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International Socialism, Winter 1993


David McNally

E.P. Thompson: class struggle and historical materialism


From International Socialism 2:61, Winter 1993
Copyright © International Socialism.
Copied with thanks from the International Socialism Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Edward Palmer Thompson, the greatest Marxist historian of the English speaking world, died in August of 1993. Best known for his masterpiece The Making of the English Working Class, Thompson launched a current in Marxist history which restored the exploited and oppressed to their rightful place as makers of history. This emphasis on working class self activity was not merely an academic project; it emerged as part of Thompson’s political commitment to freeing Marxism from the terrible distortions of Stalinism, a commitment which originated in the battles of 1956 within the official Communist movement.

Through the Smoke of Budapest: 1956 and the battle against Stalinism

’The Polish and Hungarian people have written their critique of Stalinism upon their streets and squares. In doing so, they have brought back honour to the international Communist movement.’ [1] So wrote Thompson in The Reasoner, a dissident magazine he and John Saville issued as a challenge to the leadership of the British Communist Party (CP). For Thompson, like many other Communists, the Polish and Hungarian uprisings of 1956 against Stalinism posed a moral and political dilemma: to support their party leaderships, which defended the bloody suppression carried out by Russian troops, or to side with the uprisings of Polish and Hungarian workers. To his lasting credit, Thompson chose the latter course. And he launched a debate in the CP in an effort to confront the party’s Stalinist legacy. ‘It is time we had this out,’ he wrote. ‘From start to finish ... our leadership has sided (evasively at times, perhaps) with Stalinism.’ Against the crimes of Stalinism, Thompson advocated a ‘socialism of free people, and not of secret speeches and police. [2]

The experience of 1956 left an indelible mark on Thompson’s political outlook. This was overwhelmingly a positive thing. Against an abstract, mechanical system of thought and politics which paraded itself as Marxism, Thompson sought to restore to Marxism its commitment to the concrete struggles of actual men and women. Flesh and blood working people, their self activity, their resistance to oppression, their victories and defeats – all these were to be reinstated as the heart and soul of socialist theory and politics. Precisely this – commitment to the actual struggles of real people – was what Stalinist politics had buried beneath a dead weight of dogma and bureaucratic edicts. ‘Stalinism’, Thompson argued, ‘is socialist theory and practice which has lost the ingredient of humanity.’ Stalinism begins, he claimed, with a line set according to the interests of the bureaucratic party leadership, rather than with a concrete analysis of the actual social reality in which people live, work and struggle. Everything is then subordinated to proving the infallibility of this line. ‘Instead of commencing with facts, social reality, Stalinist theory starts with the idea, the text, the axiom: facts, institutions, people must be broken to conform to the idea.’ It follows that Stalinism operates as a sort of ‘mechanical idealism’ in which human beings are mere playthings to be manipulated according to the overriding idea which the party claims as truth. [3]

Central to Thompson’s political and theoretical project was the battle against the reifying tendencies of bourgeois thought – its propensity to reduce human beings, their social relations, and their historical experiences to relations between things which utterly determine social life. As a form of socialism which had liquidated ‘the ingredient of humanity’, Stalinism had lost sight of the fact that, however conditioned they might be by objective circumstances, ultimately human beings made their own history.

Thompson’s rebellion against Stalinism was fought under the banner of ‘libertarian communism’. [4] And it was this perspective, with its insistence upon the living struggle of working people for their self emancipation, which decisively shaped his most important pieces of historical writing and which made his work a vital contribution to the renewal of Marxism.

The Making of the English Working Class: Marxist masterpiece

No reader of Thompson’s greatest work, The Making of the English Working Class (1963), can fail to be struck by its author’s passionate insistence that in making history working people also make themselves. This theme, working class agency and self activity, sharply distinguished the Making from so much of what had passed for Marxist historical analysis during the period in which Stalinism dominated the left internationally. [5] Indeed, in the famous preface to that work, Thompson spelt out the unique character of his approach to the issues of class and class struggle, implicitly contrasting it with the mechanical materialism of Stalinist historiography.

