E. P. Thompson

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Not to be confused with Edward Arthur Thompson.
E.P. Thompson
Born Edward Palmer Thompson
(1924-02-03)3 February 1924
Oxford, United Kingdom
Died (aged 69)
Worcester, United Kingdom
Occupation Historian, writer, socialist, campaign
Spouse(s) Dorothy Thompson (1948–1993; his death)
Children 3

Edward Palmer "E. P." Thompson (3 February 1924 – 28 August 1993) was a British historian, writer, 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 The Making of the English Working Class (1963). He also published influential biographies of William Morris (1955) and (posthumously) William Blake (1993) and was a prolific journalist and essayist. He also published the novel The Sykaos Papers and a collection of poetry.

Thompson was one of the principal intellectuals of the Communist Party in Great Britain. Although he left the party in 1956 over the Soviet invasion of Hungary, he nevertheless remained a "historian in the Marxist tradition", calling for a rebellion against Stalinism as a prerequisite for the restoration of communists' "confidence in our own revolutionary perspectives".[1] Thompson 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 an early and constant supporter of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, becoming during the 1980s the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe.[2]

Early life[edit]

E.P. Thompson was born in Oxford to Methodist missionary parents: His father, Edward John Thompson (1886–1946) was a poet and admirer of the Nobel Prize–winning poet Tagore. His older brother was William Frank Thompson (1919–1944), a British officer in World War II, who was captured and shot aiding the Bulgarian anti-fascist partisans.[3]

Thompson attended two independent schools, The Dragon School in Oxford and Kingswood School in Bath. Like many he left school in 1941 to fight in World War II. He served in a tank unit in the Italian campaign, including at the last battle of Cassino.[4]

After his military service, he studied at Corpus Christi College at the University of Cambridge, where he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. In 1946, E.P. Thompson formed the Communist Party Historians Group with Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, Dona Torr and others. In 1952 they launched the influential journal Past and Present.


William Morris[edit]

Thompson's first major work of scholarship 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. It was also an attempt to take Morris back from the critics who for more than 50 years had emphasised his art and downplayed his politics.

Although Morris's political work is well to the fore, Thompson also used his literary talents to comment on aspects of Morris's work, such as his early Romantic poetry, which had previously received relatively little consideration. As Thompson noted in his preface to the second edition (1976), the first edition (1955) appears to have received relatively little attention from the literary establishment because of its then-unfashionable Marxist point of view. However, the somewhat rewritten second edition was much better received.

The first New Left[edit]

After Nikita Khrushchev'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 Thompson remained what he called a "socialist humanist". With Saville and others, he set up the New Reasoner, a journal that sought to develop a democratic socialist alternative to what its editors considered 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. With Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall, he was 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[edit]

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. He opened the gates for a generation of labour historians, such as David Montgomery and Herbert Gutman, who made similar studies of the American working classes.

A major work of research and synthesis, the book was also important in historiographical terms: with it, Thompson demonstrated the power of a historical Marxism rooted in the experience of real flesh-and-blood workers. It remains on university reading lists 50 years after its publication. Thompson wrote the book while living in Siddal, Halifax, West Yorkshire and based some of the work on his experiences with the local Halifax population.

Freelance polemicist[edit]

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. However, he increasingly worked as a freelance writer, contributing many essays to New Society, Socialist Register and historical journals. In 1978 he published The Poverty of Theory which attacked the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and his followers in Britain on New Left Review (famously saying: "...all of them are Geschichtenscheissenschlopff, unhistorical shit"[5]). The title echoes that of Karl Marx's 1847 polemic against Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, The Poverty of Philosophy and that of philosopher Karl Popper's 1936 book The Poverty of Historicism. Thompson's polemic provoked a book-length response from Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism.

During the late 1970s Thompson 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[edit]

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.

E P Thompson speaking to anti-nuclear weapons protestors in 1980

Thompson played a key role in both END and CND throughout the 1980s, speaking at many 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). Thompson's own haunting recitation of his 1950 poem of "apocalyptic expectation, "The Place Called Choice," appeared on the 1984 vinyl recording "The Apocalypso", by Canadian pop group Singing Fools, released by A&M Records.[6]

William Blake[edit]

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 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[edit]

In 1948 Thompson married Dorothy Towers, whom he met at Cambridge.[7] A fellow left-wing historian, she wrote studies on women in the Chartist movement, and the biography Queen Victoria: Gender and Power; she was Professor of History at the University of Birmingham.[8] The Thompsons had three children, the youngest of whom is the award-winning children's writer, Kate Thompson.[9]

Thompson died at the age of 69 in Worcester.[10]

William Frank Thompson[edit]

Thompson's older brother William Frank Thompson (1920–1944), was also a member of the British Communist Party during World War II. A gifted linguist, Frank Thompson parachuted into fascist-occupied Bulgaria as part of a "Phantom Brigade" during Operation Mulligatawny. There, he supported the resistance as a liaison officer. Frank Thompson was captured and on 10 June 1944 he was executed. His body was buried in the War Cemetery of Sofia. After the war, the Bulgarians erected a statue in his honour. The nearby villages of Livage, Lipata, Tsarevi Stragi, Malak Babul, Babul and Zavoya were merged and renamed to Thompson in the British officer's honour.

