E.P. Thompson and One Nation Labour- Kenny responds to White & Barnett

Despite tensions in his outlook over the years, E.P. Thompson's works represent a useful reference point for contemporary debate on progressive patriotism and the nation.

Michael Kenny
27 August 2013



Flickr/scatterkeir. Some rights reserved.

Stuart White’s response to my recent essay on E.P.Thompson raises some pressing challenges for advocates of the ‘One Nation’ idea. Stuart identifies the importance of such issues as the right to protest and the conduct of online surveillance, and asks where Ed Miliband’s Labour stands in relation to them. The danger with the ‘One Nation’ logo is indeed that its gesture towards patriotic unity and cross-class solidarity may fossilise into a rather dismal kind of institutional and moral conservatism, taking the party away from its radical, dissenting and democratic traditions which it needs to re-engage if it is to transform, rather than merely govern, the UK.

My only minor disagreement with Stuart is that I am less sure than he appears to be that Thompson’s political thinking is such a clear guide, or as stable a resource, for us now – a contention which does not, in my view, diminish the value of re-engaging EPT’s extraordinarily rich body of historical scholarship and political writings [1].

For a start, the ‘democratic libertarian’ categorisation, which applies well to his thinking from the 1970s onwards, is much harder to invoke for the period that preceded it. And this says a lot about the shifting and paradoxical qualities of Thompson’s political thought. From the 1940s until the 1960s, he was carrying the imprint of his experiences in the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) and the disappointed hopes that he, and many others, held out for the Popular Front [2]. He became sufficiently disillusioned with the way in which the CPGB responded to the mounting evidence of Stalinist crimes, its failure to denounce the invasion of Hungary in 1956, and unwillingness to break with Marxist-Leninist orthodoxies, to leave the party in that tumultuous year.

But it is important to see that as an ideal, and in some respects as a model of political organisation, Communism remained alive for him, and others, for some while to come. This was one cause of the tensions and disagreements that beset the early New Left, with Thompson increasingly frustrated with younger activists who were more committed to libertarian and democratic styles of politics than he was [3]. Whether he ever resolved the deep tensions between his own libertarian brand of Marxism and the civil-libertarianism that Stuart emphasises is a topic of some controversy among Thompson’s later interpreters. Many on the left felt that his moralistic anti-statism was far from adequate as a response to the social, economic and political crises that Britain experienced during the late 1970s.

It is pretty obvious that Thompson would have been overwhelmingly scathing about the contemporary Labour party - whether  ‘New’, ‘Blue’ or any other hue – and my argument for considering possible affinities between his radical patriotism and aspects of the ‘One Nation’ idea is not meant to imply otherwise. Thompson was consistently dismissive of Labour – though he did, at different points in his career, work with figures and activists on its left flank, and he was for a long time close to Michael Foot. His reservations stemmed in part from his Communist-inspired political outlook, his inveterate hostility to social democracy, and his lack of affinity for the pressures and challenges associated with mass party politics.

At the same time, there is a strong case for bringing the insights of different figures and traditions to bear upon debates in and around Labour. Indeed it is one of the abiding failings of the intellectual left to do too much of its thinking in straight lines, rather than to think and argue across paradigms and traditions, as well as within them. Thompson set down a powerful and polemical challenge to the ways in which figures like Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn framed English culture, intellectual life and political tradition (and observing, as Anthony Barnett does in his comment to my article, that both emanated from other national cultures does nothing to address the question of how they characterised Englishness).

And so, given the claims made by such figures as Jon Cruddas for a ‘progressive patriotism’ and the importance of the radical English tradition, Thompson can usefully be seen as an important and challenging point of reference for current debates, as indeed can others (Raymond Williams, whom Anthony mentions - see his introduction to the new edition of Williams' Long Revolution - provided equally fertile and very different reflections on English and Welsh cultures and identities). This kind of engagement should mean critical appreciation, encompassing disagreements and differences as well as resonances and overlaps; not simplistic appropriation or retrospective cheerleading. Indeed, Stuart’s excellent post offers a very good example of how valuable such engagements can be.

[1] This argument is developed at greater length in my ‘Introduction’ to E.P.Thompson, ‘The Making of the English Working Class’ (London: Penguin, 2013):

 [2] Scott Hamilton, in his recent biographical study, calls this period ‘the decade of heroes’, the years in which Thompson’s core political and moral beliefs were laid down; Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: E.P.Thompson, the New Left and Post-War British Politics (Manchester University Press, 2011).

[3] These differences are discussed in my The First New Left: British Intellectuals after Stalin (Lawrence & Wishart, 1995). 

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