E.P. Thompson’s Search for a New Popular Front

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E.P. Thompson at an anti–nuclear weapons rally in 1980. (Kim Traynor)

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Even in a world tightly trussed by neoliberal dogma and basted by surges of populist anti-elitism, the role of the left intellectual has lost none of its fascination. There remains a yearning to find figures who combine intellectual distinction with radical politics, and who can bring their ideas and theories, analyses and eloquence, to the service of progressive causes. Few figures in the second half of the 20th century fit the romantic version of this profile better than the British historian E.P. Thompson. In the United States, Thompson probably remains best known as the author of The Making of the English Working Class, an indisputable classic of modern historiography and the founding document of a whole school of radical social history in the 1960s and ’70s. But such historical work constituted only one strand of Thompson’s career. No less important were his roles as an activist, polemicist, and writer—though in practice his abundant, restless talents could never be neatly divided or pigeonholed in this way.

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Thompson’s activities were constantly energized by a sense of political purpose. After an initial period as an active communist in the late 1940s and early ’50s, he became one of the animating presences of the early New Left, which emerged in Britain in response to the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and to mounting discontent with the Labour Party’s modest reformism. In the years to come, Thompson would also become one of the New Left’s most emphatic fraternal critics.

In the 1970s, partly spurred by a growing awareness of state surveillance, he put much of his energy into championing civil liberties; and in the 1980s, he metamorphosed into one of the best-known British campaigners against nuclear weapons. So prominent was Thompson in this last role that, as one commentator noted, “polls placed him high in the ranks of the most admired, trailing only the ‘first women’ of the nation: [Margaret] Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother.”

Like his political work, Thompson’s writings were also diverse—sometimes in unexpected ways. After his early biography of William Morris, a figure whose example remained a lifelong source of inspiration, he wrote a late study of William Blake, another spirited dissident. Alongside his magnum opus on the origins of the English working class, he also wrote influential studies that examined the suppression of popular rights in the 18th century and the supersession of older notions of a “moral economy” by the unforgiving exactions of industrial capitalism. In addition, Thompson was a polemicist of rare rhetorical gifts—he was a particular master of sustained and inventive sarcasm—and his essays and political journalism brought him swaths of admiring readers who knew little of his scholarly work. He also found time to write poetry and to publish an unnervingly dystopian novel.

At first sight, it’s not easy to find a guiding thread of continuity in such a varied public and intellectual life, but Christos Efstathiou makes a brave stab at it in E.P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic, his careful and thoroughly documented study. Thompson’s personal papers are closed to researchers, but Efstathiou’s book draws on a wider range of other archival sources than any previous work on Thompson’s life and thought and, as a result, throws fresh light on his intellectual and political trajectory.

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Thompson was of the generation for whom service in World War II was a defining experience, but, characteristically, he interpreted this experience primarily in political terms. What he identified in elements scattered across the Allied armies, the local resistance fighters, and the countless men and women who helped the war effort in other ways was a spirit of cooperation and, notably, resistance to fascism. In the years after the war, Thompson was stirred by evidence that this spirit might be transformed into a base upon which to launch a broad form of progressive politics, though he later came to feel that it had been blocked or killed off by the hardening polarities of the Cold War.

Thompson had been particularly moved by the ethos of cooperation and fraternity he encountered in 1947 while laboring to build the trans-Yugoslav railway alongside local workers and peasants as well as young volunteers from across Europe. Following the example of his older brother—who was captured and killed while aiding the partisan forces in Bulgaria—Thompson joined the Communist Party in 1942. But in the immediate postwar years, he was committed to sustaining an updated version of Popular Front politics, a broad alliance of communist, socialist, and other radical movements united by their continuing opposition to the spirit of fascism at home and abroad.

For Thompson, this was entirely compatible with his commitment to communism, not least because he was always uneasy with the need for the British Communist Party to kowtow quite so slavishly to whatever was the current Soviet line. Eventually he, like several of his contemporaries, left the party in 1956, unable to stomach the brutal Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising and disillusioned by its handling of revelations about the excesses of Stalinism in Khrushchev’s famous “secret speech.”

Although Thompson thereafter distanced himself from the Communist Party (and never rejoined), it is important to recognize how far he was from becoming one of those former party members who then moved further and further to the right en route to becoming a Cold War hawk. He remained for the rest of his life committed to a popular politics of the left that aimed at ending the class exploitation constitutive of capitalism. For Thompson, any left politics worthy of the name not only had to represent the interests of the working class, but also had to form active alliances with grassroots working-class organizations. One source of his eventual disaffection from the New Left, which coalesced after 1957, was that he found it to be operating too much at the level of intellectual and cultural criticism, without possessing the necessary links to trade unions and working-class political movements.

