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E. P. Thompson, 1924-1993; Madan Sarup, 1930-1993

E. P. Thompson, 1924-1993
The great bustard has winged off, removing as he went one of the
prime attractions of these shores, and one of the few remaining
reasons for still proclaiming intellectual allegiance to them.

Thompson liked to present himself as an earth-bound English
creature incapable of much soaring. But he had enough of the lark
in him to have died singing, as Blake is said to have done; and who
knows but that he did in his own fashion, for he was of that spirit.

Thompson’s trust in ‘experience’ shared common roots with
Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’. He knew what the poet meant
when he warned that ‘He who shall teach the Child to Doubt, The
rotting Grave shall neer get out’ , and he has escaped that rot, and
will live with us now as one of the most inspirational voices of
English culture. Thompson has been rightly acclaimed the greatest English historian of the post-war period, and his stature as a
peace activist aptly compared to that of Bertrand Russell. But as
a polemicist and radical visionary, he may be ranked in a canon
which transcends our own century. Thompson was not simply a
rill, to invoke Coleridge’ s metaphor, flowing with a perforation in
the tanks ofBlake, and Morris, Swift and Cobbett. He was himself
a fountain comparable to theirs.

But perhaps the watery image is not the most appropriate. In
many respects he was more like a power house; and although
illness had already reduced some of the force before he died, now
that he has been finally extinguished, one feels the cut in energy
all the more acutely. In fact, to realise that the switches have been
flicked, and that we are not going to get any more of his historical
illumination, his brilliant polemic, his moral clarity, his particular
spotlight on the past, the present, the future … is to feel a certain
indignation. One is not normally moved to pen a letter to that
Nobodaddy editor of our times up aloft, but in this case, ‘Sir, May
I, writing by candlelight, protest against this latest, excessive
demand on the forces of dissent, which leaves so many of us
radicals so extremely inconvenienced. The alarm call to action
won’t go off, the Cold War’s done on one side only, the realist
principles are deconstructing, the Labour apparatus has gone dead
on us, the rest of the protest’s at best lukewarm, and there’s
nothing to do but to go early to a loveless bed and squint in the
gloom at our copies of Fukuyama. ‘

Lest this provoke an epistolary levee en masse among the
readers of Radical Philosophy, let me hasten to add that I have no
wish to divinise Thompson as the only light in a naughty world.

I intend only to pay tribute to the incandescent quality of his
interventions, and to the extent to which, whether we agreed with
him or not, we had come to rely on his continual recharging of the

The man who devoted his life to preempting the real termination and contesting the rhetorical ‘end’ of history began his own
history in 1924 in Oxford, in an ambiance of Methodist dissent
with strong Indian connections. Former missionaries in India, his
parents were on friendly terms with Gandhi and Nehru, and one
of Thompson’s last projects was a study of his father’s close
involvement in the life and work of the poet Rabindranath Tagore.

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

The other great family influence was exerted posthumously by his
brother, Frank, whose vision of a democratic socialist Europe
remained essentially Edward’s own, and whose life (sacrificed at
21 while fighting for the Bulgarian partisans) had in some sense,
impossibly, to be realised through his survivor.

Thompson, like his brother, was already a member of the
Communist Party by the time of the war, which he spent serving
with a tank regiment in Italy. From there he returned to complete
a ‘war degree’ in history from Corpus Christi, Cambridge. (The
college, somewhat belatedly one may feel, was to honour him
with a fellowship in 1989.) In 1948 he married Dorothy Towers,
who remained his collaborator and companion till death, and
without whose full-time career in the academy he could not have
abandoned his own as early as he did. The period 1948-1965
spent in the West Riding, with Thompson working as an extra
mural Lecturer at Leeds University, was to issue first in the major
reinterpretation of the project ofWilliam Morris, William Morris:

Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), and then in the chef d’ oeuvre
of The Making of the English Working Class (1963). But it was
also the period ofThompson’ s early career as a peace activist, first
with the British Peace Committee, then with CND on its formation in 1957; of his agitation against the wars in Korea, Kenya,
Malaya, Cyprus and Algeria; and of his break, following the
Soviet repression in Hungary, from the British Communist Party.

