Above: excerpt from John Akomfrah’s film ‘The Stuart Hall Project’
The death yesterday of Stuart Hall, aged 82, robs the British left of a major intellect, an energetic organiser and a warm, charismatic human being. I should declare an interest: in the early 1970′s Stuart was one of my tutors at Birmingham University (where he was director of the Centre for Contemporary Studies) and, together with Dorothy Thompson in the History department, was instrumental in ensuring that I wasn’t chucked out and eventually obtained a degree (albeit an ‘Ordinary’). So I owe him a great deal: I only wish I’d got to know him better and found out, for instance, that we shared a love of jazz (although, I learned from Desert Island Discs, his favourite musician was Miles Davis, so even that might have generated some disagreement).
So I hope it’s clear that I liked and respected Stuart Hall a great deal, and if the articles reproduced below, in his memory, are quite sharply critical of aspects of his politics (particularly his rejection of the centrality of the working class to the struggle for socialism), that’s because serious, honest people can (or, at least, ought to be able to) disagree and still hold one another in high regard.
Paving the way for New Labour
By Matt Cooper (2013)
Cinema documentary has undergone a renaissance in recent years, with fine examples exploring subjects as diverse as sushi in Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011) and death squads in 1960s Indonesia in The Act of Killing (2012).
Nonetheless, a film about the semi-Marxist cultural theorist Stuart Hall is unexpected. Hall was born in Jamaica in 1932, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 1952 and was the founding editor of New Left Review (NLR) in 1960. This was a journal which explicitly adopted a “third way” approach between Soviet Communism and social democracy, but was ambivalent about the working class and its revolutionary potential.
After resigning as editor of NLR in 1962, Hall became a leading radical academic joining the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham University in 1964 and becoming its director from 1968 to 1979. Cultural studies grew out of the New Left interest in the culture of the working class, which had largely been ignored by academia, and was part of a rise in a form of academic radicalism that mixed some real insights in an overly abstract and obtuse theoretical carapace and, like the New Left, often had little relationship with real struggles.
The last phase of Hall’s career commenced after 1979, when, despite his earlier rejection of both Stalinism and social democracy, he was one of the key theorists of bringing the two together. Through the pages of Marxism Today (the journal of the right wing of the Communist Party), and his own books, Hall argued that Labour needed to form a new progressive alliance in tune with “new times” where the organised working class was a diminishing force.
The problem with Akomfrah’s film is that it fails to address the development of Hall’s thought. It is strongest on his part in the formation of the New Left, and here hints at the weakness of this approach. While Hall’s co-thinkers were well established in Oxford and London, he reports that he was perplexed by an early encounter with the northern working class in Halifax. Like much else in the film, which is straitjacketed by its choice to use only the words from radio and TV appearances by Hall, this is left undeveloped.
Similarly, the film moves briefly over Hall’s work in the 1970s and fails to communicate what was specific about Hall’s understanding of culture — particularly his work on the moral panic over mugging in Policing the Crisis (1978).
Worst of all, the film entirely misses out Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism in the 1980s and his increasingly pessimistic response about how the left should respond to it.
Strangely, the film includes a clip of the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, but there is no reference to any words from Hall to accompany it. Hall, while clearly sympathetic to the strike, thought it the doomed expression of class struggle that could no longer win. Without any clear sense of transforming society, Hall looked only to create a new more progressive ideology removed from such outdated class struggle. Unwittingly, he was preparing the ground for New Labour (which was more enthusiastically supported by many of his Marxism Today collaborators).
Without much grasp of Hall’s place in the movement away from class politics from the 1960s to the 1980s, The Stuart Hall Project ends up with a fragmented kaleidoscope of images without any clear narrative.
It neither does justice to Hall’s ideas nor shows any critical understanding of them.
“Post Fordism”: collapsing into the present
By Martin Thomas (1989)
Capitalism has changed and is changing. Vast new areas in the Third World have industrialised. The introduction of small, cheap, flexible computers is revolutionising finance, administration, retailing, manufacturing. The majority of the workforce in many capitalist countries is now “white-collar” – but white-collar work is becoming more industrial.
Dozens of other shifts and changes are underway. Which of them are basic? How are they connected? What implications do they have for socialists?
Into this debate has marched the Communist Party’s magazine “Marxism Today”, bearing a banner with a strange device – “post-Fordism”. “At the heart of New Times”, they write, “is the shift from the old mass-production Fordist economy to a new, more flexible, post” Fordist order based on computers, information technology and robotics” (Marxism Today, October 1988). These New Times call for a new politics: in place of the old class struggle, diverse alliances.
