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E.P. Thompson, Marxist rebel The Little Englander still shows that socialism can have a human face

'If Althusser was the logical end-point of Marxism, Thompson once wrote, then he would rather be a Christian than a Marxist' (Avalon/Getty Images)

'If Althusser was the logical end-point of Marxism, Thompson once wrote, then he would rather be a Christian than a Marxist' (Avalon/Getty Images)


February 6, 2024   7 mins

Edward Palmer Thompson was an unlikely Little Englander. He was born 100 years ago into the sort of polymathic, globe-trotting family that this country no longer seems to produce. His parents met in Jerusalem in 1918, where his mother taught French and Arabic. His father, “a courier between cultures who wore the authorised livery of neither”, spent much of his life in the Raj, where he befriended Nehru and sat at the feet of Tagore. Their eldest son Frank — polyglot, poet, and sometime lover of Iris Murdoch — died a hero’s death fighting the Axis in Bulgaria in 1944. There is still a village named after him 20 miles north of Sofia.

So if ever his fellow Left-wing intellectuals confronted him with the “Little Englander” charge, E.P. Thompson, whose monumental 1963 work The Making of the English Working Class made him the most influential British historian of his generation, had ample ammunition with which to respond. When the Scot Tom Nairn accused him of developing a “cultural nationalism”, for example, Thompson could protest that his political consciousness “cut its teeth on the causes of Spain and of Indian independence, chewed on a World War, and has been offered an international diet ever since”. But it is true that he was driven by a deep faith in the “common sense” of the English people, distinguishing him both from many of his Left-wing contemporaries and from the endless condescension of much of today’s political elite. And this is his greatest legacy: what he saw as the distinctly English tendency towards intellectual humility, scepticism, and empiricism.

Even so, in his lifetime Thompson sometimes liked to wear his reputation for parochial Englishness as a badge of honour. In his rather formless 1973 open letter to Leszek Kołakowski, he described himself as a “great bustard”, unable to soar in the sky with the majestic eagles of the Left. Other bright minds seemed to manage: “whirr! with a rush of wind they are off to Paris, to Rome, to California”. “I had thought of trying to join them”, he sighs, “I had been practising the words ‘essence’, ‘syntagm’, ‘conjecture’, ‘problematic’, ‘sign’.” But these efforts were futile: with his “stumpy, idiomatic wings”, his English wings, he would only “fall – plop! – into the middle of the Channel”. How English, to pat himself on the back beneath layers of ironic self-deprecation ­— even in his substandard essays, Thompson was a funny writer. Unlike the cigarette-smoking French philosophes, or their pot-smoking Californian counterparts, his English feet were planted firmly on the ground.

A deep suspicion towards rival, continental strains of Marxism runs through all Thompson’s writing (even his strange 1988 sci-fi novel). All sorts of people are in for a kicking in The Making — conservative followers of Sir Lewis Namier, liberals like R.M. Hartwell — but the principal target is announced early on. Too many Marxists, he decried, are gripped by the “ever-present temptation to suppose that class is a thing”. This was a terrible garbling of Marx’s actual meaning. Much “Marxist” theorising — Thompson liked to hang scare-quotes around the sects he deemed heretical — was built atop false premises. The purpose of The Making was to demonstrate that his definition of class as a relationship, apparently the authentic Marxist definition, was the only one worth dealing in.

Thompson found other errors bedevilling Western Marxism, all emanating from “Theory”, or “the idiom of Paris”. In 1978 he wrote a spirited broadside against the thinker who most embodied this, and whom he seems to have hated most of all, the French philosopher Louis Althusser (this was two years before Althusser murdered his wife). The Poverty of Theory takes almost 200 pages to make an argument that can be summarised in four words: Althusser was a bullshitter. But these ideas were worse than senseless: they were popular. Althusser’s rabid dog “had bitten philosophy and sociology already”, infecting them with a slavish devotion to “structures” and smothering the individual agent in “Theory”. Althusser’s dog threatened to bite history too, or to chase it out of Marxist thinking altogether. In denying the “common ground for all Marxist practices”, historical materialism, Althusser was not really a Marxist at all by Thompson’s measure. The “rationality” of Althusserian Theory was a hoax. “We have been drawn into an illusionist’s parlour.”

It was not just that Thompson found Althusser’s writing obscure and evasive, and that he was at a loss as to why his ideas had amassed legions of disciples; it was also that Althusser’s “inverted world of absurdity” had nothing to say about practical politics. Althusser, the “rigorous Parisian philosopher”, had retired to his “secluded observatory”. Whether the point of philosophy was to interpret the world or to change it, Althusser was capable of neither. All this was a handy foil for Thompson’s image of himself both as a down-to-earth English thinker, and a determined political activist. But this conceit of English soundness versus high-minded French pretension naturally made room for certain exceptions: Thompson often feared that Parisian tentacles had penetrated the British Left. Tom Nairn was one manifestation of this, but across his work Thompson reserved his most withering sneers for Nairn’s comrade-in-crime, Perry Anderson.

Thompson bore a grudge against the Old Etonian Anderson because, in one of the internecine squabblings for which the Anglo-Left is justly famous, Anderson had booted him and his friends out of the New Left Review. Recounting these events with some bitterness and the usual irony, Thompson cast Anderson as the “veritable Dr Beeching of the socialist intelligentsia”. When Anderson took over the NLR, “all the uneconomic branch-lines of the New Left were abruptly closed down” — and after rigorous intellectual costing, Thompson’s own contributions fell foul of swingeing cuts. Thompson’s New Left had been unceremoniously supplanted by the “New New Left”: younger, cooler, and au fait with whatever was in vogue on the Left Bank.

