E.P. Thompson


A Psessay in Ephology

(Autumn 1959)

From The New Reasoner, No.10, Autumn 1959, pp.1-8.
Downloaded with thanks as a PDF from the Website of the Barry Amiel & Norman Melburn Trust.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We were not waiting, with baited breath, for the accession to power in October 1959 of a socialist administration in Britain.

But the results of the General Election were discouraging none-the-less. Faced with a choice of two evils, the majority of the British people chose the greater evil of the two. The result confirmed our more pessimistic estimates of the direction of social drift within the Opportunity State. It revealed a negative reaction, ranging from hesitation to hostility, to nationalisation on the part of very many working people. The return of a Tory Government will expose the British people to the more predatory forms of capitalist mis-rule and of economic exploitation. The rights of rank-and-file trade unionists and, in particular, of shop stewards, are likely to be placed in greater jeopardy than at any time since 1927.

We were discouraged, above all, because the slender hope that Britain might break out of the Cold War stalemate (although we had no illusions that this was a necessary or even likely consequence of a Labour victory) has been indefinitely postponed. And we failed in our duty towards the African people.

Grounds enough for discouragement here. But we should not overlook the possibility that if Mr. Gaitskell had been returned to power with a slender majority, socialists might have been faced with even greater discouragement. Some parts of the programme of “pre-1914 Liberalism brought up to date” (Aneurin Bevan, News of the World, 11 October 1959) would have been implemented. If constant public pressure had been maintained there might have been some improvement in our foreign and imperial policies. But under the cry of “unity” the party Executive would have tried to silence or isolate the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and socialist pressure-groups, while under the cry of “discipline” the TUC might have found its own means to clamp down on “unofficial” elements within the unions.

We must remind ourselves of these probabilities, because – under the influence of election fever – some socialists began to lose their bearings. The combination of a scattering of genuinely progressive Labour candidates, of the traditionally left-wing constituency workers, and of volunteers from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament – all these gave to the election campaign a temper more radical than many had expected. The contrast between this and the Labour Party’s record of vacuous inactivity in opposition gave rise to wishful talk about the “spirit of ’45.”

But the assessment of the New Statesman in an editorial article (Heads We Win ...) immediately before polling day was a great deal more realistic. In a eulogy of Mr. Gaitskell’s policy and leadership so gushing that it out-did the advertisers’ blurbs for ICI, British Oxygen, Life Assurance, Shell and the steel companies which provide this journal with a major source of revenue [1], sang hosannahs to “the one party which still proclaims, though in muted tones, its adherence to principle:

The policy-image was humanitarian moderation: it found physical embodiment in Hugh Gaitskell.

Nor was Gaitskell alone. Behind him, as the television screen revealed, was a team who shared his beliefs in empirical reform and advance: Crossman, Callaghan, Wedgwood Benn, Mayhew, Healey – youngish men, whose high education has been balanced by experience, men of powerful intelligence tempered by emotional communion with the workers whose aspirations they represented. This was a team which had sloughed off the traumas of the Thirties, and which now turned its face to the problems of the mid-20th century; to automation and planned expansion, to the conquest of space and the organisation of leisured living for all.

Here, surely, there is inspiration enough for a hundred canvasses in a latter-day Pre-Raphaelite movement. Old themes re-furbished: The Disciples Washing the Feet of Mr. Gaitskell; Mr. Wedgwood Benn and Mr. Crossman, like young Raleigh and his playmate, turning their faces towards the conquest of outer-most space; Mr. Douglas Jay as The Scapegoat, browsing in the arid scrub of a Guardian editorial; Sir Galahad Healey, tempering his powerful intelligence by chaste emotional communion with the shop stewards at Burtons, and espousing their humble aspirations with a shake of his highly educated lance:

”O servant of the high God, Galahad!
Rise and be arm’d, the Sangreal is gone forth ...”