He had chosen the ‘clumsy’ notion of the making of the English working class, Thompson explained, in order to depict ‘an active process, which owes as much to agency as to conditioning’. Class, he insisted, is not a structure or a category; it is ‘something which in fact happens (and can be shown to have happened) in human relationships’. And these relationships are ‘always embodied in real people in a real context’. [6] Against approaches to history which stress ‘great figures’ or great material changes – the opening of trade routes, the building of cotton mills – Thompson sought to emphasise the activity of ordinary labouring people as a central factor in the historical process. In doing so he hoped to affirm the fundamental dignity of the masses who make (and have made) history. ‘I am seeking’, he wrote in a memorable passage, ‘to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obselete” handloom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.’ [7] These people mattered, Thompson insisted, because the English working class had been made not just by patterns of capital accumulation and market competition, but also by the ideas, aspirations and struggles of workers striving to influence the conditions of their lives.

In its effort to restore meaning to the activity of the common people, the Making regularly takes aim at the reifying tendencies of mainstream historical analysis. When history is presented as a series of interlocking events each of which is fully determined by the other, ‘we arrive at a post facto determinism,’ Thompson writes. ‘The dimension of human agency is lost and the context of class relations is forgotten.’ And, as so often, he gives us a beautifully illustrated example of how events are saturated with the social relations of class:

The raw fact – a bad harvest – may seem to be beyond human election. But the way that fact worked its way out was in terms of a particular complex of human relationships: law, ownership, power. When we encounter some sonorous phrase such as ‘the strong ebb and flow of the trade cycle’ we must be put on our guard. For behind this trade cycle there is a structure of social relations, fostering some sorts of expropriation (rent, interest, and profit) and outlawing others (theft, feudal dues), legitimising some types of conflict (competition, armed warfare) and inhibiting others (trades unionism, bread riots, popular political organisation) ... [8]

It is the recognition that these issues – law, ownership and power – were always contested and never merely given that distinguishes the Making as a piece of Marxist history. Thompson refuses to fall for the myth of the working class as essentially passive, as simply reacting to external events which determined its fate. Even when discussing the role of religion – in this case Methodism – in blunting and diverting class struggle, he is careful not to portray working people as mere playthings of religious leaders. ‘No ideology is wholly absorbed by its adherents: it breaks down in practice in a thousand ways under the criticism of impulse and experience: the working-class community injected into the chapels its own values of mutual aid, neighbourliness and solidarity’, he notes. [9]

Thompson’s emphasis on the ideas, aspirations, traditions and experiences of working people has been depicted by some critics as a sort of soggy sentimentalism which glorifies the existing state of consciousness of the working class. There is a potential danger here. But the Making does not succumb to it. While paying detailed attention to the ideological and political traditions of the English working class, Thompson does not flinch from underlining the shortcomings of many of these. In particular, he discusses the limits of the constitutionalism of the radical movement, its insistence that English law is dedicated to the provision of liberties to all subjects and that those who violate these are acting against the constitution. And he underlines the defects of a petty bourgeois radicalism, quite common in the emerging working class movement, which, rather than attacking capitalist ownership, projected the ideal of a community of small independent owners/producers exchanging equitably and living in harmony. On both these points, he indicts the ambiguous radicalism of William Cobbett, whose writings played an enormous role in the working class movement of the early 19th century. Cobbett, argues Thompson, failed as an ideologist of working class mobilisation because ‘he reduced economic analysis to a polemic against the parasitism of certain vested interests. He could not allow a critique which centred on ownership.’ [10] Indeed, the heroes in Thompson’s account are those plebeian radicals, often members of the revolutionary underground, who did push towards ‘a critique centred on ownership,’ a socialist critique which moved towards the idea of common ownership of the means of production. [11]

It is worth underlining this last point. The Making of the English Working Class rehabilitates a revolutionary underground of working class radicals, stretching from the 1790s into the Chartist period, whose adherents were dedicated to an insurrection against the British state. This feature of the Making, which enraged many of its earliest reviewers, has been forgotten by those critics who condemn its alleged populism and romanticism. Throughout the work, Thompson identifies himself with the plebeian radicals of the revolutionary underground. In doing so, he challenged the dominant tradition in British labour history – one which stressed gradualism and constitutionalism. Thompson insists that the revolutionaries were not mad plotters and idle cranks. On the contrary, he argues that at a number of points between the 1790s and 1832 – most notably in the autumn of 1831 – a mass revolutionary sentiment was percolating within the English working class. [12] The Making stands out, therefore, not only because it focuses centrally on the self activity of the working class, but also because it demonstrates that revolutionary ideas and organisation played a vital role in the emergence of the British working class movement.