E. P. Thompson and his mother wrote There is a Spirit in Europe: A Memoir of Frank Thompson (1947). Frank Thompson was also a friend and confidant of Iris Murdoch, the philosopher and novelist.[11] E. P. Thompson wrote another book about his brother, published in 1996.[12][13][14]


Leszek Kołakowski wrote a very harsh criticism of Thompson in his 1974 essay "My Correct Views on Everything." Tony Judt considered this rejoinder so authoritative that he claimed that "no one who reads it will ever take E.P. Thompson seriously again". Kolakowski's portrait of Thompson elicited some protests from readers,[15] and other left-wing journals came to Thompson's defence.[16]

Key works[edit]

  • 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.
  • Time, work-discipline and industrial capitalism. Past & Present 38(1), 56–97 (1967)
  • The moral economy of the English crowd in the eighteenth century. Past & Present 50(1), 76–136 (1971)
  • Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act, London: Allen Lane, 1975; with a new postscript, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977; London: Breviary Stuff Publications, 2013, ISBN 978-0-9570005-2-0.
  • (editor) Albion's Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth Century England, London: Allen Lane, 1975.
  • William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1st ed. London: Lawrence & Wishart 1955, revised 2nd ed. New York: Pantheon, 1976).
  • The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays, London: Merlin Press, 1978.
  • Writing by Candlelight, London: Merlin Press, 1980.
  • Zero Option, London: Merlin Press, 1982.
  • Double Exposure, London: Merlin Press, 1985.
  • The Heavy Dancers, London: Merlin Press, 1985.
  • The Sykaos Papers, London: Bloomsbury, 1988.
  • Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture, London: Merlin Press, 1991.
  • Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
  • Alien Homage: Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993.
  • Making History: Writings on History and Culture, New York: New Press, 1994 (British edition: Persons & Polemics, London: Merlin Press, 1994, ISBN 0-85036-439-6).
  • Beyond the Frontier: the Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944, Rendlesham: Merlin, 1997.
  • The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age, Woodbridge: Merlin Press, 1997.
  • Collected Poems, Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe, 1999.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Reasoning rebellion: E. P. Thompson, British Marxist Historians, and the making of dissident political mobilization". 22 September 2002. Goliath ECNext. Retrieved 9 March 2009.
  2. ^ Emma Griffin, E. P. Thompson the unconventional historian in The Guardian, 6 March 2013
  3. ^ "The Iskar Gorge and the Bulgarian Partisans", monkeytravel.org, 21 July 2010.
  4. ^ Desert Island Discs, speaking to Sue Lawley, 3 November 1991 [1]
  5. ^ Richard Webster, "E.P. Thompson and the Althusserian locusts: an exercise in practical criticism".
  6. ^ E. P. Thompson, "Notes on Exterminism", in M. Evangelista (ed.), Peace Studies: Critical Concepts in Political Science, Vol. 4, London: Routledge, 2004.
  7. ^ Andrew Milner, "E. P. Thompson 1924–1993", Labour History, No. 65 (November 1993), pp. 216–218.
  8. ^ Sheila Rowbotham, "Dorothy Thompson obituary – Innovative historian who focused on the Chartist movement", The Guardian, 6 February 2011.
  9. ^ "The music of time – Julia Eccleshare talks to Kate Thompson, winner of the 2005 Guardian Children's Fiction prize", The Guardian, 1 October 2005.
  10. ^ Mary Kaldor, "Obituary: E. P. Thompson", The Independent, 30 August 1993.
  11. ^ Conradi, Peter J (25 January 2010). "Iris Murdochs letters war writing and sex". The Times (London). Retrieved 1 May 2010. 
  12. ^ Rattenbury, A., 1997. Convenient Death of a Hero. Review of Beyond the Frontier: the Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944 by Thompson, E. P. London Review of Books [Online] vol. 19 no. 9 pp. 12–13. Available from http://www.lrb.co.uk/v19/n09/arnold-rattenbury/convenient-death-of-a-hero [Accessed 2 March 2011].
  13. ^ E. P. Thompson, Beyond the Frontier: the Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944, Merlin/Stanford, 120 pp, December 1996, ISBN 0-85036-457-4
  14. ^ Brisby, Liliana (29 Mar 1997). "The ups and downs of Major Thompson". The Spectator. 
  15. ^ "The Case of E.P. Thompson" – Edward Countryman, reply by Tony Judt (in response to "Goodbye to All That?" 21 September 2006), The New York Review of Books, 15 February 2007.
  16. ^ Nikil Saval On Tony Judt, n+1, 9 August 2010.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]