He began to reason, he was to claim, only in his 33rd year, the date
of the founding of the New Reasoner, the organ which gave
English voice to the ‘socialist humanism’ which Thompson
describes in The Poverty of Theory as arising ‘simultaneously in
a hundred places, and on ten thousand lips’ in Eastern Europe.


Later to amalgamate with that other journal of ‘socialist humanism’, the Universities and Left Review, to form the New Left
Review, the New Reasoner signalled the emergence of the New
Left in Britain. It also marked Thompson’s unswervingly nonaligned position in the Cold War, and his personal resistance
movement to the ‘inverted Podsnappery’ of the Nairn-Anderson
analysis of British history, to Continental rationalism and to
Marxist anti-humanism, evidenced and documented in the bitter
disputes which ensued with the subsequent editors of the New Left
Review. All this was to culminate in 1978 in the onslaught on
‘Stalinism in theory’ of The Poverty of Theory – which ends, in
effect, with a call to Marxist intellectuals to unburden themselves
of this ‘alp on the brain’ and renew the agenda of the (old) New
Left sketched in the original ‘Epistle to the Philistines’ of 1957.

In the meantime, the main target of Thompson’s polemic had
shifted, and the sixties were spent inveighing not so much against
Stalinian Communism, but the philistinism of ‘Natopolitanism’

and the apathy of the Labour Left and Communist dissenters in
leaving capitalism to ‘rot on the bough’ when Britain was overripe for socialism. This was given more concrete expression in
Thompson’s steadfast solidarity with the student protest against
the tailoring of Warwick University (which he hadjoined in 1965)
to the needs of industry. Resigning his post in disgust in 1971, he
was never again to take permanent employment in the academy,
which is not to say that he did not engage in an exhausting
programme of visiting lecturing, mainly in the United States,
which in the last decade of his life added to the toll of his frenetic
peace movement activity.

During the seventies Thompson continued and deepened,
though with an increasing note of pessimism, his campaign
against the abuse of State power, both in his historical writing and
in a series of Swiftian diatribes on the condition of the day. The
historical accusation is most powerfully represented in Whigs and
Hunters (1975), the contemporary in the brilliant essays collected
in Writing by Candlelight (1980). At the same time, Thompson
was brooding ever more despairingly at the Cold War cul-de-sac,
but only to erupt, when the moment came, in the inspired exhortation to action of Protest and Survive. As the peace movement
swelled in the early eighties in response to the agreement on INF
deployment, Thompson ceded the writing of history to the attempt to make it. It was at this point that the logic of his demand
for ‘socialist humanism’ as a third way between the oppositional
but mirrored ideologies of the Soviet and Natopolitan systems
was translated most tellingly and effectively into the call to pilt the
agendas for peace and human rights together in a movement that
would remove the weapons ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals’ and
take Europe ‘beyond the blocs’ .

Indefatigable in his pursuit of the objectives of the END
campaign, Thompson spent the better part of the decade as a
roving ambassador on the international peace circuit. The articles,
letters and memos poured from his desk in the sackful. At any
moment, he might be found exhorting the masses in Trafalgar
Square to ‘feel their strength’ or manning the bookstall at the END
bazaar; playing percussion in a fund-raising concert or haggling
at the Czech embassy over the suppression of the Jazz Group;
dialoguing with Charta 77 or marching at the head of an antiNATO rally in Madrid; exposing the grotesqueries of the SDI
programme or railing against the skullduggery of the Soviet Peace
Committee. That the CIA and the KGB would both accuse each
other of funding these activities only served to reaffirm the
wisdom of pressing for a process of ‘citizens’ detente’ and for the
adoption of a non-aligned position within the Western peace
movement. This was to prove of critical importance, both in the