There are several issues here. Do the political conclusions really follow from the economic analysis? Is the economic analysis sound? Where does the economic analysis come from? What do the terms “Fordism” and “post-Fordism” mean? Read the rest of this entry »
Pace Jim, I like folk music. I also admire Pete Seeger, a vigorous campaigner on the behalf of many causes and a man with a strong sense of public duty.
So here’s a Youtube clip.
The death, reported today, of Pete Seeger, reminded me that he publicly broke with Stalinism back in 2007 (some say he’d privately broken with it some years previously).
I wrote the following at the time, in a deliberately provocative style intended to infuriate folkies. Nevertheless, I hope it’s suitably respectful towards a brave and principled man:
Pete Seeger changes his tune: finger removed from ear
I’ve never particularly liked folk music, with its whining three-chord “tunes”, its anachronistic and lachrymose lyrics and the sheer musical incompetence of most of its performers – including the famous ones like Bob Dylan.
Having said that, I have to admit that most of the folkies I’ve met over the years have been thoroughly decent people, often stalwarts of left-wing campaigns, strike-support activity and international solidarity. But for some unexplained reason, these admirable people almost invariably turn out to be Stalinists of one variety or another: what is it about the music or the “scene” that brings this about? Delightful, sandle-wearing, hirsute do-gooders turn out to be apologists for some of the most monstrous regimes and genocidal crimes in human history!
Pete “If I Had a Hammer” Seeger always struck me as the spritual progenitor of the finger-in-the-ear school of folkie Stalinism (the finger being in the ear to prevent the truth about Uncle Joe’s crimes ever being heard): he was (and is) a very good and brave human being, so far as I can judge. Certainly, he had the courage to defy the House Committee on Un-American Activities, rather than betray his friends and comrades, and spent a year in jail as a result. On a less serious note, I’ve also always harboured a sneaking admiration for his legendary attempt to take an axe to Bob Dylan’s microphone cable at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. But still, this admirable figure remained an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist [*]…
…Until now. According to Nicholoas Wapshott in the New Statesman, the 88 year-old Seeger says he has “‘been thinking what Woody (Guthrie - JD) might have written had he been around” to see the end of the Soviet Union. In a letter responding to (a) complaint that he had repeatedly sung about the Nazi Holocaust but failed to acknowledge the millions killed in Stalin’s death camps, he (Seeger) wrote: “I think you’re right – I should have asked to see the gulags when I was in (the) USSR”.
So now Pete has written a new song, ‘The Big Joe Blues’, which goes: “I’m singing about old Joe, cruel Joe./He ruled with an iron hand./He put an end to the dreams/Of so manyin every land./He had a chance to make/A brand new start for the human race./Instead he set it back/Right in the same nasty place./I got the Big Joe Blues./(Keepyour mouth shut or you will die fast.)/I got the Big Joe Blues./(Do this job, no questions asked.)/I got the Big Joe Blues”.
According to Wapshott, Pete now acknowledges that, “if by some freak of history communism (I think he really means Stalinism – JD) had caught up with this country, I would have been one of the first people thrown in jail”. So the finger’s well and truly out of the ear. At long last.
Above: despite my prejudice against folk music, I think this is great! Pete with Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee in the mid-60s
* Addendum: BTL comments (below) would seem to confirm that my statement that PS remained “an unremitting, unreconstructed Stalinist” (until 2007) was incorrect. It would also seem to be the case (sadly) that the story of the axing of Dylan’s electric cable at Newport in 1965 is apocryphal.
By Jon Lansman (at Left Futures, 22 Jan):
Yesterday [ie 21 Jan], the Scottish police confirmed that they had found “no evidence of any criminality” in their inquiry into the activities of Stevie Deans, who was until three months ago full-time convenor at the Ineos plant at Grangemouth (where he’d worked for 25 years) and Chair of Unite in Scotland as well as the sometime Chair of Falkirk Labour Party.
This is the second time, allegations against Stevie Deans have been investigated and dismissed by the Scottish police, the first referral having come from the Labour Party, the second from INEOS. Unsurprisingly, Unite yesterday condemned the fact that “the police’s time has been wasted by vexatious complaints and their attentions diverted from catching real criminals and solving real crimes“.
