Getting beyond dogma
I wrote a reply to Blackledge's essay, and that reply wound up as a chapter in my PhD thesis about Thompson, although it didn't sneak into my recently published book on the great man.
A couple of years ago the Socialist Workers Party split down the middle, in the time-honoured fashion of far left outfits. A group of former members of the party established a very busy website called Counterfire, where they publish political news and analysis as well as the odd book review (the site's coverage of the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street protests in the US is well worth checking out).
Looking at the books page of Counterfire this morning, I spotted a hostile review of my tome on Thompson from a chap named Dominic Alexander. Where Paul Blackledge used the SWP's press to make a strong criticism of EP Thompson, Alexander has used Counterfire to defend the late historian from what he perceives as my relentlessly negative tone. Where Blackledge could see little that was good about Thompson's political thought, Alexander appears to consider it almost faultless.
Blackledge and Alexander may nowadays sympathise with different organisations, and they may have diametrically opposed views of EP Thompson's politics, but they seem to me to be guilty of the same one-sided approach to political history.
To their credit, the Counterfire crew allows comments to be posted under the book reviews which appear on their site. Here's an extended version of the comment I left under Dominic Alexander's review:
I thank Dominic Alexander for giving my book a read, however cursory, but he does seem to have misinterpreted the attitude I take towards EP Thompson.
A closer look at my book would reveal that I have a very high regard for both Thompson's scholarly and political work. Alexander's claim that I'm some sort of ruthless critic out to seize every opportunity to belittle the great man hasn't been shared by other reviewers, including reviewers who were friends and colleagues of Thompson. In her piece for Reviews in History, for instance, Penelope Corfield recommends my book as an introduction to Thompson's achievements. And the late Dorothy Thompson not only assisted with the preparation of my book but considered it a fair overview of her late husband's work.
What Alexander seems to object to is the fact that I make any serious criticisms at all of Thompson. He picks up on some of my negative judgments on particular texts and political episodes, takes them out of their contexts, and then presents them as symptoms of a morbid generalised hostility.
For instance, Alexander objects to my use of the phrase 'English exceptionalism' at one point in my book. Taking my use of this phrase out of context, he suggests that I've glibly dismissed Thompson's longstanding commitment to internationalist politics and his profound interest in the history and sociology of Third World nations.
Alexander notes the way that Thompson invokes the contemporary Third World at the beginning of The Making of the English Working Class, and expresses the hope that the battles which were lost in early modern England might be won in the Third World. I thank Alexander for trying to bring this passage to my attention, but if he reads my book carefully he'll see that I repeatedly cite it, as an example of Thompson's concern with non-English and non-European societies.
I use the phrase 'English exceptionalism' not to sum up Thompson's worldview, but in the context of a discussion of his political and intellectual isolation in the aftermath of the collapse of the first New Left in the early sixties. I explicitly contrast Thompson's claim that The Making of the English Working Class is relevant not just to England but to large parts of the world with his repeated claim, in the mid-sixties essay 'Peculiarities of the English', that there is a gulf between English history and the history of other nations.
Thompson's undeniable retreat into an exceptionalist position in 'Peculiarities' simply cannot be squared with the optimistic internationalising of English experience which is seen in the opening pages of The Making of the English Working Class.
The sort of contradiction I've just noted is found throughout Thompson's oeuvre and also in his life. Thompson wrote with unparalleled power about English history, but wasn't always sure how to relate his historical texts to the present. He was a charismatic political leader, but also a chronic feuder who fell out needlessly with allies. He lambasted the conservatism of English universities, but sometimes struggled to take a constructive attitude to the student protesters of the late '60s and early '70s. He wrote brilliantly about the threats to English civil liberties in the 1970s but had nothing to say about Bloody Sunday and the internment of hundreds of civilians on the other side of the Irish Sea. He alternated between wild political optimism and an almost apocalyptic despair about the future. He wrote majestic prose, but also some dodgy poetry. Faced with the obvious contradictions between the different texts Thompson left behind, and between different aspects of Thompson's life, we have a choice. We can either use one or another variety of dogma to simplify his life and work, or we can try to reconstruct the twists and turns of thought and fate which produced his contradictions, and try to understand which of his ideas we might usefully develop today.
Alexander complains that I haven't reproduced the interpretation of Thompson which the Canadian scholar Bryan D Palmer offers in his two books on the man, but if he reads the introduction to my book again he'll notice that I fault Palmer for taking an excessively reverential attitude towards Thompson, and for failing to notice the complexity and contradiction which were part of Thompson's life and work. Palmer's books on Thompson contain much useful information, and their sincerity cannot be questioned, but they do seem to me to verge on hagiography.
As I say repeatedly in my book, the left has seen too much of hagiography. The sad case of Karl Marx, whose oeuvre was misrepresented by Stalinists and Cold Warriors alike for much of the twentieth century, ought to alert us to the dangers of producing one official version of a great thinker's career, and ignoring complexity and contradiction.
Since the end of the Cold War Marxology and the study of Marxist history seem to me to have flourished, as scholars like James White, Karl Anderson, and Lars Lih have freed themselves from the old orthodoxy which said that Marx's work was all of a piece, and was either completely correct or terribly wrong. They have shown the way that Marx and later thinkers inspired by Marx adopted, developed, and discarded ideas, in response both to political pressures and to research findings. In my own small way, I have tried to do something similar with EP Thompson.
And I'd argue that Thompson, like Marx, is relevant to the left of the twenty-first century precisely because his work is dynamic and contradictory. Thompson and Marx are like early explorers, who made maps of the country which we find ourselves traversing today. The maps they left us plot the locations of many key landmarks, but also contain some faulty markings, and many blank spaces which need filling.
Thompson and Marx were both aware of how incomplete their explorations were, and it is their intellectual realism, their willingness to retreat from error and recalibrate a theory, their preparedness to leave spaces for others to explore, which distinguishes them from the sort of dogmatic thinkers who produce static, non-contradictory texts. We read Marx's Capital rather than Karl Kautsky's dully encyclopedic opus The Materialist Conception of History precisely because Capital is, in spite of the best efforts of Engels, an unfinished, open-ended work, the record of an adventure rather than a closed theorectical system. The Making of the English Working Class is a collection of passionate case studies, not some attempt at an exhaustive, pseudo-objective map of early industrial England, but its very incompleteness, its refusal of the false confidence of the sweeping generalisation, adds to its vitality. Scholarship is always better than dogmatism.