In Anderson’s and Nairn’s adherence to the continental dogmas, Thompson detected a deep anxiety that their native land was somehow defective. For Nairn, the doyen of Scottish nationalism, things might perhaps be set onto their proper course if Britain were broken up altogether. Anderson broadly shared the view that England was a historical humiliation, a fossil of feudalism that the tide of history ought to have swept away. The 19th and 20th centuries had passed by embarrassingly revolution-less; Marxism had arrived much too late, when industrial capitalism was already entrenched. When Nairn and Anderson looked to other countries, at least according to Thompson’s parody of their position, they felt only a crushing, self-loathing inadequacy. In those other countries things seemed “in Every Respect Better”:

“Their bourgeois Revolutions have been Mature. Their Class Struggles have been Sanguinary and Unequivocal. Their Intelligentsia has been Autonomous and Integrated Vertically. Their Morphology has been Typologically Concrete. Their Proletariat has been Hegemonic.”

The jargon wasn’t much of an exaggeration of the Nairn-Anderson thesis. “One can almost hear the stretching of historical textures,” Thompson said of Anderson’s approach to history, “as the garment of English events is strained to cover the buxom model of La Revolution Française”. Like Althusser’s structural “Marxism”, this was practically impotent as well as intellectually hollow. England, after all, “is unlikely to capitulate before a Marxism which cannot at least engage in a dialogue in the English idiom”.

What was this “English idiom”? For Thompson, it was partly a reflection of his own aesthetic tastes. His worldview, he often stressed, owed as much to William Blake and William Morris as to Marx. He was as much a Romantic as a Radical: and the tragedy of English history, The Making concludes, is that these two strains of thought came to run a “parallel but altogether separate course”. For socialism to succeed in England, the two would have to be welded together; and for this to be achieved, the teachings of Marx would have to adjust themselves to the English spirit.

Thompson’s mission in The Making was to provide a glimpse of what this would look like. The book itself is an exercise in uniting hard-nosed scientific critiques of industrial capitalism, in the manner of Marx, with a moral critique more in the vein of Blake or Morris. In his section on the children’s workhouses, for example, he concludes pages of weighty analysis with the affecting line that “the exploitation of little children, on this scale and with this intensity, was one of the most shameful events in our history”.

The Making also sketches out a type of Romantic Radicalism in the English idiom which, though now lost, once prevailed. What allowed the 19th-century polemicist William Cobbett to prevent the Radicals and Chartists from becoming the camp-followers of the bourgeois liberals of their day was precisely his fluency in this English idiom. He extolled Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the Common Law. “We want great alteration,” he declared, “but nothing new”. For Thompson, the Radical cause had proved itself strongest in England when it worked with, not against, the constitutional grain: when it harked back to the “prodigious mind of the immortal Alfred”, or looked forward to “the restoration of old English times”. Thompson was charmed by this type of historically-oriented English socialism because it placed the freedom of the individual at its heart.

And in this respect it was diametrically opposed to the oppressive Marxism (or “Marxism”) found across the Channel. Stalinists and Althusserians — Thompson made clear that he saw no substantial difference between the two — look upon their fellow men as Pavlov’s dogs: “if an economic crisis comes, the people will salivate good ‘Marxist-Leninist’ belief”. But this was a lesson disproved, in the first instance, by English history. “Roundhead, Leveller, and Cavalier, Chartist, and Anti-Corn Law Leaguer, were not dogs; they did not salivate their creeds in response to economic stimuli; they loved and hated, argued, thought, and made moral choices.” That they made such choices was what made them human.

Thompson knew that he was fighting a losing battle. In the decades since his death, the Left has sequestered itself ever more within the sociology faculties while “Theory” has proliferated in inverse correlation to its electoral fortunes. But, more than an academic culture warrior avant la lettre, Thompson’s socialist humanism also has something to offer beyond the Left. He should, I think, be embraced by liberals of all stripes — whether or not he would have approved of such an outcome — as a profound voice against excessive bureaucracy, against the “machine”, against anything that seeks to limit the scope of human possibility and reduce us to barking Pavlov’s dogs.

If Althusser was the logical end-point of Marxism, Thompson once wrote, then he would rather be a Christian than a Marxist: at least Christians value the conscience, dignity, and free-will of the individual. The word “agency” may now have surpassed “syntagm”, “conjecture”, and perhaps even “problematic” as a bromide of historical and philosophical writing. But the cliché should not be taken for granted — and we have E.P. Thompson and his “English idiom” to thank for it.


Samuel Rubinstein is a History student at Trinity College, Cambridge.
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J Bryant
J Bryant
2 months ago

I have no comment other than to say I enjoyed that scholarly essay. I was vaguely aware of Thompson but knew little about him.

Michael Cavanaugh
MC
Michael Cavanaugh
2 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Might I suggest a place to begin? “The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century,” Past & Present, 50:76–136, 1971. Counter-intuitive in several ways: first, “bread riots” were not orgies of blind violence but controlled acts whereby crowds would claim loaves but leave money — only what had been the traditional price (to protest price rises in the staple food commodity). Second, there was once a consensual “moral economy,” eventually displaced by a modern cash nexus economy.   Possibly Thompson the social historian at his best?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 months ago

There was a a belief that a man had to be able to stand his ground and defend himself with his fists. Elections were boisterous affairs where MPs were often attacked; thrown in duck, ponds, the windows of their homes broken and carriages over turned. Though only a few had the vote, everyone could voice their opinion at the hustings and hurl abuse, rotten fruit and dead animals at the propestive candidates, who were expected to be able to stand their ground. Thre were often fights bertween supporters. All sections of society could take part. Only those who paid rates could vote and to do this one had to own a certain minimum amount of property, 40 acres, I think.
Up to the 1850s Britain was boisterous, bawdy and brawling behaviour was common but weapons were not used and killings were infrequent. Up to the 1840s , bare knuckle boxing was the most popular sport and followed by all. A gentleman ws expected to be able to clear a lane with morleys- Byron was a keen boxer. However bullying was despised – pick someone of your own size and do not kick a man when he is down were common expressions.

