Remaking E.P. Thompson

By Matthews, Wade | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Remaking E.P. Thompson


Matthews, Wade, Labour/Le Travail


Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: E.P. Thompson, the New Left and Postwar British Politics (Manchester 2010)

NUMEROUS BOOKS, SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, and journal articles on E.P. Thompson's scholarly work and legacy appeared soon after his death in 1993. (1) Since then, however, interest in Thompson has waned. The reasons for this are perhaps easily enough summarized. Today, Thompson's histories are viewed as old-fashioned, while his socialist politics are believed extinct. (2) Class is considered neither a fruitful concept of historical analysis nor an appropriate basis for an emancipatory politics. (3) Nuclear weapons proliferate, but no anti-nuclear movement grows up alongside their proliferation. Civil liberties are a minority, and increasingly "radical," interest in the age of the "war on terror." Internationalism, as ideology and practice, is the preserve of capital not labour. (4) At the beginning of the twenty-first century, then, Thompson seems out of place.

As a counter to this view, we now have Scott Hamilton's The Crisis of Theory: F.P. Thompson, the New Left and postwar British politics (Manchester 2010). (5) Far from out of place, Thompson, Hamilton argues, is a "contemporary figure," (6) even an "urgently relevant figure," (7) from whose political and intellectual activity we have much to learn. (8) This is particularly the case for socialists, Hamilton suggests, "forced to search in diverse places for alternatives to the dogmas of both Stalinism and old-fashioned social democracy." (9)

The question of relevance, however, is only briefly argued, and then unsatisfactorily, in the books' introduction and conclusion. At the center of The Crisis of Theory is a "remaking of E.P. Thompson" based on the idea of a break between Thompson's "early" and "late" writings. Before 1978 or so, Hamilton argues, there was an essential unity to Thompson's political and scholarly work grounded in a set of "hardcore beliefs" drawn from the "decade of heroes" (1936-46), when the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) "[offered] a bridge between the radical liberal tradition of the 'freeborn Englishman' and the twentieth-century struggle against fascism and decrepit capitalism." (10) Following a long period of crisis, Hamilton believes, this unity unraveled during the late 1970s as Thompson's politics became more and more irrelevant and "the burden of the past finally became too heavy to bear." (11) Thompson's final years, Hamilton concludes, were characterized by "intellectual decline" (12) and the "[abandonment of] all hope of realizing the vision that had sustained him since his youth." (13)

The Crisis of Theory illuminates this remaking through a contextual analysis of The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (1978), a collection of Thompson's more important historical and theoretical essays. According to Hamilton, "The Poverty of Theory" (1978) marks a breach between the "early" and the "late" Thompson. Other essays in the collection, he suggests, can be best read through the grid of his re-interpretation of Thompson's life. "Outside the Whale" (1959), a defence of 1930s communism against turncoat poets and writers, reflects the revolutionary confidence Thompson exhibited during the early years of the New Left; "The Peculiarities of the English" (1965), a polemic against New Left comrades, represents Thompson's move into political quietism, under influence of "English exceptionalism," following the breakdown of the original New Left; and "Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski" (1973), Hamilton believes, was Thompson's unsuccessful attempt to pull himself out of his self-imposed political isolation. (14) "The Poverty of Theory," Hamilton concludes, "[records] a fundamental break in Thompson's thought." (15) After, Thompson "was never able to connect his political and scholarly work in the old way, nor connect history with the present in the way that The Making of the English Working Class could do. …

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