E.P.Thompson Memorial Lecture 2000

Past present

It is a great honour for me and my union to be invited to give this year’s E.P.Thompson memorial lecture. My union is centrally engaged with the government, local authorities and voluntary sector in building a new set of structures and policies to secure a better future for young people, but I do not want to make these the subject of my speech, though I would be happy to take questions in the discussion. That area is my bread and butter, occasionally even general secretaries of trade unions should be allowed to leaven the bread a little. So here, if I may some more personal reflections.

I was Secretary of the Coventry Trade Union Council for ten years and I am particularly pleased to have received this invitation from the Worcester Trades Council. Trades Councils potentially bridge and represent the interface between workplace organisation and wider community struggles. Our Trades Council fought industrial devastation in Britain’s most manufacturing based City. It was a painful process and everyone’s identity changed as a result.. I dare say Worcester is concerned currently with the closure of Kidderminster’s hospital and the environmental damage done to our countryside by the Common Agricultural Policy. I am also pleased to speak on a day when workers in Worcester are celebrating international workers day for Monday.

Though Coventry has been a proud working class City there was always some embarassment about associating so called noble things with a city largely of highly skilled engineers and metal bashers. We had a Polytechnic and a University within the City, yet the polytechnic was called Lanchester Polytechnic and the University was named after the posher place Warwick. Many a prospective student ended up in the wrong Halls of Residence far to the north or just to the south.

Loss of national identity.

But worse, when the post war rebuilding of the City had come to fruition passengers arriving to the railway station would be greeted by the sign ‘Welcome to Coventry, City of Skills, Engineering and Opportunities’. Then after the first rampage of the heavy Thatcherite dancers we lost about 70,000 manufacturing jobs over a two year period. So the sign was changed to ‘Welcome to Coventry, City of Entertainments and Leisure.’ There was the naive belief among many for a while that our economy could survive on candy floss rather than manufacturing production. The old GEC site is now a pleasure dome of ice rinks, night clubs and cinemas, the Parkside Rolls Royce site is now a hotel, most industrial land has been sold off and for every closed down factory there is an out of town supermarket, while in the inner city areas children go undernourished and TB has returned. When it became clear that entertainment ‘industries’ could not sustain real wealth creation and hamburger joints did not improve culture and fund schools, Coventry station sign changed again. Now it is ‘Welcome to Coventry, City in the heart of Shakespeare Country.’ The ghost town of the eighties disappears into the leafy lanes of the bard. Untune the string of industry and hark what discord follows. Writ large a nation disappears as an economic zone in the European Union. The nonsensical Scottish Nationalist Party Slogan ‘Independence within Europe’ expresses perfectly the way in which the new world order fosters petty and often tragically dangerous nationalisms within the overarching destruction of any meaningful democratic independence in trans national superstates like the European Union.

Moment’s of danger.

My life was changed by reading the works of William Morris, William Blake and the historical writings of E.P.Thompson and Christopher Hill who brought much of the revolutionary traditions of Britain into the consciousness of my generation. I have to pay tribute too to the work of Dorothy Thompson particularly on the Early Chartists. Such historians resurrected socialist traditions of thought and philosophy and organisation which pre dated Marx and reached back to the Civil War period and the formation of the first trade unions. Indeed such historians did what previous generations of socialists had done in their own day. In the mid sixteenth century, my own special interest period, supporters of the peasant rebellions, which were extensive then, resurrected the great radical poet Langland author of Piers Plowman and railed against the first capitalist merchants and landowners - when Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? In turn their work was rekindled at the start of the making of the modern working class by writers like Blake who consciously looked back to Milton and the radical tradition for root and legacy. The great German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote eloquently of how history reclaims the present and asserts its relevance at a moment of crisis:

"To articulate the past historically does not mean to recognise it "the way it really was". It means to seize hold of a memory as it flashes up at a moment of danger. Historical materialism wishes to retain the image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger. The danger affects both the content of the tradition and its receivers. ..In every era the attempts must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it." (Illuminations 256)

States of emergency.

