in “revolution”, Edward Thompson wrote, “that the point of breakthrough is not a narrow political concept; it will entail a confrontation throughout society between two systems, two ways of life. In this confrontation, political consciousness will become heightened. . .” This is one of the most important formulations of Out of Apathy: but what, I wonder, does it mean to the Aldermaston generation, or the overwhelming majority of the Labour Party’s rank and file? Most members of the Labour Movement keep their party or trade union affiliation for election times or periods of crisis. We have, then, to consider how this “confrontation” may be brought about. Certainly it would be easier if Her Majesty’s Opposition began to oppose with the vigour that the Tories did between 1947 and 1951: or if the Labour Party outside Westminster began to talk, preach and practice socialist ideas between General Elections. But here I am concerned primarily with the confrontation in ideas.
It is worth reminding ourselves of Gramsci’s criticisms of Bukharin, who only wanted “to attack the weakest people on their weakest points. . . in order to win easy verbal victories.” Gramsci continued,
In political and military struggles it may be good tactics to break through at the point of least resistance. . . . On the ideological front, however, defeat of the auxiliaries and the minor followers has an almost negligible importance. . . . A new science achieves the proof of its efficacy and fertile vitality when it shows itself able to face the great champions of the opposing tendencies, when it resolves by itself the vital questions which they have posed and demonstrates incontrovertibly that such questions are false.
If we take this as our bench-mark, we have indeed a long way to go. Nevertheless, even in Britain—so averse to theory, so addicted to the philosophy of common sense—there is a considerable, if scattered, tradition on which to build. This is especially true of historical studies: for each generation looks afresh at its past history, and the elaboration of contemporary attitudes and values is as clearly seen in historical revaluation as in any other field of intellectual effort.
The socialist historian, like the socialist intellectual in general, has two separate but closely related tasks; the first is to develop a wide ranging polemic, and the second is the enlargement and extension of knowledge in his own field. At the present moment, the greater need is for polemic, for in no other country are the mass of intellectuals so effectively assimilated within the liberal-conservative tradition. Of course, intellectual combativeness is not to be confused with shrill dogmatism. What is required is a continuing controversy in all fields, taking apart the judgments and values, ideas and facts of our society, explaining their meaning and relation to the whole. This is the intellectual “confrontation” which Edward Thompson is asking for.