E. P. Thompson

From New World Encyclopedia

E. P. Thompson

Edward Palmer Thompson (February 3, 1924 – August 28, 1993), 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 eighteenth and early nineteenth 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). He was a prolific journalist and essayist as well as writing one novel and a collection of poetry. He was one of the main intellectual members of the Communist Party. Thompson 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 Labor governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79. During the 1980s he was the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe. He was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and also wrote about planetary survival. Thompson was critical of the academic establishment but taught for the University of Leeds (from 1948) then at the University of Warwick from its establishment in 1965 until 1971, when he resigned. He held a number of visiting chairs in the USA and wrote devotedly. He died at the age of 69.

Thompson's writing helped expose the role of class, elitism, and culture in the construction of history. Through his activism, he tried to place his scholarship at the service of humanity. For him, learning was to be used for trying to make the world a safer, more habitable place. Thompson was driven by a profound humanism that led to his association with Marxism which he had thought would lead to a more just society, and to his complete disenchantment once he saw how Marxism was actually practiced.

Early life

Thompson was born in Oxford to Methodist missionary parents. He was educated at Kingswood School, Bath. During World War II he served in the Royal Army tank corps in Italy. After the war he 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. He taught for the University of Leeds from 1948 as an Extramural Lecturer before joining the newly established University of Warwick in 1965.

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 emphasize the domestic roots of Marxism in Britain at a time when the Communist Party was under attack for always following the Moscow party line but it was also an attempt to take Morris back from the critics who had stressed his art and downplayed his politics for more than 50 years.

Although Morris' political work is well known, 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 second 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 second edition was much better received.

The first New Left

After Nikita Khruschev's 1956 "secret speech" to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, 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 managerial cold war social democracy of the Labor 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 soon after its launch. 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 the cultural theorist Stuart Hall) one of the editors of the 1967 May Day Manifesto, one of the key left-wing challengers to the 1964-70 Labor government of Harold Wilson. In 1973, he wrote his famous Open Letter to Leslek Kolakowski arguing that as an intellectual approach, Marxism should not be ditched despite the evils of Stalin's regime (he referred to the "blood of Stalin's victims"), which he unequivocally deplored.[1]

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-eighteenth and early-nineteenth 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."[2]

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."[3]

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 folk.

Freelance polemicist

Warwick logo on University Rd, University of Warwick

Thompson left Warwick University where he was Reader in the Centre for the Study of Social History in protest at the commercialization of the academy, documented in the book Warwick University Limited (1971). This refers to the shift away from public sources of funding towards grants from industry, from commerce and from other private funding agencies, few of which can be described as lacking an interest in the results of the research they fund. Passionate about exposing how scholarship too often served the interests of some but not of all, he saw its commercialization as a dangerous move. He who pays the piper calls the tune. He continued to teach and lecture as a visiting professor, particularly in the United States. Increasingly working as a freelance writer, he contributed 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 the New Left Review, provoking a book-length response from Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism.[4] The Poverty of Theory also reprinted his "Open Letter" of 1973.

During the late 1970s he acquired a large public audience as a critic of the then Labor 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.[5]


Thompson left behind an important body of historical, biographical and critical work. His main contribution lies in his fluid view of class as "a happening" which "paved the way for the flowering of studies of class formation" and his quest for the "meaning" of "customs, organizations, beliefs, and political actions" that transcended mere description. His left-wing politics attempted to imbue Marxism with humanitarian values. Craig Calhoun writes, "Arguably the most important founder of "the new social history," he was a transformative influence on and an inspiration for two generations of historians".[6] David McNally describes Thompson as "the greatest Marxist historian of the English speaking world" whose work "restored the exploited and oppressed to their rightful place as makers of history."[7] Kate Soper refers to Thompson as a historian who also helped to shape and to make history. Together with Mikhail Gorbachev and Václav Havel he was, she says, one of the people who most influenced events in the 1980s. He was especially significant in helping to keep a line of communication open between East and West, not least of all through his "sense of historical eventuation" and his "punctilious concern for individuals involved in the process." He contributed, with others, to the end of the Cold War. [8]

Key Works

  • 1955. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. New York, NY: Pantheon. ISBN 9780394411361
  • 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. London, UK: Victor Gollancz. ISBN 9780575028425
  • 1971. Warwick University Limited: industry, management and the Universities. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. ISBN 9780140802306
  • 1975. Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act. Harmondsworth: Penguin. ISBN 9780713909913
  • 1977. The Rule of Law: an unqualified human good?. New Haven, CT: Yale Law Journal Co. with Morton J Horwitz.
  • 1978. The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. London, UK: Merlin Press. ISBN 97808534
  • 1980. Writing by Candlelight. London, UK: Merlin Press. ISBN 9780850362572
  • 1980. Protest and Survive. London, UK: Penguin. ISBN 9780853455820
  • 1982. Zero Option. London, UK: Merlin Press. ISBN 9780850362879
  • 1985. The Heavy Dancers. London, UK: Merlin Press. ISBN 9780850363289
  • 1985. Double Exposure. London, UK: Merlin Press. ISBN 9780850363333
  • 1985. Star Wars. London, UK: Penguin. ISBN 9780394744384
  • 1987. Prospectus for a Habitable Planet. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin. ISBN 9780140523829
  • 1988. The Sykaos Papers. London, UK: Bloomsbury. ISBN 9780394568287
  • 1991. Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. London, UK: Merlin Press. ISBN 9781565840034
  • 1994. Making History: Writings on History and Culture. New York, NY: New Press. ISBN 9781565842168
  • 1993. Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. New York, NY: New Press. ISBN 9781565840584
  • 1997. The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. New York, NY: New Press. ISBN 9781565843608
  • 1999. The Collected Poems. Chester Springs, PA: Bloodaxe Books. ISBN 9781852244224


  1. E. P. Thompson, 1980, "Open Letter to Leslek Kolakowski," 302-402, in The Poverty of Theory (London, UK: Merlin, 1978; NY: Monthly Review Press, ISBN 978-0853454915).
  2. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, NY: Vintage, ISBN 0394703227), 12.
  3. E. P. Thompson, 1966, 9-10.
  4. Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism (London, UK: NLB., 1980, ISBN 9780860910305).
  5. Julia Eccleshare, 2005, The Music of Time: Julia Eccleshare talks to Kate Thompson The Guardian. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  6. Craig Calhoun, 1994, E.P. Thompson and the discipline of historical context Social Research. Retrieved April 23, 2008.
  7. David McNally, 1993, E P Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism International Socialism Journal. 61:Winter:1993.
  8. Kate Soper, 1997, Radical Philosophy Spartacus Educational. Retrieved April 23, 2008.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anderson, Perry. Arguments within English Marxism. London, UK: Verso, 1980. ISBN 978-0860910305
  • Johnson, R. Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese and Socialist-humanist History. History Workshop Journal. 6 (1978): 79-100.
  • Kaye, Harvey and Keith McClelland (eds.). E.P.Thompson: Critical Perspectives. London, UK: Polity Press, 1990. ISBN 978-0877227304
  • Kaye, Harvey. The British Marxist Historians. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1985. ISBN 978-0745600154
  • Merrill, M., and Henry Abelove (ed.). "Interview with E.P. Thompson" pp. 5-25, Visions of History. Manchester,UK: Manchester University Press, 1976.
  • Palmer, B.D.. E.P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions. New York, NY: Verso, 1994. ISBN 978-1859849750
  • Palmer, B.D.. The Making of E.P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism, and History. Toronto, CA: New Hogtown Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0919940178

External Links

All links retrieved February 12, 2024.


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