it would, I think, be a pity if Edward Thompson’s discussion of the possibility of social revolution were to be taken as the authentic voice of the New Left—as right-wing critics of Out of Apathy already seem to be doing. In attempting to avoid the danger of falling between the stools of reformist Fabianism, whose intellectual shoddiness he deplores, and cataclysmic Marxism, whose sterility he rejects, he has had little more success than his numerous predecessors in this difficult enterprise. Mr. Thompson clearly believes in revolution, but in condemning the “explosive negatives of class antagonism” he is cutting the ground from under his own feet. The only really plausible theory of social revolution is precisely the one that depends inextricably on class antagonism. Mr. Thompson is, of course, aware of this central difficulty, but the best he can do is the not very convincing device of a “breakthrough” which, once achieved, will generate its own dynamic. What, then, is to provide the dynamic for the breakthrough?
Mr. Thompson is rightly concerned with the failure of socialist writers to deal adequately with the problems of the transition from capitalism to socialism. This criticism can, I think, be extended beyond contemporary Labour thinking as expressed by Messrs. Strachey, Crosland, Crossman. Socialist theory in general has always suffered from a similar weakness, perhaps because of the relative absence of serious attempts to imagine the nature of the society to which the transition is to take place. In differing ways, this problem afflicts both Marxism and reformism, the latter because it is too ready to take the present social framework for granted, the former because it is interested too much in social revolution to the exclusion of social analysis.
The great strength of Marxism lies not in its “scientific” character, its philosophic profundity, or its sociological accuracy, but rather in its apocalyptic quality. The Marxists, and not the Fabians, are the real descendants of the “utopian” socialists whom Marx and Engels were so sure they had superseded. The withering away of the state which is to take place in the postrevolutionary epoch depends on the elimination of the important social conflicts that make the state a necessity in all societies except those living under primitive communism. It is in the eradication of such conflicts,
This fundamental other-worldliness of Marxism is one of the reasons for its persistent neglect of practically all aspects of the world we live in, apart from a curious brand of teleological economics. Mr. Thompson has not, I think, been able to free himself from this attitude, though his article makes passing references to some sociological questions, and he does attack the orthodox denial of the value of all social reforms. However, it is necessary to go much further. Socialism originated as a protest against industrialisation, which can easily take other-worldly forms, but it also was, and remains, a movement for social and political equality in the here and now. Its chances of gaining a public hearing and of effecting positive changes in the structure of British society depend heavily on its continued activity and success in exposing the manifold and complex inequalities and injustices of our society; some of these, the result of capitalism; some inherent in all industrial communities; and some characteristic of Britain in particular.
Until recently, Socialists have not been particularly concerned to distinguish between these distinct factors.