Edward Palmer Thompson is indelibly associated with the idea of a social history conducted 'from below'. His reputation was secured by a string of major historical works including his seminal The Making of the English Working Class (the 50th anniversary of which fell last year), which has had a larger readership than almost any other popular work of modern British history since 1945. Among professional historians though, it is now probably less admired than his rich body of writings on crime, law and popular resistance in 18th-century England.
But 'EPT' was not only a scholar: he was also a tenacious campaigner – who first became prominent in the New Left political current of the late 1950s, and later became a household name towards the end of his life as one of leading figures in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1980s. While these facets of his career are fairly well known, what tends to be less remembered is that he was a talented, polemical and widely read political essayist whose work retains considerable resonance – notably his reflections on how class identity was lived and expressed in periods of seismic technological and social change, the nature and possibilities of a radical version of English patriotism, and the endemic tension between the modern state and the hard-won liberties of its citizens, issues I intend to explore in turn now.
As well as writing what became for many years the standard act of the formation of the English working class, Thompson also advanced a wider challenge to understandings of this category. For Thompson class emerged as a relationship and was expressed and lived through culture, as well as the world of production. In The Making he showed how different kinds of political vocabulary and local and religious traditions offered resources that were used by different actors to make sense of the worsening conditions that faced them and he pointed to a gradual, uneven but also decisive shift towards a new sense of collectivity in this period. To illustrate the dynamics of class formation he detailed the stories of a myriad of overlapping individuals, groups and communities, including those dispossessed by the shift from a landed to an urban industrial society, and those who took inspiration from the French revolution but translated its meanings into the terms of indigenous radicalism.
Strikingly, and rather controversially, he concluded that the English working class had made itself by 1832, before the industrial revolution had really got into its stride. For him, as for the line of English cultural critics (ranging from Ruskin through Morris right up to FR Leavis) Thompson came to regard industrialism as the primal experience in the development of modern Britain, when a fundamental break with established traditions of living and thought was effected by an ascendant mercantile class, whose prominence was reflected in the dissemination of utilitarian, and other mechanistic, forms of thinking.
Against this backdrop, Thompson returned to the lifeworld of those workers, mainly agricultural, whose skills were made redundant by the early phases of this epochal process, but who found themselves making common cause with others, and retained a sense of self-worth in the face of straitened circumstances. But the historical sympathy he extended for those displaced by technological innovation did not make him a golden-ageist yearning for the preindustrial village. His political writings from mid-20th century show a sensitivity to the shifting character of class identity associated with the later phase of capitalist development, and he was impatient with the inability of many on the left to abandon an idealised image of the 19th-century proletariat in the era of the expanding white-collar salariat and new affluent workers. And while he still sniffed out new kinds of radicalism and disruptive possibility, he continued to invest hope in the dignity of labour and the independence of spirit that he associated with the labour movement.
One of most pressing questions raised now by the experience of rereading Making of the English Working Class is what happened to the working class that Thompson sketched – especially the virtues of self-reliance, moral courage and independence from the state. One view, for example expressed by Jon Lawrence, is that what Thompson did was portray an ideal which progressives have hankered after for over a century, and which has made them ever more alienated from and disappointed by actually existing working people. And there is something to this.
But Thompson's intention was the exact opposite. In his mind, the particular story of struggle and emerging consciousness that he told offered glimpses of the kinds of virtues and qualities that would be required for self-realisation and struggle anywhere. This was a morality tale for all peoples moving through the threshold of modernity; most strikingly of all the working class came into the world through its growing self-awareness, a slow and uneven process which took predominantly political forms. For those facing the devastating loss of livelihood and dignity associated with socioeconomic transformation, education, political engagement and the forging of a new sense of collectivity represented important alternatives to what he memorably termed 'the chiliasm of despair'. This argument undoubtedly bears repetition in the wake of recent, equally profound changes.
Thompson's political instinct was always to look first and hardest at what was happening away from Westminster to see what was going on below, in the provinces, and on the margins, and at the wider pattern of social forces and forms of resistance. Strikingly, given how important the category of class was to his thinking, he remained convinced that the left needed to speak in the language of the 'people' and 'the nation', forging an appeal that reached across occupation differences, social classes and geography. And while this reflected the enduring influence of a Popular Frontist idea of political strategy – aspects of which were confounded by social changes in the second half of the 20th century – the key insight that the left could not rest its strategic thinking on simple class categories remains a valid one.
In his work on the 18th century he unearthed a myriad of locally rooted struggles and the small but significant shifts in self-understanding which these engendered. This sense of the various unpredictable consequences of the empowerment of individuals and groups and of the wider lessons of the power of the smallest acts of resistance offer a powerful lesson for our own context where the gap between people and rulers has once again taken on Georgian proportion. Much of his historical work offered portrayals forgotten heroes and heroines and charged the virtues and vices that informed their attempts to deal with the pressing circumstances they faced. Put in philosophical terms he envisaged individuals as self-aware and morally informed agents, and regarded human flourishing as far more open-ended and more plural in terms of 'the goods' it comprised than almost any other socialist thinker of his generation. He believed too that the deepest forms of self-realisation depended upon the development of mutually supporting, reciprocal communities and a wider culture of popular self-government.
