What did you say?
George Thomson

“Our Hellenic heritage must be rescued from the Mandarins, or else it will perish, destroyed by its devotees.” — 1978

- George Thomson

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 sixth podcast from the Conversations on Communism series. The picture shows Prof. George Thomson as he appeared in the Daily Worker in the 1940s. 

RS. In Aeschylus and Athens, first published in 1941, Thomson describes a visit he made to the Soviet Union in 1935, in which he enjoys The Communist Party Festival. He describes in lyrical terms as the enthusiasm of flowers and he says “it was first then that I discovered the nature of the inspiration that went into creating Aeschylus’ Oresteia“. In subsequent editions of Aeschylus and Athens, after 1956, the passage is removed. It must have seemed to him over the top. He felt that this was the people of the Soviet Union celebrating Communism, and the Oresteia of course ends with this wonderful dramatic colourful procession which expresses the new harmony achieved by the Athenian city state. Out of the violence, the intra-familial conflict of the past, you reach at the end of the Oresteia a new stage, a new stage of history in which the law court has been established. That means in effect that the polis has been established. Problems of the family, that is to say, conflict within the family have been resolved. It would have seen to Thomson a very progressive text, a very inspiring text, so that’s why he compares it to the victory of communism in the Soviet Union. Of course, it was naïve to do that. However, since the Second World War, particularly actually over the last thirty years or so, it’s quite interesting to look at the way that conceptions of Athenian tragedy have developed because Thomson really was a pioneer in relating tragedy to its socio-economic and political context.

Others had related it to ritual but he was really the first to relate it to its political context, with the exception of some work in nineteenth-century Germany, because the Germans, of course, particularly in the early nineteenth century and particularly the pre-Nietzschian Germans, did have the ambition of trying to understand antiquity as a whole. It seems very unfashionable, seems impossible. But they did have that ambition. And I know that George admired Karl Otfried Müller for example, who died young but he wrote about Aeschylus, among other things to which he brought his knowledge of inscriptions and history and so on. So that was a noble ideal that George was following and after the Second World War, of course his book’s published in 1940 [1941] after the Second World War. Books written about tragedy — I mean, I grew up having to read these things — are of a narrowness that now seems impossible to believe. I suppose it’s associated with the New Criticism and the Cold War in which they’re almost entirely about tragic form. They make no reference to anything outside the text, a whole number of these books. Now, everybody’s forgotten them. They just seem ridiculous. Particularly because in the 1980s there began to be a new conception of tragedy, in that more people, including myself, started writing about tragedy and the polis — the polis as a key to understanding tragedy, which obviously it is. But this is completely ignored by everybody except George, so in that sense he was a real pioneer.

However, this brings me back again to the ending of the Oresteia, because, of course, that interest in politics has been qualified or tempered by what I call the ‘standard reading’ of the end of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, in which, so far from the ending celebrating progress, celebrating the new unity of conflict of the polis, with its glorious display of torch-lit procession, the furies being reconciled with the new order, incorporated into Athens in a shrine in a cave, famous ending, so far from this being a celebration of new unity, it’s become absolutely standard, particularly in the USA, but also in Britain and to some extent in France, to say “no, no, what Aeschylus is doing at the end of this trilogy is undercutting himself, queering the whole process”. It’s the, what I call, “interrogative mode” of understanding Greek tragedy and you may think that this is a triumphant ending but of course it’s not, he’s actually deliberately sewing irresolvable doubt, and this is how the play ends. I won’t go into why this is total nonsense because it would take me too long and I’ve published about it anyway. But, it’s a mode of thinking about tragedy in which Aeschylus and indeed other Tragedians turn out looking very like assistant professors in California. Their privileging of the interrogative, their hatred of closure, their privileging of doubt over any kind of statement, the love for open-endedness, is exactly what you find in the American academy, in the Humanities. It’s almost de rigour, everybody’s a feminist and everybody espouses this view of the text, because they have no understanding of how it could be otherwise. I mean, what is a politically triumphalist text? There’s no such thing. There’s no reality to which any text can refer in the kind of capitalist society in which we live. So they have to imagine it as fundamentally interrogative. I have to say this is almost standard, almost standard reading, but it’s always represented as if it’s a subversive reading. It’s not. It’s become absolutely standard. It’s exactly what you’d expect of a post-modern, de-politicised, text-based academy. And sure enough, this nonsense gets foisted onto this great text. I mean George would be horrified.

Yes, I mean, George is one of the very few people to understand the significance of the fact that the Oresteia, that Aeschylus was a Pythagorean and he’s a Pythagorean in various respects, one of which is a belief in the harmony of opposites. It’s not exactly the unity of opposites as you find in Heraclitus but the harmony of opposites in which one opposite is superior to the other, and that’s how you get a stasis. So light is superior to darkness. The male is superior to the female. One of the factors that goes into this interrogative undercutting, self-undercutting conception of Aeschylus is that of course it celebrates patrimony. The female is subordinated to the male in the course of the play. And, I mean, people will say yes but it’s not really, it’s also, having stated that, cast doubt on it because Athena after all is a female even though she says she favours the male in all things. Well, of course there’s an ambivalence within Athena but it’s not an ambivalence with which you’re left at the end of the play as the primary conception. She’s ambivalent because it’s what you might call strategic ambivalence. That’s how you reconcile the female, the Furies and so on, to the new order. So the Pythagoreanism means that you see the world in terms of opposites but in order to get political stability and progress you have to subordinate one opposite to another and that includes the male ending up dominating the female. And of course a lot of people nowadays are not going to be happy with the idea that that is envisaged as a positive message, but as George says the subordination of the female was a feature of the establishment of ancient democracy. I mean, it clearly was.

ET. I wonder, as a way of trying to bring together those two strands, the Marxist and the Classicist Thomson, I wonder whether we could perhaps discuss the idea of how he saw Classics as a vocation and a discipline in society. Because I’ve got this quotation from Thomson here which says, “The Classics have lost touch with the forces of human progress. Instead of being a message of hope for the future as they were intended in the great days of humanism, they have become a pass time for a leisured minority, striving ineffectually to find refuge from it.” And I wondered whether… what did he see the social purpose of classical scholarship and classical study in twentieth-century capitalist society?

RS. Well, remember that he’s growing up in a world in which ancient Greece has far more prestige culturally than it does now. Clearly the First World War made a difference, but he’s born in 1903, probably he would have had his first Greek lessons before the First World War, and therefore, it may seem to him to have more cultural importance than it would nowadays. But I think the answer he might give to your question is that these texts, this culture is still enormously potent, it’s still an aesthetic paradigm. And actually, of course, since the Second World War, there’s been an enormous increase in most of the indicators of the popularity of Classics – number of productions of plays, number of people studying it at university, number of people reading the texts in translation and so on. All of these things have increased massively. What it’s lost is its elite place in the culture in which people defer to professors of Greek and so on. I think what George would say is that these texts remain enormously potent and this culture remains enormously potent. And I actually agree with that. I mean a lot of people do. Enormously potent. And therefore, they should be deployed in the cause of progress, but they can only be deployed in the cause of progress if you understand the relation between the culture on the one hand and the social and political development on the other. You can only really understand Aeschylus’ Oresteia if you have a progressive view of the world. It’s just that, as I think George did say once, it so happened that my cast of mind and Aeschylus’ happen to be very similar. Now that’s why I think he says I can understand Aeschylus better than other people. I mean he didn’t put it in those words but I think that’s in effect what he’s saying. So the point is to deploy these very prestigious aesthetically and intellectually enormously powerful texts in an overall understanding of culture which is harnessed to creating a better society.

ET. So it’s that sort of particular mode of historicist scholarship that he’s doing, that is the sort of political crux of how he sees… ‘how do you do classics in a way that’s socially progressive?’ Rather than say, democratising or encouraging, making texts more accessible, perhaps, it’s specifically to do with the kind of criticism that’s being done.

RS. Well, he does want to make texts more accessible. He does say we should have more working-class students doing Classics. He most definitely did believe in that, and I’m sure that when he went to lecture in the factory branches he would be quite happy talking about Aeschylus which these people may never have had at school. So he’s certainly keen in diffusing this culture.

BH. I think also, in terms of, why would a classicist like Thomson have prestige and command respect within Marxism and within Communism? I mean, communism is, Marxism is clearly a theory of the long dureé, you know, and somebody like Thomson who can comment on, you know, the rise and fall of civilisation and have a real sort of explanatory power about cultural change, is going to be a compelling figure. And certainly his intellectual authority within Party circles is to do with that in a sort of anthropological sense of human culture.

RS. But then there’s the question of course of the classicist’s estimate of Thomson. And of course, Thomson’s work is probably more widely read than any other classicist of the twentieth century, translated into twenty or so languages. Thomson once said to me in a rather melancholy way, “I was never a fellow of the British Academy”. Well you bet he wasn’t! I mean, he’s not going to be a fellow of the British Academy with that kind of political outlook. But he sort of felt it as a bit of a rebuff. And of course here one must remember that in the Humanities generally, certainly in Classics, somebody writing in the thirties and forties is most unlikely to be read today in any subject. So, in that respect Thomson doesn’t do too badly, actually.

HS. Professor Michael Silk said to me that George Thomson was a very interesting figure but not a great intellect and not a great scholar.

RS. Yeah, I think that’s profoundly wrong. And Michael Silk is a very talented professor with a fairly broad outlook but he’s the most ahistorical of Hellenists. He has no interest in history whatsoever. He’s only concerned with literature. So that remark doesn’t actually surprise me at all. Now, there is some respect paid to Thomson by the people who do the new kind of understanding of tragedy from a political perspective but they don’t really take his ideas seriously, and as I say, they go in the opposite direction by being obsessed with the open-endedness and the interrogative in these texts. But, actually, his command of technical scholarship and in various other respects, like his understanding of the continuity of the Greek language from ancient to modern, Thomson was really remarkable.
For example, his most important work of technical scholarship probably, and he produced a lot, was his commentary on Aeschylus’ Oresteia which had a first edition in the thirties, which was said to be a kind of joint production between Thomson and a scholar called Walter Headlam who was a Cambridge scholar who died young, very, very talented. And left in King’s College a commentary on Oresteia that was not completed. And Thomson used it and then produced his version. And then in the second edition in 1966, Thomson had done an awful lot more work on it and he then made himself the main author and added something to the effect that the work of Headlam was incorporated into it, and indeed Thomson is the main author of that text and so it’s quite wrong to suggest that Headlam is the main author. Thomson owed something to Headlam in terms of method but the commentary’s definitely Thomson’s.

Now, I was brought up to use a commentary on the Oresteia, the various plays of the Oresteia, by Fränkel on the Agamemnon and Page on the Eumenides and I think I can safely say that when this disagreement between Thomson and Fränkel, or between Thomson and Page, seven times out of eight Thomson’s got it right and they’ve got it wrong. He has just superior judgement. He also has what he calls an objective method of interpretation and of textual criticism so it’s a bit technical but let me say what this means briefly. What it means is that… What editors often have to do is to restore what they think is the original text of a play was before it became corrupted as often it did, and Fränkel does it, Page does it, Thomson does it, Headlam did it. And there are two principles here which Thomson formulates as what he calls scientific scholarship. One is the recognition that ancient literature, certainly Aeschylus proceeds through a series of topoi, commonplaces for the most part which are often just alluded to by Aeschylus, but ideas which appear in pretty much the same form in a varying number of different authors and so on. And the point is they can appear in very late authors because ancient literature’s extremely static and conservative. this led Headlam to say that if you want to edit a text like Aeschylus, first you have to read your text of Aeschylus really well and then you have to read the whole of the rest of Greek literature, because there can be evidence for what the text of Aeschylus should be in a very late author because the very late author may represent the same topos.

And the other thing was to think about the reasons why texts get corrupted, what is called the classification of errors. And this means that you have to understand that, you have to understand the changes in the Greek language up to the Byzantine period because mistakes are often made because a scribe whose language is Byzantine Greek is distorting the Ancient Greek text to make it look more like Byzantine Greek. And there’s also the intrusive gloss which glosses a word or phrase put at the side of a text to explain it, and then when the manuscript is copied it finds its way into the text and you have to get rid of it. So you have to have a real understanding of how the whole text worked over a very long period and formulate it scientifically, as he put it. Whereas people like Fränkel and Page regard textual criticism as the exercise of gentlemanly subjectivity. It shows you’ve got style. You have a sense of style and all this scientific stuff is silly, according to them. I mean, they don’t do it, but not because it’s silly, because they often don’t have the capacity but mainly because they believe in the almost mystical relationship between the learned critic and his text. And time and time again they get it wrong and Thomson gets it right so I think his commentaries are much better than Fränkel and Page who are two highly lauded, famous classicists. And I think Thomson’s will last much longer than theirs. I mean, I am the last person to write a substantial book on Aeschylus so Aeschylus is a particular interest of mine and Thomson is far more useful than any of those people. I have to say I’m not typical, but I do, I have specialised a lot in Aeschylus.

BH. We’ve talked already about how in the interwar period there’s a sense of sort of cultural crisis which is widely shared. that, you know, on the one hand there’s this sort of ossifying and increasingly introspective high culture and on the other hand there’s this sort of pullulating, brain-softening, lobotomising mass culture. And Thomson is clearly always interested in the idea that there are other sources of culture, and his experience on the Blasket Islands is precisely about finding a space in which different kinds of cultural experiences and cultural models are in place. Now, that stuff is, I mean it isn’t attacked, but those kinds of folk culture, let’s just call it that, I mean, isn’t particularly valued in sort of Marxist discourse in the thirties. But around the end of the war, the turn to the idea that, you know, nations have to find their own national roads to socialism, the advent or the imposition of socialist realism, whatever you think of that, as the sort of approved aesthetic mode, and the models of the so-called people’s democracy, you know, Romania and Poland and so on, that are considered to be finding their own routes to socialism by drawing on the cultural, political resources of the past, all of this makes Marxism as an international communist movement much more receptive to the idea of folk culture and I think this is terribly important. So Thomson’s position doesn’t really change but the kinds of the things that he’s saying enjoy a much wider resonance.

A sort of fairly trivial example of that is that, you know, sort of interesting minor controversy around Thomas Hardy. Thomas Hardy is traditionally been brushed aside by British Marxist intellectuals as sort of far too gloomy and Thomson comes forward and says actually, you know, if we’re serious about folk culture and we’re serious about what culture was like before capitalism and the culture of the peasantry then Hardy is a major writer, because if nothing else his work is a sort of archive of that structure of feeling or that sensibility. So, there are these sort of evaluations that are going on, and people become much more receptive to the kinds of points that Thomson is making that I think is the moment of Marxism and Poetry. People like Bert Lloyd going to Albania and collecting folk songs, I mean, this sense in which there might be some sort of cultural third way between high culture and mass culture that has something to do with the sources of the people. Thomson is the CP intellectual who speaks to that agenda very clearly. There’s no conflict there. These are the things that he’s interested in in any case.

It’s easy to forget that Thomson was a Leninist. His vision of political advance was one of revolutionary insurrection. And he holds true to that position, from 1947, 48, 49. In ’50, the British Communist Party is having to adjust itself as all national communist parties were to the new imperatives of finding national roads to socialism and the fact that Moscow is no longer openly acting as the nerve centre of the international communist movement. And Thomson is troubled by what he sees as sort of revisionist currents pulling through the communist movement. He’s not alone in this. Garman, who’s very close to him, is also disillusioned by what he sees as revisionism. Edward Upward, the novelist, you know, leads a lot of industrial workers who are troubled by this. The basic problem is how the state is conceptualised. You know, whether the state, as Marxists have always said, is an implement or tool or class oppression or whether it is something that can be refashioned by communists to evolve, you know, whether these structures can be taken over, developed in some way to take the nation towards communism.

