Ecosocialist Notebook

E.P. Thompson on human nature and socialism

A 1960 passage that is even more relevant today …


Edward Palmer Thompson

Edward Palmer Thompson

E.P. Thompson is best remembered today as the author of William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955) and The Making of the English Working Class (1964), both superb historical studies and classics of 20th century Marxism.

But he was also a lifelong socialist activist, part of the group of intellectuals who quit the British Communist Party in 1956 and founded what became known as the New Left, which – unlike the similarly-named current in North America – retained a strong commitment to Marxism and working class politics.

So I was pleased to learn that Monthly Review Press has published a collection of his essays from 1955 to 1963, when the British new left was defining itself. This will be a valuable addition to every radical’s bookshelf.

While waiting for my copy of E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics to arrive, I’ve been looking at some original, long out-of-print editions, and I’m struck by the continuing relevance of his arguments and analysis.  Here’s just one example:  with allowances made for the gender-insensitive language of his time, the following passage on the relationship between human nature and socialism could – and perhaps should — be included in any ecosocialist manifesto today.

From “Outside the Whale,” by E.P. Thompson, in Out of Apathy (New Left Books, 1960) pages 184-5. (Paragraph breaks added to aid on-screen readability.)

Human nature is neither originally evil nor originally good; it is, in origin, potential. If human nature is what men make history with, then at the same time it is human nature which they make. And human nature is potentially revolutionary; man’s will is not a passive reflection of events, but contains the power to rebel against “circumstances” (or the hitherto prevailing limitations of “human nature “) and on that spark to leap the gap to a new field of possibility.

It is the aim of socialism, not to abolish “evil” (which would be a fatuous aim), nor to sublimate the contest between “evil” and” good” into an all-perfect paternal state (whether “Marxist” or Fabian in design), but to end the condition of all previous history whereby the contest has always been rigged against the “ good” in the context of an authoritarian or acquisitive society.

Socialism is not only one way of organising production; it is also a way of producing “human nature.” Nor is there only one, prescribed and determined, way of making socialist human nature; in building socialism we must discover the way, and discriminate between many alternatives, deriving the authority for our choices not from absolute historicist laws needs and possibilities, disclosed in open, never-ceasing needs and possibilities, disclosed in open, never-ceasing intellectual and moral debate.

The aim is not to create a socialist State, towering above man and upon which his socialist nature depends, but to create a “human society or socialized humanity” where (to adapt the words of More) man, and not money, “bearethe all the stroke.”

Well said.


More from my notebook ….

Posted in Ecosoc Notebook, Marxist theory, Quotes & Insights

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