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Edward Palmer (“E. P.”) Thompson was an historian and social activist. His first significant publication, William Morris: From Romantic to Revolutionary (1955), was produced under the auspices of the Communist Party Historian’s Group, of which he was an early and active member. Although this is still an enormously important work, Thompson is best remembered for his writings and activities following his resignation/expulsion from the Communist Party (CP) in 1956, which resulted from his criticism of the party’s support for the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Following his departure from the party, Thompson—along with John Saville, with whom he had been publishing The Reasoner (renamed The New Reasoner in 1956), Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, and others— founded New Left Review in 1960 as one of a number of endeavors to maintain and foster a non-Labour, non-CP left in Britain.
Although generally overshadowed as a theorist by Hall, Thompson’s polemics on culture, history, and power in this period deserve reexamination for the manner in which they presaged developments in anthropology and literary studies some thirty years later, and his own later understanding of class.
Like Hall, Thompson found in the concept of culture (both in its anthropological and humanistic senses) an alternative to the economic determinism that dominated Marxist thought.Thompson railed against John’s notion of culture as a “whole way of life” as being invocative of a “cozy consensus” and not going far enough. Thompson instead argued that culture was more fruitfully viewed as a “whole way of conflict”—not a more or less static, atemporal, and apolitical entity, but itself formed by and generative of social struggle.
Thompson viewed the economic “basis” as the product of social struggle, whereby economic activity had been gradually divorced from all moral and social constraints. To this end, he deployed a generous reading of Marx’s concept of production, arguing that, in effect, the economy was indistinguishable from the human beings who collectively produce a society with economic laws, and “discover,” and are governed by those laws. In this stroke, one glimpses Thompson’s distaste not only for political economy, but also for its left opposite number, “Structural Marxism,” both of which he saw as abdicating morality, agency, and responsibility by theologizing what was itself a human production.
Thompson brought these understandings fully to bear in his Making of the English WorkingClass (1963) (MEWC). Though often confused with the “advocacy” histories that came in its wake (which is not to say Thompson was not an advocate of his subjects), the MEWC should not be viewed as a treatment of how class “ought” to look, but a history of how the working class in England came to look as it did on the eve of Chartism.The emphasis of the book was squarely placed on the concept of making, and an argument that class is a relationship and a process, not a “thing” that could be abstracted from its historical context and studied in isolation. Class, he argued, came about over time as a result of struggle, as the realization of mutual and antagonistic interests in human society that come to be articulated in class ways. Because class is an historical process, neither the experience nor the articulation is ever “finished.”
Thompson’s understanding of class endeavored to bring matters down to earth, to demonstrate the role ordinary people have in making their own history—both in terms of his eighteenth-century subjects and as a sort of ana-amnesis for the 1960s, with its early rumblings of what would come to be known as postmodernism. For Thompson, history had no preordained “direction”; it was quite literally what people (based “on experiences inherited or shared”) made it—that the black hats could (and often did) win out gave a sense of urgency to his subjects and, by extension, to the present. Thompson’s MEWCwas not a mining of the past for justifications in the present, however; it offered little safe ground for the reader (themselves historical subjects)—because struggle is always (at least) two-sided, and ongoing, each victory remains in jeopardy.
Thompson’s sprawling, impressionistic opus had an enormous and almost immediate impact in historical studies. From a methodological standpoint, the inclusion of literary sources as a form of historical evidence was novel, as were his attention to anonymous letters and (“fumigate[d]”) readings of spy reports. He viewed each in its turn as participating in what he called the “handling” of experience and in so doing managed to reposition politics in terms of the everyday.
Following the publication of MEWC, Thompson’s historical output was scant—in addition to a study of William Blake, he produced only two further volumes of historical writing in his lifetime—Whigs and Hunters (1975) and Customs in Common (1991)—the latter consisting largely of essays that had appeared in various forms over the previous two decades. On this count, the two major essays that followed MEWC—”The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century” (1971) and “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism” (1967) (both collected in Customs)—rivaled the importance and influence of MEWC and deserve special mention.
Both essays drew on concepts and addressed concerns introduced in MEWC. In “Moral Economy,” Thompson demonstrated that far from being spasmodic eruptions of hunger or “collective psychosis” (LeBon), English grain riots exhibited logic and discipline and were an attempt to enforce moral constraints upon the market. Thompson found a customary sense of fairness, a component of plebeian, and to a great extent also patrician, sensibilities being negotiated in the riots. The riots were not opposition to capitalism per se, as the rioters often sold seized grain at what they considered a fair price, giving the money to merchants (occasionally with magistrates looking on), but opposition to a market divorced of all moral and social concerns.