impact it had on the politics and strategies of the latter, and in the
space it opened up for trans-bloc dialogue between it and the
independent peace initiatives and dissident groups in Eastern
Europe. This was no easy dialogue to sustain, demanding as it did
a keen sensitivity to differences of political priority and to the
divergent conditions under which the various peace groups in
both halves of Europe were at that time working. The story of its
ideological complexities is yet to be told. But when it is, it will be
clear that without Thompson’ s sense of historical eventuation and
his punctilious concern for the individuals involved in the proc- .

ess, certain lines of East -West communication which contributed
to the dramatic changes of the late eighties would not have been
opened up.

To make these claims for Thompson’s agency in the making
of recent history is not to suppose he was the only influence on the
internationalisation of the British peace movement, or that he
singlehandedly either devised or promoted the END programme.

Even less is it to suggest that he was responsible for the ending of
the Cold War, which is the ‘absurdity’ which some respondents
have read into Mary Kaldor’ s obituary tribute in the Independent.

What Kaldor actually claims is that, in the fullness of time,
Thompson, along with Gorbachev and Havel, will be viewed as
‘one ofthe key individuals who influenced the course of events in
the 1980s’, and this point is hardly refuted either by an appeal to
the steadfastness of Reagan and the hard right, or to Western
‘victory’ in the Cold War, or even to the supposedly brute fact that
the freeze ended because of the internal economic contradictions
of the Soviet Union and the consequent transformation in its
leadership. To argue that the Cold War collapsed because the
Soviet Union collapsed is more in the order of an analytic
statement than a piece of historical analysis. ‘Collapses’ of that
order do not take place in a vacuum, but in a context shaped by
shifts of atmosphere and the emergence of altered .logics; a
context which in turn exerts a specific influence on the direction
taken by the unfolding of the events it has helped to precipitate.

If it is true that glasnost and perestroika came in response to
domestic crisis, it is also true that its defence and foreign policy
initiatives were informed by peace movement thinking, and that
the climate of reception of these both within and without the
Soviet bloc had been altered by exposure to the pressures of the
non-aligned anti-nuclear campaign in the West. As the major
architect and spokesperson of that campaign, Thompson can
certainly be said to have played a key role in shaping the historical
disposition of the late eighties. Even at the time, as Kaldor notes,
he was wryly predicting the historical theft of the peace movement contribution. ‘This is the most serious political work I have
ever done or will ever do in my life,’ he wrote. ‘It won’t last long.

If we succeed a little, the politicians will move in and take it off

What also, one fears, may be taken off him post-mortem, now
that it can no longer lacerate, is that ‘fierce indignation’ and
socialist morality which made him such a thorn in the flesh of the
establishment while alive. Already, in some of his obituary
notices, one detects the machinery of the assimilative culture
going into action in the salutes to the grand old ‘British’ troublemaker who kept open the lines of liberal dissent. In Paul Barker’s
tribute in The Sunday Times (which, it should be said, is that of an
editor who gave space to Thompson in New Society at a time when
few others were prepared to do so), there is little to suggest that
Thompson had ever been an advocate of the thought of Morris, let
alone of Marx. He was a communist for a while, Barker concedes,
but this ran up against his ‘wonderful unwillingness to hold his
tongue’. Thompson is presented as carrying the torch of Paine,
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