Sayantani Gupta
SG
Sayantani Gupta
2 months ago

I wish people like this author left their leafy Arcadian campuses to know how it felt to have genial Marxist historians as he appreciates, to have been forced to quote and cite.
Growing up in Marxist ruled Calcutta and finding BL Namier or AJP Taylor more nuanced than EP Thompson, EJ Hobsbawm or EH Carr was a feeling ” that couldn’t be named”.
If exam censors of the Party were to be pleased.
Certainly not EP Thompson’s fault except that a lot of the censors were his best students.
Marxist history has done and continues to do as much harm to young minds as then, and I wish UH stopped glorifying it.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
2 months ago

I couldn’t agree more. This absurd veneration of marxist historians is absolutely ridiculous and only continues because even today British academia is so riddled with closet communists.
In former times these men would have been quite correctly condemned and executed as traitors. Sadly for many years now we have been far too indulgent of these people. For example why were NONE of the British ‘atom’ spies/traitors executed? Even the US managed to execute two!
On a happier note I do recall reading that at the end of his life one of the wretched Toynbee tribe very much regretted wasting his time on socialist piffle.The catalyst for this apparent damascene conversation was his watching of a TV documentary by the late noted Architectural Historian, Alec Clifton-Taylor, OBE. Toynbee belatedly realised how much beauty and joy he had missed by spending his life in the squalid world of internecine politics.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
2 months ago

To be fair to EPT, he irrevocably and very publicly broke with the Communist Party of Great Britain after Budapest in 1956, and wrote some torpedo essays sinking its leadership thereafter. So he was on the right side of history, so to speak.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
2 months ago

Having just spent a weekend at Willie Dalyrymple’s annual horror show of Woke history on full display, I couldn’t see any signs of the mildest ” disenchantment” with Marxist ideology.
On the contrary ” pale, male ” and not so stale joined in gung- ho with the likes of dillettante opportunistic politicians like Tharoor; some of this site’s favourite ” swivel eyed loons” of the Left, and an army of cause-celebre ladies, to shout, scream and preach from the pulpits of what Mr Rubinstein is trying to sell us here!

Michael Cavanaugh
Michael Cavanaugh
2 months ago

Execute dissenters. Or at least, marxist historians and closet communists of British academia. (Like the Americans did the Rosenbergs.) Imagine that, E P Thompson thought that there was some “distinctly English tendency towards intellectual humility, scepticism, and empiricism.”

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
2 months ago

Compulsory Marxism in Bengal or its grandchild Critical Theory in American universities today is oppressive but there was a period in the 1970s and 1980s in British universities when some independent minded Marxist historians did interesting work which stimulated non-Marxist historians and led to productive debate. For me, EP Thompson was one of them. I enjoyed his HEWC at the time despite his ideological bias. My objection is not to Marxist / Theory historians contributing to the debate but to them taking control of their departments, monopolising discourse and inhibiting debate. I preferred those who did not spout a party line but thought for themselves. I suspect EP Thompson would have found the current situation as repugnant as do many UH readers.

Sayantani Gupta
Sayantani Gupta
2 months ago
Reply to  Alex Carnegie

The answer lies in the context. You may have been fortunate in being able to appreciate EPT as you were probably not told to toe his line, or disagree with him.
For many like me( and perhaps the closet Rankeans if any left in today’s History departments) it was part of official discourse to only cite Marxist historians. I once made a mistake of citing GM Trevelyan for an essay on British history and was roundly chastised for daring to echo such ” archaic” neo- imperial views.
Similarly EH Carr’s ” historical selectivity” was roundly abused to establish only one kind of historical ” fact” which basically amounted to gross Orwellian disinformation.
As I said, the situation in gentle liberal campuses of yore was rather different from the absolutist Marxist groves of academe one was forced to adhere to in Communist ruled Calcutta. In the former ” independent” Marxists were perhaps a frisson of intellectual excitement in what they taught. In the latter they were weapons of intellectual violence.

T Bone
T Bone
2 months ago

It’s interesting that Thompson contrasts Marxists with Christians as opposed to other Economists because Marxism does seem more like a Theology rooted in Gnosticism than any Economic Theory.

If it was an Economic Theory with a goal of decentralization and occupational freedom, I don’t see how that could ever be achieved through forced collectivization. How else can unskilled laborers run a factory without imposed solidarity?

Marxists always end up reverting to Romantic Existentialism because it turns out that constantly disrupting the means of production leads to a crisis of food shortages and misery. That misery is then followed by some strongmen seizing the means of production and imposing countless bureacratic layers to make sure the trains arrive on time. So when Marxists claim that Socialism is only oppressive because nobody has ever done Socialism right; they’re technically correct, because its an impossible task to do any form of Socialism that isn’t oppressive. It HAS to operate top down!

So why do Marxists continue to believe in a Theory that literally never works as intended? The only answer that I can think of is that it’s an Alchemical Faith doctrine that Bourgeois Academics think they can transform and perfect. But the more they transform it, the sillier it becomes.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Astute analysis. I’d add to that, the “evasion of the real world” strain of thought that beguiles public intellectuals, where distancing themselves from the day to day essential but mundane tasks required to maintain a civilised society is de rigeur.

