This conversation between Richard Seaford, Ben Harker, Elinor Taylor and Henry Stead took place in the University of Westminster, just off Oxford Street, London, on 15 February 2017. It is the fifth podcast from the Conversations on Communism series. The photograph shows Richard and Ben in the Institute of Modern and Contemporary Culture, Westminster University.
ET. Welcome to Conversations on Communism. We’re here today at the University of Westminster, and Henry and I are joined by Professor Richard Seaford of the University of Exeter and Dr Ben Harker of The University of Manchester, and we’re here to talk about George Thomson – communist, classicist, scholar of the Irish Language and fascinating polymathic figure.
HS. Ben, would you mind telling us who is George Thomson?
BH. George Thomson was a classicist and a communist born in 1903, radicalised at Cambridge in the thirties, and became a very important figure in terms of the cultural networks and structures of the British Communist Party. I came to him initially because I was writing a biography of Ewan MacColl, and Ewan MacColl was very interested in Thomson’s work and frequently cited it, especially the book on Marxism and poetry.
RS. I didn’t come to George through Marxism. A lot of people do. In fact probably most people who are admirers of him come to him through their interest in Marxism. I came to him when I was about 16 or 17 years old, and then later as an undergraduate. And I came to him because he seemed to me to provide the best answers to the big questions. And often he was the only person even asking the big questions. That’s what I was interested in. Big questions like 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? What does Orphism mean in terms of the social and economic context? And a whole number of questions like that which nobody else was even asking. There’s something he writes about a learned professor of Greek called Pickard-Cambridge who’d made a big impression on me. He wrote, ‘Pickard-Cambridge’s mind operates in a narrow circle. Within that circle, no scholar is more thorough and acute. Outside that circle he doesn’t think at all.’ I was very impressed by that as a description of most of the people who were teaching me at Oxford, and indeed most classical scholars generally. So I was of course attracted by Thomson’s polymathy, his refusal to respect the hyper-specialisation that has come with the intellectual division of labour. And that was combined with the most extraordinarily lyrical writing style.
BH. So many of the books are based in lectures and you feel that there’s a sort of oral quality to them that carries through. I was just looking at his… It was really a tract that he writes for the CP [Communist Party] in 1949 on communism and religion, but it’s based on his talks and it has… That immediate, spoken quality is there.
RS. There’s a description of an old Irish lady on the Blasket Islands in his book. His most recent version of his time in the Blasket Islands is called Island Home. That’s the best place to start with Thomson’s experience of the Blasket Islands. He went to the Blasket Islands, specifically the Great Blasket first in 1923. He met Maurice O’Sullivan. Together they published Twenty Years of Growing and translated it. And in that work there is a lot of loving description of the people of the Blasket Island. There’s one passage in particular in which he comes across an old lady and she’s thinking about her relatives all of whom have been gathered away to Springfield, Massachusetts. And she talks about the Island, and she does so in a poetic manner using imagery which was the common property of the people of the island, but in a very poetic manner. And she assumed a kind of dream-like state. Then, suddenly she stopped, said “Goodnight” and was gone. And I’m sure that the lyrical speech of the Blasket islanders had an influence on the way that George spoke, because he had that rather similar dream-like quality, that lyrical quality, allowing the imagination to take him over while preserving the perfect lucidity of the precise classicist. And that’s an extraordinary combination.
ET. This might be a good time then to address the question of Thomson’s Marxism, and I wonder, Ben, he was radicalised at Cambridge, do you know anything about the circumstances of that and his connections with any other communists who were there?
BH. No, I mean he wasn’t as far as I know sort of given to that sort of self-revelation, really. You know, there’s no autobiography. The only thing I found is a longish transcript of an interview that he gave when he was really talking about his close friend Douglas Garman. There’s a transcript of that in Garman’s papers in Nottingham. After Garman died in 1969, Thomson and Alick West, they always felt that Garman had been a sort of overlooked figure and they were keen to produce some sort of volume about him. That never materialised. But in the process of that, Thomson is recorded talking about his sort of intellectual and political trajectory. But my sense is that he arrives at Cambridge just a wee bit too late to meet that sort of first gathering of communists at Cambridge in the very early twenties gathered around Maurice Dobb, Ivor Montagu is there and goes on obviously to be a film producer and a sort of intellectual of film and a promotor of film clubs, and a ping-pong ambassador. Allen Hut who goes on to be a typographer and a journalist and spends most of his career at the Daily Worker. And A.L. Morton, the historian. They’re all at Cambridge and becoming interested in Marxism. Very shortly after the Communist Party is formed in 1920. But Thomson I think by the time he arrives, they must have overlapped but I’ve never had a sense that he had much to do with them. And then he goes away and he comes back to Cambridge in 1934 by which time the place must have had a very different atmosphere, I mean in terms of its radical student politics. By then, there’s a very active socialist club which essentially has become a forum for communists. There’s a journal called Cambridge Left up and running. John Cornford, David Guest, some of those… James Klugmann. I mean those very important communist Cambridge student activists are in town. Charles Madge. And people like J.D. Bernal are in the party and are starting to say in a very direct way that intellectuals can do work for the party by being eminent in their respective fields. You know, one doesn’t simply have to subordinate one’s intellectual identity to the cause and do sort of party functionary work. One can be a paramount intellectual and enhance the prestige of communism through that. And I’m guessing, because Thomson doesn’t, I mean, Richard may know better, but Thomson doesn’t to my knowledge reflect on that very much. But that’s the sort of moment when he becomes a member of the CP.