Cobbett and Hazlitt; Leavis, Hoggart and Orwell are cited among
the more contemporary figures closest in spirit to him. One would
not deny that association with this pantheon captures a good deal
of the quality ofThompson’s dissent. But it captures it only in the
form of the discriminations through which he criticised Marxist
theory and much of its political legacy. What it fails to register is
the distinctively socialist position from which Thompson took
issue with Orwell’s dismissals of the ‘squashily pacifist’ and
‘bearded fruit-juice drinkers’ of the Left, with the aspirations to
a ‘common culture’, and with the blindnesses of a left liberal
tradition of dissent to its own forms of quietism and elitism. In this
process of abstraction and conflation, not only does the actual
failure of realisation in ‘British’ society of everything which
Thompson stood for go unnoticed: but so too do those contemporary forms of dissent, notably feminism, which must be allowed
to trouble the argument of the troublemakers, Thompson included. Against this congratulatory emphasis (quite absent, one
might say, from the fine note in The Telegraph), on Thompson’s
membership of the Awkward Squad, or on the ‘humaneness’ of
his ‘abandonment of Marxist class analysis’ by the time of The
Making of the English Working Class (The Times), one may well
feel inclined to side with Andrew Marr (The Independent) in his
call for a little more ire. A more suitable memorial, suggests Marr,
would be to declare an annual ‘two minutes pandemonium’. Yet
even this, perhaps, smacks a little of containment. Thompson’s
own response, one may imagine, might have been ‘why only two
minutes?’ .

Of course, Thompson did, as he put it, ‘share the same idiom
as that of the culture which is my reluctant host’, and he would
have been glad that W. L. Webb (The Guardian) and others had
noted it. On this basis, some might want to argue (wrongly, to my
mind) that he invited the assimilation by the ‘host’, and that it is
therefore a touch disingenuous of Marr to protest against its
hypocrisy. There is rather more reason in the complaints of his
critics against the assimilative effects of a resistance to Continental ‘imports’ which tended to present Sartre and Althusser, Lacan
and Marcuse as all coming from the same warehouse, through the
exclusive agency of the New Left Review. All the same, the
paradox (together with some of the irony) of the ‘great bustard’

bluster has not always been sufficiently noticed. For of all the Left

theorists of his generation, Thompson had by far the widest
international audience, and the anti-chauvinism of his peace
movement perspectives and activities can hardly be disputed. We
might note, moreover, that there were numerous Continental
contributions (including from Gramsci, Sartre and Bourdet) to the
New Reasoner, and that the END Journal provided an almost
unique forum for East European dissident writings throughout the
eighties. Thompson may not have been able to fly very far in
theory, but he still managed to jump quite successfully across
national barriers and continental blocs in thinking.

What allowed Thompson’s voice to carry so far was the
inherent consistency of its message. At a low point in the seventies, he himself was inclined to suppose that it was the sheer
boredom of such consistency that would lead in the end to its
silencing. ‘Consistency is an old bore,’ he remarked in his letter
to Kolakowski, ‘the voice of the bore is doomed in the end to tail
off into silence.’ But he went on to prove this wrong in the sheer
persistence with which, as Sheila Rowbotham puts it (New
Statesman and Society), he ‘pitted himself against seemingly
invincible forces, knowing that so many others had taken the risks
of commitment’. His great political legacy to us is this refusal to
submit to pessimism; and the examplar he provides of how
important it will always be to keep the past in mind if we are to find
the resources to struggle for the future. There can be no poorer
reason for refusing the continuous engagement with Thompson’ s
argument than that ‘postmodern’ glibness which ‘knows’ that it
is passe without having read a line of his writing. Fortunately,
however, one may confidently predict that there will always be
too many who will prove too awkward to take that ‘knowledge’

of their times on trust, and whose direct experience ofThompson’ s
writing will continue to renew its spirit. Thompson has given us
a resource too rich and too little boring for it not to be permanently
cherished in the use that will be made of it.

Needless to say, this cannot compensate for the ioss of the man
to those who knew and loved him, for his great flailing gestures
of mirth and contempt; for his grumpiness and tenderness, his
self-irony and empathy . We shall miss very dearly this formidable
thinker, with the cat around his shoulders, whose opinions he
every so often saw fit to consult .

Kate Soper

Madan Sarup, 1930 – 1993
It is with great sadness that we learn of the sudden death of Madan
Sarup on 20th November 1993. Born in the Punjab, India, Madan
was sent to school in England when he was nine years old.

