E.P. Thompson as Historian, Teacher and Political Activist

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

Barbara Winslow

EDWARD PALMER IHOMPSON, dissenter, poet, peace campaigner and arguably the most important historian of the second hail of the twentieth century, died peacefully after a long illness, August 28th, 1993.

Much of his life is known to readers of Against the Current. His parents, Anglo-American missionaries, liberals and anti-imperialists instilled in Edward intense radical and democratic impulses. Thompson’s radicalism was further influenced by the communism of his older brother Frank, also a poet, scholar and activist. Edward joined the Communist Party while a student at Cambridge.

Edward was proud to have fought in Africa and Italy during the Second World War. In the countless arguments and discussions we revolutionary students had with him in 1%9 about the importance of “armed struggle,” as a tactic and strategy for ending racism, poverty and war, Edward never let us forget that he had been a tank commander and we students had never seen combat.

E.P. Thompson left the Communist party in 1956 over opposition to the Stalinist crushing of the Hungarian revolution. In 1957 he became the editor of the New Reason and ten years later he collaborated with Raymond Williams and Dorothy Thompson in writing the May Day Manifesto, which attempted to create a new left agenda clearly rooted in the Marxist tradition but separate from the Communist and Labour Parties.

The Making of the English Working Class, published in 1%3, was Thompson’s masterpiece and remains one of the greatest pieces of historical writing of the last fifty years. It was a history book that made history. Passionate and scholarly, the book joined activism and analysis. Thompson found and gave voice to women and men, previously ignored by historians—stockingers, Luddite croppers, supporters of religious movements—ordinary people who transformed the English political landscape.

I was a student at the University of Leeds, in England in 1966, when! first read The Making… For me, like so many people of my generation struggling through Marxist texts in order to find political moorings, this book gave a sense of real living, breathing and struggling Marxism.

Studying with Thompson

In 1969-70, I studied with Edward Thompson at the Centre for the Study of Social History at Warwick University in Coventry, England. While I was thrilled to be working with “the great man” (as we graduate students jokingly referred to him), Edward was not, at first, equally thrilled with me as a graduate student He was very suspicious of U.S. new left socialists; in particular he was convinced that we were coming to England to ruin authentic English radical traditions.

In spite of his apprehensions, his home was always open to us. There was always plenty of beer and brie, and all the great Marxist scholars, academics and activists stopped in at one point or another that year to discuss, debate and argue history, poetry and politics.

I wanted to study women’s history, and in particular to do research on Sylvia Pankhuxst, the English socialist-suffragette, while at Warwick There were other women at Warwick who were also beginning research in women’s history. While Edward was uncomfortable with the intensity of the women’s movement and nervous about the implications of women’s history, he never discouraged us. He was unstintingly generous with his time, and gave us endless ideas for research. His criticism of our work was never patronizing nor demeaning. He never thought our work was less important than that of the male graduate students. This was a refreshing change from so many other professors!

While at Warwick,, Thompson was not content to be an academic. In 1970, we were involved in a sit-in where, after raiding the university files (original research we argued!), we discovered that the university had paid agents to spy on faculty, students and staff. We called Edward to come a look at our discovery. Outraged, he joined the students’ protest and played an invaluable role publicizing the scandal as well as protecting us from victimization. With a group of activist students, he published Warwick University Limited, a short but concise statement about the dangerous implications of the corporate university. He resigned from Warwick in 1971.

After getting an MA in Labor History from Warwick, I had to face the inevitable dilemma of what to do with my graduate education. I knew I wanted to teach history, yet I was committed to socialist ac- tivisnt At this time, many young and dedicated middle-class socialists were taking jobs in factories as one way in which to be involved in and help create a socialist working-class movement I was a member of the International Socialists, an organization which encouraged its members to take factory jobs.

I agonized over what I should do. Edward talked to me about his experiences in the Communist Party and the decisions he made about teaching. He encouraged me to teach and suggested that I look into worker education as he had done in Halifax. He told me that it had been his experience that intellectuals and teachers indeed could play a positive role in a socialist workers movement He assured me that I did not have to be ashamed that I was a middle-class intellectual. He reminded me that I had to be honest with myself and with my students to earn their respect and trust. And above all, I had to listen and learn from their words and experience.

A Passionate Activist

In 1978 Thompson contested the British Government’s screening of its affairs in the ABC Official States Secrets trial. And then in the 1980s he dropped all his academic research to organize and lead the growing anti-nuclear movement He drafted the European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal and through his passionate speaking, organizing and writing helped build a peace movement

Thompson’s vision was not confined to eliminating nuclear weapons, but to end the insanity of the Cold War. He worked with activists from both East and West to create a nuclear free Europe. He wrote to a friend in 1981,” What we have to do is seize this moment of mass consciousness to move directly into the structures of the Cold War themselves, the blocs behind the missiles. We have to keep to some very large and simple ideas—like remaking Europe and putting peace and liberty together.”

Over the last twenty years, Edward reappraised much of his suspicion of the women’s movement. While he was never completely “won” over to an understanding of gender, I believe he respected the intellectual contributions of the new generation of women historians who transformed the intellectual landscape. He also understood the importance of women in the struggle for which he was so passionately involved.

In the last few years of his life, he went back to his research and publication. His last book Witness Against the Beast: William Blakeand the Moral Law, was just published by New Press.

Edward’s favorite poets were Blake, Yeats and Tom McGrath. Yet whenever I think of Edward, Percy Byshe Shelly’s magnificent cry of outrage and call to action, “The Mask of Anarchy” comes into my thoughts. Casteireigh, Eldon and Sidmoth—Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy—have been replaced by Thatcher, Reagan and Brezhnev. I can see Edward, on a platform exhorting the crowd to:

Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep have fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

January-February 1994, ATC 48