Visions of History 9780719010675

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Visions of History

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• C. L. R. JAMES



Edited by Henry Abelove, Betsy Blackmar, Peter Dimock, and Jonathan Schneer Drawings by Josh Brown


Copyright © 1976,- 1977, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1983 by MARHO: The Radical Historians Organization All rights reserved under lnternation_al and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Interviews with Edward P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Natalie Zemon Davis, William Appleman Williams, Staughton Lynd, David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, and a portion of the interview with C. L. R. James first appeared, in somewhat different form, in Radical History Review. Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data Main entry under title: Visions · of history. "Interviews with E. P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Sheila Rowbotham, Linda Gordon, Natalie Zemon Davis, William Appleman Williams, Staughton Lynd, David Montgomery, Herbert Gutman, Vincent Harding, John Womack, C. L. R. James, and Moshe Lewin." Bibliography: p. Includes index. 1. Historiography-Addresses, essays, lectures. 2. Historians-Interviews. I. Abalove", Henry. II. Thompson, E. P. (Edward Palmer), 1924111. Mid-Atlantic Radical Historians' Organization. 9o7'.2 83-47743 D13.V57 1984 ISBN 0-394-53046-2 ISBN o-394�72200--0 (pbk.)

Book design by Carl Lehmann-Haupt Manufactured in the United States of America First Edition




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This book has been a collective project long in the making. In 1976, Jay Faciolo first proposed that the Radical History Review interview left-wing historians. Over the last seven years, members of the Boston, New Haven, and New York MARHO collectives have cheerfully volunteered their labor to transcribe, type, and edit interviews for the Radical History Review. The New Haven collective, and especially Jean-Christophe Agnew, Eric Arneson, Susan Besse, Judy Coffin, Willy Forbath, Toni Gilpin, Julie Green, Dan Letwin, Priscilla Murolo, David Scobey, Marta Wagner, and Sharon White, took on additional responsibilities in assembling the book. We thank all the collective members for their material and moral support. We appreciate the assistance of the Connecticut Oral History Center in . recovering a seemingly untranscribable tape, and of Lorraine Estra, Madeline Colon, Katrin van der Vaart, and Mary Whitney, who did additional typing under great time pressure. We thank Eleanor Brown and Steve .Brier for steering the book through legal and commercial channels, Josh Brown for capturing the essence of our interviews in his drawings, our publisher, Andre . Schiffrin, for making the interviews available to a wider audience, and our editor, Nan Graham, for bringing our collective labors to fruition. Finally, we thank the interviewers and the historians for their generous contribution to the Radical History Review and to history. Henry Abelove· Betsy Blackmar Peter Dimock Jonathan Schneer



LIVE IN A SOCIETY WHOSE past is given to us in images that assert the inevitability of the way things are. In more or less subtle ways, politicians and the media invo�e history to show that the contemporary distribution of wealth and power is at once freely chosen and preordained. By the same token, past efforts to contest prevailing social and political arrangements disappear from dominant versions of our history-when they are not s�mplylabeled as foreign or dismissed as utopian. Yet there is a tradition of radical history wr_iting_that has worked to overcome this kinq of historical amnesia. It has sought to rescue from oblivion .the experiences and visions of past movements against social.and political domi­ nation, and to analyze historically the structures and dynamics of domination today. This collection of interviews with radical historians emerges from that tradition. The collection began in 1976 when the editors of Radical History Review decided to interview first Edward Thompson and then a number of other prominent historians on the left. The RHR-its editors and MARHO, the organization that publishes the the offspring of the New Left. The hi�torians whom we interviewed in the first instance belonged mainly to an older generation of radical intellectuals that had come to maturity in the 1940s and 1950s. Through the interviews we hoped to recover a sense of the continuities between their work and experiences and our own. We hoped to initiate a critical dialogue between generations of historians on the Left and to explore together the connections between radical politics and the practice of history. The interview format allowed for exchange and argument about matters shortchanged in conventional scholarly discourse-about theory and political strategy and the history these men and women have lived as well as the history they teach and write. Encouraged by the candor and thoughtful-