Labour regards the whole affair as closed, especially now that Karen Whitefield, the former MSP, has been selected as the Labour candidate for Falkirk, but there is no truth and reconciliation process in Labour’s rule book. Stevie Deans may have lost his job, Karie Murphy denied the opportunity to seek the nomination, Tom Watson lost his place in the shadow cabinet, and hundreds of people recruited to the Labour Party denied any participation in the selection, but no apologies are required it seems.
The whole affair was talked up by politicians (including some then in the shadow cabinet) and bloggers associated with Progress, making allegations of ballot-rigging based on nothing more than rumour and speculation, with the express purpose of persuading Ed Miliband to smash what’s left of union influence in the party.
The Labour Party’s investigators failed to speak to Stevie Deans or Karie Murphy who were suspended without a hearing, on the basis of a secret report, and Unite the Union, and its general secretary, were subjected to months of unjustified abuse.
Ed Miliband, on the back of his condemnation of the “machine politics” he claimed was evident in Falkirk, did indeed propose the most radical change in the relationship between the party and the unions, which he continues to seek in some form in spite of the collapse of the justification for doing so.
Stevie Deans and Karie Murphy deserve some apologies. So do Labour’s affiliated trade unions. And the biggest apologies should come from those associated with Progress.
What we are shortly likely to get instead from those associated with Progress, whatever appears in the Collins report, is criticism of Ed Miliband for not going far enough to smash what’s left of union influence.
2014 came in badly as far I was concerned: checking old friend Michael Steinman’s Jazz Lives blog, I saw that Bobby Gordon died on 31st December.
Most of you will never have heard of Bobby, who was an American jazz clarinettist who came on the scene playing Condon-style jazz and swing, just as that style was going out of fashion. Nevertheless, he played some great music and, thinking about him, I realised he’d been on many of my favourite jazz CD’s of the 1980s and ’90′s, with Marty Grosz, Keith Ingham, Rebecca Kilgore and Hal Smith. His clarinet playing reflected his personality: modest, shy, understated, but intense and very, very beautiful. Back in the early 1960′s American Decca hired him to make an album with strings, in an attempt to emulate Acker Bilk’s UK hit ’Stranger On The Shore’ : sadly, it didn’t achieve the same kind of sales. The nearest Bobby ever came to fame and fortune was his time in the 1980′s, accompanying singer Leon Redbone – and even that brief moment of relative success involved an horrific air crash, from which both of them were lucky to survive.
Bobby was one of the many unsung greats of jazz: not many people remember him, but those who do will always appreciate his great soul and blue-tinged sad-happy improvisations. Bobby’s main inspiration and mentor was the 1930′s Chicago/New York clarinettist Joe Marsala, to whom he paid musical tribute on several occasions, including two ‘Arbors’ CD’s (Don’t Let It End and Lower Register). Another influence was Pee Wee Russell and here’s Bobby, in 2010, remembering him on Pee Wee’s Blues:
Given the enthusiasm with which the PSC and others push the claim that Israel is an “apartheid” state, and the suggestion that Mandela endorsed that view, the following article by Jeff Weintraub is of considerable importance:
The history of Israel’s relationship with South Africa, before and after the end of the white-supremacist apartheid regime, is a story with many complex, difficult, and deeply troubling aspects. That complexity was highlighted once again by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last-minute decision, on a pretext that looked pretty flimsy, to cancel his scheduled trip to South Africa to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral on December 10—a decision so unwise and unfortunate, even scandalous, on the face of it that I still find it a bit inexplicable (though I’ve seen a range of speculative analyses). President Shimon Peres had a plausible-sounding medical excuse that also kept him away. Whatever one thinks of Netanyahu, he’s smart enough that he must have realized how bad it looked for both of Israel’s top political figures to be absent from Mandela’s funeral, so I can’t help wondering whether there isn’t some complicate behind-the-scenes angle here that we may eventually learn about. At all events, Israel was represented at the funeral by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein and five other Israeli legislators (including one African-Israeli Knesset member, Penina Tamanu-Shata, who was born in Ethiopia).
I mention this recent unpleasantness mostly as background to a more important story about Mandela and his relationship to Israel, reported (below) by Alan Johnson, editor of Fathom. It confirms for me something about Mandela’s record of which I was only partly aware, and gives me new reasons to admire Mandela’s historic role and greatness of spirit.
Here is a statement that Mandela made as President of the African National Congress in 1993, the year before he was elected President of South Africa. (If you’re skeptical about whether the quotation is accurate, you can also find it on the ANC website.):
As a movement, we recognise the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognise the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism. We insist on the right of the state of Israel to exist within secure borders but with equal vigour support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.
