E.P. Thompson

By: Tor Aarestad
February 3, 2012

Being a British Communist in 1973, wrote E.P. THOMPSON (1924-93) that year, is “to be a null quantity like a foreign postage-stamp twice cancelled, unusable and not worth a collector’s attention.” Which makes the amount of verve, acuity, bombast and false courtesy (see Arguments within English Marxism) that this supposedly irrelevant den of weasels got up to truly astonishing. Having embraced Soviet Communism, then rejected Stalinism, Thompson cofounded the influential New Left Review; Perry Anderson, whom Thompson brought in, staged a coup. Thompson and his coterie later took up with the Socialist Register, constituting the First New Left, or “Old New Left,” while Anderson, et al., were dubbed the Second New Left, or the “New New Left.” (The zeal of these academic historians was religious in quality: the bitterness of their quarrels suggests the schismatic nature of ecclesiastical disagreements about how to properly interpret scripture and make God’s word manifest in the world.) Thompson’s intellectual life was marked by an earnest commitment to social betterment interdigitated with an analytic effort to understand social and cultural processes. When he wasn’t writing to M.P.s, publishing 100-page open letters, or, say, writing a devastating critique of pandering biographers of Mary Wollstonecraft (whom he greatly admired), Thompson found time to write such fine work as The Making of the English Working Class (1963), the focus of which — on the cultural practices and mentalité of the poor — was transformative. He was among the first historians to combine a Marxist focus on the interrelations of economic and social structures with an anthropological attention to local culture and popular experience. Though his Marxism forced him out of the university system, Thompson’s commitment to social justice continued through his roles as a public intellectual and social critic and as a leader of the peace movement.


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