And yet, for all the feats of joust and tourney revealed to us upon the television screen, the Holy Grail of Cabinet Office has once again eluded that chivalrous company. And we remember, as the vision fades, that we never did like any of their faces much. The well-groomed smoothies with silk ties, the men of high education who commune (to their considerable financial advantage) with the workers through the medium of television or in the columns of the Daily Mirror; the elect of Chatham House and of the Council of Europe who charm their way through politics upon a large overdraft on other men’s ideas; the men who sat silent through Jordan and who thought that Suez was wrong only because it threatened the American alliance (though after three years it could be raked up as a good election cry); the powerful intellects who could “understand” the difficulties of Guy Mollet but could not understand, until too late, the difficulties of Imre Nagy; these barrow-boys of politics with their cheapjack electoral trinkets (instead of a sustained exposure of the British power elite – Jasper; instead of any honest policy for human survival, the plastic surrogate of the “non-nuclear club”) in Cabinet office would have smashed the “image” of a socialist democracy for a further twenty years.

The New Statesman was right. It was a “Heads We Win” election, and the alternative administration was “Tails You Lose.” However loudly the electorate called while the coin was in the air, there was a TV smoothie in a fat silk tie on either side. It was probably the most discreditable General Election since George III bought the House of Commons out of Treasury funds. While the world was waiting for a British initiative to end the nuclear reign of terror, the two major parties competed like soap manufacturers to sell the “image” of their branded product. True, Mr. Gaitskell turned out to be a better salesman than his hangers-on expected [2] But the thing about this kind of advertisers’ “image” is that, more often than not, it is put across to sell a shoddy or indifferent product. The more technical expertise that is used in selling a falsehood, the greater the shame.

We may have done away with the rotten boroughs, but the rotten candidates and the rotten policies remain. Most of the people at the top of the Labour Party are professional politicians, very much at home in the conventions of capitalist politics. These are a very bad and untrustworthy sort of people. We all know this, but some fetish about “unity” prevents us from saying it. We should say it now since – being professional politicians and sensing which way the wind blows – some of them may start to try out a leftish “image” in their speeches. We should not believe them until we see some Aldermaston mud upon their boots. People who proclaim their adherence to principle, “though in muted terms,” are people without principle. Such people tell us that we must “start to fight the next election now.” But we hope that we may never have to fight their kind of election again.

A contributor to the Guardian recently published a statistical dossier, complete with tables, to prove that over the past 10 years there had been 0.5% per annum drift from Labour, and that this can be correlated with a reduction in the proportion of manual to non-manual labour: or something of that kind. Working under his inspiration, a team of New Reasoner researchers can now show that there has been 0.5% per annum drift from Chartism ever since 1848, and this can be correlated with the increase in public education. [3] We have thrown this one in to, give the psephologists and the ephologists [4] something to get their teeth into. While they are growling over it, we will admit that the size and nature of the Tory majority and the character of the present Labour mis-leadership demand analysis in economic and sociological terms which are beyond the scope of this editorial. Meanwhile, there remains that 0.5% of the population who are motivated by considerations of rational and moral principle; and since our readership is to be found within this statistical bracket – and since, if the proportion of those whose attachment to principle is not proclaimed “in muted terms” is to grow, it must depend in some degree upon the actions of our readers – it is to them that we address our final remarks, with all the seriousness that we can command.

This is the last number of the New Reasoner. For two and a half years – for the last year in close association with ULR – we have conducted an editorial policy of extreme difficulty. We had, first of all, to submit our own ideas – indeed, the very first premises of our socialist convictions – to a searching examination. At the same time, it was necessary to keep open sources of international exchange and information; to engage in new empirical research into our society; to take part, where we could, in the policy discussions within the labour movement, and to participate in wider intellectual and cultural controversies; and, through all these means, to contribute to a re-grouping of forces on the British left.

There have been different emphases upon our Board. But on one thing there has never been a shadow of difference; and it may, looking back, have been the most important thing of all. We do not see the socialist movement as merely a movement with a different objective from other political movements: we see it as a different kind of movement, made up of a different kind of people. It cannot be a movement of Top People who lead (whether the fat silk tie type, or the know-all, vanguardist, “the-task-for-Marxist-is-clear” type), and of “good party workers” who are led. It must be a movement in which – with due regard for the necessary discipline of united action – the objective itself, a society of equals, finds living embodiment; a society of equals as between leaders and rank-and-file, a society of equals as between men and women and as between the British and African comrades. Unless there is an active minority of convinced socialists, conducting the propaganda and education of socialism, and bringing the whole field of policy under continual review, then there is not, and never will be, any chance whatsoever of constructing a democratic socialist society in this country.

