All Saints Day: On “The Enormous Condescension of Posterity”

I was recently in Princeton, New Jersey to visit a friend and wound up spending an afternoon in a superb bookstore – The Labyrinth – across the street from campus.  Browsing bookstores with the density of serious academic titles this one had is not a frequent experience for me these days, so I really enjoyed myself.  I happened upon a new book by Cal Winslow, E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left: Essays and Polemics (Monthly Review Press, 2014).  I regularly assign in one of my classes Thompson’s famous chapter (to historians of Methodism anyway) on Methodism in The Making of the English Working Class.  A couple years ago I also caught the tail end of a session at the American Historical Association celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of that monumental and bestselling book.  I think Thompson got plenty wrong about the Methodist movement, but the work is still generative for good thinking about what made Methodists tick.

Winslow’s book, however, is mostly a collection of E.P. Thompson’s political writings which, I’m a little embarrassed to admit, I have never read at all.  I don’t know why.  I knew he was a creative thinker who somehow combined the life of an activist and historian and that he was resolute in searching for a thoughtful socialist alternative through opposing political camps in the mid-1950s and early 1960s.  He was seeking to craft the first “New Left” in those years.  As I read his work in Winslow’s book I couldn’t help but admire his courage, creativity, and thoughtful idealism.  His concern to rescue the English working class of an earlier era from the “enormous condescension of posterity” was unrelenting as was his refusal to espouse easy compromises between prevailing ideas.

I think we need to reconsider Thompson’s work these days as the tendency to be condescending toward those who have gone before us is equally unrelenting in today’s world.  “Disruptive innovation” all too often seems to have replaced careful thinking about and learning from history.  (Jill Lapore’s essay, “The Disruption Machine,” in The New Yorker a few months ago is well worth reading on this.)

Last month I wrote a letter to the editor of The Oregonian criticizing an op-ed piece by Steve Duin on plans to remove a statue in the U.S. Capitol of a pioneer Methodist missionary to Oregon in the early 19th century.  I agreed with Mr. Duin that it may be time to switch whom we memorialize in that space, but not for the reasons he espoused.  Methodist missionary to Oregon Rev. Jason Lee surely had blind spots and was guilty of unjust treatment of Native Americans, but he does not deserve condescending condemnation.  He accomplished a great deal, and based on my brief survey of his work I believe his motives were consistent with some of the best missionaries of his age.  The memory of Rev. Lee would be well-served by open acknowledgment of his failures so long as we also asked for what failures future generations may likewise criticize us.  That is the kind of reflection All Saints Day should prompt in our lives.

To further encourage that reflection on this All Saints Day E. P. Thompson should get the last word:

It is never safe to assume that any of our history is altogether dead.  It is more often lying there, as a form of stored cultural energy.  The instant daily energy of the contingent dazzles us with its brightness.  What passes on the daily screen is so distracting, the presence of the status quo is so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists.  But this instant energy must be reproduced every moment as it is consumed; it can never be held in store.  Let the power be cut off for a while, then we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street-lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars.  –E. P. Thompson, “A Special Case” in Writing by Candlelight cited in Winslow, E. P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left. 2014.

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About Ben Hartley

Associate Professor of Christian Mission College of Christian Studies George Fox University
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