In defence of history

Much of Thompson’s work in the 15 year period after the appearance of the Making took the form of a defence of the practice of historical materialism against abstract and schematising tendencies within Marxism. In 1965, two years after the appearance of his great work, he entered the fray against the two most influential editors of the New Left Review (NLR), Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn.

Thompson had briefly collaborated with the two in the early stages of the NLR. In the spring of 1960 the New Reasoner, edited by Thompson and John Saville, merged with the Universities and Left Review to create the NLR. At the beginning the NLR was seen as part of a practical political project: the Review would be linked to New Left Clubs in an effort to build a new socialist movement in Britain. Inevitably, uncertainty over key questions like revolution or reform and a lack of clarity about the role and nature of a socialist organisation led to the stagnation and demise of the clubs. In 1962 Perry Anderson was appointed to reorganise the NLR – which he did with zest, in the process marginalising Thompson and other founders from the centre of the life of the Review.

Thompson’s disdain for the direction the NLR took under Anderson’s tutelage found expression in a brilliant essay, The Peculiarities of the English (1965). Peculiarities was a reaction to articles by Anderson and Nairn which tied the crisis of British capitalism and the alleged impotence of the British labour movement to the ‘incompleteness’ of the country’s bourgeois revolution. Britain had made the transition to capitalism, Anderson and Nairn argued, at a time when the bourgeoisie was still economically, politically and culturally subordinate to the aristocracy. Hence Britain’s political institutions were never fully revolutionised (witness the retention of the monarchy and the House of Lords), and its bourgeoisie failed to develop into an aggressive and self confident class capable of establishing political and cultural hegemony in society. An impotent bourgeoisie in turn produced a reformist working class movement. Whereas the revolutionary traditions of the French bourgeoisie shaped the emerging working class in that country, the absence of a genuine bourgeois revolution accounted for the non-revolutionary traditions of British labour. [13]

Thompson reacted with barely concealed rage to this argument. He tore into the schematism of the Nairn-Anderson thesis, subjecting it to merciless criticism. Picking up some of the threads of Marx’s discussion in Part Eight of the first volume of Capital, Thompson highlighted the proletarianisation of rural producers and capital accumulation in agriculture as key moments in the transition to capitalism in England. The development of English capitalism, he wrote:

... was enormously complex and protracted, commencing (for historical convenience) with the great monastic sheep farmers of Domesday, and passing through the enfeeblement of the barons in the wars, the growth of ‘free labour’, the enclosure of the sheep-walks, the seizure and redistribution of Church lands, the pillaging of the New World, the drainage of fens, and, thence, through revolution, to the eventual acceleration of enclosure and the reclamation of wastes. [14]

Anderson and Nairn see none of this, Thompson maintains, because they have a ready-made schema which precedes historical investigation. For Anderson-Nairn, the rise of capitalism in England must follow the French model. If capitalism emerged there largely in the urban trading and manufacturing centres, then so it should have in England. The fact that English capitalism had powerful agrarian roots escapes them. Furthermore, their schematism prevents them from recognising that agrarian and industrial capitalists were not two utterly distinct species. Although they did constitute two different groups, they were welded into a reasonably unified bloc in response to the emergence of the working class movement in the era of the French Revolution. [15] The industrial bourgeoisie was not inept; on the contrary, it perceived its common interests with agrarian capital in defence of capitalist property against threats from below.

In attacking Anderson and Nairn, Thompson did not consider that he was simply correcting erroneous interpretations of history. He saw himself as defending the practice of historical materialism against an empty formalism which characterised too much Marxist analysis. ‘Minds which thirst for a sturdy platonism very soon become impatient with actual history’, he suggested. A decade later, his defence of ‘actual history’ against ‘platonic Marxism’ took the form of a no holds barred attack on the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser.