AJ Mac
AM
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

[Corrected: I mistakenly posted my reply to T Bone here]

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Valid generalizations for the most part, though I think there are too many strains and generations of Marxists to allow for a universal reversion to “Romantic Existentialism”, and I dispute the way you pivot from Marxism to Socialism as if they are interchangeable.
“If it was an Economic Theory with a goal of decentralization and occupational freedom, I don’t see how that could ever be achieved through forced collectivization”. Indeed. And if Communist Revolution and the triumphant inversion of class struggle is the inevitable direction of History, why would it need to be forced at all?
Many tenured radicals tend to downplay or insulate themselves from the violent implications of their Marxism, but too many credulous undergraduates pick up on it anyway. Perhaps both groups imagine the bloody fight will never reach them, or that as members of the “good elite” they won’t be called upon to fight, let alone die, themselves. Some youngsters are also quite ready to fight for anything they newly believe in–or imagine they are ready anyway.
In an obliquely related way, the radical implications of what Jesus of Nazareth said is either missed or carefully de-emphasized by many institutional Christians. Not to worry though–O ye in high seats of power–not many, even among the so-called Evangelical crowd, will give their goods to the poor and preach the Gospel full time–let alone take up the cross.
Still, there is an essential difference between giving away what is yours, and laying claim to what is another’s, upon whatever grounds. Or in deciding to form a collective according to voluntary, open-eyed enrollment, versus coercion and violent force. Martin Luther, in great sympathy with The People in many ways, rebuked the revolting peasants (pun intended) for their violent overreach: Share your own goods and money among yourselves like the early Christians, but remember they did not demand a share of the Sadducees wealth, nor that of Herod or Pilate. I’m not placing Luther on an equivalent footing with Jesus, but he sure had a point on that one.

T Bone
TB
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Great response!  I like that you keep me sharp. You’re right, I did pivot from Marxism to Socialism pretty abruptly without explaining why.  The reason I did that is because I think at some point, all forms of Socialism become indistinguishable in method regardless of original intentions. Definitions of Socialism appear to be (purposefully?) fluid but as a general principle, it’s just a collectively owned economy geared at minimizing wasteful, excess production so that everyone has essentials.  It’s what we now call “sustainability.”

Every Socialist is appalled by bureacracy but in order to achieve sustainability goals, Socialism has to be administered by technical “Experts” committed to mass wealth distribution.  The concept of wealth distribution assumes wealth is zero sum.  That ones gain is another loss and so on.

Since a movement for mass wealth distribution looks beyond the self, it has to be governed by underlying moral duties of conscience beyond what is rational.  It is looking at fairness and justice.  That means Socialists believe in an objective moral vision that the wealth inequality is inherently evil.  But is it, or is inequality just a nature at work and by trying to artificially manipulate a natural hierarchy, is it possible you’ll produce a less efficient more tyrannical artificial hierarchy in its place?

You’re hitting on an important point which is the similarity with the Christian principle of the Meek inheriting the Earth.  That Christian society so seamlessly leaned into Capitalism and it’s byproduct; wealth disparities seemingly proves the hypocrisy of Christian doctrine.  But the Bible is very clear that Wealth is not bad.  It’s love of Wealth that is the root of evil. 

This seems like an extremely difficult principle to square but I find it quite simple. If your personal ambitions are driven by money than you’re doing it wrong.   But the idea of generating wealth disproportionate to your peers is not evil so long as it’s earned. The Capitalist system does produce inequality…but it’s also raised 95% of the world out of abject poverty.  So while it’s raising certain people up more than others, its also bringing so many along with it.  So the concept that the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer is simply untrue. The poor have been raised up dramatically by the Capitalist system.

So the question becomes, what is the evidence that Socialism (regardless of form) produces a more just, equal and less oppressive society than the system that raised so many people out of poverty?

AJ Mac
AM
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Thanks for the compliment. You suggest that Socialism is an especially slippery slope, and I don’t fully disagree. But once you capitalize any Ism, you raise the specter of an extreme or ideologically rigid version of that leaning–one that may not ever emerge, and often doesn’t. Even using public funds for roads, hospitals, and schools is, at some level, socialism. This exists in every country, only sometimes along with near-total central-state dominance as it does in Venezuela, Cuba, or North Korea. Even the comparatively socialist economy of France, while far more bureaucratic and centralized than the U.S., has many Capitalist features.
To me, the conflation of Socialism and Marxism is equivalent in inaccuracy to an undifferentiated pairing of Conservativism and Reactionary-ism (was gonna use the “f” word but I think that’ll quarantine my comment) or Capitalism and Radical Libertarianism. There is a statistical correlation and partial connection between the two words in each of the three pairs, but not an inevitable or definite one.
There will always be a continuum from, for example: voluntary collective action to communist dictatorship; individualism to anarchy. It’s a commonly a matter of degree and actual on-the-ground implementation more than any complete or stand-alone superiority of one side of the equation or the other, in my estimation. Individualism or Collectivism, Tradition or Innovation? The answer, for me, is yes.
As usual, I appreciate your thoughtful and fair-minded engagement.

T Bone
TB
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

As I noted, I think the definition of Socialism is purposefully kept fluid so it can be adapted to specific conditions. But  regardless of form, Socialism does have a clear essence. The essence is state control over the means of production.  Using tax dollars to build public infrastructure is neither Socialist or Capitalist. It’s just the public sphere.  Questionable decisions made with tax dollars can easily be remediated in the future by the Democratic process.

Socialism is when the public/private distinction becomes unclear.  Every form of Socialism evolves into something resembling State Capitalism which some Socialists (Marxists) see as an intermediary phase while Social Democrats see a type of incremental reform within an evolving Status Quo.  When Marxists describe the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, they’re describing a period BEFORE the workers take over the means of production and the State withers away (Communism).  This is the Top-Down Control phase driven by the Consensus of State-favored “Experts.” But this phase can never really end because Communism is simply aspirational not unlike Anarcho-Capitalism on the other side.

Another trait of all Socialism is that the public sector tries to achieve specific outcomes in the private sector. Its a form of Progressivism moving the Abstract/Idea to the Concrete/Reality.   Marxism is on the far side of the spectrum, trying to very actively produce transformational outcomes for the population. Social Democrats often has similar goals but they question the rate of change. 

Both forms are trying to use the public sector to ARTIFICIALLY transform social hierarchies in the interest of “Social Justice.”  One may tinker with production quotas in the automobile industry while the other tries to use Emergency Powers to enforce immediate changes to Industry in the name of Public Health or Environmental Sustainability.  But they’re both doing the same thing to different degrees.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Your above remarks continue to conflate any Socialism at all with Communism or even Tyrannical Socialist Dictatorship. Just as Individualism does not equate with Anarchy or Radical Libertarianism, socialism is not in and of itself equivalent or interchangeable with its most extreme, distant cousins. I can’t agree with your otherwise sensible remarks while this too-convenient blurring remains in play.
Maybe we should just “agree to disagree’ on this one?

T Bone
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I have no problem with you disagreeing. It’s helpful because I obviously need to work through my thoughts more.

How would you define Socialism?

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

After not really having a working definition of socialism and checking the top search results, I’d like to soften my stance. If you’re using this sort of definition: “a political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole”, your treatment of the word is more accurate than I was ready to allow. And with capitalism boiled down to: “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit”, I would certainly choose that “ism” if I had to select one in isolation.
But I don’t think it’s necessary to pick one to the exclusion of the other. Social democracy, sometimes called socialist democracy, can adhere to a primarily free-market system with widespread private ownership, but allow for a robust safety net in terms of health care, basic needs, establish a strong infrastructure, and prevent or at least limit–for example–all-for-profit prisons and hospitals. And it can enforce strong restrictions and penalties on corporations and individuals who poison the air, water, and soil we all share, individual liberty and claims to ownership notwithstanding, in many cases.
So I don’t really see any system that’s all the way capitalist, though the U.S. gets pretty close and a place like the UAE might be closer. There are closer-to-total communist or centralized-socialist states, but even China has some strains of capitalism. (And there is a always a corrupt elite who accumulate wealth and advantage in any coercive system).
I’d much rather live here in the U.S. than any place I know of, except (on some days) Canada where I was born and have extended family, but I’d like to see us take a few yards from the safety-nets of countries like England and Canada, without going quite so far (little danger of that given American popular opinion).
That’s my response after finding that the common definitions of Socialism don’t support my objections to your use of it to the extent I wanted.
*I’ve just read an article about which I’m genuinely curious to hear your opinion or analysis: https://www.persuasion.community/p/isaiah-berlin-and-the-tragedy-of?utm_campaign=email-half-post&r=7×231&utm_source=substack&utm_medium=email

T Bone
TB
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I’ve come across this Berlin quote numerous times in the past few years. (I also recently covered the Luther/Peasant Revolt you referenced in an earlier post, so we’re obviously studying many of the same things).

In a Classically Liberal Democratic society, it seems Negative Liberty is axiomatically more foundational than Positive Liberty.  So you would seemingly place Negative Liberty on an axis with Individualism and Positive Liberty on an axis with Collectivism.

So while Negative Liberty is more foundational, if you don’t have Positive Liberty, which is essentially the ABILITY to generate enough essentials for a Community to maintain order and stability; than the Negative Liberty of individuals is threatened by social conflict.  If everybody is fighting and stealing, the social environment itself is essentially unfree and will restrain one’s ability to do what he/she wants.  So you need both forms of Liberty, it’s just that a sustainable form of Positive and Negative Liberty have to be achieved democratically through informed consent to preserve them.  If someone imposes Positive Liberty like DEI, it’s going to have the opposite effect.

How one evaluates “Ability” is the key word that separates more individualistic people from more collectivist types.  My contention is that the Collectivist framework, which is “Inclusive” has a noble goal of serving All.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with that ambition.  Its an extremely Christian precept.

It starts from the default notion that in order to secure the “ability” for All to succeed, the Least Able have to be prioritized.  When most societies build social safety nets and public services, there is no public blowback to wheelchair or handicap accessibility infrastructure.  The reason I don’t consider this infrastructure “Socialist” is because the infrastructure and parking arrangements get constructed with the consent of the governed.  It’s voluntary. If the Public really doesn’t want it, they can vote against it or against the people that promote it.  But fortunately there’s no passion to do that. So in the case of handicap accessible infrastructure, local and central governments have trusted people to make the morally just decision and in so doing, eliminated conflict.

The problem occurs when Collectivists stretch the concepts of ability or disability.  For instance, DEI (Equity) basically follows a social disability model of bringing more and more people under the classification of “socially disabled” and therefore needing an advantage to assure the “ability” to be made equal.  This is Positive Liberty trouncing Negative Liberty.  An individual not classified as socially disabled (marginalized) therefore has to be restrained from speaking (Negative Liberty taken away) if that speech might UNDERMINE the public’s desire to Democratically consent to Equity initiatives. That’s why you’ll hear Equity advocates claiming Speech is Violence. They see that the speech could influence public opinion making it less likely for their initiative to succeed.

