History from below

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By any measure, E.P. Thompson is a central figure in the development of social history after World War II. He is most commonly understood as having played the crucial role in the emergence of history from below, a way of looking at the past as centrally constructed by the actions of ordinary working people as they responded to their times and circumstances. This was an approach which, in Thompson's hands, became a means of countering the dominant ways in which history and the social sciences had developed in the post-war world. Thompson therefore sustained, through his life, a sharp critique of 'mechanical' ways of doing history that suggested that people were completely determined and directed, 'from the outside', by impersonal economic forces. His most celebrated work, the massive 1963 volume The Making of the English Working Class, has often been referred to as the single most influential work of history in post-war Britain, and it is difficult, too, to think of another work which has had comparable global influence, in contexts as widely varied as India, Brazil and South Africa – to take just three instances of history circles where this book acquired a readership and following. Equally, Thompson is remembered for the passion of his political activism. Originally a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, Thompson was one of the first to leave in the wake of Khruschev's 1956 'secret speech' about the brutalities during the Stalin era in the Soviet Union. He became a leading figure in Britain's first New Left, opposing a vision of socialist democracy and humanism to the polarities forced upon people by the Cold War.
Thompson's enthusiasm for the history of popular struggles and his own commitment to a radical, socialist agenda are inseparable from each other, and a brief look at his life gives us several examples of the ways in which this is true. His father, Edward Thompson senior, was a liberal Methodist missionary who had worked in India and had become close to anti-colonial Indian circles, cultivating a friendship with Jawaharlal Nehru. Thompson thus grew up in a household which was constantly full of anti-imperialists and campaigners for Indian independence. While at school, he and his sixth-form class (in 1940) were introduced to the early work of the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, on the English Civil War. Thompson followed Hill's accounts of English popular radicalism to their source in seventeenth-century pamphlets by the Levellers, and this seems to have fostered a lifelong sense of a continuing English tradition of popular democracy and anti-authoritarian politics. The influence of historians like Hill was decisive, and in time Thompson would exert a corresponding influence on them: these are the ways in which British post-war socialist historiography was created. However, personal and family circumstances also pushed Thompson's concerns leftward. His brother Frank, who joined the Communist Party and was killed by the fascists while fighting alongside Bulgarian partisans in 1944, was an enormous inspiration. Thompson himself participated in the war as a tank commander in Italy, and followed Frank into the Communist Party in 1942. The anti-fascist cause, which among other things brought various shades of progressive and left-leaning politics closer together, furnished for him a model of a united democratic and socialist Europe that stayed close to his heart all his life.
After the war, Thompson completed his studies at Oxford, and took up a job in teaching History and English at the extra-mural department of the University of Leeds at Halifax in west Yorkshire. This was adult education for working-class men and women, and he later attributed many of the themes and insights in his historical research to his encounter with these students, dedicating The Making to them. While at Halifax, he would write two enormous books, the first being a biography of William Morris, and the second being The Making.
These books were also shaped by the membership of Thompson – and of his wife, Dorothy, who would also go on to become a major historian of the working classes – in the Communist Party Historians' Group, which in the late 1940s and early 1950s provided a home for several people who would become the most influential and creative British historians of their generation: Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Rodney Hilton, and Raphael Samuel, besides the Thompsons. Each of these historians played a part in building the new 'history from below', written from the perspective of marginalized, subordinated, and resistant groups of people, in opposition to the dominant forms of history of the day. 1956 was a decisive year: Khruschev's revelations about Stalin's reign of terror forced many Communists, including the members of the Historians' Group, to reconsider their attachment to Stalinist Communism. More than the other historians who left the Party, Thompson broke with Stalinism in order to embrace a socialist politics that refused the option of either East or West, and set itself up in opposition to the choices offered by the Cold War. This New Left impulse would have several incarnations between the 1950s and the 1980s. Two instances of Thompson's political involvements may be in order here. First, between 1965 and 1972, Thompson was employed here, at the University of Warwick, at the Centre for Social History (which no longer exists). In 1970, he threw in his lot with students who were moved to radical action – such as the occupation of Senate House – by their discovery of files which showed university authorities, in conjunction with prominent industrialists, spying on students and teachers viewed as political dissidents. Thompson immediately edited and published a book named Warwick University Limited, about the authoritarian ways in which university education was being transformed. Thompson was, however, soon to leave the academic system, in order to concentrate on research. In the 1980s, his research was interrupted by another, and much more global, political involvement – the struggle for European nuclear disarmament and against the arms race. Thompson became one of the founders, and most prominent voices, of the organization END (European Nuclear Disarmament). Along with thousands of others, he saw nuclear conflict as almost inevitable if ordinary people did not unite in opposing it. At one level this was a revival of his old dream of a united socialist Europe; at another, however, it betokened a much darker and more tragic political vision, where saving the world from destruction by a Cold War turned hot – rather than the socialist transformation of this world – became the central priority. And the peace movement Thompson helped build certainly played a role in forestalling the possibility of nuclear holocaust.
