Prickly English radical deserves a little rage

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The Independent Online
IN ENGLAND, the best radical is always a dead radical. From John Wilkes to Eric Heffer, the pattern is endlessly repeated: those who were regarded by polite opinion as pestilential nuisances while alive suffer posthumous sanctification by their enemies. Perhaps it is a subtle form of revenge - the final humiliation, with no comeback. Tony Benn will probably get a black-edged page in the Express and a plaque in Westminster Abbey (and serve him right).

It is unsurprising, therefore, that there has been barely one equivocal word in the obituarists' praise for E P Thompson, that turbulent Marxist, even from newspapers which found his campaign for European nuclear disarmament dangerous, and which regarded him as a deluded old maniac. Now they play up the sound historical work, smooth him over, forget the political quarrel. He would have found it both wryly amusing and stunningly hypocritical.

So let me state what many of Thompson's friends and admirers will regard as hateful: his work for nuclear disarmament had little influence on the end of the Cold War. That came about because one side collapsed. The Soviet bloc fractured, then crumbled, mainly because of the internal contradictions of a disastrous economic system, but helped along by the military burden of trying to match the Western nuclear-tipped arsenal Thompson so loathed.

More generally, Thompson was over-excitable about the horribleness of Britain. At times he thought that, nuclear-armed and Thatcher-led, this country was heading for a fascist revolution followed by nuclear war. His apocalyptic nightmares were widely shared. But that particular version of the Apocalypse has blown away. The leaders he derided started to disarm. The Tory party proved rather weaker and more divided than he feared. Dissenting and democratic traditions are stronger than he realised. The press is less supine.

But, in mentioning the warts, let's not fall prey to what, referring to working-class people, Thompson called 'the enormous condescension of posterity'. It is a little early for us to know what events were touched by the ripples from his splashing protests and moral denunciations. He found, in Eastern Europe, the dissent and the underground civil society which those in power underestimated, and which broke through so gloriously when the Soviet empire fell. His pamphleteering on civil liberties in Britain provoked a wider movement that is beginning, perhaps, to be felt at the heart of Whitehall. As he himself once said, the 'nerve of outrage' has always been carried first by minorities.

No phoney radical, he genuinely stood bellowing outside all power structures and fashions. He hated the West's Cold War warriors, but he loathed the Soviet Stalinists. It was indeed a tribute that each side accused him of being the other's stooge (KGB or CIA, as appropriate). He was a sophisticated socialist; but he lampooned the arid, inhuman Marxism of the fashionable French intellectuals with a full-hearted loathing the right never came close to. He was all for protest and liberation; but he never, for a moment, confused liberation with terrorism. He was a great denouncer; but he was tolerant to his soul, too.

He was a very English kind of rebel, romantic, rooted in his country's history and soil. Indeed, his 'Marxism' often sounds, in its earthy insistence on the importance of ordinary experience and the complete, bone-headed idiocy of the state, terribly like the radical Toryism of one of his heroes, William Cobbett. The latter boasted that, 'I set out as a sort of self-dependent politician. My opinions were my own. I dashed at all prejudices', and he could have been Thompson after 1956. A prickly English radicalism dyes both the old Tory and the modern Marxist so strongly that they glow together, almost one colour.

And they wrote similarly clear, muscular English - sharp-edged, purposeful, irresistible. Here is Thompson in 1979: 'If we, with our universal literacy and high technology and great institutes of learning and comfortable homes, should seem to respect ourselves less, as citizens in the face of authority, than 17th-century petty gentry and yeomen, than tradesmen and artisans in the 1790s, than Clerkenwell bakers or Chartist working women and men - might we not have to wrinkle the nose at ourselves?'

Now that, as it happens, comes from a nightmare-infested piece about the imminence of right-wing authoritarianism in Britain, which finishes on a grimly pessimistic note: 'I can see no reason why we should be able to bar that foul storm out. I doubt whether we can pass our liberties on . . . (but) since we have had the kind of history that we have had, it would be contemptible in us not to play out our old roles to the end.' The greatness of Thompson's dissenting mind seems to me as obvious there as the false prediction of the article which those words complete. Even where his judgements were awry, those instincts are essential to our democracy.

When a different kind of radical, the Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, died, a friend suggested that a suitable way of observing his memory would be to declare, each year, 'two minutes' pandemonium'. Forget the sugary obituaries: E P Thompson, too, deserves a little rage.