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The English Left: A Tragedy of Our Insular Times

Despite its early 20th-century intellectual history, English thought never sought an impact outside Britain.

In the 1930s, international battalions of the left flocked to Spain to join the fight against fascism. From France came figures like André Malraux, problematically the first tomb raider of South East Asia and also someone who fought with the Communists in the Shanghai uprising of 1927. He commanded a most amateur Republican air force, throwing grenades out of civilian aircraft in a futile effort to slow down the inexorable advance of Franco’s tanks. From the US came platoons of black fighters, committed to a cause that suggested an equality and unity not available to them back home.

Even neutrals like Ernest Hemingway came to drive ambulances. From Britain came figures like George Orwell, who famously found himself on one side of a divided and competitive left, as wary of each other as of the fascist armies that bore down on them. Many of the British dug in on the hillsides near the University of Madrid for their last stand as Dolores Ibárruri, the legendary La Pasionaria, declared that “No pasarán! — “They shall not pass!” — but pass they did.

What remained was a memory of failed gallantry and a leftist boycott of Franco’s Spain that lasted for decades. It was not part of a Europe for which the left also fought during World War II — not a war simply in defense of Britain, but against fascism. And to the side of the British came refugee European fighters and pilots, Commonwealth soldiers including those from Africa and India and, of course, finally and decisively, the Americans, while the Russians began their own remorseless advance toward Berlin from the east.

After the war, the new struggle was one, above all, over what kind of Europe should emerge and survive: a liberal or a communist one. It took a long time for the British left to recognize the atrocities of Stalin’s Russia, to swing in behind the sense of an imperfect but free Western Europe while stubbornly keeping a residual admiration for the “actually existing socialism” of Tito’s Yugoslavia — a grand effort at a partial European unity in the famously divisive Balkan region.

The Mystical Working Class

In all this, the famous historian, E. P. Thompson, became a key figure. He was a tank commander in the invasion of Normandy and the younger brother of Frank Thompson, who died while fighting with Tito’s partisan army. Edward Thompson wrote a most moving memoir of his brother, choosing and celebrating the more noble account of his death by firing squad, smoking his pipe and encouraging his Yugoslav colleagues to die bravely. (The other account had him executed summarily in a ditch.) After the war, Edward joined the international socialist youth brigades that went to Yugoslavia to help build the railways to unite the new nation.

If he had somehow a narrow, but all the same idealistic vision of European unity, this did not extend to the emerging European community and the common market. In 1975, the first British national referendum was held on the issue of Europe, decisively approving its 1973 membership. In 1974, the Labour Party had expressed opposition, pledging to renegotiate the terms of membership. It argued that food imports from the Commonwealth were cheaper (that is no longer true today) and that sovereignty was being ceded to Europe (something now much bruited by the Conservative right), except that this was, for Labour, a sovereignty to legislate in favor of progressive labor relations. But it is an open question as to whether years of Labour governments since Harold Wilson’s in 1974 ever featured even a manifesto that was more progressive on industrial relations than what was enacted in Germany or even France.

Nevertheless, in 1975 Edward Thompson wrote his famous essay of great skepticism toward Europe. I suggest that today’s Labor’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, never got over that essay, written exactly in his most formative years by the author of The Making of the English Working Class — the magisterial work which celebrated both the class itself and its culture. It was the key work of the English cultural Marxist movement, the epicentral work of the radical History Workshops of the era.


The meaning of Europe with the possibility of working-class unity across a range of cultures is something that has never been uttered by Corbyn’s lips, possibly because it has never crossed Corbyn’s mind.


But that is precisely the point. It was to do with a localized culture. Thompson’s great book did not deal much with the Scottish and Irish working classes. It was left to his colleague, Raymond Williams, to celebrate the culture of the Welsh, and he did that as much in novels as in scholarly work. Thompson’s was a local romance, given a certain cosmic aura by his other works on figures such as William Blake. Albion (when not perfidious), King Arthur, the mysticism of Blake, all made of the quest for a just England with a productive and culturally joyous working class something mystical. The left in England has never regained its worldliness.

That it had little enough of that came in Thompson’s great battle with the Polish intellectual Leszek Kołakowski, author of the three-volume Main Currents of Marxism which, even now, despite having been written by a skeptic, is the greatest intellectual history of the movement both in Europe and globally. Thompson and Kołakowski argued by exchanging lengthy essays, many thousands of words each, in which, finally, a triumphantly sarcastic Kołakowski demonstrated that Thompson knew nothing about European intellectual life. If Albion was a mysticism, everything “out there” was a mystery. Perhaps even a contamination of Albion where the once and future king, Arthur, would represent a just order (never mind that the figure of Arthur probably originated in Brittany and migrated to Wales before being appropriated — colonized — by the English).