Though Benjamin also reminds us that states of emergency are the norms rather than the exceptions in history and that no historical document is merely a record of civilisation it is simultaneously a record of barbarism, we re read Thompson’s work at an obvious moment of danger.

The de industrialisation of Britain, so necessary to blitz a nation’s self determination and identity and democracy continues apace. About 220,000 manufacturing jobs have been lost since 1997 and the situation at Rover and Ford only indicates the depth of the problem. The fact that many of our staple industries needed to produce the basics of clothing, ceramics, footwear and textiles are now down to the bone indicates the start of a new moment of danger for Britain. A nation cannot exist without an ability to produce across a range of locally based indigenous industries and the plans of global capitalism, particularly as expressed in our region by the European Union, deliberately and wilfully expect Britain to be a base for pharmaceuticals, finances and NATO nuclear installations.

Land set aside.

The recent history of agriculture, even in this area where thousands of hectares of orchards have been grubbed up in order to facilitate the import of foreign grown apples, shows a depletion of the self sufficient resources a country needs to look after its own people. And with this perpetual industrial genocide goes all of the working class culture, intelligence, tradition, organisation and civilisation that Thompson so magnificently charted in its origin. One industrial union general secretary remarked to me last week that he now only envies youth their youth, there is nothing for the younger generation to look forward to as with previous generations who saw growth and progressive social reform by and large ahead. However, statistics show that for hundreds of thousands of young people poverty remains a not so subtle thief of their youthfulness, making moments that should be enjoyed depressed and traumatic.

Working class.

Thompson wrote of the agricultural and manual labourers whose work and politics have been the driving force of British history. Let me say two things about his appreciation of the working class and its history. Firstly, the term working class. This is a phrase usually denoting abuse and patronage. It often describes a condition to be escaped from and in a bizarre reversal of reality one is supposed to escape from being working class by getting educated. Fundamental pre Marxist economics tell us that by gaining a skill and education your labour power becomes more valuable and therefore you become more exploited. You become more working class not less so. The poor, in the normal use of the words working class, are made poor to swell the egos of the charitable. The working class is mostly confined to imagine downtrodden manual labourers, council house tenants, the socially excluded and disadvantaged.

This concept of working class is as elastic and meaningless as its twin illusion that of the middle class. The notion that class can be defined by gradations of status, lifestyle, income, home furnishings accent and behaviour has always been an illusion. Though this is not to say that sometimes when hearing the drawn vowels of the monarchy or received pronunciation of the remaining family landowners, a temptation to blow a raspberry is unreasonable.

Where though, is the beginning and end of the notion of middle class ? Are you middle class because you have a certain accent and certain list of qualifications ? Are surgeons middle class because they sip Grand Cruz wines and nurses working classes because some like cider ? I would argue that the whole of the health service if you step back from the hierarchies and different accents, is one of the most socialist things in Britain, along with comprehensive education; they are examples of the new society growing within the womb of the old. Presumeably this is why it is continually threatened by the Private Finance Initiative and internal market and why teachers face union busting through performance related pay.

Class revision.

One of the big challenges Thompson’s history sets us is to completely revise common notions of class. Class is in reality a question of economic relations around ownership. The distinctive thing about British history, perhaps more than any other country, is that we have simplified the class structure. There are only two here. In this sense the country is driven by the working class whether astronomer, nuclear physicist or refuse collector. What is perplexing is that largely occupational cultures still delude so many into notions of division and difference. There are seven million and rising in trade unions, and these are predominantly now what used to be white collar workers - as if by having a white collar you didn’t work - tell that to a school teacher. But there are about 13 million workers not in trade unions. In reality this probably means about 19 million workers not active in trade unions. If we want to change history again, we need to return to active trade unionism and organise in every workplace. With the average age of a trade unionist being 46 and only 1 in five young people under 25 in unions, we have a lot to do.

The myth of the middle class.