It was this intuitive identification with dissent and the margins that characterised his sense of English traditions and underpinned his commitment to provide the alternative version of its national story, from the bottom up. This provided a striking counterpoint to the tales of pomp, circumstance, empire and state which had come to define what official British patriotism meant.
But such an identification was as contentious then as it is now on the left (think, for example, of Tom Nairn's disparaging 'village idiot tradition' critique). And Thompson took great care in framing his relationship with Englishness. He followed Orwell in choosing to talk of England, not Britain, for the most part, and he did so in part out of an appreciation of the different national stories that were housed within the UK, but also because of a lingering belief that England was the imagined community of the people, while Britishness was the nationalism promoted by the state. He identified the enduring qualities of what he termed an English idiom, by which he signalled three different things: (1) an approach to writing and arguing (irreverent, experiential, concrete – the antithesis of grand theorising) which was locally rooted but also capable of profound universal insights; (2) a lineage of democratic dissent – a procession down the centuries of movements, critics, poets and radical leaders who, despite their many differences, were united in their support for the cause of popular self-government, the defences of the ideal of the free-born Englishman; and (3) as a shorthand for what Gramsci called the national-popular – the rich, complex consciousness and everyday experience of ordinary people from whom both the Marxist and social democratic lefts had detached themselves, under the influence of various new theoretical doctrines.
This lineage underpinned the contrast he drew so powerfully (and polemically, in his famous essays against Anderson, Nairn and Kolakowski), between a humanistic and emancipatory understanding of the left's mission and the kind of theorist that increasingly engaged left-wing academics, and which allotted to the ordinary person the role of dupe or passive bearer of wider ideological forces. His bitter objections to Althusserian structuralism can be extended as well to paradigms such as post-structuralism, critical theory and left egalitarianism, all of which made the error of deciding in advance or from on high what form emancipated subjectivity should take, and failed to show the kind of respect for individuals as moral beings that was so important to him.
The English idiom he portrayed was the opposite to the kind of insular, pull-up-the-drawbridge retreat which was increasingly being identified with Englishness (notably in the context of Enoch Powell). For Thompson, English thought represented a bridge to a much wider modern European discourse about culture and politics. His own thinking about politics and history was framed on a European canvas, and throughout his life he envisaged movements that forged new solidarities and alliances spanning national frontiers. But crucially he also believed that progressive internationalism was impossible without a firm, confident sense of identity, and that that sense arose from a deep and critical conversation with local traditions and idioms.
Liberty and the state
In his later years, Thompson was drawn to a specific set of issues concerning the encroachment of the modern state upon the liberties and customary rights of the people. One example was the controversy over jury vetting in politically sensitive trials, which was prompted by the leaking of a memo written by the Labour attorney general in 1976. For Thompson, the creeping encroachment by the state upon such traditional practices and upon civil liberties more generally ought to have been of animating importance to the left, yet were widely seen as distractions from the real struggle. He wrote movingly – and of course historically – of the jury as an institution that represented tangible connection with centuries of political struggle. If it and other hard-won liberties were allowed to attenuate then the conditions in which the kinds of flourishing that progressive politics needs to encompass would wither. Similarly, he campaigned for much greater transparency in terms of state processes and was increasingly concerned about the erosion of liberties on the grounds of national security.
What is of interest now is the democratic reasoning he offered for his campaigning on these issues. He articulated a clear commitment to the importance for the kind of society in which socialist life might flourish within the rule of law – which he termed, to the consternation of many of his leftist readers, a universal human good (at the end of his 'Whigs and Hunters'). Without such basic guarantees and protections, the freedoms that underpinned the kind of flourishing he anticipated were at risk, above all the freedom to offer dissenting judgments. These issues represented the frontier in one of the paradigmatic battles of modern industrial society – between the drive of the bureaucratic state and powerful associated interests to secure control of the instruments, media and content of the wider culture. In these writings, Thompson offers a poignant lament for the impact of the bifurcation of the traditions – once integrally related by groups like the Chartists – of political liberty and social reform.
On institutions more generally, Thompson's legacy is quite mixed. He was adamantly in favour of those which reflected democratic advances and preserved hard-won freedoms. He was decidedly against those – monarchy, the House of Lords and the unmodernised constitution – which he regarded as the incremental descendants of Old Corruption.
More generally, he was a keen supporter of democratic innovation and new forms of association, especially those that broadened the opportunities for previously voiceless people to come together and make themselves heard, and which might well come to represent countervailing institutions away from the influence and gaze of the state as more authoritarian mode of government.
It is unwise to read off a programmatic set of ideas from Thompson, not least as he was so sceptical of the social democratic tradition. But there are sensibilities and insights in his writing that deserve re-engagement. He possessed a humanistic and libertarian body of convictions (which became stronger the older he grew). But he also never entirely gave up on the Burkean-style Marxism of his communist past. In some ways it was his ability to straddle seemingly divergent currents that made his writing so compelling and which still makes him interesting today. To reread his work is to encounter a powerful vision of a bottom-up, decentralised and dispersed politics, and to envisage a powerful counterpoint to the statism within Labour's DNA. It is also to be reminded that the progressive project can be conceived as the achievement of the imagination, energies and will of the people themselves.
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