Reply to A Reviewer

Against the Current, No. 146, May/June 2010

James D. Young

MY OLD FRIEND Paul Buhle has developed a neat general formula for reviewing the books he is out of sympathy with. Paul begins by making laudatory comments and concludes by expressing overwhelmingly negative judgments. But he has gone too far in his review of my The Rousing of the Scottish Working Class, 1774-2008 (ATC 144, January-February 2010) by falsely accusing me of using “a club to beat [E.P.] Thompson.”

To set the record straight, Edward Thompson and I were good friends from 1955 when I helped to sell the old New Reasoner; and before his death he read some chapters of my autobiography Making Trouble and said “I like your Bolshie and anti-state attitudes.”

Moreover, I published a major article in The Times Higher Education Supplement (“A Socratic Presence,” November 2, 1990) where I defended Edward from his rightwing critics. In my opening paragraph I wrote: “Warm-hearted, generous, self-indulgent and craggy, Edward Palmer Thompson invites comparison invites comparison with the other great 20th century libertarian socialist polymath C.L.R. James.

A few days before my 79th birthday I stand by those words, with the proviso that Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class requires to be examined more critically by libertarian socialists than it was in the past. Paul Buhle seems incapable of distinguishing between enthusiastic praise for the positive aspects of a book and, if necessary, relevant fraternal criticism. Marx, Engels and many others too need to read and commented on in a critical spirit instead of quoting them by rote.

Buhle ought to know that the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 changed everything, yet he insists on clinging to his anti-intellectual pseudo-Stalinism, seen most clearly in his writings on the 1930s “communist” script writers in Hollywood.

Imperialism and Labor

World political events before and after 1989 have shown that most socialists were hopelessly out of touch with the national question, ethnic conflict imperialism and English cultural imperialism. Those writers who in 2010 are still critiquing the present-day impact of English cultural imperialism on the literature and way of life of subject peoples include Salman Rushdie, Ngugi wa Thiongo and Dipesh Chakrabarry. James Baldwin’s defense of “Black English” was an attack on the cultural imperialism the Americans were given by the English.

Paul ignores the evidence I use in my new book from important new libertarian socialists such as Paul Mason in Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global (2008) and Mario Kessler in Socialism and anti-Semitism (2009). I was attempting to draw readers’ attention to the international context in which libertarian socialists are struggling with the national question in several countries.

Buhle has not understood the arguments of the Indian labor historian Chakrabarry in Rethinking Working Class History. Criticizing E.P. Thompson’s concepts of “the free-born Englishman” and “equality before the law” [in the formation of English working class consciousness – ed.], Chakrabarry asks the question: how to other workingclass countries like India (and Scotland), which do not carry such a liberal baggage, develop class consciousness?

The late Royen Harrison wrote perceptively about “the exceptional English working class” and “a very English socialism” through the unique English Parliamentary system. Chakrabarry understood that English labor history was born out of a “culture shaped by the mad and violent agency of imperialism.” He argues that what was needed was a universalist mode of thinking, and that Thompson’s “exceptionalism” and ”universalism” were “self-torturing antitheses.”

In a legitimate criticism of The Making of the English Working Class, Mason wrote: “But in this ‘new’ labour history [initiated by Thompson] what gets lost is often story and significance. In reaction to the narrative superimposed on the facts by Moscow, modern academics tend to avoid the big truths within the life stories of those they have rescued from oblivion.”

This was why I criticized aspects of The Making of the English Working Class, where Edward quoted with approval yet simultaneously suppressed knowledge of the English radicals’ very racist attitudes towards the Scots and the Irish as demonstrated in Jack Wade’s The Black Book, or Corruption Unmasked (1830). Edward ignored the passage where the English radical Wade wrote:

“Scotland has benefited by the Union of 1707; Her soil has been fertilized by our capital, and her greedy sons have enriched themselves by sinecures and pensions, the product of English taxes…Again what benefits have we derived from the conquest of Ireland. Her uncultivated wastes, too, will be made fruitful by English money, unless the connexion be prematurely severed; but what boon in return can she confer on England?”

The Problem of Stalinism

When he reviewed my book The World of C.L.R. James: The Unfragmented Vision (1999), Paul accused me of what used to be called rightwing deviations because I quoted with approval Irving Howe and Joseph Buttinger. Yet both men made important additions to the literature of socialism. Buttinger’s The Twilight of Socialism remains a useful book and Howe’s essay on “Authoritarians of the Left” is superior to Hal Draper’s Biblical essay “The Two Souls of Socialism.”

I am yet again a heretical sinner for daring to approve some of the comments made by Leszek Kolakowski [prominent Polish philosopher sharply critical of Marxism – ed.]. In response to Kolakowski, Edward was compelled to concede that “a common socialist family” did not exist after 1917. At the end of the polemic with the Polish philosopher, Edward ceased to regard himself as a Marxist. His wife Dorothy told me in conversation that he was henceforth content to say that he “belonged to a Marxist tradition.”

Unfortunately, Paul does not seem to be aware of the murder and persecution of East European socialists by the Stalinists at the end of World War II. On my last trip to America I found a lost archive dealing with “right wing” (as Paul would call them) American socialists who founded the International Rescue Conmmittee to help anti-fascists and anti-Stalinists in Eastern Europe. [This reference is to the “Lovestone group” expelled from the U.S. Communist Party in the late 1920s, which maintained a Communist opposition group for the following decade. Lovestone subsequently played a major role in the foreign policy operations of the U.S. labor leadership -– ed.] I have yet to write up this material.

But one result of the increasingly obvious character of Russian totalitarian “communism” in Eastern Europe was the decimation of socialists and anarchists. The Liebknechts held a family conference and Karl Liebknecht’s sister and two brothers defected from the communists to the German socialist party. Karl Kautsky’s son Dr. Benedict Kautsky, freed from a concentration camp, left the communists and rejoined the German Social Democratic Party. Unknown to the Liebknecht family in Germany, Karl Liebknecht’s son Robert and his wife Herthi, who ended in Switzerland after working in the French underground resistance, also joined the socialist ranks.

Socialists who had resisted and survived Stalinism were thrown back into the camps – Sachsenausen and Buchenwald in East Germany – to crush their independence of mind. Instead of the Swastika and the SS they had the Red Star and communist guards. [These were called “NKVD Special Camps” from 1945 until they were closed down in 1950 – ed.]

I detest Stalinism and I regret the fact that Stalinist ideas remain strong.

ATC 146 web only, May-June 2010