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29 August 2023

The making of EP Thompson

The historian was driven by the mystery of his brother’s death fighting with anti-fascist partisans.

By Madoc Cairns

When they told Frank Thompson they would shoot him he told them he was proud. I’m ready to die for democracy, he told them, as they led him out to the barren hills above Sofia. I’m proud to die in the fight against fascism, he told them, sixteen hundred miles from home. I give you the salute of freedom, said Major Frank Thompson, 23 years old. He raised his right fist. When Edward Palmer Thompson asked what happened to his brother, people told him this: he died so well that grown men wept.

Frank Thompson died a hero. His brother spent his life wondering why. As more details emerged, more seemed missing. Frank was a liaison between the British army and Bulgarian anti-fascist partisans. Their mission, which led to his capture and execution in 1944, was badly planned, poorly supported, sent out in “conditions of almost impossible difficulty”. None of the family’s questions received any answer from the state. Frank’s brother had to do his own research. In the process he became the most influential British historian of the past half-century: his Making of the English Working Class created an entire field. But before he wrote history, EP Thompson made it.

The Thompson brothers were different. Frank was frail; Edward was rugged. Frank was fluent in ten languages; Edward, the “duffer of the family”, knew only one. But they shared a home “quick with ideas and poetry and international visitors”: their father, a Methodist missionary who returned from India an anti-imperialist apostate, was personal friends with Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indian nationalist leader. They shared a love of poetry: a desire to one day be poets themselves. And growing up in the 1930s, poverty at home and fascism abroad, they shared a dream of a better world.

That dream led both brothers into the Communist Party as the Spanish Republic fell in 1939. And it inspired both, when war came, to enlist: Frank in the mysterious world of special operations, Edward as a lieutenant commanding tanks. Fighting his way through Italy, Lieutenant Thompson read a poem by Frank’s favourite poet, William Blake: “I will not cease from Mental Fight,/Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand,/Till we have built Jerusalem,/In England’s green and pleasant land”. Frank would often write to Edward about the world ordinary people would build after the war: there’s a spirit in Europe, he said, that’s never been seen before.

“Milton” by William Blake

And after the war, for a few years, that appeared prophetic: when Edward wrote his first book in 1947, the story of his brother’s life, he chose those words for the title. New governments across Europe promised something like the dream the brothers shared: societies where democracy and socialism and freedom were interchangeable words. Even in Britain things were changing: Labour marched into office in 1945 singing “The Red Flag” and it seemed a new England was closer than it had ever been.

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After his death in 1993, a colleague said of Edward that he remained “a man of the Forties” all his life, defined to the end by that decade’s sufferings and hopes and disappointments. Which is perhaps to say that, when Frank Thompson died on 10 June 1944, he didn’t cease to act. What else is a historian but someone who can’t let go of the past?

A decade on from the end of the war, and it seemed like the past was all EP Thompson had. The 1945 government “sank with all hands in full view of the electorate”; the idealism of the 1940s soured to apathy or curdled to cynicism, the peace Thompson fought for withering in the shadow of the hydrogen bomb. In 1956, a Hungarian workers’ revolt was crushed under the treads of Soviet tanks. It was one more insult, Thompson told his party, to his brother’s memory. He resigned.

All through the next year, Thompson found himself reading William Blake. The poem “London” was a critique, Thompson wrote that year, of the system Blake saw being born two centuries before: the society founded on “the acquisitive ethic, which divides man from man, leads him into mental and moral captivity, destroys the sources of joy, and brings, as its reward, death”. It was that society, Thompson wrote, that endures today: capitalism. Blake had a different name for it. We’re living, Blake said, in the kingdom of the beast.

Blake was, Thompson thought, a frustrated revolutionary, retreating into a mystic “inner kingdom” after political defeat. But in Blake, and others like him, Thompson found a tradition he thought could “leaven” the soulless materialism of contemporary socialist movements – and a history of forgotten struggles that deserved to be illuminated. Those insights set him on a path that led, six years later, to the 1963 publication of his masterpiece: The Making of the English Working Class.

“I am seeking to rescue,” Thompson wrote, in a sentence that would define his career, “the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loomweaver… from the enormous condescension of posterity.” If Eric Hobsbawm was correct in his judgement that Thompson was the only historian he knew that possessed true genius, Making was the work that exhibited it. As a tutor in adult education, Thompson was known for turning the lectern over to his working-class students: Making attempted to do the same on a larger scale, centring the ideas and experiences of those historians traditionally overlooked. He called it “history from below”.

Making’s groundbreaking reinterpretation of English social history in the late 18th and early 19th century infuriated conservative scholars – and challenged their counterparts on the left. Class wasn’t a thing, Thompson argued, the product of blind material forces: “peasants flocking to factories, processed into so many yards of class-conscious proletarians”. Class was a relationship, “embodied in real people and in a real context”, in real struggles. And those struggles were, Thompson wrote, not confined to wages and conditions. Workers fought for autonomy, independence from employers, freedom from the state. The fight for democracy wasn’t, therefore, a sidetrack but a touchpaper smouldering under the symbolic order of the age – one lit by a host of tenacious and persecuted campaigners for democracy.

To the new doctrine of economic utility, workers contrasted their own set of values: a “moral economy” of custom that maintained, from bread riots to Luddite machine-breakers, that production was subordinate to human needs. Beyond these “conservative revolutionaries”, Thompson’s cast of radicals ran from the familiar – early feminists, romantic poets, democratic pamphleteers – to the bizarre: popular belief in the rights of “freeborn Englishmen” rested on the wholesale fantasy of a pre-Norman constitution. But – excepting religious dissent, dismissed by Thompson as “psychic masturbation” – he warned readers not to mistake victory for truth. “Economic development” was never neutral; progress for the rich was often disaster for the poor; and these, Thompson told readers, were not merely historical insights. “Causes which were lost in England,” he wrote, “might, in Asia or Africa, yet be won.”

For two decades it was cited in Britain more often than any other history book; in the 1980s Thompson was cited more than any other British historian worldwide. The book was reprinted again and again and again. One of his great regrets, Thompson later admitted, was that – for all his animus toward “the species academia superculosis” – his later histories were written for academic audiences. One of his abiding satisfactions was that Making was not.

It was for his students: a history book where their experiences mattered, just as they had in his classroom, to remind them of the collective histories that consumer culture was stripping away. It was for the young people of the movement Thompson supported, the New Left, to let them know where their struggle for a humane society came from – and perhaps, also, where it was going.

[See also: How to start a revolution]

And it was written, in some sense, for Thompson himself. “The New Left has dispersed itself,” Thompson wrote a few months after Making‘s publication. “We failed.” Thompson’s idiosyncratic Marxism – literary, moralistic, a kind of Methodism without God – was out of step with the “theatrical and irrational” left he saw emerging in the sixties. Seven years on from Making, Thompson admitted he felt “the whole idiom and tradition I thought and worked within” had been rejected by the left. In the next decade, Thompson compared himself to an old steam engine, swept off the tracks; to a great bustard, struggling to fly; to Blake, a mystic in a rationalist age. The conclusion is hard to avoid. EP Thompson wrote about history’s losers because he was one.

And just as Thompson drifted to the fringes, he saw the mainstream converge: Labour and Conservatives uniting in service to the emerging “managerial state”. New technologies had enabled, Thompson thought, unprecedented concentrations of power. The “arteries” of Britain were hardening, one by one: politics, industry, media, universities. Zones of freedom, of “open conflict of values and ideas” winnowed, year on year. In a 1971 essay, Thompson linked Harold Wilson’s managerialism with his administration’s continually shrinking political horizons: “The art of the possible can only be restrained from engrossing the whole universe if the impossible can find ways of breaking back into politics, again and again.” EP Thompson couldn’t find a way forwards. So, once again, he turned back.

But, to the surprise of his friends, it wasn’t to write a sequel to Making, a book on the Victorian socialist thinkers Thompson loved. He chose, instead, to study a time about which he knew little, landing, he said “like a parachutist into unknown territory”. The early 18th century was a harsh time: an era of private wealth and public decay; of a parasitic state owned wholesale by the predatory rich. In Whigs and Hunters Thompson investigated the “Black Act”, a law creating over 300 capital offences. The act, effectively criminalising whole communities of poor forest dwellers, was disproportionate by design. “Stability,” Thompson wrote, “no less than revolution, may have its own kind of Terror.”

Whigs and Hunters is a bleak, pessimistic book: published in 1975, it reflected a changed world – and an author that was changing, too. The Black Act shows us the harm done by bad laws, Thompson wrote, and by that fact it indicates that the converse is possible: that law isn’t, as conventional Marxism teaches, a simple mechanism of class rule. “The rule of law,” Whigs and Hunters concluded, “is an unqualified human good.” Making’s “freeborn Englishmen”, with their fantasised Anglo-Saxon liberties, look ludicrous to modern eyes. But they left an inheritance, Thompson realised, almost beyond price; a state penned by laws, watched by juries, circumscribed by popular suspicion of militaries and police. These fragile barriers, erected by “intense historic struggles”, form “precedents signed in blood”, preserving, imperfectly and unevenly, a political culture in which traditions of justice and honesty can survive.

