The Aldermaston generation

Issue: 149

Allister Mactaggart

Cal Winslow (ed), E P Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays & Polemics (Lawrence & Wishart, 2014) £15.99

This collection of E P Thompson’s writings covers the period from 1956 to 1963, a tumultuous but also highly creative and active period for Thompson as a key organiser in the New Left following the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the resultant ­resignation of over 10,000 members from the British Communist Party. The editor, Cal Winslow, has assembled 13 important pieces of Thompson’s work from this period as “an appreciation, a tribute by a former student, comrade, and friend” (p307).

Thompson’s opening essay, “Through the Smoke of Budapest” of 1956, written as the smoke was literally still in the air, demonstrates his ability to cut through dogma to uncover the core of Stalin’s “mechanical idealism” (p44) and brings to the fore key arguments. Thompson’s critique of Stalinism as “Leninism turned into stone” (p44) reveals both the strengths and weaknesses of his critique as a disillusioned ex-member of the Communist Party. He understands Stalinism as Leninism “wrested out of context” (p42) but sees some of the faults of Stalin as originating in the work of Lenin, Marx and Engels.

In the following essay, “Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines”, the base and superstructure model employed by Marx and Engels is considered a “bad and dangerous model” (p57) because Stalin uses it in a mechanical manner. Similarly, Marx’s use of the word “reflection”, coupled with Stalin’s “uncritical acceptance of Lenin’s Materialism and Empirico-Criticism(p77), are seen by Thompson as providing Stalin with ambiguities which were then applied in a dangerous, crude manner. Although he does accept that Stalin had missed the subtleties of these thinkers, there is a train of thought that seeks to find fault with them rather than laying it firmly at the door of Stalin and the other “mechanical idealists” in the Soviet regime (and elsewhere), and their misappropriation of Marxist theory.

Thompson seeks to rescue Communism from the inhumanity of dangerous abstractions and to put real people at the forefront of theory and practice. He remains ­committed to revolution but one grounded in “humanist” values. He states that this is a “moment not only for ‘rethinking’, but also for ‘re-affirmation’” (p99). The models that Thompson wants to employ are derived from the origins of British Marxism and “its since forgotten fusion with English Romantic socialism” (p9). In “The Communism of William Morris” he thus highlights Morris’s moral and aesthetic discoveries as a necessary complement to Marx’s. Similarly, in his review of Raymond Williams’s book The Long Revolution, Thompson takes issue with Williams’s definition of culture as “a whole way of life” and contrasts this with his own definition as “a way of conflict” (p204). Thompson considers that Williams’s selective defence of “The Tradition” in literature and culture aligns it uncritically with the reactionary ideas of T S Eliot and is, therefore, unhelpful for a socialist intervention in cultural matters.

In the development of the New Left, and the passionate energies unleashed by the “Aldermaston generation”, we can see how large groups of people became politically active in response to the events unfolding at the time, and how Thompson and the New Left sought to harness that radicalism. Thompson thereby takes on the arguments by reformists in the Labour Party who argued that “affluence” was leading to an improvement in terms and conditions in society, and the perceived apathy of many people. As he points out, “apathy is a symptom as much as it is a cause” (p137) resulting from the Labour movement suffering from problems of ageing and bureaucratisation. As such, he concludes that, “It is because the majority of Labour politicians have ceased to hold any real belief in an alternative to capitalism that their kind of politics has become irrelevant” (pp143-144), a ­reflection which retains its sting.

Yet the difficulties of seeking to hold together the new breed of radicals becomes clear in how a non-aligned, decentralised, non-hierarchical left, which Thompson proposes as a new model for democratic socialism, can become dissipated by a lack of central organisation. Coupled with this, splits in the board of the New Left Review between the “first” New Left and the new editorial board, or the “Team” as Thomson calls them (as shown in the previously unpublished memo “Where are we now?” of April 1963), reveal deep structural and ideological points of dispute between comrades, and between different traditions and trajectories.

For Thompson, detailed archival work, uncovering the importance of largely forgotten “provincial” socialists such as Tom Maguire in Leeds in the late-19th century, provides a means to renew past histories for the present. The final essay in the collection is “The Free-born Englishman”, published in the New Left Review in 1962 as a chapter from Thompson’s major work of the following year, The Making of the English Working Class. This essay provides a working model of Thompson’s praxis of challenging the “absurd substitutions of historical roles” in other non-Marxist interpretations of history, whereby “the persecuted are seen as forerunners of oppression, and the oppressors as victims of persecution” (p306) and uncovering “elementary truths” (p306), laying the way open for a renewed and re-affirmed tradition of socialism for the forthcoming revolution.

This collection provides detailed insights into the theoretical and practical interventions of a Marxist revolutionary, historian and teacher at a time of great historical significance. They are thus both relevant as historical documents of their time, as well as providing important points of reference and reflection for our own. As Thompson pointed out, “It is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead. It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy” (p8).