I could go on about Thompson's life and politics at length, but it's time to turn to his academic work, his contributions to the development of history-writing, and the implications this has for historiography. What I want to do now is turn to some concrete instances of Thompson's method and style of historical argumentation, and on this basis describe the nature of his contribution.
Consider the argument about class from The Making of the English Working Class. It is an argument that, over 900 pages, works on two levels which are joined in all sorts of ways – through the use of colourful examples, through polemical broadsides against orthodox histories, and so on. One of these two levels is that of an argument about class itself, as a historical relationship rather than a static category. (QUOTE 1). There, in the very opening lines of the book, you have it, stated with great force: the working class was 'present at its own making', in the sense that the historical processes of industrial capitalism were not simply imposed upon labouring people as though they were a blank slate to be written on. These people had already been formed by prior experiences and traditions, and they responded to the 'structural' changes of their time through the prism of these traditions. This leads on to a significantly new conception of social class, not as a 'structure' or a 'category', but as lived human experience, and an active historical relationship which is always embodied in real people, and is not some sort of abstraction working above and through them.
What is Thompson arguing against, in these wonderfully polemical lines? Another quote might help here, again from the Preface to The Making – surely one of the most quoted texts in academic history! (QUOTE 2). Look at the orthodoxies he spells out: within a single passage, he summarizes three very distinct kinds of arguments, shared by historians across political and ideological divides – all of which he feels the need to take issue with, in order to stake out this 'active' conception of class as a historical relationship. (Fabians; Marxists; sociologists; orthodox economic historians). Note also that striking phrase: 'the enormous condescension of posterity'. Clearly, the different historical schools he is arguing against, in his eyes, commit the offence of patronizing and condescending to their subjects, against which Thompson sets out what we might see as an argument for historical empathy.
So what is the conception of class that Thompson himself works out through this book? Here we come, necessarily, to the second of the levels I mentioned – the concrete working out of the English working-class experience, in the light of its specific contexts. Here is another quote to help illuminate this. (QUOTE 3). These lines are from the end of Chapter 1, in which Thompson provides a lively and engrossing narrative of a working-class organization to campaign for political rights, the London Corresponding Society. Through this brief narrative at the outset, Thompson establishes an existing tradition of popular dissenting politics, concentrated among artisans and craftsmen. This sort of class consciousness, he thus demonstrates, was already at work, well before the onset of full-scale industrialization. So the idea that the working-class experience was simply a 'product' of industrial capitalism must be jettisoned – what must be studied, instead, are the ways in which this historical experience was handled, in cultural and political terms, by those who were its subjects. We come to a conclusion that had eluded earlier generations of historians – that it was the experience of groups that, in the long run, disappeared under the onslaught of capitalism (independent artisans and craftsmen) which decisively shaped the democratic and radical political ideologies and idioms through which the working class constructed itself in the nineteenth century. (In a later essay, Thompson would go on to elaborate the notion of eighteenth-century English society as characterized by 'class struggle without class' – in the sense that the “classes” which contended for social power were in the process of being formed, and the struggles themselves were precisely about class, rather than between classes.) These elements – of radical religious Dissent, of popular democratic belief and practice – were reshaped, Thompson argues throughout the book, in the context of the French Revolution and the impact it had upon Britain. This impact was, in the first place, felt through severe political repression; second, it isolated different groups of labouring people as the crucible of democratic and radical politics. Here Thompson also breaks with the orthodoxy that presents the political reform of 1832 chiefly as the achievement of the middle classes : through the early nineteenth century, he suggests, it was the working class that played the leading role in seeking and fighting for radical change.
Thompson does go on, after about 200 pages, to discuss the human consequences of industrial capitalist transformation. Here is his verdict. (QUOTE 4). This is from the chapter on “Exploitation”, another of your seminar readings. This is a significantly different way of handling economic arguments from the prevailing orthodoxies at the time Thompson wrote. He seeks to qualify and question the concern of the leading schools of English economic history-writing with statistical proofs and rebuttals. This apparently simple passage discloses something central to Thompson's conception of the relationship between 'objective' economic processes and human experience: this relationship, he argues, is never direct. It is possible for things to get better and get worse at the same time: in history, the two frequently go hand-in-hand. What matters above all is not the quantifiable 'result' of economic change, but rather the complex ways in which the people affected by them handle their experience.

