E.P. Thompson and the Althusserian locusts: an exercise in practical criticism
Unpublished c. 1982
E.P. Thompson’s The Poverty of Theory was published in 1978. It contains four of Thompson’s strongest and most trenchant essays in cultural criticism and is dominated by the essay from which it takes its title – a polemic, extending over some two hundred pages, against the thought of Louis Althusser and the influence of structuralist models on modern Marxist theory.
There can be no surer indicator of the weight and significance of Thompson’s voice within English Marxism than the appearance in 1980 of a book length study of Thompson’s ideas and influence written by Perry Anderson. It was Anderson who, in the early 1960s so impressed the founders of the British New Left with his seeming intellectual fertility, his energy and his decisiveness that they, having reached in Thompson’s words ‘a point of personal, financial and organisational exhaustion’ handed over editorial control of the New Left Review to him. This was in 1963. In the next few years those who had joined forces, sometimes at great personal cost, to construct the house of the New Left, woke up from their dream to find themselves outside the home which had once been theirs looking in on a new young occupant whose pride in ownership was tempered only by his evident distaste for the unfashionable and vulgar manner in which the house had been furnished by its original occupants. It was not long before those who stood outside their old home saw the first fleet of intercontinental removal lorries roll in. Swiftly and with very little fuss the old furniture was trundled out. That battered well-used sofa with its William Morris cover went out with it, earmarked for the dust-heap. The old kitchen chairs which were hewn from oak and worked crudely so that a little humanity had stuck to their rough forms, were now considered unusable. The old pictures were taken down from the walls and most of the books were stripped from the shelves, packed into tea-chests and loaded, along with the furniture, into the waiting container lorries. No sooner was the old furniture loaded up than was the new furniture carried proudly down the ramps of the same lorries. New steel and glass tables and chairs designed on the Bauhaus principle but purchased for the most part in Paris, were efficiently installed within the house – whose walls had already been replastered and painted in that uniform white beloved of the bourgeoisie. Only when the cantilever chair of mathematical catastrophe theory had been finally placed in position opposite the sofa of Althusserian structuralism and beneath the spotlight of Lacanian theory focussed by Juliet Mitchell did the new occupants begin to feel more secure and a little more at home. Unpacking their Habitat kitchen they started to cook meals which contained little goodness and less meat but which were deemed all the better for that.
Some few of those original occupants of the house who continued now and then to peer into its windows were impressed by what they saw. Withdrawing to their own establishments in provincial and university cities they quietly ordered furniture from the same suppliers and had it delivered to their door by men wearing the white overalls of the same inter-continental removal firm. Others were dismayed and retired to a distance. One in particular, however – and this was Thompson – returned to berate the new occupants. Although the charges he laid against them were arrogantly rebutted he refused to fall into the silence of deference or complicity. He returned again until eventually, in The Poverty of Theory, he produced a polemic of such power that it threatened to break apart even the newest and most gleaming pieces of intricately machined furniture contained within the usurped house of the New Left.
It was at this point that the pattern of conflict changed. Perry Anderson, who had remained as editor of New Left Review throughout the years of change and removal, was, implicitly at least, one of the targets of Thompson’s polemical fury throughout The Poverty of Theory. Over the past fifteen years New Left Review and New Left Books had, in Thompson’s words, ‘issued, to the accompaniment of ecstatic “presentations” and theoretical heavy breathing, every product, however banal, of the Althusserian fabrik (The Poverty of Theory, p.405). Yet when Anderson came to write his reply to Thompson, Arguments Within English Marxism, his tone was no longer that of arrogant rebuttal. Thompson was no longer accused, as he once had been by Anderson before, of ‘paranoia and bad faith’, ‘virulent travesty and abuse’ or ‘reckless falsification’. Rather the tone was one of eloquent conciliation. ‘It would be good,’ wrote Anderson in the very last sentence of his book, ‘to leave old quarrels behind, and to explore new problems together.’ This benign conclusion does not exclude criticism of Thompson’s position. But the apparent benignity is not something which appears only towards the end of the argument. For it is found throughout the book. The conclusion is, indeed, prefigured in the book’s very opening paragraph whose generosity in assessing the achievement of Thompson has no precedent within the new New Left:
Anderson goes on to praise Thompson’s historical writings both as militant intellectual ‘interventions’ and for their contributions to the theoretical discussion of ‘class’, ‘class consciousness’, ‘base and superstructure’ and ‘utopianism’ . ‘The claim on our critical respect. and gratitude, then, is one of formidable magnitude and complexity,’ Anderson concludes.
For the poetic and vernacular richness of Thompson’s language and the sheer human vitality of his wit and imagery are themselves indivisible from his theoretical achievement. Indeed they might be considered the most important part of it. For Thompson’s consistent complaint against Marx’s own analysis of history and against the metaphysicalising theoretical tradition of Marxism which has grown out of it lies in his charge that, in writing Capital, Marx was ensnared by the very categories of Political Economy he sought to interrogate and that, by transferring these categories from their proper object – the abstraction capital – to a new and different object, namely capitalism, Marx commits himself to the same kind of reductionism which inevitably marks any vision conducted within the categories of Political Economy.
This is because the whole society comprises many activities and relations (of power, of consciousness, sexual, cultural, normative) which are not the concern of Political Economy, which have been defined out of Political Economy, and for which it has no terms. Therefore Political Economy cannot show capitalism as ‘capital in the totality of its relations’: it has no language or terms to do this. Only a historical materialism which could bring all activities and relations within a coherent view could do this.
The great deficiency in Thompson’s political vision, which he has never shown any signs of overcoming either in his historical or in his more abstract writings is to be found in his failure to supply, in conventional theoretical terms, the missing dimension of historical materialism which he indicates, something which could only be done by constructing, on an empirical basis, a systematic psychology of human behaviour, richer and more nakedly revealing than any which psychoanalysis has dreamed of. But this deficiency is never tolerated as a pure lack. For the ‘activities and relationships’ which have been ‘defined out’ of Political Economy are never allowed to disappear. In one respect Thompson attempts to accommodate them in the large space he gives in his work to the category of ‘human experience’. It must be said, however, that the rather abstracted manner in which he massages, moulds and stretches this highly ductile category leaves a lot to be desired. Sometimes the category itself is treated as a keystone on which a whole edifice of argument may be constructed. Here Perry Anderson’s interrogation of Thompson seems just and his conclusion well founded:
But even if Thompson’s discussion of experience fails in its own terms, the dimensions of human nature which are traditionally defined out of many varieties of Marxism, still find a place in his work. For his very prose embodies them. This is not to say that Thompson always avoids the kind of mechanical and metaphysicalising language which characterises the mystificatory theories of his intellectual opponents. Indeed Thompson is all too easily lured up into the very rarefied atmosphere of abstraction against which he inveighs. But as a polemicist Thompson is at his most effective when his language remains rich and concrete. Then, in the complexity of his metaphors, the resonance of his allusions, the intimacy of his voice, and the ordinariness of his diction, all human life is, as it were, touched and affirmed. At its strongest what Thompson’s prose affirms is what any rigorously theoretical Marxism implicitly denies – the depth, subtlety and complexity of the human imagination and of human nature itself – that uncharted continent within which alone the determining forces of our physical and economic environment can operate and whose exploration and systematic mapping must precede any attempt to define those forces in theoretical terms.
