Edward Palmer Thompson (1924-93): Historian, Neutralist, Marxist

Edward Palmer Thompson (1924-93): Historian, Neutralist, Marxist


People may or may not have a favorite Martian – although several are running for President this time around – but some of us do have a favorite Marxist. This takes a little explaining. After all, Marxism ought to be lying in ruins, its theoretical shambles obvious to all; and indeed Marxism is widely discredited, outside of universities and colleges, where it still has great appeal as the class ideology of the technobureaucracy.


Marxism, as Lenin said, has three sources: early French socialism, Hegel’s philosophy, and English political economy. It took a lot of welding and hammering to make of these a "system" – much less a predictive "science" – but the girth of the framework and the sheer effrontery of its founders convinced many people that this substitute world religion was the key to a radiant future. Despite incoming evidence of millions killed, they were legion who looked Marxism to emancipate and liberate mankind and wax our collective cars.


Unfortunately, much was wrong with the constituent parts of Marxism and the synthesis was hardly promising. The English political economy known to Marx and Engels embodied serious mistakes, only overcome in the "marginalist revolution" of the 1870s. Committed to fallacies which propped up his labor theory of value, Marx never cottoned on to the new economics. As for Hegel, he meant well, just wanting to repackage liberalism and western philosophy in a form suited to the genial, orderly Prussian estate system under "rational" bureaucracy. This was bad enough, but Hegel just had to proclaim a determinist vision of history, which – among other things – had been leading up to his philosophical system – a wonderful piece of egotism. How Marx’s grafting faulty economics onto that was of any help is an open question. Quite possibly, some career-building young scholar, years from now, will show that we are victims of bad translations and that the "young Marx" really meant to say "ode of induction," not "mode of production," and was thus chiefly interested in logothetic goat-songs and not what we thought at all. Here, at least, we would find relief from all those broken eggs, breakfast foods, railway timetables, and accusations of "petty bourgeois" deviltry, which adorn the Marxist literature.


But I am getting off the subject. The last prop of Marxism, early French socialism, is the most interesting, precisely because its paladins, the Count St. Simon and Auguste Comte, worked from – and screwed up – radical French laissez faire liberalism. These liberals taught that feudal magnates, state churches, standing armies, and bureaucracies distorted market outcomes in their own favor, causing "class conflict" based on political relations.1 The lesson was separation of economy and state. St. Simon and Comte decided that class conflict existed in the free market and thus a new class of experts – bankers, engineers, and (oddly) artists – was needed to supervise the new society growing up in western Europe.

This was a very handy doctrine for would-be state managers and it comes down to us in two forms, one based on Marx and the other – coming by way of Positivism and its successors – which is now everywhere ascendant. This ascendancy is the inner meaning of Francis Fukuyama’s famous "end of history." These days, the two streams are reuniting in a program of universal state social engineering.


So what, then, is the good news? It is that – forgetting their imposing metal sculpture – Marx and Engels could do rather good political analysis in the laissez faire liberal tradition, as Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte shows. This is also true of a number of recent Marxist historians such as Eugene D. Genovese, Perry Anderson, Raymond Williams, and Edward (E. P.) Thompson, who get above their raisin’, asking good historical questions about who stood to gain from past political actions. Often, having done good book-length political analyses, these writers restore themselves to orthodoxy by asserting that, in the end, the events described are explained by the all-wielding mode of production. Such exercises detract a bit from useful books.


It helped, of course, that the "Anglo-Marxist" historians threw off certain illusions about Soviet Russia. By the late fifties, the permanent cold war, the Hungarian invasion (1956), and revelations[!] about Stalin in Krushchev’s "secret speech" gave rise to serious discussion of "actually existing socialism" and to large-scale defections from the English CP. The late E. P. Thompson was among those seceding.

This was part of what made the new left "new" – on both sides of the Atlantic. Unlike some who abandoned "the God that failed," in the thirties, forties, or later, Thompson declined to affirm the total righteousness of the American empire and all its works. He did not reject socialism nor did he conclude that Marxism, as such, was used up. Instead, he chose to work within it, deploying that framework with a flexibility few have equaled.


