Coming home one evening in the last weeks of 1962, I found a bottle of wine in the vacated room, with a note underneath. Edward Thompson had been completing The Making of the English Working-Class. He lived in Halifax, and needed a final couple of weeks in the British Museum. In those days I lived in Talbot Road, newly wed to Juliet Mitchell. She was teaching in Leeds, while I was working for New Left Review in London. After hours Edward and I would exchange notes on our day, and fence amiably about history and sociology. ‘Do you really think Weber is more important than Marc Bloch?’ he would ask me with an air of mischievous puzzlement. If we were more circumspect about politics, this was partly a question of tact – he didn’t want to lean on me too heavily, as a cub editor of the journal of which he was a founder. But there was also a trick of perception to which I was subject.
Edward seemed not just one, but virtually two generations older, since between us lay those – the cohort of Stuart Hall or Raphael Samuel – who had co-founded the New Left, from beginnings in the Fifties rather than the Forties. His looks assisted the illusion, the handsome features at once melodramatically mobile and geologically deep-set, a landscape of wild scarp and gulley. It was the conjuncture, of course, that clinched it – never did differences of age, however slight, loom so large as at that time. Larkin got the date about right, even if he skipped over the Stones. But at the time the librarian from Hull was probably no wiser than the historian from Halifax, who viewed talk of generational divisions impatiently, as a way of avoiding difficult arguments. The result was the same, even if it felt more like an inhibition than evasion to me. We had few political discussions. I was on the train down from Leeds as he came up from London, work complete, leaving behind what seemed like a still-life of baffled goodwill. It was not until the Seventies that I realised, to my astonishment, that he was then 38.
In the following year, the connections between the founders of NLR and its new editors unravelled. The journal had been stranded by the ebb of CND, and was struggling without much success for a new direction. Practical disputes and intellectual differences left Edward increasingly out of sympathy with the crew in Carlisle Street. He felt, justifiably, that the journal was drifting amorphously away from its past without having settled any account with it, and had no political confidence in its future. There were occasional explosions. But his attitude to the youngsters was fundamentally generous, and when the time came he ensured a clear hand-over of the old board to them, without rancour. Whatever his forebodings, he was not possessive.
When the journal found its feet, in the shape it more or less still has today, Edward’s position altered. By the end of 1964, NLR had developed the kind of political perspective he had taxed us with lacking, and a set of historical theses about the relationship of the national past to the present British crisis, as we saw it. Edward liked neither part. But now, at last, a real confrontation was possible. Would the review, he wrote me, be ready to publish a full-length critique by him – ‘presumably written in my notoriously ill-natured polemical manner’? We would welcome one, I nervously replied, but didn’t want a slanging match. Sensibly, Edward let fly in the Socialist Register instead. The result was one of his most celebrated essays, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’. Stung by its ferocity, I replied in kind. The exchange had a sort of back-handed symmetry. Edward attacked us for inaccurate reading of historical evidence: I attacked him for inaccurate handling of textual evidence. What had astonished me were the corners be cut in representing the arguments he wanted to refute, which I couldn’t match with anything he stood for as a historian. This was a generic mistake on my part. Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.
I was not alone in failing to see this. A few years earlier, Edward had published a review of Raymond Williams’s Long Revolution in NLR, which was more temperate in tone than his treatment of Tom Nairn and myself, but more wounding in effect. One of his charges was that Raymond had become half-absorbed, in manner and preoccupation, by the ruling-class academy. ‘Oh, the sunlit quadrangle, the clinking of glasses of port, the quiet converse of enlightened men!’ It is not surprising the signalman’s son took this amiss. In fact, Edward had admirably explained his address. Speaking of ‘genuine communication’, Raymond had said: ‘You can feel the pause and effort; the necessary openness and honesty of a man listening to another, in good faith, and then replying.’ Edward replied: ‘Burke abused, Cobbett inveighed, Arnold was capable of malicious insinuation, Carlyle, Ruskin and Lawrence, in their middle years, listened to no one. This may be regrettable: but I cannot see that the communication of anger, indignation or even malice, is any less genuine.’ Here, en toutes lettres, is the polemicist’s warrant. Edward’s own indignations of this period were literary carmagnoles, without personal animus. A few months after my counterattack on him, I ran into him into a pub off Tottenham Court Road. Edward, whom I hadn’t seen for three years, was good nature itself.
It was another decade before I saw him again. In the winter of 1979, in a freezing church in Oxford, he rose like some wrathful divine to warn the congregation once more of the dangers of Gallican dogma. By now, his onslaught on Althusser in The Poverty of Theory, published the previous year, had roused much controversy. Disputation followed, before a rapt, shivering audience. One of the contestants was Stuart Hall. I watched from the pews. My own reaction to The Poverty of Theory had been somewhat different. It seemed more important to take the measure of Thompson than of Althusser. An attempt to do so came out a few months later.
The focus of Edward’s energies suddenly altered. The second bout of intense Cold War had broken out, and he threw himself without reserve into a campaign to arouse resistance to it. I’d ended my writing about him by saying it would be good to leave old quarrels behind, and explore new issues together. He responded by publishing the manifesto of his fears in New Left Review, ‘Notes on the Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilisation?’, in the spring of 1980. The journal organised an international debate around it. A book appeared, with Edward’s conclusion. The rift was over.
In 1986 we met in New York. Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, he and I had been brigaded to discuss agendas for radical history at the New School. In the overflowing auditorium, hanging on his words, he was die image of a romantic orator: his bursts of passionate speech punctuated by that typical gesture, a sudden movement of the flat of his hand to his head – smiting his brow or stroking his shock of grey hair? – whose effect always hovered between the histrionic and the playful. Afterwards, as we went off to an official supper, an incongruous quartet, something of the same trick of perception as when I first knew him recurred. The youngest of the three doyens, he seemed mysteriously senior – I wondered if it was simply because he was larger. Now, at all events, his aspect changed. I noticed for the first time a touch of the dandy, the slender waistcoat and raffish cheroot, hinting it a more classical silhouette. Our conversation turned to the Augustans. He chaffed me far impudence about Swift, saying he was writing I novel conceived as a modern analogue of Gulliver’s Travels.
It will take time to get a more settled sense of Thompson’s distinction as a historian and a writer. His work spans too many forms for easy judgment, and its aura can be a temptation to short-cuts. But a tension between what might be called his 19th and his 18th-century sensibility was certainly at the creative centre of it. If the opening of The Making of the English Working-Class bridges the two epochs, no one has ever doubted how the weight of its account lies. Where did Thompson’s achievement point to? There was an obvious answer – forward, to what became of the English working class, once made, in the Victorian epoch. Instead, he went in the opposite direction: back a full century to the 1720s. What motivated this alteration of field, an unusual jump – he spoke of a parachute – for any historian? It might be suspected that the unrebelious world of Mid-Victorian unionism, not to speak of subsequent Labourism, did not attract him: a come-down from Morris. But if there was a political element in his choice, some reluctance to pursue what might resemble the epilogue to War and Peace, personal ones must have been of greater significance.
Coinciding with the shift of period was a change of setting. In Yorkshire he lived in a draughty Victorian building, perched high above the desolate black-red streets of Halifax, among the grimmest scoria of the Industrial Revolution. In Worcestershire his home was a Georgian mansion in rolling countryside, once a bishop’s manor. The move allowed Williams, who remembered Thompson’s apostrophe, a sly jest about ‘country-house Marxism’. In fact, this was to be the headquarters of the most arduous political labour of his life. But there was a modulation in his writing, nonetheless. Whigs and Hunters is a different kind of book from The Making of the English Working-Class, not only in scope, but in style. In a gesture of mimesis, romantic abundance yields to a sparer elegance, whose expression of passion is more often ironic than philippic. Their distributions varied thereafter, but in differing arrangements the cadences of the two periods counterpoint in his prose to the end. The combination of idiom was the secret of its range. He was the greatest rhetorician of the age. This is an art foreign to it, and its resistance is visible in a strain in Thompson’s own relationship to it. His touch was least certain when his diction was most contemporary. Typically, the lapses in his writing come from attempts at a 20th-century demotic that miscue. The result can be startling. The obituaries have scarcely mentioned Thompson’s poetry or fiction. He, rightly, did not regard them as marginal. His two longish poems, ‘The Place Called Choice’ and ‘Powers and Names’ (LRB, 23 January 1986), which bear comparison in form and theme (atomic war – despotism), are vivid cases of this unevenness: passages of terse beauty side by side with others of pop galumphery. His novel The Sykaos Papers is the most complete single statement of his thought, giving imaginative form to ideas that find comparable expression nowhere else in his work. In it, the alien gaze of an incorporeal reason falls – too late – on the world of property and authority and war, as it moves towards nuclear destruction. The metaphysical argument is embedded in the liveliest of terrestrial narratives, meeting every maxim to move, instruct, delight. But there is still a striking contrast between minor opening sections of the novel, heavy-handed burlesque of the popular press and urban scene of the Eighties, whose humour can make one wince, and the energy and wit of the major plot development that follows. Its climax, before the earth is extinguished, is the idyll in which reason becomes sexually incarnate, as the heroine lakes the star-captive into her arms – in the eden of a park ‘landscaped in the 1740s’, and ‘made over in the early 19th century’.
Thompson’s book on Blake, Witness to the Beast, which appears next month, reads in some ways like a scholarly companion to his novel. The same themes appear here in critical dress. At the New School, he told his audience how he had discovered Marxist history reading Christopher Hill in the sixth form, and already when The Making of the English Working-Class came out, he would say he hoped one day to locate the underground tunnel that would connect Blake’s ideas back to the world of the Civil War, directly linking up the two revolutionary epochs he and Hill had made their own. Witness to the Beast finds the filiation in the sect founded by John Reeve and Ludowick Muggleton in 1652. Blake’s mother, Thompson suggests, may have been a Muggletonian, and many of his notions must have been derived from their brand of antinomianism. The respect and affection he shows for this mild, diminutive band is winning. No theological nicety is neglected, as he delves into their complicated doctrine; readers who recall rolling thunder against the obscurity of Parisian Marxism may be allowed a smile as they wrestle with the mysteries of the divine influx and the two seeds, the dispersal v. the unity of the godhead, painstakingly expounded here.
The larger purpose of the book, however, does not depend on the exactitude of the Muggletonian resuscitation. Its role is to suggest a new interpretation of Blake. Thompson argues that the poet inherited a long ‘antihegemonic’ tradition, rooted among artisans, which rejected the polite rationalism of the century for a religion of egalitarian love, hostile both to the new materialist science and to the moral law of the established church and state. But Blake transformed this antinomian outlook into a far more radical and original constellation, under the impact of Jacobinism and Deism. From the Painite milieu he developed a political vision of the evils of property and poverty, clergy and army, monarchy and marriage; while from Volney he arrived at a new critique of alienated faith, and the worldly powers it served. In each case, however, Blake saw deeper than his Enlightenment contemporaries – neither reducing human misery merely to social oppression or exploitation, nor religious feeling to priestly mystification. Not the reason of science or self-interest, but only the call of love could cure the curse of Cain. An alternative human nature, in keeping with the Everlasting Gospel, lay waiting to be realised. ‘The intensity of this vision,’ Thompson writes, ‘made it impossible for Blake to fall into the courses of apostasy’ when the revolutionary fires burned low after 1801 – whereas ‘the busy perfectionists and benevolent rationalists’ of the time ‘nearly all ended up as disenchanted men’.
Witness against the Beast is a luminous envoi to an exceptional life’s work. How best to honour its antinomian impulse? Not, certainly, by any new species of piety. Reading Edward’s obituaries – right, left and centre – I do not know how many times I counted citation of his desire to rescue ‘even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condescension of posterity’. The phrase is one of his most poignant and programmatic. But by dint of repetition, it risks becoming a PC tag. Edward, who was the most politically incorrect person in the world, would have had none of this. He revelled in irreverence, and we would do better to take after him, where we can. A start might be to note that Blake himself was the first to express condescension towards Joanna Southcott, about whose maidenhood he wrote a disdainful ditty (‘Whate’er is done to her she cannot know,/And if you ask her she will swear it so,/Whether ’tis good or evil, none’s to blame;/No one can take the pride, no one the blame’).
But there is a wider point here, which bears on the argument of his last book. One writer of the 18th century who never attracted much attention from Thompson was its greatest historian. In Witness to the Beast, however, Gibbon does make an appearance. Here he figures as a foil – the deist whose depiction of Constantine might appeal to an antinomian, but whose sceptical view of Christianity understandably aroused Blake’s ire (‘Gibbon arose with his lash of steel,/and Voltaire with a racking wheel’), Thompson cites Blake’s lines with sympathy. But the poem is actually a cameo of Blake’s weaknesses – and at just the two points Witness to the Beast presents as strengths. In it, a piteous monk is tortured in his cell by Gibbon and Voltaire for failing to toast war: as if bellicism was the burden of their critique of faith. Gibbon’s History was indeed disturbing, and not alone to Blake. But if we ask why its medicine was so strong, Thompson’s dictum can be reversed. The intellectual emancipation wrought by The Decline and Fall lay in what might well be described as its ‘enormous condescension’ – what else is the inimitable tone of those six volumes? – to the Christian, even Classical past. Thompson praises Blake’s indignant an notations on Bishop Watson’s Apology for the Bible, addressed to Paine. But Blake did not speak out publicly. It was Paine who replied to Watson, as Gibbon had done before him.
The origin of Blake’s poem lay in his trial at Chichester, for an obscure affray with a soldier in his garden, in which he was acquitted Scared by the episode, he imagined himself one of the Grey Monks in whose one-time chancel the trial was held, broken yet triumphal: ‘the bitter groan of a martyr’s woe is/an arrow from the Almighty’s bow!’ Two years after the trial, still brooding on ‘the full history of my spiritual sufferings’, he dedicated engravings to the Queen. In the manuscript version of Jerusalem the friar is ‘seditious’; but he had second thoughts, and changed it on publication to ins ‘lazy’. There are no grounds for reproach in any of this. Blake had a timorous side; was prey to fears of persecution; was very badly off. It was a dangerous time for any radical. However, it is a mistake to present him as politically more intransigent than less mystic opponents of the Tory war regime. He pursued Robert and Leigh Hunt venomously, for having taken his paintings of Nelson and Pitt to be icons of reaction (a mistake, if it was one – Blake himself never said so – shared by not a few art historians), accusing them of responsibility for a war they were more outspoken about than he. Prosecuted three times, the brothers were eventually imprisoned for insulting the Regent, to Blake’s jeers. ‘How a monk can be a hypocrite, I cannot conceive,’ he admonished the Deists. The Enlightenment may, after all, have still had something to teach him.
To make these points is not to diminish the force of Thompson’s case for Blake, as an leonoelast approaching genius. But it is to situate him more critically in the tradition to which Thompson draws our attention. Hie Muggletonians were an appealing company, as he shows. But they were also secretive and withdrawn, refraining from public worship or proselytisrn, their faith become quietist. Blake’s absence from any collective form of radical polities, in a time of ferment, is very striking. His only experience even with a crowd seems to have been a dip in the Gordon Riots when he was a boy. His reluctance to take risks that others accepted must have been in part temperamental. Yet did it not also reflect the lie-low mentality of the background from which he probably came? The notion of an Everlasting Gospel afforded a ready line of retreat from any temporal hurly-burly. But descent from the Third Commission, however transfigured, had its costs. These were not just the limits of a political experience, but of a literary art too. The gnomic failures of Blake’s later works were the issue of a self-isolation. More significant than his distance from Jacobin circles is the lack Of any Romantic response to him, for all Crabb Robinson’s valiant efforts to interest Wordsworth, Hazlitt or others. It is a good antidote to patriotic bellowing of ‘England’s green and pleasant land’ today to remember that, while he was alive, the only significant report on Blake’s work appeared in German.
Thompson’s last article was about patriotism in that time. In a friendly if critical review of Linda Colley’s Britans: Forging the Nation, published this summer in Dissent, he questioned the consistency of popular loyalism during the French Wars, while not denying its existence, and had no patience with any treatment of it that overlooked the flood of ‘chauvinist humbug’ in Volunteer ballading and parading. If he could be irritated into gestures of Englishry himself, his deepest commitments were unequivocally internationalist. European nuclear disarmament was the cause to which he devoted himself for a decade, His imaginative response as a writer extended to China, India, Latin America, the United States. The unity of these engagements lay in his desire to dissolve the Cold War.
In the event, he proved to be the prophet of its end. That is remarkable enough. How far the peace movement contributed to the ending is another issue, the principal debate he left behind. On this we differed. Between the ideals of END and the realities of Soviet breakdown was a large gap. It is not a belittle-ment of the advocates of the end of the Cold War to distinguish them from its agents. The Eirst World War was not terminated by the Zimmerwald Left or the Stockholm Appeal, but by the victory of the Entente. We do not honour them the less for that. Was the conclusion of the Cold War very different? Edward held, passionately, that it was. Certainly no one had more right to do so. His interim judgment, ‘Ends and Histories’, completed in the spring of 1990, and published in Mary Raider’s Europe from Below, is in part a reply to Francis Fukuyama, about whom we had opposite opinions. It is one of his most attractive statements, at once autobiographical and visionary. People will return to it after more conventional verdicts are forgotten.
It was first drafted, he explains, just before the old order was swept away in Prague, and he nearly died in a New York hospital. His last years were dogged by repeated illness. Readers of the LRB may remember a piece about the NHS. He was not old when he died. We have missed a lot, Christopher Hill, in the 12 years since he passed the same age, has published half a dozen books. What might Edward have gone on to write? At the height of the peace movement he tended to set aside other politics, as divisive of a common cause. With the Cold War over, he might have helped to renew the Left once more. There are hints of that in ‘Ends and Histories’. Whatever shape his ideas might have taken, they would have been uncovenanted. He was not in a mood to settle. A Life of Dissent is the affecting film Tariq Ali made of Edward and Dorothy Thompson earlier this year, recently reshown. While it was being shot, there was talk of mutual acquaintances. ‘What’s Perry up to these days?’ he enquired. Tariq mentioned something I’d written on conservatism in this paper. ‘Yes, I know,’ Edward replied. ‘Oakeshott was a scoundrel. Tell him to stiffen his tone.’