Despite the immense creativity of our class we do not have power. By rejecting outdated ideas about the middle class, about some people doing and others thinking for them, about intellectuals being less or more important than manual labourers, perhaps we will come closer to achieving real power and breaking down the internal divisions that keep us from it. Capitalism is still in charge and this increasingly endangers the future for Britain’s 20 million people under the age of 25. The working class made Britain - Wales, Scotland and England into the fourth largest economy in the world with some of the oldest and most powerful socialist and democratic traditions. It is this national unity and democracy that is most under threat as I shall try to outline.

The working class always exploited, always oppressed is a dynamic creator not a victim. Those who seek to administer to the poor are often the oppressors. William Blake was clear about this, listen to his poem about the London chimney sweeps:

“A little black thing among the snow:
Crying weep, weep in notes of woe !
Where are thy father and mother say ?
They are both gone up to the church to pray.

Because I was happy upon the heath

And smil’d among the winters snow:
They clothed me in the clothes of death

And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

And because I am happy, and dance and sing,

They think they have done me no injury:
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King

Who make up a heaven of our misery.”

Right wing ‘Left’.

If we see the working class as dynamic and creative and as in economic relationship to the ownership of the real means of production rather than simply personal possessions, then another thing follows. We must learn to hate the notion of the Left and leftism. Perhaps the most destructive thing within the working class is this concept of the left. It is a profoundly un materialist concept. If social existence determines consciousness it follows that as social existence changes and as the interchange between nurture and nature, the individual and collective, the personal and the political all develop in dynamic exchange each day and an individual’s perceptions alter accordingly. Some bless and badge themselves as being part of the self appointed and often self opinionated Left. ‘I am left wing therefore I am right’ seems to be the arrogant adage. Like the concept of middle class the concept of left and leftishness is sufficiently elastic to destroy any discriminating sense of thought. It is a reflection of the oppositional nature of Parliament which dominates so many pseudo forums of debate. There is opposition for the sake of it, a kind of genetic determinism that says if someone takes such a stance on such an issue they are indelibly and unalterably stained with a particular hue and position in debate.

Being on the self appointed left is also a version of patronage, it says we must convey to the unenlightened the truth the way and the light. It is also intensely insulting and associated with explanations for the lack of progress of the working class that ignore the power of our class. One class expression of this is the notion that trade union leaders, presumably elected officials, lead the flock astray and always sell out. This denies the ability of the majority of members of many trade unions to sort out the corrupt and misguided. Another version would be that throughout British history an upper layer of workers were bought off by the crumbs of imperialism and benefited from Britain’s savagery abroad. A number of great Marxists were profoundly misguided on this question too.

Another version is that unless there is an immediate general strike by all workers now on the issue of the manager stepping on my toe no one can claim such left wing credentials as those calling for the ultimate action. The left in the unions set themselves up as aunt sallies for the right to knock down so that the left can prove the right are nasty. Unions get divided like the House of Commons in pitched battles between the right and left while the membership concerns are ignored and workers leave in droves. The Punch and Judy shows of broad lefts versus the ‘leaderships’ in the trade union movement are in my view anti union with the left as culpable as the right and often more piously self righteous. It is always the membership, never the leadership that is the problem. Forget this and you patronise the majority of organised workers.

In every cry of every Man

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice; in every ban,

The mind forged manacles I hear.

We should not be interested in the minor distractions of the left and the right, both factions are fictions, two sides of the same coin. We should return to questions of class interest. Who gains from this course of action in these circumstances - us or them, does this way of working unite or divide ?

New Labour.

While thinking of our understanding of the words we use I am troubled by the term new labour. The Prime Minister is a deeply religious man, a High Church Christian of a sort that actually most of those groups who Thompson analysed, including of course the Tolpuddle Martyrs, fought against all of their lives. In other words the Prime Minister’s most important primary sources, without getting into too many theological arguments, are two thousand years old. Hardly new. Indeed the most important oaths that bind our alleged rule of law together are of the same age. High tech global capitalism still seems to be bound together by ancient texts. Despite this lineage we are sometimes encouraged to believe that the world began in May 1997 and everything must be new, all old vested interested discouraged and broken up. Indeed most of the authors of youth policy in government terms have no knowledge of youth support services prior to 1997 and much of their supporting academic research starts in the same year. I am proud of the fact that my young union, founded in 1938, still draws for inspiration on some of the genuinely new ideas created within the organised workers movement, a genuinely new development, since 1848. Indeed if you compared the history of the world and man to the height of the Eiffel tower, mankind appears as a late arrival like the last coat of paint, and socialism as a philosophy and economic practice on the very recent surface of this coat. Rather than being a thing of the past it remains a thing of the future, just beginning and not much more than a century old. The concept of the social regulation of capitalism is of course much older and is persistently the constitutional foundation of even new political entities like for example the New Times Network.