ET. Yeah. I read somewhere, and I’m not sure whether this is right or not, that he joined when he’d gone to Birmingham, he was teaching at Birmingham. I’m not sure if that’s right.
BH. He doesn’t go to Birmingham until ’37. He gets Dobb’s old job. Dobb goes to Oxford and Thomson gets his Chair, but he’s already in the Party by then.
RS. Thomson though, he joins the party in 1935 I believe. And in 1935, at the Comintern conference, Dimitrov said that scholars of the past have a crucial role in the struggle for the present. That may have had some sort of influence on him. By the way, when he went to Birmingham in 1937, the Vice Chancellor took him aside and said to him, “Thomson! I’m glad you’re here, professor of Greek, I always think that Classics is the best bulwark against Communism.”
BH. It would be great to know how Thomson thought about those experiences on the Blasket Islands in relation to his Communism. Because, clearly, one thing all intellectuals across the political spectrum are wondering about is what culture was like before capitalism. This is the sort of question that comes up. It’s there in [T.S. Eliot’s] The Sacred Wood. It’s there in the writing of [F.R.] Leavis. It’s obviously there, as Elinor has worked out very brilliantly [in her forthcoming book])… there very strongly in the literary debates around the Popular Front. But clearly, being in the Blasket Islands, and Thomson talks about that in Marxism and Poetry, that he feels he’s encountered some sort of incredibly rich oral culture which is not sort of reified or fragmented, or alienated by capitalism. That clearly is related in complicated ways to his political radicalisation.
RS. Yes. He went there first when he was twenty. And it’s clear from the way that he writes about it, and it’s clear from the way Blasket people write in their diaries and so on about him, that this was a life-changing experience. He’s twenty years old and he goes and he finds this society in which it’s not just a matter of capitalism not having distorted it yet. But he does make that point actually in the introduction to Aeschylus and Athens, but it’s an undifferentiated society and it’s a society that’s without the contradictions that were so obvious in the capitalism over the water, in the sense that he says that this is a simple people with a simple culture, but it’s perfectly adapted to their physical environment. He was of course very conscious that it couldn’t last and indeed that it shouldn’t last, that these people had very little by way of material possessions and services and so on and they were all, they all left in the end, but he could see in it a perfectly undifferentiated society – there are no classes – but also there are no contradictions between their humanity, if I can use that term, perhaps I shouldn’t, between their humanity and their language above all, and the physical circumstances and social circumstances in which they’re living. So that, for a twenty-year-old was a very powerful experience which defined his communism I think in interesting ways. As you were suggesting.
He doesn’t, interestingly, say anything about politics. Or at least, doesn’t say anything known to me. He arrived on the Blasket islands on the very day of the first general election held by the Irish Free State. But there’s no mention of that. And in all his writings about Ireland, there’s nothing about Irish politics which would have I suppose been a distraction and a distortion of the idyll that he found on the great Blasket. There’s a sense in which, I mean he’s a very unusual communist. I mean, he stays an active Marxist-Leninist until the day he dies in 1987. And, a lot of people didn’t as you know. He does. He’s unusual in that respect because his communism is based originally on this experience of what life could be in a non-capitalist society and he doesn’t say much about, at least in the stuff that I’ve read, that you might expect about the day-to-day events in Britain, for example. He will have remarks about the horror of unemployment and poverty and so on and so forth but that’s really not what he’s interested in. It allows him to retain a very positive attitude to the world in which he’s largely ignoring the horrors and concentrating on the power of culture to change society, and the power of a changed society to give us a better culture. And this remaining positive is what allows him to be a communist to the day he dies.
