The Poverty of Strategy: E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, and the Transition to Socialism

By Matthews, Wade | Labour/Le Travail, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Poverty of Strategy: E.P. Thompson, Perry Anderson, and the Transition to Socialism


Matthews, Wade, Labour/Le Travail


THE QUESTION OF THE TRANSITION to socialism has plagued Marxists since the 19th century. This paper investigates how two prominent British socialists in the 20th century -- E.P. Thompson and Perry Anderson -- sought to answer the question "What is to be done?" In doing so it provides a revision of conventional histories of the New Left, arguing that there was far more continuity between the "first" and "second" New Left than has conventionally been supposed. And it suggests that this becomes evident in a comparison between the socialist strategy of Thompson and Anderson in the early-to-mid 1960s.

LA QUESTION DE LA TRANSITION au socialisme preoccupe les Marxistes depuis le 19e siecle. Cette these mene une enquete sur la facon dont deux socialistes britanniques remarquables au 20e siecle -- E.P. Thompson et Perry Anderson -- cherchaient repondre la question << Qu'est-ce qu'il faut faire? >> En faisant cela, la these prevoit une revision des histoires conventionnelles de la nouvelle gauche. Elle constate qu'il y a eu beaucoup plus de continuite entre la << premiere >> et la << deuxieme >> nouvelle gauche qu'il a ete conventionnellement suppose. Et elle suggere aussi que cette continuite est evidente dans une comparaison entre la strategie socialiste de Thompson et celled' Anderson du debut an milieu des annees 1960.

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"WHAT IS TO BE DONE?" The question has haunted socialists in the West since Marx and Engels hastily penned the Communist Manifesto in the frenetic months before the Europe-wide revolutions of 1848. For Marx, Britain, "demiurge of the bourgeois cosmos," (1) was not only the geographical and material locus of the development of historical materialism, it was also the key to a transition from capitalism to socialism. (2) Given the definite association that scientific socialism's creators had established between the accumulation of capital, the character of property relations, and the nature of the transformation of those relations, Britain automatically appeared as the solution to the problem of a transition to an imagined socialist future. (3) Yet, despite the scientificity of their practice, Marx and Engels waxed and waned on Britain's role as the necessary site of the explosion of the capitalist integument. (4) By 1870 Marx was arguing that the British working class, despite having everything materially neces sary for a social revolution, lacked the requisite "revolutionary passion" (5) to fundamentally transform capitalist relations of production. For Engels it was not only the necessary insurrectionary fervour they lacked: the British working class was also devoid of a "sense of theory." (6) Indeed, by the 1880s the intimate relationship between industrial development and class struggle and proletarian revolution, which had been so critical to the construction of historical materialism, appeared to be unravelling as the growth of a revolutionary consciousness lagged behind developing productive forces. A more fundamental contradiction at the centre of Marxist discourse, however, obscured these questions. In brief, it was never clear to Marx and Engels how a transition to socialism would be effected at all -- oscillating as they did between a conception of the transition as the product of the will of the working class and as a consequence (at times inevitable!) of the development of productive forces; alternating between a conception of their own intellectual practice as a "politics of revolution" and a "science of capitalism." (7) If they remained consistently ambivalent about the nature of the "new historic form," then they remained equally equivocal on how it would be realized. Would it be a consequence of the development of the productive forces or would it be the effect of developments outside of objective conditions working on the consciousness of the working class? Would objective economic conditions or subjective will form the fundamental constituent of a transition to socialism? …

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