treat works of literature and art as commodities to be flourished and consumed, rather than opportunities for thought and debate.
But it is not only Thompson’s preoccupations which make him a contemporary figure. As a young man, Thompson left the relative comfort of the Communist Party of Great Britain in protest at the outrages of Stalinism. Cut off from the vast majority of Britain’s militant workers, and without the certainties of a party line to guide him, Thompson had to piece together a new, viable left-wing politics out of various, frequently fragmentary sources. The poetry of William Blake, the sociology of C Wright Mills, the utopias of William Morris, the fugitive texts produced by the dissidents of Eastern Europe, and the heroes of the early British labour movement were only a few of the examples Thompson turned to, as he struggled to find a politics which might concretise the values he had learned as a young man from his radical liberal father and his anti-fascist brother.
It seems to me that, in the twenty-first century, everyone committed to the politics of the left faces the predicament the young EP Thompson chose for himself in 1956. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its satellites between 1989 and 1991 and the decline of Western social democracy into the neo-liberalism of the ‘Third Way’ have meant that the old sources of left-wing orthodoxy have vanished. For a generation that has grown up in the era of Putin and Blair, claims about the inevitable triumph of socialism, or even the inevitable amelioration of the worst features of capitalism by social democracy, seem absurd. The once-orthodox belief that socialism could save humanity by massively increasing the planet’s industrial output also seems anachronistic to a generation aware of the dangers posed by global warming, deforestation, and other side-effects of industrialism. Like EP Thompson, today’s leftists are forced to search in diverse places for alternatives to the dogmas of both Stalinism and old-fashioned social democracy.
Although I made a research trip to Britain in 2005, where I excavated the papers of Thompson’s old comrade John Saville and found many relevant unpublished texts, this book was written in Aotearoa/New Zealand, and is no doubt influenced by the history and cultures of the South Pacific, a region far from the centres of political and economic power in the modern world. The South Pacific seems to me a good place to write about EP Thompson, because it is a region that demands the sort of critical alertness to the complexity of tradition that Thompson possessed and advocated. In Aotearoa/New Zealand and in other South Pacific societies like Tonga, intellectuals have faced the challenge of reconciling European concepts with an ancient and intricate indigenous intellectual tradition. Ideas and practices which might seem ‘natural’ and unquestionable in Europe, where they have existed for hundreds or even thousands of years, have to be adapted and justified.
It can also be argued that the sociology of many South Pacific societies is directly relevant to one of Thompson’s great preoccupations. In the preface to the Making of the English Working Class, Thompson noted that, for ‘the greater part of the world’, industrialisation with its associated tragedies and transformations was an ongoing process, not an historical memory. Thompson was writing in 1963, but his observation still holds true for large parts of the world, including much of the South Pacific, where a Polynesian mode of production founded upon collective land ownership and labour coexists unstably with imported capitalism.
Thompson himself was drawn to marginal places and peoples. He felt uncomfortable in metropolitan centres of power like London and New York City, and chose to live in unglamorous provincial cities like Halifax, Worcester, and Pittsburgh. As a scholar, Thompson was drawn to the stories of people on the dangerous margins of modernity, like the workers in the factories of the West Riding early in the nineteenth century, or the Indian peasants facing expropriation at the hands of Sanjay Gandhi’s ruthless technocrats in the 1970s.
Thompson’s interest in marginal people and societies was motivated by more than sympathy. Like Marx in his last decade, Thompson believed that it is in the peripheries of capitalism that some of the most potent alternatives to the system can be found. Thompson would not be surprised to learn that it is the 'semi-developed' South American nations of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador that have seen the emergence of the first large-scale anti-capitalist movements of the twenty-first century. If twenty-first century socialists want to avoid repeating the errors of the twentieth century, then they have much to learn from EP Thompson.