The eagle and the bustard: EP Thompson and Louis Althusser

By Scott Hamilton, Reading the Maps, Saturday 8 July 2006, 06:28:00 PM

After I posted a review of Louis Althusser's ‘new’ book last week somebody e mailed and asked what I thought about the relationship between Althusser and the British historian EP Thompson. Here's a draft Phd chapter on the subject. It was written at the end of 2004 for a departmental seminar and probably needs lots of revision…

One of the peculiarities of intellectual history is the way that those thinkers who clash most fiercely tend to be linked in the minds of scholars of later generations, and sometimes in popular imagination too. Sometimes polemic ends up keeping alive the name, if not the reputation, of its target. We only recall Euthyphro because he argued with Socrates; Duhring is remembered for the criticism he received from Engels.

In other cases, two important thinkers are forever associated by the arguments they aimed at each other. It is difficult to think for long about either Sartre or Camus without considering their epic clashes over Algeria and communism. CP Snow and FR Leavis survive in popular consciousness largely because of the famous “science and culture” debate they waged in the 1960s.

The Poverty of Theory's title essay is a venomous polemic, even by the standards of the British left, yet it has ensured that the names Thompson and Althusser have been linked, even if antithetically, in the minds of successive generations of leftists.

Thompson wrote the two hundred page essay in two weeks in February 1978; by the end of the following year Stuart Hall felt able to describe it as “a remarkable political and intellectual event”. The Poverty of Theory was seen as one salvo in a larger battle, a battle fought by armies gathered under the rival banners of “humanism” and “scientism”, “early” and “late” Marx, and “French structuralism” and “English empiricism”.

Although Althusser himself never replied to Thompson's volley, his status as an enemy combatant was never really questioned. Commentators remembered his 1973 “Reply to John Lewis”, an uncharacteristically caustic attack on a self-proclaimed socialist humanist who had rehearsed some of Thompson's arguments in the Communist Party of Great Britain publication Marxism Today. Ongoing debates in the New Left Review between Thompson's friend Ralph Miliband and Althusser's ex-student and interpreter Nicos Poulantzas provided more fire for The Poverty of Theory to fan.

Thompson himself had contributed to the atmosphere in which The Poverty of Theory was received. Published in the same year as the “Reply to John Lewis”, his “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski” had drawn battle lines:

The point, however, was my allegiance to an outworn English idiom…I cannot fly. When you spread your wings and soar into the firmament where Kierkegaard and Husserl, Heidegger, Japsers and Sartre and the other great eagles soar, I remain on the ground like one of the last great bustards, awaiting the extinction of my species on the diminishing soil of an eroding idiom, craning my neck into the air, flapping my paltry wings. All around me my younger feathered cousins are managing mutations; they are turning into little eagles, and whirr! with a rush of wind they are off to Paris, to Rome, to California.

I had thought of trying to join them (I have been practising the eords “essence”, “syntagm”, “conjuncture”, “problematic”, “sign”) but my wings grow no bigger. If I were to try I know very well that with my great bulk of romantic moralisms, my short-sighted empirical vision, and my stumpy idiomatic wings, I would fall— plop!— into the middle of the Channel.

Elsewhere Thompson declared “I reject in form all, and in content most, of the work of Althusser”. Readers had been prepared for The Poverty of Theory.

What Thompson himself called “my violent and bitter attack on Stalinism in theory” climaxed at a session of the 1979 History Workshop conference on People's History and Socialist Theory devoted to The Poverty of Theory. Raphael Samuel has described the action:

Crammed with an audience of hundreds, the temperature boosted by the largest blow heater imaginable, the conference settled down to its main task…Bright spotlights increased the sense that a theatrical performance was demanded…[Thompson] proceeded to a demolition job on his critics which caused evident personal pain and discomfort to many of those present.

Thompson's biographer Bryan D Palmer has suggested that the St Pauls debate marked the end of his subject's interest in Marxism. Certainly, Thompson refused subsequent invitations to discuss The Poverty of Theory and the controversy it had stirred.

