Jonathan Ree describes how E. P. Thompson's savage attack on Parisian intellectuals was a calculated caricature that misjudged the capacity for irony of his readers.
On the other hand," people will say, after praising E. P. Thompson's eloquence and the range of his imaginative sympathies, "he had an overweening ego and a savage tongue". There was, for instance, that celebrated session at a History Workshop conference in Oxford, on November 30, 1979. It took place inside a half-wrecked derelict church on a cold, dark, stormy, night. The space was crowded, with the audience swarming up the builders' scaffolding which lined the walls. There was a dramatic roar from the emergency gas heaters, and the only lighting came from three theatrical spotlights trained on the altar table where the speakers stood.
The matter for debate was "Theory" in the special sense current at that time. The word was used with a capital T and no article, as if it was someone's name - which indeed it practically was. Theory was the collective byline for the Anglicised nouveau melange of Althusser-Barthes-Foucault-Kristeva-Lacan - Parisian structuralism, that is to say, going to seed as post-structuralism; and it was widely prescribed as the kill-or-cure remedy for the well-known English disease: empiricism of the social intellect and reformism of the political will.
Thompson had already cast himself in the ungrateful role of opponent in a diatribe on The Poverty of Theory, published just a year before. In that essay, he had invoked his own political experience in the 1950s - as a dissident within the Communist Party, and then outside it, and as a leading figure in the old New Left. Thompson's New Left had been based on an internationalism which, it was hoped, would link anti-capitalist struggles in the west with anti-Stalinist struggles in the east and anti-imperialist struggles throughout the world, all under the umbrella of "socialist humanism".
Socialist humanism in Britain had, in Thompson's opinion, been tragically betrayed when Perry Anderson took over New Left Review in 1962; and Althusser's "theoretical anti-humanism", for him, was just another painful turn of the screw. He pretended to wonder what exactly Althusser was against: "And then, as I screw up my eyes, and gaze intently in the nearest mirror, the terrible realisation comes. There I am staring into the bloated visage and bared fangs of the most hideous of ogres. And it is myself! M. Althusser has done me the incomparable tribute of addressing an article to me!"
Thompson also quoted the Soviet sources which, in 1958, had denounced "Edgar Thompson, the acknowledged leader of the British revisionists" and attempted to expose his "socialist humanism" as a smokescreen for "traitors . . . renegades and anarchists". It was an effective moment: the comminatory phraseology of Althusserianism in the 1970s was indeed, though few people noticed it at the time, in uncannily close harmony with the Stalinist propaganda of the 1950s. Althusserian Theory, Thompson concluded, was simply "the attempt to reconstruct Stalinism at the level of theory".
But back in St Paul's Church on that chilly winter night in 1979, Stuart Hall remonstrated with Thompson for "fighting old battles", and then Richard Johnson attempted to yoke Thompson together with Raymond Williams as a "culturalist" in an old English tradition. Hall and Johnson spoke calmly; and then Thompson exploded. The issues were not antiquated, but more urgent than ever; and he resented being associated with Williams, whose "culturalism" he himself had criticised long ago.
Thompson's treatment of his critics struck most of his audience as cruel, disproportionate, and arrogant, and he seemed, in addition, to be making the whole matter turn on himself and his own hurt pride, but 15 years have now passed, and the prestige of Theory has waned; and the time has come for a reassessment of Thompson's polemics.
The starting point has to be the "Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski" of 1974. As in his later run-in with Althusser, Thompson made himself into a stalking horse, drawing his readers into a drama that seemed personal as much as political. "Dear Leszek Kolakowski," he begins: "First, I must introduce myself, since this is an unusual kind of letter. You don't know me, but I know you well." Thompson then recalled how Kolakowski, as a socialist dissident in Poland in the 1950s, had participated in the international culture of "socialist humanism". In 1968, however, Kolakowski emigrated to the west; and instead of building on the socialist ties of the previous decade, he fell into the classic posture of a "god that failed"' refugee, for whom the only alternative to Stalinism was capitalism. This conduct, Thompson said, filled him with "a sense of injury and betrayal".
Drawing partly on Kolakowski's own theoretical writings, Thompson reconstructed the socialist humanism of the 1950s: Marxism was not a finished science, but "a tradition" based on a recognition that historical inquiry could never be separated from political action. Historical processes had their own internal "logics", rather than being governed by external, deterministic, universal "laws". And the task of the historian, as of the politician, was to cultivate a relationship - friendly, or critical, or both - with such historical "logics".
As well as inviting Kolakowski to keep faith with socialist humanism, Thompson explained how it had been marginalised in Britain, elaborating a pathetic picture of himself as its last surviving representative, "square and out of date", a forlorn bustard, uselessly flapping its wings in the unlikely hope of a lifting wind.
