Obituary: E. P. Thompson
E. P. THOMPSON, socialist, poet, campaigner, orator, writer - on his day - of the finest polemical prose this century, and historian, would probably wish to be remembered as the last of these. And indeed, when his various campaigns have been forgotten, The Making of the English Working Class and several of his other works will still be read with admiration and excitement.
Both as a historian and in public life Edward Thompson rose like a space-rocket. The Making, published in 1963 and written by an adult education lecturer virtually unknown outside the narrow circles of the old and new intellectual Left, was instantly recognised as a classic and became what was almost certainly the most influential single book of history in the Anglo-Saxon radical Sixties and Seventies. And not only among radicals. In the 1980s Thompson was the most widely cited 20th-century historian in the world, according to the Arts and Humanities Citations Index, and one of the 250 most frequently cited authors of all time. Again, when he threw himself into the campaigns for nuclear disarmament in the 1980s, he almost instantly rose into something like the place occupied, at an earlier phase of the movement, by Bertrand Russell. But for the isolation of the small Marxist Left, Thompson's gift for prominence would have been more widely recognised sooner. In 1956 he had been (with John Saville) the first leader of public opposition to Stalinism within the Communist Party, of which he had long been a devoted member.
The fairies who came to his cradle - if the metaphor is right for the child of high-minded Anglo-American Methodist missionaries, liberals and lifelong anti-imperialists - brought many gifts: a powerful intellect allied to the intuition of a poet, eloquence, kindness, charm, stage presence, a marvellous voice, dramatic good looks which became greyer and craggier with age, and charisma or 'star quality' by the bucketful.
The only thing they withheld from him was the capacity to sub-edit himself - he invariably wrote more than he intended - and to plan his life's work (except for marrying his partner and fellow-historian Dorothy at an early age). He followed a rolling, intuitive course, moving with the winds and currents of private and political experience, or a combination of both. Thus Thompson's historical work was interrupted by his sense of isolation, as a man of the Left, from the various 'new Lefts' of the 1960s and 1970s, and again by his years as an anti-nuclear campaigner. Time and again he appeared to break off some enormously promising course of research to pursue another intellectual quarry. His work on the social history of pre-industrial Britain, which he began to transform by a few profound monographs in the early 1970s, eventually produced the volume Customs in Common (1991), which was published in paperback by Penguin in the last weeks of his life. His book on William Blake (whom, with Vico, Marx and William Morris, he saw as his forebear) is due for publication in the near future.
As he grew older, the frontiers between general history and autobiography grew fuzzy, so that he was sometimes tempted to turn aside to inquire into some aspect of the history of the Thompson family. For he knew himself to be profoundly marked by his origins. Not least by his living and posthumous relation to his brother Frank, older, supposedly more brilliant and certainly more favoured, who preceded him into the Communist Party and was killed at the age of 21 while working with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Bulgaria, where he won a modest recognition as a Bulgarian people's hero. Tradition and loyalty, within and outside the family, were important to Edward Thompson.
Increasingly he wrote about history or anything else in the persona of a traditional English (not British) country gentleman of the radical Left. This role, though unconvincing, went well with the depth of his immersion in the history of his people and its Constitution, and the passion of his attachment to the men and women of the past whom he did so much, in his own magnificent phrase, 'to rescue . . . from the enormous condescension of posterity'.
Thompson's first major work was his biography of William Morris (1955, revised edition 1977). His most important historical publications after The Making of the English Working Class, mainly published in the 1970s, concerned the 18th century. Whigs and Hunters and Albion's Fatal Tree (of which he was co-author) came out as books, as did a collection of his brilliant and enormously influential articles, in a German version. (A more elaborate collection in English appeared in Customs in Common.) His international influence expanded after 1969, when he joined the editorial board of the journal Past & Present, and began to participate in the international Round Tables in social history organised (largely round him) under the auspices of the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme in Paris. His main theoretical work, The Poverty of Theory, built around critiques both of the late Louis Althusser (then very influential) and some theses put forward by Anderson and Nairn in the New Left Review, came out in 1978.
Thompson's work combined passion and intellect, the gifts of the poet, the narrator and the analyst. He was the only historian I knew who had not just talent, brilliance, erudition and the gift of writing, but the capacity to produce something qualitatively different from the rest of us, not to be measured on the same scale. Let us simply call it genius, in the traditional sense of the word. None of his mature works could have been written by anyone else. His admirers forgave him much for this, including his fluctuating moods, an uncertain relation to organisations and organisation men, and an occasional hit-and-miss quality in the excursions of his powerful and imaginative intellect into theory. His friends forgave him everything.
After breaking with the Communist Party in 1956 he remained essentially a lone wolf of the Left, and one who derived some comfort from not wearing the badges of the Establishment, some of which were unjustly withheld from him. He briefly taught at one British university, but thereafter lived as a free scholar, occasionally teaching in universities abroad, writing history, theory, political polemic, not to mention poetry and at least one science-fiction novel, The Sykaos Papers (1988), and, when not campaigning, gardening in Worcestershire. He died after a long illness. Equally memorable as a writer, a public and a private man, he left a profound mark on all who knew him and most of those who read him.
His death leaves them bereft. The loss to intellectual life, history and the British Left cannot yet be calculated.
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