Althusser's ability to intervene in public debates ended in November 1980, when he was committed to a psychiatric hospital for strangling his wife in the flat that they shared in the Ecole Normale. By the time his death in 1990 Althusser was a hate figure for France's increasingly right-wing intelligentsia, who saw the fall of the Berlin Wall as a refutation of every proposition in For Marx and Reading Capital.

Althusser did not help his cause by writing two ostensibly autobiographical texts, which were collected posthumously under the title The Future Lasts A Long Time. Claiming that he had hardly read Marx, Althusser insisted that he conducted all his research by sitting in university cafeterias and eavesdropping on gifted graduate students. Old enemies leapt on such “evidence”, forgetting that Althusser also claimed to have held up a bank, to have planned the hijacking of a nuclear submarine, and to have been cruised by General de Gaulle in a Paris street.

Introducing the 1995 edition of The Poverty of Theory, Thompson's widow Dorothy was able to capitalise on the collapse of Althusser's reputation:

Readers of Althusser's autobiography…may feel that the gulf between the two writers lies not only in their different intellectual approaches but in their whole lives.

Similarities amongst differences?

I certainly approached The Poverty of Theory assuming that it marked out, however roughly and contentiously, a very significant divide. I still think that the differences between Thompson and Althusser are many and profound.

But as I read my way through the paper trail left by Thompson's polemic I began to notice some intriguing correspondences—autobiographical, methodological, and rhetorical, as well as doctrinal—between the English bustard and the Parisian eagle. Perhaps the best way to point to some of these correspondences is to make a sort of thumbnail sketch of the broad outlines of the lives and careers of Althusser and Thompson.

Althusser was born in 1918 in Algiers, where his grandfather was a colonial functionary and his father a banker. Thompson was born six years later, to a Methodist missionary family which had decamped to Oxford after many years of loyal service in the colonies. Thompson grew up steeped in Methodism, and always maintained an ambivalent relationship to Christianity. Althusser was deeply influenced by his family's Catholicism—it was rumoured that the famous Marxist philosopher never shook off the habit of attending Mass.

Given their dates of birth, it is hardly surprising that Thompson and Althusser were both marked deeply by the Second World War. Thompson saw his elder brother become a national hero of Bulgaria, after he was killed leading a band of anti-fascist fighters, and himself fought in the Italian campaign, commanding a tank unit in the battle of Monte Cassino.

Althusser was captured before he had the chance to fight, and spent more than four years in a prisoner of war camp—in The Future Lasts a Long Time he would describe them as the happiest years of his life. World War Two brought Thompson and Althusser into the orbits of their respective communist parties. Both men identified with the Comintern's Popular Front policy of support for the “Peoples' war against fascism”.

After the war, Thompson and Althusser found themselves involved in the cultural and intellectual subsections of their respective parties. Althusser had become a professor at the Ecole Normale; Thompson would spend seventeen years as a Workers Education Association tutor in Yorkshire. Neither was closely involved in the concerns and campaigns of organised labour.

The challenge of 1956

1956 was a crucial year for both Althusser and Thompson, as it was for so many others around the world. Krushchev's denunciation of Stalin, the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and the Anglo-French attacks on Egypt created crises for the organisations of the left and right, in the East and West.

Both Thompson and Althusser responded to 1956 by trying to rethink orthodox interpretations of Marx, and by trying to foster a political movement which rejected Stalin and his successors in the Kremlin as well as both the liberal and conservative sections of the political establishment in the West.

Thompson left the Communist Party and became a founder of what is nowadays called the “Old New Left”; Althusser stayed inside the much larger and more powerful Communist Party of France, but began an effort to develop an alternative to that party's line. Althusser eventually inspired the semi-secret “Groupe Spinoza”, which was, like the New Left Clubs Thompson helped to found, largely a movement of young, radicalised intellectuals. For both Thompson and Althusser, the rescue of Marxism from the clutches of communist and anti-communist orthodoxy was vital to the prospects of the left. The two men developed their characteristic interpretations of Marxism in the shadow of 1956. Both were strong critics of what they saw as mechanical and teleological traits in “official” Marxist theory. Against grand narratives of history and economic reductionism, Althusser and Thompson emphasised the importance of analysing what Althusser called “the conjuncture”.