The rich literary medium of Thompson’s work, whether as a historian or a theoretical polemicist, cannot be divided from the message which it carries, for it is itself a part of that message, perhaps even the most weighty and significant part. Yet it is precisely this aspect of Thompson’s achievement which Anderson, having referred to it in the opening paragraph of his book with all the appearance of generosity and real appreciation, signally fails to engage with in the body of his argument. Implicitly it is defined out of Thompson’s achievement as intellectually insignificant and eclipsed by the ‘real’ theoretical issues. In his book Anderson thus proceeds, carefully with level headed calm and sometimes with great accuracy, to defuse a bomb which never even threatened to explode, stopping frequently to display to curious onlookers the barbarous logic contained within the mechanism of the bomb. In doing this he achieves a considerable propaganda victory, and the continued annexation and subjugation of one the rebellious provinces of Marxism is justified by a conspicuous display of the crude weapons used by those who fight for freedom. The real human aspirations and the real human energies which power that struggle are ignored, however. Indeed there is a failure to grasp even their very existence. Their potency, and the fact that their revolutionary power will endure whatever repressive measures are taken against them has, by its very human obviousness, escaped detection by all the refined surveillance forces employed in Perry Anderson’s argument.
Thus, although Anderson deals perceptively both with Thompson the historian and Thompson the political philosopher, he does not deal with Thompson the poet. Because Anderson is insensitive to the manner in which language operates he does not only fail to respond to the real strengths of Thompson’s position, he also, perhaps more seriously still, fails to identify the most significant weaknesses in that position and to trace the line of the- radical fracture which runs through Thompson’s thought and which is most clearly visible not at the level of theory, but at the level of language. As a tactical manoeuvre within the corridors of British Marxism Anderson’s book is a great success. As a thoroughgoing critical assessment of Thompson’s thought it is a complete failure.
What I have called Thompson’s ‘poetry’ does not, for the most part, appear in the form of that painful abstraction which we have become accustomed to recognising as poetry. It is usually found restored to the ordinary body of human speech and human communication from which our culture has conjured it to rise in spirituality. When Thompson resists the lure of metaphysics it will often be found as a part of the very substance of that body. It is meshed into the sinew of his sentences, it beats in the rhythm of his phrases, it contracts powerfully in the muscle of his polemic. Very occasionally, however, it does appear in a more conventional, more easily recognisable form. In ‘An Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski’, during the course of a discussion of Stalinism, Thompson quotes Kolakowski’s own warning about the consequences that have followed when ‘one messianic hope becomes the unique governor of life, the sole source of moral precepts and the only measure of virtue.’ He goes on to cite what he describes as ‘the crude lines’ of a poem of his own, found among his notes for 1956. In reality the lines are not crude. Or if they are their crudeness is only that of the human strength which they carry within them. The poem is ‘In Praise of Hangmen’:
The power of this poem may be found in the manner in which a specific historical and political predicament faced by European Marxists as a result of the Soviet invasion of Hungary is imagined in terms of a metaphor which draws on some of our most intimate and powerful emotions. That metaphor also, however, serves to dramatise one of the fundamental conflicts of our culture. For the ‘official doctrine’ of our culture maintains that the intellect and the body are opposed just as they are in the image of the hanged body which lies at the centre of Thompson poem. According to the same official doctrine our powers of reason and of intellect tend to be seen as the source of moral judgement and this view is enshrined in Christian tradition where the origin of sin has frequently been located in the inability of the intellectual will to command the body and its appetites. Chastity, one of the great Christian virtues, derives its name from the belief that reason should purify the body and its concupiscence by chastising it. This view of the relationship between the spiritual intellect and the potentially sinful body is found again in the position accorded to the image of the crucified Christ in Christian tradition. For St. Paul, who has throughout the centuries been the most influential exponent of the Christian vision, the crucifixion of the body and its subjugation to the spirit represents the ideal which is to be pursued symbolically by all Christians: ‘And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts’ (Gal 5:24).
In Thompson’s poem there is no direct allusion to any aspect of this cultural background. But it is through such assumptions that any reader comes to Thompson’s lines and some of their power can only be accounted for by pointing to the manner in which they invert an inherited symbolism of values of which the reader may not even be consciously aware. In place of the cross of the spirit on which the sinful flesh is made, in St. Paul’s words, to ‘die daily’ and thus give birth to Christian morality, we are confronted with the gibbet of the intellect by which the living body of morality is cruelly murdered.
Behind this level of the poem there is another yet more subversive aspect. This is the manner in which morality is personified not just as a human being but as a woman – a woman whose physicality is given visual immediacy in the reference to the ‘swollen tongue’ and the ‘distended dedicated eyes’. Here the inversion of traditional moral symbolism is powerfully completed. For while we are normally offered, as a token of the moral wealth of our culture, the image of a man crucified upon a cross, what we are offered in ‘In Praise of Hangmen’ as a perverse representation of the triumph of the intellect, is the image of a woman suspended on a gibbet.
By presenting an image of a tortured human body not as a religious ideal but as an indictment of totalitarian cruelty and by doing so in a particular iconic form, Thompson’s poem strikes at the very roots of our spiritual orthodoxies. What is obliquely offered is a redemption into morality not through the spirit but through an affirmation of the body of woman.
The point is crucial to any assessment of Thompson’s achievement. For much of the strength of his work and much of the originality in his view of the history of the English working class might be said to proceed from his scepticism about, and sometimes explicit hostility to, conventional Christian morality and values. ‘Those who have wished to emphasise the sober constitutional ancestry of the working-class movement,’ he writes in The Making of the English Working Class ‘have sometimes minimized its more robust and rowdy features.’ (p.63) It would be wrong to suggest that Thompson himself emerges as full-bodied champion of working- class spontaneity, still less of sexual exuberance but the needle of Thompson’s socialism is deflected frequently towards the buried ore of such bodily wealth and this attitude shows distinctly in his protests against the joylessness of the Puritan tradition of dissent and that crusade against bodily spontaneity which he sees as culminating in the Methodist movement. After examining what he describes as ‘sexual’, ‘maternal’, ‘Oedipal’, ‘sado-masochistic’, ‘sacrificial’ and ‘necrophiliac’ themes in the imagery of some Methodist hymns, he writes that:
It is in the terms of this attack on Methodism that Thompson reveals the depth of his kinship with the tradition of English Romanticism, particularly with the anti-Puritanism of Blake and Lawrence.
