Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Edward Thompson and Marxist history

Edward Thompson made a considerable impact on my first year at university largely because I had the daunting task of reading his The Making of the English Working Class in a week.  Published in 1963, it is the work for which he is still best remembered and, as I quickly found, a work of rare elegance, an exercise as much in literary as historical writing.  E. P. Thompson (1924-1993) was one of the most prominent British historians of the twentieth century. Not only was he a historian but a communist activist, and his insights into the nature and function of history provide interesting answers to some of the most fundamental questions of the discipline. Should one study history solely for its own sake or for its practical use? If one studies history for its present use, how truthfully can one recover the past? Every historian is inevitably biased, but to what extent do they impose their own values and writing styles into the meaning of history?

An insight into Thompson’s early life reveals that he was, first and foremost, a leftist and an activist. He was born in England in 1924 to ardent critics of British imperialism. Thompson followed in his parents’ footsteps[1], joining the British Communist Party in 1942 while a student at Cambridge. Later, he fought in the World War II to fight Fascism in Europe. After the war, Thompson married Dorothy Towers in 1948, also a devoted communist, who was his political and intellectual equal. The Thompsons lived a fulfilling but financially constrained early married life in Halifax, England. Both Edward and Dorothy worked part-time jobs and relied extensively on family to help support their children. Edward worked as a professor in adult education at the University of Leeds, hoping to convert them into socialists. This teaching post was more than a job to Edward; it was another way to transform society. The Thompsons used almost all of their extra money to finance communist activities with which they were both heavily involved. In the 1950s, he was head of the Halifax Peace Committee, editor of Region of Peace (a local leftist journal) and participated in grass-roots activities, such as collaborating with the local working class movement[2]. Miraculously, the Thompsons’ idealism would never fade, even with their subsequent break with the British Communist Party. In fact, the years only seemed to increase their dedication to the movement. In 1956, Edward and Dorothy Thompson resigned from the British Communist Party. Increasingly, they increasingly had become disgruntled by the Communist Party’s attempts to exert their influence among people who were not affiliated with the Party. However, the biggest disappointments came after the February 1956 announcements of the atrocities under Stalin’s regime and the subsequent suppression of the anti-Stalinist activities of the Hungarian working class. By the end of that year, little hope remained for widespread support of the British Communist Party. The Thompsons and seven thousand other members would resign from the British Communist Party in 1956. A few years later Edward Thompson and John Seville published The New Reasoner, a journal for disgruntled communists[3].

Thompson’s departure from British Communist Party politics and its brand of Marxist orthodoxy led him to socialist humanism as a counter to Stalinism that he had come to regard as theory that denied the creative agency of human labour and the values of the individual as an agent in historical process. Stalinism, which was allegedly Marxist theory in practice, failed to implement the ideology’s inherent humanity. Stalinism eliminated values from the political sphere and feared independent thought. Through Stalinist practices, Marxism became an ideology that led to suffering, death, and destruction. The Thompsons eventually joined the mainstream Labour Party in the 1960s and allied themselves with some of the more radical factions. Although the Thompsons remained radicals and not Labour reformists, joining the Labour Party entailed no contradiction. The Thompsons, who abhorred violence, espoused a peaceful revolution within the system and through the ballot box. Unlike some of his contemporaries who changed ideologically to embrace capitalism, Thompson would later speak out against both superpowers during the height of the arms race.

Approaches to History

There is little to distinguish Thompson’s views as an activist from his views as a historian. Just as Thompson realised the need to modify the strict Stalinist interpretation of communism, Thompson also understood the need to reinterpret Marxism on a theoretical level for the purposes of historical writing. Thompson rejected the notion that history must conform to theory. For Thompson, being a Marxist historian simply meant relying on a loose body of theory, which could be modified and reinterpreted. History must not be studied to uphold overarching philosophies. Thompson says that

History is not a factory for the manufacturer of Grand Theory…Its business is to recover, to explain and to understand its object—real history.’[4]

Nevertheless, he had faith in historical materialism as an ‘interpretive historical category.’[5] Thompson believed that Marx and Engels had not originally intended for their theories to seem so static, but they were so caught up in developing their ideas that Marxism eventually seemed necessarily inert[6].

Thompson thought that it was best to overcome these synchronic portrayals society by presenting the complexity of human interactions and relationships. He was quite critical of disciplines such as anthropology, which attempt to study human development through a ‘series of stills…each of which shows us a moment of social time transfixed into a single eternal pose.’[7] Instead, Thompson proposed that one should study each second of humanity as though it were ‘...not only a moment of being but also a moment of becoming…Not only is each present moment intricately and necessarily linked to the past and future—a single still could never capture the complex dynamics of human relations and conditions.’[8] It is most important to acknowledge that a historical moment is comprised of an innumerable amount of diverse conflicts, interests, and persuasions. One cannot completely and accurately convey every aspect of even a single historical moment.

