Edward Palmer Thompson, one of the most influential social historians of the twentieth century, died twenty years ago, in 1993, at the age of 69. His magnum opus, The Making of the English Working Class, arguably the single most important work of social history published in the twentieth century, appeared for the first time in 1963, half a century ago (1). Both anniversaries are being marked with conferences and special publications in different countries, from the UK to the US to Argentina. Thompson’s historical works, theoretical reflections, and political interventions continue to inspire scholars and activists and generate debate and polemics, as they did when he was alive. Several recent studies are evidence of the continuing interest in his life, work, and legacy (2).
We want to contribute to these commemorations by making available to a wider readership a brief paper that Thompson wrote in 1987 under the rather casual title of ‘Reflections on Jacoby and all that’, presented at the History and Society Program of the University of Minnesota during the 1987-1988 academic year. This program was, in the words of sociologist Ron Aminzade, a space for ‘getting faculty from different disciplines who did historically-oriented work to talk to one another’. Aminzade directed the program between 1985 and 1987 and again in 1989-90. Unfortunately, I have not been able to confirm the exact time of Thompson’s visit to Minnesota, although both Aminzade and Kent Sandstrom, a graduate assistant for the program at that time, recall that he and his wife Dorothy spent at least a couple of weeks in the Twin Cities (3). It may have been in the fall of 1987. He had spent part of winter 1987 hospitalized, recovering from what he thought was ‘some bug‘ he acquired in New Delhi (4). In spring 1988 he taught at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and delivered the Herbert G. Gutman Memorial Lecture at the New York Public Library in April of that year. Thompson taught and lectured in various countries, including the United States, partly as a way to supplement Dorothy’s salary, then the only regular family income they could count on (5).
The ‘working paper’ we are posting circulated in mimeograph version among faculty and graduate students at the University of Minnesota but was never published. It was partly a commentary on Russell Jacoby’s then recent book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, in which Jacoby chastised academics that, among other things, ‘direct themselves to professional colleagues but are inaccessible and unknown to others’. He saw this as ‘a danger and a threat’ (6). In his paper, Thompson addressed some of the issues that were of great concern to him: the politics of education and intellectual work, the role of universities in society, the connection between radical intellectuals and the working classes, the importance of participating in what we can call ‘the battle of ideas’, and the need of breaking apathy by intervening in public debates using every media available – not only books but also magazines, public lectures, and even television.
Thompson also offers some interesting reflections on the relationship between his writings and the environment in which they were produced. Although his first two books were conceived not as academic products but as interventions in adult education, the recognition that The Making of the English Working Class received transformed him into ‘a target for academic criticism’. This, in turn, affected the way Thompson approached his subsequent work: it lost, he says, the impetus that came from the dialogue with adult students and made him a less spontaneous, much more ‘conscious’ (and thus, slower) writer. Different audiences helped produce different types of historical works. Bryan Palmer and Scott Hamilton have noticed that, in his later work, Thompson was much more ‘cautious’ on the use of sources and more ‘circumspect’ in his scholarship. For Hamilton, ‘the early Thompson railed against intellectual conformity; the later model worries about incommensurability’. According to Palmer, Thompson ‘felt insecure’ about his knowledge of eighteenth-century history and decided not to teach a graduate seminar on ‘Customs in Common’ at Queen’s University in 1988 (7). Thompson was the first in recognizing that shift, as his comments in this paper confirm.
The relationship between his role as historian, public intellectual, and activist is also discussed in this short piece. They are not presented as being necessarily incompatible, although it is obvious that they competed against each other for his time. It is well known that several historical projects were left aside when Thompson decided to embark in the campaign against nuclear weapons. When he learned about his disease in the late 1980s, he went back to those postponed projects and tried to finish them. He completed in 1990 and published in 1991 his long-awaited volume of essays entitled Customs in Common that he had been working on since at least the mid-1970s (8). He also completed in 1991 a book on the relationship between his father and the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (9) and a study of William Blake, which he had been working on for years (10). In a letter to Bryan Palmer written in early 1993, Thompson wrote: ‘My Blake is going through press [and] the Tagore [should] appear any day.’ (11). The sense of urgency is evident in the pace he was working at. Two other books of essays he had been preparing at the time of his death were published posthumously: Persons and Polemics. Historical Essays (12) and The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age (13). A third posthumous book would be comprised by the lectures on his brother Frank he gave at Stanford University in 1981 (14).
