E. P. Thompson

E. P. Thompson

Edward Palmer Thompson, the second son of Edward John Thompson (1886–1946) and Theodosia Jessup Thompson (1892–1970) was born in Oxford on 3rd February 1924. His parents were Methodist missionaries and at the time of his birth, his father taught Bengali at Oxford University. His biographer, John G. Rule, "A Methodist by birth, upbringing, vocation, and education, he was in most respects an instinctive humanist and believer in the possibility of human betterment." (1)

Edward and his older brother Frank Thompson, attended the progresssive Dragon School. Frank went on to become a star pupil at Winchester College, whereas Edward was enrolled at his father's old school, the Methodist-founded Kingswood School. Both boys developed left-wing opinions during the Spanish Civil War becoming strong supporters of the Popular Front Government. (2)

Freeman Dyson, one of Frank's schoolmates later commented: "His loud voice, his quick mind, his intense interest in all kinds of things and people, his crazy jokes, and his disrespect for authority epitomised some characteristics of young Frank, whose youthful and radical energy turned him swiftly into a strong anti-fascist militant." (3)

Thompson recalled that as a sixth former in 1940, reading the early work on the English civil war of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill and the seventeenth-century Leveller writings by people such as John Lilburne, to which it led him, was a "breakthrough". (4) At eighteen he followed the example of his brother and joined the Communist Party of Great Britain. (5)

Edward Thompson studied history at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. His studies were interrupted by the Second World War and as a member of the British Army saw action in Italy. His brother, Frank Thompson, who joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), was killed while fighting for the Bulgarian partisans. His father wrote afterwards: "He lives in us, and in friends we know, and in men we shall never meet; he is a strong force for the friendships of nations." (6)

Thompson believed that war offered an opportunity to create a more equal society: "There was an active democratic temper throughout Europe... There was an active democrtic temper throughout Europe. There was a submission of self to a collective good. Then as now there was a purposive alliance of resistance to power a 'popular front' which had not yet been disfigured by bad faith." (7)

Thompson returned to Cambridge to finish off his degree: "A wartime degree could be gained by only two years' academic study, so he opted for a wartime BA and spent the scholarship which his first-class result earned him on individual study for the third year of his course. This year was spent working on Elizabethan and Jacobean literature and history and also in exploring a wide range of historical philosophers including Vico and Marx." (8)

At a Communist Party of Great Britain meeting he met Dorothy Katharine Gane Towers who was completing her history degree after war service in industry. Edward and Dorothy began to live together in 1945 and married on 16 December 1948. As John G. Rule points out: "The Thompsons then had no inclination to pursue academic careers, and had already decided to move to the north of England, when Edward was offered a teaching post in the extra-mural department at Leeds University. Before taking up this post he and Dorothy had been involved with a volunteer international youth group in building a railway in Yugoslavia, another reinforcement of an internationalism that remained essential in his thinking, and which qualifies overdone attempts to portray him as a quintessentially English radical." (9)

Dorothy and Edward Thompson joined Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, A. L. Morton, Raphael Samuel, George Rudé, John Saville, Edmund Dell, Victor Kiernan and Maurice Dobb in forming the Communist Party Historians' Group. (6) Francis Beckett pointed out that these "were historians of a new type - socialists to whom history was not so much the doings of kings, queens and prime ministers, as those of the people." (10)

In 1952 members of the Communist Party Historians' Group founded the journal, Past and Present. Over the next few years the journal pioneered the study of working-class history and is "now widely regarded as one of the most important historical journals published in Britain today." (11)

A member of the group, John Saville later wrote: "The Historian's Group had a considerable long-term influence upon most of its members. It was an interesting moment in time, this coming together of such a lively assembly of young intellectuals, and their influence upon the analysis of certain periods and subjects of British history was to be far-reaching." (12)

As Christos Efstathiou has explained: "Most of the members of the Group had common aspirations as well as common past experiences. The majority of them grew up in the inter-war period and were Oxbridge undergraduates who felt that the path to socialism was the solution to militarism and fascism. It was this common cause that united them as a team of young revolutionaries, who saw themselves as the heir of old radicalism." (13)

During the 20th Party Congress in February, 1956, Nikita Khrushchev launched an attack on the rule of Joseph Stalin. He condemned the Great Purge and accused Joseph Stalin of abusing his power. He announced a change in policy and gave orders for the Soviet Union's political prisoners to be released. Pollitt found it difficult to accept these criticisms of Stalin and said of a portrait of his hero that hung in his living room: "He's staying there as long as I'm alive". Khrushchev's de-Stalinzation policy encouraged people living in Eastern Europe to believe that he was willing to give them more independence from the Soviet Union. (14)

In Hungary the prime minister Imre Nagy removed state control of the mass media and encouraged public discussion on political and economic reform. Nagy also released anti-communists from prison and talked about holding free elections and withdrawing Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. Khrushchev became increasingly concerned about these developments and on 4th November 1956 he sent the Red Army into Hungary. During the Hungarian Uprising an estimated 20,000 people were killed. Nagy was arrested and replaced by the Soviet loyalist, Janos Kadar. (15)

The Thompsons, like most members of the Communist Party Historians' Group, supported Imre Nagy and as a result, like most Marxists, they left the Communist Party of Great Britain after the Hungarian Uprising and a "New Left movement seemed to emerge, united under the banners of socialist humanism... the New Leftists aimed to renew this spirit by trying to organise a new democratic-leftist coalition, which in their minds would both counter the 'bipolar system' of the cold war and preserve the best cultural legacies of the British people." (16)

Former members of the Communist Party Historians' Group published the socialist journal The New Reasoner. Her biographer and friend, Sheila Rowbotham, pointed out: "Characteristically, her competence meant she was designated business manager, though she also read through submitted manuscripts. The break with the Communist party was painful, but it also brought hope in the creation of a new left. Dorothy worked with the writers, artists, historians and trade unionists who were forming the new left clubs in many towns." (17)

E. P. Thompson
E. P. Thompson

In 1957 Thompson helped form the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Other members included J. B. Priestley, Bertrand Russell, Fenner Brockway, Frank Allaun, Donald Soper, Vera Brittain, Sydney Silverman, James Cameron, Jennie Lee, Victor Gollancz, Konni Zilliacus, Richard Acland, A. J. P. Taylor, Canon John Collins and Michael Foot.

Thompson wrote William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary (1955) and The Making of the English Working Class (1963). In protest against the "tailoring of Warwick University to the needs of industry" Thompson resigned his post in 1971.

Thompson spent the next few years as a roving ambassador for world peace. He also wrote a series of books including Whigs and Hunters (1975), The Poverty of Theory (1978), Writing by Candlelight (1980), Protest and Survive (1980),Customs in Common (1992), Witness Against the Beast (1994) and Making History: Writings on History and Culture (1994).

Edward Thompson died on 28th August, 1993.

Primary Sources

(1) E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963)

I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'Utopian' artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.

Our only criterion of judgement should not be whether or not a man's actions are justified in the light of subsequent evolution. After all, we are not at the end of social evolution ourselves. In some of the lost causes of the people of the Industrial Revolution we may discover insights into social evils which we have yet to cure. Moreover, the greater part of the world today is still undergoing problems of industrialization, and of the formation of democratic institutions, analogous in many ways to our own experience during the Industrial Revolution. Causes which were lost in England might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won.

(2) E. P. Thompson, The Business University, New Society (19th February, 1970)

When student unrest erupts at a British university, two standard reactions can be expected. The first assumes that the students are alone responsible, and leads on to speculations as to their motives. The second assumes that responsibility may be charged to old-fashioned elements in the university administration and among senior academic staff, who have responded too slowly or too clumsily to legitimate student demands.

There is, however, a third explanatory hypothesis, which most observers would overlook as being too improbable.

This is the explanation that dominant elements in the administration of a university had become so intimately enmeshed with the upper reaches of consumer capitalist society that they are actively twisting the purposes and procedures of the university away from those normally accepted in British universities, and thus threatening its integrity as a self-governing academic institution; and that the students, feeling neglected and manipulated in this context, and feeling also - although at first less clearly - that intellectual values are at stake, should be impelled to action.

(3) E. P. Thompson, The Great Fear of Marxism, The Observer (4th February, 1979)

Anyone who is even casually informed knows that Marxism, as an intellectual system, is in a state of crisis. The term 'Marxism' conceals an immense conflict going on between different claimants to the Marxist tradition. In Russia dissidents like Roy Medvedev are offering, in Marxist terms, scholarly exposures of the Stalin era - analyses which are refused publication by Soviet (Marxist-Leninist) publishing houses. In East Germany Rudolf Bahro, a Marxist, is imprisoned by a Marxist state for his stubborn and honest thought.

If we move from intellectual to political and social movements, the conflict is even more obvious. In Africa the most disparate regimes, from old-fashioned military tyrannies to more open societies with real democratic potential, all invoke the word 'Marxist'.

As a Marxist (or a Marxist-fragment) in the Labour Party, I have always tried to envisage a politics that will enable us, in this country, to effect a transition to a socialist society - and a society a great deal more democratic, in work as well as in government, than our present one - without rupturing the humane and tolerant disposition for which our working class has often been distinguished, in this country, if not abroad....

I am very much against sin, and especially against Russian sin. When the Russian state does not give me a pain in the head, it strikes my lower anatomy.

Now that my moral credentials are plain to the whole world, let us discuss serious matters.

These concern Cold War chain-reactions, the nuclear fission of diplomacy. The sequence has been this. From last October there was a long run-up to NATO's decision to 'modernize' its nuclear armoury. Mrs Thatcher and Mr Pym were the self-appointed cheerleaders of this operation, although they disdained to consult the British Parliament at any point. A 'new generation' of nuclear missiles, under US ownership and control, was to be planted all over West Europe, many on our own soil.

Soviet spokesmen repeatedly warned of the consequences of this decision; proposed discussions; and even made small gestures of concession. NATO spokesmen refused every advance and argued that discussion could only take place 'from strength': that is, from a posture of menace, after the decision.