This emphasis on the central role of working-class organizations was one of the nodes linking his political and historical work. The research on the 18th and early 19th centuries that he undertook in the late 1950s and early ’60s was spurred by the desire to demonstrate the sources of an earlier form of working-class political agency. The English working class of that period was not simply “made” by the operation of impersonal forces; it was, Thompson famously claimed, “present at its own making,” actively developing class consciousness in the face of both economic exploitation and political repression.

This link between his historical work and his contemporary activism was a lived and animating reality for Thompson himself. Yet, in retrospect it may also reveal a tension at the heart of his apparently disparate activities and commitments—a tension likely to be faced in some form by any committed left intellectual. Thompson deployed a broadly Marxist understanding of the centrality of exploitation and class conflict, but he could never accept what he saw as the human passivity assumed by theories of economic determinism. “Agency” was a central category of his thinking about both history and politics, a never-extinguished faith in the creative power of popular energies combined with a principled commitment to acting with and not just for other people.

However, it could be said that, despite this faith, he rarely managed to identify forms of effective political agency in the present. The Communist Party, the New Left, the groups fighting for civil liberties, the various branches of the peace movement—all of these failed to live up to his hope that they could be the beginnings of a truly revolutionary transformation of society, and indeed most of them failed to achieve even more limited or short-term political ambitions. Furthermore, despite being publicly and repeatedly committed to broad cross-class and cross-party alliances, Thompson possessed, it usually turned out, more than his share of the schismatic temperament. Though he extolled the virtues of patient grassroots political work, he was often given to one or another kind of sectarian purity, from which redoubt he would fire volley after volley of witty, indignant, high-toned abuse at all those—and there were many—who fell short of his exacting political or intellectual standards.

There may have been a dialectic of disappointment at work here. Thompson constantly sought to acknowledge the political worth and human dignity of working-class struggles, but in his own lifetime, such autonomous expressions of resistance turned out to be, in his view, depressingly rare. They were often too focused on sectional economic gains and repeatedly unable to serve as the basis for a wider mobilization. Thompson spoke for “the people,” at times brilliantly and always passionately, but it proved not so easy to get them to act in the desired ways.

Nonetheless, as Efstathiou shows, Thompson never ceased to look for ways in which the Popular Front spirit of 1944–47might be rekindled. “We must awaken the real Europe, our Europe, once again,” he wrote in the newly founded New Left Review in 1960. “This other Europe was a reality in 1945—a reality felt by ordinary people from Cassino to Lidice and from South Wales to Stalingrad. It is dormant now but it has never been the same thing as the Europe of NATO and of the Common Market.”

This admirable sentiment may have a continuing pertinence in these post-Brexit days, but does it also suggest a strain of political romanticism, even a frantic whistling to keep one’s spirits up? The steps by which TheReasoner and TheNew Reasoner—small breakaway periodicals in which Thompson and a few like-minded colleagues first voiced their critique of official Communist Party policy—gave way to the theory-dominated New Left Review of the mid-1960s was a story of defeat for Thompson. His conception of an alliance of left intellectuals and working-class political organizations committed to revolutionary change had to cede the stage to the more purely analytic and critical exercise of the radical intelligence, formidably represented by Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, which left Thompson somewhat homeless in the late ’60s and 1970s.

Thompson’s period of partial political disenfranchisement coincided with his brief career as an academic at the University of Warwick. It also marked his rediscovery of the power of the law to protect the rights of the most vulnerable—or, at least, of a certain idea of the law as the guarantor of the ancient liberties of the citizen against the too-powerful state. As he reflected in 1982, “I am, as I get older, more and more of an anti-statist: I do not trust state power.”

Writing defenses of the jury system and protests against increased state surveillance were good causes (Thompson wrote devastatingly, hilariously, and savagely against the latter), but they did not, despite his repeated hopes, link up with broader forms of political action against systemic injustice. Then, in 1980, he found the cause that absorbed much of his political energy in the final decade of his active life and that conferred on him a wider celebrity: nuclear disarmament.;

Thompson had been a longtime supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in Britain, but he was one of the main moving spirits in setting up a new organization, European Nuclear Disarmament (END), which would work for the coordination of nonaligned European peace movements and a nuclear-free Europe. In this capacity, he regularly addressed large crowds across the continent, his colorful rhetorical style being well suited to platform oratory.

