Tuesday, October 03, 2006

'Where are we now?' Locked up in the Bod...

I remember reading a biography of Tom Waits which seemed to consist mostly of quotes from the great man himself. The biographer seemed to have googled up a slew of interviews with Waits, then cut and pasted chunks of them right through the manuscript, adding the occasional half-hearted piece of interpretation. At the end of 'his' book the biographer actually apologised for this practice, explaining that 'The reason I've quoted Tom so much is because, well, he's so damn quotable'.

I sometimes want to adopt the same method to write my PhD on EP Thompson, and it's not just laziness that makes me feel this way. The body of work - history, political polemic, poetry, literary criticism, biography, memoir - Thompson left behind is enormous, and much of it is hidden in now-obscure journals and out of print books. Even the man's smallest and least-known texts bristle with memorable turns of phrase and a fiercely idiosyncratic perspective. If only a publisher had the gumption to produce a Collected Works...

Some of Thompson's most remarkable writing has not even been published yet. Thompson died in 1993, and by 1997 his papers, which included numerous unpublished manuscripts, had been deposited in the Bodleian library at Oxford University. Unfortunately Dorothy Thompson, Edward's widow and literary executor, has decided that the papers should not be opened to scholars until the fiftieth anniversary of Edward's death in 2043. I fear I shall have finished my PhD by then.

Several unpublished manuscripts have seen the light of day as posthumous books, and a few others are available in the papers of friends and colleagues of EP Thompson, and at the archives of the University of Leeds, which ran the Workers Education programme that employed Edward as a roaming night class lecturer and tutor from the late '40s til the early '60s. Last year I was lucky enough to get hold of some of Thompson's unpublished manuscripts and correspondence in the papers of John Saville at the University of Hull; some of the correspondence is quoted in the critique of Tony Judt and Leszek Kolakowski I posted here a couple of weeks ago.

In that post I also mentioned 'Where Are We Now?', a long, angry but controlled polemic which Thompson in at the beginning of April 1963, a few days before the last meeting of the New Left Board, the body that was supposed to oversee the publishing of the New Left Review and the operations of the New Left Clubs which Thompson had been instrumental in establishing after his split from the Communist Party in 1956. By the 1963 the British New Left was in bad shape: the huge anti-nuclear protests which had marked the end of the '50s and the dawn of the '60s had failed to produce a change in government policy, or even a lasting change in the policy of the opposition Labour Party, and disillusionment had set in. The great student protests and strike waves that would come to be associated with British radical politics in the '60s were still in the future. The New Left Board had racked up huge debts with ambitious projects like the founding of a publishing company and the opening of a bookshop, cafe, and set of offices.

'Where Are We Now?' takes aim at the 'Young Turks' of the 'New New Left' who were by 1963 using Perry Anderson's inherited fortune and the debts of the Board to ease Thompson, Saville and other founding members of the New Left out of positions of responsibility and influence. Thompson was clearly angry at Anderson's desire to wind up the New Left Clubs and the New Left Board and make the focus of the New Left Review much less activist and much more theoretical, but his polemic is more analytical than abusive. It makes a passionate case for the existance of an indigenous British socialist tradition which is just as important as the Continental and Third World socialisms that Anderson and co were keen to introduce to the readers of the New Left Review.

Thompson bends the stick of his polemic too far, and at times he seems to wilfully misunderstand 'New New Left' favourites like Jean-Paul Sartre and Frantz Fanon, but 'Where Are We Now?' is nevertheless an undeniably powerful piece of writing, as well as a sort of rosetta stone for both the classic 1964 essay 'The Peculiarities of the English' and the notorious 1978 anti-Althusser polemic 'The Poverty of Theory'. It is a great shame that only the dozen or so members of the New Left Board and a handful of latter-day scholars have had the opportunity to read the text.

Here is a quote which hopefully shows many of the qualities of 'Where Are We Now?', as well as some of its shortcomings. It's taken from the beginning of the penultimate section of the text...

Socialist Humanism

For there is only one world. And socialist humanism is about the unity of socialist theory. It seeks, through all the diversities of context, of sociological and cultural determinants, to articulate the common voice of world socialism.

