Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Luk√°cs

Monday, February 13, 2006

'Once more unto the breach...'

The late great Peter Cook as seen in Blackadder - I got bored of pictures of EP Thompson

Following our earlier exchange about 'the problem of nationalism' in the members of the British Communist Party Historians Group (1946-1956), Maps has replied with 'A couple of quick comments on "History from Below"', to which I am grateful, though I remain unconvinced.

His first comment is a response to my argument that, as he puts it, 'the nationalism which was part and parcel of Popular Frontism is offset by the efforts of some (alleged) members of the History from Below school to study non-British subject matter, and subjects that show the dark side of British behaviour abroad. Snowball mentions Eric Hobsbawm, who is famous for his global history of the twentieth century, and John Saville, who has studied the effects of British imperialism.' Maps argues that 'I don't understand the logic of this point, because I don't see how the mere fact that a historian has studied a non-British subject, or a darker side of British history, can make his or her method and conclusions immune from British chauvinism. To use one of an enormous number of possible examples: EP Thompson's father wrote extensively about Indian culture and history, and about the darker side of of British colonialism in India, but that has not stopped many Indian scholars from considering him the purveyor of a patronising, Anglophile view of their world.'

This is all very true, but whatever the merits of this argument with respect to say, Thompson's father, I don't think it fits for the Communist historians in question themselves. Indeed, the Communist historians often themselves drew attention to this problem of a 'patronising, Anglophile view'. Maps may like to ignore the work of Victor Kiernan, but in 1969 Kiernan devoted a whole book, The Lords of Human Kind, to tracking the historical development of such very views.

Maps makes his second point after quoting from EP Thompson's 1963 Preface to The Making of the English Working Class:

"[T]he greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialisation, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or
Africa, yet be won."

Maps argues that 'Thompson seems in danger here of presenting English economic and social development as the model for the history of the developing world in the second half of the twentieth century. While he hopes for a different outcome to political conflicts in the developing world, he sees the type of development going on there as fundamentally similar to that taking place in the world of his book. The problem with such a view is that it takes the contingencies of one country's history and makes them into a schema for other countries...What was ignored was the fact that countries like Egypt and Guinea had developed in a very different way, thanks to the weight of the imperialist exploitation imposed on them by 'old' bourgeois countries like France and Britain. What had been possible in the eighteenth and nineteenth century was no longer possible in the twentieth.'

I think Maps is guilty of trying to read too much into one passage in the Preface here. What Thompson is arguing in the Preface strikes me as fundamentally true - much of the Third World is going though industrialisation that while of course in many ways different does share certain similarities with the English experience - and moreover all Thompson notes is that it is 'analogous in many ways'.

Maps's final idea is therefore that Thompson was guilty of implicit support when 'the Soviet Union and its allies were busy scouring the Third World for 'national-bourgeois revolutions', like the one France enjoyed in 1789 and Britain could have enjoyed in 1832. Communists in Western colonies were being urged to fight for independence by forging alliances with a motley mixture of opportunist military leaders and disaffected members of local comprador bourgeoisies. The likes of Nasser and Sekou Toure were being hailed as revolutionaries on Pravda's World News pages'. Yet Thompson's focus seems to me to be directing us towards looking for 'the making of the working class' as an independent force in those countries, which seems to lead in the opposite direction to a Stalinist schema. This may be a utopian strategy, 'not possible in the twentieth century' as Maps seems to suggest - but it is a lot closer to Marx with his insistence that 'workers of all countries, unite!' than to Josef Stalin.

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At 2:33 am, Blogger maps said...

Hi Snowball,

one way of judging the relevance of Edward John's to Edward Palmer's views on imperialism would be to put their opinions on Indian decolonisation side by side.

There seems very little difference between Thompson snr and Thompson jnr, on this score: both saw the Indian Congress party as the main instrument of Indian independence, and both felt close to the policies pursued by Nehru (who was a friend of Edward John's) before and after independence.

Edward Palmer always defended his father's views on imperialism, and on British India: in his 1975 interview with MAHRO, which was issued as a booklet caled A Vision of History, Edward described his father as 'a very tough liberal' and an opponent of imperialism. In 'Alien Homage', his account of his father's relationship with Tagore, Thompson goes in to bat for his father against the Indian critics who have seen him as patronising and insufficiently anti-imperialist.

Moscow's and the CPGB's support for the Indian Communist Party's alliance with Congress (an alliance that ensured the subordination of the bulk of Indian organised labour to the leaders of the national bourgeoisie represented in Congress) would have met with little argument from either Thompson.

Edward's attitude toward Congress contrasts starkly with his criticisms of several more radical, class-conscious national liberation movements in the Third World. He was fiercely critical of Fanon, whom he considered insufficiently respectful towards the First World left and labour movement, and he condemned what he felt was a cult of violence in Sartre's writings on national liberation.

Thompson maintained a distance from the movement against the Vietnam War and was uncomfortable with the demand for 'Victory to the Viet Cong' raised by the Committee for Vietnam.

To pick up on another of your points: Thompson's activities in the 80s with CND and END cannot really be assimilated to the politics of socialist internationalism, because they came after an embittered Thompson had abandoned engagement with the socialist left. When promoting CND and END Thompson could be quite critical of class politics, calling them outdated and unsuited for the 80s, and calling instead for a new ideology of 'human beingism'. (This while Thatcher was attacking the miners!)

At 8:56 am, Blogger Snowball said...


Thanks. I do still think there is this dicotomy between the historical work of say Thompson and Hobsbawm and their (often mistaken) political stances. I would still maintain that the 1963 preface you quote in The Making is not 'Stalinist'. However, your arguments about Thompson with respect to India and Algeria etc. are convincing - you clearly know a hell of a lot about EPT!


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