Both Thompson and Althusser rejected orthodox interpretations of Marx's “base-superstructure” metaphor, insisting that recognition be given to the importance of the “superstructure” to the economic “base”. Althusser famously argued that Marx's concept of “mode of production” involved three levels—the economic, political, and ideological—that combined in unpredictable ways. The economic level did not always dominate, but merely determined which of the three levels would be dominant in any given mode of production. In feudal societies, for example, the economic level determined that the political level would be dominant.

In his essay on “Folklore, Anthropology, and Social History”, Thompson insisted that:

What I call into question is not the centrality of the mode of production (and attendant relations of power and ownership) to any materialist understanding of history. I am calling into question…the notion that it is possible to describe a mode of production in “economic” terms, leaving aside as secondary (less “real”) the norms, the culture, the critical concepts around which this mode of production is organised.

Both Thompson and Althusser criticised definitions of class which they regarded as tainted by economic reductionism. In The Making of the English Working Class Thompson famously insisted that

We cannot have love without lovers, nor deference without squires and labourers…class happens when some men…feel and articulate the identity of their interests…against other men whose interests are different than theirs.

Althusser made a similar point when he wrote in the “Reply to John Lewis” that:

It is impossible to separate the classes from class struggle. The class struggle and the existence of classes are one and the same thing.

The ideas of Thompson and Althusser helped shape the New Left, but as the 60s went on they found themselves increasingly at odds with some of the young radicals who revered them. In his “Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski”, Thompson would castigate “[A] ‘youth culture’ of self-indulgent emotionalism and exhibitionist style” and describe May 1968 as a “rich kid's revolutionary farce”.

During May 1968, the slogan “Althusser, where are you?” appeared on walls around Paris. Althusser had checked himself into a sanatorium; when he re-emerged, it was to chide his followers for their “over-optimism” and “ultra-leftism”. With political visions planted in the Popular Front years of the 1930s and 40s, Thompson and Althusser found it hard to deal with the very different turbulence of the late 60s and 70s.

In the late 1970s Thompson rejected the label Marxist altogether. Thompson preferred to call himself a “historical materialist”; asked in 1979 to give a lecture on “the state of Marxism”, he replied that “the subject bores me out of my mind”. In a series of fragmentary and rather elliptical texts written in the 1980s, Althusser rejected “the yellow logorhythms” of Marxism and advocated instead an “aleatory materialism” than looked to thinkers as different as Epicurus and Machiavelli for inspiration.

Differences amongst similarities

Even this very cursory summary ought to make it clear that the lives and careers of Thompson and Althusser offer a number of intriguing correspondences. Yet few commentators have seen fit to discuss these correspondences at any length. I'd like to try to explain of the similarities I see, as well as the undeniable differences that separate Thompson and Althusser, and I'd like to do so by returning to 1956, a year which I see as the key to both men's thought. I don't think I'm alone in picking on that year. In a 1975 interview, Althusser remembered that:

I would never have written anything were it not for the 20th Congress [of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union] and Krushchev's critique of Stalinism and the consequent liberalisation.

For his part, Thompson began his foreword to The Poverty of Theory and other essays with the claim that:

I commenced to reason in my thirty-third year [ie in 1956] and, despite my best habits, have never been able to shake the habit off.

We have already seen that Thompson and Althusser welcomed the denunciation of Stalin in 1956, but were suspicious of Krushchev's “official” de-Stalinisation, as well as the opportunistic condemnations of Stalinism from Cold Warriors in the West. Both men were looking for a “Third Way” between the orthodoxy of the Kremlin and the orthodoxy of what Thompson often called “Natopolitan culture”. We can call Thompson and Althusser “left de-Stalinisers”. But Thompson and Althusser looked in very different places for their alternatives to Stalinism and Natopolitanism.

Althusser associated the ideology of Krushchev's Soviet Union with a sort of neo-Hegelian humanism, represented in France by philosophers like Sartre and Althusser's great rival in the Communist Party, Roger Garaudy. Brandishing Marx's 1844 manuscripts and Krushchev's doctrine of peaceful co-existence and a peaceful road to socialism, Garaudy was in Althusser”s opinion guilty of using a shallow anti-Stalinism to justify the Communist Party's move to the right, into the territory of social democracy.

Many of Althusser's most famous essays are attempts to go over the head of Stalin and reread Lenin and Marx, using the structuralism of Levi-Strauss, the psychoanalytic theory of Lacan and the conventionalism of French philosophers of science like Duhem and Bachelard. The goal of this rereading is the establishment of a “scientific anti-humanist Marxist-Leninism” which can be turned into political practice by a disciplined vanguard party of the working class. Without the reconstruction of Marxist philosophy, the vanguard party could not do its work, and without the vanguard party the working class could not grow stronger, let alone take power.

Thompson shared Althusser's antipathy to the economism of Stalinism and the teleology of Hegel, but he tended to associate both errors with the very scientism and vanguardism that Althusser demanded. For Thompson, the humanism of post-Stalinist philosophers like Garaudy and Lewis was culpable because it was half-hearted.

Thompson was powerfully attracted to the practice of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1930s and 40s, which he regarded, somewhat sentimentally perhaps, as an incarnation of a venerable English tradition of popular and democratic dissent epitomised by his heroes William Blake and William Morris. Thompson wanted the New Left Clubs he helped set up after 1956 to galvanise British society, but he was reluctant to speak of vanguards. In his 1960 essay “The New Left” he predicted that:

The bureaucracy [of the trade unions, and the Labour Party] will hold the machine; but the New Left will hold the passes between it and the younger generation.

The different political strategies of Thompson and Althusser reflect the very different epistemological foundations of their Marxisms. In chapter two we saw the way that Thompson broke with Marxist orthodoxy by making the subjectivity—the experience and consciousness—of the working class and “the people” the justificatory base of his politics. Althusser, on the other hand, followed “orthodox” tradition in locating the justification for his Marxist politics in the objective interests of the working class and its allies. (If anything, Althusser's account of Marx's theory of ideology actually valourised a sharp disjunction between Marxist “science” and working class politics, insisting as it did upon the “inescapability of ideology”.)

We have seen that both Thompson and Althusser developed models of Marxism and political strategies that emphasised the importance of ideas, ideology, and intellectuals to both the maintenance and possible transformation of post-war society. At the same time, we have seen that there are considerable differences between the ways Thompson and Althusser chose to this express this importance. How can we explain this mixture of correspondences and sharp differences? Returning to 1956, we can note that the crises that the events of that year caused in Western Communist Parties tended to impact differently on workers, especially industrial workers, and intellectuals.

In Britain and in France, intellectuals—academics, journalists, teachers, freelance writers—dominated the opposition to the invasion of Hungary and to the refusal to address properly the legacy of Stalin. Commenting on the schism in the British party from the safe distance of 1956, Malcolm MacEwan remembered the way that the special party conference of 1957 endorsed the whitewash of the ‘Majority Report’ of the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy, against a ‘Minority Report’ produced by dissident intellectuals:

[T]he enormous exodus of members after Hungary, which decimated the Party's intellectual membership, had produced a strong reaction among those who remained, and particularly amongst the industrial working class members. The majority report was carried, according to an official report, by a margin of 20 to 1.

In Britain and in France, the hundreds of intellectuals who resigned or were expelled found themselves isolated from the most militant section of a not-very-militant working class. Even those intellectuals who chose to stay inside the party, like Althusser in France and Eric Hobsbawm in Britain, found themselves isolated by the party leadership.

Leading relatively small groups of radicalised intellectuals, isolated from a bureaucratised and largely apathetic working class, Thompson and Althusser not unnaturally tended to emphasise the possibility that intellectuals and intellectual work could spark political change, “thawing deep-frozen Europe”.

Discussing Thompson's proposals for the Old New Left, Wade Matthews writes that:

Thompson did not so much undertake a proper examination of problems by placing them in their objective economic and social context, as make a “voluntarist wager” on a process by which the consciousness of “men” would be transformed…by the work of “consciousness upon consciousness”.

Althusser proposed a more torturous line of march, but his commitment to the work of “consciousness upon consciousness” is not in doubt.