ET. I notice that Yeats crops up a few times in his writing. I wonder, was Yeats somebody who was quite important to him, do you think?
BH. He quotes Yeats a number of times in Marxism and Poetry but I’ve always wondered whether that was sort of partly strategic insofar as quoting Yeats would, you know, authenticate or legitimate ideas that might otherwise seem, you know, rather challenging. There’s one quotation from Yeats that sits very oddly with the thrust of his own argument. Thomson has been arguing that poetry is, you know, connected to production, that it’s a form of sort of linguistic creative production and then he quotes Yeats, in which Yeats is saying that poetry is a sort of, passive state, you know. It induces a sort of passive state. There’s really a tension between those two things. The other time that he quotes Yeats, he quotes the ‘Galway Races’ and he quotes Yeats more affirmatively there. Yeats is talking about some sort of future in which, you know, poetry is going to become the common property of all once again. I think that’s the subtext of that, Thomson is saying that “I’ve got an idea how that might happen”. I don’t think that Yeats does. There’s a sort of shared, you know, utopian projection about culture somehow being returned to the people. But Thomson has a very concrete sense at the end of Marxism and Poetry how that is going to happen.
ET. And obviously like a lot of cultural intellectuals at the time he’s very interested in the origins of cultural form. So, could you say a little bit more then about how he saw the origins of poetry?
BH. This is coming out of Caudwell, and there’s an insistence that one should sort of take an anthropological or sociological view about the emergence of poetry. And he sees it arising in terms of productive relationships, he sees it as an attempt to master the material world, and so, this is always running counter to the dominance of the Marxist view of the time, or the orthodox Marxist view which is increasingly sort of becoming codified in the thirties with Stalin and books like The Short Course which, you know, extract key passages from Marx and Engels and sort of tell actors ‘this is what you need to know’. But the emphasis there is that culture is some sort of secondary derivation of economic processes that have already occurred, and the thrust of Caudwell and Thomson is that poetry is itself part of productive process and is dynamic and creative and needs to be seen in those terms. It’s always apprehending and mastering the world rather than merely a reflection of it.
RS. Yes. I can’t remember much about what he says about Yeats but I have a dim memory of him being attracted to a remark by Yeats about the relationship between poetry and magic. I mean Yeats is a poet whose poetry has some relation to magic and Yeats says something, and as such, of course, it should interest Thomson because Thomson also believes, albeit in a different way, that magic and poetry are not two entirely separate cultural phenomena. They each have their place in his overall vision of the development of humanity. Yeats even, I think, was of the view that poetry and magic should be studied scientifically. I think Yeats even uses the word ‘scientifically’, and that is applauded by Thomson. But as far as the question of the origin of poetry is concerned, Thomson’s conception, and I think this is something he owes quite a lot to Caudwell for, is one of evolutionary anthropology or developmental anthropology which is not just a process of development from a lower stage to a higher stage but also a process of constant differentiation. Not just the division of labour but also the differentiation of basic human activities. For example, poetry on the one hand, and science on the other hand, from the same material process through which apes become human beings. So he really is going back to a stage in which poetry is related to the mimetic — which is what the apes do — and science is related to the deictic pointing which apes don’t do but human beings acquire. There’s a single matrix for poetry and for language even, and for science. That single matrix takes you back to the very origins of humanity, and poetry, science, other activities, are differentiated out of that. So he refuses to accept divisions ultimately between poetry and everything else. And of course he has a theory of grounding both language and poetry, which are the same sort of thing, language and poetry, in the labour process. So he has a theory about the origins of language and poetry which he sets out most recently in The Human Essence (2nd edition, 1977). He has a theory of the origins of poetry and language in the labour process. He gave me a copy of his 1977 edition, and shortly after he’d written it there was an occasion where I went to see him and he said to me, this is the Marxist answer to Chomsky. Now he doesn’t mention Chomsky in the book at all. It’s absolutely typical, I mean, he knows what he’s doing. Chomsky’s not mentioned in the book. The only texts mentioned in the books are the Marxist classics. That’s typical, that he’s just constantly… He’s not critiquing a fashionable thinker, he’s just focusing on what the Marxist classics can do.
ET. That question of the origins of language in labour and in production is there a differentiation of any sort between spoken and written language? So quite a lot of the Marxist writers in the thirties are very interested in the voice, in speaking, and you’ve mentioned his kind of lyricism and the quality of his voice, is that something that he thinks… He thinks of poetry as being speech that’s been captured?