And it was all slipping away. Under successive governments, juries were stacked and neutered; freedom of speech asphyxiated by official secrecy; the police murder of the teacher-activist Blair Peach in 1979, the investigation into which was obstructed by an increasingly aggressive, and unaccountable, police hierarchy. “There has never been such a bonfire of our ancient laws as has taken place in the last decade, and, dancing around the leaping flames,” Thompson wrote, “we find, not the extreme Left, but the ‘law and order brigade’.” Ruling-class “anarchs” appalled Thompson. He found popular indifference far harder to take. Anaesthetised by television, “gorged on consumer goodies and blood”, the tradition of dissidence that Making chronicled seemed dead. “An operation has been done on our culture,” he wrote in 1979, “and the guts taken out.” The arteries keep hardening; the walls closed in. And the man famous for rescuing the past began to wonder if it wasn’t the present that stood most in need of rescue.

On a 1976 visit to India, led by Indira Gandhi, Nehru’s daughter and a lifelong family friend, Thompson saw his worst fears realised. Empowered by a declaration of national emergency, Gandhi was ruling like a dictator: civil liberties suspended; dissidents crushed. In Making, Thompson expressed the hope that where the acquisitive society had triumphed in England, in the Global South something better might be born. But in the India of the Emergency, he saw something worse: a marriage between the managed society and the police state; the Black Act resurrected in the nuclear age. And the cause that lost in India could lose in England, too. Thompson’s suspicion of the secret state wasn’t groundless: we now know he was under police surveillance from when he was 18 years old. After India, the old fears took on apocalyptic dimensions. He told a 1979 conference of historians that, quite soon, they would all be in jail.

Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India, declared a state of emergency in 1975, allowing her to imprison her opponents. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

So it was something other than curiosity that brought Thompson, in the middle of the greatest crisis of his life, in late 1978, to Bulgaria, to Frank: to the mystery that made him a historian. As he retraced his brother’s final journey, Thompson found shadowy figures standing in his way. He called them anti-historians. Shredded documents, censored records, vicious rumours, convenient lies: if historians recover the past, anti-historians work to destroy it. Thompson still found enough to be deeply disturbed.

His brother’s mission was ill timed, badly planned and under-supplied: almost as if he was set up to fail. Thompson began to suspect he was: records suggested neither the Foreign Office nor the Soviets wanted the partisans to take power after the war. But even if Frank’s defeat was preordained, his death wasn’t. Eighteen days passed between Frank’s capture and his execution; 18 days that, Thompson discovered, the Bulgarian government had spent in continual communication with Allied intelligence, negotiating the country’s impending declaration of neutrality. Within that context, the state execution of a uniformed British officer seemed an unbelievable provocation. Unless it wasn’t a provocation at all, but a diplomatic headache neatly resolved: “somebody winked”. Frank Thompson died a hero because someone preferred it that way.

As for the story the Soviets told about his brother – the brave speeches, the final salute – it was just another work of the anti-historians. Just another lie that power tells. Thompson had long been wary of the state; after Bulgaria his scepticism hardened to contempt. His politics drifted, in the process, away from Marx’s contending classes, towards William Blake’s “radical constituency of ‘us’ or  ‘the people’ against the ‘them’ of the State, or of Bishops”, as Thompson later described it, “or of the servitors of the Beast”. On his return to England, in the spring of 1980, Lieutenant Thompson went back to war.

[See also: The restoration of the coffeehouse]

He was outnumbered several million to one. The Cold War had reached fever pitch. Europe hosted hundreds of thousands of warships, tanks and planes; ten million men under arms; uncounted thousands of nuclear bombs. The West and the Soviet Union had at their disposal spies, police, anti-historians – the power, if they wished, to destroy the world. Once again, all EP Thompson had was the past.

It was all he needed. For all Thompson’s professed materialism, he never wavered in his conviction that history is not just a record of action but a means of exchange, a place of meeting: deep underneath the earth we walk on, in places the powerful never consider and the cynics can never reach, course underground rivers of struggle, friendship, justice, love. And that there are times in history when “the stored energies of the dead flow back into the living”, when those forgotten rivers burst to earth. Thompson didn’t know if he was living in such time. But the hour was late. For four decades he’d fought and lost. The treaties had been abrogated; the powers were gearing for war – a war, many analysts thought, that would come quickly, and leave nothing behind. He had to try.