Now, under the impact of an electoral rebuff, talk of socialist education and discussion has suddenly become fashionable. From every quarter the cry goes up: “What Went Wrong?” The Labour Party, the Socialist Labour League, and the Daily Worker all appear to be calling simultaneous “discussion conferences,” whose purpose appears to be “let steam off” or to nobble the left.

We wish to break with the fashion once again. We hope that our readers will never stop discussing and engaging in socialist education. But we think that the time has come for our readers, together with the readers of ULR, to pass over from diffuse discussion to political organisation. We hope that they will now engage – rapidly and confidently – in the construction of the New Left.

Mere discussion, without action or direction, can be a useful contrivance for the dissipation of feeling: the furrowed brow of the perplexed platform re-thinker, the noble peroration to the “spirit of the pioneers,” can serve to cover up the shady intrigues at the back of the stage. But discussion which is carried forward under the initiative of socialists in their own localities; which is specific, and which gives rise to permanent organisation for the purposes of education and propaganda – this is of the essence of socialist action.

In the past three years we have not been engaging in a sham discussion. We did not wait for the evidence of the ephologists to discover that “something” was “wrong.” We have sketched the outlines of a foreign policy of active neutrality, which is a necessary complement to the policy of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and which is the principled socialist alternative to the non-nuclear club. More than two years ago we published John Hughes’ study of the steel industry, which should have provided the labour movement with the ammunition to counter the steel companies’ advertising campaign. At the same time ULR published the Insiders, which – carried forward in Michael Barratt Brown’s Contrailers and the New Left election pamphlet, Who are the Tories? – began to pin-point the real centres of economic, financial and political power in the 1950s. We commenced, in the articles of Ralph Miliband and John Rex, an analysis of the processes of ideological degeneration and bureaucratisation at work within the labour movement; and this was complemented by the work in ULR upon the cultural and sociological influences making for ideological conformity within the Opportunity State. We indicated the crucial problems of “worker’s control” and of new methods of democratic public ownership, although our work here is still at a most preliminary stage. We have developed a consistent critique of the Fabian nostrum of top level administrative reform, combined with the competitive ethos of “equality of opportunity,” which has disarmed the labour movement within the Opportunity State; and we have renewed the socialist vision of a society of equals within a co-operative community. We have sought to build points of contact (both ideological and practical) between the dissident Communist (or “revisionist”) movement in Europe and the left of the British labour movement. We have thrown open a major discussion upon a constructive socialist wages plan, whereby the best-organised and the worst-organised and most defenceless sections of the working population can unite in a common struggle to advance their living standards. In all our writing we have sought to sustain and renew the principles of socialist internationalism.

These are only some points at which our editors, contributors and readers have developed their critique or pointed the way to new policies. We do not suggest that this thinking can now come to an end. But we must now put this thinking to use, and carry it outward to the younger generation, and inward to the traditional labour movement. In particular we must establish far more contact between the New Left and the industrial working class. Historians may look back to 1959, and see the outstanding event – not as the electoral defeat of labour – but as the stirring of a new progressive temper in the two great unions of the general workers. The ideas of the New Left must engage with the great reserves of experience in industry, where, above all, the “image” of socialist nationalisation must be fashioned anew.

The editorial board of a journal – engaged much of the time in a host of administrative chores – cannot do this thing alone. Our success will rest entirely upon the response of our readers.

The merging of ULR and this journal, and the foundation of New Left Review, should provide a stimulus and a sense of direction to the movement. But the crucial development must take place in your town and locality; you must decide what form of organisation is most appropriate – reader’s discussion or study group, Left Club, or regional industrial conference – to bring socialists into association, and from association into confident activity, independent of the manipulators of psephological power and the obsessional devotees of factional intrigue. At the same time we ask all readers to assist in an urgent immediate task: building the circulation of the new journal and raising money for our Appeal.

We are confident of your response. If we had not received your support, from our first appearance, we would not be here today. Perhaps few of you realised how amateurish our organisation has been. We have not had expense accounts, or a subsidy from the Ford Foundation, or advertising revenue from oil and steel. Much of our thinking and writing has, perforce, been done in the small hours and everything connected with the journal, from its production to its distribution, has been done throughout by unpaid volunteers.