Strange Beast

The left is a strange beast in England. It cannot escape being part of a once famous English intellectual liberalism and freedom. European figures from Erasmus to Voltaire to Marx and Engels found an escape from censorship and suppression and a freedom to write, largely in London. Marx is buried in Highgate. He lived for a time in Soho where the elite restaurant, Quo Vadis, now sits. He really did write in the old reading room that is now the central shrine of the British Museum, again with an upmarket restaurant perched on its head now. What we can no longer digest in our heads we substitute with digestion in our stomachs, John Bull having succeeded Albion with almost ambulatory girth.

Also in Soho was The Gay Hussar — nicknamed by its detractors as The Homosexual Russian — the culinary home of The New Statesman crowd, the descendant organ of the Webbs (who also founded the London School of Economics), who hung out with the Bloomsbury set, who hung out with John Maynard Keynes, who all hung out with the young Bertrand Russell, who hung out with Ludwig Wittgenstein. The intellectual polyglot legacy of all these groups and loose associations was still there to receive Hungarian refugees such as Lord Kaldor, who went on to bring a cosmopolitan sense to Harold Wilson’s ministerial ranks.

Not that he or anyone even briefly ameliorated the economic decline of Britain in Wilson’s time, the sense of cowardice over Rhodesia’s white rebellion against black-led democracy or the continuing sense of being in Europe without really feeling comfortable about it. By the 1960s, “Great” Britain had already become both a miniature and caricature of itself, stung by the Suez fiasco, blindsided by its own imperial adventurism in Egypt, and so it did not have any sense of the impending Russian invasion of Hungary until it was too late.

Britain slowly, deliberately withdrew into itself, exploding briefly outward with the Beatles and mini-skirts, the latter’s contribution to female emancipation being not quite as profound as France’s Simone de Beauvoir’s work in The Second Sex, Australian Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch or the American Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. But it is hard to think of any expansive globally relevant intellectual work coming out of Britain. Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth in France. Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas and the entire new structuralism, new critical theory and even postmodern intellectual movements came out of Europe.

In the UK, E. P. Thompson built the English working class into an insular paradigm of all things noble and needing curation, preservation, an image finally presented in its pickled form as technology ran rampant over production chains. It was Europe that exploded in 1968 against modernity’s sense of suppression while producing the artifacts of material progress.

The streets of Paris were an intellectual revolt as much as street-fighting men and women. In Britain, The New Left Review never quite escaped the sense of an upgraded form of Trotskyite articulation of the ills of the world, without ever suggesting what, outside of doctrine, a new internationalism should look like. The earlier thinkers of the social democratic left, Harold Laski and Richard Henry Tawney, had a vision of Britain not unlike that of William Morris — the moral economy of Tawney never had the rigor to answer the easily formularized chants of the later Milton Friedmans of the world.

These had an influence on the efforts of Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda with his hybrid social democracy and traditional communalism, and those of Thabo Mbeki, in his implied decency of an African renaissance. But the British left never realized these ideas had impacted upon two African leaders. In a very real way, despite its early 20th-century intellectual history, English thought never sought an impact outside Britain — perhaps even outside England.

Enter Corbyn

To this legacy, very late, came Jeremy Corbyn — slightly amazed he had become Labour leader, as much by the ineptitude of his rivals as by his own efforts, not unlike Theresa May’s coming to office as Conservative leader. He embodied an undigested republicanism (that really did make singing the national anthem difficult), pacifism (that really did make bowing at the cenotaph difficult) and a bohemian allotment affinity (that really did make wearing a necktie difficult). There was also a long list of other blind spots: suggesting that submarines were the deterrent rather than the missiles they carried; that the referendum on Europe was binding, just as the one in 1975, conducted by Labour, was meant to be; and that Brexit could be renegotiated in the face of a united Europe that had finally decided it had had enough of English insularity and would negotiate no further.

Buoyed briefly by a youthful surge of support, partly because of a dogmatic affiliation to policies devised in a golden age of Labour idealism — appealing to the youth vote at exactly the age when any generation seeks idealistic certainty — the older man portrayed the certainties of his own youth. Except that those certainties were derived from an assemblage of ideas rendered as somehow “English”: polyglot, noble, decent and surely emanating in some way from the cultural practices of the salt of the English earth.


