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E. P. Thompson

Edward Palmer Thompson (February 3, 1924, OxfordAugust 28, 1993, Worcester), was an English historian, socialist and peace campaigner. He is probably best known today for his historical work on the British radical movements in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, in particular his book The Making of the English Working Class (1963), but he also published influential biographies of William Morris (1955) and (posthumously) William Blake (1993) and was a prolific journalist and essayist as well as publishing one novel and a collection of poetry. He was one of the principal intellectual members of the Communist Party who left the party in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, and he played a key role in the first New Left in Britain in the late 1950s. He was a vociferous left-wing socialist critic of the Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79, and during the 1980s he was the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe.

Early life

Thompson was born in Oxford to Methodist missionary parents; his older brother was the officer William Frank Thompson (19201944) who died while aiding the Bulgarian communist partisans in World War II. He was educated at Kingswood School, Bath. During World War II he served in a tank corps in Italy, and then studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he joined the Communist Party. In 1946 he formed the Communist Party Historians Group along with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Dona Torr and others. This group launched the influential journal Past and Present in 1952.

William Morris

Thompson's first major work was his biography of William Morris, written while he was a member of the Communist Party. Subtitled From Romantic to Revolutionary, it was part of an effort by the Communist Party Historians' Group, inspired by Torr, to emphasise the domestic roots of Marxism in Britain at a time when the Communist Party was under attack for always following the Moscow line � but it was also an attempt to take Morris back from the critics who had emphasised his art and downplayed his politics for more than 50 years.

Although Morris' political work is well to the fore, Thompson also used his literary talents to comment on aspects of Morris' work, such as his early Romantic poetry, which had previously received relatively little consideration.

As the preface to the 2nd edition (1976) notes, the first edition (1955) appears to have received relatively little attention from the literary establishment because of its then unfashionable Marxist viewpoint. However, the somewhat rewritten 2nd edition was much better received.

The first New Left

After Nikita Khruschev's "secret speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1956, which revealed that the Soviet party leadership had long been aware of Stalin's crimes, Thompson (with John Saville and others) started a dissident publication inside the CP, called The Reasoner. Six months later, he and most of his comrades left the party in disgust at the Soviet invasion of Hungary.

But he remained what he called a "socialist humanist", and with Saville and others set up the New Reasoner, a journal that sought to develop a democratic socialist alternative to what its editors saw as the ossified official Marxism of the Communist and Trotskyist parties and the managerialist cold war social democracy of the Labour Party and its international allies. The New Reasoner was the most important organ of what became known as the "New Left", an informal movement of dissident leftists closely associated with the nascent movement for nuclear disarmament in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The New Reasoner combined with the Universities and Left Review to form New Left Review in 1960, though Thompson and others fell out with the group around Perry Anderson who took over the journal in 1962. The fashion ever since has been to describe the Thompson et al New Left as "the first New Left" and the Anderson et al group, which by 1968 had embraced Tariq Ali and various Trotskyists, as the second.

Thompson subsequently allied himself with the annual Socialist Register publication, and was (with Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall) one of the editors of the 1967 May Day Manifesto, one of the key left-wing challenges to the 1964-70 Labour government of Harold Wilson.

The Making of the English Working Class

Thompson's most influential work was and remains The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1963 while he was working at the University of Leeds. It told the forgotten history of the first working-class political left in the world in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. In his preface to this book, Thompson set out his approach to writing history from below:

"I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'Utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties".

Thompson's work was also significant because of the way he defined "class." To Thompson, class was not a structure, but a relationship:

"And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born--or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way."

By re-defining class as a relationship that changed over time, Thompson proceeded to demonstrate how class was worthy of historical investigation, thus opening the gates for a generation of labor historians, such as David Montgomery and Herbert Gutman, who made similar studies of the American working classes.

A major work of research and synthesis, it was also important in historiographical terms: with it, Thompson demonstrated the power of an historical Marxism rooted in the experience of real flesh-and-blood workers. It remains on university reading lists 40 years after its publication.

Thompson wrote the book whilst living in Siddal, Halifax, West Yorkshire and based some of the work on his experiences with the local Halifax population.

Freelance polemicist

Thompson left the University of Warwick in protest at the commercialisation of the academy, documented in the book Warwick University Limited (1971). He continued to teach and lecture as a visiting professor, particularly in the United States, but increasingly worked as a freelance writer. He turned to freelancing, contributing many essays to New Society, Socialist Register and historical journals. In 1978 he published The Poverty of Theory, (here he famously describes counterfactualism as "unhistorical shit") which attacked the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and his followers in Britain on New Left Review, and which provoked a book-length response from Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism.

