Monday, October 10, 2011

Getting beyond dogma

Five years ago the political historian Paul Blackledge published a critique of EP Thompson and the New Left movement in International Socialism, the journal of Britain's Socialist Workers Party. Although I had enjoyed some of Blackledge's writings, I thought that his essay was far too one-sided in its assessment of Thompson and the unstable but energetic movement of ex-communists and student radicals that Thompson helped lead in the late fifties and early sixties. Blackledge seemed to me to be motivated not by a desire to assess Thompson's thought fairly, but by a determination to show that the Socialist Workers Party's political ancestors were the most virtuous and right-thinking section of the New Left. Blackledge seemed, in other words, to be guided by dogmatism rather than by scholarship.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

evelyn waugh said it was wrong to give a bad review to a book you haven't read...

4:18 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I do find Alexander's view of the book as some sort of drawn-out hatchet job on Thompson rather baffling. In chapter after chapter I praise Thompson and suggest the relevance of his thought in the twenty-first century. Here's what Corfield, who was a good friend of Thompson, said in her review:

'All those seeking an introduction to this turbulent figure need look no further than Scott Hamilton’s Crisis of Theory. The account is even-handed, detailed, and sober. Generally, Thompson is praised but, at times, criticised or chided.'

Maybe I'm underestimating the extent to which a text underdetermines its interpretation, or maybe Alexander hasn't actually read the thing with any degree of care...

4:31 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

I think the fact that two writers from essentially the same IS tradition seem to take different views of Thompson says a lot about them and Thompson.

I think they are all English bourgeois empiricists in the same way as US politics left right and centre is ultimately bourgeois pragmatism. Both are features of the history of imperialism which buys the labour aristocracy and pb intelligentsia on the basis of colonial superprofits.

This allows labour movements to be incorporated into a state managed economism of parliamentary socialism. Hence working class politics is adapted to social imperialism or social chauvinism.

Thompsons contradictions are logical contradictions faced by the empiricist when his adaptation to Stalinism (collaboration of British labour aristocracy with Stalinism) collapsed. One contradiction, Stalinist apologetics, becomes replaced by another, US imperialism vs the rest including Britain represented by CND. Had Thompson broken with Stalinism as others had to become Trotskyists from the 1930s he could have saved himself and his biographers some unnecessary anguish.

As for SWPs contradictions they too owe their existence to their positions on Stalinism and British imperialism vis a vis the world. While Thompson adapted to one layer of the British labour aristos giving critical support to SU, Cliff decided in 1949 that the Stalinists were too toxic for another layer of the labour aristos so he abandoned Trotsky's unconditional defence of the SU. I would surmise that the earlier review of Thompson reflects their differences over how to relate to Stalin.

But after the cold war and the collapse of the SU the SW made a great play about Stalinist decontamination. No doubt Thompson could be looked at afresh as a leading British Marxist offering a bourgeois empiricist reading of History that suited the SWs in the 1990s and after. Given their own pretentions to 'internationalism' it is easy to recognise the same in Thompson.

Still a UK imperialist centred vision based on British worker aristos but now clearly in a world where the enemy is the US vs the rest. So British empiricism is projected onto the world and the WSF, anticap, youth and Arab revolutions are all part of the 'rest' not quite 'multitude' but minus a few dictators not far off it.

Of course the facts are the facts and when the 'rest' starts to come home as migrant populations there are now 'no borders' and popular fronts can become also borderless.

4:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

lol...went to their site and counterfire haven't reprinted your comment in this connected to a certain dom alexander being editor there?

4:50 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

It doesn't seem that Alexander read your book.

Thompson is the kind of person one would need in any movement for human progress, and, of course, the (kind of) philosophers you mentioned who take a wider view of Marxism.

Marxism is like any other philosophic or (political-economic-sociological) system. Some of it is great, a lot is wrong and much is just good or other, and so on. Similarly there are things to be learnt from say Nietzsche or whoever.