RS. Yes, captured and possibly rigidified. Of course, on the Great Blasket, writing is just coming in and people use it but most of the older people on the Blasket are illiterate. Some of the older ones have learnt to write in order to write down their experiences of the island, and you have these famous books by people other than Maurice O’Sullivan which preceded Maurice O’Sullivan, about life on the Blasket and George says, I think, at one point, well, all it was doing was putting into written form the stories that these people would tell by the fireside, which were in the memory. This was an oral culture. In fact, there’s one wonderful passage in Island Home where old Tomas, who’s one of the first people to write this stuff down. And Thomson is saying it’s just how they spoke, it just happens to be written down. And that’s the great glory of it. Because you’ve got an oral culture actually recorded in writing before writing has had the chance to change the nature of the culture. But Tomas at one point says that ever since he was taught to read the newspaper, he reads the newspaper every day, and ever since then he can’t really remember the stories, so that literacy is driving out oral culture.
BH. He does talk a little, I think, in Marxism and Poetry, I think it’s there, about the way in which the richness of Homer compared with other poets or orally transmitted poems is in part because of the maturity of Greek writing, the point when it was written down, so it was sort of captured in its entirety. But he suspects that, you know, there were similarly rich, similarly complicated oral forms elsewhere. And certainly when we get into the fifties ad sixties, his rapport with Ewan MacColl was in part because he thought that MacColl was doing interesting work around folk song. In the fifties you could still, this is extraordinary, you could still go out into the English, mainly, countryside and meet farmworkers, as MacColl did, who knew, you know, carried around in their head a couple of hundred songs, many of which hadn’t been written down for a very long time. I mean, MacColl found this extraordinary. I think Thomson also found it extraordinary. And MacColl was trying to do things with that. It wasn’t just a process of archiving or memorialisation but an attempt to stimulate new cultural forms through that material, writing new songs making radio programs, making plays and so on. I think Thomson was attracted to that dimension of the folk music revival because he saw that. That sort of business of trying to draw on the resources of the folk and create, you know, like and for the folk, something that MacColl was trying to do in a modern setting, seems naïve and problematic but nonetheless I think it was a very powerful impulse for a decade or so in the fifties and sixties.
ET. So we’ve mentioned Caudwell a couple of times and I think we perhaps have to sort of explore Thomson’s intellectual relationship with Caudwell a little bit. Is he consistently Caudwellian, you know, is that the kind of bedrock for his major ideas about where culture comes from and what it does? or does he develop or break with that?
RS. He mentions Caudwell in the preface to Aeschylus and Athens.
ET. Which is published when sorry?
RS. 1940 [1941, Lawrence & Wishart], the first edition. Caudwell died four years earlier of course in the Spanish Civil War. He mentions Caudwell along with Engels (The Origins of Private Property, Family and the State), and Morgan, the anthropologist, as the three influential writers on his general approach. He also mentions a couple of classicists. But he doesn’t quote Caudwell much in the book. There’s one passage of Caudwell that he quotes. It’s quite difficult to identify what he owes to Caudwell. But I think probably the main thing is it actually worked with his interest in the Blasket Islands, because Caudwell was particularly interested in the social origins of poetry. Poetry was not to be taken as a standalone given, it was to be envisaged as something that comes out of a certain kind of society and it’s above all, and this was actually, it may seem obvious to us, but at the time this was pretty new, hat the different forms of poetry depended on different social forms and different stages of the evolution of society. Now that’s the fundamental idea for George but I think it was Caudwell who first elaborated it and certainly the first one who associated it with a concept of class and with Marxism. So I suspect there’s quite a big debt of Thomson to Caudwell. Caudwell is more interested in psychology and Freud and Jung than Thomson is, and Caudwell is interested in the way in which capitalism and the division of labour and class oppositions create everyday neuroses. That’s not the sort of thing Thomson is interested in. And Thomson of course develops in political directions which it’s impossible to know whether Caudwell would have followed because he died in 1936.
BH. I think the debt to Caudwell was huge. Certainly in CP terms, Thomson was sort of actively promoting Caudwell, Caudwell’s work. He wanted to see Illusion and Reality taught in party education sessions. There’s a sort of post-war moment when national communist parties are looking for national intellectual figures who might give clues as to the national road to socialism that suddenly, you know, communist parties are supposed to be following after the dissolution of the common form in 1943. And obviously Gramsci is the figure in Italy. There’s a sense in which Caudwell is being set up for that part by enthusiasts of whom Thomson is one. So I think he thought that Caudwell could help the CP sharpen itself in terms of its theoretical rigour and he becomes a very robust defender of Caudwell when that legacy is attacked. But, he doesn’t critically engage with Caudwell’s work anywhere. I can’t think of him making a single critical remark about Caudwell’s writing. He does try and figure out what Caudwell wrote first, but that’s rather a process of trying to make the body more coherent. But I think the relationship is one of an intellectual debt and then a subsequent sort of patient working through of key concepts. He talks about Caudwell being a quarry for ideas and you feel him going back to Caudwell over and over again.
