Thompson, E. P. (1924–1993)
Thompson, E. P. (1924–1993)
Thompson, E. P. (1924–1993), English historian. Edward Palmer Thompson was born in Boar's Hill in Oxford, England. His American mother, Theodosia Jessup Thompson, the daughter of Henry Jessup, who founded the American Mission in Lebanon, was a Methodist missionary in India. His British father, Edward John Thompson, whose parents were also Methodist missionaries in India, taught Bengali at Oxford, in addition to writing poetry, upon returning to England from India in 1923. Poets and Indian independence agitators, like Nehru, who gave young Edward few lessons in the game of cricket, gravitated to the Thompsons' home in Boar's Hill.
Like his father before him, Thompson attended the Methodist Kingswood private school near Bath. Too young to join the British Army in 1941, he enrolled for courses in literature and history at Cambridge University, joining the British Communist Party in the same year. A year after he joined the army in 1942, he was in charge of a tank company as a lieutenant in the British Six Armoured Division, fighting first in North Africa then in Italy. Back in Cambridge, he met Dorothy Towers in 1946. They were married two years later in 1948, after working in Yugoslavia together with a group of young communists to build a 150-mile railroad from Slavonia to Bosnia. They moved to Halifax, Yorkshire, where Thompson taught English to adult education classes in the department of Extra-Mural Studies at Leeds University, during which time he wrote The Making of the English Working Class, the book that made him famous.
The book was published in 1963, during a time when the cold war was at its hottest, Stalin's barbarity had been exposed by Khrushchev in 1956, capitalism was showing impressive growth, contrary to what the communists had predicted, and the English working class was exhibiting alarming apathy. By writing the book, Thompson wanted to rescue the working class from historical oblivion. Rather than being a passive outcome of historical economic change, Thompson argued, the English working class had essentially created itself by 1832. Be that as it may, what is important about Thompson's book is that it forced a sharp turn to the left in the historical research and writing about the working class. It was no longer possible to dismiss the development of the working class simply as a result of changing economic conditions. The response to The Making of the English Working Class was immediate and forceful. Some questioned the theoretical purity of Thompson's method in interpreting social history within the Marxist model, and feminists pointed to his implicit gendered approach. The book, however impure theoretically and methodologically it was or not, had nonetheless introduced a new approach to writing social history.
In 1965 Thompson moved to Warwick to head Warwick University's Center of Social Studies. Six years later, in 1971, after his wife had secured a history professorship at Birmingham University, Thompson ended his teaching career to devote himself to the research and writing of history.
When the United States decided to position new nuclear missiles in England in 1979, Thompson joined Ken Coates in creating the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) organization. Thompson called for the de-nuclearization and neutralization of both East and West Europe. Hundreds of thousands would eventually listen to Thompson speak in antinuclear rallies. He believed that global nuclear holocaust was the only possible outcome if the cold war was allowed to continue. Though Thompson may have been justly accused of being naive, he nonetheless believed that ordinary people, in both East and West, could change the course of history and end the cold war in Europe by their demonstrations.
Through his historical research, his political activism and his teaching, Thompson has indeed rescued the working class from historical oblivion, as he had intended. He clearly demonstrated how individual working men and women, through their daily struggle, had been active agents in the creation of their own working class. Thompson's approach to history from below created doubts about the adequacy of the deterministic historical model, where the individual human agency in shaping history is completely lacking. After his resignation from the British Communist Party in 1956 and his rejection of Louis Althusser's structural-functionalism in his book, The Poverty of Theory, Thompson was determined to expose the terrible consequences of historical determinism by demonstrating how Althusser's structural-functionalism could be used to justify Stalin's atrocities.