During the late 1970s he acquired a large public audience as a critic of the then Labour government's disregard of civil liberties; his writings from this time are collected in Writing By Candlelight (1980).

Voice of the peace movement

From 1980, Thompson was the most prominent intellectual of the revived movement for nuclear disarmament, revered by activists throughout the world. In Britain, his pamphlet Protest and Survive, a parody on the government leaflet Protect and Survive, played a major role in the revived strength of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Just as important, Thompson was, with Ken Coates, Mary Kaldor and others, an author of the 1980 Appeal for European Nuclear Disarmament, calling for a nuclear-free Europe from Poland to Portugal, which was the founding document of European Nuclear Disarmament. Confusingly, END was both a Europe-wide campaign that comprised a series of large public conferences (the END Conventions), and a small British pressure group.

Thompson played a key role in both END and CND throughout the 1980s, speaking at innumerable public meetings, corresponding with hundreds of fellow activists and sympathetic intellectuals, and doing more than his fair share of committee work. He had a particularly important part in opening a dialogue between the west European peace movement and dissidents in Soviet-dominated eastern Europe, particularly in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, for which he was denounced as a tool of American imperialism by the Soviet authorities.

He wrote dozens of polemical articles and essays during this period, which are collected in the books Zero Option (1982) and The Heavy Dancers (1985). He also wrote an extended essay attacking the ideologists on both sides of the cold war, Double Exposure (1985) and edited a collection of essays opposing Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars (1985).

An excerpt from a speech given by Thompson featured in the computer game Deus Ex Machina (1984).

William Blake

The last book Thompson finished was Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (1993). The product of years of research and published shortly after his death, it shows convincingly how far Blake was inspired by dissident religious ideas rooted in the thinking of the most radical opponents of the monarchy during the English civil war.

Personal life

Thompson married fellow left wing historian Dorothy Towers in 1948. She has contributed major studies on women in the Chartist movement, and of Queen Victoria (subtitled 'Gender and Power'), and was Professor of History at the University of Birmingham. They had three children. Kate Thompson, the award-winning children's writer, is their youngest child.

Reputation

Keith Thomas, former President of the British Academy, wrote of Customs in Common, "This book signals the return to historical writing of one of the most eloquent, powerful and independent voices of our time. At his best he is capable of a passionate, sardonic eloquence which is unequalled." (The Observer)

Key Works

  • William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1st ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart 1955, revised 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon, 1976).
  • The Making of the English Working Class London: Victor Gollancz (1963); 2nd edition with new postscript, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968, third edition with new preface 1980.
  • Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century, 1971
  • Warwick University Limited, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971.
  • Open Letter to Leszek Kolakowski, Socialist Register, 1974
  • Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, London: Allen Lane, 1975; with a new poscript, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977.
  • (editor) Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England, London: Allen Lane, 1975.
  • The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London: Merlin Press, 1978.
  • Writing by Candlelight, London: Merlin Press, 1980.
  • Protest and Survive, London: Penguin, 1980.
  • Zero Option, London: Merlin Press, 1982.
  • The Heavy Dancers, London: Merlin Press, 1985.
  • Double Exposure, London: Merlin Press, 1985.
  • Star Wars, London: Penguin, 1985.
  • The Sykaos Papers, London: Bloomsbury, 1988.
  • Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture, London: Merlin Press, 1991.
  • Making History: Writings on History and Culture, 1994.
  • Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, 1993.
  • The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age, 1997.
  • The Collected Poems, (Poetry, first pub. 1999).

References

Further reading

  • Anderson, Perry Arguments within English Marxism, London: Verso, 1980.
  • Johnson, R. "Edward Thompson, Eugence Genovese and Socialist-humanist History", pages 79-100 from History Workshop Journal, Volume 6, 1978.
  • Kaye, Harvey The British Marxist Historians, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1984.
  • Harvey J. Kaye and Keith McClelland, editors E.P.Thompson: Critical Perspectives Polity Press, London, 1990.
  • Merrill, M. "Interview with E.P. Thompson" pages 5-25 from Visions of History edited by H. Abelove, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1976.
  • New Left Review pages 3-25, Volume 201, 1993.
  • Palmer, B.D. The Making of E.P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism, and History, Toronto: New Hogtown Press, 1981.
  • Palmer, B.D. E.P. Thompson Objections and Oppositions, New York: Verso, 1994.
  • Radical History Review, pages 152-164, Volume 58, 1994.

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