Putting people back into history

Issue 

E.P. THOMPSON: Objections And Oppositions
By Bryan D. Palmer
Verso, 1994. 201 pp., $34.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Edward Thompson has inspired many on the left with his spicy brand of Marxist history and socialist agitation. Bryan Palmer, a Canadian social historian, has written one of the first books to celebrate Thompson following his death in 1993.

More a "memoir and a homage" than a comprehensive biography, Palmer's book traces the main outlines of Thompson's life and the main reasons for his extraordinary influence.

The internationalist ambience of Thompson's parents took concrete root in Thompson's life during World War II. Like many anti-fascists on the left, Thompson joined the Allied war effort "disgusted by war but assenting to its political necessity".

As we are about to be deluged with ruling class propaganda on the 50th anniversary of the end of that war, trying to claim the values of freedom and democracy for the victorious Western business class, Thompson reminds us that it was "the common people of the world" who hurled back the fascist tide and made the greatest sacrifice. Some degree of anti-fascist commitment politically steeled the majority of these men and women, and "an authentic mood of internationalism touched the peasants in the Umbrian villages and the troopers in [tank troop commander Thompson's] own tanks".

Confirming his democratic socialist principles, Thompson joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1942, leaving it in 1956 after the Soviet invasion of Hungary — "not to abandon working class revolution but to build it in new ways". Free from the Stalinist shackles, Thompson gave vent to a fiery moral critique of capitalism, "inserting the poetic imagination into the discourse of Marxism", in his history writing, which resurrected the central importance of human agency in shaping history.

Thompson's biography of the romantic Marxist, William Morris, and his stunning 1963 book on The Making of the English Working Class, rekindled a Marxist tradition that had been hideously disfigured by Stalinism and sapped dry of the human stuff of history. Thompson was not afraid to "paint the vision splendid" of a socialist future, to "rehabilitate the utopian energies within socialism". His polemical tone, his charged language, and his engagement with the past to renew the present, the better to recover socialist possibility in the future, was just the sort of committed history to antagonise the academic establishment.

"Defiant of the ideological posturing of supposedly detached scholarship", Thompson argued against the tired empiricists that "oppression, exploitation, suffering are facts of history" and that the historian of "true objectivity will make judgments and draw conclusions" and thereby contribute to current social and political struggles.

This lack of "refusal" of the status quo by conservative academia drove Thompson to some of his best mocking satire:

"... the present moment is never the opportune moment to stand and fight. Show them the last ditch for the defence of liberty, and they will walk backwards into the sea, complaining that the ditch is very ill dug, that they can not possibly be asked to defend it alongside such a ragged and seditious-looking set of fellows, and, in any case, it would surely be better to write out a tactful remonstrance and present it, on inscribed vellum, to the enemy."

Palmer argues that Thompson's commitment to Marxism waned from the '70s. This is true to some extent. A staunch refuser of Labour Party reformism, Thompson did nevertheless join the British Labour Party, though without enthusiasm and as an extremely prickly customer within its ranks.

He grew cross with "all 57 varieties of Marxism", particularly the static models of Althusser and other academic Marxisms which made a religion of theory and coated it in an impenetrable thicket of thorny language.

Thompson's 1970s' journalism focused on democratic rights and civil liberties, rather than labour struggles, as he took aim at the state rather than capital.

His highly active role in the '80s peace movement had Thompson putting class interests in the back seat to human issues of survival, whilst he was unable to engage with the socialist argument that the bomb was a class issue. His theoretical contributions during this time departed from historical materialism with his advocacy of the vague and semi-mystical concept of "exterminism" driving the nuclear arms race rather than the imperialism of his old enemy the capitalist class.

Palmer is uncritical of this later evolution of Thompson away from class and Marxism; Palmer was too close to Thompson personally and theoretically to be willing to tarnish his hero. The critical remarks of Thompson's life-long comrade, E.J. Hobsbawm, are reserved for the obscurity of a footnote — Thompson had an "uncertain relationship to organisation", there was an "occasional hit-and-miss quality in the excursions of his powerful and imaginative intellect into theory", he was "a lone-wolf of the Left".

A more balanced view of Thompson and his intellectual legacy remains to be written, but for a showcase of E.P. Thompson's invigorating revival of social history from the bottom up, sauced with his defiance of oppression and an unshakeable belief in a future made by the self-activity of the common people the world over, Palmer's memoir is more than adequate.

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