Sunday, February 12, 2006

A couple of quick comments on 'History from Below'

Over at the splendidly-titled Adventures in Historical Materialism blog 'Snowball' has replied to my post on EP Thompson and the thorny question of 'History from Below' . Snowball concedes that the approach to history developed by Thompson and the rest of the 'History from Below' school was shaped by the political conjuncture of the 1930s, and in particular the turn of Western Communist Parties towards Popular Frontism, but insists that this fact does not tarnish the work that the school did.

Only a fool would deny the value of work of historians as gifted as Thompson, Christopher Hill, and Rodney Hilton, but I think it is possible to appreciate books like The Making of the English Working Class and also recognise the impact on them of the long years that their authors spent inside the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Snowball offers two main reasons for thinking that Popular Frontism does not tarnish the work of Thompson and others. In the first place, he says that the nationalism which was part and parcel of Popular Frontism is offset by the efforts of some (alleged) members of the History from Below school to study non-British subject matter, and subjects that show the dark side of British behaviour abroad. Snowball mentions Eric Hobsbawm, who is famous for his global history of the twentieth century, and John Saville, who has studied the effects of British imperialism. I don't understand the logic of this point, because I don't see how the mere fact that a historian has studied a non-British subject, or a darker side of British history, can make his or her method and conclusions immune from British chauvinism. To use one of an enormous number of possible examples: EP Thompson's father wrote extensively about Indian culture and history, and about the darker side of of British colonialism in India, but that has not stopped many Indian scholars from considering him the purveyor of a patronising, Anglophile view of their world.

In any case, I think that Hobsbawm and Saville must be considered doubtful contenders for membership of the school of History from Below: both relied on secondary more than primary materials, preferring to synthesise existing viewpoints rather than pan for gold in the archives; both made extensive use of the sort of 'dry' economic data that Thompson considered an unreliable ally; and both tended towards a more pessimistic view than Thompson of the ability of the individual to influence the course of history.

Snowball goes on to suggest that even when they studied the finer details of British history members of the History from Below school were "always careful to locate each historical struggle in its own context at the opposed to some ahistorical 'march of history' which can slide over into forms of left nationalism." I don't think this statement is completely untrue, but I think it is far too confident. I don't have time to make the argument fully now, but Snowball ought to remember these words, from the 1963 Preface to The Making of the English Working Class:

[T]he greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialisation, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or
Africa, yet be won.

Thompson seems in danger here of presenting English economic and social development as the model for the history of the developing world in the second half of the twentieth century. While he hopes for a different outcome to political conflicts in the developing world, he sees the type of development going on there as fundamentally similar to that taking place in the world of his book. The problem with such a view is that it takes the contingencies of one country's history and makes them into a schema for other countries.*

The corollary of such a schema is all too often an insistence on inappropriate political strategies and tactics. During the period that Thompson wrote The Making the Soviet Union and its allies were busy scouring the Third World for 'national-bourgeois revolutions', like the one France enjoyed in 1789 and Britain could have enjoyed in 1832. Communists in Western colonies were being urged to fight for independence by forging alliances with a motley mixture of opportunist military leaders and disaffected members of local comprador bourgeoisies. The likes of Nasser and Sekou Toure were being hailed as revolutionaries on Pravda's World News pages. What was ignored was the fact that countries like Egypt and Guinea had developed in a very different way, thanks to the weight of the imperialist exploitation imposed on them by 'old' bourgeois countries like France and Britain. What had been possible in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was no longer possible in the twentieth.

More on this later...

*To be fair, Thompson pulled sharply back from his attempt to 'universalise' English history when he wrote 'The Peculiairities of the English' just a few months after the publication of The Making. But those crucial words in the Preface to his most famous book were never changed.


Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers for this - I have replied briefly here:

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