Bad commies and good boys
In his contribution to a survey of the reading habits of contributors to Jacobin, Mike confesses not only to consuming The Crisis of Theory, but to reading the excessively annotated selection of Kendrick Smithyman's poems that I brought out last year. EP Thompson always insisted that social scientists should be as interested in literature as they are in statistics, so he'd be delighted that a hardboiled Marxist economist like Mike was reading a notoriously recalcitrant poet like Smithyman.
My study of Thompson also rates a mention in the new issue of the Socialist Standard, the publication of the Socialist Party of Great Britain and its sister parties in various parts of the world. I had a bit of a crack at the Socialist Party a year or so ago on this blog, after encountering a wonderfully utopian piece of their propaganda in an old railway station on the bushy edge of Auckland. I objected then, and still object now, to the party's refusal to dirty its hands with involvement with any real-world political issues.
Where other Marxist groups, no matter how tiny and marginalised, tend to join in campaigns against war and imperialism and in favour of workers' wage and salary demands, the SPGB has earned itself the nickname 'the Small Party of Good Boys' by confining itself to calling in completely abstract terms for the replacement of capitalism by socialism.
The party's strategy, which it has pursued without noticeable success for more than a century, is to win workers over one by one to the cause of socialism, and to get them to vote for the SPGB in such numbers that parliament can pass some sort of legislation enabling the 'legal' dissolution of capitalism and the peaceful passing of the economy from the hands of the bosses to the hands of the workers. Any socialist organisation which rejects this rather utopian road to the future, and instead takes to the streets or the picket lines with anti-war demonstrators or striking workers, is denounced by the SPGB for 'reformism'.
During the short debate which followed my earlier crack at the SPGB, I noted that the party's sister organisation in New Zealand had refused to take part in the massive protests against the 1981 Springbok tour of this country. While tens of thousands of New Zealanders were putting their bodies on the line to stop a tour by the sporting representatives of apartheid, and inspiring the people of Soweto and the inmates of Robben Island with their courage, the SPGB's local followers published a denunciation of the 'reformism' of anti-apartheid protests.
The rather sniffy review of my book on Thompson in the new Socialist Standard reflects the same detachment from reality which kept the SPGB away from the action in 1981. The Standard's reviewer concedes that Thompson was a fine historian, but he can't forgive the great man for belonging to the Communist Party between 1942 and 1956:
Thompson's own politics however are less admirable. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1942 and was an active member until 1956 when he resigned as a result of the Russian military invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s 'secret speech' which denounced Stalin. To a significant extent, the rest of Thompson's political career can be seen as distancing himself from Stalinism. He later tried to justify his CP membership by claiming it was part of a 'Popular Front' against fascism. But Thompson did not appreciate that his CP membership would lend legitimacy to Stalin's reign of terror. His concern for the lives of ordinary workers did not extend to the Russian working class.
These charges seem to me unjust, because they do not take into account the context in which Thompson joined the Communist Party, and the reasons why he delayed leaving the organisation. Growing up in the 1930s, Thompson had seen the unwillingness of Britain and other Western powers to challenge fascism in Spain and Germany. While Thompson's friends went off to Spain to fight Franco's fascist insurrection, the British government refused even to sell arms to the country's Republican government.
The Soviet Union seemed to Thompson the only ally of anti-fascist fighters. Faith in the Soviet government's anti-fascist credentials might have been shaken by the Hitler-Stalin pact, but it was renewed in 1941, when the Soviet Union became the main front of the Second World War. Thompson fought fascism from the inside of a British tank in the last years of the war, but he knew that the defeat of Hitler was largely the work of the Soviets.
Thompson was disoriented by the beginning of the Cold War, and distressed by the increasingly heavy hand that Soviet bureaucrats laid on the British Communist Party in the late '40s. As he explained later, though, it was hard for him and for thousands of other young men and women to leave the organisation, because the communists seemed the only people in Britain willing to stand up for a range of vital causes.
It's easy to remember the depredations of Stalin in the 1940s and early '50s, but harder to remember that during the same period the British Empire was locking up thousands of political opponents in its far-flung and restive possessions, and fighting half a dozen small but dirty wars against local peoples who wanted to take down the Union Jack. For Thompson and for many other idealistic men and women, the Communist Party's steadfast and - in the imperial homeland at least - very unpopular stand against the British Empire was an inspiration. (For its part, the Communist Party of New Zealand was the only majority-Pakeha organisation to support tino rangatiratanga and Samoan national independence in the 1930s and '40s.) It is perhaps significant that Thompson's departure from the Communist Party came when the Soviet Union showed its own imperial, or at least expansionist, qualities by invading Hungary in 1956.
It is reasonable enough to criticise Thompson for his membership of the Communist Party. We might plausibly ask why he did not learn something from the Hitler-Stalin pact, or why he didn't follow Edward Upward and others out of the party in the late '40s, when Stalin was showing his true colours by purging Tito and the Yugoslavs from the Comintern.
To present Thompson as some sort of unthinking Stalinist simply because of his time in the Communist Party, though, is to miss the complex reasons people became communists, and the equally complex factors that kept them communists. It seems to me that the Socialist Standard's criticism of Thompson is as abstract and pedantic as its supporters' criticisms of the anti-apartheid campaigners of 1981.
The distinguished British historian and old friend of Thompson Penelope Corfield has written a long response to my book which will be published shortly in the online journal Reviews in History.