E. P. Thompson (1924-1993)
A large part of this biography is taken from Wikipedia which has provided an excellent and concise review of Thompson and his works.
Thompson was an English 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 book The Making of the English Working Class (1963), but he also published influential biographies of William Morris (1955) and (posthumously) William Blake (1993) 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 he was the leading intellectual light of the movement against nuclear weapons in Europe.
He was born in Oxford to Methodist missionary parents and educated at Kingswood School, Bath. During World War II he served in a tank corps in Italy, and then studied at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, where he joined the Communist Party. In 1946 he formed the Communist Party 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. It was part of an effort by the Communist Party Historians' Group 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. 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. As Thompson noted:
“William Morris was the first creative artist of major stature in the world to take his stand, consciously and without shadow of compromise, with the revolutionary working class: to participate in the day-to-day work of building the Socialist movement: to put his brain and his genius at its disposal in the struggle. It is no small matter for a man of fifty, in the face of the ridicule of society, the indifference of wife and friends, to set aside the work he loves and fashion his life anew. But this is what Morris did...His was the steady enduring courage of the realist, which upheld him in all the drudgery, committee wrangling and trivial duties of the movement... Morris will always occupy a position of unique importance in the British revolutionary tradition"
In 1956, after Khruschev revealed that the Soviet party leadership had long been aware of Stalin's crimes, Thompson 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 he remained what he called a "socialist humanist", and with 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 group, which by 1968 had embraced Tariq Ali and various Trotskyists, as the second.
Thompson subsequently allied himself with the annual Socialist Register publication, 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.
Thompson's most influential work was and remains , published in 1963 while he was working at the University of Leeds. It told the forgotten history of the first working class 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".
A major 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. He wrote the book whilst living in Siddal, Halifax, West Yorkshire and based some of the work on his experiences with the local Halifax folk.From their stories, Thompson excavates a whole new landscape of forgotten history and colonisation and he draws a very clear and revealing picture of the Enclosures, and what they meant for the common folk of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales.
The process of colonisation abroad was synchyronous with and continued with the Enclosures, which legally created a "private" space, where before had existed only the "commons". Thompson’s classic work solidly establishes the role of the appropriation of space by capitalists and gentry through the intervention of the state as an indispensable ingredient in the conditions which allowed the development of industrialised capitalism. He is worth quoting at length:
“(Regarding the impact of the Enclosures) we may still sketch certain of the general processes at work in many parts of the country. And first we should remember that the spirit of agricultural improvements in the eighteenth century was impelled less by altruistic desires to banish ugly wastes - or, as the tedious phrase goes - ‘to feed a growing population’ than by the desire for fatter rent-rolls and larger profits....The arguments of the enclosure propagandists were commonly phrased in terms of higher rental values and higher yield per acre. In village after village, enclosure destroyed the scratch-as-scratch-can subsistence economy of the poor. The cottager without legal proof of rights was rarely compensated. The cottager who was able to establish his claim was left with a parcel of land inadequate for subsistence and a disporoprtionate share of the very high enclosure cost. Enclosure (when all the sophistications are allowed for) was a plain enough case of class robbery, played according to fair rules of property and law laid down by a parliament of property-owners and lawyers... it is possible to overlook the larger fact that what was at issue was a redefinition of the nature of agrarian property itself."
Thompson shows how this rupture was neither accidental nor unsystematic. It formed part of a historical programme of dispossession of the peasants from the existing means of production, the destruction of the spatial relations of the existing means of production and the superimposition of a whole new spatial order.
“Copyhold (landholding by virtue of ‘copy of court roll’) and even vaguer customary family tenancies (which carried common rights) might prove to be invalid at law although they were endorsed by the collective memory of the community. Those petty rights of the villagers, such as gleaning, access to fuel, the tethering of stock in the lanes or on the stubble, which are irrelevant to the historian of economic growth, might be of critical importance to the subsistence of the poor....Enclosure, indeed, was the culmination of a long secular process by which men’s customary relations to the agrarian means of production were undermined. It was of profound social consequence because it illuminates, both backwards and forwards, the destruction of the traditional elements in English peasant society.”
The re-spatialisation of the landscape, and through it, the transformation of the relations of production took place not only through the Enclosures in Britain and Europe, but on a global scale, where the spatial basis of capitalist expansion and production was extended to the appropriation of indigenous lands, their surveying, their mapping, and most of all their legal allocations under individual titles, destroying not only the relations of and between tribal and extended family groups to the land, but through the land, through the means of production. Nor has the process been confined to indigenous peoples. The spatialisation of the landscape has, since the early 1800s, been at the same time both the most profound and the least noticed of capitalism's inexorable transformations.
In 1967, while still at Warwick, Thompson extended his analysis of the respatialisation of British Society through the Enclosures with a study on Time. His influential Time, Work and Industrial Capitalism (1967), published in Past and Present sought to show how the development and growth of capitalism would have beenimpossible without the equal colonisation of time - that is, the displacement and replacement of indigenous and collectively understood conceptions of time (based upon natural phenomena and folk wisdom and experience) and the imposition by the State and capitalist binterests of by mechanical clock time. His analysis paralelled that of Henri Lefebvre, who, working in the reverse orrder, first undertook a critical review of the Marxist obsession with time, before developing his critical theories of space.
Thompson left Warwick University 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, but increasingly worked as a freelance writer. He turned to freelancing, contributing many essays to New Society, Socialist Register and historical journals. In 1978 he published The Poverty of Theory, (here he famously describes counterfactualism as "unhistorical shit") which attacked the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser and his followers in Britain on New Left Review, and 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).
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 (CND). 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 innumerable 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). Thompson was one of the most dearly loved British Socialists.
To download my own three-PDF Critical Theory of Space click here