The strength of this Romantic tradition, combined with the still more immediate influence of Shakespeare, Wordsworth and William Morris lies near the very heart of Thompson’s socialism. What is sometimes painfully evident in his own work, however, is the extent to which he mistrusts that heart and the intuitive analysis of Christianity which goes with it.
More so than was ever the case with Lawrence, Thompson’s anti-Puritanism is of a distinctly puritanical kind. We need only look closely at the terms of the attack on Methodist imagery which is quoted above in order to see that at the very core of that attack is the notion of pollution. It is, it would seem, only by rallying all his intellectual forces under the standard of purity that Thompson is able muster the courage to attack those Christian forces who, gathered on the other side of the field, perpetually campaign beneath the very same standard. This kind of intellectual self-deception extends throughout Thompson’s analysis of Christianity and Christian psychology and his whole perspective on Methodism simply does not square with the historical, liturgical and ritual facts of the Christian tradition.
When Thompson writes of Methodist child-rearing practices that ‘the psychological atrocities committed upon children were terribly real to them’ (p.414), there is obvious justice in the remark. It must still be suggested, however, that what was historically distinctive about Methodism was not so much the degree of hostility towards the body which was shown in principle as the manner in which forms of rigorous discipline once reserved for an elite were now thrust downwards and brought to bear on classes where licentious exuberance had previously been tolerated – in some circumstances at least. What is perhaps most significant about Thompson’s attack on the ‘perverted eroticism’ of the imagery of Methodist hymns is that in it he singles out for special opprobrium the very aspect of Methodist liturgy which preserves, albeit in an abstracted form, something of the sensual ritualism of Roman Catholicism. Thus, under the guise of attacking Methodism’s sexual puritanism what he actually attacks are those few last glimmerings of sexual and sensual enjoyment which Methodism manages to preserve within its ordinary forms of service.
Ultimately, it would seem, it is not the perversion of sexuality in Christian imagery which disturbs Thompson but the fact that sexuality should be present at all. To Thompson’s rational dissenting conscience Methodism itself comes to be seen as an emotional excess, a new form of decadent Popery to be dismissed in primly post-Protestant terms as ‘psychic masturbation’. The attitude is by no means uncommon and is perhaps best summed up in some words of John Updike: ‘Alas, we have become in our Protestantism more virtuous than the myths that taught us virtue; we judge them barbaric’ (in Satanism, ed. F.J. Sheed, 1972, p.vii.).
Partly as a result of the historical fantasy he secretes within his map of Methodism, Thompson is able to sustain a much larger historical myth. For by concentrating his attention on a small enclave of extreme Christian asceticism and pressing down hard as he draws its boundaries, Thompson tends to localise a feature of Christianity which is in fact universal. As a result he seems again and again to underestimate the extent to which sexual and emotional puritanism is present both in the entire intellectual and religious tradition which leads up to the Reformation and, more significantly still, in those various secular ideologies by which Christianity was succeeded after the nineteenth century.
It is as though, carried away in the immediate excitement of parricide, Thompson ceases to notice both the numberless hosts of his father’s ancestors and the enduring and sometimes intensified puritanism of his father’s other rebellious sons, brotherhood with whom still lies at the very core of his own identity.
All this is part of the complex intellectual and psychological background to Thompson’s original decision to join the Communist Party in 1942 and his enduring intellectual commitment to the cause of Marxism since that time. Yet for all his ostensible secularism, Thompson has remained very much a Methodist – a Methodist driven by all the emotional fervour and a good deal of that sensual, almost Lawrentian romanticism which, intellectually, he has frequently seemed to repudiate. Buckled within the intellectual armour of Marxism, Thompson’s heart has never ceased to beat. Indeed it would sometimes seem that it has grown larger in response to the ever more harsh restraints which Marxist ideology has placed around it. Thus, while in his historical writings he has rebelled against Methodism from without, he has continued to rebel against the church of Marxism from within. At times that rebellion has been so radical that he has seemed rather like an atheist bishop: a man who remains a member of his church because only by drawing on the deep security conferred by such membership can he find the confidence to attack the doctrines of that church – a man who, because of the poverty of the alternatives which exist, cannot bring himself to exchange communion within a church for truth outside it.
But Thompson has also stayed within the Marxist tradition because he has seen it as a broad church, encompassing rather than excluding elements of Romantic utopianism far removed from Marx’s own reductive economic determinism. Aware, perhaps more than any other modern Marxist, of the enduring vitality and strength of popular dissent throughout the centuries, and of the enormous apocalyptic energies and idealism which were once tapped by the socialism of Morris, of Carpenter of the Labour Church and the early Labour Party, he has tended to identify this kind of utopianism as the central tradition of the Left and in it he has found a historical charter for his own radical idealism.
So Thompson has remained as a rebellious democratic radical within a party which has tended constantly to harden into ideological totalitarianism. When, with the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, others left the Marxist cause, Thompson remained to play a leading part in the democratic opposition within the Communist Party. The poem ‘In Praise of Hangmen’ shows something of the nature of the idealism which fired this rebellion and it is that same sensual idealism which lies behind his opposition to the high-altitude theoreticism of the new New Left, which came to a head in the attack on Althusser made in ‘The Poverty of Theory’.
Yet the terms in which this attack is made are fraught with contradictions which spring from Thompson’s own deeply divided sensibility. This is partly because, in his inability to relinquish faith in the gospel of Marx, Thompson sets out to fashion a new version of that gospel. So, just as many Christian construct for themselves a Jesus who bears little relation to the ascetic, fundamentally authoritarian moral idealist who is prtrayed in the New Testament, Thompson constructs a Marx-that-might-have-been who bears very little relation to the ascetic, fundamentally authoritarian idealist philosopher who emerges from Marx’s own writings. He is able to carry through this strategy of self-deception only because of his own involvement with and lingering commitment to just the kind of abstruse metaphysical philosophising which has always been part of the Marxist tradition and which characterises above all the theories of the very figure against which Thompson’s polemic is directed – Louis Althusser. The result is a complex intellectual, psychological and ideological knot. A. rebellion which seems at times to have all the strength of a shaft from the heart is again and again taken over by the head and twisted into forms no less abstractly abstruse and logically void as those which Thompson sets out to criticise, so that Thompson emerges simultaneously as the utopian radical he avowedly is and as a structuralist-in-spite-of-himself.