Thompson did not believe that Marxist theory was ‘true’ or ‘complete’ in itself but that the ideas derived from this school of thought explain history better than other ideological schools; he felt as though Marxist theory was the closest approximation to the truth[9]. Thompson embraced Engels’ view that theories, understood as only approximation of reality, are not necessarily false when they fail to encompass the complete truth. Theories simply help to make sense of reality, and they should not be discarded, only adjusted and amended to fit historical evidence[10]. In his preface to The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson suggests that there are definite parallels or a unifying ‘logic’ among different social movements, but since nothing ever happens in exactly the same way, there can be no law[11]. In the constructions of historical concepts, it is often hard to generalize. Historians must form ‘expectations’ rather than strict ‘models,’ and they must always allow great flexibility for irregularities, for there are always exceptions to the rule. Despite Thompson’s elasticity in theoretical matters, he did not seek to eliminate theory so much as postmodernists would suggest and only believed in modification of theories rather than a complete obliteration of them. Also, Thompson failed to tackle such issues as linguistic turn or the Derridean ‘metaphysics of presence,’ and his works would never satisfy a postmodernist critique. In response to such challenges, Thompson maintained that ‘the appeal is not (or is rarely) to a choice of values, but to the logic of the discipline. But if we deny the determinate properties of the object, then no discipline remains.’[12]

As a historian, Thompson was an empiricist believing in the ability of historians to reveal the past if they were honest about their motivations and intentions. Thompson thought that the past was subject to an infinite multitude of variables; the historian should attempt to piece these variables together into a collective whole. He was often defensive about the perceived inadequacies of history as a discipline, and in his article ‘Historical Logic,’ Thompson said, ‘Our knowledge may not satisfy some philosophers, but it is enough to keep us occupied.’[13] Thompson argued that history could not be held to the same standards as the sciences. Further Thompson stated

History never afford the conditions for identical experiments; and while, by comparative procedure, we may observe somewhat similar experiments in different laboratories (the rise of the nation-state and industry), we can never reach back into those laboratories and impose our own conditions, and run the experiment through once again. [14]

History, therefore, necessitates its own logic and criteria to be evaluated. The human condition is impossible to generalize, and it is always in flux with contradictions existing in every second. In Thompson’s own notion of ‘historical logic,’ a historian could attain relatively objective knowledge by undergoing an ‘arduous preparation’ and research to arrive at a ‘dialogue’ between successive hypotheses and historical evidence. Thus, information is deemed to be ‘true’ via historical logic if nothing proves it false. A hypothesis is true if it works well enough with the historical evidence to ‘prove’ the outcome at hand. After the historian arrives at this ‘objective knowledge,’ then the second part of this process is for the historian to assign the information a special significance. However, Thompson stresses that it was essential for historians to uncover the truth (though it will inevitably be incomplete) to the very best of one’s ability first. Any new and contradictory piece of data must be taken into account. Bess says about Thompson, ‘He saw no reason why rival explanations could not be fruitfully compared with each other, with an eye both to the internal coherence and to the way in which they confronted ‘fresh and inconvenient evidence.’’ The more accounts and interpretation the historian has, the better he or she can come to a fuller understanding of the subject. After the historian feels comfortable and confident in his or her discoveries, only then should the historian impose his or her own meaning and importance to the matter[15].

Likewise, in evaluating historical knowledge, there are also two levels of contemplation. The first phase is the ‘listening’ phase, in which the historian attempts to understand the situation as objectively as possible. Most importantly, the historian must try to comprehend the events in terms of the subject. In the preface to The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson says about potential criticisms of the subjects, ‘But they lived through these times of acute social disturbances and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experiences; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned, in their own lives, as casualties.’ However, to be made useful to the present, the historian should review the circumstances and then evaluate them in terms of his or her own standards. The lessons from the past are still often relevant today. Thompson says that the West often touts its own values and ideals but forget about the social evils that were never remedied. Moreover, peoples in other areas of the world may successfully prevail over the challenges that the West failed to overcome. The coexistence of these two kinds of aims—accuracy and advocacy—did not trouble Thompson, for he believed that a conscientious writer could distinguish the two and assign each to its own appropriate moment.


[1] On Thompson’s father see, Mary Lago ‘India’s Prisoner’: A Biography of Edward John Thompson 1886-1946, (University of Missouri Press), 2001. Edward John Thompson, novelist, poet, journalist, and historian of India, was a liberal advocate for Indian culture and political self-determination at a time when Indian affairs were of little general interest in England. As a friend of Nehru, Gandhi, and other Congress Party leaders, Thompson had contacts that many English officials did not have and did not know how to get. Thus, he was an excellent channel for interpreting India to England and England to India. Thompson first went to India in 1910 as a Methodist missionary to teach English literature at Bankura Wesleyan College. It was there that he cultivated the literary circle of Rabindranath Tagore, as yet little known in England, and there Thompson learned of the political contradictions and deficiencies of India’s educational system. His major conflict, personal and professional, was the lingering influence of Victorian Wesleyanism. In 1923, Thompson resigned and returned to teach at Oxford. Interest in South Asia studies was minimal at Oxford, and Thompson turned increasingly to writing Indian history. That work, and his unique account of his experiences in the Mesopotamian campaign in World War I, supply a viewpoint found nowhere else, as well as personal views of literary figures such as Robert Graves and Robert Bridges. Thompson was also a major influence on the work of his son.

[2] Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, (Verso), 1994, pp. 50-65.

[3] Ibid, Bryan D. Palmer, Objections and Oppositions, pp. 72-73.

[4] E. P. Thompson, ‘Historical Logic,’ in The Essential E. P. Thompson, edited Dorothy Thompson, (New Press), 1993, p. 454.

[5] Ibid, p. 458.

[6] Ibid, pp. 464-467.

[7] Ibid, p. 455.

[8] Ibid, p. 455.

[9] Ibid, p. 452.

[10] E. P. Thompson, ‘Marxism and History,’ in The Essential E. P. Thompson, p. 461.

[11] E. P. Thompson, ‘Preface from The Making of the English Working Class’ in The Essential E.P. Thompson, pp. 4-7

[12] E. P. Thompson, ‘Historical Logic,’ in The Essential E. P. Thompson, p. 449.

[13] Ibid, p. 458.

[14] Ibid, p. 455.

[15] Ibid, pp. 447-450.

No comments: