[Marxism] Thompson on Morris

Paul Flewers trusscott.foundation at blueyonder.co.uk
Thu Apr 7 14:15:27 MDT 2016

I've just finished a fairly hefty article on EP Thompson and the Soviet
experience, looking at his writings on the topics of Bolshevism, the Russian
revolution, Stalinism and Trotskyism, and this takes in some of the points that
Andrew makes in his posting. Thompson's post-CPGB line on the nature of the
Soviet Union was rather close to that of Isaac Deutscher, although his
historical account of Bolshevism and Stalinism was nothing as clear as
Deutscher's, and was often tentative and contradictory. 

Thompson's book on William Morris was first published in 1955, and I cite a
passage that soon became somewhat embarrassing for the author. This was missing
from the revised edition that was published well after he left the CPGB in 1956.

My article should be in a book containing all three issues of The Reasoner,
which Thompson and John Saville published whilst still CPGB members in 1956, a
selection of related CPGB documents, and an introduction by John McIlroy,
hopefully to be published later this year.

Here's an extract from my article, starting with Perry Anderson's critique of

Paul F


And where, asked Anderson, was Thompson prior to 1956? Where was he during, say,
Stalin’s infamous Doctors’ Plot of 1952, or the Slánský trial a year before?  

In 1955, Thompson completed his massive study of William Morris, and one senses
that its general feel ran a bit askew to the hidebound ethos of his party.
However, as Palmer noted, Thompson ‘could not break out of the Stalinist
straitjacket’, as this would have been ‘an act of apostatical default too
disturbing to contemplate’.  And so the book concluded with this masterpiece of

'Twenty years ago even among Socialists and Communists, many must have regarded
Morris’ picture of ‘A Factory As It Might Be’ as an unpractical poet’s dream:
today visitors return from the Soviet Union with stories of the poet’s dream
already fulfilled. Yesterday in the Soviet Union, the Communists were struggling
against every difficulty to build up their industry to the level of the leading
capitalist powers: today they have before them Stalin’s blueprint of the advance
to Communism… Thus have the ‘claims’ of William Morris, the ‘unpractical’ poet,
been promised fulfilment!' 

This was incongruous enough in 1955 — Efstathiou was quite wrong when he wrote
that ‘Thompson’s pro-Stalin stance was not unusual for the time’: attitudes had
changed rather a lot over the preceding decade  — and within a twelve-month
would be downright embarrassing in the light of Khrushchev’s ‘Secret Speech’. 

The events of 1956 put dissident members of the official Communist parties in an
especially awkward position now that the record of their movement had been
exposed — and exposed ex cathedra at that  — as deeply flawed, and they found
themselves pulled in opposite directions as their rivals on the left took
gleeful pleasure in their discomfort. Hence in the first issue of The Reasoner,
Thompson declared that he was proud of the work of the CPGB in support of the
working class in Britain and in opposing colonialism abroad, but he was ‘not
proud’ of the CPGB’s ‘servile attitude to the leadership of the Soviet Union’
and the ‘silence’ which he and others had maintained on this and other matters.
 A year later, however, the defensiveness had gone, and Thompson was a lot less
forgiving towards his critics:

'I am not going to spend years crippled by remorse because I was duped by the
Rajk and Kostov trials, because I was a casuist here and perhaps an accomplice
there. We were Communists because we had faith in the fundamental humanist
content of Communism, and during the darkest years of the Cold War it was our
duty to speak for this. I do not regret this, although I wish we had spoken more
wisely and therefore to more effect.' 

Anderson had not been asking an unreasonable question, for what Khrushchev
exposed in his ‘Secret Speech’ had long been common knowledge outwith the
official Communist movement. Thompson’s peevish outburst may well have been the
result of his being asked this question once too often.

> Message: 13
> Date: Thu, 7 Apr 2016 13:36:19 -0400
> From: Andrew Pollack <acpollack2 at gmail.com>
> To: Activists and scholars in Marxist tradition
>  <marxism at lists.csbs.utah.edu>
> Subject: [Marxism] Thompson on Morris
> Message-ID:
>  <CA+BZZnYyQn1w30489yP+6Pyd7-2kF3c=278-NT=3TNhkt0qURw at mail.gmail.com>
> Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8
> New at MIA:
> https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1951/william-morris.htm
> Thanks to Paul Flewers for transcribing this.
> I'd be interested to hear from him and others with more knowledge of the >
> period in general and Thompson and/or Morris in particular, what they make of
> this piece.
> On the one hand it's an inspiring appeal for mass agitation on the
> nonmaterial, morally and culturally uplifting features of socialism a la
> Morris's dreams.
> On the other it tries to minimize or deny Stalinist crimes, and thus makes me
> wonder what Thompson in his post-Stalinist days made of Morris (and whether
> his attachment to Morris helped him break from Stalinism).

> ------------------------------

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