Saturday, April 19, 2008

'For Christ's sake, let us have something from you'

[Last night, listening to Muzzlehatch complain about the travails of editing a literary journal, I thought of a long and slightly silly passage of my PhD thesis. The passage should really have been dropped from the final draft of the thesis, and will certainly have to be dropped if I revise the thesis into a book, but I have a soft spot for it, if only because it puts the sufferings of most editors I know into perspective.

The passage occurs in the third chapter of my thesis, shortly after a discussion of the history of the 'New Left' established in Britain in 1956. After appearing set to sweep all before it, the dynamic but chaotic movement, which included refugees from the Stalinist Communist Party, idealistic students, and members of the burgeoning Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, went into a tailspin in the early '60s.

EP Thompson and his mates had occupied leadership positions in the outfit, but after a financial crisis and a series of complicated political rows they found themselves ousted from the Board that oversaw the publication of the New Left Review by a ruthless Old Etonian named Perry Anderson. After Anderson and his circle sealed their control of the Review and the other institutions of the movement, some of Thompson's allies attempted to regroup around a new journal...]

A fortnight after the final, sad meeting of the New Left Board, Ralph Miliband circulated a memo describing plans to set up a new ‘Socialist Annual’. In a letter he sent to John Saville along with the memo, Miliband announced that he was ‘done with New Left Review and such for good’. Miliband told Saville about a phone conversation with EP Thompson, in which the old co-editor of New Reasoner declined an invitation to share responsibility for the new annual.

In her memoir about the early days of the Socialist Register, Miliband’s widow Marion Kozak claimed that Thompson refused the co-editorship because of his political differences with Miliband and Saville. It is likely, though, that was more than one reason for Thompson’s lack of enthusiasm. The collapse of the first New Left and the disintegration of relations with the Anderson circle had hit Thompson hard. Miliband suggested to Saville that Thompson’s ‘present attitude may be due, and he hints at this himself, to a general dispiritedness’.

Shortly after his conversation with Miliband, Thompson wrote a long letter to both his comrades to elaborate on his refusal to co-edit the new ‘Socialist Annual’. Thompson began by explaining that he was preoccupied with preparing his long-overdue history book for publication. Thompson’s enthusiasm for scholarship seemed connected to a weariness with politics:

There is a chance of autumn publication, and I now feel that I would like it out, so that I can be known as a historian and not just as the wrecker of the New Left which is my current persona.

But Thompson complicated his refusal of co-editorship by suggesting that the editorial board of the New Reasoner ought to be reconvened, with a view to refounding the journal in 1964. Thompson wanted the journal to be a quarterly, and mentioned that he has talked with former Board member Ken Alexander, who was very much in favour of refounding the journal. ‘I have got the habit of journals’, Thompson explained, ‘and find it hard to imagine not having one as a base’.

Saville and Miliband were unenthusiastic about reviving the New Reasoner. Saville wrote to Thompson to say that he was ‘not keen to sit through more Board meetings’. Undeterred, Thompson wrote Saville a long, excited letter on the 25th of March – a little over a week after his phone conversation with Miliband – to give more details about his plan to revive the New Reasoner. Thompson wanted the old editorial board to meet soon in Sheffield. He had made contact with some Italian socialists, and believed that they could be involved in the journal. Stuart Hall, the old editor of the New Left Review, could be won away from Anderson’s circle.

On the same day, Thompson wrote to Miliband to repeat many of his proposals. At the bottom of his letter, though, he again claimed that he was ‘too busy’ to be involved in Saville and Miliband’s new journal. At the end of March John Saville wrote again to Thompson to explain that he did not think the revival of the New Reasoner was practical. With a certain weariness, Saville warned Thompson that ‘yards of talk’ could not be turned into a new quarterly journal. Miliband was equally sceptical of Thompson’s proposals. ‘Edward may be in for more disappointments’ he wrote to Saville on the 24th of March. ‘It is clear that we must proceed without him.’ There is no evidence that Thompson ever succeeded in reconvening the old New Reasoner editorial board.

Miliband and Saville may have found Thompson a frustrating interlocutor, but they had great respect for his scholarship and writing, and they still hoped to secure a contribution from him for the first issue of their ‘Socialist Annual’, which would soon be rechristened the Socialist Register. In May, though, Saville reported to Miliband that Thompson was reluctant to contribute. The only material he could immediately offer was a collection of Luddite documents he had acquired while researching The Making of the English Working Class. ‘I am not keen on Ludd docs’, Saville told Miliband.

