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British Maoist's flawed estimation: China's transition from socialism to communism

By Harsh Thakor* 

Late professor George Thomson carved a permanent niche amongst the greatest Marxist thinkers of the last century. In 2023 we commemorated Thomson’s 120th birthday and 50 years since he compiled “Capitalism and After – Rise and Fall of Commodity Production.”. This year we celebrate 50 years since publishing of his “The Human Essence: The sources of science and art (1974).
No British Marxist as articulately or methodically professed Marxism or championed it’s massline content as Thomson. In a Western country, no one was more of an embodiment of Mao Tse Tung thought elevating Marxism-Leninism to a new height, or took proletarian philosophy to a pinnacle. George gave a mortal blow to all revisionist or New Left Tendencies and in no uncertain terms fluttered the flag of Leninism. Most categorically,
George Thomson was the only member of the Communist Party’s Executive Committee to vote against the Party’s programme, `the British Road to Socialism’, because “the dictatorship of the proletariat was missing. Thomson was a staunch Communist party intellectual who defended the Marxist agenda to the very last tooth Thomson and revolutionary insurrection. Thomson was shaken by all sorts of revisionist currents pulling through the communist movement. He consistently conceptualised, whether the state, as Marxists analysed, is an instrument of or class oppression or whether it is something that can be remodelled by communists to evolve.
Thomson felt that if the Communist Party was eradicating the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat it and should have openly said so. He examined that the leadership of the Communist Party undertook no serious debate on fundamental questions of the movement of the party. It started his disillusionment with the CPGB right. Thomson scrutinised developments in China, with great passion. Thomson, was clearly attracted to what he perceived as a kind of evolutionary virtuosity in the Maoist stance and Mao’s writings on literature and culture which again are based on establishing close links to the people.
What immensely impressed Thomson, in light of his experiences of the CPGB, is the fact that the Chinese Party manifested a type of Chinese philosophical tradition which he perceived was undertaken in the CP. Thus he foresaw the Chinese model as a strategy of endless self-examination and self-revitalisation.
Thomson was one of the founders of the British China Study Group, the most progressive Marxist-Leninist study circle in the world, and one of the ideological centres in upholding Mao Tse Tung and combating revisionism. Thomson authored “From Marx to Mao Tse-tung: A study in revolutionary dialectics” (1971), “Capitalism and After: The rise and fall of commodity production” (1973), and “The Human Essence: The sources of science and art” (1974). He is also the author of “Marxism and Poetry” (1945).
Today we need personalities like George Thomson, to be reborn, when poisonous weeds of anti-marxist currents are mushrooming at an unprecedented scale to tarnish the credibility of Marxism .New Left, Trotskyite and other deviationist trends are playing havoc to deny the cutting edge of Marxism-Leninism-Mao thought. His books are a must in a treasure house of a progressive reader. Thomson was a master in manifesting the massline and defending Mao Tse Tung Thought as an integral part of Leninism. Writers like Thomson would be weapon in purging elements vulgarising Marxism.