Stranded by the war, he stayed. After studying at Bristol Grammar
School, he spent the 1950s and 60s working as an art teacher in
secondary schools. In 1974 he took up a post as Lecturer in the
Sociology of Education at Goldsmiths College, University of
London, where he remained until his retirement at the beginning
of the 1990s.

It was around the time of his move to Goldsmiths that Madan
first became involved with Radical Philosophy. After attending
some of its early open meetings, he started to referee articles and
helped in the organisation of conferences and dayschools. It was
also during this period that he began to write what would quickly
become a string of books. Initially devoted to the development of
a Marxist perspective in the sociology of education, the focus of
Madan’s writing shifted during the 1980s to register an increasing
preoccupation with race and the implications for educational

debates of the insights of post-structuralist, and especially Lacanian
psychoanalytic, theory – although he continued to think of himself as a Marxist, politically.

When he died, he was working on a book on identity which
would have drawn together the themes of his earlier work,
alongside more personal reflections on his life as writer – alienated by circumstance from the language of his birth – and a
socialist, who had lived to see what he described as the ‘heroic
struggles’ of the first half of the century rejected by a younger

Madan sometimes expressed a feeling of loneliness. But this
was the loneliness of the migrant and internationalist in a time of
growing political parochialism; not that of a man without friends.

He was a familiar figure to those attending conferences and talks
on a wide variety of topics in London over the last decade; always
ready with a question and a sympathetic doubt. Just one week
before his death he was to be seen renewing old acquaintences and
updating them on recent trips to India, at the Radical Philosophy

Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994


conference at Birkbeck College.

He will be remembered by all who knew him for his
amiability, his modesty, the ever renewed breadth of his interests,
and above all, for his intellectual generosity. We will miss him.

His publications include:

1978: Marxism and Education: A Study of Phenomenological
and Marxist Approaches to Education (RKP)

1982: Education, State and Crisis: A Marxist Perspective_(RKP)
1984: Marxism, Structuralism, Education: Theoretical
Developments in the Sociology of Education (Falmer)
1986: The Politics of Multicultural Education (Routledge)
1989 (2nd ed., 1993): An Introductory Guide to
Post-Structuralism and Post-Modernism (Harvester)
1991: Education and the Ideologies ofRacism (Trentham Books)
1992: Jacques Lacan (Harvester)

Peter Osborne

Marxism and Modernism
Two events on successive weekends in July afforded avid conferees the opportunity to compare and contrast Marxism and Modernism in widely differing circumstances.

The Socialist Workers Party organised Marxism 93 ,in London
to introduce their numerous new recruits to ‘the socialist solution’, and to stimulate and consolidate the commitment of longer
standing members. From the point of view of attendance the event
was a great success. All the auditoria were packed, with as many
as twelve sessions running concurrently.

Marxism 93 was advertised as a week of political discussion
and debate. Alex Callinicos gave a Marxist interpretation of the
Holocaust, an introduction to historical materialism and criticised
the policy of UN interventions. Tony Cliff and Paul Foot put the
Party’s politics to the people and guest appearances were made by
left luminaries such as Christopher Hill, Tony Benn and Robin
Blackburn. Due to the nature of the event, which was not intended
to be an academic conference, but a political rally, the level of
discussion did not really do justice to the issues. The SWP has a
line on almost everything from Islamic fundamentalism to Robin
Hood, a line which is closely towed, with the disquieting consequence that consensus tends to function as the precondition and
not the telos of any debate.

The exoteric approach to political education was evident from
the lapidary nature of the questions posed and the answers
supplied. Last year’s notorious entries, ‘FoucaultlDerrida: enemies of Marxism?’ (answer: yes) had given way this year to the
tame, but equally unambiguous, ‘Postmodernismlcultural materialism; alternatives to Marxism?’ (answer: no). There were some
surprises however. The answer to the teasing question, ‘Operabourgeois entertainment or radical culture?’ was radical culture.