I doubt whether socialist humanism can be usefully defined, but the attempt must be made again and again. If reduced to a set of propositions it becomes at once abstract and utopian. If we abandon the effort for one moment we fall victim to the realpolitik of determinism. It reveals itself as such in the form of a useful quarrel between agency and determinism, aspiration and context, people as they are and as they might be, as in any systematic theory. It postulates the validity and importance of forms of perception and moral growth that have not, hitherto, been successfully formulated in Marxist schema. As a position in the world today it is most evident as a critique of other alternatives. Indeed, it exists by virtue of a continuing polemic, on the one hand with Communist orthodoxy, and on the other hand with liberal and social-democratic ideology. It is distinguished by a particular sensitivity to the arguments of realpolitik, of determinism, and of scholastic mystification, which lead towards ideological complicity with either of the opposing ideologies.

I will seek to illustrate this by one example. I have suggested that Fanon, and more heinously Sartre, offer an apologia for a new mystique of violence. Les Damnes de la Terre is a book which commands the most sympathetic attention; when one recalls the context from which it has sprung it appears not only comprehensible but inevitable. The damned can discover their own humanity only in absolute rebellion against the colons, the imperialist power, and in repudiating the ideology and culture of the West...

The notion here of course is not new. The outcast and the violent has always had its appeal to the intellectual. But the idea can be seen firmly in place, early in the Marxist tradition. When describing the unspeakable conditions of the British proletariat in 1844, Engels wrote:

'...they can maintain their consciousness of manhood only by cherishing the most glowing hatred, the most unbroken inward rebellion against the bourgeoisie in power. They are men so long only as they burn with wrath against the reigning class. They become brutes the moment they bend in patience under the yoke...'

In their elevation of the humanist values of revolutionary pride, Marx and Engels rarely glorified violence as such. It is true that they saw as a weakness in the English tradition the absence of the purgative experiences of an advanced bourgeois-democratic revolution ("One sees what a revolution is good for, after all.") They also assumed (although this is implicit rather than explicit in Marx's passionate humanism) that the morality of the oppressed should be superior to that of the oppressors. At some places they suggest a relativistic morality, at others they suggest ulterior criteria, a 'fully human' morality.

The ambiguity of the Marxist tradition on this should be familiar. The socialist humanist must surely insist that the experiences of 20th century require something more than ambiguity? The revolutionary humanism of 1917, of the march of the Chinese 8th Army, and of the Yugoslav partisan movement - these were formative influences on many of us. (I suspect that we were moved by Reid's Seven [sic] Days or Davidson's Partisan Picture in similar ways to those in which readers are moved by Fanon today.) I cannot see how anyone can be in any serious sense a socialist humanist who has not been powerfully moved by these experiences, and by the Cuban and Algerian revolutions. (It is precisely the myopia, the failure of response, and the complicity with imperialism which is one of our profoundest causes of disagreement with the Fabian tradition - some of whose exponents, ironically, the Team are now anxious to woo to the review in order to hasten the displacement of the old guard.)

But the point is that an admiring, committed response to revolutionary humanism is surely, in 1963, not enough? We cannot permit Sartre to mystify us with one part of Marxist revolutionary morality, wrested from context, and diluted with Sorelian solution. For the lesson of the 20th century is not only that humanism is discovered in revolutionary struggle; anti-humanism is discovered there also. Out of the logic of revolutionary struggle there arises that discipline, that embattled ideology, those quasi-military forms, which endanger the humanism of the revolution. All this is (or ought to be) too familiar to bear repitition. To accept the necessity for Algerians or Angolans of this revolutionary dedication is one thing; to glorify it is yet another; to fail to state what is known of its dangers and putative consequences is another again. If we accept (as indeed I do) that for the enslaved the moment of violent rebellion is also a moment of the attainment of richer human attributes, we are surely not tricked into believing that rebellion, gun in hand, is the only measure of the attainment of humanity? (After all, in important ways, Lawrence's novels or de Beauvoir's Second Sex are also about the attainment of humanity - and not only by means of the rebellion of the 'oppressed' against the 'oppressor'.)

Reading this passage over now, I'm struck by its relevance to the fierce debates in today's left about what attitude to take to the armed resistance to imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thompson may not always have been right in his historical and political judgements, but he always had the ability to take a narrow, even petty academic or political debate and make it resonate with themes and questions that still concern us all.


Blogger Mike B said...

Thanks for that... Looking forward to see the rest of the piece. He is a master polemicist. The imagined dialogue between Mssrs. Anderson and Nairn and Mr Podsnap at the start of 'Peculiarities' is hilarious. Now I see where the anger comes from. I knew vaguely about the NLR palace coup but not much. I didn't know about the involvement of the Anderson fortune.

1:46 am  

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