Back in the 1790s, a Reverend Fawcett put Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France under one cover because, together, he said, they made a good book. (In the late 1960s, an American paperback publisher was seized with that same insight.) I sometimes think that Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, bound with some works of T.S. Ashton and Max Hartwell, would make a good book. Thompson was certainly wrong about the effect of industrialization on workers’ incomes; more or less conceding this, he stressed "qualitative" considerations in order to salvage Marx and Engels’s indictment of the industrial revolution. His reconstruction of artisan movements in their transition from constitutional/republican thinking to trade unionism and socialism is well worth reading, even if one rejects the perspective. He often noticed coercive uses of state power, which altered economic outcomes, but which others overlooked. And where conventional economic historians take wars as mere background, Thompson underlined their impact on people and questioned the wars’ very necessity. His study of the draconian Black Act (1723), which the Whig magnates passed to stop "poaching," convinced him that English law – with its language of rights and liberty – had achieved an existence "independent" of the mode of production.2 Despite the intentions of the hard-minded gentry, the workings of the law sometimes gave them fewer hangings than they wanted. In our day, it is the so-called "radical right" which is trying, on this side of the water, to rediscover the radical potential of English law.


What I find most endearing about Thompson is his running battle with U.S./Soviet orthodoxy during the last decade or so of the cold war. He was a founder of, and active participant in, the much-derided European "peace movement," working with such groups as END and CND, whose most famous "campaign" attempted to keep the Americans’ cruise missiles off British soil. His later writings mostly concern these efforts. See especially Beyond the Cold War (hereafter "BCW") and The Heavy Dancers (hereafter "HD").3

Back when the cosmic duel between the evil and not-so-evil empires seemed permanent, Thompson questioned whether a constant upward-ratcheting of nuclear "delivery systems" really kept the peace or whether it maximized the potential for disaster. The Reagan administration’s theatrics and creation of new "systems" led him to ask, along with thousands of other Europeans, whether it was time to ask the Americans and the Soviets both to pack up and get out of town. This seemed even more imperative, given the many Reagan "doctrines," especially the one holding that Europe was just a "theater" of any foreseeable nuclear exchange, war, lottery, mistake, whatever. Whether this was actually loonier than the previous MAD doctrine (Mutually Assured Destruction), I can’t say, but it made the Europeans a bit edgy.

Getting "ground zero" out of Europe involved attempts to by-pass Soviet bloc authorities and communicate with like-minded people in the east. It also involved trying to convince the tone-deaf US leadership that there were people in Europe and not just targets and hostages to great power maneuvering. This didn’t fly very well in some circles, and Thompson spent much time denying that he was "orchestrated" by the devious eastern bloc. Then he had to spend more time refuting Soviet bloc charges that he was "orchestrated" by the bourgeois-revanchist Yanks. I doubt that anyone orchestrated him, including the New Left Review. In that, he reminds of William Appleman Williams or Noam Chomsky – not sound on economics, but stalwarts on issues of war and peace.


"Determinism" and "exterminism" were main themes in Thompson’s polemics against the Reaganites and their British and European puppets. He came to believe that analysis of the inner logic of the two-empire confrontation, which tried to sideline all other views and interests, outweighed debate on its historical origins. Whatever the merits of Marxist theses on capitalist imperialism or western Marxist discussions of Soviet Russia as a failed socialism, the actually existing cold war transcended whatever origins such analyses revealed. "[T]he Cold War is now about itself. It is an ongoing, self-reproducing condition, to which both adversaries are addicted" (BCW, p. 175 [my emphasis]).

The problem was the two science-intensive military-industrial complexes and their insanely destructive weapons systems. In a sense, the US and the Soviet Union were their weapons systems. That was the logic put forward by the ghouls on both sides, who were mirror images of one another.


Theories of "deterrence" were secondary phenomena. The United States invented atomic weapons the better to kill big numbers of enemy civilians in Germany and Japan. (Germany collapsed too soon to enjoy them.) Only after Soviet Russia, too, had the bomb, did Pentagon thinkers begin deploying the "deterrence" rationalization for mass-producing what George Kennan called "the most useless weapon ever invented. It can be employed to no constructive purpose. It is not even an effective defense against itself" (quoted in BCW, p. 1). It was, however, useful for killing lots of civilians, if you happen to have crossed that moral threshold. (On the record, only one power has ever used one.)