Life Story

Thomson was born on August 19, 1903, in West Dulwich, London, the eldest of a family of three sons and two daughters born to William Henry Thomson, an accountant, and his wife Minnie (née Clements). Inherited an interest in Ireland from his maternal grandfather, an Ulsterman of Orange stock, and his mother, he attends Irish language classes run by the Gaelic League in London while a pupil at Dulwich College (1916–22).
George was a leading academic, a Cambridge graduate, who pioneered a Marxist interpretation of Greek drama. His first scholarly commentary, published in 1932, was on the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound. His Aeschylus and Athens and Marxism and Poetry won him international attention. He became a professor at Birmingham University in 1936, the year he joined the Communist Party. Thomson had a leading role in the CPGB internal party education programme in the Forties, a member of the CPGB Cultural Committee and also it’s Executive Committee.
He resigned from the Party in the early Fifties revolting against the British Road to Socialism, but this was not much more than an act of an individual. He was amidst loose anti-revisionist circles, Thompson’s musician wife Katherine Thompson worked with Ewan MacColl, another anti-revisionist communist member, and A.L.Lloyd on ‘Singing the Fish’. Thompson persevered to write and was active in the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding and other pro-Chinese societies; He persisted with his political beliefs and his commitment to working-class education, which included giving lectures to factory workers at Birmingham’s Austin car plant, fostering study groups in Birmingham that lay the foundation for building of the Birmingham Communist Association.
Thomson was also an “English classical scholar, Marxist philosopher, and scholar of the Irish language.” Thomson first visited the Blasket Islands off the west coast of Ireland in 1923.He spent several years interacting with the people of the islands studying their language, history and culture. He preserved a special study of the now extinct community in Ireland, in which he diagnosed elements of surviving cultural resonances with historical society prior to the development of private property as a means of production. Thomson became a master of the Irish language, writing and translating a history of Greek philosophy up to Plato written in Irish in 1929.
Thomson proceeded to become professor of Greek at Galway University before moving back to England in 1934 where he thrived in a a successful academic career, including over 30 years as professor of Greek at Birmingham University. Academically he produced a stream of publications which were unofficially blacklisted at Oxford University, but very widely read outside the Classics establishment in Britain, and indeed were on the syllabus of many departments of Anthropology and Sociology as well as the reading lists circulated by workers’ educational organisations.
In 1938 he published his impressive two-volume commentary on Aeschylus’ Oresteia, which still is a must read or reference for any scholar working or researching on that text. Still t the work of classical scholarship with which he will always be cherished was his 1941 Aeschylus & Athens, a Marxist anthropological study of early Greek tragedy, published by the press most closely associated with the CPGB, Lawrence & Wishart. In 1949 he followed this with “The Prehistoric Aegean”, and, making a kind of ‘trilogy’ of Marxist interpretations of ancient Greek civilisation from the Bronze Age to Periclean Athens, in 1954 with “The First Philosophers” based on a 76 page book written in Irish for the common reader in 1932 and published in 1935 under the title: “Tosnú na Feallsúnachta”.
In 2003, at the Galway Conference “Irish involvement in Greek Culture, Literature, History and Politics” organised by the Irish Institute of Hellenic Studies at Athens (that included Professor Margaret Alexiou on the life and work of her father, George Thomson), the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre reminisced:
“I began to read George Thomson, a professor of Greek first at Galway and then at Birmingham and a member of the Executive Committee of the British Communist Party. He played a part, I believe, in my joining the Communist Party for a short time. In 1941, he published 'Aeschylus and Athens,' which came after a history of Greek philosophy up to Plato written in Irish, entitled Tosnù na Feallsùnachta, as well as the translation of some Platonic dialogues into Irish. It was through thinking about the problems of translation involved in rendering Greek philosophy into modern languages as different as English and Irish that I had my first inklings of two truths: that different languages as used by different societies may embody different and rival conceptual schemes, and that translation from one such language to some other such language may not always be possible.”
Of George Thompson, it was said that “he was a noble person, he loved the people” (“Bhi se usual iseal” – Maire Guiheen).

From Marx to Mao Tse Tung

George Thomson was the author of “From Marx to Mao Tse-Tung” (London: China Policy Study Group, 1971). Though written over 50 years ago, this is a most comprehensive, incisive and lucid, study of revolutionary dialectics of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism. No book in that era, better defended preserved the skeleton of the polemics or added meat to the bones of Marxism-Leninism.. Subtitled, “A Study in Revolutionary Dialectics”, it most surgically grafts or dissects quotations from Marx, Lenin, Mao and others, all organised to manifest the coherence and integral link of MLM theory. It was translated in many languages and received a wide circulation in the international communist movement, the first volume of three books written China Study Group.
This is a Marxist interpretation of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Chinese Revolution of 1949, constructed to illustrate their unity and continuity as two successive stages in the world socialist revolution. Their common theoretical foundation is illustrated and Mao Tse-tung. It paves way for the reader to transcend the path of the two revolutions traversing the minds of those who led them, and at the same time they provide him with an insight into the basic principles of dialectical and historical materialism; as that theory can only be analysed in the context of the revolutionary struggles out of which it has sprung and in which it finds its fullest and most vivid personification.
It’s chapters comprise the dictatorship of the proletariat, From the Bourgeois to the Proletarian Revolution, The Proletariat and the Peasantry, The National Question, Socialism in one country, The Party, the First Socialist State and the Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Thomson most illustratively projects the symmetry and continuity between the teachings Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao Tse Tung
In very lucid language and congeal expression he sums up why Marxism is the most progressive philosophy in history and the weapon for the liberation of the proletariat. Thomson formulates or explains the co-relation between diverse factors and conditions, which the teachings of Marx, Lenin and Mao, integrated.
Dwelling into history of prerevolutionary and post-revolutionary Russia and China, he traced how Marxism evolved or how history shaped it. Thomson in all spheres demonstrated how in both Russia and China revolutionary democracy touched heights untranscended in history and the sheer futility of bourgeois parliamentary democracy. He encompassed the methods of Lenin in confronting reactionary or un –Marxist elements and illustrated how Lenin waged fierce struggle against right opportunism, tracing the Bolshevik war against Mensheviks.
Thomson summarised how Lenin combated alien trends of Bernstein, Kautsy and Leon Trotsky or constructed 2 line struggle within the Bolshevik party, how Stalin confronted reactionary elements like Zinoviev and Bukharin and how Mao Tse Tung waged 2 line struggle against capitalist roaders. Most logically or dialectically Thomson reflected how both in Russia and China it was not crimes that were performed against humanity, but enemies of genuine democracy that were eliminated, basically.
He synthesised how Mao advocated the role of the peasantry in a revolution, thus being the founder of peasant based revolution, and how he assessed the nature of the Chinese bourgeoise, to formulate concept of ‘New Democratic Revolution.’
Thomson illustrated how in the realm of philosophy all the great Marxist teachers, overshadowed contemporary philosophers, in role of human liberation. In most balance manner he appraises Stalin, highlighting major achievements and errors. He stressed how Stalin failed to permeate democratic movements from below and solely relied on using secret police to counter forces of reaction, thus negating massline.
Thomson denoted how the creation of the Leninist party was the turning point in history and even the CCP created by Mao was in essence a Leninist party. Thomson dealt with aspects of proletarian democracy and massline, illustrating how they constituted the essences of Marxist theory, and how Marx, Lenin and Mao left no stone unturned in showing in practice that they were not mere idealistic concepts.
Dialectically, Thomson analyses how Leon Trotsky in essence, conspired were an enemy of Marxist ideology and conspired against the growth and survival of USSR. He traced instances of Trotsky violating Leninist ideology and why it was imperative for Lenin to perform acts like signing the Brest Litovsk treaty, calling for New Economic Policy and outlawing reactionary parties. Due focus was given on sprouting of revisionism in USSSR under Khrushchev, and how and why dictatorship of the proletariat was toppled.
Thomson formulates how Mao distinguished between a New Democratic and Socialist Revolution, highlight factor of national bourgeoisie. Most comprehensively, he illustrates how Mao Tse Tung applied the massline in people’s communes, by propounding a formulation relevant or unique to China. He elaborated how Mao constructed his formula of People’s democratic dictatorship, professing the alliance of working class, peasantry, petty bourgeoise and national bourgeoisie.
Thomson summed up the imperative need for a Cultural Revolution, which Mao Tse Tung foresaw, unlike Stalin, and analysed the blunders or gross errors of Stalin, in dealing with opposition. He illustrated how China was on the road of revolutionary experiments in proletarian democracy, at heights never reached. In a nutshell Thomson portrayed how Mao began just when Lenin took off and Lenin was the Marx of his day and age.

