Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Homage to E.P. Thompson

Another fascinating post over at Reading the Maps about the experience of 'life writing' (or undertaking biographical research, in this case for a phd) about the great Marxist historian E.P. Thompson, and the importance of 'dialoguing with the past'. Among other things he remembers asking Thompson's friend and former member of the Communist Party's Historian's Group John Saville about the anti-Stalinist George Orwell ('John nearly jumped out of his chair, exclaiming "George Orwell – he was a shit! A real shit!" But when I asked why Orwell was a shit, John could only reply "I’m sorry, I know I should remember why Orwell was a shit, but I don’t. He was a shit though."), but the post as a whole is a joy to read. This is an extract:

'It is hard to believe now, but EP Thompson never intended to become a historian, and didn’t even consider himself a historian until at least halfway through his remarkable life. As a young Communist in the years after World War Two, Thompson joined the party’s literary organisation, not the legendary group of historians that included Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and John Saville. Until the late 1950s, at least, Thompson considered his main vocation to be poetry. Thompson came to history accidentally, as a result of his research into the great English painter, poet, and designer William Morris.

Thompson was a huge fan of Morris, and in the late '40s and early '50s he was appalled by the way that both sides of the Cold War were turning the man into a weapon in the battle between Moscow and Washington. Moscow’s allies in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain claimed Morris as a communist, even though Morris advocated a decentralised, democratic form of socialism that had little in common with the society Stalin was creating in the Soviet Union. Conservatives in the West, on the other hand, saw Morris’ socialism as a childish mistake, which should be discussed separately from his art and literature.

The fight over Morris reflected the politicisation of the past during the Cold War. When George Orwell wrote "he who controls the past controls the present" he might have been describing the mindset of the ideologists of Soviet communism and Western capitalism, who were determined to reinterpret the past to justify their poliical positions.

Thompson dived into the archives, and found the real William Morris there. The result was a nine-hundred page biography, which was published in 1955, at the height of the Cold War. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary failed to satisfy either communists or conservatives, but in the more tolerant climate of the 1970s it was adjudged a classic, and reprinted. Today it remains a much-loved book.

‘When I wrote William Morris...the material took hold of me’ Thompson once said. Throughout his career as a historian, Thompson emphasised the importance of careful research amongst primary sources - of 'listening' to the voices left in letters, diaries, court records, and even the reports of spies. In a 1976 interview he explained that:

I think it is like being a painter or a poet. A poet loves words, a painter loves paint. I found a fascination in getting to the bottom of everything, in the sources themselves...[the scholar] has got be listening all the time. He should not set up a book or a research project with a totally clear sense of what he is going to be able to do. The material itself has got to speak to him. If he listens, then the material itself will begin to speak through him. And I think this happens.

Thompson’s argument that the scholar should not begin a research project with a completely clear idea of where he or she wants it to go is an important clue to his practice as a historian. For Thompson, documents like letters, diaries, and court transcripts mustn’t just exist to furnish prefabricated arguments with convenient examples and quotes - they must be allowed, or rather enabled, to speak to us, to challenge the prejudices we bring to them and, where necessary, to force us to change our interpretations of the past.'

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At 10:01 pm, Anonymous Grim and Dim said...

Thompson's Morris is a very fine book and should be read. However, two small reservations.

Thompson's earliest essay on Morris is in the symposium published by Arena on defending British culture under the editorship of Sam Aaronovitch in 1952. Thompson's account here very much fits into the CPGB line of defending British culture against Americans and other nasty foreigners.

The 1970s version is not a "reprint" but a new edition which omits some of the most Stalinist formulations from the 1955 edition, but also accommmodates to the Popular Front line Thompson was pursuing in the niclear disarmament movement.

At 3:54 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

Cheers comrade for the clarification, and can I take this opportunity to say that it is so good more of your back catalogue of writings and book reviews are up on the MIA - I read your 1970/1 pieces for the ISJ on Sartre a while back - great stuff.

At 10:57 pm, Blogger maps said...

Hi folks,

thanks for the comments. I've replied on my blog.



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