There is no special virtue in all this. A vigorous and youthful socialist movement will break through to the mass media, as the Campaign has occasionally done. The New Left, if it is to expand, must maintain a full-time editorial office; and later, we hope, a Club organiser. But when we look at the silk ties re-thinking and the tele-politicians proposing “socialist re-education,” the gorge sometimes rises. When the last highly educated and expensive re-thought has been thunk (or should the verb be “de-thunk?”) by the powerful intellects, we believe that socialists will be able to return to our pages and find something which has stood the test of time.

When we started off we had no capital except a box of cards, with the names and addresses of readers of The Reasoner in its duplicated days. It is that capital which has carried us through. Some old readers have retired, bored or disgusted. And more than their number of new and enthusiastic readers have taken their places. But no journal could have had more steady, tolerant, and cooperative support from its readers than we have had. You have found us the money to cover our running deficit. You have helped to extend our sales. Most of all, you have taken part in the shaping of our policy. We are confident that you will give the same generous support to the New Left Review.

Of one group of readers we wish to take a more particular leave.

We are, in origin, a Communist journal: a journal of the democratic Communist opposition. We have readers, not only in Britain but scattered across the world, who have come with us along the same tradition.

When we commenced publication, in our duplicated form in 1956, the Communist movement was in a shambles of intellectual disgrace and moral collapse. Some observers saw our journal as a last bridge by which deluded innocents might evacuate the illusions of Marxism, and “rehabilitate” themselves in conventional capitalist politics. Who knows? A Crossman, a Dennis Healey, a Strachey or a Stephen Spender of the future might be found among our ranks.

We never looked for that kind of rehabilitation. Rather, we sought to rehabilitate the rational, humane and libertarian strand within the Communist tradition, with which men of great courage and honour – from Tom Mann to Ralph Fox – have been identified; a tradition which the elect of King Street have brought into shifty disrepute.

We never thought of our journal as a bridge. We thought, perhaps, at first, of it as a last stand amid a general rout. Since that time we have altered some opinions. We tend to see “Marxism” less as a self-sufficient system, more as a major creative influence within a wider socialist tradition.

But we still have no desire to disown our debt to the Communist tradition. For all its confusion, its mixed motives, its moral amnesia and doctrinal arrogance, it was the major carrier of humanist aspirations in Britain in the Thirties and early Forties; it brought professional and industrial workers into a kind of association unique in the labour movement at that time; and it stimulated forms of organisation and collective intellectual endeavour from which the younger generation of socialists may still be able to learn.

We would like to feel that this journal has been, not the bridge for an evacuation, but the point of junction at which this valid part of the Communist tradition has been transmitted to a new socialist generation which did not have to face the dilemmas of the Thirties and the Forties, and which is, perhaps, a little too scornful of those who did.

And since our tradition merges now with this younger socialist tradition, and will no longer appear as something distinct, we take for the last time, a Communist leave of our old comrades:

To adapt the words of Tom Mann, we hope to grow more dangerous as we grow more old.

E.P. Thompson


1. “The face the party has presented to the electorate has been young, vigorous, forward-looking and confident,” 10/10/59. “Throughout the GKN Group, people too, have every chance to move upwards and outwards. Upwards to greater responsibilities ...” 17/10/59.

2. “I have yet to meet a single Labour candidate who denies he was inspired by Hugh Gaitskell’s leadership.” R.H.S. (”Crawfle”) Crossman in the New Statesman, 17/10/59. See also Janet Adam Smith on Queen Mary, in the same issue.

3. It took a large team, subsidised by the Milord Foundation, much arduous statistical fiddling to get this result. However, summarised on the back of an envelope it can be seen that: (a) 66.5% of the population in 1848 were Chartists and/or wholly sane, (b) the only wholly sane, and therefore Chartist, candidate in 1959 (Coun. Lawrence Daly) polled 11% of the total, (c) this gives us 7% per annum drift, with an error of 0.25%, probably attributable to leap-years. For a full summary of our conclusions, see our forthcoming article in the American Journal of Communicational Guphology.

4. A psephologist is a man employed by the mass media to research into what people think the mass media has told them to think. An ephologist is a man employed by the Observer or BBC to interpret the results of psephology, and who makes an ephing good thing out of it.

Last updated on 22 July 2010