It is here that we must return to consider what I have called Thompson’s ‘poetry’ . For, as I have already suggested, it is at the level of language that his painfully fractured sensibility shows most clearly. One small but significant example of the manner in which Thompson’s language betrays his own cause occurs during a passage in which he condemns the abstractionist mysteries of Althusser’s idealism:
The opening metaphor shows Thompson at his masterful best. For the conceit which is developed in it, namely that what has been created by Althusserian theory is an imaginary totalitarian state, controlled by an elite and policed by officious border guards, is not simply a rhetorical device; it contains a good deal of psychological truth as do the images of archaic magic and epic quests by which it is developed. What Thompson shows here is that when language is used vitally and imaginatively metaphor becomes an analytic tool – or at the very least a means of reaching behind the surface appearances of phenomena to draw out their inner psychological substance. Yet this linguistic vitality and sensitivity is not maintained in the way the argument is continued. The whole ‘phantasmagoria’ which Thompson describes is the direct result of an attempt to abstract ‘rationality’ from life and experience and enthrone it as an autonomous entity. As he himself observes, this process leads again and again to the displacement of men and women and their complex relationships by pale abstractions and grey reifications. Yet so erratic is Thompson’s attention to language that he goes on to draw the conclusion that ‘it is a bad time for the rational mind to live.’ The point may be a small one but it is nevertheless important. For Thompson’s choice of words here betrays just the kind of laziness which we cannot afford to indulge. He commits at the level of language the very crime which he castigates at the level of theory. It is not a bad time for the ‘rational mind’ to be alive. The rational mind has never had it so good. It is a bad time for imaginative human beings to be alive. ‘Rational minds’ like ‘divine souls’ belong to precisely that universe of Cartesian and theological assumptions which Thompson implicitly claims to have left behind.
The point is important because a large number of Christian and Cartesian assumptions will be found secreted throughout Thompson’s metaphorical language and again and again they tend to take over. We tend no longer to realise how serious such a dessication of language is for any intellectual culture. Because we live in a puritanical culture we castigate fiercely those errors which are committed at the level of logic and indulge those errors which are committed at the level of metaphor as though metaphor is something that can be had on the side without anybody remarking upon it. But metaphors are not, as Thompson suggests at one point in The Poverty of Theory, merely the sauce and condiments of theory. They are the substance of our imaginative life, a crucial part of any profound thinking about the problem of human nature. Just as we recognise in abstract arguments logical errors and inconsistencies, so too should we recognise errors and inconsistencies in metaphorical language. For metaphor is the very money of language. Because there are so many worthless, counterfeit metaphors coined every day we must always be careful to use only those which belong to our true wealth, and to use them only in the appropriate context. To the extent to which we lose the capacity to discriminate between true and counterfeit metaphors, to that extent do we debase our currency and betray ourselves into cultural insolvency.
The most striking extended metaphor in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ is the one which conjures up a vision of the locust desolation of Althusserian structuralism:
This passage is possessed of great power and vitality. In it the imaginary desolation of structuralism is located precisely. It takes place not in some generalised, abstract notion of England which has been stripped of historical and geographical particularities but among the stocked orchards of a few adjacent Kentish parishes. The perspective implied by the very first words of the passage situates the action even more exactly. The scene might almost be that which is specified at one point in King Lear by Shakespeare: ‘The Country near Dover’ . We stand looking out across the Channel on those very chalk cliffs where Edgar – Poor Tom – once talked to his blind father not long before another band of French invaders came. Indeed the poetry of King Lear which is so near to the heart of Thompson’s socialism, resonates in the image of the diminutive insects which he uses and in the words – ‘A. cloud no bigger than a man’s hand’ – with which the passage begins:
Behind that specific literary resonance there is another more general association. The enumeration of trees, orchards, hedgerows and the field of wheat, followed as it is by a reference to a parish boundary, evokes the whole history of the English landscape and its enclosure. Through this again there speaks a tradition of love for that landscape. That tradition is part of a parochial, provincial and insular culture. To use these words, however, is not to criticise or repudiate that culture. For these words, which are so often abusively misused, express nothing but psychological and geographical truths. We live still in parishes, in provinces, upon an island. Our identity is forged and strengthened in the idea of nationhood.
It is part of the great strength of Thompson’s socialism that he has never renounced the Englishness of his own political vision:
But the Englishness of Thompson’s vision is not unmarked by conflict. Marx in this case is not an exception which proves the rule; he is an xception who is the rule. In spite of the appearance of cultural nationalism Thompson has always remained proudly committed to Marx’s conception of socialist internationalism and has always appeared to underestimate the weakness of internationalism as a political ethos. Here the surer and more realistic political vision is that of Orwell:
Thompson in many ways seems to be that kind of political thinker who can find the confidence to express his national identity only in the security offered by embracing a supra-national ideology – one might compare the relationship of Polish or Irish nationalism to Roman Catholicism. The way in which his nationalist sentiments are made subservient to an international ideology seems to indicate the underlying insecurity of Thompson’s national identity.
It is in this connection that we may remark that the first inconsistency which enters into Thompson’s locust-metaphor is actually the locusts themselves. For they belong not to the fields of England or even the cosmopolitan swarms of Paris. They belong rather to the deserts of Egypt and the plagues of a wrathful God. Like many social critics before him, Thompson has first to step into the deserts of the Old Testament before he can prophesy to England. It is the puritanism involved in such an imaginative exile which dessicates his vision and threatens to betray its vital force.
This puritanism is also obliquely present in the enumeration of what Thompson, with some intellectual affectation, calls ‘the vocabularies of the human project’. For the words which Thompson selects and characterises as parts of a rich and verdant vocabulary now blighted by structuralism are not any which affirm ordinary human animality or even dispassionately record it. They are value-loaded words already blighted with Christian puritanism. The word ‘greed’ often refers to the unrestrained indulgence of bodily appetites but intrinsic to the word is a condemnation of such indulgence. Elsewhere in his writings Thompson uses the word in this conventional rigorously puritanical manner and it is such a usage which he evidently has in mind here. The term ‘self-sacrifice’ is even more clearly out of place. To implicitly oppose structuralism to a human project which uses ‘self-sacrifice’ as one of its key terms is to present a false opposition. For no ideology other than structuralism has taken the Christian virtue of self-sacrifice to such an extreme and self-destructive degree.
Self-sacrifice is always necessary to some degree in every society. But it does not belong to any wealth that we have lost. We have too much of it already. It is because we have sacrificed ourselves and all the wealth of our bodies with such saintliness that we are sometimes willing to sacrifice other men and women and their bodies to our ideals; until we value our own lives and our own bodies more, we will never value the lives of others more. That is why locusts have no business to be feeding on self-sacrifice. Any locust with an ounce of imagination who chanced to land on that reason-struck tree which towers above our culture would soon spit out its dry, cracked leaves in distaste and go on and down to feed on a vocabulary more succulent and more green. Alternatively if it really was a true structuralist locust without an ounce of imagination to its name it would recognise immediately its home and settle down and start to build a nest.
We have not done with these locusts yet, however. For it needs to be remarked that locusts are never, as Thompson’s locusts are, black. Nor, when they eventually fly on, do they leave behind a blackened landscape. Real locusts may not be black. But the locusts of the imagination frequently are. They are in this case because the central function of the locusts in Thompson’s metaphor and the source of their emotive force is to be found in the manner they evoke not just an invasion but an unclean invasion -- an invasion of small, greedy animal organisms who leave behind them not just the pure desolation of structuralism but their own black contamination.
