E. P. Thompson at 100

EP Thompson

On the 3rd of February 2024, the late E. P. Thompson who was the seminal intellectual and historian on social struggle would have turned 100 years old. For decades, his insightful and illuminating work has influenced progressives, intellectuals, and scholars worldwide. The dedicated historian Edward P. Thompson often spoke at rallies, including those against nuclear rearmament.

He remains “the” greatest historian on the English working class thanks to his formative book called The Making of The English Working Class – with the possible exception of Friedrich Engels’ 1845 book entitled  The Condition of the Working Class in England. 

Thompson was also a captivating theoretician on Marxism and an anti-nuclear activist who laid the foundations for an ecological critique of capitalism. Edward Palmer Thompson had many faces – of which, all of them were on the progressive side. 

Yet, in my home country of Germany, the work of the English historian was hardly known for a long time – neither in East-Germany nor in the West. In fact, his 1,000 pages’ long seminal book called Die Entstehung der englischen Arbeiterklasse” only appeared in the year 1987.

Thompson was also one of the classical historiographers of his country. However, his influence quickly extended beyond the guild of historians. He developed a new class theory that focused on the experiences of concrete people and explored the emergence of capitalism as well as resistance to it.

In short, Thompson fertilized debates in the social sciences. Being widely criticized during his lifetime – E. P. Thompson died in 1993 – he is now part of the established scientific canon well beyond the UK. 

Yet, the wider public still knows so little about E. P. Thompson’s life and work. He was educated ‘from below’. As a working-class boy, he did not start at an elite boarding school. Instead, he attended the Dragon School in Oxford and the Kingswood School in Bath only to leave school in 1941 to fight in WW II. When he was an 18-year-old student, Thompson joined the small Communist Party of Great Britain. He fought as a soldier in the Second World War.

His older brother – also a communist – died in 1944 while trying to support partisans in Yugoslavia. His death was set to have a lasting impact on young Edward. After the war, E. P. Thompson went to Yugoslavia and took part in the socialist construction. This experience made him particularly sensitive to the “self-activity” of people and their organizations “from below”. 

After that, Thompson settled in the north of England where the memory of the mighty British labor movement continued to be alive. Thompson – who had never completed his degree – entered into an adult education. It was one of the few positions open to a young and intellectual communist. 

“Education should be for everyone”, according to his credo. Later, a student recalled how Thompson dragged a heavy box of books around in a shabby old car, sometimes on buses or trains, and drove across the country to a church hall, to a back room of a library, the outbuilding of a church parish, or occasionally to a private living room to discuss Shakespeare or the future of socialism. 

Above all, E. P. Thompson’s writing reflected on the memories and experiences of the “little people” – often deliberately excluded from history textbooks about kings and queens.

His teachings in the northern English mining villages quickly became legendary. E. P. Thompson shared the view that there was as much to learn from the workers as there was to teach them. In the process, E. P. Thompson – who was actively fighting against the Korean War which had begun in 1950 – increasingly turned to literature.

E. P. Thompson’s first major work was dedicated to the early British Socialist William Morris, who described the utopia of an ideal socialist society. He became interested in this romantic socialism of Morris. This gave E. P. Thompson the means to gradually move away from the then prevailing doctrinal opinion of the rather Stalinist Communist Party.

In the 1950s, Thompson belonged to the party’s group of historians and gradually became one of its symbolic figures. Numerous articles were written in the context of the outstanding Past and Present journal. It is a magazine founded on the initiative of communist historians such as Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé

The year 1956 was marked by the Khrushchev report on the crimes of Stalin and the bloody suppression of the Hungarian workers’ uprising. It marked a turning point for historians. “Through the Smoke of Budapest” is an emotional article by Thompson on behalf of the Hungarian workers. 

It was shrouded by legends but culminated in his resignation from the Communist Party as well as his lifelong aversion to Stalinism

In contrast to Stalinism, Thompson stood for a libertarian socialism. He also spoke of a socialist humanism rejecting hierarchical forms of organization as well as democratic centralism. This made him a key contributor to the “New Left”

The following year, Thompson founded the dissident-communist magazine New Reasoner – named after a radical magazine from the 19th century. With this, Thompson restored the moral credibility of the communist project by adamantly denouncing Stalinist dogmas. 

In the magazine, he defended the autonomy of individuals against the omnipotence of the productive forces. E. P. Thompson attacked a conception of socialism that – just like capitalism – reduced a man to the appendage of the machine, as Karl Marx already wrote in Das Kapital.

In 1960, the influential “must read” New Left Review was founded. It became – and continues to be – the intellectual center for the global movement of progressives. 

However, two years later, Thompson left the editorial board after a dispute with the editor Perry Anderson. He considered him to be too abstract, too theoretical, and, most importantly, too far from the labor movement. 

Meanwhile, Thompson remained deeply rooted in the 1968 movement. After taking up a position at the university, he continued to work – not only with academics – but most importantly, also with ordinary workers and trade unionists. For example, Lawrence Daly, the then treasurer of the Miners’ Union, led a seminar with Thompson.

E. P. Thompson’s unsurpassed and “fascinating to read” magnum opus remains his 1963, 1000-page book, The Making of the English Working Class. This most remarkable book earned him wide recognition and led to the fact that he was celebrated both as a Marxist theorist, and as a pioneer of a renewed social history. 