It is indeed the complexity even the ambiguities of Thompson (the man and his thinking)that make him interesting. Interesting and important but not an Idol!

I like Engels writings but I suppose he felt that Marx's system needed to be "complete" or "true" and this is an error. It leads (or can lead) into the hagiography of Stalinism, Leninism, Maoism or Trotskyism. Not to say there not lessons to be learnt from all of these people, but not to make idols of them.

To make real or metaphorical statues of individuals (e.g. Marx and any others) runs counter to the idea of peoples' total involvement...true and working democracy that has to be the basis of any "better" social-political system (if we can assume (or hope?) there can be one).

We have to take these ideas and build.

The cartoon says it all!

12:35 am  
Blogger Robert Winter said...

Was the reference to "Blackburn" in Para 1 a deeply meaningful counterposition of IMG traditions to those of the SWP?

2:27 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

You've got an impressive grasp of far left British sectariana, Robert! Paul Blackburn actually wrote quite a nice obituary for Thompson - I think it was in the New left Review - though the two men certainly were on opposite sides of the fence sometimes back in the '60s.

Richard, I don't know who Dominic Alexander is but he strikes me as a graduate student who has fallen passionately in love with Thompson and can't bear any criticism of the great man. I can understand that sort of mindset - I still have it when it comes to Smithyman! But I do find the immaturity of such a viewpoint wearying. Surely we can praise people without presenting their lives as a triumphal march?

EPT himself would have been appalled by the suggestion that his career was not full of blunders and failures. He was far harder on himself than I am on him...

11:23 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

There's also a review of the Thompson book in the latest issue of the academic journal 20th Century British History - it's written by Christos Efsthathiou:

Unfortunately most of Efsthathiou's text is not online unless the reader can jump on an academic server/database. Efsthatiou calls the book a 'welcome addition to the literature' but disgrees with some of my emphases and interpretations - he thinks, for instance, that Thompson's anti-nuclear activism in the '80s was less of a retreat from his old radical class-based politics than I suggest...

11:31 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

PS Dave: do you not think you're falling into Paul Blackledge's trap and creating a dichotomy between Trotskyists and non-Trotskyists in the first New Left? There's no doubt at all that Thompson was interested in Trotsky in the '50s.

As I mentioned in my critique of Blackledge, I found a letter from veteran UK Trotskyist Raymond Challinor to Thompson in John Saville's papers at Hull, requesting the return of a Trotsky text Thompson had borrowed. When I called up Challinor to ask him about this he told me that Thompson regularly borrowed Trotskyist materials off him, and read them with interest. Dorothy Thompson told me that even before the crisis of Stalinism in 1956 she and Edward and other younger members of the Communist Party were aware of and interested in Trotsky's crtique of Stalin...

11:36 am  
Anonymous ultra-left sectarian said...

The funniest thing is that the Cliffite tradition has been way more critical of EPT than this book appears to be. Basically Duncan Hallas and Peter Sedgwick said EPT had never broken properly with Stalinism and the method of the Popular Front. So this reviewer is not cognisant of the tradition of his own group. Assuming Crossfire still consider themselves Cliffites? Anyway it is mental to say that there were not huge failures in EPT's political life. Every party/proto-party he was involved with folded acrimoniously. Not that this was his fault but...if there was no failure why don't we have socialism now?

3:45 pm  
Anonymous ultra-left sectarian said...

PS Its Robin not Paul Blackburn!

3:46 pm  
Anonymous ultra-left sectarian said...

Looking at this guys other articles about Thompson for Crossfire - basically they are completely uncritical. And anyone who criticised Thompson is a bs artist.


4:07 pm  
Blogger Dave Brown said...

I don't think the NL was very new or left. The Trots in it were mainly Mandelites who liquidated Trotskyism into a prettified Stalinism. Challinor went from the the Trotskyist RCP to Cliffism which is hardly Trotskyism. What did EPT actually think of Trotsky's unconditional defence of the SU? That was the big question over which that generation agonised which is why Trotsky said so much about it in In Defence of Marxism. It its roots it was a question of method, of dialectics vs empiricism.

