E.P. Thompson: 1924-1973

Against the Current, No. 48, January/February 1994

Michael Löwy

E.P.THOMPSON left us in August 1993. He was not only the most gifted historican of his generation, but one of the most powerful, creative socialist authors in the second half of the twentieth century. His style had a passionate, sardonical eloquence that sharply distinguished him from the usual academic stuff.

Perry Anderson described him in Arguments About English Marxism (1980) as “our finest socialist writer today—certainly in England, possibly in Europe.” And Eric Hobsbawm, in a posthumous homage (The Independent, August 31, 1993), emphasized that he was the only of all historians known to him that was able to produced qualitative new ideas: “Let us simply call this genius, in the traditional meaning of the word.” One should not be astonished that he was, according to the Catalogue of Quotations in Arts and Letters, one of the 250 most quoted authors of all times.

Edward Palmer Thompson was born in 1924 and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain during World War II, at the age of sixteen; he took part in the Battle of Cassino as a cavalry officer in the tank squadron of the 17/21 Lancers. His first writing is a biography of his brother, Frank Thompson, a brilliant young Communist intellectual who volunteered during the war to fight with the Bulgarian partisans and was captured and executed by the fascist Bulgarian government. This text was published in a volume including Frank’s letters and poems, There Is A Spirit in Europe (1947).

Thompson visited Bulgaria with his mother in 1947, to assist a ceremony in homage to his brother by the new Communist government, and then went to Yugoslavia to participate in the building of the great Youth Railway with thousands of other leftist young people from all over Europe. The example of his brother and these Eastern European experiences certainly proved a moral and political reference of his commitment during the next years.

His first book William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), was a real breakthrough Poles apart from the dull official doctrine of the party, Thompson brought back to the collective memory of the labor movement the half-forgotten figure of the outstanding poet, utopian socialist and liberatarian Marxist In a brilliant study of intellectual history, he shows that “only a writer nurtured in the Romantic tradition could have conceived” a communist utopia like News From Nowhere: Morris was the inheritor of the radical critique of the capitalist civilization present in the works of Keats, Carlyle and Ruskin—a critique that he reinterpreted and transformed with the help of Marx.

To See Through A Stranger’s Eyes

Thanks to the typically romantic nostalgia for the precapitalist (“gothic”) past, Morris was able to see his own times with the eyes of a stranger, and judge it by other criteria than its own Romanticism as distanciation effect and as an archimedic point for social criticism: this summarizes very well the method that E.P. Thompson himself would use in his historiographical work. If his book has been often misunderstood, it is because, as he emphasizes in his postscript to the re-edition of 1977, critics have overlooked its central aspect: “an argument about the Romantic tradition and its transformation by Morris.”

After the events of 1956, E.P. Thompson—like many other Communist intellectuals and militants—broke away from the party. First in the journal The New Reasoner, and later in New Left Review, he helped to promote a socialist alternative to Stalinism (and social democracy). Sharp disagreements with the younger generation (Perry Anderson) led to a break between the “old” and the “new” “New Left” at the beginning of the ’60s, and to a certain political isolation But a few years later he became again—together with Raymond Williams—one of the leading figures of the socialist left, coauthoring the influential May-Day Manifesto (1967).

Thompson’s best known work is, of course, The Making of the English Working Class (1963); its echo reached well beyond the frontiers of England, and created a new pattern of writing history from the viewpoint of the defeated, as Walter Benjamin would have said. Breaking with a venerable tradition (both conservative and “progressist”) of apology for the benefits of the Industrial Revolution, he tried to understand the process as lived by the “victims of progress.”

In a famous phrase that would serve as banner and sign of recognition for a whole new generation of social historians, he explained the aim of his book-“Yin 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.” The ironical quotation marks around “obsolete” and “utopian” are symptomatic of a whole new approach, that puts into question the categories of the dominant historiography, thoroughly soaked by the ideology of a linear and inevitable progress (under the benevolent leadership of the capitalist class).

E.P. Thompson’s insolence in relation to the conventional wisdom appears in all its splendor in his chapter on the Luddites, the “machine breakers”: criticizing Fabian and academic historiography, he insists that this movement was not only a rebellion “against the machines” but “a violent eruption of feelings against a savage industrial capitalism” and “quasi-insurrectional” popular uprising. It is true that they had nostalgic illusions .about the past, but their demands “looked forwards, as much as backwards; and they contained with them a shadowy image, not so much of a paternalist, but of a democratic community, in which industrial growth should be regulated according to ethical priorities and the pursuit of profit subordinated to human needs.”

Similar ideas can also be found in his book,. Whigs and Hunters (1975) as well as in his widely acclaimed essays from the ’60s and ’70s, like “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism” (1967), which analyses the contradiction between the “natural” rhythm of labor in the premodern societies with the tyrannical time-discipline of modern production, or “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd” (1971), where he described the hunger riots against the rules of the market in the name of traditional popular norms (“the moral economy”).

The collection of his articles, with a few recent rejoinders, was published under the title, Customs in Common (1991). In an ironical comment on the ideological situation of the ’90s he writes inone of the rejoinders:

“When I first published ‘The Moral Economy,’ ‘the market’ was not flying as high in the ideological firmament as it is today. In the ’70s something called ‘modernization theory’ swept through some undefended minds in Western academies, and subsequently the celebration of the ‘market economy’ has become triumphal and almost universal….’The Moral Economy’ has become suspect because it explored with sympathy alternative economic imperatives to those of the capitalist market ‘system’…and offered one or two skeptical comments as to the infallibility of Adam Smith.”

Irritated by the structuralist wave that overtook leftist intellectuals in Europe, and even England, E.P. Thompson published a polemical piece against Althusser; The Poverty of Theory (1978). Perry Anderson answered in Arguments Within English Marxism, which acknowledged Thompson’s outstanding importance (correcting by the same occasion the one-sided polemics of the “New Left” against him), while pointing to some of his shortcomings—like  the lack of interest for the Continental Marxist tradition, from Trotsky to Gramsci.

After 1980, Thompson ceased to write history, throwing himself wholeheartedly into the political struggle for nuclear disarmament. He soon became one of the leading figures of European Nuclear Disarmament—END, a movement that associated Western pacifists and Eastern democratic dissidents—and a fierce campaigner against the Cold War’s logic of “exterminism.”

In his last years he found again time for research and returned to an old project that he cherished since the ’70s: a political and intellectual biography of the leading romantic revolutionary poet—William Blake. The book came out last autumn, but E.P. Thompson was not there to see it.

As Christopher Hill emphasized in his homage (The Guardian, August 30, 1993), “Thompson was always acutely aware of the relevance of history to the present.” In the preface of Customs and Culture (1991) we find the following romantic (and realist) statement: “We shall not ever return to precapitalist human nature, yet a reminder of its alternative needs, expectations and codes may renew our sense of our nature’s range of possibilities.” This perfectly summarizes E.P. Thompson’s outstanding contribution not only to Marxist social history but to the renewal of socialist thought in the twentieth century.

January-February 1994, ATC 48