E.P Thompson

Biography

Edward Palmer Thompson was born in Oxford to Edward John Thompson and Theodosia Jessup on February 3rd 1924. His father taught Bengali at Oxford University leading Edward and his brother to grow up in a scholarly environment. Thompson was a ‘Methodist by birth, upbringing, vocation, and education, he was in most respects an instinctive humanist and believer in the possibility of human betterment.[1]’ As children, he and his brother, William Frank Thompson attended the prestigious Dragon preparatory school in Oxford. At eighteen he joined the Communist Party following in the footsteps of his brother and in the same year Thompson also began his military service with the army in North Africa and Italy, becoming a tank commander and also participating in the battle of Cassino in 1944. In 1945, E.P. Thompson returned to education and completed the History degree at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge that he had started in 1942. Here at Cambridge, Thompson rejoined the Communist Party which is where he met his wife, Dorothy Towers. Thompson married Dorothy on December 16th 1948, having moved in together in 1945. The couple had three children together and were married until E.P Thompson’s death on August 28th 1993.

Education and Life Events

The death of his brother in the war in 1944 had a severe effect of E.P. Thompson’s perception of the world. Frank was caught, brutally interrogated, and, following a show trial in which he defended himself in Bulgarian and pronounced himself a communist, executed by firing squad alongside twelve captured partisans. It has been suggested that E.P Thompson had long been influenced by the vision of a democratic, socialist Europe and finding the ‘truth’ behind his beloved brother’s fate became something of an obsession. Unable to piece together the events of 1944, he was furious and suspicious at the British government’s reluctance to declassify official documents relating to Frank’s mission.[2] This immediate change in his life forced Thompson to reevaluate his perception of the world and can be said to be a major reason why his views altered in the years to follow.

Another key moment for Thompson was the Soviet’s brutal suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956. Along with many other leading members, it caused him to break from the British Communist Party. He did, however, remain a dedicated Marxist and cofounded The New Left Review, a new journal which was made up of ‘disaffected leftists’ whose aim was forming a noncommunist political movement. The New Left was a broad political movement mainly in the 1960s and 1970s consisting of educators, agitators and others who sought to implement a broad range of reforms. In contrast to earlier leftist Marxist movements, the ‘New Left’ focused mostly on labor unionization and questions of social class. One might suggest that a benefit of this new movement was that it raised awareness for class divisions and gave the situation a voice and importance in terms of necessary reforms.

Thompson later taught at the University of Warwick from 1965 and participated in student protests where there were demands to reform the university. He left Warwick in 1973 to become a full time writer.

Noted Works

The Making of the English Working Class (1963)

This is perhaps Thompson’s most well-known work, it shows how the working class took part in its own making and Arthur Marwick describes the 800 page book as ‘a treasure-house of fascinating information, informed by Thompson’s immense erudition in all aspects of the creative literature of the early nineteenth century, and indeed of many other periods.[3]

Read more about Labour History: http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/themes/labour_history.html

Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (1975)

E.P Thompson discusses the ‘Black Act’, a law of ‘unprecedented savagery passed by Parliament in 1723 to deal with wicked and evil-disposed men going armed in disguise’. The work explores the political and social implications, affording us glimpses of considerable popular discontent, corrupt ambition and crime.

Read more about ‘Whigs and Hunters’: http://www.jstor.org/stable/845214?seq=3#page_scan_tab_contents

William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (1955)

William Morris – the great 19th century craftsman, architect, designed, poet and writer – committed not to some theoretical formula but to the day by day struggle of working women and men in Britain and to the evolution of his ideas about art, about work and about how life should be lived. Many of William Morris’ ideas accorded none too well with the reforming tendencies dominant in the Labour movement, not with those of ‘orthodox’ Marxism, which looked elsewhere for inspiration.

Read ore about William Morris in an review from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-of-a-lifetime-william-morris-romantic-to-revolutionary-by-ep-thompson-1965104.html

Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and Moral Law (1993)

E.P. Thomson’s long-awaited book on William Blake was published shortly after the historian’s death in August 1993. Written with a vivid passion, and bearing the marks of Thompson’s lifelong struggle against authoritarian and anti-humanitarian politics both at the level of the individual and of the state, Witness Against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law is a profound enquiry into the structure of Blake’s thought and the character of his sensibility.

Read more about E.P. Thompson’s work on William Blake in a review from The Independent: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/book-review-a-meeting-with-the-last-of-the-muggletonians-witness-against-the-beast-william-blake-and-1465613.html

Reputation and Impact

Thompson argued that there was nothing automatic about the rise of the working class, he argued that the 19th century workers had courageously forged their own collective identity through a difficult and precarious process in which the initiative, moral conviction, and imaginative efforts of individual activists had made a crucial difference. Michael Bess has simply been one among many who have argued that The Making of the English Working Class rapidly became one of the most influential historical works of the post-World War II era. It both formed part of, and provoked, a sustained and widespread renewal of scholarly interest in the intricacies of grassroots history narrated ‘from below’. He suggests that the book helped to nurture the relatively new field of social history, marking the beginning of its ascendancy within the social sciences and humanities.[4]

E.P. Thompson spent much of his life as a controversial figure, seen as a leading light by those championing working class histories and histories from below; regarded with suspicion by the establishment, particularly in regards to his very public peace activism. However, in the years to follow Thompson’s reputation grew and he not only became a renowned Marxist historian and over time was seen as central to the development of the discipline of history in the second half of the twentieth century.

as a historian, he understood better than anyone that although history is made by ordinary women and men, by broad societal changes, the history that is told is about the actions of politicians and changes in the behavior of states.[5]

Bibliography/Reading List

The Essential E.P Thompson, Dorothy Thompson

The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson

E.P. Thompson: Objections and Oppositions, Bryan D. Palmer

The Relevance of E.P. Thompson, Sumit Sarkar

E.P. Thompson, Politics and History: Writing Social History Fifty Years after The Making of the English Working Class, Sven Beckert and Andrew Gordon

Endnotes

[1] John Rule, ‘Thompson, Edward Palmer (1924–1993)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2015 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40259, accessed 16 April 2016].

[2] John Rule, ‘Thompson, Edward Palmer (1924–1993)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2015 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/40259, accessed 16 April 2016].

[3] Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History, (Palgrave, 2001)

[4] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s. v. "E.P. Thompson", accessed April 15, 2016,http://www.britannica.com/biography/E-P-Thompson.

[5] ‘E.P. Thompson Obituary’, The Independent, accessed April 16, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-e-p-thompson-1464255.html