Different worlds

But the sharp differences between the Marxisms and the political strategies of Thompson and Althusser remain to be explained. At the risk of capitulating to Thompson's national chauvinism, I think that it is necessary to look at the quite different environments in which Thompson and Althusser tried to deal with the legacy of 1956. Thompson regarded Althusser and his disciples as an arrogant and otherworldly posse of poseurs, while Althusser considered the empiricist and humanist tradition Thompson represented to be shot through with philistinism and obscurantism. This mutual incomprehension can ultimately be related to the very different contexts of intellectual life in Britain and France.

Since the first decades of the Third Republic, at least, intellectuals have existed as a distinct strata in French society, with their own culture, rituals, and independent institutions. The intensity of the struggle against feudalism in France, and the continuing struggle to safeguard the achievements of 1789 led to the intelligentsia becoming, in Regis Debray's phrase, a “secular clerisy”, conscious of its mission to defend the revolution and the Enlightenment. The “Dreyfus affair” at the end of the nineteenth century symbolised the role of the new strata in French society.

The regional and rural character of France and the country's late industrialisation made a strong central government and bureaucratic apparatus essential, helping to guarantee the strength of the intellectual strata. Intellectuals have tended to be integrated with the state, rather than directly with the bourgeoisie, large sections of which remained hostile to the legacy of 1789 for over a hundred and fifty years.

In Britain, by contrast, intellectuals have tended to be integrated cosily with the bourgeoisie, to the extent that they have lacked even a sense of separate identity for long periods. The weakness of the British intelligentsia has been linked by Perry Anderson to the absence of a “totalising view”, or comprehensive sociology, of British society. Until relatively recently the closest approach to an overarching view of British society could be found in the literary criticism of the likes of Leavis and Raymond Williams, and in the social criticism of writers like William Morris and DH Lawrence.

Sunil Khilnani has argued that Althusser “aspired to produce a counter-technocracy or elite, concerned with ascertaining the scientific principles of revolution”. Khilnani's words point to the link between Althusser's project and the traditional role of intellectuals in French society. Althusser proposes a sort of revolutionary adaption of the “secular clerisy” beloved of liberal French intellectuals. Althusser's debt to thinkers like Levis-Strauss, Lacan, Bachelard, and Duhem reminds us of the national roots of his project. And although Althusser's semi-structuralist anti-humanism represented a rejection of post-war French philosophical orthodoxy, his lofty conception of the role of the philosopher would have prompted little dissension from Sartre and Garaudy.

Thompson, of course, favours a much less hierachical, and indeed much less structured, relationship between Marxist intellectuals and the rest of the left. Thompson's location of the epistemological grounds of Marxism in the experiences and consciousness of the working class leads him to see literature and history—vision and excavation—as the two most important parts of radical intellectual work. For Thompson, writers like William Morris and William Blake were able to produce a vision of British society which is irreducible to mere political formulations, yet at the same time capable of transforming the consciousness of those lucky enough to encounter it. Thompson's mentors are visionaries, not vanguardists.

Along with the visions of literature, Thompson favours the excavations of historians as a way of inspiring changes in consciousness. Thompson wrote The Making of the English Working Class because he was worried that the English working class was losing its memory of its heroic past in the face of the onslaught of post-war US “slaughterhouse culture'. Thompson hoped that the memory of the past could help to spark an apathetic working class into action that went beyond the routines of “meat and veges' trade union and Labour Party economism. Like Althusser, then, Thompson developed a conception of Marxism and a political strategy that was rooted in the history of his own country.

Exceptions or rules?

It cannot be denied that the year 1956 and its aftermath threw up a number of French thinkers whose ideas very closely resembled Thompson's. Nor should we forget the popularity of Althusser's ideas amongst left-wing British intellectuals in the 1970s. How can we explain such phenomena, without abandoning claims about the importance of national context to the differences between Thompson and Althusser?

