6 Bryan Douglas Palmer, Edward Palmer Thompson, John le Carré (and Me) Workers, Spies, and Spying, Past and Present
Gregory S. Kealey
In 1970, after graduating from the University of Toronto, I decided to pursue graduate studies at the University of Rochester. I chose Rochester to work with Herbert G. Gutman, whose work in what was then termed “the new labour history” had come to my attention via his essays in collections of revisionist social history attractive to the New Left.1 About two years later, but not known to me, Bryan Palmer was making a similar trek from London, Ontario to Binghamton, New York to study with Melvyn Dubofsky, another key figure in the emerging field of labour and working-class history.2
As Doug Hay has argued, the writing of history “is deeply conditioned not only by our personal, political, and moral histories, but also by the times in which we live.”3 The 1960s, of course, provide the context of Palmer’s and Kealey’s parallel treks to American graduate schools to pursue the study of Canadian working-class history. Kealey, slightly older, as Palmer enjoys pointing out frequently, followed a more conventional path to grad studies, while the latter dropped out of the University of Western Ontario after one frustrating year to tackle life on the left in New York City in the heady days of 1970. Studying at Alternate U and running with a New York University Progressive Labor Party (PLP) affinity group provided an exciting and stimulating introduction to both labour activism and labour history.4 He returned to London one year later and completed his BA at Western in record time before departing for Binghamton. Our respective “personal, political, and moral” experiences of childhood and adolescence in London and suburban Toronto have been explored in essays elsewhere, but it is striking to me that we shared major breaks with families rooted in modest postwar, conventional success (“philistine domicile” in Bryan’s memorable term), albeit precarious at best.5 Doug, Bryan’s Willy Loman–like travelling hat salesman father, would probably not have got along with Frank, my Irish Catholic brewery foreman father, but they certainly might have shared a few pints if they had ever met.6
The choices we each made to study in the United States despite a commitment to researching and writing about Canada derived from mutual recognition that Canadian historians in the 1960s were slow to respond to the new challenges of social history. “History from below” or, in Jesse Lemisch’s more striking term, “from the bottom up” was still something available only elsewhere.7 The enthusiastic desire to learn how to write such history drove English Canadian scholars to study in the United Kingdom or the US with the practitioners of the new social history, hence Rochester and Binghamton in our respective cases.
After two stimulating years at Rochester apprenticing as a historian with Herbert Gutman and Christopher Lasch, and perhaps more importantly a cadre of New Left graduate students studying there for similar reasons, I returned to Toronto in 1972 to conduct my thesis research on that city’s late nineteenth-century workers.8 I first met Bryan there a year or two later, while he was working on his Hamilton PhD thesis research.9 Peter Warrian, a former president of the Canadian Union of Students and then a PhD student in History at the University of Waterloo, who had met Bryan in London while the latter was completing work on that city’s late nineteenth-century working class, suggested the meeting.10 The Toronto encounter resulted in Bryan contributing an essay derived from his London work to a joint Kealey–Warrian collection of articles on Canadian working-class history. Coterminous with the editorial process leading to Essays was the development of the first issue of the Committee on Canadian Labour History’s (later Canadian Committee on Labour History) annual journal, initially named Labour/Le Travailleur.11 And again Bryan stepped up to the plate with the lead article, an overarching view of artisanal culture in the early transition to industrial capitalism based not only on his empirical Canadian work but also derived from a broad reading of American, British, and European studies and an eclectic mix of social theory.12 Bryan joined the editorial board of the journal in 1979, became book review editor in 1982, and was editor from 1997 until 2015, and co-editor with me again briefly in 2016. He continues to serve on the Editors’ Advisory Committee as editor emeritus.13
I enumerate this early history partially as a disclosure of the close collaboration that Bryan and I have enjoyed over many years, but also to illustrate both the origins of his work in the field of labour and working-class history as well as his key institutional role in its ongoing development, both in North America and abroad.14
Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth reflecting here on the similarities and differences in our work prior to our jointly authored Dreaming of What Might Be.15 Generally considered by advocates and detractors alike, in the same breath, closer readings of our first monographs, each derived from our doctoral dissertations, display important historiographic distinctions, albeit nuanced. Periodization is one place to start. In Palmer’s A Culture in Conflict, Hamilton workers are studied from 1860 to 1914, from pre-Confederation days through World War I; in Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism, I look at Toronto workers from 1867 to 1892, from Confederation, a curious choice at best, to the depression of the 1890s. Both books on Hamilton and Toronto workers in the second half of the nineteenth century begin with explorations of the political economy of early Canadian industrial capitalism. While broadly accepted now, the then-prevalent dominant historiography focused almost solely on staples development and hence largely bypassed the decades of most interest to us. Even left critics of Canadian political economy were preoccupied with what they saw as Canada’s distorted economic development under the influences of British and later American imperialism. Hence, our focus on industrialization offered then-novel views of Canadian economic history, and in the process allowed us in turn to study the emergent working class in the new industrial cities of central Canada. If that was what was similar in approach, what was different lay in method. Hamilton workers emerged in a broad overview of industrialization, better placed in a Marxist framework of capitalist development, and an important analysis of “producer ideology,” the political economy theory of thinkers such as Hamilton’s Isaac Buchanan. Toronto workers emerged from the shadows of a detailed statistical analysis of the array of data available in the manuscript industrial census, unfortunately only available for 1871.16 Hamilton workers were also placed in a lovingly detailed analysis of associational life, while the Toronto work focused far more narrowly on the importance of the Orange Order in workers’ lives. Chapters on the emergence of the labour movements in the two cities and on workers’ activities in the workplace and in strike activity share much, although Hamilton’s skilled workers are perhaps less detailed and more abstract than Toronto’s shoemakers, coopers, printers, and moulders, who receive more intensive empirical treatments. Similarly, for better or worse, Toronto Workers veered off in a detailed analysis of workers’ early political efforts and scrutinized both the efforts of the mainstream political parties to channel newly enfranchised male workers’ votes and the emergence of Liberal–Labour (Lib–Lab), Labourist, and emerging socialist political ideas and organizations. A Culture in Conflict spent far less time on this aspect of Hamilton workers’ lives before the early twentieth century. This particular aspect of my work on Toronto has received little consideration and given the general accusation of inattention to politics in Canadian social history, this has always puzzled me. The longer duration studied in Bryan’s book also carried him into a discussion of the second industrial revolution and the major workplace transformation wrought by the emergence of various forms of scientific management in the early twentieth century. Of course, the books share similar lacunae in the absence of significant analyses of the unskilled, gender, religion, and family, to name but a few gaps. Such absences are true of many of the early working-class community studies in Canada and the United States.
