Skip to content

Response to Review of The Crisis of Theory: E. P. Thompson, The New Left, and Postwar British Politics

Thanks very much for passing on Penelope Corfield's charitable review of my tome on E. P. Thompson. I'm sure that my late friend Dorothy Thompson, who gave me a great deal of help with the preparation of the book, would have enjoyed the review – though she would have winced when she read Corfield's list of the typos I let sneak into the text, and then scolded me for my Kiwi sloppiness! 

You asked whether I had anything to say in reply to the review. I certainly wouldn't want to query any of Corfield's judgments, but her review spends most of its time looking back over Thompson's distinguished career, rather than in considering what Thompson's ideas might mean in the 21st century. I reject the notion that scholarly work should be connected mechanically to any sort of political programme – scholarship should always have as a primary motive a simple love of knowledge and thought – but I nevertheless believe that Thompson's ideas, and the tradition they represent, might have a salutary influence on contemporary politics.

I'm passionate, in particular, about Thompson's exposes of the savagery of forced industrialisation and 'modernisation-from-above', and about his endorsement of alternative types of development based on pre-capitalist cultural traditions and forms of organisation. My book tries to argue that Thompson's politics and histories were cut from the same rich cloth: whether he looked at 19th–century England in The Making of the English Working Class, the Soviet bloc under Stalin in his New Left articles, or the India of Sanjay and Indira Gandhi in the secret 1970s polemics my book brings to the surface, Thompson deplored the wholesale destruction of traditional ways of life and modes of production in the name of teleological notions of 'historical progress'.

In the introduction to The Making of the English Working Class Thompson observes that the battles which were lost in 19th–century England – peasants' battles against the enclosures, the Luddites' struggles against socially destructive technology, and the Chartists' struggles for a workers' republic – were still being fought in the 1960s, in many parts of the 'developing world', and might actually be won there.

In my part of the world the contest between capitalist modernisation and communal interests is very much alive. Last week I went to a sort of academic celebration organised by Auckland's Polynesian community: in between dancing stylishly to music from the Cook Islands and Samoa, a series of young Maori and Pasifika students presented academic papers (I shudder to think what would have happened if I had ever been required to dance before delivering an academic paper!).

Most of the students' papers dwelt on the clash between capitalist (aka 'Western') culture and economics and pre-capitalist (aka 'Polynesian') traditions and modes of production. One of the most electrifying presentations came from a young Samoan woman named Epifania Alesana, who recalled the long struggle of her people to prevent New Zealand colonial administrators breaking up and selling off communally-owned lands. Alesana went on to discuss IMF-inspired attempts to force land 'reform' on post-independence Samoa, the large-scale protests which have been organised in defence of customary land ownership, and the incompatibility between the notions of private property that prevail in nations like New Zealand and the Samoan way of life.

Anybody who has read Thompson's writing about the struggles over land in late 18th– and early 19th–century England or his indignant attacks on the dispossession of farmers in developing countries like India will immediately think of parallels with the situation in contemporary Samoa.

It is no coincidence that Thompson remains popular in many 'Third World' nations, that some of his ideas appear to have been taken up by radical governments in South America, and that a number of important Polynesian intellectuals, like the Tongan anthropologist 'Okusitino Mahina and the Samoan historian Malama Meleisea, have been drawn to his work.

As my book tries to show, though, Thompson doesn't only condemn a certain type of development – he advocates an alternative form, or alternative forms, of modernisation, drawing for his ideas on English radicals like William Morris and Blake and on the long-repressed later works of Marx. Like Blake, Thompson emphasises the role of the imagination in politics; like Morris, he insists that culture is as important to the left as economics, and that socialism must be something made by the people, not imposed upon them; like the later Marx, he shows that pre-modern societies contain many institutions and practices which can be preserved and adapted and used to make modernisation a humane rather than brutal process.

Since the meltdown of financial markets nearly three years ago market capitalism has become almost as discredited as the Stalinist systems of the old Soviet bloc, and many countries have witnessed turmoil not seen in decades. What is not always clear to the demonstrators on the streets of cities like Athens and Cairo and Madrid, though, is the shape that an alternative to the failed systems which dominated the second half of the 20th century might take. Thompson offers no magic blueprint, but he did spend nearly 40 years analysing and inveighing against both Stalinism and capitalism, and today he is one of the thinkers who can help us find an alternative to both paths. This is something I try to emphasise in my book – and it is something that Penelope Corfield's fair-minded and interesting review doesn't quite touch on.

My book grew out of a PhD thesis, which in turn grew out of a series of discussions on my weblog Reading the Maps. I've archived a few of these discussions, as well as the texts of talks I've given on Thompson and accounts I've given of the state of 'Thompson studies', at this page of my blog – http://www.readingthmaps.blogspot.com/2008/12/blog-post_17.html.