E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left
Essays and Polemics
Edited by Cal Winslow
London:Lawrence & Wishart / New York: Monthly Review Press, 2014.
Paperback. 333p. ISBN 978-1583674437. £14.33
Reviewed by Evan Smith
Flinders University, Adelaide
2013 was the twentieth anniversary of the death of E.P. Thompson, as well as the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his breakthrough work, The Making of the English Working Class. With this anniversary, there have been several special journal issues, edited collections and monographs published in celebration of Thompson and this book. Sometimes overlooked as part of an out-of-vogue historical method, ‘history from below’, Thompson’s 1963 examination of the emergence of the English working class in the mid-to-late Georgian period has been rediscovered by a new generation of historians who are now reading the work through the lens of postcolonial, gender and transnational history (at the very least). But Thompson’s influence on British history and politics goes back further than this and he was an instrumental figure within the first new left in Britain. This collection focuses on this fruitful period when Thompson was arguably at his most politically charged, writing in the aftermath of the events of 1956 and the shifting terrain of the Cold War world.
From the late 1940s to 1956, Thompson was a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He joined because of the anti-fascism and Popular Frontism promoted by the Party during the Second World War. As a Party member, he was involved in the CPGB’s cultural affairs, becoming involved in the Writers’ Group and the Historians’ Group. Within these circles, he met several well-known writers and historians, including Raymond Williams, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm and most importantly, John Saville. Following the ‘secret speech’ by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (where the crimes of the Stalin era were discussed), there was much debate in the CPGB about its former uncritical loyalty to the Soviet Union. Feeling that the Party leadership were suppressing open discussion on the topic, Thompson and Saville published the self-printed journal, The Reasoner, which became a forum for internal dissent amongst Party members.
After being reprimanded by the Party leadership for the non-sanctioned publication, Thompson and Saville quit the CPGB in late October 1956 as the Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary. The third and final issue of The Reasoner contained their resignation articles and condemned the actions of the USSR. The first chapter in this collection, ‘Through the Smoke of Budapest’, was originally published in this last issue of The Reasoner and this is the first time that it has been available since 1956. The inclusion of this searing indictment of Stalinism (in both the USSR and Britain) makes this a worthwhile collection by itself, but also includes other significant pieces from Thompson’s early new left period.
Thompson and Saville’s first venture after leaving the Communist Party was to establish the journal The New Reasoner. Subtitled ‘A Quarterly Journal of Socialist Humanism’, The New Reasoner was important for bringing together those who had left the CPGB with other left-wing thinkers, primarily attached to the left of the Labour Party. Both Thompson and Saville did not denounce communism or Marxism, but promoted the idea of socialism as a living entity, organically created through co-operation and the hope for a better future. This led to Thompson penning the influential two-part article, ‘Socialist Humanism’, included in this collection. With this article, Thompson sought to reclaim Marxism from the official communism of the Eastern Bloc, buoyed by the political upsurge represented domestically and internationally by the peace movement, the anti-colonial movement and the nascent anti-apartheid movement (all represented in the pages of The New Reasoner).
The other important journal of this period was the Universities and Left Review, co-edited by Stuart Hall and Raphael Samuel (amongst others). Like The New Reasoner, the Universities and Left Review pushed for a revamped and youthful Marxism that was markedly different from the Soviet or Chinese models. Thompson also contributed to this journal, with two contributions included in this collection – ‘Socialism and the Intellectuals’ and ‘Commitment to Politics’. The theme of both of these pieces was to encourage the intellectuals attracted to the politics of the new left to remain engaged with a humanist form of socialism and committed to working class politics, although at the time, he defended the concerns of these intellectuals from criticisms of being too bourgeois or anti-materialist.
Both journals lasted until 1960, when they merged to become the first incarnation of the New Left Review, edited until 1962 by Hall, before being replaced by Perry Anderson. Thompson was an eager contributor to New Left Review in its early years, developing on the themes that he had first explored in The New Reasoner and the Universities and Left Review – socialist humanism, the emerging new social movements, such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100, and the cultural politics of the working class. In pieces such as ‘The Long Revolution’ and ‘Revolution Again!’, we can also see the ideas that appear in The Making of the English Working Class start to take shape. In these pieces, Thompson develops a narrative of revolt from below throughout English history, from the Peasants’ Revolt to the Levellers to Peterloo to the Chartists to the formation of the Trades Union Congress, and beyond.
But while he was heavily involved in the first new left, we also see through unpublished pieces such as ‘Where Are We Now?’ (submitted, but rejected by New Left Review after Anderson took over) that Thompson was at odds with the emerging second new left. While acknowledging the importance of socialist internationalism, Thompson raged against the ‘Third Worldism’ of the new editorial board of New Left Review, seeing it moving towards Maoism and revolutionary violence, rather than the socialist humanism that he had promoted over the last half-decade. This collection ends with a piece published in New Left Review in 1962, ‘The Free-Born Englishman’, which reveals the genesis of The Making of the English Working Class, and was also his last contribution to the journal until 1976.
Cal Winslow has put together a collection that shows the immense development of Thompson from ex-CPGB member to one of the leading Marxist historians of the 1960s, with a keen interest in combining historical practice with contemporary political activism. Often overlooked when compared with his later books and his debates with Louis Althusser and Lezek Kolakowski, Thompson’s work from the late 1950s and early 1960s is a rich trove of energised political writing, brimming with historical insight and wonderful prose. This collection should take proud place alongside other Thompson collections, Writing by Candlelight and Persons and Polemics.
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