Thompson's concluding reflections on working-class experiences and consciousness, in the last chapter of The Making, are worth looking at. (QUOTE 5). They convey, in a concentrated form, so many of the complexities involved in the formation of the English working class. There is the diversity of working skills that lay at the base of industrial transformation itself. There is the fact that so much of radical working class consciousness was produced precisely by the desire to avoid proletarianization, to avoid being stripped of all assets except one's labour. There is the way that class consciousness, of this and other sorts, seeps silently and slowly into all the institutions of everyday life. There is, finally, the intriguing suggestion that the great missed opportunity for radical politics in the age of industrialization was a 'junction' between working-class radicalism and Romantic ideology, two strains that ran close together but only very rarely met. You'll notice that Thompson makes a reference to the poet and engraver William Blake in this passage. It is worth remarking here that towards the end of his life Thompson, who was always of a very literary bent, wrote an extraordinary, moving study of Blake and his times, entitled Witness Against the Beast. Here, oddly enough, many of the themes in The Making are reprised: in particular, the long persistence of forms of radical religious Dissent. Except that here these questions are worked out through a concentrated focus not on a class, but on one very unique individual and his experience, whose writings and art stand testimony to the richness of dissenting ideology.

All right, so that's Thompson's argument about English working-class experience, and the ways to approach class as a historian, in The Making. I now want to turn, much more briefly, to some of the themes that Thompson tackled in subsequent work. In the 1970s, as I mentioned, he left Warwick University to carry out research as an independent scholar. While involvement in the peace movement abbreviated Thompson's career as a practising historian considerably (he died in 1993), the 1970s did see the emergence of significantly new concerns and themes. For one thing, Thompson found himself moving further back into the eighteenth century, impelled by his interest in writing as deep a history of popular, plebeian experience in modern England as possible. One of the new themes concerned a study of the role of law and its role in the social relations of the eighteenth century. This led to a book, Whigs and Hunters, published in 1975, which was remarkably different in its style from The Making, being concentrated and focused where The Making often seemed to be sprawling and huge, almost like a big novel. In Whigs and Hunters, and in several other writings of this period, Thompson carried out the study of law on two distinct but converging lines. First, he showed the ways in which laws – especially property law and the law of capital punishment – were used to ruthlessly enforce the authority of England's ruling classes, and repress the customary practices and traditions of the poor. At the same time, however, Thompson rejected the traditional Marxist notion that law was somehow part of a 'superstructure' that rested upon an 'economic' base of relations of production. This chimed well with his concerns in the 1970s – through the decade, he was concerned to show the ways in which the base-and-superstructure model adopted for the study of society by so many Marxists was simply misleading on a number of levels. Specifically about law, he made the argument that one found it everywhere, in his own words, 'at every bloody level', not just at the level of the superstructure. Law could be found running through people's customs, through agricultural practice, through social relations. And consequently, Thompson also rejected a shibboleth of a large section of the radical left – the idea that law, in and of itself, was always simply an instrument of ruling power. Pointing to the various ways in which the poor needed the law for their own survival, the ways in which they fought over law as much as they did against it, Thompson argued that some version of the rule of law was unavoidable in complex human societies, and it could be a valuable weapon of popular struggle.
Finally, in the 1970s Thompson intensively researched the customary practices of the labouring agricultural and artisanal poor in the eighteenth century, in a society that was still largely agrarian but beginning to experience economic transformation and the spread of new kinds of markets and economic practices. One of his early forays into these themes was in the essay 'The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”, which was re-published in the posthumous collection of essays, Customs in Common, in 1994. Here's a quotation from that essay, which sums up Thompson's purpose in conducting a study of crowd behaviour. (QUOTE 6).
What Thompson was demanding and trying to supply, in a sense, was a different kind of economic history, one which saw the processes of economic transformation as being contested, not only in a self-consciously political way, but through the warp and woof of people's everyday lives, practices, and customs and collective rituals. The food riot in the eighteenth century, he tried to show, was not simply a 'reaction' to hunger; it was, equally, the expression of a moral economy at work, based on notions of just prices, violent opposition to hoarding and speculation, and a web of related principles that made up a sort of economic consensus about legitimate practice. (QUOTE 7). Here's a final quotation to make the stakes of the argument clear. In this passage Thompson lists the apparently simple practices surrounding the production and marketing of bread; at each point along the line, however, potential flashpoints of social conflict emerge, especially in the charged atmosphere of economic change in the late eighteenth century. Thompson's other great theme, in his study of custom – also hinted at in this passage – is the way in which the moral economy of the poor drew heavily upon a 'paternalist' model of grain provision and regulated markets that was contained in Statute law and the practices of many magistrates. As the economic basis for this sort of moral economy eroded, Thompson argues, these elements of 'paternalist' protection became a source of claims made by the poor in terms of 'custom' and common rights.

