This essay from March 2015 rescues a subversive moment in the history of British Marxism, a moment which E.P. Thompson chose to forget. It was published on the Radical Sydney/Radical History blog,


As I was reviewing a new book on E.P. Thompson edited by Cal Winslow (E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics, Monthly Review Press, 2014) I remembered a small, invitation-only meeting in London in 1945 to hear a paper by Jack Lindsay. The memory was triggered by the similarity of ideas put forward by Thompson in 1957 with those in Lindsay’s account of what he said at that meeting. Also attending was Gordon Childe.

Jack Lindsay was an expatriate Australian, as was Gordon Childe. They had met in Brisbane’s socialist circles in 1919, but they were not in touch with each other again until 1945. By this time they were Marxists, and Lindsay had joined the British Communist Party. Childe – whose What Happened in History, 1942, was a best-seller for Penguin Books - was about to take up his appointment as Director of the London Institute of Archaeology. Lindsay – a well-known writer and publisher – was devoting himself to strengthening the progressive cultural upsurge of the 1940s.

Thompson in later years would be famous as the author of The Making of the English Working Class (1963). He was also, as Cal Winslow reminds us “a poet, tank commander, Communist, teacher, historian, founder of the New Left, public intellectual, spokesperson for European Nuclear Disarmament, and active socialist for over fifty years”. He wrote a novel and published several collections of his polemical essays in the 1970s and 80s.

Thompson’s ‘essays and polemics’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s remained unpublished until Winslow collected thirteen of them and wrote a thoughtful and sympathetic essay introducing them for his book. Winslow, an American union activist and historian, studied under Thompson at the University of Warwick, and took part in the 1970 occupation of the Vice Chancellor’s office where files were found revealing the close ties between local industry and the university. Thompson documented this in his book, Warwick University Limited (1971).

Winslow produced an excellent book. The essays hang together as proposals for, and responses to, the first New Left and as evidence of the intimate connection between Thompson’s historical writing and his politics. They provide a twofold intellectual history of those dramatic years. Thompson is powerful and elegant; Winslow is as passionate about intellectuals in socialist politics as Thompson was when he wrote these indispensable essays. But we need to understand what they built on.

It is now pretty well understood that Edward Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class (1963) in the grip of disgust with the mechanical materialism of ‘orthodox’ Marxism’. He was not the first to feel that way. The meeting in 1945 was organized by the British Communist Party’s Cultural Committee, and Jack Lindsay’s paper was a documented rejection of Stalin’s concept of ‘reflection’ in cultural matters (as in the formula that the ‘superstructure’ of ideas and art in a society simply reflected its economic ‘base’).

Lindsay argued that base and superstructure interacted, and that ‘spirit and consciousness were a necessary element in productive activity’. He prefaced his paper with a quote from Gordon Childe’s What Happened in History (1942): “The reckoning may be long postponed. An obsolete ideology can hamper an economy and impede its change for longer than Marxists admit.” Lindsay had sent Childe a copy of the paper; they corresponded about it; and before the meeting they had dinner together.

There was a furious attack on Lindsay at the meeting by the party’s Stalinists. The only person to support Lindsay was a young history student: Edward Thompson. Childe, who was not a member of the party and attended as Lindsay’s guest, diplomatically said nothing, but in History (1947) he would write: ‘a superstructure – institutions, faiths, ideals – is actually indispensable for the productive process itself. … Relations of production must … be lubricated with sentiment. To provide motives for action they have to be transformed in the human mind into ideas and ideals.’ Lindsay expanded his 1945 argument into a book, published in 1949 as Marxism and Contemporary Science, an attack on the vulgarization of Marxism by both Stalinists and anti-Marxists. A notable feature of the book is its attention to the question of Marxist morality, which would also become a theme in Thompson’s essays. A decade before the first New Left, Lindsay and Childe had breached the walls of ‘orthodox’ Marxism.

(There is a glimpse of this key moment of Marxist ideological rift and shared intellectual biography in Jack Lindsay’s ‘Foreword’ to Sally Green, Prehistorian – A Biography of V. Gordon Childe, 1981, pp xii-xiv.)

Twelve years after he had defended Jack Lindsay, Thompson published a long essay in The New Reasoner, the journal of dissident British Communists. Ten thousand of them had exited the party, appalled by Khruschev’s ‘secret speech’ and the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and Edward Thompson was their most eloquent leader. In this essay, ‘Socialist Humanism’, Thompson demolished the distortions of Stalinism, especially its over-simplified version of economic determinism in history that belittled “the part played by men’s ideas and moral attitudes in the making of history.” It was the nearest the New Left got to a manifesto, exposing Stalinism as an ideology of a bureaucratic elite, insisting that Marxism must have an ‘ethical sensibility’, and reintroducing its ‘lost vocabulary’ of agency and moral choice. According to Winslow, ‘Socialist Humanism’ is “still the most discussed (and criticised) of his contributions in these years”. It contains no mention of either Lindsay or Childe.