Labour/Le Travail continued publication as an annual after its inaugural issue, and Bryan made his second major contribution to LLT on charivaris in nineteenth-century North America. Like his piece on artisanal culture, the rough music piece demonstrated at a very early stage of his career three of his major attributes as a historian.17 First is the immense erudition of his exceptionally broad reading in not only history but also theory, especially Marxist theory, both classical and contemporary. Second is his ongoing commitment to asking big questions. Commencing in the 1980s, he grew impatient with the plethora of narrow community-based studies of working-class development that too often failed to ask larger questions about class and state formation.18 And third is the continuous tie between his historical scholarship and his socialist political commitments. On this third point we both had (and have) our differences as well. After his year in New York City, Bryan was increasingly attracted to Trotskyist politics, initially the residual elements of the Facing Reality group, primarily active in Detroit in the orbit of Marty Glaberman and later in other Left Opposition formations. Meanwhile, continuing my New Left suspicion of Leninism, I remained outside formal groupings other than reading groups and labour support activities.19
His pursuit of these larger questions continuously led him to the powerful writings of E. P. Thompson, about whom he has written often and well.20 And in both Thompson’s historical and political writings he found much to work with in some of his own reflections on state formation, state repression, and the law, themes increasingly prominent in some of his most recent works.21 But it was also present in some of his early writings as well. One example is his 1981 review essay, “Historical Musings on the Canadian State and Its Agents.”22 There Palmer mused on a combination of Ian Adams’s novel, S: Portrait of a Spy: RCMP Intelligence—The Inside Story, two recent journalistic accounts of Royal Canadian Mounted Police “Dirty Tricks” and other recently revealed offences, and Thompson’s collection of essays, Writing by Candlelight.23 The latter contains Thompson’s “musings” on the state of civil liberties in the UK, including his remarkable “State of the Nation,” which first appeared in New Society in late 1979. Thompson wrote that “for two decades the state, whether under Conservative or Labour administrations, has been taking liberties, and these liberties were once ours.” Palmer echoed that in Canada:
If this secret state is allowed to grow unchecked, like some fungus in a dark corner of an uninhabited room, it will eventually overtake us all. Our land will be diseased, our capacity to resist weakened severely if not totally undermined: a blight of scarlet-tuniced, horseback locusts will be upon our houses. The secret state will no longer require the cover of darkness and will function openly and brazenly. It will discard anonymity and proclaim its power.24
Fast forward almost fifty years and the scarlet tunics are no longer at the centre of Canadian state intelligence. In the aftermath of 9/11, the powers of Britain’s MI5, MI6, and GCHQ and our own Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and Communications Security Establishment (CSE) have only grown stronger and sadly less politically contested. The gains of the 1970s in exposing and partially limiting state intelligence agencies in the aftermath of the domestic security scandals in Canada, the US, and the UK, which gave rise to the writings of Thompson and Palmer, have been trumped by state Secureaucrats in all the Five Eye nations, who were bestowed with renewed legitimacy and previously unimagined powers in the aftermath of 9/11.25
In 2013, while preparing a paper on Edward Thompson’s influence on North American historians and their writing of history since 1963, for one of the many celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class (hereafter The Making), I became intrigued by a quite different subject, namely the use that Thompson made of archival records generated by informants and spies. This interest arose from my own research interest in state repression of labour and the left but was given additional impetus by Thompson’s major historiographic influence on Palmer and their parallel fascination with spies and state repression. The remainder of this chapter turns to these themes.26
My historical interest in state repression stemmed from my work in the early 1980s on the labour revolt of 1917 to 1920 that led me to the massive archival documentation of the Royal North-West Mounted Police and its successor in domestic state security, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.27 Such work again suggests the poor reading of many of the right-wing critics of Canadian social history who among their other charges continuously critiqued its alleged failure to study politics and the state.
