In a voice choking with anger, Edward Thompson has denounced the historical and theoretical work on British society developed in this review. In twenty years of public life, no other group or individual has earned the kind of unprovoked attack he has launched over some fifty pages of the Socialist Register 1965. Certainly, no opponent on the Right has ever aroused this fixity of passion and rancour. It has been reserved, apparently, for fellow-socialists.
The enterprise itself is a consistent one. It is an attempt to demonstrate that every major thesis on British society advanced in these pages in the last two years is incorrect or malign. Not a single concession that anything true or new might have been said mars the uniformity of the refutation. Yet if the essays Thompson denounces are so devoid of truth or interest, why was it necessary to devote 25,000 words—the longest essay this professional historian has ever written—to demolish them? Lack of generosity rarely pays, in intellectual life. By denying any merit or value to the theses he attacks, Thompson has merely rendered his own case suspect. When did banal error last provoke such an enraged, prolonged assault?
The tone of The Peculiarities of the Englishfootnote1 is all the more regrettable since—with all its faults—this essay represents the most considerable intellectual effort Thompson has so far made to think the English experience as a whole, and contains passages of great eloquence. It will remain an important moment in the slow growth of the English Left towards an integral consciousness of its history and society. The pity is that this authentic contribution to a dialogue which concerns us all, should have been warped by paranoia and bad faith. Analyses of real power and insight are constantly compromised by a framework of virulent travesty and abuse. For the method of attack which gives its form to the whole essay is all too familiar from the worst periods of the Left’s past: it amounts simply to a systematic misrepresentation and caricature of the adversary’s position, followed by a self-righteous ‘rejection’ of it. Thompson launches his onslaught under the sacred sign of ‘empiricism’—as opposed to our allegedly doctrinaire preconceptions. The irony is that, in this case, Thompson’s own attention to empirical fact does not even extend to the elementary discipline of a careful, scrupulous reading of the texts he is discussing. Nothing could be less empiricist than the treatment he accords them. The whole structure of his essay is, in fact, built on a sequence of fundamental distortions of what we have written. Some of these derive from simple blunders, others—less excusably—from reckless falsification. Together they form a coherent, intelligible pattern which it will be one of the purposes of this reply to try to explain. For a misunderstanding on the scale involved here is unlikely to be a mere personal aberration. It reveals something about the culture and politics of all of us on the Left, and the state of communication between different generations within the same movement.
It will be best at the outset to state starkly the scope of Thompson’s travesty of the theses developed by Tom Nairn and myself in the essays with which he is concerned. It is uniquely comprehensive. Thompson succeeds, in effect, in the feat of simultaneously caricaturing the status, substance, character and purpose of our work. The result is to make it appear in most important respects as not merely other than, but diametrically opposed to, what it in reality is.
The first, and most sweeping, misrepresentation is Thompson’s treatment of our exploratory essays as if they were exhaustive histories of England since 1600. This allows him innumerable occasions for pious indignation at our ‘schematism’ and ‘abstraction’, for stern homilies on the importance of ‘empirical facts’, and—last but not least—complaisant allusions to the (higher) calling of an academic historian. Thus the reader learns the portentous truth that ‘minds which thirst for a tidy platonism very soon become impatient with actual history’; he is warned against ‘schematic melanges’, ‘attempts to short-cut analysis’, ‘exercises in theoretical virtuosity’, and the ‘fatal blindness of the Anderson-Nairn critique of empiricism’.footnote2 The true path of intellectual
Could any statements be more explicit? Thompson’s elephantine homilies are, in other words, wholly beside the point. He has chosen to treat a 10,000 word article as if it were a Cambridge History. This is not pedantry, it is a deliberate refusal to respect the stated and qualified intentions of a writer. Anything can be discredited by this technique. One has only to ask oneself, how would the Communist Manifesto emerge from this kind of treatment? It is easy to imagine the apoplectic indictment of an academic historian who shared Thompson’s method of argument, without his political past. Was there ever a document so brazenly ‘schematic’, so irresponsibly ‘typological’, so given to treacherous ‘theoretical virtuosity’, so evidently revealing ‘imperfect historical preparation’? The lumbering demonstration of all the historical facts Marx and Engels omitted or over-simplified would doubtless end with the virile maxim that ‘every real historical situation arises from a particular equilibrium of forces. . .’footnote5
The step from caricature of general intentions to caricature of specific theses is not a long one after this. Thompson takes it with aplomb. He makes no attempt to criticise our theses on the terrain on which they were explicitly situated—that of a discussion of ‘the global evolution of the class structure’ of modern England: this would involve proposing a