The decision made nonsense of the trivial provisions of Salt 2. But it became clear, meanwhile, that the US Senate was not going to ratify even these trivial provisions, thereby indicating that top level nuclear détente would prove futile in the face of the American military and arms lobby. As this became clear, a trickle of Soviet dissidents went off to gaol.

On 12 December, at Brussels, NATO ratified its menacing plans in full. On 19 December, exactly one week later, the

Soviet decision to enter Afghanistan was taken. The hawkism of the West directly generated the hawkism of the East - according to one account, Brezhnev was actually overruled by his own hawks. On the Cold War billiard-table, NATO played the Cruise missile ball, which struck the Afghan black, which rolled nicely into a Russian pocket. It was as if Mrs Thatcher, Mr Pym and Mr Bill Rodgers were there, perched on the leading Soviet tanks, waving to the astonished people of Kabul.

(5) Kate Soper, Radical Philosophy (March, 1997)

The articles, letters and memos poured from his desk in the sackful. At any moment, he might be found exhorting the masses in Trafalgar Square to `feel their strength' or manning the bookstall at the END bazaar; playing percussion in a fund-raising concert or haggling at the Czech embassy over the suppression of the Jazz Group; dialoguing with Charta 77 or marching at the head of an anti-NATO rally in Madrid; exposing the grotesqueries of the SDI programme or railing against the skullduggery of the Soviet Peace Committee. That the CIA and the KGB would both accuse each other of funding these activities only served to reaffirm the wisdom of pressing for a process of `citizens' detente' and for the adoption of a non-aligned position within the Western peace movement. This was to prove of critical importance, both in the impact it had on the politics and strategies of the latter, and in the space it opened up for trans-bloc dialogue between it and the independent peace initiatives and dissident groups in Eastern Europe. This was no easy dialogue to sustain, demanding as it did a keen sensitivity to differences of political priority and to the divergent conditions under which the various peace groups in both halves of Europe were at that time working. The story of its ideological complexities is yet to be told. But when it is, it will be clear that without Thompson's sense of historical eventuation and his punctilious concern for the individuals involved in the process, certain lines of East-West communication which contributed to the dramatic changes of the late eighties would not have been opened up.

To make these claims for Thompson's agency in the making of recent history is not to suppose he was the only influence on the internationalisation of the British peace movement, or that he singlehandedly either devised or promoted the END programme. Even less is it to suggest that he was responsible for the ending of the Cold War, which is the `absurdity' which some respondents have read into Mary Kaldor's obituary tribute in the Independent. What Kaldor actually claims is that, in the fullness of time, Thompson, along with Gorbachev and Havel, will be viewed as `one of the key individuals who influenced the course of events in the 1980s', and this point is hardly refuted either by an appeal to the steadfastness of Reagan and the hard right, or to Western `victory' in the Cold War, or even to the supposedly brute fact that the freeze ended because of the internal economic contradictions of the Soviet Union and the consequent transformation in its leadership. To argue that the Cold War collapsed because the Soviet Union collapsed is more in the order of an analytic statement than a piece of historical analysis. `Collapses' of that order do not take place in a vacuum, but in a context shaped by shifts of atmosphere and the emergence of altered logics; a context which in turn exerts a specific influence on the direction taken by the unfolding of the events it has helped to precipitate. If it is true that glasnost and perestroika came in response to domestic crisis, it is also true that its defence and foreign policy initiatives were informed by peace movement thinking, and that the climate of reception of these both within and without the Soviet bloc had been altered by exposure to the pressures of the nonaligned anti-nuclear campaign in the West. As the major architect and spokesperson of that campaign, Thompson can certainly be said to have played a key role in shaping the historical disposition of the late eighties. Even at the time, as Kaldor notes, he was wryly predicting the historical theft of the peace movement contribution. `This is the most serious political work I have ever done or will ever do in my life,' he wrote. `It won't last long. If we succeed a little, the politicians will move in and take it off us.'

Student Activities

The Middle Ages

The Normans

The Tudors

The English Civil War

Industrial Revolution

First World War

Russian Revolution

Nazi Germany

United States: 1920-1945


(1) John G. Rule, Edward Palmer Thompson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (8th January 2015)

(2) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 8

(3) Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979) page 54

(4) Dorothy Thompson (editor), The Essential E. P. Thompson (2001) page 491

(5) John G. Rule, Edward Palmer Thompson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (8th January 2015)

(6) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 10

(7) E. P. Thompson, The Heavy Dancers (1985) page 199

(8) Dorothy Thompson (editor), The Essential E. P. Thompson (2001) page viii

(9) John G. Rule, Edward Palmer Thompson : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (8th January 2015)

(10) Francis Beckett, Enemy Within: The Rise and Fall of the British Communist Party (1995) page 134

(11) Emma Griffin, History Today (2nd February 2015)

(12) John Saville, Memoirs from the Left (2003) page 88

(13) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 28

(14) William J. Tompson, Khrushchev: A Political Life (1995) pages 153-154

(15) Simon Hall, 1956: The World in Revolt (2015) pages 346-347

(16) Christos Efstathiou, E. P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic (2015) page 55

(17) Sheila Rowbotham, The Guardian (7th February 2011)