So my position is that if you look under the hood at Socialism, it is inconsistent with Informed Consent Democracy as people traditionally understand the West to be.  That is because if it doesn’t get what it wants democratically, it has to find a way to forcefully impose it because it’s utilitarian in nature. The Ends justify the Means.

Feel free to critique and don’t apologize if you disagree.  I’m not claiming to be right. This is just a hypothesis.

AJ Mac
AM
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Ok, now you’ve got me thinking in more depth and detail, and I have a better sense of your current perspective. Great post.
I accept that much voluntary collective action at the level of family, community, city, state–or even nation–is not therefore Socialist. But what about a hypothetical yet possible situation in which a majority of 50% plus one votes for a compulsory income sharing? Strictly speaking, this would be democratic, according to the “will of the people”. But it sounds like a lot a Tyranny of the Majority to me. The same assessment would apply to a thin-majority vote to make all hospitals and prison for-profit enterprises, or to remove all restrictions on polluting the air water, and soil. I think we’d agree that it’s not their own, nor any one generation’s Earth to exploit and despoil without limit.
Perhaps a blood-and-soil nationalism, enforced by a ruthless dictator in the model of you-know-who, might adhere to the majority’s expressed wishes, but with severe consequences for certain minorities.
And not every issue is on the ballot every time around. The preferences of 50,001 out of 100,000 voters can become law for decades, or longer, even after public opinion tilts away from them.
As you laid out quite well above, Collectivism and Individualism, Liberty and Safety will always be in a dynamic tension. That tension can be wholesome and, in any case, it is inescapable.
To conclude: I’m persuaded to adopt a version of your separation of 1) voluntary collective action 2) Socialism. I still think there are some blurry lines between majority-choice and coercion that can lead all the way to tyranny, on both the Left and Right.
During this exchange and earlier ones, I think I’ve misunderstood you to be advocating certain things you were only describing. I’ll make a better effort not to do that anymore.

T Bone
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Good example but I believe a compulsory-income sharing program, even passed through a ballot measure at the State level would run into the 14th Amendment and ruled unconstitutional. I think a redistribution program would need to be more subtle either in the form of a new tax or a public pool for some specific social cause like Universal Healthcare.

Universal Healthcare at the State level could be achieved democratically but also undone democratically. But again, I don’t necessarily consider that Socialism unless the State was implementing the system for all (which it probably can’t do because it would infringe a right to private insurance). Most calls for Universal Healthcare are basically just universal insurance mandates. So it would just be a highly regulated environment with a right to insurance.

The article here basically acknowledges that in a liberal democracy, Socialism can’t be implemented. Take a look at the three paragraphs near the bottom starting with “Without a rapid, sharp break with the existing political order.”

I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on what the writer means by it.

https://socialistworker.org/2016/11/07/can-socialism-be-elected-into-power

AJ Mac
AM
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

I see your point but I’m not entirely persuaded. Rubinstein’s last three paragraphs use the term Marxism only, not Socialism. You are still treating them as interchangeable, which I think you should avoid. (Incidentally, have you read the short Communist Manifesto or much of the much longer Das Kapital? I’m not endorsing the claims made there but Kapital in particular has some major insights about industry and economics, alongside its errors and overreach.
Nor do I think that any Socialism leads inevitably to bloody or tyrannical extremes, as you seem to suggest. Partly-Socialist Democracy is “a thing”, with examples like Canada, the UK, and Denmark. Again: I accept your distinctions to a major extent, but not in absolute measure.
Thanks for the worthwhile exchange and please have the last word on this board if you’d like.

T Bone
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Hey man- This is the paragraphs I was referencing from Ruder’s 2016 article from Socialist Worker. I put the link at the bottom of the last post.

Ruder:
“As the Chilean and French examples showed, capitalists can reduce investment or send investment abroad in order to discipline social democratic governments that they think go too far. In the face of capitalist resistance, revolutionary socialists argue for the need for workers to run production themselves, which is precisely the outcome that social democrats have sought to deflect for more than a century.

Without a rapid, sharp break with the existing political order to place the productive resources of the economy under the direct control of the working class, the existing state will remain a tool of the capitalist class.

This state must be replaced with workers organized in workers’ councils at the point of production to overcome both the resistance of individual capitalists as well as the armed power of the state to crush working-class solidarity.

Socialism can’t be elected into power because it’s impossible to legislate that workers organize themselves to take charge of all of society’s affairs. The working class can only learn about its own power and come to wield it through the actual experience of participating in living, breathing struggles to transform the world.”

AJ Mac
AM
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

My mistake in overlooking your link dude, and in misunderstanding your unclear phrase “the article here”. I just finished giving it a quick read, with a focus on the concluding paragraphs. (I’m a little too otherwise occupied to give it my full, sustained attention right now). I agree that socialism can’t “be elected into power”. But neither can any “ism” be effectively implemented by vote alone. It takes time, and many of the worst aspects of capitalism, for example–like severe wealth concentration, and corporate disregard for the environment and general commonwealth–occur without the consent of the whole electorate too, except in some remote sense of “representation”.
Ruder’s claims are those of someone advocating forced socialist revolution. They are not therefore invalid, but they sound extreme and absolute to me at first reading. He sneers at “social democrats”: “Throughout their history, social democrats have consistently tried to undercut working-class militancy by using the language of liberation to justify the status quo–and portray anyone who resists as “impractical,” “ignorant” or even dangerously “subversive.”
I don’t like sustained militancy or calls for coerced revolution, under almost any conceivable circumstances. So I guess I’m one of those “underminers” too. Anything system that requires a coercive and bloody implementation is a non-starter for me. You?