Thomson thinks that if the Communist Party is getting rid of the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat it should at least come out and say so. What he objects to is this sort of fudge whereby they never renounce it, but they’re clearly not thinking in those terms any more. And I think as somebody who was a real intellectual, I mean, he just inspected the leadership of the Communist Party to have as serious debate about this and he was absolutely appalled when he was on the National Executive Committee, that there was no real discussion, that these sort of basic, fundamental questions in terms of the movement of the party weren’t being addressed in any way. And I think that is the beginning of his disillusionment with the CPGB right there. You know, in 1951 when the British road to socialism is unveiled. And he watches developments in China, obviously with a lot of interest. It’s not unusual in late 40s, early 50s communism to start to find people’s articles sort of being larded with quotations from Mao as well as Stalin, Engels, Lenin but Thomson, you know, is clearly drawn to what he sees as a sort of evolutionary purity in the Maoist position a knowing kind of vanguardism, and he’s also drawn to what he knows, and what everyone knows of Mao’s writings on literature and culture which again are foregrounding this sense of being close to the people and working with traditions, valuing, preserving and developing folk traditions and folk culture. So he’s inclined to be interested in what he knows of what’s happening in China and he’s very taken with Mao’s writings. He sees that Mao’s writings are drawing on a tradition of Chinese philosophy which he sees as sort inherently dialectical in his own tendencies and in infusing that with Marxism. He sees that as a very potent enrichment of the Marxist tradition. And then he goes to — and Richard would know more about this — Peking in 1955 and he spends six months out there and from then on I think his frame of political reference… You know, China’s that important to him. And then through the conclusions of ’56 he becomes very disillusioned with what’s happening obviously in the Soviet Union but he shifts his allegiance to China gradually. The sign of the Soviet split in the early 1960s. There’s a pamphlet circulating initially through the YCL called ‘Long live Leninism’ which is basically a sort of Maoist critique of what’s happened in the Soviet Union since ’56 and Thomson, like many others, like MacColl, like Garman, like West, to a degree, is very taken with this idea.

ET. Of course, the other sort of innovation or ideological sort of feature of Maoism is its alternative account of historical development which is really fascinating for a classicist actually or a kind of historian of the ancient world actually, that it offers a kind of different way of envisaging historical change, you know, as against that kind of Stalinist model. Was he kind of drawn to that as well as to the kind of question of strategy and organisation?

BH. He is. What he’s also impressed by, I think in light of his experiences of the CPGB, is the fact that the Chinese Party seems to have more mechanisms to renew itself, to field critique and to critique itself, it sees itself as part of a sort of Chinese philosophical tradition, this capacity for self-critique, and he sees that as being carried through in the CP. So with that sort of tendency of the part to sort of ossify into the state, he sees that the Chinese model as a strategy or a mode of sort of endless self-scrutiny, self-questioning and self-revitalisation. He’s certainly drawn to that.

ET. A kind of constant revolution…

RS. There’s also in The First Philosophers [1955] which was first published I think in 1956, perhaps a bit later, he has a section on Chinese Philosophy and he compares it to Greek philosophy. He’s interested in the origins of scientific thought which happened in Greece but also in a sense in China in about the 6th century BC. And he noticed similarities between these two bodies of thoughts which you’d barely find anywhere else in the world. In particular, the importance of the opposites in cosmology. But he also notices differences between them which he then relates to different social formations, particularly the importance of the centralised state and the emperor in China but along with that there are all these similarities. So that suggests using the 6th century BC for a kind of global conception of the beginnings of science and philosophy.