Writing about Lindsay ideas in the 1940s, Victor N. Paananen says: ‘Publication of his theoretical work proved difficult at times, and small press runs and lack of an academic platform meant it was overlooked’ (British Marxist Criticism, 2014, p. 56.) But Thompson was present in 1945. And it is simply impossible to believe that Thompson was unaware of Childe’s popularising of a non-orthodox Marxist theory of history as a creative process in the forties. Why did he fail to acknowledge them? Lindsay was unwilling to join the revolt in the British Communist Party, and Childe, who was not a member, was unable to. In 1957 he retired to Australia to commit suicide. His body was found at the bottom of a cliff in the Blue Mountains, just a few months after Thompson’s essay on ‘Socialist Humanism’ appeared. Yesterday’s men of the Old Left, they could be ignored.

I am not the first person to make this argument. In 1984, Robert Mackie wrote: ‘The current, and deserved, acclaim for E.P. Thompson and Raymond Williams, for example, obscures the ways in which Jack Lindsay helped establish, a generation before, the foundations of the British new left.’ (Robert Mackie, ed., Jack Lindsay – The Thirties and Forties, p. 14)

Back to Thompson: it is perhaps not well understood that he did not write The Making for scholars of labour history. As well as struggling with problems of Marxist theory he was actively engaged in working class politics in the West Riding of Yorkshire, where he lived, and in the peace movement nationally. He wrote this great 900 page book for the students in his workers’ education classes and for the activists of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the New Left. Like his ‘William Morris Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), it was the product of his belief that it was the duty of socialist intellectuals ‘to make socialists’. All the more reason then to wonder at his indifference to the work of Lindsay and Childe, who shared this belief. Childe in particular: like the barefoot historians of Germany or the early History Workshop movement in Britain, Childe wanted to democratise archaeology to encourage working-class history-making.

Winslow’s collection includes Thompson’s 1959 address on ‘The Communism of William Morris’. It is invaluable as a revelation of the sources of Thompson’s Communism - in Britain’s long socialist tradition - and of his vision of the New Left becoming a movement that would enlist the people at every level of power. At a time when there were up to 40 New Left Clubs, Thompson celebrated Morris’s aim “to make Socialists … [and] cover the country with a network of associations composed of men who feel their antagonism to the dominant classes, and have no temptation to waste their time in the thousand follies of party politics”.

These essays were written while Thompson was working on The Making, and there are signs of its emphases and argument everywhere. This is from ‘Revolution’ (1960): “The kind of revolution which we can make today is different from that envisaged by Marx or Morris … Nor is there only one kind of revolution which can be made in any one context. A revolution does not ‘happen’; it must be made by men’s actions and choices”. Another essay, ‘Homage to Tom Maguire’ (1960), is Thompson’s riposte to the national and institutional focus of labour history as it entered its professionalized stage. He said: the customary national focus of histories of the breakthrough of the Independent Labour Party (in the West Riding) “implies an appalling attitude of condescension towards these provincial folk who are credited with every virtue except the capital human virtue of conscious action in a conscious historical role”.

And if you have been baffled by Raymond Williams – unable to read more than a page of his books before nodding off – there is an essay that shows Thompson is on your side. In ‘The Long Revolution’ (1961) he damns Williams’s writing style – impersonal and passive – and criticises his liking for abstractions. This produces (in Williams) an argument about culture that obscures class conflict and denies the need for sustained historical, anthropological and archaeological (guess who!) research. Like the advice offered by the iconic fictional anthropologist, Indiana Jones, Thompson says Williams would do better to read the works of Gordon Childe before announcing a general theory of culture.

Which brings us back to Marxism. I was surprised to find, in Winslow’s introduction to his book, statements that at the end of his life Thompson was not “really a Marxist at all”, and that he claimed only “to work within the Marxist tradition”. As to the first statement, we should consider Theodore Koditschek’s discovery in Thompson’s later work of a ‘Gramscian turn’ that signalled that he was moving towards a more sophisticated Marxism (see his chapter in Roger Fieldhouse and Richard Taylor, eds. E.P. Thompson and English Radicalism, 2014). As for the second, surely in the absence (thankfully) of a Marxism whose orthodoxy is guaranteed by Stalinist political power, the tradition of Marxism is all there is. And if we are going to study Marxism as a tradition (which I acknowledge Winslow was not trying to do) it would be a good idea to look beyond its luminaries.