Old is best.

A lot of the old things in Britain - primarily the trade unions and local councils and a range of democratic youth and community organisations - find themselves subject to some old fashioned modernisation. We still have the most repressive anti trade union legislation on the books which at its core denies the solidarity action between groups of workers this historically led to many of the progressive human rights and responsibilities that we have. Local councils cannot raise their own rate and fund economic development in the way they could in the post war period. The right to trial by jury under EU pressure is also being threatened. In the name of devolution and decentering power the people of Wales and Scotland find their economies increasingly subject to the whims of Brussels and the multi national corporations with no government back up in Britain in times of need. The other new thing about Britain of course is that by preparing to give away to the unelected bankers in Frankfurt our control over interest and exchange rates and our coinage, we are not just preparing to modernise the crusty House of Lords, but give away the jurisdiction of the House of Commons over our nation. Not surprising perhaps therefore to note that astute manual labourers realising the ship is sinking are nowhere to be seen in the chamber these days.

Is the new possible ?

But can something be new ? Isn’t the word a contradiction itself ? A new flower is the creation of an old one. A new car is a refinement of previous models. Isn’t everything linked to a collective past, merely a change and growth of previous circumstances and production ? Be wary of the new, it is at best untried and probably false. But in philosophical terms the fetish of the new is linked to that market driven concept of postmodernism which sees no narrative, no continuity, no definitive history, just endless histories, no possibility of truth, reason, emancipation, no ultimate grounds of explanation. The postmodernist sees the world as contingent, ungrounded, diverse, unstable, indeterminate, a set of disunified cultures or interpretations which create perpetual scepticism and nihilism.

This reflects perhaps the genuinely new forms of capitalism and work - the ephemeral product, the fast fix joint, the throw away Hi Fi, the decentralised world of new technology, consumerism and all pervasive pop, the massive flows of financial speculations and future’s markets which triumph over the more stable, long term productive forces of manufacturing and local politics. The ultimate expression of this view that separates the individual from their history and their context is identity politics. This replaces the working class and Enlightenment ideas that were condensed in the phrase ‘I think therefore I am’ with the impenetrable view that ‘I am therefore I am right’. Instead of a shared legacy of common culture and histories a fragmented kaleidescope of personal politics based on deterministic criteria of gender and race is lauded as the rainbow coalition of the casualties of interpersonal prejudices.

The attempted intrusion of the market into more and more spheres of life and daily experience, the dominance of the cash nexus and changing patterns of work encourage new, ahistorical outlooks. Stable communities and productive industries enabled a sense of being an author of your life with a clear narrative leading to self respect and the positive character that goes with security of employment and the creation of self worth through skill and collective ingenuity. The break up of this pattern has led to what the American sociologist Richard Sennett has described as the corrosion of character. The dreaded ‘f’ word flexibility in the work process and labour market diminishes collective organisation and the sense of control over one’s own destiny. No longer a job for life a skill for life or full time work.

The risky youth market.