Reflecting on spying and political policing in the case of the UK illuminates the interaction of Thompson’s socialist humanist politics post 1956, his defence of a “Marxist Tradition” of empirical historical work, and his insights into the clashes, both historical and contemporary, between the rights of the “free-born Englishman” and the forces of state repression in what he termed the Natopolitan powers.28 Not surprisingly, one can say the same of the Palmer corpus of work.
This line of thought also led me to reflect on what some might dismiss as a simple coincidence, but historians might consider worthy of consideration. For 2013 was not only the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Making, but also of John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. In a new preface for a celebratory diamond edition, David Cornwell (le Carré’s real name) wrote:
I watched the ramparts of the Cold War going up on the still warm ashes of the hot one. And I had absolutely no sense of transition from the one war to the other, because in the secret world there barely was one. To the hardliners of east and west the Second World War was a distraction. Now it was over, they could get on with the real war that had started with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, and had been running under different flags and disguises ever since.29
Le Carré’s invocation of the centrality of the Bolshevik Revolution and his tracing of the origins of the Cold War to 1917, not to 1945, while not novel, nevertheless reinforce a politico-historical reconsideration of the intersection of Thompson’s use of spies’ evidence from the 1790s to the 1820s and his activist views of the Cold War vagaries of the British Security State of the 1960s and 1970s. Moreover, le Carré’s profound ambiguity about the Cold War captured initially in The Spy was significantly expanded in his subsequent George Smiley novels and in later writings. Similarly, Bryan Palmer in his relatively little-known writings on Upper Canada in the “age of revolution” and later rebellion invoked many of the same themes and utilized similar sources. Having briefly introduced these themes in his review essay on the RCMP, he revisited them in his “Producing Classes, Paternalist Authority, 1800–1850” in his overview of Canadian working-class history, and at greater length in later essays on radicalism and political rhetoric in Upper Canada and on the law and class struggle.30
Spies and informants are major characters in The Making. “Citizen” Groves plays a key role in the state’s repressive response to the Jacobin stirrings and threat of the 1790s. “B” or Bent, John Castle, George Edwards, and above all “Oliver the Spy” (W. J. Richards) star in the state’s repressive response to Despard, Luddism, the Spa Fields Riot, the Ardwick Conspiracy, the Pentridge Rising, Peterloo, and the Cato Street Conspiracy.
The connective tissue of Thompson’s implicit narrative here, for please recollect that he himself described The Making as “a group of studies, on related themes, rather than a continuous narrative,” is derived from spies’ observations of, and reports on, “the underground tradition.”31 A tradition that, as he constantly emphasizes, is furtive and opaque, words that are frequently used in The Making. For example, consider the key chapters of part 1: “The Liberty Tree.” In both chapter 4, “The Free-Born Englishman,” and chapter 5, “Planting the Liberty Tree,” much of the evidence of Jacobin activities is derived from Groves and other spies such as James Powell. Indeed, one of the key defining characteristics of the “free-born Englishman” is the resistance to such spies and to a spy system that is associated with “continental despotism.”
But it is in part 3 of The Making, “The Working-Class Presence,” where we find both the most dependence on these sources and the fullest explication of the historical methodology he promotes to justify their utilization. After a quick trip through “Radical Westminster,” we arrive at the heart of The Making, as we are introduced to the complexities of the world of “The Army of Redressers.” To enter that world, Thompson digresses first into the key methodological discussion about sources for his “opaque society.” While initially agreeing to the standard critique of the use of spy reports as historical sources as often exaggerated, sensationalistic, and sometimes even concocted, he nevertheless proceeds to a more nuanced view. He also establishes that despite the popular view that spies were “unBritish,” they were a traditional component of both British statecraft and police practice, although their use from 1790 to 1820 reached “a scale unknown in any other period.”32 Indeed, he argues: “A convincing history of English Jacobinism and popular Radicalism could be written solely in terms of the impact of espionage upon the movement.”33 As later discussed more generally in sections of The Poverty of Theory,34 he elaborates here on methodological strategies for the use of spy reports: recognize the occupational bias to sensationalize and hence discount with care; attend to the concatenation of reports from multiple spies as used by the spymasters to insure the reliability of their minions; recognize the ideological biases of the interpreters of the reports; acknowledge that informants were better able to penetrate the political rather than the industrial and the regional rather than the local; and scrutinize every report with the full array of the rules of historical evidence.35