Thompson’s critique of Althusser developed points which had been made by other writers. [16] What distinguished Thompson’s attack, The Poverty of Theory, however, was its fierce polemical tone and its attempt to demonstrate that Althusser’s position was saturated with Stalinism. Not surprisingly, Thompson’s polemic begins with an assault on the contempt for history that characterises his adversary’s project. Thompson quotes the astonishing statement by two British Althusserians that ‘Marxism, as a theoretical and political practice, gains nothing from its association with historical writing and historical research. The study of history is not only scientifically but also politically useless.’ [17] And he proceeds to demonstrate that Althusser’s system is nothing less than the wildest form of idealism.

Central to Althusser’s position was the idea that Marxist science could be constructed only at the level of philosophy by means of the pure refinement of concepts. Any contamination of theory by history, any attempt to ground concepts in lived experience, he denounced as ‘empiricism’. It followed that Marxist science could be developed only at a conceptual level, by refining concepts by means of other concepts. Thompson had no doubt as to the thoroughly idealist nature of this theoretical operation:

... this procedure is wholly self-confirming. It moves wholly within the circle not only of its own problematic but of its own self-perpetuating and self-elaborating procedures ... It is a sealed system in which concepts endlessly circulate, recognise and interrogate each other.

Such a position is neither scientific nor materialist. And Thompson did not shrink from giving it a name. Althusser’s theoretical enterprise, he wrote:

is a break from disciplined self-knowledge and a leap into the self-generation of ‘knowledge’ according to its own theoretical procedures: that is, a leap out of knowledge and into theology. [18]

The tone of Thompson’s spirited polemic offended many academic Marxists. Yet Thompson’s combination of satire and denunciation with theoretical argument was nothing new in Marxist polemics against idealism – one need only consult the tone adopted by Marx and Engels in a work like The Holy Family to see that The Poverty of Theory has its place in a long and honourable tradition. But Thompson’s essay offended in large measure because of the political and social characterisation of Althusserianism it contained.

Thompson notes the origin of Althusser’s work: 1956. And he recognises that Althusser’s project was defined by an effort to render the Communist Parties immune from the sort of criticism which was emanating from libertarian communist and socialist humanist quarters. The easiest way to do that was to eliminate human beings from the project of ‘Marxist’ science. To that end, Althusser sought to bury Marx’s concepts of alienation and reification and to reconstruct Marxist science as a philosophy of structures. But Thompson, seasoned in the battles of 1956, understood the political character of Althusser’s project. ‘We can see the emergence of Althusserianism’, he wrote, ‘as a manifestation of a general police action within ideology, as the attempt to reconstruct Stalinism at the level of theory.’ [19]

How, then, to account for the popularity of Althusserianism among left wing intellectuals? Here Thompson offers merely the sketch of an argument. But it was no less offensive to many academic Marxists for that. For Thompson’s suggestion is that Althusser’s work struck a chord because of the elitism peculiar to the left leaning middle class intelligentsia. This group, ‘indoctrinated by selective educational procedures to believe that their own specialised talents are a guarantee of superior worth and wisdom, are only too willing to accept the role offered to them by Althusser’ – that of philosophical guardians of proletarian science. ‘Isolated within intellectual enclaves,’ Thompson writes, ‘the drama of “theoretical practice” may become a substitute for more difficult practical engagements.’ Moreover, because it rests upon the same sort of intellectual elitism which dominates academic life generally, Althusserianism is entirely compatible with recognition and promotion in the world of the colleges and universities; ‘it allows the aspirant academic to engage in a harmless revolutionary psycho-drama, while at the same time pursuing a reputable and conventional intellectual career.’ [20]

Here we encounter one of the most significant features of Thompson’s Marxism – his hostility to academicism. Thompson himself had only an episodic and marginal relationship to the British university system. More than this, however, his insistence on working class self activity put him at odds not only with the academic establishment, but also with the elitist traditions of the intellectual left – one of the many things for which he deserves to be remembered. [21]

Limitations: materialism and moral critique

And yet there is something of a paradox here. For Thompson’s work has received increasing academic recognition in recent years. To be sure, this is often simply a result of the sheer intellectual power and excitement of Thompson’s historical writing. But there is another reason which must be acknowledged: Thompson’s work, contrary to its author’s intentions, is susceptible to a degree of incorporation into the latest ‘radical’ intellectual fad – discourse theory.

