It is difficult to contemplate at such a distance the left-wing giants who strode the stage in the middle of the twentieth century. Fascism had been defeated for a long moment, the colonial world was exploding in revolt, and in a related vein, history was being rewritten, re-evaluated at large, beyond the saga of kings and armies. Edward Thompson, setting the example for the re-examining of the history of labour anywhere in the world, further proved himself as a leader of the global peace movement. That he was also a great scholar of the two Williams, Blake and Morris, could almost be forgotten in a larger truth: Edward Thompson, word and deed, was the Great English Romantic and therefore the Great Anti-Thatcher as well.
The short version of his life is easily told. Born in Oxford, the son of missionary parents, he left school for the Army in 1941, emerging with a loss of hearing in one ear from duty as a tank commander. The execution of his elder brother William, fighting with the Partisans in Bulgaria, he often recalled as a singular influence in his young life. Shortly after the War, he joined the Communist Party. More memorably, he joined the CP Historians Group, which included great names of future scholarship, Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm among them. After years working in collaboration, the group launched in 1952 a journal unique in the English language and perhaps any other: Past and Present.
The appearance of his monumental William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary, preceded by only a year the Hungarian Revolution and his shift outward from a restless Communist Party member to a founder of the British New Left. The New Reasoner, a voice dedicated to the rise of a new generation and a new anti-war movement, would finally disappear into the New Left Review, leaving Thompson with a different task at hand: The Making of the English Working Class (1963).
Quite literally nothing like it had ever been written, although it was said to resemble two equally memorable older volumes fully appreciated only decades after their appearance: Black Reconstruction in America 1860-1880 (1936) by W. E. B. Du Bois, and The Black Jacobins (1938) by C. L. R. James. Each proposed a history ‘from the bottom up’, with the activity at the bottom as a moving force in history, but also as a subject of unprecedentedly detailed, close, and loving examination.
The force of The Making may be said to have literally changed the nature of history writing, and not only writing the history of the working class. Younger generations of scholars in many parts of the world dedicated themselves to telling different stories, in different ways. The rise of Oral History, a history often written within the new social movements themselves, owed enormously to his influence. But so did critical studies into the deepest layers of society, conducted by a rising generation certain in its own mind that a change in historical understanding might truly democratise society at large.
Thompson drove home this last point, among others, with his public oratory in classrooms and union halls, at political demonstrations of various kinds, and even at music festivals. His wonderful gray mane of hair, turning to white, swept above and around his narrow, handsome face and above his spare frame as he made his points. Audiences appeared to ready themselves visibly for serious listening as his monologue began, sometimes with a joke upon himself or a light remark. He spoke articulately on any subject he chose, but his storytelling was an art, and likewise his recitations. Crowds seemingly allergic to poetry could be swept away by his readings of Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, or Morris. More to the point, he gave adoring crowds a sense of their own potential to intervene in the affairs of the powerful.
He was more than ready for the the anti-nuclear movement that revived in the later 1970s and found its voice protesting the repression of free speech as well as the looming nuclear arms race. He wrote the notorious pamphlet Protest and Survive, mocking the government’s Protect and Survive, in the process making himself one of the most beloved and attacked figures in the UK. He collaborated on revival of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and on the founding documents of the European Nuclear Disarmament (END), a cause that spoke for and about tirelessly across Europe. His speeches at the Glastonbury Festivals thrilled huge audiences, inspiring adaptations in music and computer games.
It would surely have been enough for one life. But he had a great deal more to say about philosophy, poetic traditions, and his own, determinedly subversive understanding of ‘Englishness’. Something had been lost between Blake and Morris, he was wont to say, and the power of the Romanticism still awaited recapture and use. His science fiction novel The Sykaos Papers, romantic but also sternly anti-nuclear, took decades to write, and given its length, must have taken readers weeks to delve.
His polemic against the onset of an Althussserian influence in British Marxist thought may seem more daunting to readers today, even those who enjoy his self-characterisation as a ‘Bustard’, the British bird that cannot fly across continents and does not wish to, because it knows its home so well. His study of William Blake, written as his health failed, could not itself be fully completed, but gives today’s reader a sense of the completeness of Thompson the militant romantic.
Thompson’s wife, Dorothy Towers Thompson, was an outstanding scholar of Chartism, and his daughter Kate Thompson, is an award-winning children’s author. His own legacy as a great historian of England’s working class remains as vibrant as ever.