ness of the early interviews, we decided to interview more widely and to i.nclude some of our own contemporaries. Some questions could be put only to the older generation. One was: how did the political repression of the cold war era affect you and.your work? The answers are varied and moving. They are a miniature chronicle of the history of radicalism in the 1950s. Natalie Davis, a historian of early mpdern France, · had her passport confiscated by the State Department; her husband was fired from his teaching post at the University of Michigan and later imprisoned for refusing to testify before a congressional committee. When her passport was gone and she could no longer travel to France to read in the-archives, J?avis t�rned to rare book libraries here in the U.S., and so managed to continue her research. The English historian Edward Thompson found work teaching in an extension-studies program at the University of Leeds and in Workers' Education Association courses. By teaching working-class people he_ learned much about them and their trades, and this knowledge turned out to be essential to the book he would ultimately write entitled The Making of the English Working Class. American working-class historian David Montgom­ ery's· first calling was that of a machinist and labor organizer. In his interview, Montgomery recounts the ways he and other shop floor militants contended with McCarthyism. Blacklisted and driven out of the factories for his politics, Montgomery was forced toward the academy just as other leftists were being forced out of it. Finally, there is William Appleman Williams's sardonic acc6unt of his battles with the House Un-American Activities Committee and· the petty harassments by which it tried, unsuccessfully, to wear him down. Another question frequently posed was: what is your assessment of the New Left? Again, the answers vary widely. Some are interestingly ambiva­ lent. David Montgomery criticizes what he takes to be the New Left's conde­ scension to workers, but admires its fervor and commitment to fighting in the here and now. Similarly, Edward Thompson reproaches the New Left for what he takes to be its self-indulgent posturing, but praises its firm belief in democracy. Both historians emphasize the importance of the New Left as an intellectual movement that enriched their own work and the general develop­ ment of Marxist theory. Younger historians such as Linda Gordon and.Vin­ cent Harding offer a different assessment: Gordon describes · the interplay between her involvement in the women's movement and her intellectual formation as a historian. Harding underscores the potential he saw in the movements of the sixties for radically transforming American life. All of those interviewed explore the ways in which their politics inform their practice as historians. Many emphasize that the subject of their study is the oppressed-plebeians, workers, Afro-Americans, women. They go on to say that they.see the oppressed not only as victims, but also as actors in their own right, individuals and groups who resisted oppression courageously and creatively and, in so doing, created cultures of their own. Many of these historians also reflect upon the historical and political context from which


their own work emerged; they discuss how their experience and the political struggles or issues that engaged them shaped the historical questions they asked. All have had to contend with the qi:fficulties that arise from the·narrow boundaries of academic history; all believe that historical knowledge is far too important to be restricted to the university. There are historians absent from this collection who· undoubtedly should be present-for instance, the pioneers in radical lesbian and gay' history. Nonetheless, the interviews gathered here attest to the diversity of radical history. Indeed; they carry on the arguments within it that have strengthened and animated its practitioners. They affirm as well the links between personal experience and "history" that underlie the production of all historical knowl­ edge. And, finally, they reveal the basic unity of purpose that all radical historians share. The point, as Marx observed, is not only to interpret the world, but to change it. These men and women have much to teach us about the past and its bearing on the work of liberating the present. -THE







. P. THOMPSON LIVES in Worcester, England. He was interviewed in March 1976 in New York City, where he was living while serving as visiting professor of history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. At the time of the interview, Thompson was best known as. the author of The Making of the English Work­ ing Class (1963), a history of the English laboring poor between 1790 and 1832 that changed the way social history, and particularly working-class history, was written. Previously, he had ·written a long study of the career of William Morris, which has since been reissued, bereft of what Thompson calls its "Stalinist pieties,_" as William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary (1977). Just prior to the interview, Thompson's study of the origins of the judicial terror in eighteenth-century Britain, Whigs and Hunters, appeared, as did· a volume of related studies on crime and society, Albion Fatal Tree (1975). Both were done in collaboration with several students and colleagues. Since the interview, Thompson's career has taken a few unanticipated turns. He has become well known across Europe as a leader of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement, or END. In response to Protect and Survive, a British government pamphlet on civil defense measures in the event of a nuclear war,. Thompson wrote Protest and Survive (1980),, which was read by tens if not hundreds of thousands of Britons and others. It later became the centerpiece of and gave its name to a volume, edited by Thompson and Dan Smith, of articles by peace activists on the arms race and 'the need for disarma­ nent, which has been issued in both Britain and America. The New left Review has recently issued a collection of articles entitled Exterminism and the Cold War, which includes Thompson's important essay on "exterminism" and several responses to it. Finally, another volume of writings on nuclear disarmament, entitled Beyond the Cold War (1982), has just been published in the United States by Pantheon.





