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The Case of E.P. Thompson

In response to:

Goodbye to All That? from the September 21, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

I fail to understand the tone, the content, or the purpose of Tony Judt’s assault on E.P. Thompson in his review of the work of Leszek Kolakowski [NYR, September 21, 2006]. Judt’s prose is snide. His throwaway phrase about Thompson’s “leafy perch in Middle England” rests on insiders’ knowledge that after Thompson left the University of Warwick he did buy a large house outside Worcester. Rumors abounded about that house, including one that servants waited on him and his wife at table. In fact, it was full of books and people.

Judt dismisses Thompson as a “priggish little-Englander.” That Thompson was English in identity and in style is without question. Part of the strength of his powerful history writing was his total immersion in what he did know—England—while remaining always aware that nobody knows England who only England knows. Quoting Kolakowski, Judt makes Thompson into a purveyor of “system,” aiming to solve “all the problems of mankind in one stroke.” Thompson never was a theoretician. On the contrary, he deeply mistrusted all efforts to reduce messy human reality to any system. In the title essay of the same volume where Thompson’s “open letter” to Kolakowski is most available (The Poverty of Theory), Thompson demolishes the system-mongering of then-fashionable Louis Althusser. Was Thompson English and empiricist? No question. Does that make him either self-righteous or provincial? Not at all.

Thompson was perfectly capable of polemic. In print and before live audiences, that gift served him well. But he could overstate and he knew it, much in the fashion of his own intellectual heroes Jonathan Swift, Thomas Paine, William Blake, and William Morris. He also could correct his mistakes. Reprinting the Kolakowski letter in The Poverty of Theory he apologized to Kolakowski for his tone and for “writing what was in fact a very general argument (in which many others were concerned) in the form of a private meditation.” Thompson did have followers, both politically and intellectually. But he was no “pompous demagogue” playing to a “worshipful progressive audience.” A measure of his real stance is that when he directed graduate students he insisted that a historian who did not remotely share his politics be part of the examining committee.

Perhaps Kolakowski has remained angry at Thompson, biding his time at All Souls until he could take revenge. That would be his complete right, and Thompson would have been the last to object. By placing himself in the tradition of Swift, Paine, and Blake, he opened himself to exactly the kind of ill-mannered, ad hominem attack that Judt has gratuitously delivered. But whether in politics or in historiography, Thompson was the least sectarian and the most generous of writers.

In Judt’s suggestion that nobody who reads Kolakowski will “ever take E.P. Thompson seriously again,” Thompson himself seems to be experiencing the “enormous condescension of posterity” from which he set out to rescue the history of the English working class. Thompson’s political writings form part of the record of the British left in the twentieth century, and their long-term significance cannot yet be assessed. But as a historian he inspired some of the very best work I know, on England and on many other places. As a person, he came nowhere near Judt’s caricature. People who read him (rather than dismiss him or label him) will take him seriously for a long time to come.

Edward Countryman

Dallas, Texas

Tony Judt replies:

Mr. Countryman is wrong to suppose that in discussing E.P. Thompson I benefit from “insiders’ knowledge.” I was never privy to Thompson’s domestic arrangements. We only ever met on one occasion and that, briefly, in Los Angeles. My remarks were addressed to his writings. Mr. Countryman appears to agree about the overwhelming Englishness of Thompson. I in return will readily concede that it was often turned to advantage. Thompson’s books, notably The Making of the English Working Classand Whigs and Hunters, are at their best when he writes with seductive empathy of the free-born Englishmen of eighteenth-century Britain and their world. “The Peculiarities of the English”—his 1965 response to Perry Anderson’s famous New Left Review essay on “The Origins of the Present Crisis”—displays both the cadences and the concerns of a latter-day William Cobbett. Here, and in his often hilarious mockery of the continental obscurantism of Louis Althusser in The Poverty of Theory(1978), Thompson put Anglo-centrism to good use: preferring common sense to dialectics and historical example to the elucubrations of high theory.

But Thompson was self-indulgently garrulous. “The Peculiarities of the English” runs to fifty-seven printed pages, while in The Poverty of Theory the title essay alone is 206 pages long: it would have been twice as effective at one quarter the length. And his parochial perspective often brought out a tone that was not merely priggish and sanctimonious but nasty, too. On April 24, 1981, the New Statesman carried a letter from a Czech dissident, writing under the pseudonym Václav Racek, politely protesting at Thompson’s insistence (he was much taken up with disarmament issues at the time) upon the complementary militarism and repression in East and West. The East, “Racek” ventured to suggest, was rather worse and mutual disarmament would hardly address the repression there. Thompson responded with a long (twenty columns to Racek’s three) and patronizing dismissal, comparing the Czech dissidents’ “naive” desire for liberty with his own “defense of British liberties,” but conceding that in his misinformed innocence “it is not difficult to understand why a Czech intellectual may think in this way.” The benighted dissidents, he explained, were “preoccupied with your own national injuries” and thus had a “more inverted and more partial view of the world” than Thompson and his like-minded Western colleagues. Even posterity does not get much more condescending than that.

I very much doubt whether Leszek Kolakowski has thought at all about E.P. Thompson in the past thirty years, much less remained angry at him (“My Correct Views on Everything” was published in 1974). But the very suggestion bespeaks precisely that parochial perspective—on Mr. Countryman’s own part—which I was attributing to Thompson: a perspective in which local intraleft squabbles take up more time and space than political developments in far-flung countries and where historians loom larger than history. I readily concede that this is not a uniquely or even distinctively English shortcoming. But is it self-righteous and provincial? Absolutely.

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