George Thomson: A Revolutionary Hellenist
Last month Elinor and I were fortunate enough to meet with and record a conversation with Richard Seaford and Ben Harker. It was our first “full-format” Conversations on Communism podcast, where we bring two specialists from different fields to talk together about a subject of mutual interest. Richard Seaford is Professor Emeritus of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter and Ben Harker is a lecturer in 20th-century literature at University of Manchester, and their common interest? — the somewhat enigmatic figure of George D. Thomson (1903-1987). You can listen to the podcast and read the transcript by following this link.
Ben came to Thomson through his research on the communist activist and folk musician, Ewan MacColl, which resulted in the pathbreaking book Class Act: The Cultural and Political Life of Ewan MacColl (Pluto, 2007). MacColl, as Ben tells us in the podcast, was extremely interested in Thompson’s work and particularly his book Marxism and Poetry. Incidentally, I have on my shelf at home a much-loved copy of this deceptively slender pamphlet in red and white with a big, red, bearded head of Karl Marx on the cover (left).
Richard explains that it was not Marxism that drew him to Thomson. Early on in his academic career he realised that Thomson was one of the only classicists at the time asking what he considered the really “big questions” of ancient Greek society and culture. Thomson was certainly a pioneer in many respects, and although some aspects of his work have now fallen out of fashion, there are still few classicists who have offered better answers to those big questions of which Richard speaks. “Why did tragedy begin when it did? Why did it take the form that it did? Why did philosophy begin when it did? Why did that take the form that it did?” These were the inquiries that brought the two together, and during our conversation Richard told many fine stories of their meetings, which clearly meant a lot to him.
One of my favourite tales came when Richard told us that the Vice Chancellor of Birmingham University took the recently appointed Professor of Greek aside and said to him:
“Thomson! I’m glad you’re here… I always think that Classics is the best bulwark against Communism.”
I’d pay a lot to have seen Thomson’s face… But this kind of [mis]perception about the relationship between communism and the Greek and Roman classics is of central importance to the Brave New Classics project. For a counter to this perception, Ewan MacColl [I suspect, creatively] quotes Engels: “The bourgeoisie have raised monuments to the classics. If they’d read them, they’d have burned them.” [– If anyone knows where MacColl might have read this in Engels’s writing, Please let me know!] These two opposing British receptions of the classics show the ideological contestation of the classics in the mid-20th century, a kind of tug-o-war between conservative traditionalism and leftist radicalism.
In the podcast Ben Harker masterfully weaves a complex web around the in some ways awkward political figure of Thomson. In a passage that forms a kind of epic-style catalogue of British communists he pulls together strands which link such leftist luminaries as: John Cornford, David Guest, James Klugmann, Charles Madge, J.D. Bernal, Douglas Garman, Alick West, Maurice Dobb, Ivor Montagu, Jack Lindsay, Allen Hut, and A.L. Morton. Both he and Richard offer rich thoughts on the influence of another bright star of the 30s literary left, Christopher Caudwell. Here, Elinor too was on home territory, since her forthcoming book navigates the British literary debates surrounding the antifascist shift in cultural policy set out at the Comintern’s 7th congress of 1935 — with a special focus on the Popular Front novel.
I hope you enjoy this episode. We’re learning as we go, but I think we’re making some progress in this podcasting game. The next one — released at the end of the month — is the second half (Side B) of this podcast. As always you can visit the LISTEN PAGE for the various ways to get hold of the podcast (iTunes, Soundcloud and YouTube) — and also don’t forget to tick the box below the comments on this blog post (on this page) if you want to receive this blog automatically to your inbox. Till next time.