Thompson's role in the movement is not restricted to writing. He has crisscrossed Great Britain and Europe in behalf of END, speaking at its massive rallies and organizing its extensive international network. He has become, while doing so, a figure of considerable notoriety. He was named in a TV poll as one of the four most respected or best-known figu.res in British public life, along with the Qgeen Mother, Qgeen Elizabeth II, and Margaret Thatcher! For most historians, the transition from the archives to the speaker's plat­ form would not be easily accomplished. But Thompson has always been as much an activist as an archivist, as he tells us briefly in the interview included here. He has also always been an accoq1plished, if sometimes unheeded, polemicist, and since this interview has published two volumes of political writing. The first was a collection of previously published essays, including "The Peculiarities of the English" and "The Open Letter toLeszek Koh1kow­ ski"-which are discussed below-·together with a long, previously unpub­ lished polemic against the Althusserian influence in Marxist studies, which · gave the whole collection its title, The Poverty of Theory. 1 The second volume, Writing by Candlelight, contains an extraordinary series of articles written by Thompson during the seventies, mostly for New Society magazine. The subject of these articles centers on the attack by the British authorities on Britain's democratic traditions and institutions. There can be no better demonstration of the importance of an informed political sensibility for the historical imagination than Thompson's work. 2 This interview was conducted by Mike Merrill, coordinator of the Institute for Labor Education in New York City. � Was The Making of the English Working Class [MEWC] written with imme� diate. political goals or intentions in mind, as an intervention, somewhat veiled,. in the current political scene, or did it come from other preoccupations of yours? THOMPSON The mediations between any intellectual or artistic work and one's experience and participation in society are never one-to-one; they are never direct. I mean, no painter can paint his political experience like tpat, and if he tries to do so he paints a poster, which has perhaps a good value as a poster. MEWC undoubtedly arose from a two-sided theoretical polemic. On the one hand, it could not have been written without the extremely firm, intellectually very well-based discipline of economic history that has (with notable excep­ tions) been a continuous tradition from Adam Smith and the orthodox politi­ cal economists through to the present day. It is a tradition largely contaminated with capitalist ideology. Hence, in one sense, to write the social history of the people in this period demands conducting a polemic against that tradition. On the other hand, it was in a sense a polemic against abbreviated

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economistic notations of Marxism, \\·hich had become very dearly disclosed in the arguments around, inside� and outside of the Communist movement from 1956 onward to the creation of the � ew Left. In this tradition the very simplified notion of the creation of the working class was that of a determined process: steam power plus the factory system equals the working class. Some kind of raw material, like peasants "flocking to factories," was then processed into so many yards of class-conscious proletarians.- ! was polemicizing against this notion in order to show the existing plebeian consciousness refi;acted by new experiences in social being, which experiences were handled in cultural ways by the people, thus giving rise to a transformed consciousness. In this sense - the questions being proposed and some of the· theoretical equipment being brought to answer them arose out of that distinct ideological moment. It was-not a book written for the academic public. My own work for many had been as a tutor in adult education, teaching evening classes pf working people, , trade unionists, white-collar people, teachers, and so on. That audience was there, and the audience of the Left also, of the labor movement and the New Left. I was thinking of that kind of reader when I wrote the book, as is pretty evident in my rather irreverent attitudes to the academic proprieties. I've become a bit more inhibited since, simply because, although the book has been received very generously in some academic quar­ ters, it has also been- subjected to very sharp attacks, especially in Britain. In or�er to meet these I have had to sharpen my own scholarly equipment. When you suddenly realize that you are being watched by this largely conservative profession you have to be very sure that your statements are as accurate, as precise, and as well documented as possible. That can be a slight inhibition. � The care-taking you speak of is evident in Whigs and Hunters. · But the irreverence in MEWC was probably the most attractive thing about the book to many academics. THOMPSON Yes, but about Whigs and Hunters. It is not quite so formal and reverent a book as it may appear. In the first half, yes, it appears to be academic and alm�st antiquarian, partly because of the nature of the material out of which a lost set of social relations is reconstructed. This had to be done with minute brush strokes. But it is still an irreverent book. The dominant tradition of eighteenth-century historiography is deeply entrenched and has been al­ most unchallenged in its main outlines for many years. It is a navy that can't be scattered by one sh,ot of musket fire from a canoe. I had to meet. it on its own home waters, and to "Namierize" 3 -by which I mean to examine in minute detail-the interests of foresters and yeomen instead of peers arid gentry. Whether the book succeeded or not is for the readers to decide. But it is partly written within an English historiographical argument that may not be wholly apparent to the American reader. � I was thinking of two things when I asked the question earlier. On the one hand, you describe William Morris's poetry, and-his utopian and historical fantasies, as things that he wrote for his own pleasure. On the other hand,