We’ve said quite a lot about the influences on him and his intellectual trajectory. Clearly, the project he set himself was in a sense ludicrously ambitious. And that’s both a strength of his legacy but also the weakness of his legacy. It’s often said about Thomson quite rightly that is anthropology was out of date. Engels’s Origins of the Family and so on, based on Morgan who’s a nineteenth-century anthropologist was clearly out of date, leading him to detect matriarchy, for example, in the early Aegean, which nobody now really believes in. But that actually relates to a second weakness which he kind of grew up too late to be influenced by structuralism. This is an important point. So if you have a myth of matriarchy, what the structuralist does is to say “Ah well, this myth of matriarchy is a fantasy which represents the opposite of patriarchy, which is what we have.” You think about patriarchy by imagining its opposite, projecting it back onto the past. That is, very broadly speaking, a structuralist view and Thomson was not influenced at all by structuralism simply, really because he was always interested in finding the origins of forms in material and social processes. He hated formalism in which, which I think is, maybe this is just me, but he may have said something like this, which is so analogous to commodity production: you fetishise the commodity divorced from the process that creates it. Similarly with literary form and any kind of form, so that was his view. But it did mean that he made mistakes, by for example imagining that matriarchy was actually a historical reality. So, the Oresteia is celebrating the transition not just from the tribe to the state but from matriarchy or matriliny to patriliny. If he had understood structuralism he wouldn’t have made those mistakes. Of course there are other mistakes, there are bound to be. And he would be the first to agree. He says things like this, you know. He says it’s such a vast field, one person can’t do it all, we should have collective research. That was one of his themes. But that is clearly the negative of a kind which Fränkel and Page would never be guilty of because they never for a moment would take such a wide view of the world, but that’s also the great strength of Thomson. It’s his defiance of the intellectual division of labour, his defiance of hyper-specialisation. He’s always seeing connections – the engaged polymath. We don’t have to believe his conclusions, he got a lot wrong, but we should certainly be inspired by the spirit that he represented.

BH. This caught my eye, the end of his last book, so this is 1987 when he’s just finished this, and it is interesting because there’s an emancipatory optimism which is still there but at the same time there isn’t a clear sense of what the agent of that stage is, or at least no one believes that the party is the vehicle through which that change is going to come. But he says “The free play of market forces must be brought under control if our civilisation is to be saved from self-destruction, and that can only be done by the deprived and the dispossessed. When they take their future into their own hands, they will cast off their backwardness, and by releasing new forces material and spiritual bring civilisation to a higher level.”

ET. And obviously that kind of foreshadows all sorts of developments in sort of post-Marxism, doesn’t it? It’s got that sort of Hardt and Negri kind of quality about it. It’s very interesting.

RS. That was probably the last thing he ever wrote.

ET. Fascinating. Yeah.

BH. Did he talk to you about Maoism or any of those… Because I mean we still don’t have a, even a sketchy history of that, you know, those Maoist ?? of the sixties.

RS. Not really. No we mainly talked about Ancient Greece, actually.

BH. Because he became involved in his China Policy Study Group but he never joined the sort of Maoist parties. There were a few of them.

RS. I remember he had Chinese works of art in his study so there was a sort of, and he reproduces them on the cover of photographs from China. He’s emotionally impressed by China. He’s not the only one.

BH. Sure, sure. Needham was another big figure in the study group. He talks about in that interview about Garman, about going to meetings in London, this will be in the mid-sixties time of the Cultural Revolution and you know, people like John Berger are there and Claudia Jones, the Notting Hill Carnival woman, and Alec West, Garman, MacColl, and you know there’s talk of forming a new party and then Reg Birch tries out a couple of years later but I think Thomson isn’t persuaded that they have anything like the heft necessary to get this going, and he doesn’t seem to me to come out ever really and criticise the CP directly. There are letters in the archive… The Chinese Policy Study Group have a broadsheet and Thomson has written something critical of a Daily Worker Editorial.

RS. What about his attitude to the Cultural Revolution do we know anything about that?

BH. No. I mean I think he was affirmative, then like the rest of them sort of fell silent as things grew dark. That was certainly you know MacColl’s position but at the time, you know, they saw this as a party regenerating itself.