T Bone
TB
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Its seems if you’re going to get along with others that don’t share your views, Intellectual Humility is the number one imperative.  Its the reason you and I can converse seamlessly despite different political preferences.  We’re both trying to learn not huffing our own exhaust.

I didn’t mean to say that everyone identitying as a Socialist or anybody that likes collective policies are secret totalitarians.  I’m simply saying collectivist policies or “collective target goals” are inherently more likely to suppress negative liberty because the RIGHTS of the individual become subservient to the NEEDS of the so called “collective whole.” So as a Social Democrat, if you support collective target goals but also value free speech, you’re more likely to run into a value conflict when tension between the  two principles can’t be resolved.  For a Classical Liberal, there’s no tension, the right to speak trumps the right to achieve target goals every time.

Think about the who determines and how it is determined what is best for the “collective whole.” Environmental and Covid policies provide good examples due to the way that the target goals are administered by unelected global “Experts.”  The experts say the top priority is getting X levels of C02 reduction and X number of people vaccinated.  It’s not a problem for experts to set collective goals. The issue occurs when the experts decide that the general population has no right to question the target goals.  They actually begin to treat political dissent like a public health risk.  Concepts like “Climate Denialism” and “Vaccine Hesitancy” are clearly silencing mechanisms.  They’re attempts to suppress debate. 

This act of suppressing debate has two consequences.  First, people rebel and refuse to participate because they feel they’re being played.  That rebellion then leads Experts to recommend crackdown measures to deplatform the non-compliants spreading “harmful information.”  Meanwhile, the target goals (which often do have some merit) are failing to be met because the experts have eliminated skeptics from the discussion. 

If the experts really cared about the environment, they would recognize the need for incremental progress by finding common ground with skeptics.  I care about the environment. I want clean water and air.  How about the environmental experts RECOMMEND more on removing toxins in waste water and cleaning up industrial blight instead of grand scale ambitions that impose dissent restrictions (censorship) on the general population. The experts role should be to recommend not impose. They would gain alot more voluntary public buy-in if they spent less time speaking at and more time speaking to people.

Anyhow, I’m rambling now.  Enjoyed the discussion as always. Cheers.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

Excellent rambles* and I mean that sincerely. See ya on the next board, sir.
*Which I’m mostly in robust agreement with, especially on recommendation vs. imposition-by-fiat and incremental progress being the preferable approach. Cheers.

AJ Mac
AM
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

By the way T Bone:
I saw your reply, with its central focus on negative vs. positive liberty, before it “got disappeared” for whatever lame reason. I’ll check back again.
For now, I’ll just say that I’m glad you are willing to allow disagreement, and remain civil and intellectually charitable toward those with whom you engage directly. I’m still working on that myself.

T Bone
T Bone
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

I responded. I don’t know what Unherd objected to but it should be there in 24 hours ha.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

By 1979 there was at least thirty years of public ownership of mines, power generation, steel industry, much of ship building industry, airlines , etc. So what did we have ? Organisation run for the benefit of union leaders of un and semi skilled unions. This meant massive debt, over manning of un and semi- skilled workers; lack of pay differential wit skilled and responsible employees , resistance to new technology. In the 1970s 70 % of the TUC was un and semi skilled and they provided money Labour Party> It was not until 1976-179 under Callaghan and , Healey that public spending was reduced.
Yes one can have state ownership provided a Socialist government does what is best for the country , not just it’s members.
There were sensible union leaders G Laird and W Jordon  of AEU, Hammond and Chapple of EETPU, all who represented craft unions and appreciated challenges of new technology. In 1960s Wilson( PM ) had Cousins head of TGWU, an unskilled union, head of Technology, utter disaster.
From 1945 , may of our skilled people, craftsmen, technicians, scientists and engineers went overseas , it was called The Brain Drain.
There was also the many strikes – car production, docks, shipyards, seaman, coal industry,steel industry, etc. The dockers and miners striked during WW2 !
Look at British experience of Socialism 1939-1992 ; that was reality.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

I admit that I only knew bits and pieces of what you’ve detailed here. Thanks.
I find it noteworthy that you extend the Era of Socialism in the UK all the way through the Thatcher years and into the beginning of Major’s term. I’m curious: To what do you attribute the failure of Tory aims during this period, particularly under the rather popular and energetic Ms. Thatcher? (Perhaps the collectivist apparatus was too entrenched, or Tories were themselves too susceptible to Socialist policies at that time).
And what changed in 1992? I thought Britain was still quite “socialized” today, at least from an American perspective.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Thank you.
The British intelligentsia went left wing in the early 1930s and the universities post 1935. In WW2 the Civil Service controlled much of Britain which was run by university graduates.We had food rationing until 1953 and building supplies were rationed as well.
The left wing intelligentsia dominated the BBC, state education, state funded theatre and NHS – it was pure Gramsci.
It was defeat of Labour in the 1992 election which they were expected to win, which persuaded Blair and Brown to change tack.
Thatcher was a provincial shop keepers daughter brought up in Methodism with a science degree which was her greatest strength and weakness. She understood the economic aspects of Marxism and the need to withstand the military might of the USSR but failed to understand Cultural Marxism – The Frankfurt Shool and Gramsci. Left wing thought appeals to certain type of middle class person, suggest you read Orwell’s Lion and Unicorn, My Country Right or Left , Inside the Whale, Wells, Nationalism; basically the end of vol 1, most of vol 2 and some of vol 3, of his collected essays.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

I’m pretty conversant with Orwell–the Right’s favourite Leftist–and knew the part of Thatcher’s background that you outlined. I’m a bit lost for detail and specific national context on much of the rest*.
You tend toward sweeping claims, but you do provide considerable evidence, citation, and relevant personal anecdote for most of them. And I can’t pretend I don’t resort to generalisations and cherrypicked facts quite often myself. Cheers.
*So thanks for whatever instruction I’m able to take from your compressed summaries.

