The death of Edward Thompson on 28 August takes from us the most eloquent voice on the British Left, a historian who transformed his craft, a writer of some of the best English prose of the twentieth century, a thinker who knew that ideas were not a world unto themselves and a man who, seeing extraordinary perils, raised the alarm, without counting the personal cost.
The British New Left of the fifties and sixties brought together a remarkable galaxy of talents but there can be no doubt that Edward Thompson’s contribution to the mixture was essential and distinctive. The New Left arose as a challenge to the conformism and apathy of Harold MacMillan’s ‘affluent society’, as a response to the political shocks of Hungary and Suez, as a movement seeking to reinvent the Left after the corruptions of social-democracy and the horrors of Stalinism, and as the socialist current within the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament—perhaps the first ‘new social movement’ of the postwar years. In the last issue of nlr Dorothy Thompson spoke of the international and local influences which formed Edward and herself as socialist intellectuals.
Edward Thompson’s father had been involved with the movement for Indian independence, his elder brother had died fighting with the Bulgarian partisans. Thompson was editor, with John Saville, of the dissident Communist journal The Reasoner, identified with the new oppositions to Stalinism in Eastern Europe. As the author of a biography of William Morris, first published in 1958, and a wea tutor in Yorkshire, he had a sense of an English anti-capitalist and working-class tradition which was at odds with the bland moderation and timid constitutionalism of the Labour Party. The New Reasoner, as the journal became following the expulsion of its editors from the Communist Party, carried reports on turmoil in the Communist world and philosophical debate on Alasdair Maclntyre’s theses on ‘the moral wasteland’ but it strove for an engagement with British politics. Because of his activist temperament and yearning for political movement outside the sedate world of parliamentary exchanges it was natural that Thompson should write a number of the keynote political articles and editorials in the early New Left Review, founded in 1960 as a somewhat uneasy fusion of The New Reasoner and the Oxford-based Universities and Left Review.
In nlr 6 Thompson wrote of the need ‘to break through our present political conventions, and help people to think of socialism as something done by people and not for or to people, by pressing in new ways on the ground. One socialist youth club of a quite new kind, in
Thompson’s characteristically ‘new left’ stress on popular self-determination and action within civil society did not imply anti-politics since he also spoke of the need to nourish a ‘democratic consciousness, of the people as against the oligarchs and (eventually) the system’. He also insisted that ‘The New Left is not the kind of movement that should be comforted by a fake Book of Answers; nor should it be the kind where the rank-and-file down below wait for “them” up top to hand down the only correct “line”. One part of our approach can never be broken down finally into any ten-point programme—how much of the values of sex equality or of community, or of the aspiration for a common culture, can be captured inside a set of specific proposals?’ For Thompson the large questions of peace or the quality of life were as likely to arouse a broader public, including the working class, as the more conventional economic demands of the labour movement. ‘The man who does not wish to wear a working-class cap, drink in a dreary Victorian working-man’s institute, and shop at a working-class shop, may see these as insignia of class segregation. . . .he may be more open to an appeal to the common good than to the “interests of the working class”, more responsive to a critique of the system as such and less concerned to defend a sectional interest within it.’
I quote these passages because they show Thompson striving to wed his own sense of the blockages within British society, and a somewhat wary respect for the cultural critique of his New Left colleagues, to the radical populist accents of his American friend C. Wright Mills. It is interesting that Thompson, who presented himself as the foe of American influences in English life, should have developed such a rapport with Wright Mills and been so sensitive to the themes of the latter’s controversial—but enormously influential—‘Letter to the New Left’, published in the issue of nlr immediately preceding the article quoted above, with its commendation of ‘direct non-violent action’ which ‘seems to be working here and there’, with its call for ‘realistic utopianism’, and even with its scepticism with regard to the ‘labour metaphysic’. No doubt the idiom of Painite radical democracy, and preference for putting theory to use, had something to do with this affinity.
The eclipse of the first cnd and the waning of the New Left Clubs was to belie the political hopes expressed by Thompson. As the early New Left theorists repeatedly observed there were also new constructions of the consumer, and new patterns of communication, which inhibited or diluted the development of collective identities and aspirations. Yet rereading Thompson’s articles from this period shows that he was indeed anticipating the spirit of a variety of ‘new left’ movements—movements which, notwithstanding his stress on direct action, were to be nourished in significant part by his own writings. Such movements developed more rapidly and widely in North America than in Britain and when they did so took forms which sometimes seemed to rupture or question the ‘common culture’ which Thompson and the early British New Left cherished. In the early sixties, the project of a New Left still awaited the social forces that might give it reality—and needed the benefit of the further elaboration it was to receive in the work of, amongst others, Edward Thompson. Thompson’s writings helped to locate impulses and traditions—and a language of address —with an extraordinary power to inspire the claim for ‘free speech’, to inform a challenge to hierarchy, paternalism and militarism, or to evoke ways in which the values of past struggles could infuse those of the present.