Outside the Whale

Outside the Whale is an essay by EP Thompson first published in 1960 in Out of Apathy, a collection of essays he also edited. It was republished in a reworked (and lengthened) form in The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays, a collection probably most well known for Thompson’s polemic against Althusser and structuralist Marxism.

Thompson begins the essay by highlighting an article (published by Alastair Cooke in the then Manchester Guardian) which sneers at the philosopher Bertrand Russell for a speech outlining his belief that progress could be achieved and poverty banished by cooperative effort.

This sets the scene for a wider investigation focusing first on the poem Spain by WH Auden and then on the essay Inside the Whale by George Orwell. The theme is how both Auden and Orwell drew back from a more radical position under the influence of world affairs during the 1930s and 1940s and the actions of Stalinist Soviet Russia. Thompson shows that both writers not only turned their back on Communism, but also lost faith in the very idea of progressive politics or positive change driven by a radical working class movement. As a trend within western intellectual attitudes this explains the reaction to Bertrand Russell’s speech.

It also explains the trend seen by Thompson that identifies change as something dangerous to be avoided. If progressive change risked falling into the tyranny of fascism or communism, then the only recourse was to preserve the status quo. Despite starting out as radicals these thinkers ended up becoming supports to western orthodoxy – free markets, consumerism, inequality, militarism and so on. This society places strict limits on acceptable dissent, in effect only tolerating thought which does not threaten life ‘inside the whale’ of western capitalism. The sense that society could be improved, or even that the attempt should be made, is lost.

The situation outlined by Thompson feels in some ways similar to Britain since 2010. The communist bloc opposing the west is gone, but we are now told that global terrorism represents an ‘existential threat’ to society. The aim of politics is presented as coping with the challenges thrown up by the global economy, sights firmly on protecting the status quo (which is equated with protecting the assets of those who own property, and creating the conditions for those assets to grow).

The public reaction of both politicians and mainstream press to any different approach is melodramatic (I might even say bizarre). Those who protest within the law are kettled and subjected to surveillance. The limits of dissent are tightly drawn.

So what happens next? Written in 1960, Thompson identifies the nascent counter culture as a source of hope. It’s hard to see at the moment where a similar movement might come from for Britain in the 21st century.

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