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This item is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

E. P. THOMPSON, whom in the past we have been privileged to print, surely scored a great success last year with his Writing by Candlelight. Scoring successes, however, is hardly what Thompson is after in his writing, and the expression is quite out of keeping with the tones of alarm and dismay which inform most of the admirably pungent polemical pieces collected in that book. Still, the tone of Thompson's voice varies a great deal; and indeed the range of tones at his command is part of what makes him an admirable writer, and invariably readable. Neither alarm nor dismay informs for instance a striking passage where, reflecting on the quarrel he had with the University of Warwick a decade ago, he considers himself in relation to Lord Radcliffe who as Warwick's Chancellor was then in some sense Thompson's prinicpal antagonist. Lord Radcliffe, he muses, 'belongs securely to-and has been a distinguished member of-a governing class.' And Thompson goes on:

He is not ashamed of that, he shares its esprit de corps, and he has an unusual sense of its difficulties and its duties. And I belong-much as I may try to disguise the fact even from myself-to a kind of shabby sub-Establishment, part literary, part academic, part Dissent, part (perhaps?) poaching, which has been watching that Establishment for some hundreds of years, resisting its pretensions, throwing back its encroachments, but never, finally, challenging its power.

It is natural and proper for us, as we read this, to ask ourselves whose side we are on- do we stand with Lord Radcliffe's 'Establishment', or with Edward Thompson's 'sub-Establishment'? But surely the quandary for many of us is that we are as far from identifying with the one as with the other. Many or most of us, I dare say, derive from levels of British society far below those on which an Establishment and a sub-Establishment, however 'shabby', go through the motions of making faces at each other. If we not only 'derive' from such levels, but choose to abide on them and with them, the confrontation between Thompson and Lord Radcliffe will seem to be only a confrontation inside 'a governing class'; and our sense of that is what provokes us to disparaging expressions like 'going through the motions' and 'making faces'.

To many of us, in other words, it was never presented as a possibility that we had a right or a duty to sway our fellow-citizens either for or against anything at all. Edward Thompson's admiring recollections of his father, publicist on behalf of Indian independence, friend of Rabindranath Tagore and Jawaharlal Nehru, show how impossible it has always been for him to conceive of himself in that self-effacing way. And one admires him for recognizing and shouldering the responsibility that his family inheritance has laid on him. But it inevitably sets him, as much as it sets Lord Radcliffe, at a great distance from the rest of us. Indeed we may well think that it consigns us to a sort of Limbo in Edward Thompson's map of British society both now and in the past. Yet it is a rather important as well as a densely peopled Limbo; since from it were drawn those 'twelve good men and true' who have constituted the juries for which in this book, no doubt very opportunely, he has taken up arms. He is surely right to be very vigilant about the practices of vetting or 'pricking' juries; but we shall hardly feel so urgently about it as he does, if we and our kind are of that vast majority to whom neither Prosecution nor Defence could ever raise objections. Between him and us the distinction is a class-distinction. He belongs, so securely that he isn't even aware of it, to the class of the leaders; whereas most of us were born to the far more numerous class of the loners or else the led.

On this very question of 'class', Thompson has found himself forced by historical evidence along a line of argument that takes him very far from received Marxist doctrine. And it is hard not to see a panicky vehemence in the way Perry Anderson (Arguments Within English Marxism, p. 55) re-asserts the pristine doctrine: 'It is, and must be, the dominant mode of production that confers fundamental unity on a social formation, allocating their objective positions to the classes within it, and distributing the agents within each class.' Thompson's really alarming heresy, from a viewpoint like Perry Anderson's, is his contention that 'class, as it eventuated within nineteenth-century industrial capitalist societies, and as it then left its imprint upon the heuristic category of class, has in fact no claim to universality'. Translated out of the impressively systematic but rather special terms of intra-Marxist polemic, this means that a person belongs to 'the working class' (or to any other class) only when he thinks he does, only when he conceives of his social being in those terms; and that he is able to do so only when such categories become available to him, as they became available in the nineteenth century, but not before; hence that the variously exploited labouring poor in eighteenth-century England did not constitute a working class but only, as they dangerously congregated in this or that place at this or that time, 'the crowd' or 'the mob'-which is how their opponents described them. And indeed it seems clear that any worker of that period, interrogated, would have described himself first as a farrier, or coal-heaver, or ploughman; or else as Baptist or Independent or Anglican; certainly not as 'worker'.

Moreover, Perry Anderson's would-be triumphant riposte- 'the ruling class . . . was certainly possessed of the necessary sense of identity and combativity to constitute a class, even on Thompson's own criteria'-seems at least as much open to question: the Oliver Goldsmith who wrote 'The Traveller' and 'The Deserted Village' seems to have perceived his own identity as quite distinct from that of 'the ruling class', the Whig hegemony which he hated; and Goldsmith's 'combativity' was exercised against them, the Whig commercial and planter interests, not against the exploited poor. Shall we he told that 'objectively'- blessed word!-the farriers and coal-heavers were a working class without knowing it, and Goldsmith the Tory monarchist was on the side of the governing class though he thought otherwise? Handled with calipers so long-striding and yet so pernickety, history becomes infinitely malleable. Thompson's point is that class-consciousness defines class, not the other way round. And for such clearings away of cant PNR will always be grateful, whatever the point they may come from on the political spectrum.

This item is taken from PN Review 20, Volume 7 Number 6, July - August 1981.

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