Thompson brands deterrence "a pitiful, lightweight theory." "It is espoused," he continues, "in its pristine purity, only by a handful of monkish celibates, retired within the walls of centres of Strategic Studies. It cannot endure any intercourse with the actual world" (BCW, p. 3). Having once read Herman Kahn, who was as unreadable as his theses were "unthinkable," and Bernard Brodie (more readable), I tend to agree with Thompson. Whether western forces had "deterred" a Soviet attack on western Europe, all these years, was not demonstrable, and the role of nuclear weapons in this happy outcome even less so. Deterrence theory was back in vogue, and by pushing onwards to ever-new "worst-case scenarios," justified lunatic policy initiatives which made war more likely. Thompson coined the term "exterminism" to capture this iron "logic" (see HD, pp. 137-38). "Modern warfare is the ultimate negation of human agency," he writes, adding "[t]aboos against the massacres of non-combatants have already been broken beyond repair" (HD, pp. 192-93).

Soviet rationalizations and ideology were no better: "The ideology of ‘actually existing Socialism’ is nothing but patches and holes" (HD, p. 224). Along with other evils, Soviet Russia’s massive commitment of resources to its military-industrial complex worked against the introduction of market reforms. Getting well outside of easy Marxist assumptions, he asks "[c]an bureaucracies and states not have motives for arming?"(BCW, p. 48) And would this not apply to both empires?


But the main show was the American one. The new US initiatives in Europe amounted to running "a slow-playing Cuban missile crisis in reverse" (BCW, p. 36). Why anyone believed this would promote peace and security was hard to say. American posturing was, at best, boring, and, at worst, a threat to peace. Homing in on American neo-conservative dogma, Thompson wrote of "the pretence that America is not a race or nation at all, but… the universal Future" and the "arrogant claim to a universalism of virtues," with some sort of "prerogative to blast in at every door and base itself in any part of the globe in the commission of these virtues" (HD, p. 40). The Reagan team – men "with minds like delivery-systems, whose knowledge of Europe is minimal" – believed in the "white wizardry of Gandalf-figures such as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, or Al Haig," who were rescuing "confused little [European] hobbits" from the "evil kingdom of Mordor" (BCW, 114, 9).

Thompson quotes Caspar the Friendly Weinberger, who asserted that "there is no corner of the world so remote, no nation so insignificant, that it does not represent a vital interest of the United States." This is, says Thompson, "a chilling claim, when made by the War Minister of the most powerful nation ever know, fully capable of incinerating the earth" (HD, p. 253). Indeed it is.


The European reaction was boredom mingled with fear that these unhinged boy scouts with all their can-do know-how and hardware – and minimal cultural, historical, political, geographical (shall I stop?) knowledge – might well do something stupid. These, after all, were people who thought it "necessary" – and a good idea to boot – to put numberless miss-aisles on railway cars and roll them all over Utah and Nevada in a cosmic shell game to confuse those shifty Soviets.

What was needed, Thompson concluded, was a British and European declaration of independence from the Americans. The Americans resented any positive change based on European initiative. Hence, their intervention to "stabilize" the situation – that is, keep the cold war system intact – when Solidarnosc was first disturbing things in Poland. Europeans needed to take matters in hand, ignoring the outraged American yelps about "Finlandisation," "Austrianisation" or even "Swedenisation" (HD, pp. 339-40). He had a point: in the east, Finlandization would have been a real improvement, and I’ve never heard the Austrians complain about their sad fate, settled in 1955.

All this may now seem a bit unreal. The debate ended when the Soviet Union collapsed without consulting its co-sovereign. Poor NATO never showed its mettle in actual combat, at least not before its reason for existence withered away. It didn’t show much mettle even then. It did however demonstrate the possible drawbacks of a single-empire world, what with the Americans signing everyone up for instant NATO membership and matching credit card – with the exception of wicked nationalists, neo-fascists, and other bad actors. Europe may still need that declaration of independence. Still, a lot of folks wanted and needed the cold war. Maybe that’s why so much work is going into getting us another one.

Was Thompson "anti-American"? Not that I’ve noticed. He did ask, however, "for a reversion to good old-fashioned Middle American isolationism": "There is nothing wrong with authentic American nationalism, if it is concerned with America’s own cultural and historical traditions: but will it please go home and stay indoors?" (HD, p. 38) Not bad advice, really, and it seems very American to me.


[1] Ralph Raico, "Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes" in Yuri N. Maltsev, ed., Requiem for Marx (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1993), pp. 189-220.
[2] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966[1963]) and Whigs and Hunters (New York: Pantheon, 1975).
[3] E. P. Thompson, Beyond the Cold War: A New Approach to the Arms Race and Nuclear Annihilation (New York: Pantheon, 1982) and The Heavy Dancers: Writings on War, Past and Future (New York: Pantheon, 1985). Many of Thompson’s essays appeared in the New Left Review.

Read more by Joseph Stromberg