Jae
J
Jae
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

They run on emotion and lack logic. It’s why they keep pressing repeat.

Jae
Jae
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

You’d think the trains never actually running on time would give them a clue.

Chipoko
Chipoko
2 months ago
Reply to  T Bone

To: T Bone and AJ Mac
I’ve throughly enjoyed and respected your highly informative and worthy discussion. Such exchanges are balanced. erudite and contribute real insight into the subject examined. Unherd readership at its best. Thank you!

Liakoura
Liakoura
2 months ago

The writer concludes:
“If Althusser was the logical end-point of Marxism, Thompson once wrote, then he would rather be a Christian than a Marxist: at least Christians value the conscience, dignity, and free-will of the individual.”
Having had the misfortune to be born to fundamentalist Christian parents, “the conscience, dignity, and free-will” of this individual was never worthy of consideration.

David B
David B
2 months ago

“…historically-oriented English socialism because it placed the freedom of the individual at its heart.”

Oxymoronic

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 months ago
Reply to  David B

Cobbett , The Chartists and Founders of the Labour Party were Methodists, Baptists, Quakers and Non Conformists and wanted to improve the quality of the lives of the poor, not be involved in class war. The formation of the Fabians, Webbs , Laski, etc introduced middle class intellectuals and Marxism into the Labour Party. As Orwell pointed out working class Marxists were rare, it was the middle class intellectuals with private incomes brought up peace, comfort and security which belived in Marxism and totalitarian regimes..
E P Thompson comes on the seen when the Non Conformists influence on the Labour was greatly reduced and left wing intellectuals were Marxist. There were no middle class N C democratic socialist intellectuals left post WW2.

Josh Allan
Josh Allan
2 months ago

An excellent piece

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
2 months ago

Senator McCarthy most certainly did spread his net too wide, but he was essentially right. We really must start treating communists as fascists.

Andrew F
Andrew F
2 months ago
Reply to  Richard Craven

Why do you think he was excessive?
He was after people who betrayed democratic country to serve murderous Stalinist regime.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

And others he just threatened, accused, and discredited without any evidence or just cause, for his own political gain. Remember? Guilt by association, even by insinuation. That ain’t American in any good sense and it never was. Joseph McCarthy would have done more to combat true communist radicals in America if he wasn’t such a blowhard demagogue.

Richard Craven
RC
Richard Craven
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

Because he persecuted democratic leftists as well as the communists whom he quite rightly hounded.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 months ago
Reply to  Andrew F

I detect insecurity in McCarthy,he lied about his combat record. He was a a lawyer but appear to lack emotional detachment. In the end did he do the KGB a favour by missing the location of the actual communists and creating sympathy for them? There is a saying in chess one make the move one’s opponent least wants. Well what would have done the most damage to the KGB in the 1950s ? Locate KGB agents and either turn them or feed them false information like the British XX Committee in WW2 .
Double-Cross System – Wikipedia
Would a John Cecil Masterman have done more damage to the USSR than McCarthy?

Tim Brooks
TB
Tim Brooks
2 months ago

Good article. Interesting perspective on a great British historian.

Charles Hedges
CH
Charles Hedges
2 months ago

E P Thompson endured the Battle of Monte Cassino in a tank unit where rich and poor, those with little and much education, depended on each other for their lives. MC was one of the most brutal battles of WW2 where he would have fought alongside working class men. No doubt battle hardened soldiers told him was talking bollocks from time to time. The British Army is based upon regiments some which go back two hundred plus years. Orwell said the left wing intelligentsia lived in a world of ideas with little contact with physical reality; despised patriotism and physical courage, they played with fire and did not know it was hot. The Thompson brothers were the exception. All other left wing intellectuals lacked EP Thompson experience of the physical reality of combat and physical realities in general. Intellectuals , the least useful members of the middle class according to Orwell escape to a world of ideas because they cannot cope with the physical realities. Orwell said he had faith in the common decency of the ordinary man. Thompson would have fought, ate and slept longside his tank crew and in that he would have experienced the common decency of the ordinary man.
Battle of Monte Cassino – Wikipedia
In WW2, how many Marxist intellectuals risked their lives fighting the Nazis ?

chris savory
CS
chris savory
2 months ago

Interesting article young man. Thanks.

Michael Cavanaugh
MC
Michael Cavanaugh
2 months ago

‘The word “agency” may now have surpassed “syntagm”, “conjecture”, and perhaps even “problematic” as a bromide of historical and philosophical writing.’ This, if true, would also be paradoxical in that the importance of agency (avant la lettre — oops) comes out both in Thompson’s redefinition of class as a relationship (“The working class did not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making”) and the assertion that the great homegrown radicals were not Pavlov dogs. (Indeed it comes out in 1963 — nay, 1957 — well before Berger, Luckmann, Giddens and the rest.)
Agency (action; Handeln; etc) readily becomes the stepchild of structuration and the like — good intentions apart. Which, of course, plays into Rubinstein’s excellent suggestion: let’s not forget E P Thompson.