Is Corbyn the leader of the left who will do this? He is a decent but greatly limited man — whether or not less limited than Theresa May makes the parlous choice between the two nothing more than the tragedy of our insular times.


Insofar as Thompson was an intellectual forbearer, his influence was found in commentaries and actions in many parts of English life: leading the campaign to end nuclear armament, against the US-style corporate practices of new universities like Warwick — everywhere Thompson saw the advance of violent capitalism eroding what should have been a golden age.

Corbyn is inheritor of these fully decent views, but it is doubtful that any member of his shadow cabinet has read Thompson, and Corbyn leads a troupe of fellow travelers who support him by putting up with him and navigating him. Keir Starmer, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, must have constant jitters trying to say something meaningful about staying in Europe as Corbyn remains as stubborn as May, as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. “My exit is better than your exit” is the only dividing line.

The meaning of Europe with the possibility of working-class unity across a range of cultures is something that has never been uttered by Corbyn’s lips, possibly because it has never crossed Corbyn’s mind. He did not rush to support either the indebted Greeks or France’s gilets jaunes. Nor has it occurred to him to support European intellectual work and academic freedom — the Central European University was driven out of Hungary without a peep from Corbyn’s left. Neither a pan-European working class under siege in the contradictions of technological capitalism, nor any valuation of the very first civil liberty like academic freedom, is part of a Corbynista world outlook.

Against Nostalgia

What does a thoughtful and expansive European left look like? How does it express itself in the world of capital? Yanis Varoufakis’s greatly flawed but hugely contemplative critique of the great multilateral finance institutions is the work of an intellectual who was plunged into action as Greek finance minister. The more detailed critique of modern economics and ways forward from it has come from France’s Thomas Piketty. And the great contradiction ignored by the English left, but a huge influence in Europe and elsewhere, is the Hungarian George Soros — simultaneously the greatest of the buccaneering capitalists and the greatest scourge of right-wing governments through his financing of civil society. In addressing a contradiction personified by Soros, together with the provocation of Varoufakis and the thought of Piketty, the left everywhere — even in England — has a chance to reinvigorate and restructure its thought.

And it might be better to look at the 1944 work by Karl Polanyi on how British economic life changed toward its market bias, rather than the work of E. P. Thompson on a working class that seems preserved in aspic, when in reality it too was transformed by the modern market. Polanyi, a Hungarian-American, still has many admirers in Europe, and his views of what Tawney once depicted as a moral economy are far more substantial in their actual economic grounding than Tawney’s were. They may not be fully correct — Polanyi has detractors too — but they have a rigor that is missing in the thought of the English left. Rigor and originality, high modernity and massive contradictions — these are qualities perhaps more progressive and certainly more provocative than nostalgia.

As it is, in the outlooks for Brexit, much of the English working class, together with its communities, will be decimated as firms and investment desert the UK. This will no doubt be described by an unreformed left as a blight caused by capitalism. It will be caused instead by a refusal to engage in a pan-European resistance to capital’s excesses. In all this, Jeremy Corbyn has come to epitomize and personify the central nostalgia of the left. And it may be a nostalgia based on a fiction. For the working class was a motley and genuinely downtrodden series of communities, driven into poverty, lately come in from the countryside with the habits and narrow outlooks of peasants herded into mills and factories. It was recruited to wars, imperial and colonial adventures where others were downtrodden at least in part by its efforts. What it made in the factories was the stuff that fueled imperialism’s constant craving for larger and larger markets in formerly independent parts of the world.

It resisted the ideals and ideas of the French Revolution, went to war against the constitutional reforms that Napoleon stamped all over Europe, and never ever demanded a formal constitution at home. Wyoming and New Zealand beat Britain to female suffrage. And, indeed, the only concession made to Otherness was to label the Maori warriors “noble savages,” because they tried to prevent their lands being confiscated by British settlers drawn from the working class. And, of course, in today’s world, technology has so transformed production and the role of labor that all basic Marxist assertions of quantities of input from workers have to be reassessed.

Is Corbyn the leader of the left who will do this? He is a decent but greatly limited man — whether or not less limited than Theresa May makes the parlous choice between the two nothing more than the tragedy of our insular times.

Perhaps a final word on Thompson. In his memoir on his brother, Thompson’s account based on interviews with those who knew Frank Thompson or claimed to have witnessed the summary trial that condemned him, he has the prosecutor ask of the prisoner: “By what right do you as an Englishman come here to wage war in our country?” To which the bold and dignified answer of a very young man was that there were rights and values, and unities that superseded merely being an Englishman.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.