Obituary: E. P. Thompson

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.

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.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions