- Interview by
- Owen Dowling
Saturday, February 3, 2024, saw a diverse crowd of two hundred thousand people descend upon Whitehall in the eighth National March for Palestine since the onset of Israel’s genocidal latest assault upon the people of Gaza. Mustered by the long-standing coalition around the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, including the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the bustling demonstration demanded a cease-fire in Gaza as a step toward negotiations for a just political settlement, and for Britain to withdraw all military and diplomatic succor for Israel following the International Court of Justice’s ruling last week.
Joining a platform hosting Palestinian representatives and campaigners, and progressive British activists, MPs, and trade unionists, National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) general secretary Mick Lynch addressed the impassioned crowd:
No matter what our background, no matter what our community, no matter what our religion, we are all working people together. They are working people in Gaza and in the West Bank, and we must show our solidarity. We call on all of the trade unions, and all of the socialist movement, and our Labour Party: stand up and support the people who are being massacred, stand up against the slaughter, stand up against genocide — and build the bridges of peace on behalf of the people of the world, and especially the people of Palestine!
The mobilization of the working-class movement in its tradition of internationalism against war and oppression and for peace and freedom was also a paramount concern for the celebrated Marxist historian E. P. Thompson (1924–1993), whose centennial birthday fell on the same day as London’s latest Palestine march. Author of a foundational classic of radical “history from below,” The Making of the English Working Class (1963), Thompson was also a leading champion and protagonist of popular protest in his own time — against exploitation, war, state repression, and the threat of nuclear annihilation.
With centenary celebrations for this legendary founder, member, and former vice president of CND coinciding serendipitously with the occasion of another massive national demonstration against the greatest international injustice of our own age, co-organized by the CND of today, Tribune’s Owen Dowling spoke to several of the rally’s speakers about Thompson, his tradition as both historian and campaigner, and his significance for Britain’s socialist movement in its solidarity with Palestine today.
Looking back today, on the centenary of his birth, what has been the significance for you and your socialist and antiwar commitments of Edward Thompson, as a historian and as a peace campaigner?
I always thought of him as E. P. rather than Edward; his children lived in my constituency and I obviously knew them. His role in political history and historical writing was fantastic, and I was brought up on his books, if you like, politically. And then when he wrote that absolutely brilliant polemic, Protest and Survive, against the government’s ludicrous Protect and Survive pamphlet in 1980, an absolutely brilliant riposte, that inspired a whole movement of people.
We should remember that the intellectual, academic, challenging historian has an incredibly powerful place in our movement and in our society, because if we don’t look at history from the point of view of popular movements and the growth of common causes and only look at it through the prism of the interests of states, the military, royalty, and establishments, then we lose so much. And I think that Edward Thompson was one who did that. I thank him for that, and his legacy will last forever for all of that.
Dorothy Thompson [socialist historian and campaigner, author of The Dignity of Chartism among other works, and Edward’s wife] I also knew quite well. Dorothy and I had a very interesting relationship; we used to go to a secondary school in Marleybone, Quintin Kynaston School, which had an annual “balloon debate” where you had to go into “the balloon” playing a particular character, and then would vote on who would be “thrown out” and who would “survive” to the end.
I was there being Karl Marx, and Dorothy was there playing Queen Victoria. She was absolutely brilliant at being Queen Victoria and managed to create a sort of almost feminist narrative around Queen Victoria’s life. At one point we got into a sort of repartee, and she was saying: “Mr Marx, you don’t even want my head to be on my shoulders,” and I was just saying: “Your Majesty — no, I’m not calling you ‘Your Majesty,’ you’re just a person; you’re Mrs Saxe-Coburg-Gotha!” It became a big joke, the whole thing, and we got on really well. She was actually brilliant at bringing out Queen Victoria in the role of the monarch during all the social movements of the nineteenth century; she would say things like: “I suppose, Mr Marx, you support the Chartists?!”
Do you think E. P. Thompson’s life and work has an importance for those of us in Britain marching for peace and in solidarity with Palestine today?
E. P. Thompson would absolutely be here today, right at the front of the march, because he would see the connection — as there is an obvious connection — between the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament to bring about a nuclear-free world and the cause of Palestine solidarity.
Israel is an undeclared holder of nuclear weapons; Mordechai Vanunu suffered eighteen years imprisonment for revealing the truth about Israel’s nuclear aspirations. And Thompson would also have been supportive of a campaign that for many years many of us raised at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of a Middle East weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone, in order to bring about the possibility of talks between Iran and Israel, about Israel getting rid of its nuclear weapons in order to discourage Iran from developing them. So yes, he would absolutely be at the front of it.
I think the whole peace movement, the labor movement, the socialist movement needs to thank people like Edward Thompson.