It is beyond the bounds of this article to engage seriously with this intellectual trend. Suffice it to say that since the mid-1970s the predominant trend among radical intellectuals has been an avowedly anti-materialist one. In the name of rejecting ‘economism’ and ‘class reductionism’, large numbers of intellectuals have come to believe the idea that society pivots principally around the ‘discourses’ which organise the way we see the world and act within it. [22] And some of them have claimed an ally in E.P. Thompson.

This unlikely alliance centres on Thompson’s sharp attacks on the Marxist notions of ‘base’ and ‘superstructure’. For Marx and Engels, these concepts were a sort of shorthand for describing the way in which the forces and relations of production in any society – and the way these are expressed in class conflicts – exercise a determining influence on culture and ideologies. But Thompson reacted harshly against the mechanical way in which these ideas were used within Stalinised Marxism. He believed that the idea of a socio-economic base which conditions a cultural and ideological superstructure tended to encourage reifying thought ‘wherein blind, non-human, material forces are endowed with volition – even consciousness – of their own’. The result, he argued, is the reduction of ‘human consciousness to a form of erratic, involuntary response to steel-mills and brickyards, which are in a spontaneous process of looming and becoming’. [23]

One can hardly fault Thompson for his concern that the base-superstructure analogy could be abused terribly by those prone to mechanical forms of thought and action. Indeed, Engels had warned against just such abuses when he wrote that ‘the materialist conception of history has a lot of dangerous friends nowadays, who use it as an excuse for not studying history.’ [24] Similarly, Trotsky had cautioned that ‘an ignoramus, armed with the materialist dialectic ... inevitably makes a fool of himself.’ [25]

There is little doubt that ‘dangerous friends’ and ‘ignoramuses’ loomed large in the theoretical work that issued from Stalinist quarters. But Thompson did more than attack the use to which such people put the base-superstructure analogy. He argued that the analogy itself ‘is radically defective. It cannot be repaired. It has an in-built tendency to lead the mind towards reductionism.’ And as a corrective to this tendency he insisted that class was as much a cultural as an economic formation and that ‘it is impossible to give any theoretical priority to one aspect over the other.’ [26]

This argument carried an enormous hostage to fortune. Appealing though it might have been during a period in which vulgar materialism loomed large as a major threat to authentic Marxism, it is singularly ill equipped to respond to the new idealism which dissolves all of social life into language and discourse. Not that Thompson could ever have countenanced the idea of people as free floating entities adopting new identities (or ‘subject positions’) every time they come within hailing distance of a new discourse. Such a view is utterly foreign to Thompson’s hard nosed recognition that people are born into class relations which strongly condition the whole make-up of their lives. In fact, Thompson never relinquished the idea that productive relations occupy a central role in social life. Even in his famous preface to the Making he maintains that ‘the class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born – or enter involuntarily.’ [27] Similarly, in the midst of one of his sharpest attacks on the base-superstructure analogy, he insists that he is not calling into question ‘the centrality of the mode of production (and attendant relations of power and ownership) to any materialist understanding of history.’ [28]

Yet how is this insistence on the centrality of the mode of production to social life to be theoretically defended once we have abandoned the idea that some aspects of human existence are more foundational than others? Why privilege class in any account of history, after all, if the experiences out of which class develops – people’s positions in a system of social production – are no more basic than anything else to the workings of society? Thompson has no serious answers to these questions. And given this, it comes as little surprise when we find one of his followers arguing that ‘we cannot after all establish any logical necessity for the primacy of production in the explanation of social life.’ [29] With that concession, however, the whole Marxist project collapses – the idea that class struggle is central to recorded history as much as the notion that working class self activity is the key to overturning capitalist society.

