Total Solutions

Alan Brinkley

  • The Heavy Dancers by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin, 340 pp, £12.50, March 1985, ISBN 0 85036 328 4
  • Star Wars: Self-Destruct Incorporated by E.P. Thompson and Ben Thompson
    Merlin, 71 pp, £1.00, May 1985, ISBN 0 85036 334 9

About ten years ago, I heard Edward Thompson give a public lecture at Harvard University. He was not then an internationally renowned spokesman for the peace movement: there was at that point no peace movement of any consequence to be a spokesman for. He was, however, one of the most influential historians of his time. Thompson was speaking in one of the university’s largest lecture halls, and the room was full to overflowing. People were sitting on the floor, standing against the walls, spilling out of the doors into the corridors. Unlike audiences at many academic lectures, the men and women who had come to this one were overwhelmingly young. Many were graduate students (in history and other social sciences) for whom Thompson’s scholarship – above all, his great book The Making of the English Working Class – had been an intellectual inspiration. But many were also people in some way affected by the anti-war movement and the other upheavals of the Sixties; and for them, his work was also a political inspiration.

The relatively arcane issues Thompson was discussing before this large crowd had no immediate political urgency. But one could feel in the gathering a fleeting, perhaps willed revival of the Sixties, a momentary glimpse of the spirit of ‘movement’ and ‘community’, a brief sense of shared purpose. It would not have been difficult to imagine Edward Thompson speaking before a similar gathering, not as a scholar, but as an activist. But few imagined it at the time. And so, when it was over, the group dispersed into the cool Cambridge evening and into the cool political climate of the Seventies.

For most of his adult life, Edward Thompson has been involved in one way or another with mass politics. During much of the Forties and Fifties, he was a member of the Communist Party (which aspired to, even if in England and America it seldom achieved, a real connection with the masses). He left the Party in 1956, but remained politically active in the Sixties and Seventies while producing his important scholarly studies of class formation and social protest. Then, in 1982, he published a pamphlet entitled Protest and Survive, which, as he modestly describes it, ‘made a little stir at the time’. As a result of that stir, he became a ‘prisoner’ of the peace movement, putting aside his scholarship and transforming himself into ‘a famous (or infamous) Public Person ... on call at any hour of the day and sometimes night’. Since then, he has written and spoken incessantly, and with geat effect, for the cause. He has exhorted the faithful and excoriated the infidels. He has helped to forge links among the disparate peace movements of Europe and North America. He has, on occasion, demonstrated a sophisticated technical understanding of nuclear weapons and an ability to fuse his knowledge with brilliant polemicism (as in his recent pamphlet denouncing the Reagan Administration’s Star Wars proposal). But most of all, he has worked to provide the two things any successful movement must have: an unambiguous moral vision, a clear, understandable goal free of numbing complexities and bureaucratic obstacles; and a sense of solidarity, shared purpose, community. At least in part as a result of his efforts, the international peace movement has emerged over the last few years as one of the most striking political developments of our time.

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