As general secretary of CND, which is one of the cohosts of today’s march and has been part of the coalition behind these Palestine demonstrations for some years, how do you see the politics of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament aligning with those of the movement for solidarity with Palestine?
Well this movement is overwhelmingly for peace, for justice, for a negotiated political solution to the crisis for the Palestinians, and that is fundamental to the type of politics that CND has. We’re always looking for a peaceful solution; we’re always looking for an end to weapons use, to the weapons trade, and so on, so it aligns very closely. Of course for us, one of the points that we do try to draw out is that Israel is a nuclear-armed state. It has nuclear weapons, and there is a danger if the conflict spreads more widely in the region that nuclear weapons may be used.
From the time of its inception in 1958 through the 1980s to today, CND’s politics have also had an anti-imperialist orientation. Do you see that as reflected in its contemporary solidarity with Palestine?
Well, very, very clearly; we draw out a number of strands around this. There’s a really strong developing movement against nuclear colonialism, raising the question of where nuclear weapons have been tested in the past, where uranium is mined — largely on the lands of indigenous people — so there’s a big issue around that. But again it comes back to the question of justice and freedom. If a small number of countries, maybe they have nuclear weapons, maybe they go around invading other countries, start stamping on other people’s rights — we’re absolutely opposed to that, because you can’t have a world of peace while you continue to have that kind of power inequality in the world.
On the centenary of E. P. Thompson’s birth, how do you see his legacy in relation to the internationalist and antiwar practice of CND today?
It’s really fundamental to it; E. P. Thompson was one of the great figures in our history. But he’s not just a historical figure: his values, his whole ethos, everything he fought for is central to our movement today, absolutely. Those concepts of peace, socialism, and internationalism — those are at the heart of the labor movement, and that’s what we want to ensure, that peace and anti-imperialism remain central to the labor movement.
Since the 1950s, CND, and in the twenty-first century the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, have both entered into the canon of British popular social movements from below that E. P. Thompson of course helped recover historically: from the Levellers and the Diggers through the Chartists, the trade union movement, support for Republican Spain, and beyond. Do you think Thompson would be marching with us today if he were here?
One hundred percent. He was in that fantastic tradition — of the people, from the grassroots, organizing, working together, solidarity. He would have been here now.
Today would mark the hundredth birthday of Edward Thompson, author of The Making of the English Working Class and lifelong CND and peace activist. You’ve written on and engaged publicly with that school of history-writing. What has been the significance for your politics and conception of radical history of E. P. Thompson?
When I was a student, I came off the shop floor and then went to a university after night school, and one of the key texts you studied in politics and political theory and history was E. P. Thompson’s book. It was one of the most fundamental analyses of how the working class was forming itself, how it was recognizing itself in all its different strands. And then for a number of years, it was one of those books that you read as a text that was so enjoyable, so enlightening.
Then years after, during the pandemic, I discovered a reading group [“Casualties of History” (2020) with Alex Press and Gabriel Winant, from Jacobin magazine] reading a chapter a month of Thompson’s book, and it was so enjoyable reexploring it all again. It shaped an understanding of the class relations of our society, about how they were formed from their origins, and the very title — The Making of the English Working Class — about how the working class were making themselves, and they still are.
In the 1980s, when you were on the Greater London Council [GLC], did you have any involvement with the CND movements of the time in which Thompson was prominent as a campaigner?
You and I are talking outside in Whitehall at the moment. When I was a GLC councillor, I came out of County Hall to greet a CND demonstration, and they had a band, and they decided as part of the protest that they would sit down in Whitehall. So I was arrested and spent the night in the cells and came out the next day, and it was one of those occasions that you always remember — because at that point in time we were again on the edge of a nuclear war because of the rearmament that was taking place. And it was people like Thompson and others who held fast in convincing people that that wasn’t the way to go and that we needed peace.
Having led several enormous demonstrations through these London streets against NATO’s installation of US cruise missiles on British soil during his time, would Thompson have been in support of today’s demonstration for Palestine?
Yes he would, he was an internationalist, an antiwar internationalist. He was about changing society, transforming society, but not just here in terms of British politics: he was an internationalist who wanted a global transformation. That whole generation of the New Left would be here, definitely. Because one of the things that they emphasized was how working people can come together and then exert their power to secure peace.
We haven’t come as far as we wanted to in terms of the CND campaign, but people haven’t gone away; the concerns that people have about war and instability in the world at the moment demonstrates how necessary it is to get rid of nuclear weapons, and I think that’ll come back on the agenda. There’s a new wave, a new generation of political activity now, and I think it’s important that we seize this opportunity and insert again the nuclear weapons debate into that.