ET. So that sort of repositioning of Caudwell in the English Gramscian role, which is an odd reading of Caudwell, do you feel like he extracts a sort of national frame from Caudwell? Because I don’t think it’s really there in Caudwell.
BH. No. I don’t think he’s interested. He’s not interested in Caudwell in that sense. Again the Popular Front is interesting because if you look at Thomson’s trajectory you’d say he joins the Communist Party in 1935. That might lead you to expect him to be a sort of Popular Front communist in the sense that Jack Lindsay is a Popular Front communist, you know, very committed to the idea that we can, you know, sift through the national culture of the past and that somehow this is going to prefigure or give us clues about a nationally grounded communism in the future. I think Thomson is not in that game at all actually. He’s conspicuously absent if anything from those debates that are going on in Left Review, you know, ’34-’38. You would know better than me Elinor but if he contributes to Left Review at all it isn’t conspicuously. It may be the odd book review. So those sort of places where that Popular Front, political, cultural project is being formulated, Thomson is not there. In terms of his communism he’s in many ways a more old-fashioned figure. He’s a Leninist, a vangarde-ist. He believes for his entire life in the dictatorship of the proletariat. He’s not somebody who’s interested in formulating some sort of gradualist road to socialism, and it’s this that sets him at odds with the party leadership in the forties and fifties.
ET. So those clashes must have been quite dramatic then based on that. What did they occur over? How close do you think he got to leaving or being expelled?
BH. Well he comes onto the National Executive Committee in 1947. This is the first time a university lecturer, and intellectual of that kind is on the National Cultural Committee. I think in a way he is entrusted to do that in part because of his orthodoxy in the past. The fact that he hasn’t been theoretically deviant in a confrontational way, in a way that Jack Lindsay has. Thomson tells a story in that interview that I mentioned earlier and he talks about the time, this is in 1939, he’s in Birmingham, he’s living in a leafy suburb, he’s teaching at the university and he has profound problems with the Nazi-Soviet pact and he contacts Garman about this and says “I feel uneasy about the party line” and “I feel kind of dislocated in my branch which is very middle class, people sort of like me”, and Garman says to him “well, you should go join a factory branch”, you know, “go and sort of immerse yourself more directly in the party and the class”. So he does. He joins a branch I think in the Austin car works and begins teaching evening classes to industrial workers and feels — his hesitations about the Nazi-Soviet pact don’t go away — but he feels nonetheless kind of properly connected with the party and the working class. Now these kinds of experiences would play extremely well with the leadership of the CP. He is an intellectual but he’s not given to theoretical navel gazing, he’s willing to immerse himself in the party and the class and his relationship with industrial workers is one… He’s willing to teach and learn. It’s these kinds of positions and I think that kind of openness that would mean that he would be entrusted as an intellectual to come on to the National Executive Committee of the Party.
ET. An intellectual who knows his place!
BH. Yeah. Yes, willing to subordinate his sort of, well, to serve the movement in a direct way. This is the same time he’s, this is a paradox, at the same time he’s advocating Caudwell’s work which is at variance with as we’ve said already, is at variance with the sort of approved theoretical models but there’s something about Thomson’s character, I think, that doesn’t escalate into an open challenge, in the way in which Jack Lindsay would go in at loggerheads and have the spat. Thomson just occupies these positions simultaneously.
HS. I remember reading a Daily Worker article. He was talking about how to become a cultural or intellectual worker. That was kind of, he was kind of telling people what they were doing wrong and what they should do. Do you remember that particular episode?
BH. Yeah it’s from the Communist Review in 1946 I think, and there may be a shorter version of it in the Daily Worker. But this is him saying that intellectuals do need to root themselves appropriately in branch life, particularly in factory branches, and participate at that kind of grassroots level in communist politics. At the same time, people like Jack Lindsay are arguing that we need a union of intellectual workers and the sort of institutions that might potentially sort of segregate intellectuals from the industrial struggle. Thomson is insisting that workers, that intellectuals like him can, you know, be directly involved in the running of the party at that level, and, yes, they can learn, their experiences will be enriched by that.
RS. I think this relates to what we were saying about his lucidity. I went to two memorial meetings shortly after he died. One of them was somebody from the factory branch who thought the world of him, said he was always inspiring, never patronising. And if you listen to him speak you can really understand that.