Friday, February 25, 2005

Arguing about EP Thompson

Stefan Collini's long article about English historian and political activist EP Thompson in a recent issue of the Times Literary Supplement has raised some readers' eyebrows, and prompted at least a couple of sharp letters to the editor. Reproduced below is my epistle, which is, I'm sure, far too long for publication. I've given it hyperlinks, to help explain some of the references.

Times Literary Supplement

To The Editor:

In his article ‘Moralist At Work’, Stefan Collini offers a Janus-faced ‘reappraisal’ of EP Thompson. For Collini, the Making of the English Working Class is an ‘acknowledged classic’ but it ‘cannot now be described as influential’; Thompson’s condemnations of the industrial revolution exposed a ‘great, raw wrong’, but now have ‘a dated air’; and Thompson’s ‘tireless devotion to the cause of peace’ and ‘direct and heartfelt political polemics’ are admirable, but ‘less relevant’ today.

Collini wants to dispose of Thompson as a historiographer and political thinker, and laud him instead as a ‘cultural critic’, a man whose work is characterised by moral fervour and Romantic imagination, but not by a great deal of analytic acuity.
Collini suggests that Thompson was always more of a‘man of letters’ than a historian, pointing out that he lasted only seven years at Warwick University Ltd. But it was Thompson’s deep knowledge of literature and his openness to the influence of Leavisian literary criticism which made The Making of the English Working Class a great work of history. The Making’s Leavisian blend of close reading and sweeping polemic – its fluent movements from the general to the particular and back - helped break the dour, ultra-empiricist mould of orthodox British history and inaugurate the‘literary turn’ which has so enriched the discipline in recent decades.

Collini reads the historiographical positions in The Making as the eloquent but inevitably inaccurate results of Thompson’s experiences as a young communist soldier in the 1940s, and of the long years he spent after the war as a Workers’ Education Association tutor in Yorkshire, amongst what was supposedly a militant pocket of an ‘old’ industrial working class facing imminent extinction. Thompson’s exceptional experiences in the 1940s and '50s are supposed to have combined with his powers of imagination to produce abook which idealises what it cannot analyse.

For Thompson, though, the ‘heroic years’ of the ‘people’s war against fascism’ could not be so easily conflated with the ‘Natopolitan’ era that announced itself with the pyrrhic victory of Yalta and the frosts of the Cold War. Again and again, Thompson’s 1950s writings denounce the apathy and economism of a population anaesthetised by a mass consumer culture paid for by loans from the United States. Andy Croft and others have shown that Thompson the WEA tutor frequently felt frustrated by his students’ lack of interest in working classhistory and socialism, let alone the poems of Blake and Wordsworth. The Making was originally conceived as a textbook, an effort to reawaken an apathetic working class’s sense of its own glorious past.

Collini tries to bolster his case againstThompson-as-historian by quoting Perry Anderson's description of the histories as ‘great works of literature’. Collini believes that these words are ‘significant’, given the ‘sharpness of exchanges’ between Thompson and Anderson. More significant, perhaps, are Anderson’s numerous tributes toThompson’s skills as a historian. Anderson’s only really sharp criticism of Thompson – his 1966 reply to‘The Peculiarities of the English’ – gets its rhetorical charge from the perception of an 'astonishing contrast’ between Thompson’s achievements as a historian and his deficiencies as a political strategist.

Having disposed of Thompson-the-historian, Collini works at discrediting the man’s political thought. Apparently the end of the Cold War, the ‘continued shrinking of manufacturing industry’, the end of ‘abuses’ by too-powerful trade unions, and ‘greatly enhanced prosperity’ have combined to date the political vision of books like The Making and Writing By Candlelight. But one of the preconditions for the‘prosperity’ globalisation has brought to Thompson’s old stomping grounds has been the outsourcing of industry to Third World nations like China and India - nations where The Making of the English Working Class is read for its insights into class struggle, not as a work of Romantic imagination. Collini refers to the extraordinary influence that The Making’s preface has enjoyed, but he seems to have forgotten the same text's insistence that 'the greater part of the world' is ‘still undergoing problems of industrialisation’, and that ‘causes which were lost England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won’. Collini’s dismissive attitude to Thompson’s persistent warnings about the fragility of peace and civil liberties in the late twentieth century is less than credible. In an era of pre-emptive invasions and detention without trial, books like Writing By Candlelight and The Heavy Dancers seem prophetic, not obsolete. The million or so Britons who filled central London in February 2003 were heirs to the two generations of peace protesters that Thompson’s words helped mobilise.

But Collini is determined to disregard Thompson the historiographer and Thompson the political theorist – instead, a place has been cleared in the canon for a‘cultural critic’, part of a tradition that runs ‘from Blake and Cobbett through Ruskin and Morris to Tawney and Leavis’. Thompson would not, of course, scorn such company. He would, however, object to the patronising attitude Collini shows towards his line of‘cultural critics’. In Collini’s conception, Morris, Tawney et al are purveyors of a vague, utopian, and rather ineffectual critique of ‘a whole civilisation’. When Collini invokes Thompson's study of Morris he ignores what John Goode has called the ‘ungainly quality’ of Morris’s life and work. The hostile response to Thompson’s study when it first appeared, at the height of the Cold War, was due to its highlighting of Morris’s rejection of a merely cultural opposition to‘civilisation’. Morris disavowed the simple oppositions of culture and industry, imagination and economics, and developed instead a detailed and sophisticated Marxist analysis of the world about him. Throughout his adult life, Thompson was no less ‘ungainly’ than his hero.

Collini will have none of this: for him, Thompson’s relevance as a ‘cultural critic’ is predicated upon his failure as a historiographer and political thinker. Thompson the ‘cultural critic’ seems to Collini a valuably ‘exotic’ commodity in an era of‘triumphal neoliberal capitalism’, an ‘important’ if impotent ‘reminder’ of a more humane set of values. Now that he is no longer considered a threat to the academy, and now that the left-wing ‘abuses’ he supported have (in Britain at least) been curtailed, Thompson is to be allowed a half-life as a sort of jester in the court of the intellectual establishment he always detested. Thompson is not around to refuse Collini’s offer; those of us who value his real achievements should refuse on his behalf, as he once refused on William Morris’s behalf.

Yours Sincerely,
Scott Hamilton,
PhD student
Sociology Department
University of Auckland