This is not all: there are several other themes in Thompson's work that merit a long discussion. But since we don't have much time left, I'd like to conclude with a couple of observations about the influence of Thompson's work and the arguments it has provoked. By any measure, the works I've talked about, as well as others I haven't, compose a hugely important body of historical work and reflection. Thompson is undoubtedly the central figure – though far from the only one – to have helped shift history-writing in Britain, and elsewhere, away from its erstwhile preoccupations with high politics, economic generalization and statistical quantification. Two concepts which are pretty much unavoidable in serious historical argument, and have been so for the last few decades, are experience and agency. Thompson, at various points in his life, suggested variations on these terms as the elementary components of a proper historical practice. Neither of these was meant to be a 'static', non-historical 'category' with a clear definition and clear rules for application. Rather, the point being made was poetic as much as it was analytical: Thompson's point was that history needed to continually be sensitive to the changing character of social experience that posed new questions to people, and to the changing nature of the answers that people created. Agency was fundamental to this process: the historian needed, according to Thompson, a continual openness to the ways in which large historical processes were never simply 'decided' once and for all, but rather were the subject of ongoing, creative struggles by ordinary people to change their course or appropriate their meanings. Now there's no question that a great deal of this understanding has come to permeate the consciousness of historians themselves, across the world and in different sub-disciplines. The Subaltern Studies group of historians in India, of whom you shall be hearing more of in a later lecture, made analogous arguments about the role of peasants in colonial Indian society, and the ways in which they interpreted and appropriated both state policy and nationalist agitation. That's just one cursory example. Another and perhaps more wide-ranging example is the global spread of labour history after Thompson's publication of The Making. Labour history, as a sub-discipline, was in many ways liberated from a whole host of older methodologies and preoccupations by Thompson's intervention. The two decades or so after The Making saw an incredible efflorescence of ways of writing working-class history in Britain, France, and the United States. That moment in historical studies in the West seems to have ebbed, but there are other parts of the world – India, parts of Latin America, and South Africa – where labour history, often extremely aware of and receptive to Thompsonian concerns, is a growing academic field.

And finally, there have been critiques galore, some of them polemical and hasty, some of them serious and thought-provoking. Orthodox Marxists have argued against Thompson's use of class in such an open-ended, non-structural fashion: what happens, they ask, to the actual operation of much more rigid structures of class rule, patterns of more complete domination by newly emerging ruling classes, and economic forces that working people had no way really of shaping effectively? Other historians, such as Carolyn Steedman, have pointed out that while Thompson's own analysis calls for the study of class as a relationship between two forces, he really only considers the working-class side of the relationship: the ruling classes are prone to appear, often enough, as the personifications of certain ideas and principles, rather than also as a class-in-the-making. Then there is an important tradition of feminist critique. Feminist social history, as practised by historians like Anna Clark, Catherine Hall, Carolyn Steedman and others, has in many ways drawn heavily upon Thompson's open, fluid, non-deterministic conceptions of social class and historical process. But, at the same time, it has been impossible to ignore the very male character of a great deal of the evidence Thompson draws on, and the picture of a largely masculine working class forming itself through typically male occupations. Similar points have been made with regard to race and empire. And finally, post-structuralist approaches to history have stressed the shaping role of language and discourse in class and other forms of consciousness, and suggested that Thompson should have been more attentive to the role of working-class discourses in shaping the experience of class formation.

All this criticism, some of which Thompson responded to in his lifetime and some of which he couldn't have anticipated, has had profound effects upon the study of class, experience, agency, and other terms and histories addressed in his work. I don't have time to look at these effects now, so I'll just end with a brief comment on these critiques. There is a certain ambiguity in much of this criticism: does it call for an extension of Thompson's concerns, or does it to some extent invalidate and change those concerns themselves? Is the call for a more gender-sensitive perspective on class, for instance, a challenge to Thompson's very method of doing history, or is it a call for a more complete application of that method to areas of experience he gave short shrift? Similar points could be made about other points of critique: the point is that the debate on Thompson's legacy continues, in various parts of the world, without any overarching consensus. In this sense, Thompson remains a living historian.

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