Other sociologists have studied the effects of the relatively recent break up of linear transitions on the process of developing from childhood to adulthood and identified the minefields of risks confronting young people on their journeys. Childhood has been extended, as has youth. No longer the logical progressive steps - school, training employment, economic independence, marriage a new home and a good wage. At each stage uncertainty, this has led here to the highest youth suicide rates in Europe the highest teenage pregnancy rates, youth homelessness and pervasive abuse and crime of and against of the young. On the one hand capitalism seeing the state of youth as a niche market to convince that personal identity is incomplete without a Reebok trainer, on the other no wherewithal to buy the trainers legitimately and many escaping into very widespread substance abuse. Opulence and wealth at one level, with lots of new young entrepreneurs, at the other, the lower minimum wage and withdrawal of benefits for 16 year olds. Class divisions, we are reminded are over, but the combined private wealth of the top two richest people in Britain would fund the entire national youth service for the next 20,000 years. Youth as fashionable market place for throw away images and style. Worse still the great European social model of a superstate of milk and honey where 18 million people are unemployed, most have been out of work for over a year and over 45% of these are under 25 and most of these have never had a job. Equally young people here active and socially and environmentally concerned. Many cry when they see pictures of starving children in Africa who have been recently deprived of foods stockpiled by the European Union to keep prices high. Mountains of overproduction and malnutrition go hand in hand.

And to my mind one of the worst changes that has blighted the bloom of youth, the policy that higher education is a privilege that should not be funded by the state, but paid for via a student loan by the individual. Perhaps this change is the best expression of the confusion of class. It assumes that an education, the product really of the most intense social labour and collectivity, is a private commodity that bestows private benefit to the educated.

Your own youth fleeting.

Think for a moment of your own period of adolescence. It was no doubt full of biological turmoil which are difficult enough without any added social pressures. As a youth your head and heart for the first time start to say ‘I am mad, passionately in love with that other person, (usually of another gender), and I want to take my clothes off immediately with them and roll around in the hay loft’. But the body, strangely gangly and clumsy, sprouting in all sorts of peculiar ways, wants to hide you away from sight in a darkened room alone. Desire inside seems matched by inevitable rejection outside.

But remember not just the awkwardness and confusion, but the intensity of all experiences, the scents and aromas, the new sounds and passions the fact that you suddenly love sprouts which you used to throw from the dinner table, the joy in the simplest grains of sand you touched. There is a time in the most loved and supported period of youth when the simple love of life the feeling of being excels all previous consciousness and you write your address down as So and So, the universe, the galaxy, the solar system, the Earth, Britain, Worcester. The whole of life culminates in your unique being. Blake put it well when he wrote:

He who binds himself to joy

Does the winged life destroy;

But he who kisses the joy as it flies

Lives in eternity’s sunrise

As a young person you can experience life as concentrated enjoyable moments fresh to your perceptions and emotions and new ideas. Value is that you are valued and alive. Each moment is a new wonder and discovery. It is also a time of absolute hilarity as Roddy Doyle’s and Meera Syal’s novels show and a time of the formation of values, senses of beauty and ideas which last a lifetime as Joyce shows.

Seize the Moment.

The preciousness of each moment and sense of self esteem should be dominant features of growing up. There should be friends and love of family, and social protection. There should be fun, experimentation, controlled risk taking, reflection, support, guidance, space, new experiences. For my generation just as you were romancing in the meadows and speaking poetry on a summer’s day to your latest love, an F111 would blast across the summer skies and our future would be shadowed by the real fear of nuclear war. Thompson as a peace campaigner and internationalist made a significant contribution to removing this fear and the real dangers from Europe. I was in fact struck when I visited family in Belgium over Easter this year by the sign at Brussels airport which read Peace in Our Time and conveyed a large CND logo. I was impressed until I discovered it was an advert for a new Kenzo perfume. You see the market uses the most popular images to conceal the reality of our sweat.

Peace perfume.

But what struck me most over the weekend was the mounting scale of opposition to the new and latest set of war mongering developments. In Belgium in a small village called Kleine Brogel Actors and Writers from all over the country descended to break the perimeters of a new secret nuclear weapons base which, like many in Britain under construction, is part of the US led NATO backed attempt to police the world quite illegally over the heads of the UN and individual nations with a new strategic surveillance and rapid reaction system. It goes along side the formation of a new European armed services working to a new Common Foreign and Security Policy for Europe dominated largely by Germany with its expansionist aspirations still to the east - Kossovo of course uses the Deutschmark now.