This formulation is clear, straightforward, and important. And as far as I can tell, it was Mandela’s consistent position through the end of his life.
Mandela and the ANC were, of course, thoroughly committed to the Palestinian cause and regarded the PLO as a fellow liberation movement. So it’s unsurprising, as well as entirely proper, that Mandela would have endorsed the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ struggle for liberation and national self-determination. What is more striking, in this context, is that Mandela explicitly and unambiguously supported Israel‘s right to exist. That is, he didn’t just indicate a willingness to accept Israel’s existence as an unavoidable (though perhaps unwelcome) fact of life, but asserted that Israel has a right to exist. And he supported Israel’s right to exist, explicitly and unambiguously, on the grounds that Jews have the same right to national self-determination as any other people. That cuts to the heart of what is as stake in the whole controversy. Everything else is details—though the details are obviously very important.
(Lest anyone think that I am overdoing the significance of Mandela’s position on these issues, it is worth noting that, to this day, almost no one in the entire Arab world has publicly accepted that Israel has a moral right to exist or that Zionism is a legitimate national movement—even people who, over time, have grudgingly come to accept the idea of making peace with Israel for reasons of prudence, realpolitik, or simple exhaustion. I can think of a few exceptions, but they can be counted on my fingers. As the New York Times journalist Ethan Bronner, who spent years covering the Middle East, wrote in 2003:
I once asked King Hussein of Jordan whether he considered Zionism legitimate. Did he accept that there was any historical basis to the Jews’ claim to a portion of Palestine as their homeland? He looked at me as if I were from Mars and ducked the question. Later, he told a Jordanian colleague that only a Jew could have posed such a strange question. Perhaps by the time of his death in 1999 he had softened his view. But his reaction still exemplifies that of the vast majority of Arabs today. Even the many who favor peace with Israel under certain conditions accept its reality but not its legitimacy. [....]
(“On the Israeli side,” Bronner added, “there are similar denials” regarding the legitimacy and moral claims of Palestinian nationalism—though nowadays significant numbers of Israelis, and certainly a major proportion of Israel’s supporters world-wide, do accept, at least in principle, that Palestinians have a right to national self-determination.) And I know people here in the US who have no desire to see Israel destroyed but who reject, or at least are uneasy about, recognizing the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish nation-state, though they have no trouble accepting the legitimacy of an Irish or Greek or Turkish or Egyptian or Palestinian nation-state—which means, whether or not they’re fully aware of it, that they don’t really accept that Jews have the same rights to political self-determination as other peoples.
In short, Mandela explicitly and unambiguously supported the principle that can be summed up with the formula “two states for two peoples“. Like it or not, that fundamental principle continues to be the only possible basis for a just, durable, and non-catastrophic resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—which, in turn, can work only in the context of a more general Arab-Israeli peace settlement that includes genuine Arab acceptance of Israel’s existence and security. That outcome is by no means inevitable, and in fact there are many good reasons for feeling pessimistic about whether it will actually happen. But all the realistically conceivable alternatives lead to catastrophe. So it’s a good idea to take Mandela seriously on this matter, as on many others.
P.S. And speaking of the details … here are a few of Mandela’s statements to reporters during his visit to Israel in 1999, after retiring as President of South Africa. On the one hand: “My view is that talk of peace remains hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands.” But on the other hand: “I cannot conceive of Israel withdrawing if Arab states do not recognize Israel, within secure borders.”
Mandela made these statements toward the tail-end of the Oslo era, before the dramatic collapse of the supposed “peace process” in 2000. But they still sound like a good basis for a package deal. Some tendencies in the Arab world have been inching in that direction over the years (and the broad outlines of an Arab-Israeli peace settlement along these lines were put forward, albeit with significant gaps and ambiguities, in the Saudi-inspired Arab League Peace Initiative of 2002—which, so far, has not been followed up from either the Arab or the Israel side). Other tendencies have been moving even further away from it. All the available evidence suggests that a solid majority of Israelis are willing, in principle, to agree to a peace deal on this basis—but most of them have no confidence that it’s actually a realistically available option. What will happen in the future remains to be seen … though, again, excessive optimism would be foolish.
[Update 12/16/2013: I've been reminded that there is a a quotation from Mandela floating around the internet in which he accuses Israel of pursuing "apartheid policies" like the old South Africa. This quotation is often cited by people hostile to Israel. But it happens to be a fake. To be fair, it appears that the person who originally wrote that statement didn't pretend that it was an actual quotation, but instead meant it to suggest what Mandela would say if he were really expressing his innermost thoughts. But it now gets quoted and re-quoted as something Mandela actually said—which he didn't.]