It is just here that we come up against a fundamental mistake, committed at the level of metaphor which, because of the imaginative richness of the language which is involved, tends not to be recognised as such and is usually characterised, if it is characterised at all, as a mere ‘excess’. It is not an excess. It is a mistake. To use such a metaphor is not to show rhetorical originality. It is rather to manifest true xenophobia. For the underlying psychological pattern of this metaphor is one of the oldest in the totalitarian book. It was used by Christians against heathens, by Puritans against Papists, by zealous churchmen against the witches they burnt; it was used by Trotsky against Stalin, it was used by Stalin himself. It has also been used widely in another context. Thompson compares structuralism to the progress of locusts across rich, green countryside; throughout the centuries anti-semitic propaganda has frequently compared the Jewish people to a plague of insects. Hitler once compared the ‘Jewish Spirit’ working behind history to the progress of a bacillus: ‘A proliferation right across the world, now slow, now leaping ahead. Everywhere it sucks and sucks. At first there is teeming abundance, in the end only dried up sap.’ (cited in Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide p.203).
The image of the small insect or diminutive parasite has always received our most loathed projections because it is associated both with a masochistic sense of smallness and, through the parasite’s oral greed, with regressive fantasies. The repository of all uncleanness, such organisms invite nothing other than hygienic destruction. Because of the distance they are removed from humanity, because of their very minuteness, no humanitarian or moral considerations need be applied to them; rather they must be treated with the same efficiency and lack of compunction which we display towards dirt and pathogenic organisms. It was precisely this argument which National Socialist propaganda repeatedly put forward in regard to the Jews. As well as being portrayed as unclean and microscopically small organisms, viruses, bacilli or germs, Jews were also depicted as small, unclean animals. A. party manual called upon good Aryans to squash Jews and ‘members of other inferior races’ like ‘roaches on a dirty wall’. Goebbels wrote: ‘It is true that the Jew is a human being, but so is a flea a living being, one that is none too pleasant...Our duty towards ourselves and our conscience is to render it harmless. It is the same with the Jews.’
There is, it need scarcely be said, a world of difference between the tone of Thompson’s polemic and the outright destructiveness of totalitarian propaganda. But that is really not the point. The context in which the locust-metaphor appears is that of an attack against the repressive totalitarian imagination and one of the charges which Thompson justly brings against Althusserian Marxism is that it has failed even to begin to investigate the realm of the emotions, of the irrational and of sexual behaviour. Yet Thompson’s own practice and his metaphorical language repeatedly betray him, throughout his polemic, into the habits of the totalitarian imagination he seeks to oppose. There is even one point in Thompson’s argument when complex metaphor combined with the oblique attribution of uncleanness to structuralism gives way to crude scatological invective:
What is objectionable about this passage is not its crudity. What is objectionable is that Thompson himself is evidently so afraid of the realm of the unclean that as he enters it his critical intelligence and cultural sensitivity desert him. The result of this desertion is that Thompson’s metaphor, instead of accurately revealing the psychological reality which lies behind structuralism and bourgeois sociology, catastrophically inverts it. For bourgeois sociologists and Marxist structuralists do not stand up to their chins in shit. Rather they sit, radiant and enthroned, in the celestial purity of heaven. The fundamental dualism of our culture which is in question here has perhaps best been expressed by W.H.Auden:
Structuralism, as I have argued elsewhere, is on the side of the angels. Lacking their intellectual purity, ordinary men and women belong to the other category of Auden’s dualism, a category to which Christian doctrine long ago consigned them on account of their unseemly carnality (cf Paul in Philippians 3:7-8: 'I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord: for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and do count them but dung, that I may win Christ, and be found in him'.)
It is because of this normally unrecognised content that the most despised of all our unclean categories needs to be treated with a great deal more care and respect than is normally given to it. In failing to do this Thompson commits again one of the most ancient of errors, one which belongs above all to unreasoned political or sectarian intolerance. Thompson usage of ‘shit’ is derived directly from Marx as be himself explains. It might also have been derived from another totalitarian thinker – from one of the many passages of bitter scatological invective which Hitler directed against the Jews. That Thompson himself cannot discriminate between the rhetoric of democratic socialism and the rhetoric of totalitarian puritanism is a mark of the true poverty of our theory.
It is also a mark of the most dangerous and widespread form of provinciality or insularity. This insularity has nothing to do with national frontiers and it does not depend on the existence of sea-girt shores. It is an insularity of the imagination, an insularity by which all puritan cultures are afflicted. For to the extent to which we have allowed ourselves to drift with the strong tides of cultural orthodoxy we have effectively marooned ourselves and our imaginations upon an island of purity. Any immigrants into that island who bring with them traces of sensual vitality are summarily arrested and repatriated to be locked up within that distant realm known as ‘the obscene’. But it is here that the imagination takes over and returns to our shores under the cover of darkness what we send from them by day and in the full light of reason. For if we reject our emotions and our sexuality as obscene, and if we cannot admit to ourselves the extent and rigidity of our own puritanism, then we will project both our own rigid purity and the sense we have of our own inner uncleanness onto an imaginary enemy.
Thus Hitler imagined the Jews not only as small, unclean organisms but also. simultaneously, as pure, repressive, and manipulating parents, the very incarnation of the pain of conscience. Thus Thompson imagines structuralists as black locusts feeding upon our wholesome life, leaving their dark stain upon our countryside, and at the same time repressing us with their rigid structuralist purities.
About this, the most dangerous form of insularity, we have been warned before by D.H. Lawrence:
The Lawrence we celebrate in our literary culture is not the Lawrence who speaks in this passage. It is a figment of the critical imagination which has never been very rich; it is a Lawrence dessicated by Leavis who could not and would not understand the wealth which is locked up in the realm of obscenity and who therefore excised from Lawrence what he did not like and preached the rest from that pulpit where he always preached culture and sensitivity for the few and literacy for the many. The other Lawrence, not the elitist Lawrence but the Lawrence of inclusion, of incorporation and unison, he did not preach. And the obscene Lawrence, the Lawrence of Lady Chatterley’s Lover which we once prosecuted, is the one our intellectual culture still does not understand and still does not value. And so we have never come to understand everything, even our own abhorrence. We have only the fear-ridden sham-science of psychoanalysis which we use to console and deceive ourselves against the recognition of our poverty.
Part of the strength of Thompson’s ‘The Poverty of Theory’ comes directly from his recognition of the extent to which the orthodoxies by which our intellectual culture is governed tend to deny the reality of affective behaviour and experience. But this lack will not be filled merely by lamentation or by reverent and prayerful repetition of the sacred terms ‘affectivity’ and ‘experience’. Nor can it be accurately diagnosed when the criterion of health is the supposed fullness of a broad tradition of ‘Marxist investigation’ which is to be opposed to the recent anorexia of Althusserian structuralism. In this respect it must be suggested that Althusserian Marxism is made in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ to carry a myth very similar to that which Thompson makes Methodism bear in The Making of The English Working Class. Indeed one of the sources for the vision of blighted desolation which lies behind his locust-metaphor might well be a passage from a Methodist tract which Thompson cites in his earlier work:
In focusing attention on the barrenness of Althusserian Marxism what Thompson effectively creates is a Methodism-within-Marxism. Once again, by using this strategy, he tends to localise a feature of the Marxist sensibility which is in fact universal just as he does elsewhere with the Christian sensibility. It is certainly true that Thompson is aware of a line extending directly from Marx’s own work to the anti-affective posture of structuralism. But he treats this this reductive element in Marxist thought as though it were merely an aberration. Marx’s real project and the true object of historical materialism is, we are told, ‘a unitary knowledge of society’.