None of this is meant to accuse Thompson of having conspired to aid and abet the decline of historical materialism and the rise of discourse theory. Indeed, Thompson would have recognised the latter, with its elevation of speech and thought above labour, as just another episode of bourgeois elitism. Nevertheless, it must be acknowledged that, in attacking the base-superstructure analogy and the central role Marx accorded economic activity in social life, Thompson unwittingly opened the door to an anti-materialist current in contemporary social theory. [30] Especially where he insists that culture is as determinant as economy, Thompson assisted a trend he would probably have disowned. [31]

This point is brought out clearly by a North American Marxist historian who has taken his inspiration from Thompson’s historical writing. While acknowledging the important role played by Thompson and his contemporary Raymond Williams in countering structuralism and vulgar materialism, Bryan Palmer notes nevertheless that ‘something was lost in the assimilation of agency and structure, culture and materiality.’ And, he continues, since the late 1970s:

... the theoretical claims of Thompson and Williams were all too easily incorporated into an emerging orthodoxy ... that closed its nostrils to the foul smell of economism without reflecting on the extent to which it was also, simultaneously, shutting its eyes to materialism. The cultural became the material; the ideological became the real. [32]

It must be acknowledged, in fact, that Thompson exhibited a tendency to slip from materialist to moral-cultural critique. I am inclined to think, ironically, that this slippage owes something to the nature of his critique of Stalinism. For all its moral and political fervour, there was something remarkably imprecise about his attack on Stalinism. Thompson described his as a ‘moral critique of Stalinism’ – and there is much to be said for that. Whatever its limitations, revolutionary socialists can only applaud a critique which refuses to countenance slave labour camps, show trials, mass murder, a police state regime of lies and crimes against human rights, as authentic forms of socialism. But alongside the vigour of moral denunciation one needs a clear analysis of the nature of the regimes at issue. At no time did Thompson offer the latter. And his gestures towards such an analysis can only be described as feeble. Thus in his polemic against Althusser he writes that ‘the Soviet state can only be understood with the aid of the concept of “parasitism”.’ [33] But writing as a historian of English radicalism, Thompson had alerted us to the shortcomings of just that term. Discussing William Cobbett in the Making, for example, Thompson indicts his radicalism for reducing ‘economic analysis to a polemic against the parasitism of certain vested interests’. [34] Yet in the case of the Russian state that is precisely what Thompson does. Nowhere does he engage with the existing economic analyses of Russia; instead, he restricts himself to a moral critique of parasitism.

This, it seems to me, is the greatest shortcoming of Thompson’s political writings: his predisposition to supplant materialist analysis with moral critique. Often these critiques are passionate in the extreme – they fairly ring with indignation. Yet just as often they lack the sort of probing and systematic analysis required if they are to be convincing and if they are to serve as guides to action. One example should illustrate the point.

During the 1970s Thompson became increasingly preoccupied with the growth of the ‘secret state’ in Britain and its invasions of civil liberties. Understandably, he expressed annoyance with Marxists who considered such questions irrelevant. Yet, in bending the stick against those who were indifferent to civil rights, Thompson tended to lose his critical distance. He praised the rule of law as ‘an unqualified human good’, as ‘a cultural achievement of universal significance’, without so much as an acknowledgement of the contradictory character of law and of the fact that it is at least in part an expression of the alienation of people from the state that characterises class society. [35]

Then, in a reckless judgement, Thompson came to a thoroughly pessimistic conclusion about the struggle to defend civil liberties. The British people, he argued, ‘have been drugged into an awe of office’, they no longer rise to the defence of their traditional rights. [36] Yet Thompson’s ‘evidence’ for this claim involves no attempt at a materialist analysis of the balance of class forces, the state of the working class movement and the left, and other factors which might influence levels of popular opposition to incursions on civil rights. Instead he offers a superficial piece of cultural commentary: ‘The free-born Briton has been bred out of the strain ... An operation has been done on our culture and the guts taken out.’ [37] Subsequently, in a move reminiscent of Cobbett, Thompson takes up the mantle of constitutionalism by suggesting that he and other ‘defenders of civil liberties are attempting to uphold the constitution’ against the subversions of ‘the law and order brigade’. A similar configuration of moral critique replacing materialist analysis haunted Thompson’s analysis of the ‘exterminism’ which he identified in the new Cold War of the 1980s. [38]