After his methodological digression, Thompson returns us to the world of General Ludd via a discussion of the quasi-legal and illegal trade union traditions that developed in resistance to the Combination Acts and that were incorporated into the “moral culture—solidarity, dedication, and intimidation.”36 These emerging traditions of oaths and other secret rituals became mainstays of the Luddite movements of the West Riding croppers, the Nottinghamshire stockingers, and the Lancashire weavers. And it is in these struggles that Thompson finds the core of the story of The Making: “A way of life was at stake for the community.”37 The workers were “opposed at one side by the values of order, at the other side by the value of economic freedom.”38 “The journeymen and artisans felt themselves to be robbed of constitutional rights. . . . Ned Ludd was the ‘Redresser’ or ‘Grand Executioner,’ defending . . . rights too deeply established ‘by Custom and Law’ for them to be set aside by a few masters or even by Parliament.”39 Factory owners, by contrast, were viewed “as engaging in immoral and illegal practices.”40 The years from 1811 to 1817 were “a watershed, whose streams [ran] in one direction back to Tudor times, in another forward to the factory legislation of the next hundred years. . . . In both directions lay an alternative political economy and morality to that of laissez faire.”41
And into those watershed years Thompson’s “Sherwood Lads” and “The Luddite Movement,” which went well beyond general forms of Luddism (pace E. J. Hobsbawm) by dint of its high degree of organization and the political context. It represented to varying degrees in its Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, and Yorkshire embodiments elements of a “quasi-insurrectionary movement.”42 And here again, the story can only be told because of the home office reports of a series of spies and informers, but not before another historiographic interlude to explain why the Hammonds had it wrong. Their dismissal of the authorities’ views of insurrection as only the exaggeration of spies and the actions of agents provocateurs must be dealt with for his revisionism to prevail. A lengthy and sophisticated analysis of cases in Barnsley depends heavily on Thompson’s reading of spy Thomas Broughton’s role and the differences between Sidmouth’s home office and the local magistrates, courts, and most importantly, juries. The decision not to lay treason charges for fear of acquittals leads Thompson to reflect: “to act the part of the informer was a breach of the moral economy, entailing a sentence of outlawry from the community.”43 In turning to Lancashire events, the Hammonds (and Francis Place), other Fabians, and the “orthodox academic tradition” are all found wanting in the face of his revisionist reading of the evidence:
Hence “history” has dealt fairly with the Tolpuddle Martyrs, and fulsomely with Francis Place; but the hundreds of men and women executed or transported for oath-taking, Jacobin conspiracy, Luddism, the Pentridge and Grange Moor Risings, food and enclosure and turnpike riots, the Ely Riots, and the Labourers’ Revolt of 1830, and a score of minor affrays, have been forgotten by all but a few specialists, or, if they are remembered, they are thought to be simpletons or men tainted with criminal folly.44
Key to Thompson’s account is a new view of Bent, who is depicted by the Hammonds as a sensationalist and provocateur. For Thompson, he is “a plain informer . . . stupid but observant” and to be trusted “when he describes events in which he participated himself,” yet not to be trusted for “his reports of ulterior aim or of organization in the rest of the country.”45 Not only does Thompson depend on Bent for his extensive account of Lancashire Luddism, but also on other spies such as Yarwood, Whittaker, and “R. W.”46
In chapter 15, “Demagogues and Martyrs,” we return to London where among the other weaknesses of city radicals we are reminded of how radical culture there was easily penetrated by home office spies. And we are introduced to Oliver, who made use of his London radical credentials to infiltrate the less porous Midlands and North. Other spies, such as Castle and Edwards, did much to both penetrate and perhaps to provoke the insurrectionary side of the movement in both the Spa Fields and Cato Street incidents.47 Thompson begins his account of the former with the sentence: “The true story may perhaps be this.”48 Three conflicting versions of events—by the Crown, heavily based on spy/provocateur John Castle, used in the trial of Dr. James Watson; by Orator Hunt in his “Memoirs”; and by Watson’s defence—make a simple narrative fraught. Whatever the intentions of the organizers, the actual attempt at the Tower in December 1816 was an abject failure and the alleged conspirators either fled to America or faced trial.
In March 1817, William Oliver, after his release from debtor’s prison, joined the London Radicals and won the confidence of Joseph Mitchell, who he joined on an important trip to the Midlands. In what Thompson describes as a “splendid coup of espionage,” Oliver gained full access to the plans for an uprising in late March. All was dutifully reported to Sidmouth, who sent Oliver north again where he found the plans had been delayed until June. He focused his attention then on the West Riding and Nottingham, where he was definitely in contact with Jeremiah Brandreth in advance of the latter’s armed march from Pentridge toward Nottingham. A separate attack occurred at Folley Hall near Huddersfield. In the aftermath of the failed rising, there was huge public outrage as the extent of Oliver’s role became clear. This public revulsion against government spying spilled over into acquittals in ongoing treason trials such as the one against Dr. James Watson in London, against the Folley Hall accused, and in similar cases in Glasgow. Clamour against “the continental spy system” was widespread and sufficient to keep Oliver completely out of the trials surrounding the Pentridge Rising. Thompson puzzles over the unwillingness of Brandreth’s defence lawyer to call Oliver as a witness and hence to make spying a central issue. In the end, he speculates that the decision was an effort to save the lives of many of the co-defendants, some thirty of whom had pleaded guilty in expectation of transportation instead of the gallows.