7:26 pm  
Blogger Robert Winter said...

For me, Thompson was a quintessential "empiricist" UK socialist, laden with the weight of that strange history of the UK Left. I sometimes think we see UK Left history far too much as sequential tranches - in fact it was a highly layered and complex beast, in which the attitudes to Bolshevism (Stalin, Spain, the 2WW,the origins and nature of the Cold War, 1956 etc) were, in England particularly, in interplay with other peculiarly English traditions - remnants of Morris, non-conformism, Commonwealth, social justice and so on - sometimes captured in Orwell. Orwell is a key figure in this for me, for, like Thompson, he was as happy writing about the politics of apples or war as he was about the many failures of the Left. The Andersons and Alis of this world lost some of that breadth and humanity as they assumed, post-1968, almost aristocratic roles are overseers and monitors of the Left - a compliment here, a criticism there, the odd "papal bull" sent out to tha masses through the pages of the NLR. That layered quality ahowed itself to be particularly vulnerable to neo-liberalism and the syren voice of the Blairite wen.

Of course Thompson was flawed in many ways. But I still read his William Morris, overlong and chaotic as it sometimes is, with immense pleasure.

And it is Robin.

11:36 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I have photograph I took of Robin Blackburn giving a speech or talk at Albert Park about 1970. I see there is(one?) reference to him in 'The Crisis of Theory'. He made sense and there was interest (although I had no idea what "angle" he was coming from or what he was in the UK) but I don't recall much of what he said. It was rather theoretical I think. (I recalled him while reading "The Crisis of Theory." In contrast to Tim Shadbolt's brilliant and often very funny speeches (say against the Vietnam war) which would slowly draw very large crowds around him. Shadbolt in those days had terrific charisma.

As for politics he was always in the thick of things . He was arrested several times and probably beaten up a few times. Very courageous and charismatic but not in any particular party or anything. Just interested in justice, truth etc and into that with a gusto.

So I suppose we were spoilt by such a figure and Blackburn was or seemed less exciting! But I only saw him once or twice.

12:00 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Corfield isn't uncritical (it is good review) but that is what you want, otherwise there is no progress. But if such as Alexander "worship" Thompson that is a worry.
Your book seemed a pretty fair picture of Thompson and well notated.

I recall reading his 'Making of the English Working Class'* at Uni (the sadly) late Terry Sturm recommended that when I was in a class on 18th Century literature I think it was. I didn't finish that and I would like to get a copy some time again. And his book on Morris looks interesting.

* Another cf. classic of history is "What Happened in History" by Gordon Childe

12:11 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

alexander is the type of 'marxist' who gives the ism a bad name.

9:22 am  
Anonymous ultra-left sectarian said...

dave...what is the true Brit Trotskyist group then?

Do you go all the way back to the Ridley-Ram theses to find purity?

9:49 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

I think you make a good point about the later, 'cooler' British left intellectuals like Anderson, Robert - although Anderson can descend from his Olympian heights at times. He wrote a very interesting and quite informal obituary-tribute to Thompson for the London Review of Books in 1993, for instance. Generally though he does seem like rather stiff and formal fellow.

What is your connection to all this? Are you a former IMG man?

Fascinating to think of Robin Blackburn going from Britain to New Zealand in the early '70s...I was thinking of the poet Paul Blackburn when I got the name wrong - Blackledge, P Blackburn, R Blackburn...

1:13 pm  
Blogger Snowball said...

Hi Scott - Paul Blackledge can defend himself from the charge of 'dogmatism' - which I think is a little unfair personally, but you might be interested in this review of your work in International Socialism 134, which might also hopefully illuminate a little more what us 'Cliffites' do tend to think about EPT. Cheers.

10:51 pm  

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