Conclusion: Thompson’s enduring contribution

There is a danger that in making these criticisms I will lead some to the conclusion that Thompson, while a Marxist of good intent, has little to contribute to the future of revolutionary socialism. I mean to suggest nothing of the kind. E.P. Thompson was a giant figure in the development of Marxist history. I do not hesitate for a moment to suggest that he was the greatest figure produced by the British Communist Party Historians Group whose numbers included Christopher Hill, George Rudé, Eric Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton. And that greatness has principally to do with the unwavering political commitment that animates his work: his insistence upon the centrality of working class self activity to the historical process.

There is in Thompson something of the revolutionary temper, a disposition towards finding the cracks within the heavy structures of society which enable agency and self activity to bend history, to shape the direction of things. And it is this which makes the best of his work, whatever its limits, marvellous examples of genuine historical materialism at work. Historical analysis for Thompson is never simply about the past. It is also about recuperating past struggles in order to force open the cracks in history which will allow us to make a better future, one in which the glory and the suffering of past struggles are redeemed by future victories for the oppressed and exploited.

And that is why Thompson matters to us today, and why we should mourn his death. There were limits to Thompson’s Marxism, some of which I have touched on in this article. [39] But these do not change the fact that he was on our side, the side of those for whom the revolutionary struggle for working class self emancipation is the cause of the present and the future. The criticisms I have made are meant to overcome weaknesses in certain of the positions he adopted in order to preserve and extend the essential thrust of his work. Thompson, I think, would have been the first to understand that his work would be taken up and transformed by others fighting different battles than he. ‘What we may hope’, he once wrote, ‘is that the men and women of the future will reach back to us, will affirm and renew our meanings.’ [40] There is much to reach back for in the writings of E.P. Thompson, and much that deserves to be affirmed and renewed.


1. E.P. Thompson, Through the Smoke of Budapest, Reasoner: A Journal of Discussion, November 1956, as reprinted in D. Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (Harmondsworth 1976), p. 71.

2. Ibid., pp. 67, 72.

3. Ibid., pp. 70, 69.

4. Commitment to the idea of ‘libertarian communism’ is a constant throughout Thompson’s writings. See, for instance, A Communist Salute in the last issue of the Reasoner (Spring 1960), as reprinted in D Widgery, op. cit., pp. 90–91; his reference to himself as ‘a historian in a libertarian Marxist tradition’, in E.P .Thompson, Writing by Candlelight (London 1980), p. 166; and his renewed discussion of ‘libertarian communism’ in his The Poverty of Theory and other Essays (London 1978), p. 380. Usually this term is used interchangably with that of ‘socialist humanism.’

5. Indeed, the exceptions to this rule were generally works which came from within the Trotskyist tradition. One wonderful example is C.L.R .James, The Black Jacobins, first published in 1938.

6. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York 1963), p. 9.

7. Ibid., p. 12.

8. Ibid., p. 205.

9. Ibid., p. 392.

10. Ibid., p. 757.

11. See, for example, Thompson’s discussion of Thomas Spence and his followers as well as his treatment of the radical working class Owenites. For more on these groups, see my discussion in Against the Market: Political Economy, Market Socialism and the Marxist Critique (London 1993), ch 4.

12. Ibid., pp. 808, 816–817.

13. Anderson returned to his thesis 25 years later, developing it in a form in which its reformist implications became much sharper. See his The Figures of Descent, New Left Review 161 (January–February 1987). For critiques of this article and its earlier formulation see C. Barker and D. Nicholls (eds.), The Development of British Capitalist Society: A Marxist Debate (Manchester 1988); E.M. Wood, The Pristine Culture of Capitalism (London 1991); and A. Callinicos, Exception or Symptom? The British Crisis and the World System, New Left Review 169 (May–June 1988).

14. E.P. Thompson, The Peculiarities of the English, in The Poverty of Theory (op. cit.), p. 4l. Compare this description with that by Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Harmondsworth 1976), p. 895.

15. Ibid., p. 45.

16. See for example N. Geras, Althusser’s Marxism: An Assessment, and A. Glucksmann, A Ventriloquist Structuralism, both in Western Marxism: A Critical Reader (London 1977).