Evidence that Thompson is rather kinder to the Hammonds than they probably deserve is provided by their following character assassination: “At Nottingham he [Oliver] found an enthusiast ready to fall in and forward any proposal however wild, in the person of Jeremiah Brandreth, a half-starved, illiterate, and unemployed frame-work knitter, of swarthy and what is commonly called “foreign” appearance. Probably he had a strain of gipsy blood.”49 In an attached footnote they add that he was even receiving parish relief! In a similar fashion they reduce “The Blanketeers’ March” from Manchester to London to “comic relief.” I suspect that the nine marchers who were jailed for a year only to be released without charge failed to share in the Hammonds’ humour.50
Peterloo (16 August 1819) inspires some of Thompson’s most inflamed rhetoric against “Old Corruption” in his attribution of intent to Sidmouth and his description of the “massacre,” “the panic of class hatred,” and “class war.” He writes, “Peterloo outraged every belief and prejudice of the ‘free-born Englishman’—the right of free speech, the desire for ‘fair play,’ the taboo against attacking the defenceless.”51 And, by now predictably, spies march through the account, including the feckless “Y,” informing on a radical pike maker in Manchester while also selling the product, and John Williamson, the London spy who aided Sidmouth’s entrapment of Arthur Thistlewood. There is also “Alpha” in Manchester, who played a role in the Radical leadership under his real name W. C. Walker and who appears to have reported on himself to local authorities to maintain his cover.52 Walker’s reports provided the evidence for the arrest of the Manchester Radical leadership in December 1819.53 All such events in the aftermath of Peterloo led to the December 1819 imposition of the Six Acts that again imposed extraordinary levels of state repression. The final insurrectionary act in the aftermath of Peterloo was the abortive Cato Street Conspiracy that led to the execution of Arthur Thistlewood and four others, as well as the transportation of five more. The Cato Street conspirators acted throughout in concert with a home office spy, George Edwards. Indeed, Edwards had proposed the fake Cabinet dinner as the appropriate target of the action, and both Sidmouth and Castlereagh knew the details of the plot well in advance.
This, I hope not too tedious account of spies in The Making, demonstrates the centrality of Thompson’s use of spy accounts as a critical part of the central argument about the underground tradition and the transmission of radical ideas and forms of resistance from the revolutionaries of the seventeenth century to the emerging working-class and socialist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.54
While over fifty years have passed since the publication of The Making, the human rights concerns of its author and of the “free-born Englishman” have not disappeared. Indeed, the Great Bustard’s concerns so well articulated in his 1970s political essays, many of them utilizing his historical knowledge and skills, are sadly missed in our current crises of an Orwellian State security system well beyond the imagination of the creator of 1984. The Five Eyes (the signals intelligence alliance forged in the early Cold War), and more specifically the National Security Agency (US), General Communications Headquarters (UK), and their Canadian sibling, CSE, cry out for analyses employing Thompson’s historical and rhetorical skills. What fun he would have had satirizing the Secureaucrats of the Bush and Obama eras, not to speak of those of recent British governments under the likes of Tony Blair, Theresa May, and now Boris Johnson.55
Of course, our second diamond anniversary author (le Carré) has done just that recently in his novel A Delicate Truth. Here, the ambiguities of the Cold War era as depicted in the Smiley novels give way to a brutal condemnation of the immorality of the Secureaucrats and mercenaries of the post-9/11 world. Sir Christopher (“Kit”) Probyn, a retired diplomat, Toby Bell, the prime minister’s secretary, and Kit’s daughter Emily stand in the novel for the residual traditions of the “free-born Englishman.” They find themselves wholly arrayed against the total powers of the cynical politicians and their state’s repressive regime, augmented now by mercenary private contractors set upon the world by the American cousins in their so-called “War on Terror.” It is not a pretty picture and it provides a depressing counterpoint to Thompson’s powerful and pessimistic vision articulated in his “State of the Nation,” published in New Society in 1979.
Of considerable interest, le Carré chose to resurrect George Smiley, albeit in person only briefly, in his 2017 A Legacy of Spies. Perhaps the fiftieth anniversary helped to give rise to this return to Smiley or perhaps it was David Cornwell’s personal reflections on biography and autobiography that fueled his reconsideration of his original fictional triumph.56 Whatever its conception, the novel revisits the events surrounding the early 1960s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold via a convoluted and calculating contemporary “Circus” plot against the retired Peter Guillam, George’s devoted ally. Here again, le Carré describes the contemporary British intelligence community as cynical and unrooted. Guillam, yet again seeking explanation, turns as previously to Smiley. The best the latter can offer provides little solace:
I believe you came to accuse me of something, Peter. Am I right? . . . Was it for the things we did . . . Or why we did them at all? . . . For world peace, whatever that is? Yes, yes, of course. There will be no war, but in the struggle for peace not a stone will be left standing . . . Or was it all in the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again. . . . So was it all for England, then? . . . But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission . . . it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.57
Le Carré, via Smiley, is undoubtedly alluding here to Brexit, but more importantly, he is also deeply undermining the assumptions of the Cold War and post-9/11 security state, as he has done increasingly in his novels. In his most recent fiction, Agent Running in the Field, le Carré pairs an initially naive Nat, a washed-up MI6 officer recently returned from Europe to head up “The Haven,” with an angry young Ed of MI5 who continuously rails against both pro-Brexit, Tory England and Trump’s America. Ed is faithful to Europe and like George Smiley himself a major devotee of postwar Germany. Nat, tired of the cynical excesses of his and the “sister” service, refuses to “double” Ed and instead accomplishes “as sweet an exfiltration as you could wish for.” Here, le Carré satirizes all sides in “the game” and simultaneously removes his central characters from any further engagement in espionage and, apparently, from England to Europe.58
Thompson, “The Great Bustard,” however, shall be given the penultimate word in this chapter:
Britain might be in the final year or two of its own Weimar . . . with not the Nazis but a crowd of officious extras—police and security chiefs, “modernizing” civil servants, and cynical politicians, NATO and military personnel—waiting in the wings. No conspiratorial coup would be necessary. Massive unemployment, heavy industrial conflict with massive police response, racial provocations—and perhaps counter-provocations by increasingly desperate groups on the extreme Left and in threatened immigrant communities—heavy security measures and McCarthyite terrorization of dissent: all of this would lead . . . from the liberal managed society (where we are now) to a very foul, policed and managed, authoritarian state.59
Clearly Thompson’s dystopia did not arrive in the 1980s as he feared, but much of his apocalyptic vision seems alarmingly prescient, and hence all too present, in 2020.
Bryan Palmer, the committed socialist historian, commences his “permanent sabbatical” with similar concerns about late capitalism. His recent work on poverty and homelessness and newer work on mass incarceration and prison labour provide new evidence of his remarkable range as a social historian and his passionate commitment to the struggle for justice and equality.60 Let us give Bryan the final comment. Discussing his collected essays reflecting almost fifty years of historical writing, he notes that they “struggle, inevitably somewhat incompletely, to link Marxism and historical practice, a conception of the past with an appreciation of the necessity of changing our present and realizing a better future.”61 Let us hope there will be many more years of such writing.
- 1. Barton J. Bernstein, ed., Towards a New Past: Dissenting Essays in American History (New York: Vintage Books, 1969); Alfred F. Young, ed., Dissent: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1968). Gutman had also published a number of articles derived from his Wisconsin doctoral thesis in a scattering of state journals, all of which I avidly read. For more on Gutman, see Gregory S. Kealey, “Herbert G. Gutman, 1928–1985: The Writing of Working-Class History,” Monthly Review 38, no. 1 (May 1986): 22–30; and “Herbert G. Gutman and David Montgomery: The Politics and Direction of Labor and Working-Class History in the United States,” International Labor and Working-Class History 37 (1990): 58–68. Also influential was the New Left journal Radical America, edited by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), radical history students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. On the Wisconsin historiographic tradition, see Paul Buhle, ed., History and the New Left: Madison, Wisconsin, 1950–1970 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990).
- 2. Bryan D. Palmer, “Introduction,” to his Interpretive Essays on Class Formation and Class Struggle, vol. 1, Marxism and Historical Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 2–3. There is also a much more affordable American paperback edition published in 2017 by Chicago’s Haymarket Books. Other important historians associated with the early years of the new labour history include David Montgomery, David Brody, and Alice Kessler-Harris.
- 3. As quoted in Jared Davidson, “History from Below: A Reading List with Marcus Rediker,” Overland, 11 February 2019.
- 4. Bryan D. Palmer, “Becoming a Left Oppositionist,” Canadian Dimension 39, no. 5 (September/October 2005): 56–63. PLP originated as a Maoist split from the Communist Party of the US in the early 1960s and was later a major faction in SDS.
- 5. On Palmer’s early life, see his “Becoming a Left Oppositionist.” For mine, see Kealey “Community, Politics and History: My Life as a Historian,” Canadian Historical Review 97, no. 3 (September 2016), 404–25.
- 6. The allusion to Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman is from Palmer’s “Becoming a Left Oppositionist.”
- 7. Jesse Lemisch, Jack Tar vs. John Bull: The Role of New York’s Seamen in Precipitating the Revolution (New York: Routledge, 1997). Lemisch’s major influence on New Left historians was based on his earlier articles derived from his Yale thesis, which was only published under this title some thirty years later.
- 8. Doctoral students at Rochester in those years included Leon Fink, Russell Jacoby, William Leach, Bruce Levine, David Noble, and Eric Perkins, to name only a few.
- 9. These dissertations subsequently were revised and published as Gregory S. Kealey, Toronto Workers Respond to Industrial Capitalism, 1867–1892 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980; rev. ed., 1991) and Palmer’s A Culture in Conflict: Skilled Workers and Industrial Capitalism in Hamilton, Ontario, 1860–1914 (Montréal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1979).
- 10. Our first meeting has led to almost fifty years of friendship and collaboration. The meeting was a success and the collection appeared as Gregory S. Kealey and Peter Warrian, eds., Essays in Canadian Working-Class History (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976). Bryan’s essay arose from his work on a major London street railway strike in 1899, which he had researched as part of a summer student employment project on the history of London labour. The same federal program (Opportunities for Youth) also funded the research, writing, and publishing of Russell G. Hann, Gregory S. Kealey, Linda Kealey, and Peter Warrian, comps., Primary Sources in Canadian Working-Class History, 1860–1930 (Kitchener, ON: Dumont Press Graphix and Jimuel Briggs Society, 1973).
- 11. The journal became semi-annual in 1981, and the name was changed to Labour/Le Travail in 1984 to expunge the inadvertently sexist title in French.
- 12. Bryan D. Palmer, “Most Uncommon Common Men: Craft and Culture in Historical Perspective,” Labour/Le Travailleur 1 (1976): 5–31. The “eclectic mix” of theory fits well with his comment that until the early 1980s he was “reluctant to decisively declare myself a Marxist. I felt I had a lot to learn and needed to earn the right to proclaim myself a Marxist historian.” See Palmer, “Introduction,” Marxism and Historical Practice, vol. 1, 3.
- 13. For a capsule history of the journal, see Joan Sangster, “Creating a Forum for Working-Class Histories: Labour/Le Travail,” Scholarly and Research Communications 9, no. 1 (2018): 1–10. For international perspectives, see Verity Burgmann, “Labour/Le Travail and Canadian Working-Class History: A View from Afar,” Labour/Le Travail 50 (Fall 2002): 73–88; and David Roediger, “Top Seven Reasons to Celebrate and Ask More from Labour/Le Travail,” Labour/Le Travail 50 (Fall 2002): 89–99.
- 14. For a fine overview of his contributions, both domestic and international, see the two volumes of his Marxism and Historical Practice (Leiden: Brill, 2015). Volume 2 is subtitled Interventions and Appreciations (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
- 15. Gregory S. Kealey and Bryan D. Palmer, Dreaming of What Might Be: The Knights of Labor in Ontario, 1880–1900 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982). A Canadian paperback appeared with Toronto’s New Hogtown Press in 1987 and a Cambridge paperback in 2005.
- 16. The manuscript industrial census for 1881 and 1891 had been destroyed before I began my archival work.
- 17. Bryan D. Palmer, “Discordant Music: Charivaris and Whitecapping in Nineteenth-Century North America,” Labour/Le Travailleur 3 (1978): 5–63.
- 18. For his own version of his development as a historian, a close reading of the two-volume “Introduction” and the eight “Part Introductions” to his Marxism and Historical Practice will provide many insights. More insights into his views on his personal voyage can be found in his “Becoming a Left Oppositionist.”
- 19. See Palmer’s “Becoming a Left Oppositionist” and his essays on Braverman, Mandel, and Cannon in Marxism and Historical Practice, vol. 2, which is dedicated “to all ‘the beautiful and ineffectual utopians and hissing factionalists’ who make life on the revolutionary left exciting, challenging, and rewarding.”
- 20. For an early example, see his The Making of E. P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism, and History (Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1981), which was intended to provide a political context to Thompson’s historical work, especially for an American audience largely unfamiliar with British left-wing political developments. Later came his powerful two-part obituary, “Homage to Edward Thompson,” first published in Labour/Le Travail 32 (Fall 1993): 10–71 and Labour/Le Travail 33 (Spring 1994): 13–68. A revised version of those essays was published as E. P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions (London: Verso, 1994).
- 21. Bryan D. Palmer and Gaétan Héroux, “‘Cracking the Stone’: The Long History of Capitalist Crisis and Toronto’s Dispossessed,” Labour/Le Travail 69 (Spring 2012): 9–62. See also their monograph, Toronto’s Poor: A Rebellious History (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2016). For a more recent exploration, see Palmer, “The New New Poor Law: A Chapter in the Current Class War Waged from Above,” Labour/Le Travail 84 (Fall 2019): 53–105.
- 22. Bryan D. Palmer, “Historical Musings on the Canadian State and Its Agents,” Our Generation 14, no. 4 (Summer 1981): 28–41.
- 23. E. P. Thompson, “The State of the Nation,” in Writing by Candlelight (London: Merlin Press, 1980). The journalistic accounts were John Sawatsky, Men in the Shadows: The RCMP Security Service (Toronto: Doubleday, 1980) and Jeff Sallot, Nobody Said No: The Real Story About How the Mounties Always Get their Man (Toronto: James Lorimer, 1979). It should be noted that Adams’s 1977 novel sailed close enough to the facts that he and his publisher (Gage) faced three lengthy years of litigation. The libel action was launched in December 1977 on behalf of Leslie James Bennett, a former Head of the Russia desk of the RCMP’s Security Service, who had been forced to retire ignominiously in the mole hunt of the early 1970s. The second edition (Toronto: Virgo, 1981) dropped the subtitle, bore the curious disclaimer that “‘S’ is not and was not intended to be Leslie James Bennett,” and included a seventeen-page introduction and two appendices discussing the legal actions and Bennett’s hitherto secret intelligence career. For a lengthier discussion of the Bennett Affair, see Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby, Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012), 234–40.
- 24. Palmer, “Historical Musings,” 41.
- 25. The Five Eyes are the signals intelligence sharing nations derived from World War II and significantly enhanced during the Cold War and even more so after 9/11: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. For an overview of the history of Canadian security and intelligence, see Whitaker, Kealey, and Parnaby, Secret Service and Gregory S. Kealey, Spying on Canadians: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service and the Origins of the Long Cold War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).
- 26. Bryan D. Palmer, “Paradox and the Thompson ‘School of Awkwardness,’” in Marxism and Historical Practice, vol. 2, 294–313.
- 27. Gregory S. Kealey, “1919: The Canadian Labour Revolt,” Labour/Le Travail 13 (Spring 1984): 11–45; Kealey, Spying on Canadians. Gaining access to such archival data has been a time-consuming adventure necessitating frequent use of the Access to Information Act and equally frequent complaints to the Information Commissioner. Such difficulties continue and are worsening. The original promise of transparency has been destroyed by refusals of significant reform of the ATIP legislation by all Canadian governments since the original passage of the legislation in 1985. On the labour revolt, see Craig Heron, ed., The Workers’ Revolt in Canada, 1917–1925 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998) and the outpouring of material on the Winnipeg General Strike on the occasion of its centennial.
- 28. MI5 unsurprisingly took considerable interest in Thompson even after he left the CPGB. For details, see his personal file in National Archives (Kew), KV2/4290–KV2/4295, The Security Service: Personal (PF Series) Files, Communists and Suspected Communists, Including Russian and Communist Sympathizers, Edward Palmer Thompson. This file was released in 2016, as was Eric Hobsbawm’s. For extensive biographical use of the latter, see Richard J. Evans, Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).
- 29. le Carré, “Introduction,” The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (Toronto: Penguin, 2013).
- 30. Bryan D. Palmer, Working-Class Experience: The Rise and Reconstitution of Canadian Labour, 1800–1980, 1st ed. (Toronto: Butterworth, 1983), 7–59, republished in a significantly revised and updated second edition by McClelland and Stewart in 1992 with the revised subtitle Rethinking the History of Canadian Labour, 1800–1991 and extending the temporal coverage to 1991 (Palmer discusses the revisions in his preface, 11–33); Bryan D. Palmer, “Popular Radicalism and the Theatrics of Rebellion: The Hybrid Discourse of Dissent in Upper Canada in the 1830s” and “What’s Law Got to Do with It? Historical Considerations on Class Struggle, Boundaries of Constraint, and Capitalist Authority,” in Marxism and Historical Practice, vol. 1, 69–106 and 436–61. These reflections on elements of the history of Upper Canada were derived from an as yet unfinished larger project to write a history of the early years of the settler society.
- 31. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1966), 12.
- 32. Ibid., 484ff.
- 33. Ibid., 493.
- 34. E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (London: Merlin Press, 1978), 193–406.
- 35. Thompson, The Making, 488ff.
- 36. Ibid., 511.
- 37. Ibid., 548.
- 38. Ibid., 543.
- 39. Ibid., 547.
- 40. Ibid., 548.
- 41. Ibid., 552.
- 42. Ibid., 553.
- 43. Ibid., 583.
- 44. Ibid., 592. Barbara and J. L. Hammond were prominent Fabian intellectuals and historians. The Making can be read not only as an extended diatribe against economic history orthodoxy, but also as an important critique of the social democratic (read Fabian) view of labour’s past. For important works in the Thompsonian tradition that evoke similar themes, see Peter Linebaugh, The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008) and his Red Round Globe Hot Burning: A Tale of Commons and Closure, of Love and Terror, of Race and Class, and of Kate and Ned Despard (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019).
- 45. Thompson, The Making, 594.
- 46. Ibid., 599.
- 47. Ibid., 616.
- 48. Ibid., 633.
- 49. J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, The Skilled Labourer: 1760–1832 (London: Longmans, Green, 1919), 358.
- 50. Ibid., 349.
- 51. Thompson, The Making, 689.
- 52. Ibid., 698, n. 2.
- 53. For interesting commentary on Peterloo, both the Mike Leigh film and the event, see Nicholas Rogers, “Filming Peterloo in the Age of Brexit,” Labour/Le Travail 84 (Fall 2019): 333–41.
- 54. For another treatment by Thompson on spies in history, see his posthumously published “Hunting the Jacobin Fox,” Past and Present 142 (February 1994): 94–140.
- 55. The important and courageous revelations of Edward Snowden would have been applauded by Thompson. On Snowden, see Glenn Greenwald, No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 2014); Luke Harding, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man (London: Guardian Books, 2014); and Edward Snowden, Permanent Record (New York: Henry Holt, 2019).
- 56. Adam Sisman’s John le Carré: The Biography (Toronto: Knopf, 2015) appears to have played some role in generating le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Toronto: Viking, 2016).
- 57. John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (Toronto: Viking, 2017), 262; emphasis original.
- 58. John le Carré, Agent Running in the Field (Toronto: Viking, 2019), 281. Donald Trump is lovingly described as “Putin’s shithouse cleaner” who “does everything for little Vladi that little Vladi can’t do for himself” (141, 168–69). “The Haven,” the secondary MI6 office in Camden Town in the novel, evokes the “slow horses” of “Slough House” in the fiction of Mick Herron, perhaps le Carré’s premier successor. Herron’s “Slough House” series includes six novels and two novellas to date.
- 59. Thompson, “Introduction,” Writing by Candlelight, x.
- 60. Palmer and Héroux, Toronto’s Poor; Palmer, “The New New Poor Law.”
- 61. Palmer, “Introduction,” Marxism and Historical Practice, vol. 1, 6.