Intellectuals never think or behave as a monolithic bloc. We must remember that the history of ideas is a history of tendencies and counter-tendencies, not a simple succession of orthodoxies. The events of 1956 lifted the profile of Cornelius Castoriadis and his “Socialism or Barbarism” circle, for instance, but they did not make him a dominant figure in the French left, let alone the French intelligentsia. A radical distrust of theory and an inveterate Third Campism made him unpopular with Marxist humanists and existentialists, as well as Althusserians.

We must remember that Castoriadis' is the orthodoxy of the contrarian—he is always aware of the charge that national context will give to his aggressive dismissals of “big theory” and “professional experts”:

The long-prevalent conception of revolutionary theory—the science of society and revolution, as elaborated by specialists and introduced into the proletariat by the party—is in direct contradiction to the very idea of a socialist revolution being the autonomous activity of the masses… it is just as erroneous on the theoretical plane…The content of socialism is precisely this creative activity on the part of the masses that no theory ever could or ever will be able to anticipate.

Castoriadis may have been a Greek expatriate in Paris, but prose like this can only be understood as a reaction to the conditions of French intellectual life and the French left in the decades after World War Two. Indeed, in the extremity of his reaction Castoriadis went beyond Thompson, who was moved to describe some of the British co-thinkers of “Socialism or Barbarism” as “sectarian anti-sectarians” in a footnote to The Poverty of Theory.

Castoriadis only really achieved “respectability' in French intellectual circles in the 1980s and 90s, when his distrust of theory “with a big T” and his rejection of Marxism resonated with new postmodern orthodoxies.

English Althusserianism presents a more difficult case. The influence of Althusser and of his sometimes wayward interpreters on left-wing British intellectuals in the 1970s was strong, if not always desirable. Looking back at the end of the decade, Stuart Hall remembered “good graduate students unable to commit a single sentence to paper” for fear of being “impaled” on the “theoretical scissors” of “vulgar Althusserianism”.

For others, the influence of Althusser was more productive. Work influenced by Althusser appeared in the New Left Review from the late '60s, and in early '70s two new journals, Theoretical Practice and Economy and Society, aggressively championed Althusser's “scientific problematic”.

The pair of young sociologists who founded Economy and Society may have done more than Althusser himself to prompt the “bitter and violent attack” that was The Poverty of Theory. Barry Hindess and Paul Hirst co-authored two books, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production and Marx's Capital and Capitalism Today, which championed what Gregory Elliot has dubbed “Hyper-Althusserianism, [the] Highest Stage of Marxism”. Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production found Althusser guilty, despite his best efforts, of “empiricism” and “historicism”; Marx's Capital and Capitalism Today “exposed” the “reductionism” of Althusser's great essay “Contradiction and Overdetermination”.

Perry Anderson was forced to defend Althusser against Hindess and Hirst, as well as his more famous detractor:

Thompson condemns with every justification two English sociologists, Hirst and Hindess, but fails to note that the work from which he quotes precisely condemns Althusser for “empiricism”, and hence can hardly be regarded as a stand-in for the latter.

But Thompson's error in conflating Althusser with Hindess and Hirst does not spare us the problem of accounting for texts like Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production. After all, Hindess and Hirst merely carried Althusser's “anti-empiricism” and emphasis on “theoretical practice” to an extreme, and shared his commitment to the creation of a new, “authentic” Marxist intelligentsia as a precondition for the advance of the left and the working class. We have tried to explain Thompson by relating him to British society and to the history and nature of the Britain's intelligentsia. But Hindess and Hirst were not Parisian eagles — they were part of the same intelligentsia and the same left as the English bustard. How can we explain the gap between “socialist humanism” and “hyper-Althusserianism”, Theoretical Practice and the The Poverty of Theory?

To some extent, we can see Hindess and Hirst as representative of an extreme counter-tendency in British intellectual and political life, analogous to Castoriadis' circle in 1950s and 60s France. It is important to remember that Marxism has played only a very minor role in British intellectual and political history. Even on the left, it has tended to be marginalised in favour of one or another style of liberalism or social democracy. While in France the Communist Party was up until the late 70s the mass party of the working class, in Britain the Labour Party has always been dominant.