Marx himself, Thompson suggests, soon strayed from his own project but since that time Marxist historians have resumed it. In an attempt to enter, through historical experience, ‘directly into the real silences of Marx’ they have examined ‘the drama of Aeschylus, ancient Greek science, the origins of Buddhism, the city-state, Cistercian monasteries, utopian thought, Puritan doctrines, feudal tenures, the poetry of Marvell, Methodist revivalism, the symbolism of Tyburn, grandes peurs and riots, Behmenist sects, primitive rebels, economic and imperialist ideologies, and every type of class confrontation, negotiation and refraction’.
The list is certainly a long one. But when they get to the end of it some readers will still feel a certain disappointment – like that of the child who, having inspected the contents of a large packet of assorted biscuits is confirmed in his or her original suspicion that none of them have any chocolate on the outside or even any cream on the inside. As we munch into the poetry of Marvell, which at least contains a few currants, we might well reflect that, were history still written, as it once was, by monks, then the modern Marxist monk could do most of his research and compile most of the chronicles demanded of him without ever taking off his cassock or putting his chastity at risk. For carnal temptations have not been strewn thickly in his path. Cistercian monasteries, Puritan doctrines and the poetry of Marvell are all very well, but what of the harlots of Hogarth, the obscenities of Rochester, Victorian pornography, or child-rearing and family-relationships throughout the centuries? Revolutionary brotherhoods and confrontations of class are all very well. But what of sisterhoods and confrontations of sex? Of late it is no doubt true that the Marxist bookshelves have begun to groan with feminism. But it is a feminism of a significantly bitter and unemancipated variety which is frequently, as in Juliet Mitchell’s work, committed to the reactionary formulations of Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis.
In short, while latterday Marxists have entered a good many of Marx’s ‘silences’ there are a great many others which remain unentered and frequently unidentified. Indeed, to the larger part of human experience the Marxist sensibility has continued to stand in a relationship not of curiosity but of fear, Above all, whatever professions of feminism or permissiveness they may have uttered, most Marxists continue to find relationships between men and women profoundly disturbing. For this reason these relationships are either mystified or passed over in silence as one of the components of history which, because it is subjectively invisible, must be objectively irrelevant. The historian and philosopher R.G. Collingwood once wrote that ‘irrational elements, the blind forces and activities in us, which are part of human life ... are not parts of the historical process.’ This agrees with the practice of most historians and it is that practice which extends like an unbroken reef beneath the shimmering surface differences of bourgeois and Marxist history.
It is this fact that makes Althusser into an indispensable figure in the mythology of modern broad-church Marxism. For it is by standing at Thompson’s side and gazing into the barren deserts of Althusser’s thought that the contemporary Marxist may strengthen the shaken conviction he has in his own fertility. It is by looking out into the arctic wastes of structuralism that Marxists belonging to a broader tradition may convince themselves that the glimmer of warmth in their own hearts is really a fire burning brightly. It is by running their hands over the cold and massive links in the cruel chains of logic by which Althusser binds men and women, that they may reassure themselves that the leather thongs in which they are themselves bound are but the necessary tackle and harness-work of freedom. It is by contemplating the extremes of Althusser’s totalitarian reductionism that they may preserve their most cherished illusion – that Marx himself was not the true messiah of such totalitarianism.
Because it succumbs to, and indeed largely creates this mythology, the polemic in ‘The Poverty of Theory’ is not simply flawed but broken. The essay still has something of the grandeur of a colossus. But far from being, as it presents itself, an exercise in radical social philosophy, its underlying imaginative substance belongs to a conservative tradition of cultural criticism. The pattern of cultural evangelism which it follows, in which ills internal to a particular cultural and intellectual tradition are projected onto external enemies, is very clearly present, for instance in Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. At the very heart of the Arnoldian vision there is a subtle and self-deceiving cultural anti-semitism according to which many of the ills of nineteenth century society were to be accounted for by the extent to which the ‘sweetness and light’ natural to Hellenism has been overpowered by a recrudescence of the Jewish spirit which Arnold referred to – amid disclaimers – as ‘Hebraism’.
So long as we follow Marx in concentrating attention on an external, merely financial capital, so long as we continue compulsively to look outside ourselves for an external bourgeois, capitalist, aristocratic or imperialist enemy, then just so long is it likely that we will continue to oppress ourselves and fail to recognise that whatever external revolution we may effect, our internal hierarchy of power will remain unchallenged, and our true capital unliberated. Under the guise of a socialism of the state we will thus promote a totalitarianism of the soul. In our efforts to achieve liberation we will tighten still further the harness of that self-control from whose constricting clasp around our bodies we, in our craven fear of freedom, draw so much security.
We, in our intellectual and political culture, have clung too long to the skirts of Marxism. It is time to stop. For if we can only find within ourselves the confidence to let go and stand up and look deep into the eyes of Marx himself then we will see just how much fear and just how much terror those eyes contain; we will see just how weak is the soul from which we seek to draw strength.
Thompson has never done this. In ‘The Poverty of Theory’ his polemic against Althusser is at the same time a profession of his continued allegiance to Marx and to the Marxist tradition. Ultimately it is only by looking behind Thompson’s own thought to that of the thinker who continues, in spite of all, to dominate it, that we can locate accurately the weakness of his analysis. For the weaknesses which I have pointed to in the way Thompson develops his locust-metaphor against Althusser are not exclusive to his own thought or to the thought of earlier cultural critics such as Leavis and Arnold. Their immediate source is in Marx and they characterise a crucial element in the Marxist sensibility.
Marx is frequently portrayed as standing outside the main intellectual tradition of our culture as introducing for the first time scientific materialism into a climate of thought dominated by transcendental idealism. Few of the many mass-delusions of our intellectual culture have ever been more tragically false. For Marx belongs, and signals his belonging with every word that he writes, to the cold heart of orthodoxy. His work is marked above all by that ascetic Christian tradition under which his ancestors suffered and into which he was baptised at his father’s wish at the age of seven. Marx’s most influential inheritance from the Christian tradition was, like that of Hitler, the mythology of anti-semitism. For anti-semitism was, throughout the middle ages and into the twentieth century, a key element in many of the most influential versions of Christian doctrine.