In this age of spoiled, petulant, over-paid brats on the football field, we salute a true hero of the game.
The Telegraph carries an outstanding appreciation by Ian Hawkey:
For those wishing to pay a more intimate tribute, the body of the club’s emblematic player, who died in the early hours of the morning aged 71, was brought to the stadium ahead of his funeral.
Far beyond Portugal, whose national team he led to unprecedented heights in the 1960s, Eusebio’s passing was vividly mourned, his death serving as a powerful reminder that, among his many unique achievements, his constituency as a sporting hero stretched across continents. He may be Europe’s greatest 20th century footballer, as well as the finest to come from Africa.
In Mozambique, where he was born and lived until his late teens, the former president Joaquim Chissano spoke of “losing a friend”, and recalled their shared childhood encounters on the pitches of Maputo, then known as Lourenco Marques, capital of Portuguese East Africa. In the 1950s, he might have added, the region turned out to be one of the most fertile football nurseries on earth.
Eusebio grew up in a family of very limited means, the son of an Angolan railway worker and Mozambican mother. By his teens, he had developed the athletic talent to sprint the 100 metres in 11 seconds.
Early reports of what he could do with a ball, a plaything which as a child he would sometimes fashion from rolled-up newspaper, focused not just on his physical forte but an element of audacious improvisation. In one-to-one duels, he liked to hook the ball, direct from the ground up over an opponent’s head and snake around his rival to collect it.
Word of this prodigy spread quickly beyond the working-class suburb of Mafalala, his home, and into the privileged districts of the city, where a thriving league maintained high standards. The ‘Phenomenon of Mafalala’ would quickly elevate them further. Read the rest of this entry »
Christmas can be a time when you find out who your best friends are. I mentioned in passing to an acquaintance, a while back, that I’d been looking for a long-deleted 1985 album, The Lady’s In Love With You / Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Burton Lane. To my astonishment it arrived at my address, in CD format, just in time for Christmas
I could only find one track (‘On A Clear Day You Can See Forever’) from the album on Youtube, but it gives a pretty good flavour.
Part of the joy of this CD reissue (apart from Maxine’s singing, of course) is the extensive liner-notation by experts Will Friedwald (on Maxine) and Edward Jablonski (on Lane). There’s even a word from Burton Lane himself:
Dear Maxine, To quote a Yip Harburg lyric from this album: ‘Poor You / I’m sorry you’re not me / For you will never know’ … what it is like to be the composer of these songs and have a singer as wonderful as you to sing them.
You’re really something special.
THE SINGER by Will Friedwald
“I had no choice, I had to swing it.”
Maxine Sullivan was telling The New York Time’s John S. Wilson about her first important gig, in 1934, singing to piano accompaniment at a Pittsburgh after-hours hangout called the Benjamin Harrison Literary Club – an establishment given its name, to be sure, during Prohibition.
Apparently the club’s idea of literature was Joyce Kilmer, and Maxine got handed “Trees.” She responded by putting the ode into jazz time. As she explained to Wilson, “I just couldn’t sing it straight.”
The statement serves as a characteristically pithy summation of Maxine Sullivan’s career, which over 50 years took anything but predictable turns. In the late 1930s, she became a worldwide star transporting airs of earlier centuries (“Loch Lomond,” “Annie Laurie,” “Molly Malone”) to the swing era. In the mid-1950s, upstaged by flashier singers and determined to raise a daughter away from the pressures of show business, she took early retirement.
But 10 years later, in 1967, at the age of 56, she came back and her career unexpectedly boomed. At the time of her death on April 7, 1987, she was recording and performing more prolifically than ever before.
Of course, Maxine’s whole approach to jazz was unconventional. Most singers of her idiom, like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, alternated between small back-up groups with no arrangements and big bands with tight charts that were often embellished with strings. Maxine preferred more offbeat ensembles. Her best recordings combined the flexible economy of a septet or octet with a sensitive arranger — one who understood the sound of an artist whom Leonard Feather once praised as “a wonder of simplicity and understatement.” With the proper accompaniment, Maxine’s singing — already graced by a warm tone — projected a certain swing that was awesome in its gentleness,. But after her early success with Claude Thornhill and John Kirby, her career suffered because attempts to wean her away from the folk songs that had thrust her into stardom threw the baby out with the bath water. Too many producers and arrangers missed the point: that she could handle any good material if the setting complemented her distinctive style. Between the jam session and the symphony lay a middle ground.