When Marxist ideas have won the respect of British intellectuals, they have done so by “going native”, in the style of the distinctly English “ethical socialism” of William Morris, or the “cultural materialism” of Raymond Williams. We have seen in earlier chapters that Thompson's own work owes more to a very English tradition of radical liberal populism than it does to Marxism.

In British conditions, attempts to assert the importance of Marxism, let alone Leninism, have tended to acquire an abstract and dogmatic character. Cut off from the working class they identify as the agent of progressive change, small groups of revolutionary Marxists have struggled to find ways of turning their ideas into “concrete” strategy and tactics. The career of the first avowedly Marxist British organisation of any size, Hyndman's Social Democratic Federation, is a study in dogmatism and isolation. Even Morris, who soon parted company with Hyndman, failed ever to find a way of relating his blueprints for the socialist utopia to the industrial struggles and agitation for democratic rights which so captured his sympathy.

More recently, British Trotskyists struggled to relate their “classical Bolshevism” to unanticipated post-war phenomena like the long boom and the welfare state. Dogmatically restating pre-war “axioms”, Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League went so far as to deny the existence of the new conditions, and spent decades predicting imminent economic catastrophe. The extreme sectarianism of the “Healyites” reflected their isolation, as well as their dogmatism. Even Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn's brilliant attempt to bring Western Marxism to the “empirical island” of Britain was marred by what Nicos Poulantzas was able to recognise as a “scorched earth attitude” towards indigenous socialist traditions.

“Hyper-Althusserianism” can be seen as an extreme reaction to the national context Hindess and Hirst found themselves operating in. The violent denunciations of British socialist tradition and the bold claims of originality merely mark Hindess and Hirst out as the latest members of a long tradition.

It is also important to remember that Thompson and the hyper-Althusserians belonged to different generations. Thompson was formed intellectually in the 1930s and 40s, when the British intelligentsia consisted of large numbers of “independent” creative writers, journalists, and social commentators, as well as academics. A much higher proportion of the “independent' intellectuals than the academics gravitated towards socialist ideas, in the “Red Decade” of the 1930s, and early Thompson heroes like WH Auden and Edgell Rickword were “men of letters” who had little contact with academia. By the time Thompson had secured a job in the WEA in 1948, the Cold War had made academic careers very difficult for Marxists, and the student branches which the Communist Party had established at many universities in the 30s were in steep decline.

But the tertiary sector expanded steadily in the post-war decades, and the 1960s brought a gradual increase in tolerance for Marxist ideas on campus, so that by the 1970s a large proportion of Britain's Marxist intellectuals were either academics or graduate students. Thompson's relations with academia were never entirely amicable, and he found it difficult to warm to new “Marxist' subjects like sociology and political science. The super-specialisation and technical jargon which could be found in these disciplines contrasted with the eclectic concerns and accessibility which had been necessities for the old left-wing men of letters.

It is not surprising that Hindess and Hirst did not share Thompson's misgivings. It is likely that they and a good number of other young Marxist intellectuals were attracted rather than repelled by Althusser's valourisation of the separation of intellectual and worker, and by his insistence upon the political importance of what detractors could call “gobbledygook” and “hair-splitting”. Thompson was disgusted by the “Francophilia” of some younger British Marxists, seeing it as an instance of an old British sense of inferiority, but it is only natural that the visibility and status of intellectuals in French society and the French left would lend Parisian intellectual milieux a certain mystique, in the eyes of the first real generation of British Marxist academics.

But for Hindess, Hirst and others hyper-Althusserianism was finally too extreme a valourisation, because the critique it implied of “actually existing capitalism” was too radical. Finding their hopes of guiding the working class movement frustrated, a number of the hyper-Althusserians moved rapidly to the right in the 1980s. Hirst, for instance, became active on the anti-Bennite wing of the Labour Party, and is today remembered as a pioneer of Blairite ideology. Through the 1980s and 90s Hirst maintained his belief in the importance of intellectuals, as opinion-shapers and administrators, but substituted “the opinions of the British people and the facts of British life” for the revolutionary rhetoric of the 1970s. It can be argued, in fact, that the arrogance of the hyper-Althusserian intellectual's self-presentation lives on in the figure of the Blairite “spin doctor” and “strategiser”.