New York Times Book Review July 1, 2001, Sunday
Rewriting History By David A. Bell
THE ESSENTIAL E. P. THOMPSON
Edited by Dorothy Thompson.
498 pp. New York: The New Press. Cloth, $45. Paper, $21.95.
For one of Britain's greatest modern historians, Edward Palmer Thompson (1924-93)
cut an unusual figure. He never held a distinguished chair at Oxford or Cambridge,
and indeed spent much of his career entirely outside the university system.
His historical work sometimes trailed a distant second to his campaigns for
radical political causes. He did not receive a lofty title from a grateful sovereign,
and the prospect of his entering the House of Lords would undoubtedly have horrified
him and most members of that body in equal measure. Although he was an often
eloquent writer, he did not have the true English mandarin's grand, imperious
What he did have was an incomparable talent for ''rescuing'' ordinary men and
women, as he put it in his most famous phrase, ''from the enormous condescension
of posterity.'' In his most significant works, he offered a brilliantly colored
vision of how 18th- and early-19th-century common people were affected by, reacted
to and ultimately organized themselves against modern conceptions of property,
and the rise of industrial capitalism. He presented this history not as the
inevitable working out of vast and impersonal forces, but as an epic human conflict
in which his own sympathies were fully invested, and fully visible. This passionate
engagement, combined with deep-slicing wit and a penchant for speaking plainly
(''This is to simplify. But simple points must be made''), gave his work an
influence unsurpassed among 20th-century English-speaking historians, and made
the man himself something of a cult figure.
''The Essential E. P. Thompson,'' a collection of Thompson's writings compiled
by his widow, Dorothy, ranges widely over his career. It includes, of course,
key chapters from his masterpiece, ''The Making of the English Working Class''
(1963), and from his path-breaking studies of 18th-century crowds and criminal
law. It also has selections from early work on the Romantic craftsman, poet
and Socialist William Morris, from Thompson's uncharacteristically turgid attack
on structural Marxism (''The Poverty of Theory'') and from an extended essay
on his missionary father's relationship with the Indian writer Rabindranath
Tagore. It does not, however, provide examples of his nonhistorical work, which
includes poetry, a major study of William Blake and voluminous political writings.
These omissions are something of a pity, for they would have helped place Thompson
more clearly in his own historical context. Commentary from Dorothy Thompson
is also sorely missed, for the same reason. Some of the writing collected here
strikes a personal tone, and reflections in the same vein from Thompson's partner
would have made the selections more accessible to those unfamiliar with him
-- the volume's presumed target audience.
A sense of Thompson's own history is all the more necessary because prevailing
interpretations of the British past have shifted with disorienting speed in
the past 20 years or so. When Thompson began his work in the late 1940's, in
a Britain marked by profound social and political antagonisms, Whig historians
and Marxists alike tended to portray British history as a story of unending
conflict. For the Historians' Group of the English Communist Party, which included
Edward and Dorothy Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm and Christopher Hill, the central
episodes were the 17th-century civil war (they called it the ''English Revolution'')
and the 19th-century Industrial Revolution. The one supposedly heralded the
ascendancy of the bourgeoisie, the other the rise of the working class, and
both pointed the way to the longed-for triumph of socialism.
This perspective infused Thompson's early work on Morris, and he later regretted
that he had allowed ''some hectoring political moralisms, as well as a few Stalinist
pieties, to intrude upon the text.'' These moralisms and pieties did not survive
the Soviet repression of the Hungarian revolt of 1956, and by the time he wrote
''The Making of the English Working Class'' (which began as the first chapter
of a history of the English labor movement, but swelled to 848 pages), he had
broken both with the Communist Party and with orthodox Marxism. But his sense
of history as struggle had only intensified, for he had now come to his notion
of a working class that had actively and heroically ''made itself,'' and that
moreover had come ''within an ace'' of starting a proto-socialist revolution
in the early 1830's. The failure of that revolution, supposedly in the face
of concerted repression, gave the book a tragic tinge that only intensified
its political appeal.
A vision of British history as continuous conflict remained dominant through
the 1970's, in large part thanks to ''The Making of the English Working Class.''
But today, in Tony Blair's Britain, the past looks very different. Leading British
historians like John Brewer and Linda Colley write not about early class struggles,
but about the early vigor and dynamism of the British state and British culture,
and about the people's patriotic support for the government against France.
Colley presented her book ''Britons,'' which focuses on the same historical
period covered by ''The Making of the English Working Class,'' as ''an attempt
to rescue . . . the seeming conformists from the condescension of posterity,''
leaving no doubt which condescending nonconformist historian she had in mind.
To the extent that the new prevailing interpretations highlight conflict, it
is no longer class conflict, but rather ethnic conflict between the constituent
nations of Britain (the English Civil War now sometimes goes by the title of
''the War of the Three Kingdoms''), and religious conflict. The most important
period in the story now appears to be less the age of Cromwell or the Industrial
Revolution than the 18th century, once derided for its supposed complacency
and corruption, but now heralded as the moment when Britain consolidated itself
and rose to world dominance.
In this new climate, it sometimes seems as if E. P. Thompson has altogether
disappeared under a scrum of his critics. It is pointed out acerbically that
the 18th-century legal system was less draconian and repressive in practice
than he thought. It is argued that religious dissent, rather than emerging class
consciousness, guided radical politics before 1832. From among Thompson's own
professional and political allies come calls to emphasize race and gender as
well as class. It is even charged that Thompson deliberately played down the
racism, sexism and anti-Semitism of his radical heroes. And there are those
who deconstruct the concept of class altogether, replacing Thompson's saga of
working-class heroism with an impersonal tracking of shifts in the language
of novels, pamphlets, plays and newspapers.
In truth, there is something to be said for many of these criticisms. It is
hard to imagine how the society described in ''The Making of the English Working
Class,'' agonizingly divided between repressive patricians and struggling plebeians,
could have marshaled the herculean resources necessary to defeat Napoleonic
France, let alone laid the foundations of a worldwide empire. The imaginative
sympathy this missionary's son usually showed for his subjects tended to evaporate
when it came to religion (from ''The Making of the English Working Class'':
''Calvinism was not the same thing as Methodism, although it is difficult to
say which, in the early 19th century, was worse''). Although Thompson could
display a remarkable feminist sensibility, as for instance in the moving defense
of Mary Wollstonecraft included here, his admiration for the radical William
Cobbett was undiminished by Cobbett's vicious anti-Semitism and his talk of
''fat and greasy Negroes.'' Thompson's close attention to language and ritual
anticipated much of the current ''new cultural history,'' but his notions of
working-class consciousness were simplified and exaggerated, and called out
for sharper analysis.
Yet little of this matters, in the end. Thompson's interpretations were contestable, but his honesty and research were not. Nor did his occasional blindness to past prejudice ever come close to sliding over into active prejudice. Besides, what defines great historians is not the way their particular interpretations speak to contemporary standards and preoccupations, but the power of their overall vision of the past. Thompson's vision was undeniably, brilliantly powerful, even if one disagrees with the politics that inspired it. His conclusions still ring with the force of great homilies. And in the age of Blair, he reminds us that Britain was not always a place of muddled, polite, ''third way'' consensus, but a society that, whatever its other features, was one of appalling inequality, widespread injustice and long, bitter struggles to gain rights and comforts now taken almost entirely for granted.