This aspect of Marx’s thought has frequently enough been noted but it has never, even by Marx’s fiercest critics, been given its full significance. By Marx’s apologists it tends, as one might expect, to be minimised or suppressed. A. typical example of this process is provided by the most prolific and widely read of all Marx scholars. David McLellan. In his book Marx before Marxism, McLellan claims that, in spite of the many fulminations against the Jews contained in Marx’s correspondence and his essay ‘On the Jewish Question’ that Marx was not an anti-semite. Among the reasons that he gives are that ‘Judentum’, the German word for Judaism, had the derivative meaning of ‘commerce’, and it is this meaning which is uppermost in Marx’s mind throughout the essay. ‘“Judaism” has very little religious, and still less racial, content for Marx and it would be little exaggeration to say that this latter part of Marx’s review is an extended pun at Bauer’s expense (pp.141-2).’
We may presume that these words were written in the spirit of scientific inquiry. This does not stop them, however, from having all the mysticism of religious faith. For what McLellan does in these words is to put his finger on what is perhaps the most fundamental aspect of Marx’s thought. And having put his finger on it, McLellan, in worshipful reverence, longingly leaves it there, as though upon an icon he has come to adore. As a result even he himself is unable to see the massive significance of the truth to which he inadvertently points.
For it is precisely the ambiguity of the term Judentum which is central to Marx’s anti-semitism. At the very heart of his political and intellectual vision we will find not an objective analysis of social and economic relationships but a translation of anti-semitic fantasies into a new anti-capitalist mythology which is then presented as a science. The first signs of this will be found in Marx’s two essays ‘On the Jewish Question’ which McLellan’s love-sick words, quoted above, so romantically idealise. In the second of these essays Marx’s fantasy-Jew emerges clearly as the model for his fantasy-capitalist:
In his later, more purely economic writings, Marx refrains, for the most part, from expressing his anti-semitism directly. Again and again, however, we will find his anti-capitalism imbued with that violent irrationalism which he had earlier vented in his discussion of the Jewish question. After an early phase of romantic utopianism Marx’s philosophy came increasingly to be forged out of a rigorous work ethic from which spontaneity and sensuality had departed. Throughout the imagery of his later work there is an oblique awareness of this loss. According to his analysis the rule of capital was ‘the domination of living men by dead matter’ and he was preoccupied with images of drained vitality. Increasingly Marx relied on his labour theory of value. Yet the manifold deficiencies of this theory suggest that it fascinated Marx not because of its explanatory power but because of the fantasy-structure he secreted within it. Marx’s passionate identification with the proletariat went hand in hand with a vision of the capitalist class as contemptible and greedy parasites feeding not simply on the surplus value produced by the workers but on their very vitality. Something of the compulsive nature of Marx’s preoccupation with this theme is evident in the following passage from Capital. Here life is pumped out of the worker and used to vitalise a Frankenstein-like monster, fecund and limitlessly self-reproducing, created by the capitalist:
The reference to the incorporation of vitality into dead substance also suggests the pattern of anxiety we find in the ancient mythology of the vampire. In another discussion of surplus-value Marx uses the image explicitly:
The image of the capitalist as a greedy parasite recurs at the end of the same discussion, incorporating this time a quotation from Engels. Although the worker who sells his labour to the capitalist may believe that he is a free agent, he will find, writes Marx, ‘that, in fact, the creature sucking its blood will not loose its hold “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited”.
The indulgence of such vivid metaphor is something which Marx allows himself but rarely and its function is evidently more than simply rhetorical or decorative. Indeed the potency of the notion of the capitalist as a greedy suckler on wealth he had appropriated is demonstrated by the fact that the same theme was frequently used in socialist propaganda. Here, to cite but one example, are the words of the Irish revolutionary socialist, Joseph Connolly, writing at the close of the nineteenth century. Connolly here seeks to persuade his countrymen that you cannot free Ireland unless you are prepared to take up arms against your economic oppressors – even though they may be Irish themselves. Irish nationalism in itself, in short, which does not concern itself with material conditions, can never be a sufficient condition of liberation:
Marx himself used the metaphor of the parasite or vampire to project onto the working class his own sense of inner deadness, his sense of having been sucked dry by that ascetic work-ethic which is the most insidious means by which money-centred societies perpetuate their structure. At the same time, however, he projected onto his fantasy stereotype of the capitalist his own obsessive interest in money and his own thwarted bodily appetites and fantasies of oral regression.
The reason that this tendency of Marx has been so rarely remarked on by his commentators is that the metaphors -he uses to describe financial activity are so conventional, so long established in our culture, that they have become almost invisible. These metaphors belong above all to the long tradition of Christian anti-semitism which referred to usury, whether carried out by Christians or Jews, as ‘judaising’, and which frequently represented this highly civilised ‘sin’ as being one of primitive bestial greed. Marx himself cites in a footnote in Capital a long and violently destructive passage in which Martin Luther describes usurers as ‘money gluttons’ and compares their activities to the ravenous feeding of Cacus, who ‘rends and eats all alone’. In a similar manner Shakespeare attributes to the usurers, flatterers and seekers of patronage who besiege Timon a cannibalistic appetite for flesh and blood: ‘O you gods, what a number of men eat Timon and he sees them not! It grieves me to see so many dip their meat in on man’s blood!’(Timon of Athens, I ii). In The Merchant of Venice a voracious appetite is also attributed to Shylock whose usurious desires, intimately associated in the play with his Jewishness, are described as ‘wolvish, bloody, starved and ravenous’ (IV i).
The habit of portraying economic activity by the use of oral metaphors, combined with a defamatory caricature of Jewish financial astuteness, strengthened the tendency to depict Jews as parasites, feeding on the substance of the body in which they lodge. The charge has assumed various forms. Hegel maintained that Jews could survive only by being physically dependent, and by leading ‘an animal existence that can only be obscured at someone else’s expense’. The young Hegelian Arnold Ruge referred to Jews as ‘maggots in the cheese of Christianity.’ The lurid fantasy that all Jews were possessed of an essentially parasitic nature was to become a classic element in modern anti-semitism. A characteristically vivid formulation of the idea was that of the Russian anti-semitic propagandist, Jacob Brafman: ‘The Jew is a parasite. Take him away from the organism in which, and at whose expense he lives, place him instead upon a rock, and he will die.’
It was this tradition of modern political anti-semitism, one which had grown directly out of Christian anti-semitism, which Marx directly inherited. It was a tradition whose rhetoric was already ideally suited to expressing the violent resentment of a proletariat continually exploited by the eternal and triumphant will of the capitalist, who seemed to survive all insurrection:
The words might almost be those of Marx. In fact they are Hitler’s in Mein Kampf , and the ‘eternal bloodsucker’ is not the capitalist but the Jew. Hitler and Marx shared the same anti-semitic inheritance and used the same metaphors to characterise ecomic activity as parasitic+. Where Marx diverged from Hitler was in the manner he translated traditional anti-semitism into a more universal anti-capitalism, systematising and rationalising the violent hostility to a limited class of people which anti-semitic fantasies contained. This he did with such extraordinary energy and such diligent and sometimes illuminating scholarship that he succeeded in deceiving himself and continues even today to deceive his modern followers. Above all Marx inadvertently succeeded, by secreting traditional anti-semitic fantasies within a new and ostensibly scientific ideology, in creating a political philosophy which ultimately proved to be ideally suited to promoting a revolutionary cause to a people who had been traditionally governed and manipulated by Tsarist anti-semitism. The fantasies by means of which the government regimes had retained their precarious hold over the nation, now, in Lenoin's Russia, were used to feed the hearts of those who rose to overthrow their government.