Miliband himself asked Thompson to review the posthumous collection of essays by C Wright Mills called Power and Politics. At the end of August, though, he had to report to Saville that Thompson had refused the assignment, on the ‘absurd’ grounds that ‘he is not a sociologist’. When Saville suggested that their new journal should review The Making of the English Working Class, Miliband’s reply showed some exasperation:

I should be very glad to have...Thompson’s book reviewed...but you deal with him: I think he has displayed remarkably little goodwill since the first letter he wrote...I was annoyed with his preemptory rejection of the idea that he should review the Mills essays.

At the beginning of October, though, Thompson wrote to Miliband asking whether the Register would be interested in some ‘Notes Toward the Definition of Class’. Thompson explained that he wanted to differentiate ‘historical’ from ‘sociological’ notions of class, and to ‘challenge over-rigid contemporary formulations’. He imagined that his ‘Notes’ would include a discussion of Mills. ‘I think Edward is now rather narked not be in on the Annual’, Miliband reported to Saville.

On the 17th of November Thompson wrote a long letter to Miliband, in which he tried to explain what he might be able to write for the Register. Thompson explained that he had been spending most of his free time immersed in historical scholarship:

I am very much preoccupied with history...All the ’56 onwards period left little time for history, and for two years or so I have been catching up like mad.

Thompson claimed that he had not wanted to write about Mills because of his immersion in history. (This explanation is unconvincing, because Thompson had in fact reviewed Mills’ posthumous essays for the journal Peace News, shortly after rejecting Miliband’s request.) Thompson explained that his notion of an essay on class stemmed from some of the business The Making of the English Working Class had left unfinished:

My book became more pretentious as it got bigger; and at the end of it I convinced myself (in the five-week euphoria which I usually have after completing something big, which is usually followed by a five or fifteen year nausea) that I had actually said something about class in general, and not just something about England in 1790-1832. In fact I wrote an introduction making just this claim and cocking snooks at named and unnamed sociologists. And now I rather feel that I shall have to hold the ground, and put up some theoretical hurdles around it to keep the buggers out.

Thompson also outlined his plan for an essay on ‘the Marxist tradition’:

It is an attempt to discriminate between Marxism as a dogma; Marxism as a self-sufficient theoretical corpus which contains within itself the means to self-correction and self-validation; and Marxism as a ‘tradition’. I reject the first two...

At the end of his letter, though, Thompson appears to once more withdraw his goodwill:

I am sorry to be such a nuisance: I can’t tell you which essay you’ll get or whether you’ll get one at all.

After discussions with Miliband, Saville wrote to Thompson to explain that space in the forthcoming issue was limited, and that an essay on class would not be an easy thematic fit. Thompson’s other suggestion, though, ‘would fit nicely with our English section’. Miliband and Saville set aside a few pages for Thompson’s essay on ‘The Marxist Tradition’, and Thompson apparently arranged to give the text to Miliband on a visit to London he would be making in the second week of November. On the eleventh of that month, though, Thompson had to write Miliband an apologetic letter:

I’m afraid I’m going to come down to London empty-handed...I have a dozen false starts, and some stuff in drafts, but it really isn’t coming out...

Thompson did send a manuscript to Miliband, but it was hardly what his long-suffering friend had been hoping for:

I am enclosing one of the only things I have ready-made in my drawer, a story which I wrote four or five years ago. But it is very slight. Anyway, you don’t want stories. And if you did, you could get much better ones. Doris [Lessing], for example...

Thompson’s story was called ‘Cassino’, and was probably related to a novel he had tried to write ‘in 1947 or 1948’ about his experiences in the most famous battle of the Italian campaign (a fragment of the novel would be published as ‘Overture to Cassino’ in the British edition of the 1985 collection of political and literary writing he called The Heavy Dancers). It is hard to imagine how the most imaginative editor could have fitted Thompson’s story into an ‘English section’ in the first Socialist Register. Miliband’s response to Thompson’s submission showed considerable restraint:

The only criticism I would venture [of ‘Cassino’] is that it is perhaps over-didactic. However, it would obviously be incongruous as the only piece of imaginative writing in the Register...

Aware of the gaping hole in his journal, Miliband urged Thompson to turn urgently to a new subject:

What about stretching the anniversary section backwards, and have us do something on 1814. Select some topic or event, happening in or around that year...I feel sure you could do [it] in the available time – preferably also not just an extract from the book: you must have material which even you did not manage to incorporate into it...But for Christ’s sake, let us have something from you.

Miliband’s words remind us of a schoolmaster struggling to find an essay topic that will interest a bright but recalcitrant pupil. Sadly for the master, Thompson showed no sign of taking up the latest suggested subject. ‘Personally, I think our missing contributors are SHITS’ Miliband wrote to Saville at the end of November, when it had become clear that the first issue of the Socialist Register would appear without a contribution by EP Thompson.

[Thompson would eventually contribute his famous essay 'The Peculiarities of the English' to the second issue of the Register, after giving Miliband and Saville a few more stressful months...]


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