Book Review from the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left and Postwar British Politics. By Scott Hamilton, Manchester University Press, 2011
Many socialists would count EP Thompson's books among the best socialist books ever written, particularly William Morris: From Romantic To Revolutionary (1955), The Making of the English Working Class (1963) and The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978). Thompson's own politics however are less admirable. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1942 and was an active member until 1956 when he resigned as a result of the Russian military invasion of Hungary and Khrushchev’s 'secret speech' which denounced Stalin. To a significant extent, the rest of Thompson's political career can be seen as distancing himself from Stalinism. He later tried to justify his CP membership by claiming it was part of a 'Popular Front' against fascism. But Thompson did not appreciate that his CP membership would lend legitimacy to Stalin's reign of terror. His concern for the lives of ordinary workers did not extend to the Russian working class.
William Morris: From Romantic To Revolutionary showed that Morris was a revolutionary Marxist. This book was written and published while Thompson was in the CP and in it he claims that Morris's ideas were being realised in Stalin's Russia. In the Second Edition of 1977 this claim is removed. The Making of the English Working Class won huge critical acclaim and it is still widely used as a textbook. Thompson's book is an account of the formation of class consciousness, and in his 1980 Preface he argued that 'in the years between 1780 and 1832 most English working people came to feel an identity of interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs'. Some critics had complained that Thompson's analysis of class is too subjective and this forms a major theme of his The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. Among Thompson's targets was the 'Stalinism in theory' of Louis Althusser. For Althusser history was 'a process without a subject' in which specific circumstances determined human behaviour. For Thompson, on the other hand, the class struggle was the motor of history and so therefore he wrote about the experiences and consciousness of the working class.
Thompson was one of the self-appointed intellectuals who founded the New Left Review in 1960, and it is still published bi-monthly. It was conceived as the journal of the New Left who were opposed to Stalinism and Labour Party 'revisionism' (an open acceptance of capitalism). After an initial surge in interest provided by their work in Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, most of the New Left found their ideological home in the Labour Party. Thompson was involved with the Labour Party in the 1960s and re-joined in 1978. By the early 1980s CND was resurgent and Thompson was its main spokesperson, and he harangued large public meetings on the 'logic of exterminism'. He thought the superpowers were dragging the world towards an inevitable nuclear annihilation, a fatalistic way of thinking he once would have denounced as 'Stalinist'. Thompson died in 1993 but, as Hamilton shows, his books live on.