Thompson's personalisation of his disagreement with Kolakowski seems at first like an egregious example of what old logic books classify as the fallacy of arguing ad hominem - beside the point, against your opponents rather than their positions - and Kolakowski himself shrugged it off on just those grounds. For Thompson, however, personal style was precisely the point at issue: he was dramatising himself as an unreliable eccentric, as a foil for Kolakowski's self-creation as a cosmopolitan sage, a prophet whose opinions were validated simply by his acceptance as an intellectual in both east and west. (Consciously or not, Thompson was reproducing the techniques that Leavis had used, a decade earlier, to crush C. P. Snow's self-arrogated authority as master of two cultures). The "Open Letter'', in other words, is not an argument about doctrine only, but about the mechanisms of intellectual credit and credulity: specifically, how Kolakowski was in a position to cajole his readers into trusting their critical judgement to his superior safe-keeping.
But that was not how the "Open Letter'' was received. For the circle round the New Left Review Thompson, with his drivelling nostalgia for "socialist humanism'', revealed himself as an avatar of the English "village-idiot tradition'', politically indistinguishable from Enoch Powell. This response stung Thompson into a further reply; it took shape as The Poverty of Theory. On this occasion Thompson offered extended reflections on how historical "sources'' can reveal far more than their creators ever conceived, provided the historian knows how to get into "dialogue'' with them.
He argued that the "eventuation'' of historical processes throws light backwards on to the conditions from which they sprang, and that historians must investigate possibilities which did not "eventuate'' as well as those that did. He criticised "closure'' in historical narrative, and called on historians to be self-conscious about their own historicity, since "we inhabit the same element ourselves (a present becoming past)''. He argued that there was a profound difference between Marx's early and his mature work: a shift from an attempt to discredit Political Economy, to a proposal (regrettable, perhaps) for "another Political Economy. This was, in short, not an exercise in English village idiocy, but in a kind of hermeneutic theory of historical interpretation that linked Thompson directly with the high traditions of European philosophy; it probably deserves to be classed, in fact, with the most theoretically sophisticated of the reflections by historians on the nature of their trade.
But of course The Poverty of Theory was presented as demolition of Althusser, not an inquiry into the interpretative tasks of the historian. Thompson showed, in effect, that Althusser's a priori definitions of a "science of history'' were either implicit in the daily practice of historians already, or else had absolutely no purchase on it. Althusser might prefer it if commonsensical historical awareness would go away, but he could just as well whistle for an end to mortality itself, or indeed to ideology. There was class struggle in the writing of history, according to Thompson, and if it could not be conducted according to Althusserian norms, then so much the worse for them.
But Thompson was not interested in Althusser so much as in the use to which he was being put by his British followers. According to them, socialist politics and Marxist theory had nothing to gain from studying the past. As Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst put it in 1975: "Marxism, as a theoretical and a political practice, gains nothing from its association with historical writing and historical research. The study of history is not only scientifically but also politically valueless."
Given that Marxism is, among other things, a theory of history, and that politics is about historical change too, this position was gigantically implausible. But it was propounded with such stupendous self-confidence that many British leftists succeeded, against the odds, in convincing themselves that it must be correct.
Thompson perceived in British Althusserianism an arrogation of intellectual authority similar to that which he had found in Kolakowski, and he attempted to send it up, once again, by deliberately bringing himself, or a ludicrous fiction of himself, into the argument. "Few spectacles can be more ludicrous,'' he said, "than that of an English historian - and, moreover, one manifestly self-incriminated of empirical practices - attempting to offer epistemological correction to a rigorous Parisian philosopher.''
As it turned out, this comic self-presentation was a miscalculation: Thompson was crediting his readers with a sense of irony that they lacked. They did not notice that this stage-Englishman had equipped his essay with an international range of references; they forgot that his "socialist humanism'' was an international undertaking, constructed with robust theoretical materials. Thompson's polemics, as a result, turned into self-destructive failures, unironically assimilated to his caricature of himself as a crusty English buffoon.
But he was right all the same. He was right to protest against intellectual authoritarianism which masquerades as intellectual authority, frightening everyone out of their critical wits. He was right to object to the intimidating self-assurance - the "tone'' which Leavis identified in Snow, noting that "while only genius could justify it, one cannot readily think of genius adopting it''. Thompson, like Leavis, was picking an argument with arrogance itself. He may have had to become a bruiser himself as a result; but it was against that that he was fighting.
This article is based on a contribution to a History Workshop conference on "E. P. Thompson and the Uses of History''. The author teaches philosophy at Middlesex University.