Bored with Neighbours, according to Anthony Arblaster, revolutionaries everywhere were now flocking to Cosi Fan Tutte. This
unexpected valorisation of opera, as an oasis of near extinct
revolutionary aesthetic practice, seemed perverse in the light of
the wholesale refusal to analyse mass culture. Gareth Jenkins
seemed happier to have insulted Adorno than to have read him.

Had he done so he could have pointed out that so-called ‘high’

culture is no more exempt from commodity fetishism than ‘low’

culture. Besides which the question of the revolutionary potential
of art cannot be reduced to the question of which areas of culture
do or should or did appeal to the workers.

Another surprise, given that the talks were not designed to
appeal to academics or sophisticates, was the readiness to invoke
Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or chaos theory in considering
the alleged determinism of Marx’s theory of history. The presupposition behind this seemed to be that philosophical theory is
bourgeois and elitist whilst scientific theory is inherently democratic and intelligible. However, one contribution to the ensuing
discussion bucked the trend by quoting Lenin, quoting Engels,
quoting Hegel that, ‘freedom is the recognition of necessity’, a

speculative insight which felt out of place in a discussion where
the self-evidence of theoretical physics was preferred to the
difficulties of the dialectic.

Modernism: Poetics, Politics, Practice at King’s College, Cambridge was very much an academic affair. It had the cosy atmosphere of a symposium, because the forty-two contributors, mainly
from the field of English Literature, made up a considerable part
of the audience. The prohibitive price of the tickets prevented
many students from participating. Last-minute visitors were
turned away at the door, on the grounds that the conference had
been sold out in advance, although there were plenty of seats
available inside. Perhaps the corporate clients of the sponsors had
failed to turn up again.

Proceedings began with Gillian Rose performing ‘The Comedy of He gel and the TrauerspieZ of Modern Philosophy’ , arguing
that Absolute Spirit must be read as the venture of recognition
rather than the perfectibility of pneuma. Simon Jarvis spoke in the
same session on reciprocity and soteriology, melding Marcel
Mauss with an Adornian materialist understanding of literature.

Jacqueline Rose adumbrated certain analogies between Woolf’s
idea of nationless women, and the problem of Zionism in Dorothy
Richardson. In the evening Suzanne Raitt and Laura Marcus cohosted a chat about ‘Modernism and the New Biography’. On
Sunday, Helga Geyer-Ryan deconstructedjustice from Homer to
Kafka in half an hour. As if this were not enough she also
insinuated the demise of Marxism as an intellectual discourse
(and the collapse of Eastern Europe to boot) from Derrida’s
critique of WaIter Benjamin. This extraordinarily ambitious paper followed Drew Milne’s sober, but high-speed, essay on
revolutionary art and the philosophy of history. Milne drew on
Marx’s critique of neo-classicism in The 18th Brumaire and
Benjamin’ s reflections on history to evaluate Ian Hamilton Finlay’ s
provocative use of classical motifs.

Despite some very interesting contributions ‘Modernism:

Poetics, Politics, Practice’ suffered from too many speakers and
not enough discussion. The situation was not eased by the
arbitrary juxtaposition of the papers, which precluded dialogue
between the speakers, a dialogue which might have justified there
being so many speakers in the first place. For instance, Diana
Collecott on ‘H.D., Hellenism, and Saphhic Modernism’ was
programmed to speak with Andrew Michael Roberts on ‘Men and
Traffic: Economies of Masculine Desire in Konrad’s “Karain”
and the Nissan Primer Advert, “Car Wash”‘. Any continuities,
and there were continuities, were fortuitous. It is one thing to
diagnose a fragmentation of discourses, and quite another to
create one. In this respect Marxism 93 was a better organised
event, with fewer speakers, longer papers and more time for
questions afterwards.

Gordon Finlayson
Radical Philosophy 66, Spring 1994

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