Much of Maxine’s comeback career, as well, was similarly sabotaged by well-meaning producers who failed to recognize her idiosyncrasies and inserted her instead into traditional jazz backings that did nothing for her. Thankfully, Maxine spent both the beginning and the end of this last phase in the company of musical auteurs who knew what she was about. Bob Wilber, Dick Hyman and especially Keith Ingham had absorbed Maxine’s trailblazing work of two generations earlier, and thus could serve her particularly well during a period when she was ready and willing to stretch out.
That willingness, too, was unexpected. Maxine’s early singing had been marked by a somewhat withdrawn stance (underscoring her empathy with Thornhill), but by the time she reached her 60s, she had adopted a looser, freer sound. In the three albums they created for her, producers Ken Bloom, Bill Rudman and Keith Ingham (who doubled as arranger) carefully considered her new aura, capturing a fine singer at her all-time peak.
They also reached a high-water mark in the vastly misunderstood craft of selecting repertoire. A miraculous flow unites each of these songbook cycles: The Great Songs From the Cotton Club by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler (1984); this album, which honours the composer Burton Lane; and Together: Maxine Sullivan Sings the Music of Julie Styne (1987), the final studio session before her death. The mix of classic and little-known tunes is not only fascinating but perfectly tailored for Maxine, and within the small-group format Ingham offers an endless variety of background textures.
Still. the disc’s most enduring contributions appropriately come from the singer. Maxine is a terror on the up-tempos and Swing Era rhythm tunes (which, ironically, she rarely had the chance to sing in the 1930s and 40s). But oh, the ballads! “Everything I have Is Yours” is so touching, so vulnerable, especially as backed by the lyrical tenor saxophone of the late Al Klink. And Maxine’s reading of “How Are Things In Glocca Morra?” responds to the universality in E.Y. Harburg’s words. It’s not just a song about Ireland; she makes it about longing, aching, missing — the sorrow for that which has passed.
The song now describes the singer as well. But though Maxine is gone, the treasure that is her recoded legacy assures us that there will always be fine days in Glocca Morra. These performances are an essential — and altogether beautiful –part of that legacy — Will Friedwald
Below: not from the ‘Burton Lane’ album, but a beautiful example of Maxine singing right at the end of her career and life:
Today’s Graun quite rightly praises EP Thompson’s magisterial The Making of the English Working Class, on what may or may not be the exact fiftieth anniversary of its publication. But whether the book was first published in November or December 1963 is of little importance: as the Graun states, “No historian of British society has since produced a book to match [it]…Through 900-odd pages the book crackles with energy, as it uses scraps of evidence such as popular songs and workshop rituals to paint a picture of workers’ lived ‘experience.’”
It is, however, depressingly significant that the Graun‘s one criticism is of Thompson’s negative and entirely disrespectful attitude towards religion, and Methodism in particular: “[Thompson's political commitment] led to some poor judgements (Methodism as ‘psychic masturbation’).” Such a robust attitude to religion is, of course, in stark contrast to the grovelling stance adopted by much of today’s liberal-’left’, typified by the Graun and the New Statesman.
Such pro-religion criticisms were made during Thompson’s lifetime and it’s interesting to note that in the preface to the 1980 edition, he makes a point of stating “I remain unrepentant as to my treatment of Methodism.” For those readers who do not have a copy of the book to hand, here’s a flavour of what Thompson wrote about Methodism. It’s worth noting that he attacks it not just because of its baleful effect on industrial militancy, but also because of its repression of human personality, spirit and sexuality (noting also that the two go very well together):
“Nothing was more often remarked by contemporaries of the workaday Methodist character, or of Methodist home-life, than, than its methodical, disciplined and repressed disposition. It is the paradox of a ‘religion of the heart’ that it should be notorious for the inhibition of all spontaneity. Methodism sanctioned ‘workings of the heart’ only upon the occasions of the Church; Methodists wrote hymns but no secular poetry of note; the idea of a passionate Methodist lover in these years [the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries - JD] is ludicrous. (‘Avoid all manner of passions’, advised Wesley.) The word is unpleasant; but it is difficult not to see in Methodism in these years a ritualised form of psychic masturbation. Energies and emotions which were dangerous to social order, or which were merely unproductive (in Dr Ure’s sense) were released in the harmless in the harmless form of sporadic love-feasts, watch-nights, band-meetings or revivalist campaigns” – excerpted from Chapter 11, ‘The Transforming Power of the Cross.’