Nuclear disarmament may look like the ultimate form of “single-issue” politics, yet Thompson, as ever, saw it as a means of catalyzing a wider movement of resistance. “The bomb must be dismantled,” he wrote in an early credo (“Socialist Humanism,” 1957), “but in dismantling it, men will summon up energies which will open the way to their inheritance.” As always, he wanted to connect contemporary political movements with popular struggles of the past. Even when visiting other European countries in the cause of nuclear disarmament, he identified “movements which cherished the national traditions of their own countries (the Gaelic of the Western Isles, the ancient democratic institutions of the Icelanders) and which for that reason defended the ‘gate’ between the people’s past and the people’s future.” In such cases, he could sound more like the folklorist in William Morris, or even a 19th-century liberal historian like E.A. Freeman rhapsodizing about primitive communal assemblies, than a late-20th-century radical organizer.

Once again, however, his hopes proved unrealistic: Working-class support was thin and fitful, with few signs of recognizing, let alone striving to regain, any putative “inheritance.” END, for all its impressive achievements, never became a truly mass movement, and it never succeeded in blending diverse progressive causes and groups into a more enduring political force. Moreover, there is even room for debate about how effective it was with respect to its principal purpose. The mid- to late 1980s did see the superpowers start to resile from the peak of nuclear-armed rivalry, but historians now understand those developments as resulting from geopolitical factors, such as the Soviet Union’s increasing economic difficulties, rather than as the outcome of antinuclear protests. What’s more, the path followed by most of the former communist states of Eastern Europe after 1991 scarcely conformed to Thompson’s hopes for popular anticapitalist mobilization. As Efstathiou observes, “END’s passionate critique of cold war logic was not always matched by a realistic programme to eradicate it.”

This returns us to the question of the modes or genres through which left intellectuals express and disseminate their views, a matter on which Thompson’s example is particularly thought-provoking. Leaving aside the volumes made up of occasional pieces, he wrote relatively few full-scale books—the study of Morris and The Making of the English Working Class being the two chief examples, and the former was only partly successful, even in its substantially revised second edition.

But Thompson excelled in at least three other forms. The first was the very long historical article, such as his celebrated pieces on “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” and “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century.” These did not correspond to the approved academic forms—their length was awkward, their chronological and conceptual range made them difficult to classify, and their overt partisanship transgressed professional norms—yet they proved to be some of his most original and enduring contributions.

Then there is the distinctive genre of the extended critical refutation of an opponent’s position. The motto under which Thompson and his fellow apostate from the Communist Party, John Saville, conducted their revisionist polemics of 1956–57 was “To leave error unrefuted is to encourage intellectual immorality,” which catches the slightly priggish note occasionally detectable in these early debates. Thompson’s literary energy is extravagantly displayed in some of these annihilating cannonades, mixing dialectic, historical example, sustained irony, and sheer exuberant invective. Inevitably, they tended to be published in journals with very restricted circulations, such as The New Reasoner or Socialist Register, and to outsiders they were bound to seem both excessive and irrelevant.

Even so, such spirited polemics as “The Peculiarities of the English” (responding to what Thompson saw as the schematic character of the Anderson-Nairn view of the “proper” stages of historical development) and “An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski” (reproving the exiled Polish philosopher for a kind of austere cosmopolitan defeatism) have to be seen as coloratura pieces in which he displayed the range of his voice. Thompson’s taste for controversy and his preference for thick historical texture over thin theoretical propositions meant that these pieces, too, were not short: They sprouted luxuriant digressions and scornful asides, and the opponent was more often buried under the abundance of Thompson’s inventiveness than confuted logically. Again, there has to be a question about the effectiveness of such a mode: Perhaps it necessarily comes closer to bearing witness than to persuading.

In the latter half of his career, Thompson became proficient at a third genre: shorter, more journalistic pieces appearing in such mainstream publications as New Society, New Statesman, and The Observer. Though he never had a regular column in these papers, Thompson clearly possessed the talents of a good columnist, not least his ability to extract a significant political moral from an apparently minor news story. Some of his best shorter pieces were brought together in the collection Writing by Candlelight, published in 1980, which remains an excellent how-to book for the radical commentator—-especially in reminding us how wit can serve as an effective ally of political commitment rather than being a distraction or a betrayal.;

It is always difficult to measure the success of such political and polemical writing. The hardheaded among us—who have an uncanny tendency, when viewed in full light, to reveal themselves as the hard-faced as well—will say that his writing achieved little: No masses rose up, no regimes fell. But this would be to apply an implausible as well as a reductive standard. Thompson’s writing made critical perspectives available to a range of readers. He helped to keep alive an idiom of reasoned socialist critique; he raised the morale of comrades and sympathizers; and he made attentive citizens uncomfortable about their complaisance. (Perhaps the radical critic is not to be berated for failing to reach inattentive citizens?)

