Obituary: E. P. Thompson

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The Independent Online
Edward Palmer Thompson, writer, campaigner, historian: born 3 February 1924; Reader in Social History, Warwick University 1965-71; FBA 1992; books include William Morris: romantic to revolutionary 1955, The Making of the English Working Class 1963, Whigs and Hunters 1975, Albion's Fatal Tree 1975, Poverty of Theory 1978, Writing by Candlelight 1980, Protest and Survive 1980, Beyond the Cold War 1982, Double Exposure 1985, Heavy Dancers 1985, Sykaos Papers 1988, Customs in Common 1991; married 1948 Dorothy Towers (two sons, one daughter); died Upper Wick, Worcester 28 August 1993.

WHEN THE dust settles from the end of the Cold War, EP Thompson will be viewed, along with Mikhail Gorbachev and Vaclav Havel, as one of the key individuals who influenced the course of events in the 1980s, writes Mary Kaldor.

Through his polemical, brilliant and funny writings and speeches, Thompson not only provided the inspiration for the new peace movement of the 1980s but ensured that the energies of the peace movement were directed at ending the Cold War and not just at getting rid of nuclear weapons. 'We are going to stop those piffling cruise missiles, you know, on land if not on sea,' he wrote to a friend in 1981. 'What we have to do is seize this moment of mass consciousness to move directly into the structures of the Cold War themselves, the blocs behind the missiles. We have to keep to some very large and simple ideas - like remaking Europe and putting peace and liberty together.'

Thompson's views were shaped by his own personal history. He was strongly influenced by his brother Frank Thompson, who envisaged a united democratic socialist Europe. His career as a peace activist went back to the early 1950s when he was secretary of the West Riding Federation of Peace Organisations and editor of the Yorkshire Voice of Peace. He joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament when it was founded in 1957. As biographer of William Morris and chronicler of the English working classes, he was part of the English radical tradition. He became a consistent and trenchant critic of Stalinism after leaving the Communist Party in 1956 and espoused the idea of positive neutrality.

The upsurge of a West European peace movement in 1980 was his moment. In that year he published the pamphlet Protest and Survive, which exposed the ghoulish absurdity of nuclear war fighting doctrines, and the article 'Notes on Exterminism and the Last Stage of Civilisation', which initiated a far-reaching debate about the nature of the Cold War and militarism and its impact upon modern society. Above all, he drafted the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) Appeal which became the mobilising document for literally millions of people all over Europe. The signatories include Olof Palme, Vaclav Havel, Jiri Dienstbier, Baerbel Bohley, Rainer Eppelman, to name but a handful.

The END Appeal insisted on the responsibility of both sides, East and West, for the arms race. It made the link between peace and democracy and it called for a pan-European movement to end the Cold War. 'We must commence to act as if a united, neutral and pacific Europe already exists. We must learn to be loyal, not to 'East' or 'West' but to each other, and we must disregard the prohibitions and limitations imposed by any national state.'

Throughout the 1980s, Edward Thompson and his wife Dorothy devoted themselves tirelessly to the END campaign and to building up the British organisation European Nuclear Disarmament. Thompson stomped the country, making speeches to packed halls and giving interviews to radio and television. He wrote articles and pamphlets and endless letters. He organised END's specialist working groups on Eastern Europe which became the source of information about the new peace and human-rights groups in the East and the main agent for communication and dialogue between citizens' groups East and West.

In short, he engaged himself in everything from the administrative minutiae of choosing the design for badges, or the structures of particular committees, to the high politics of the ideological struggle not only with the political leaders and military planners of the West but also with peace committees and 'disarmament' specialists of the Warsaw Pact. He had the distinction of being denounced both by the spokespeople of the Western establishment and the Soviet establishment. END, said Georgi Abatov, the Director of the US-Canada Institute, confidently, is well-known to be 'a CIA affair'.

Thompson and END succeeded in breaking the identification of the Western peace movement with the Soviet Union once and for all. The integrity and non-alignment of the peace movement was decisively established. This meant that the campaign against cruise missiles had to be taken seriously, as a genuine moral protest. It also created the basis for the strategy of detente from below, of communication between citizens, which became the central strategy of parts of the peace movement after the deployment of cruise missiles in 1983. Undoubtedly, the constant pressure on officials, the public and private support for harassed peace and human-rights activists in East Central Europe, the network of correspondence, clandestine meetings and relationships, encouraged and helped to provide space for the growing numbers of independent groups that were to burst into the open in the autumn of 1989. Thompson was extraordinarily prescient about what he was doing. In his pamphlet Beyond the Cold War, written in 1982, he envisaged an East-West confluence of popular movements of peace and human rights.

'What I have proposed is improbable. But, if it commenced, it might gather pace with astonishing rapidity. There would not be decades of detente, as the glaciers slowly melt. There would be very rapid and unpredictable changes; nations would become unglued from their alliances; there would be sharp conflicts within nations, there would be successive risks. We could roll up the map of the Cold War, and travel without maps for a while.'

Thompson has not yet received the public recognition he deserves for his part in ending the Cold War. As a historian, he understood better than anyone that although history is made by ordinary women and men, by broad societal changes, the history that is told is about the actions of politicians and changes in the behaviour of states. 'This is the most serious political work I have ever done or will ever do in my life,' he wrote in the same letter, quoted above, 'It won't last long. If we succeed a little, the politicians will move in and take if off us.'

The mark of EP Thompson's success is that his ideas of linking peace and human rights and of reuniting Europe, which seemed so Utopian in 1980, were on the lips of nearly every politician, East and West, 10 years later.

(Photograph omitted)