Edward Palmer Thompson (1924-1993) was a British historian, 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 his bookThe Making of the English Working Class (1963). But he also published influential biographies of William Morris (1955) and (posthumously) William Blake (1997) and was a prolific journalist and essayist as well as publishing one novel and a collection of poetry. He was one of the main intellectual members of the Communist Party who 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 Labour governments of 1964-70 and 1974-79 and, during the 1980s, the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe.
Thompson was born in Oxford, to Methodist missionary parents. During World War II he served in a tank corps. in Italy, and then studied at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, where he joined the Communist Party. In 1946 he formed the Communist 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.
Thompson's first major work was his biography of William Morris, written while he was a member of the CP. Subtitled From Romantic to Revolutionary, it was part of an effort by the CP Historians' Group, inspired by Torr, to emphasise the domestic roots of Marxism in Britain at a time when the CP was under attack for always following the Moscow line – but it was also an attempt to take Morris back from the critics who had emphasised his art and downplayed his politics for more than 50 years.
Although Morris' political work is well to the fore, 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 2nd edition (1976) notes, the first edition (1955) appears to have received relatively little attention from the literary establishment (see quotation on discussion page), because of its then-unfashionable Marxist viewpoint. However the somewhat-rewritten 2nd edition was much better received.
The first New Left
After Nikita Khruschev'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, 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 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 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 sequel, which by 1968 had embraced Tariq Ali and various Trotskyists, as the second.)
Thompson subsequently allied himself with the journal Socialist Register, and was (with Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall) 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
Thompson's most influential work was a book published in 1963, while he was working at Leeds University, that rediscovered the forgotten history of the first working-class left in the world in the late-18th and early-19th centuries. A stunning 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 left academia in 1971 after a public dispute with his employer, Warwick University, over commercialisation of the academy, documented in the book Warwick University Limited (1971). He turned to freelancing, contributing many fine 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, which provoked a book-length response from Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism.
During the late 1970s he 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
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 rebirth 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 inumerable 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 Defence Initiative, Star Wars (1985).
The last book Thompson published during his lifetime was Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (1993). The product of years of research, 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.
Thompson married Dorothy Towers (1923- ), a fellow left-wing historian, 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.
- William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1st ed. 1955, revised 2nd ed. 1976).
- The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
- Warwick University Limited (1971)
- Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (1977).
- The Poverty of Theory (1978).
- Writing by Candlelight (1980)
- Protest and Survive (1980)
- Zero Option (1982)
- The Heavy Dancers (1985)
- Double Exposure (1985)
- Star Wars (1985)
- The Sykaos Papers (Science fiction, 1988).
- Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture, (1991).
- Making History: Writings on History and Culture, (1994).
- Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law, (1993).
- The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age, (1997).
- The Collected Poems (Poetry, first pub. 1999).
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46