Three decades after he died, the historian E P Thompson occupies an ambiguous position in British intellectual life. While his reputation as a commentator has declined, he remains someone who has to be referred to, but with little real engagement. His historical work has lasted and if as a Marxist he suffered from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Maoist Chinese move into capitalism, the current wave of protest movements in the UK echoes his own protest activity and makes bringing his work back into focus a priority. The recent reference to Thompson in the Political Quarterly aligned him with Cowling, Pelling and Namier in a debate over how political history has produced an alleged split between High and Popular history. This is hardly the case with Thompson. Thompson moved between historical genres and was a commentator whose influence was unlike any other post war historian save perhaps A J P Taylor. Taylor was not however a polemicist.
In Thompson’s lifetime his many faceted activities brought colleagues to expect the unexpected: both popular and high politics came as standard, and the first pole of attraction pulling me into his orbit, was his political activity backed by his classic work, The Making of the English Working Class. As a teenager searching for a political identity on the left, I read the New Left Mayday Manifesto of 1966 which he wrote with Stuart Hall (who I also came to study with) and Raymond Williams, before reading the first housebrick sized book I had ever read. Then I read some of the essays that poured from his pen. Impressed, I decided that if circumstances worked out, I would like to study with the author. But choices were not ones I had the ability to make.
The biggest issue was that no one I knew had ever been to university and I needed to aim at someone who might understand my background and the struggle I was having to get to University. SEE HOW NOT TO MATRICULATE TO UNIVERSITY. I was attracted by Richard Hoggart’s account of working class life in The Uses of Literacy, but Hoggart ran a post graduate department, and my priority was getting a first degree. University life was terrifyingly unknown to a working class teenager and I read little that looked doable and was understandable to a teenager who did not understand how higher education worked. Thompson as an essayist was accessible. And he worked at Warwick University, which was close to Birmingham and meant he was worth studying in case doors miraculously opened if I could get to study in this new campus.
Two of his essays written in the middle 1960s impacted on me. The Peculiarities of the English of 1965 was a contribution to a rare debate within Marxism as to why England – or Britain, Thompson always made the distinction – did not follow the first industrial revolution with the first proletarian revolution. Alas an adversarial attack on the New Left Review’s new editors diverted from the main argument but not from the issue at the heart of the essay. I knew people in the Communist Party who shared similar concerns, so the underlying discussion was comprehensible. Then in 1967 he produced Time, Work Disclipline and Industrial Capitalism making a contribution to social history which remains seminal, arguing that the emergence of factory life broke the reliance on the sun as the arbiter of working time so that a new rigidity in life based on the clock emerged to define working life. That made sense. And when I found myself at Warwick with Thompson also working there, fate seemed to point in one direction. Starting my final year in 1969-70 his course was the most attractive option available to complete the rubric and end my time there profitably.
Thompson at Warwick
The option open for the final unit of the undergraduate course, was the Special Subject, which meant the study of a complex reality to test what had been learned during the three years of the degree course. Thompson’s reputation was based on his research into the working class of Regency England, which he saw as the formative period or the Making, and I expected that this would be what you studied should you sign up for his course unit.
However the expectation that we would be engaged in a intensive scrutiny of angry proletarians was eliminated by the very title of the course – The Politics and Poetry of the French Revolution in England. We were to study the great Romantic poets, the two Williams, Wordsworth and Blake, plus Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This was not a problem as I had done A Level Eng Lit, though not these three poets. The poetry was set against a wide ranging corpus of political works of the 1790s, including the Pitt-Fox debates, writings on revolutionary issues such as Tom Paine’s The Rights of Man, Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, and wider political philosophy including Mary Woolstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, William Godwin Political Justice, and the activities of the London Corresponding Society and their relations with other democratic groups. I was doing a joint History-Politics degree so political theory was not a problem, but political poetry was an undeniable challenge. The weekend when I had to study Wordsworth’s The Prelude – one of the most challenging long poems in the English language – lives in my memory as a marathon I do not think I completed.
The wide-ranging nature of the course, which only included the LCS as a popular initiative as the working class in this decade was largely pro Establishment, shown by the Church and King riots, gives a corrective to the view that Thompson was by choice a historian from below, and this course was shaped by his high level of understanding of High Politics, alongside the radical politics which was expected. I believe that his Warwick period was about High Political issues, and this was later to be seen in his work on the eighteenth-century Whigs. Both Albion’s Fatal Tree – a collaborative work with his post graduate students at Warwick but completed later – and his own solo effort Whigs and Hunters, published together in 1975 after he had left Warwick – were the culmination of his academic period, which was relatively short = he only spent 6 years working as an academic – but with his Special Subject undergraduate work, these years show that he cannot be seen as simply a popular or history from below historian.