In “Time, Work Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Thompson examined the rationalization of labor and time over the course of the eighteenth century. Drawing on a typically impressive array of local sources, which he linked up to anthropological studies of noncap-italist societies, Thompson demonstrated that time and labor, which had been rooted in the human body and natural processes, were gradually estranged from those processes to conform to notions of abstract labor power and clock time, both of which mirrored the money form. Thompson’s essay, unlike the more celebrated work of Michel Foucault on similar themes, had the merit of moving beyond the truisms of power and the tendency of human activity to increase its scope (power + resistance = power’, power’ + resistance = power”, by gearing analysis toward concrete forms of domination and their attenuation (also, incidentally through human activity). Put simply, while it may be the case that all roads lead to power, people have to live in a world in which the concrete forms and variable severity of “power” matter very much to them.
This sensibility informed his 1975 Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act. The book was a microscopic study of the 1723 “Waltham Black Act,” notorious for exploding the number of capital offenses against property in England by criminalizing traditional forms of plebeian subsistence. Though on one hand granting that the new laws represented a transparent power grab on the part of an emergent capitalist class, Thompson steadfastly refused to see the new laws as merely that. Instead, he argued that, though susceptible to ruling class interest, these laws codified a “ground” that also constrained ruling class interests and could be (and later were) used as a check against the arbitrary power of those interests.
While Thompson was perhaps one of the greatest historians of the twentieth century, his historical work was interrupted by periods of intense political activity, for which he is remembered as both a charismatic speaker and a devastating polemicist. Beginning with his exit from the CP, Thompson polemicized—first in The New Reasoner and New Left Review, and later in a myriad of mainstream newspapers and magazines—on everything from imperialism to the welfare state, but his central concern remained nuclear disarmament. Thompson, whose involvement with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was early and continued, viewed the atomic bomb, and the polarization it created, as inimical to democratic institutions. He did not view the bomb as a particularly deadly “add on” to “economic man” (capitalist or “communist”), but as economic man’s realization. Thompson envisioned a Pan-European, nuclear-free “third way” (not to be confused with the Blairite vision of the same name) that divested itself both of Soviet and American influence, both of which, he argued, utilized the threat of nuclear war to suppress democratic self-determination the world over. With the arrival of cruise missiles in Britain under Margaret Thatcher, he stopped his historical writing almost entirely, and devoted his energies to Europeans for Nuclear Disarmament (END). He was (to the chagrin of Thatcher, no doubt) the most recognized person in Britain after the Queen in the early 1980s, and both the Soviet Union and United States exerted a great deal of effort in insinuating that he was an “operative” for the other. Nonetheless, END’s success was enormous, rallying huge numbers of both “free” and “Communist” Europeans to its cause. Seldom remarked upon in the United States, the movement exerted enormous pressure, particularly in Eastern Bloc countries, and had what historians are beginning to recognize as a significant role in Soviet disengagement from those countries.
Criticism and the “Crisis of Class”
Thompson’s privileging of the class “concept” as the defining historical experience began to come under fire in the early 1980s and reached something of a fever pitch following his death in 1993. Joan Scott presented “The Women in the Making of the English Working Class” at the American Historical Association’s session honoring the twentieth anniversary of the publication of MEWC. She argued that class as it had been “theorized” by Thompson was a masculine concept, and Thompson had made it more so with his tendency to masculinize “it” by describing his book as a kind of “biography” of the working class from its “youth to early manhood.” She further castigated Thompson’s book for its treatment of the prophetess Joanna Southcott (who, among other things, claimed to be pregnant with the son of God, and whose followers Thompson had described as “deluded”). If Scott’s criticism strikes the reader today as a quaint search for masculine pronouns in the guise of a critique, at the time it was (and it remains) something of a declaration of independence for feminist historians who had had an uneasy relationship with class. Scott’s essay raised the possibility for many that “the class concept” was in fact hostile to feminist ambitions.
Further influential criticisms came from Dipesh Chakrabarty and Linda Colley, the first offering a post-colonial critique of Thompson, and the latter attempting to displace the notion of class with that of nation. Chakrabarty questioned the suitability for India of the class concept as “theorized” by Thompson, insisting on the primacy of religious identity there (particularly as opposed to the liberal traditions and institutions of “the Freeborn Englishman”). Colley, for her part, argued, by sidestepping class more or less altogether, that over Thompson’s period, people came to identify themselves as “Britons” above all else.