The book was quickly considered as his main work. It garnered numerous reviews and was discussed in pubs, cafés, festivals, and many other places. The Making of the English Working Class is a story that pays attention to the revolt and resistance, as well as the autonomy of people’s thinking and actions.

In 16 very dense chapters, Thompson brings to life the history of those who fought back against the emergence of capitalism; against the economism, and determinism of a particular kind of Marxism, he emphasized the experiences and actions of human actors. And against economistic reductionism, he sought a new conception for historical materialism and a rethinking of social classes. 

For Thompson, class was neither a structure nor a category, but something that actually takes place in human relationships: an event. He traced this with an incredible attention to detail and knowledge. What mattered to Thompson were the numerous expressions of solidarity amid the  English workers – artisans, weavers, printers, blacksmiths, and domestic workers. 

He was among the first to deal extensively with customs, church traditions, newspapers, letters and diaries, as well as faded pamphlets. E. P. Thompson quoted from the ink-smeared protocols of workers’ clubs. 

Thus, Thompson focuses on the history of struggle and culture, as well as on the formation of a proletarian subjectivity. 

His history of class formation is not just a history of political, but also of religious traditions and experiences. In addition, rituals in workshops are mentioned, folk songs and festivals, sermons, as well as spontaneous uprisings or forms of action and militant strikes, informal associations, such as networks in neighborhood clubs or churches, and much more. 

While everywhere, one finds the “simple and little men”, Thompson’s critics have more often noted that he largely overlooks the history of working-class women. Yet, for Thompson, it was these everyday details that told the all-important story of the class. 

A lot has been written about the book. There is a whole mountain of interpretations. Yet, hardly anyone has managed to describe the nuances, ambiguities and everyday life of class in the same way as Thompson had.

Inevitably, current class and consciousness research is often measured against him – even in the much acclaimed book “Triggerpunkte” in Germany. For Thompson, it is clear that consciousness cannot be negotiated separately from social relations and economic structures. 

Thompson remains of central importance on the understanding of class and class consciousness. The book has revived an authentic revolutionary tradition and put the experiences of the class at the center. When one reads it today, it comes alive, and its characters still speak to us. It remains highly relevant

The Making of the English Working Class stood against the grain of the prevailing intellectual traditions of the time. Thompson opposed both economic history, which was based on classical economics, and Marxism, which reduced classes to the relations of production. 

When the book was published, the echo was divided accordingly. Some reviewers also denounced Thompson’s “romanticism”. Nevertheless, he became one of the world’s most cited historians of the 20th century. 

Even after his magnum opus, Thompson continued to turn to the English working class. In several seminal texts, he renewed the historiography of the 18th century English.

For example, he investigated popular practices of that time, such as hunger revolts or poaching. In doing so, he coined the term moral economy. With it, he wanted to prove that there is a rational core inherent in these actions of rioting groups. According to Thompson, the moral economy is based on traditional ideas of social norms and values, to which everyone should be able to participate socially. 

Since then, this idea has been discussed in many ways and has provoked both criticism and praise. The first to work with the term was the American anthropologist James C. Scott, who set out in search of the moral economy of farmers in Southeast Asia. 

Subsequently, many researchers transferred this term to other contexts, for example, to the developing countries, but also to industrial workers and even to the field of knowledge production. All these rich and theoretically fruitful investigations are inextricably linked with the social and intellectual disputes in which Thompson was involved in. 

Above all, his criticism of the structuralist Marxism by the French philosopher Louis Althusser – which he presented in his book The Poverty of Theory in 1978 – was as relentless as it was razor-sharp. 

This was followed by a debate with Althusser on the interpretation of the Marxist model of basis (social relations) and superstructure (prevailing ideas), as well as on the relationship between structure and agency in a Marxist thought.

Thompson positioned his humanistic Marxism and the emphasis on human experience and possibilities of action against Althusser’s concept of over-determination. He also had a controversy with the Polish dissident Leszek Kolakowski in the mid-1970s about the interpretation of Marxism. 

In contrast to this, however, Thompson remained a socialist despite all criticism and defended the Marxist tradition. His criticism of industrial illusions (e.g. eternal growth, etc.) was particularly well-suited to the emergence of the ecology movement in the late 1970s, and his interest in culture, people and their experiences helped in the renewal of the social sciences. 

Between 1976 and 1977 he traveled to India and influenced young radical historians whilst there. Later, this came together under the label Subaltern Studies. After that, Thompson decided to give up his work as a historian, in order to devote himself entirely to the newly emerged anti-nuclear power movement.

E. P. Thompson wrote dozens of articles for the European and American press, appeared frequently on television and at conferences, and gave numerous interviews. In them, he attacked both ruling power blocs – the Soviet Union and the USA. This led to the fact that he was denounced both as a “CIA agent” and as a “Soviet agent”. 

Beyond all that, E. P. Thompson remains highly relevant. As the capitalist world order is breaking ever more ground, its pathologies become ever more visible. The capitalocene means, “we are on a highway to climate hell with our foot on the accelerator”. E. P. Thompson foresaw much of this and thought of our survival.

Born close to Castle Frankenstein, the former carmaker, unionist, and academic, Thomas Klikauer, writes books about the pathologies of corporate capitalism and other things.

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