If the defining symbol of the 18th century was the constitution, Thompson wrote, ours is the bomb. Nuclear weapons necessitate centralisation, secrecy, deceit; and these in turn induce the hatred and fear justifying yet more weapons. As the nuclear state destroys the external forms of democracy, the city-killers themselves strike, invisibly, at its moral core. There’s something worse than a society which chooses, collectively, to burn millions of men, women and children alive. And that’s a society – like England, like America, like Russia – that doesn’t think it’s a choice at all. Thompson calls it exterminism: “the civilisation of death”.

European Nuclear Disarmament launched in April 1980. Calling for a nuclear-free Europe on both sides of the Iron Curtain, it was Thompson’s last campaign, and the strangest. A coalition of trade unionists, feminists, dissident communists, religious pacifists – even a poet or two – it didn’t look like anything Thompson had organised before. It looked, in fact, oddly like the radicalism he wrote about in Making. That was, Thompson chuckled in a later interview, why it worked. Modern means of communication rested firmly in the hands of corporate power and the managerial state. But not, Thompson noted, pre-modern means.

In the period covered by Making, the indispensable means of agitation was the pamphlet. In 1980, Thompson turned back the clock: his pamphlet “Protest and Survive” sold 100,000 copies. In the months that followed, Thompson was speaking at trade union branches and in public squares and from half the pulpits of England, the unclosed arteries of an alternative nation. Thompson’s life was a sequence of demonstrations and conventions and yet more pamphlets: he was quoting Cobbett against Thatcher and Milton against Reagan; writing a Swiftean sci-fi satire against the nuclear arms race (the historian Perry Anderson called it his most revealing work). Thompson was speaking directly to the people of England. And they were listening. In polls of public opinion, he was closing in on the Queen. He was reading Blake again, but not on his own: 100,000 people listened in Trafalgar Square as Thompson reissued a statement of defiance made 200 years before: “Against the kingdom of the beast, we witnesses rise.”

And all over Europe, they were rising. Hundreds of thousands marched in Paris, Rome, Bonn, Madrid – a movement Washington couldn’t manage, that Moscow couldn’t control. Thompson’s name was on the lips of generals and politicians, and it was not long before the anti-historians were out. From west and east rumours circulated that Thompson was a proxy, acting for someone else. They were right. In 1984, in an Italian city he had fought in 40 years before, he talked about the dreams he had then, about the brother he lost. If we can win this, he told them, “we will have liberated the intentions of the dead”.

He lost. But the defeat looked a little like victory. “Good years for peace,” Thompson wryly observed, “are not good years for the peace movement.” Whether this helped push the superpowers back into dialogue was a question, Thompson thought, for future historians. But when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the USSR in 1985, and asked his advisers if there was another way to live, it’s said they told him of a man called Thompson.

By the time the “polluting cloud” of the Cold War finally lifted, Thompson was dying. He spent his final years finishing the research he’d neglected. In one, his long-awaited book on Blake, Thompson corrected himself. Blake’s “inner kingdom” wasn’t an escape from politics but a precondition for it: a system of alternative values without which social change would be literally unimaginable. That doesn’t sound very Marxist: he wasn’t sure, Thompson told one interviewer, if he was a Marxist any more. Maybe, he suggested in one talk, the old political labels were obsolete: future politics will have to, as it did in Making, consist in part of finding the right names. And this, he said, was a job for poets. But Thompson wrote poetry all his life. And in his sequel to Making, the 1991 collection Customs in Common, he suggested the “conservative revolutionaries” he studied might make an unexpected return.

In an era of ecological crisis, he wrote, we may need the “rediscovery, in new forms, of a kind of “customary consciousness”, in which once again successive generations stand in apprentice relation to each other, in which material satisfactions remain stable (if more equally distributed) and only cultural satisfactions enlarge”. In a society that increasingly conformed to Thompson’s darkest visions, that work of rediscovery would be difficult. It could not be done alone. “What passes on the daily screen is so distracting,” Thompson wrote in 1975, “the presence of the status quo so palpable, that it is difficult to believe that any other form of energy exists.” But there will always be moments when the impossible breaks in – when “we become aware of other and older reserves of energy glowing all around us, just as, when the street-lights are dowsed, we become aware of the stars”. The past needs the present. The future needs the past.

At least one of Thompson’s youthful hopes was not disappointed: he did “grow more dangerous as he grew old”. His first book asked the security services why his brother died. So did Beyond a Frontier (1997), his last. Thompson had refused, to the end, to compromise with power; with the acquisitive society and the civilisation of death. In his life, as in all lives, the dead had not ceased to act. “Never, on any page of Blake,” Thompson wrote, a few months before his death on 28 August 1993, “is there the least complicity with the kingdom of the beast.”

[See also: EP Thompson’s dystopian visions]

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This article appears in the 13 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Revenge of the Trussites