Capitalism and After: The Rise and Fall of Commodity Production

This book was written 50 Years ago, in 1973 as a companion to “From Marx to Mao Tse Tung.” It illustratively projects the concept of historical materialism ,stressing on evolution or germinating of commodity production ,during course of history of civilisation. Most illustratively Thomson projected how through creating of People’s Communes, commodity production was regulated in a socialist economy, in preparation for the transition to Communism.
Unlike ‘From Marx to Mao Tse Tung’ this book is far more original work of Thomson. On e of the most lucidly written or simple to understand books on Marxism, giving overtones of beginner’s handbook on Marxist economy. To me, a classic work being arguably the best Marxist analysis of history of political economy of by an intellectual in that epoch,and a must read for any progressive intellectual.
Thomson expounds how production relations govern man’s political rights and how the history of man was that of class struggles. The book dissects chapters of Commodity production, Buying in order to sell, Capital and Labour, Pre-capitalist Society, Production for Profit, Individual liberty, All for each and each for all, Production for Use and Transition for Communism. It demonstrates how econims and history are cop related or an integral part of each other.
In a most methodical fashion he forges the link between political, economic and social history or how economic systems governs level of people’s political control or authority. Thomson brilliantly narrates and analyses the phenomena of tribal or slave, society ascending into feudalism, capitalism and finally to Socialism, with several historical references. Most intrinsically and comprehensively he encompasses the evolution of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He traces the Greek and Roman civilizations in light of people’s democracy, to medieval Europe highlighting the peasant revolts and the period of Industrial revolution and parliamentary democracy in Britain.
Most illustratively Thomson exposes the mask worn by bourgeoisie democracy to pose as true people’s rule, and how only a socialist state secured people’s power. Thomson highlights the imperative need for heavy industry in a Socialist state and collectivisation, highlighting errors of USSR and rectification of “China when professing walking on 2 legs. In the final chapters in a most congeal manner, he manifested how the peoples communes in China ascended from Marxism and were paving path of transition towards communism.
Most illustratively, Thomson projected how true democracy only lay in dictatorship of the Proletariat Most relevant subjects he covers are that of Liberty, Equality and fraternity ,bourgeois democracy, peasant revolts, Democracy and dictatorship and the distinction between production methods in Russia and China, bridging gap and between mental and manual labour or even Town and City. Thomson touches on how religious philosophers obstructed material progress.

Weaknesses in Thomson

Thomson negated or paid scant attention to subject of democracy within a proletarian party or scope or level dissent or debate within a Socialist State. He initiated no criticism of the bureaucratic practices of the Soviets under Lenin, errors of the Chinese Communist party in massline or negation of proletarian ideology in Socialist Construction period and Great Leap Forward.
Thomson did not deal with the aspect of scope of the methods of the Chinese revolutionary theory of protracted people’s war. In my view Thomson over estimated transition of Communism in China from Socialism. This was illustrated by the reversal or toppling of the Socialist state in 1976. Arguably Thomson wrongly gave complete credibility to CCP evaluation of economic mistakes of USSR under Stalin, in fields of production. In the late 1970-‘s and in 1980’s till his death, he hardly contributed in re-organising a Maoist party or movement on the British Isles.---

*Freelance journalist



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