One of Thompson’s most characteristic argumentative strategies was to turn to the history of radical dissent to provide a genealogy for the present. This reflex was also a way of sustaining optimism in the face of ever–renewed disappointment. Even in a comment written in 1991, two years before his death, he managed to draw a positive moral where others might see a history of failure:

How very large has been the left presence in Britain in the past fifty years…a presence which is not to be identified with official party-political expressions. It has been there in the Left Book Club, in Aid for Spain, in the Common Wealth Party, in the New Left, in CND [the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament], in movements of social reform and cultural expression, all of them more vigorous and (perhaps) more effective than anything the politicians could offer.

This is certainly further evidence of how large the presence of these movements had been in Thompson’s own political imagination; but it is much less certain that they bulked so large in the political life of the country, and still less certain that they were in any relevant sense “effective.” It is also notable that three of the five movements Thompson mentions date from before 1945, the period to which he instinctively turned for political comfort.

There may be an obvious enough connection between the fact that, in Thompson’s final years, such comfort was particularly hard to come by, and the fact that toward the end of his life a larger part was played by engagement with literature. The subtitle of his William Morris study had been “Romantic to Revolutionary,” a conventional enough way of describing Morris’s journey from aesthetics to politics. While the arc of Thompson’s career wasn’t exactly the reverse of this, there are respects in which he can be seen as moving from the revolutionary activities of his communist days to his final acts of identification with Blake and the Romantic poets.

Even when we’ve revisited Thompson’s career in this way and felt again his power, there remains the question of what moral we should draw for the contemporary practice of the left intellectual. After all, Thompson’s legacy could be construed, from one point of view, as an endless series of heroic defeats. There remains something appealing about the example he set of sustained, undaunted dissidence, as well as how he brought his intellect and charisma (and the resources of his prose) to the aid of successive attempts to form politically effective left-wing organizations.

But should we be content to take repeated failure as our model? Is there a form of political romanticism at work here, one that perhaps savors the spectacle of going down in flames, all guns blazing, but nonetheless leaving the enemy in undisputed command of the seas once the smoke has cleared? We are so familiar with the long history of left sectarianism that we easily fall into seeing it as the natural condition of progressive politics, and we find much to admire in those who, refusing all grubby compromises, split and split and split again. Thompson is one of the most compelling heroes the left can have, and in rereading him now, I feel his pull as strongly as ever—not least the pull of his gorgeously scathing, metaphor-rich style. Thompson the writer, Thompson the historian, Thompson the man: Who could not admire and succumb? But even so, it is less easy to decide how far he models a political role that we should aspire to or follow now.

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As Efstathiou pertinently remarks: “Surprisingly enough, Thompson, who spent his academic career writing about agency in history, was not able to give a proper answer on the question of the agency of today.” All his life, Thompson sought to re-create the conjunction of forces that mobilized popular energies across Europe into an anti-fascist alliance. But in reality, such a moment was never to return; the long night of capitalist dominance and Cold War antagonism was punctuated only by a series of false dawns.

It might be possible to conclude from the example of Thompson’s career that the best way for a contemporary left intellectual to contribute to the progressive cause is not by participating in various campaigns and protest groups, but by writing some modern equivalent of The Making of the English Working Class. But what form could such a book take now? It might need to be a global history of the exploited, running from those who slave in the mines and factories of the Third World to those penned in by insecurity in the call centers and service industries of the First World. But if one were to attempt this, could it then be an equivalent story of the making of a class consciousness? And could it identify ways in which that consciousness has been fed by indigenous traditions of dissent and resistance? Contemporary finance capitalism is, in relation to its own blinkered purposes, supremely well-organized on a global scale. There are few signs that resistance to it possesses anything like the same clarity of purpose or transnational organization.

In his conclusion, Efstathiou understandably reaches for some consolation: “Perhaps Thompson’s greatest contribution,” he writes, “was his intense passion to change the order of things.” Beyond question, Thompson possessed such passion in full measure, expressing it stylishly and movingly; and anyone who is half-awake scarcely has to be reminded that “the order of things” is in urgent need of change. But translating such passion into effective agency is never easy, and meanwhile the order of things, betraying a grim smile of satisfaction, can all too easily tolerate a little ineffectual political rhetoric. Perhaps the task of successfully persuading wider publics of the need for such change may, in addition, require other tactics, though it is not easy to say what form they ought to take at present. There should be no danger that a reexamination of Thompson’s career will lead posterity to direct any of its enormous condescension toward his achievements. But it surely does force us to confront the intractable dilemmas facing all those who try to rouse their fellow-citizens to challenge the formidably resilient structure of the existing order of things.