17. B. Hindess and P.Q. Hirst, Pre-Capitalist Modes of Production (London 1975), p. 312.

18. E.P .Thompson, The Poverty of Theory (op. cit.), pp. 204, 225.

19. Ibid., p. 323

20. Ibid., pp. 377, 376–77, 378. Unfortunately, Thompson’s fine discussion here is marred by his underestimation of the events of 1968 and the impact they had in creating genuine revolutionaries around the world.

21. Indeed, Thompson produced one of the finest caricatures of academics yet penned. In his short book, Warwick University Ltd: Industry, Management and the Universities (Harmondsworth 1970), pp. 153–155, he provides a marvellous discussion of ‘the species Academicus Superciliosus’ who is ‘inflated with self-esteem and perpetually self-congratulatory as to the high vocation of the university teacher’. I am grateful to Bryan Palmer for drawing this passage to my attention.

22. For helpful discussions of some of the intellectual trends at work here see R. Bradbury, What is Post-Structuralism? International Socialism 41 (Winter 1988); B.D. Palmer, Descent into Discourse: The Reification of Language and the Writing of Social History (Philadelphia 1990); and A. Callinicos, Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique (New York 1990).

23. E.P. Thompson, Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines, The New Reasoner: A Quarterly Journal of Socialist Humanism 1 (Summer 1957), pp. 113–114.

24. F. Engels, Letters on Historical Materialism 1890–94 (Moscow 1980), p. 7.

25. L. Trotsky, Notebooks, 1933–1935: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics, and Evolutionism (New York 1986), p. 111.

26. E.P. Thompson, Folklore, Anthropology and Social History (Brighton 1979), pp. 18, 21.

27. E.P. Thompson, Making (op. cit.), p. 9.

28. E.P. Thompson, Folklore (op. cit.), pp. 17–18.

29. D. Sayer, The Violence of Abstraction: The Analytic Foundations of Historical Materialism (Oxford 1987), p. 148. It comes as little surprise that Sayer has now adopted whole chunks of the views of Max Weber and Michel Foucault in his recent accounts of the workings of modern society.

30. For Thompson’s characterisation of Marx as guilty of a sort of economic reductionism see Peculiarities (op. cit.), p. 83; The Poverty of Theory (op. cit.), pp. 257–60; and Folklore (op. cit.), p. 19.

31. For one such formulation see E.P. Thompson, Folklore (op. cit.), p. 21.

32. Palmer (op. cit.), p. 210. For Palmer’s tremendous debt to Thompson see his The Making of E.P. Thompson: Marxism, Humanism and History (Toronto, 1981).

33. E.P. Thompson, Poverty (op. cit.), p. 241.

34. E.P. Thompson, Making (op. cit.), p. 757.

35. E.P. Thompson, Whigs and Hunter: The Origin of the Black Act (New York, 1975), pp. 266, 265.

36. E.P. Thompson, The End of an Episode, New Society (13 December 1979), p. 608. Note the irony in Thompson talking of a people being drugged when what characterises his historical writing is the insistence that the common people are never fully absorbed into the ideological universe of their rulers.

37. Ibid.

38. E.P. Thompson, Writing by Candlelight (op. cit.), p. 210. As always, Thompson’s work in this area was distinguished by tremendous passion and enthusiasm. Yet his analysis, set forward in an essay entitled Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilisation, New Left Review 121 (May–June 1980), faltered at crucial points. The essay displays great descriptive powers, as when he discusses the reciprocal logic that binds America and Russia in the arms race. Yet towards the end he claims that ‘exterminism itself is not a “class issue”: it is a human issue.’

At a purely descriptive level, this is obviously true: nuclear devastation would not discriminate on the basis of class. But analytically and strategically this begs key questions as to whether there is a systemic economic and political logic to the arms race, and whether this could be eliminated without overturning the prevailing class relations of society.

39. For an insightful discussion of the roots of these weaknesses see D. Hallas, How Can We Move On? Socialist Register 1977, pp. 6–8.

40. E.P. Thompson, Poverty (op. cit.), p. 234.

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