In Chakrabarty’s case, one questions the depth of engagement with Thompson’s work, particularly given the primacy Thompson accords to such things as Methodism, and his insistence that the identity of “Freeborn Englishman” was not stable either in its application or content—just who this applied to and what it meant was a matter of centuries long contest. In Colley’s criticism, the notions of patriot, Briton, and so forth tend to be stripped of their contextual specificity: The very Thompsonian questions of who is speaking, in what context, and how they mean what they are saying were generally ignored or overshadowed by the meta-identity of being “British.” Though Thompson allowed in his review of Colley’s Britons that nationalism was undertheorized and underexplored in his work, he bristled at the book’s tendency to melt all concrete utterances into one nationalist soup.
Though neither Chakrabarty’s nor Colley’s critiques can be viewed as ultimately satisfactory from an intellectual standpoint, both have enjoyed a great deal of institutional success. Colley’s Britons, in particular, has opened the closet door for a historical establishment in Britain that was always hostile to studies of class, if consistently unable to outflank Thompson in debate. Thus, where these historians might have been forced to address the question of class previously, they now proceed as though all were on board with the British ship of state and write “Imperial” history as though the thirty years of MEWC’s primacy had never occurred.
Thompson’s legacy is difficult to determine. His self-appointed heirs have often proven sloppy in research, theoretically uninquisitive, and off-putting in argument. Others who have more closely engaged themselves with the possibilities in Thompson’s work have tended to retreat into the cutting-edge hinterlands of historical study, particularly the Journal of British Studies, where the sort of interdisciplinary and theoretical engagement Thompson advocated is better received. Even though interdisciplinary study has flourished in recent years, the tendency has been toward a sort of compartmentalization, and for these very institutional reasons, one finds it difficult to imagine again the sort of all-out assault on received historical paradigms that MEWC represented.
From a political standpoint, one is again scarcely able to conceive of Thompson’s moment. Thompson once wrote of a “peculiar and vengeful kind of bitterness that a certain kind of man feels for an enchanted mistress who has disappointed him” (O’Brien and Vanech 1969), and that hostility to or disenchantment with the possibility of social transformation seems the patrimony of the ’68 generation. Between an academic left as convinced of an omnivorous “power” as it is of human impotence or unwitting complicity in the face of it, and a political left that no longer recognizes, much less is able to converse with working people, Thompson appears something of a relic, ironically the very “damned fool in utopia” he was labeled at his expulsion from the CP. It remains to be seen how long human beings can both go on living and being so “smart.”
- Abelove, Henry, E. P. Thompson, and MARHO. 1983. Visions of History. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Thompson, E. P. 1957. Socialist Humanism: An Epistle to the Philistines. New Reasoner 1 (1): 105–143.
- Thompson, E. P. 1958. Agency and Choice. New Reasoner 1 (5): 89–106.
- Thompson, E. P. 1961. The Long Revolution I. New Left Review 1 (9): 24–33.
- Thompson, E. P. 1961. The Long Revolution II. New Left Review 1 (10): 34–39.
- Thompson, E. P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class. 1st Vintage ed. New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
- Thompson, E. P. 1978. The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.
- Thompson, E. P. 1985. The Heavy Dancers. New York: Pantheon Books.
- Thompson, E. P. 1991. Customs in Common. New York: New Press.
- Thompson, E. P. 1993. Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law. New York: New Press.
- Thompson, E. P. 1994. Making History: Writings on History and Culture. New York: New Press.
- Thompson, E. P. 1997. The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. New York: New Press.
- Bess, Michael. 1993. Realism, Utopia, and the Mushroom Cloud: Four Activist Intellectuals and Their Strategies for Peace, 1945–1989: Louise Weiss, France, Leo Szilard, USA, E. P. Thompson, England, Danilo Dolci, Italy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Dworkin, Dennis L. 1997. Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History , the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies.
- Post-Contemporary Interventions Series. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
- Epstein, James. 1994. Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 1790–1850. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Epstein, James. 2003. In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Kaye, Harvey J. 1984. The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press.
- Kaye, Harvey J., and Keith McClelland. 1990. E. P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Linebaugh, Peter. 1993. The London Hanged. New York Review of Books 40 (9).
- O’Brien, Connor Cruise, and W. D. Vanech. 1969. Power and Consciousness. New York: New York University Press.
- Rogers, Nicholas. 1998. Crowds, Culture, and Politics in Georgian Britain. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Thomas, Keith. 1992. How Britain Made It, reviews of Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707–1837, by Linda Colley, and The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century, by Peter Linebaugh. New York Review of Books 39 (19).
- Thomas, Keith. 1993. Response to “The London Hanged,” by Peter Linebaugh. New York Review of Books 40 (9). http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2575.
- Williams, Raymond. 1961. The Long Revolution. London: Chatto and Windus.
- Williams, Raymond. 1977. Marxism and Literature. Marxist Introductions Series. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Williams, Raymond. 1983. Culture and Society, 1780–1950. 2nd ed. New York: Columbia University Press. (Orig. pub. 1958.)
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