Because the displaced anti-semitism which underlies Marxist ideology is essentially a capitalist phenomenon, it was an inevitable consequence that the revolutionary forces it marshalled should end by preserving, and indeed intensifying, the psychology of totalitarianism and the mentality of imperialism. It is this tradition of essentially repressive anti-capitalism which E. P. Thompson, after all qualifications and reservations have been counted, continues to endorse. If at times there are elements in that tradition which he appears to be blind to then it is perhaps because of the degree to which he shares that puritanism which was responsible for so much of Marx’s own blindness.
For asceticism remains deeply etched into the very foundations of Marxist theory – an aceticism more arid and more joyless than that of any conventionally religious Puritan. At one point in his writings Marx even treats the activity of prayer as a form of indulgence; in a discussion of Robinson Crusoe’s experiences, he writes: ‘Of his prayers and the like we take no account, since they are a source of pleasure to him, and he looks upon them as so much recreation.’ (Capital, Chapter l) The remark may well contain an intended irony. But nevertheless it is characteristic not so much in its attitude towards religion as in its attitude towards pleasure. Marx was quite simply unable to attribute real significance to any part of human nature which might be held to belong to the realm of pleasure. More clearly than that of any other modern thinker his biography betrays the fundamental dissociation of our culture. For Marx was a compulsive and knowledgeable student not only of economics but also of pornography and erotica. The two worlds were always kept rigidly and guiltily apart; if Robinson Crusoe’s prayers were inconsiderable because of their pleasurable nature, then so much more so were passion and sensuality. Marx’s economic theory, his rigid millenarian socialism and his philosophy of history all bear the marks of that riven, dissociated view of human nature which Marx, as a romantic utopian, had once himself described and which he had attributed to the alienating effects of capitalism. The result is that profoundly money-centred socialism which was Marx legacy to the modern world, a legacy which has been eagerly claimed, bitterly fought over, and quarrelsomely divided by many men and women who, living as the in capitalist societies, have been conditioned to restlessly accumulate the very kind of poverty which Marx, through his writings, sought to distribute.
It is one of E.P. Thompson’s peculiar distinctions as a socialist that, while standing within the tradition of Marxism, and while perpetuating in his own writings many of the weaknesses of the Marxist sensibility, he has done as much as any living English socialist to keep alive an alternative tradition of radical dissent and at the same time to keep alive an aspect of British socialism which once beat strongly but which now, sometimes, seems scarcely to beat at all. ‘Oh that the Socialist movement of today,’ wrote Philip Snowden in his autobiography in 1934 ‘could recapture the spiritual exaltation and religious faith of those early years.’ Writing in 1982 in his pamphlet Beyond the Cold War Thompson looks forward to the time when just such religious energies might be unleashed again in a political movement. The crisis which has now come about as a result of cold war strategies, he writes, can be met only ‘by a summoning of resources to a height like that of the great religious or political movements of Europe’s past.’ (p.35) These words reach back beyond the money-minded, property-centred, wage-watching socialism which has, long been the customary fare of the radical left in Europe. They might well be related back directly to the days of which Snowden talks and set alongside some words which Keir Hardie wrote in the Labour Leader in January, 1893:
The nineteenth century tradition to which Hardie refers is one with which many other names might be associated – above all Charles Dickens, whose novels, for all the traces of social conservatism which they reveal, exercised an incalculable influence on the early labour movement and also Edward Carpenter, who was largely responsible for introducing Thoreau and Whitman into socialist thought, whom Tolstoy described as ‘a worthy heir of Carlyle and Ruskin’ and whose writings occupied a central position in English culture for thirty years. It is this broad socialist tradition which Thompson, both in his historical writings and his political essays, and above all through his championship of William Morris, has struggled to keep alive and to use in order to leaven the minds of modern socialists. If some of Hardie’s more curious choices – Whitman and Tennyson, for example – do not figure in Thompson’s thought, then other names might be put in their place – William Hazlitt and perhaps even, as I have suggested already, D.H. Lawrence. The result is still a vision and a scale of aspiration and social hope which is politically broader and. historically deeper than that of practically any other modern socialist thinker.
It would still be quite wrong, however, to suggest that this broad tradition could ever offer a radical alternative to Marx’s philosophy of society. For although it is a much richer tradition, the conflict by which Marx’s sensibility is riven lies, like an unperceived equivocation, at its very heart. We may see something of this in the words of Keir Hardie which I have quoted. For these words perpetuate what is perhaps the most fundamental error in the theory of human nature which has been bequeathed to us by Christianity. The assumption which lies behind Hardie’s advocacy of ‘spiritual deliverance’ is that the concern with money and ‘bread and butter politics’ exclusively is something which belongs/to the corrupt material realm of the body and that it is only by transcending this realm that true socialism will be instituted. If this were indeed the case then we would long ago have created a socialist utopia and had heaven here on earth. For it is this view which was promulgated by the anti-acquisitive argument which is central to New Testament Christianity, which was preached and embodied in legislation throughout the middle ages, and which has continued to occupy a central place in Christian doctrine to this day. The falseness of Christian theory on this matter is perhaps best demonstrated by the abundance of Christian practice to the contrary. In fact no religion other than Christianity has been more closely and sympathetically associated with the development of capitalism – not only, as Weber and Tawney have argued, in the post-Reformation era, but also in the pre-Protestant Roman Catholic church. Christianity has always presented itself as a religion offering spiritual wealth conditional upon material poverty. In fact, however, it is a religion which, in its evangelical pursuit of bodily poverty, has again and again created a compulsive need for material wealth. It is a religion which, by seeking to invest and multiply that form of negative capital known as ‘guilt’, and thus promote a sense of inner debt has constantly driven its converts to redeem themselves from that sense of debt and in doing so to underwrite the uncertainties of divine grace with the more solid securities of material advancement, career prestige and social distinction.
Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is a passage from the writings of John Wesley which was cited by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and has been frequently quoted by historians and sociologists since:
The dilemma to which Wesley points in perplexity is, in very many ways, still the central and unresolved problem which lies at the heart of modern socialism. For at the very core of the modern labour movement we will find an impassioned belief in ‘frugality of body and opulence of mind’ to use the Ruskinian phrase of Robert Blatchford, the most widely read socialist propagandist of the 1890’s. Behind that phrase there lies a central ambivalence in the attitude which socialists have adopted not simply towards the energies, aspirations and impulses of the working class but towards human nature as a whole.
Unpublished, c. 1983
© Richard Webster, 2005