Enforced migrations.

The response in Britain to the oil war against the Iraqi people and children and then the illegal war against Serbia to install EU and NATO troops in strategic positions along other oil and trading roots in eastern Europe was muted. Too many young people watched the missiles land like games on their video machines. We are troubled now as a country by the effect of the migrations enforced by wars on nations in eastern Europe and elsewhere. The ultimate individual alienation must surely be denationalistion into the flight of the refugee. In whose benefit is any search of asylum ? Is it not a right to live and grow up in the land of your birth ? Is this right not greater than the right to expect a nomadic home anywhere ? Are we contributing to the global break up of nations by tolerating such a scale of asylum seeking ? Does on open door policy in this regard not simply reflect the free movement of capital goods and labour so demanded by the multi nationals ? What is really racist, refusing asylum seekers or bombing from their homes in the first place ?

Witness Against the Beast.

While nuclear arsenals are haunting and dangerous in the extreme, we appreciate again that the economic system that requires war as an extension of its political control can use anything from the plastic bullet to the land mine, to the conventional tank to cower a people into submission and devastate a nation. It is the against the beast of the system not its technology that we must concentrate our efforts again. Too often the British imperial beast has returned home to lick its wounds before another sortie. We must not allow this to happen again.

New Workers’ Nationalism.

To prevent this I suggest we are going to have to assert a new form of workers nationalism. The old handlebar moustaches of the great Empires have gone. We now have a world dominated by the three great trading blocs, NAFTA led by America, ASEAN led by Japan and the European Union led by Germany. These blocs compete in the traditional way and as administered by the World Trade Organisation and IMF dominate countries with the transient and migrant parasitism of the trans national corporations which seek to remove any national protections and sovereignties. Anyone like Serbia or Iraq who refuses to join the club is punished by the increasingly belligerent police forces of NATO. Or like the brilliant Cuba, or Vietnam or the independent China ostracised and threatened.

To complete much of the work started by CND and END we must recommit ourselves to removing Britain from NATO and the European Union and refuse to allow any of our land to be used as nuclear bases for foreign powers. Inevitably another Greenham Common will soon arise. Internationalism true was never and could never be global across all nations simultaneously, it was and is national in form, though not of course in content. Imagine the inspiration to the world if Britain declared a truly ethical foreign policy of withdrawal from NATO and the EU and asserted the principle of peaceful co existence and non belligerence. Perhaps if we achieved this young people today would have a real future to look forward to. But our task is hard. This time our peace movement and environmental movements need more socialism and link to the workplace and trade unions. It is great that the Green Party for example is so clear that the single currency represents the next phase in the global capitalist assault on nations in Europe and deindustrialisation.

Where can we go to find an origin for our commitment to liberate our country from foreign domination and to emancipate the enormous creative talents of the human beings who live here. Many of the pioneers of our movement who Thompson uncovered provide a start. For instance the Tolpuddle martyrs who have been repeatedly misrepresented as poor innocent victims of nasty circumstances who banded together for a bit more pay said all that Marx and Lenin said long before the Communist Manifesto. The were highly class conscious and understood that this consciousness had a goal. This is what George Loveless wrote in the Victims of Whiggery:

"I believe that nothing will ever be done to relieve the distress of the working classes, unless they take it into their own hands...Never, no never will the rich and great devise means to alleviate the distress and remove the misery felt by the working men of England. What then is to be done ? Why, the labouring classes must do it themselves, or it will for ever be left undone."

Where can we find the determination to intensify our endeavours to transform society not just to redistribute wealth but put the wealth creators in charge in the interests of a peaceful world for our children ? As we approach May Day perhaps we should return to the Haymarket Martyrs who efforts to inaugurate the eight hour day led to the first May Day celebrations and their execution. Just before being hanged in 1887 one of the martyrs August Spies said the following:

"If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the Labour Movement...the movement from which the downtrodden millions who toil in want and misery - expect salvation - if this is your opinion, then hang us ! Here you will tread upon the spark, but there behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out."

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