history has an importance that goes beyond its enjoyment value. Which of these two attitudes toward culture is predominant in your thinking about your historical writing? THOMPSON Of course, that doesn't need to be asked, does it? The only thing one has to say is that such questions are sometimes asked by quite different people from you, [people] who have this pompous and pretentious notion that they are true historians because they haven't got any commitments. If you then say, "Of course," you are supposedly exposed as s_omething other than a historian-a propagandist. On the contrary, I think that an immense amount of existing historiography, certainly in Britain, has seen society within the expectations, the self-image, the apologetics, of a ruling class: "the propaganda of the victors." Hence, to recover an alternative history often involves a polemic against an established ideology. . The second thing is that, again, someone else may ask this question, want­ ing to trip you up into saying, "Okay, all history is ideology, whether of the Left or of the Right." I don't agree with this at all. One · is attempting to approach very complex and objective problems in the histori_cal process (this is what Marx was doing also). This involves a precise discipline that entails distancing and objectifying-becoming aware of one's own predispositions, becoming aware of the questions one is asking-and for a great part of one's work as a historian, one is attempting either to make apparent the intrusion of one's attitudes and values, if they are intruding, or to hold them at a distance and prevent this intrusion from taking place. Otherwise, one assumes that historical process presents no problems that one's already existing attitudes can't provid� an answer to. And this is not true. One is in fact approaching a process that discloses under historical examination its own character and its own problems. Only in that sense does one learn from it. This doesn't mean that at a certain stage it is not possible then to make a judgment upon that process, but that is a second kind of activity. I'm not in any sense apologetic for making such judgments. But I hope it is clear that when I am looking at a question like work discipline, or like popular ritual in the eighteenth cen­ tury, I am not bringing to it a whole set of ready-made attitudes. I am holding it at a distance and attempting to examine it in its own terms and within its own set of relations. But having done that, then, if one wishes, one may make a comment. Beca�se one may wish to evaluate the meaning to us of that process. The meaning isn't there, in the process; the meaning is in what we make of the process. � Did it- work? Has it made a difference? At the end of Whigs and Hunters you intrude yourself rather shockingly, almost, where you wonder whether or not what you do makes you an anachronism. Is this a sign of your feeling that, regardless of all your efforts, MEWC fell on deaf ears, that your hopes for historiographical literature have become less defensible? THOMPSON No, no. I must nave expressed myself unclearly. The question I was raising there is that, quite properly, there is a diminished perspective in

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which· the achievements of that particular moment of Western culture can be regarded. Clearly, in the nineteenth century, and still in my youth, the history schools of Britain or America were staffed by people who had never doubted that their history was the most significant history in the world. But if you are now living on a post-imperial island, which in the conventional terms of capitalist economy is fading rapidly, and if you are aware of the future, in which the emergent nations are going to demand not only a greater presence in the world but also a greater presence in historical consciousness, [then you] are going to turn around and ask what does this peculiar culture of Anglo­ Saxon eighteenth-century constitutionalism mean? Wasn't it in fact more important that England was engaged deeply in the slave trade? That the East India Company was amassing its fortune and extending its territory in India? Aren't these the important things for the world to know about England, not whether the English had particular constitutional rituals? That's one of the questions I'm asking. The. other question is in response to, perhaps, a certain view of the Annales 4 scho