Thompson always saw his work as a historian as inextricably linked to his public interventions in favour of socialism and peace. This paper, written at the height of Thatcherism in Great Britain and Reaganism in the US, was in a way a call for action, in particular for academics. Keeping in touch with the public, rejecting ‘introversial professionalized vocabularies’, and resisting scholasticism were seen by Thompson as necessary attitudes to maintain ‘the intellectual health of the academy’. Years earlier, at a famous debate around his book The Poverty of Theory, Thompson had lashed out against Marxist academics for ‘being too interested in the minutiae of theory, and too little concerned with burning political issues’, denouncing vociferously the ‘enclosed ghetto of the academic left’ (15).
We publish this paper (available as a PDF below) with the hope that it will inspire current and future academics to continue working towards a peaceful and just society as intellectuals and as citizens, as E.P. Thompson always tried to do.E P Thompson Reflections on Jacoby and all that (original version)
(1) The first edition was published in 1963 by Victor Gollancz. A revised edition with a new postscript was published in 1968 by Penguin Books. A third edition with a new preface was published also by Penguin in 1980. The book has remained in print for fifty years.
(2) Among the most recent studies about Thompson’s work and influence are Carlos Illades, Breve introducción al pensamiento de E.P. Thompson (Mexico City: Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana, 2008); Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: E.P. Thompson, the New Left and Postwar British Politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011); and Alejandro Estrella González, Clío ante el espejo. Un socioanálisis de E.P. Thompson (Cádiz: Universidad de Cádiz, 2011). There is also a new Spanish edition of The Making – La formación de la clase obrera en Inglaterra (Madrid: Capitán Swing, 2012) – with a preface by Antoni Doménech. History Workshop Journal included a dossier on Thompson in its Autumn 2013 issue, number 76.
(3) I want to thank Ron and also Kent Sandstrom, a graduate assistant to the program in the 1980s and now a Professor of Sociology and Dean of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at North Dakota State University, for sharing with me some recollections about the ‘History and Society Program and E.P. Thompson’s visit. I arrived at the University of Minnesota in the fall of 1990, attended some of the meetings of the program and somebody – maybe Ron himself – gave me a copy of Thompson’s paper presented a couple of years earlier.
(4) Bryan D. Palmer, E.P. Thompson. Objections and Oppositions (London: Verso, 1994), 143.
(5) Eric J. Hobsbawm, ‘‘Edward Palmer Thompson, 1924-1963’, Proceedings of the British Academy, 90, 1996, 534.
(6) Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (New York: Basic Books, 1987), x.
(7) See Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory, 255, and Palmer, E.P. Thompson, 144-5.
(8) E.P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (New York: The New Press, 1991). In his 1976 interview with MAHRO, Thompson referred to Customs in Common as ‘my unfinished book of studies in eighteenth-century social history – on paternalism, riot, enclosure, and common rights, and on several popular ritual forms’. MARHO, Visions of History (New York: Pantheon, 1983), 21.
(9) Alien Homage. Edward Thompson and Rabindranath Tagore (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1993). According to Bryan Palmer, once Thompson finished Customs in Common, ‘there was the Tagore-Thompson manuscript to clean up (a complicated matter made more cumbersome by an unorganized archive, letters gone astray, and other difficulties).’ Palmer, E.P. Thompson, 150. Thompson first started looking at his father’s letters in 1986 to prepare a paper for a conference on Tagore: ‘I went up to the attic of our house to see what was there. I came down some four months later with a first draft of this short book in my hand.’ Thompson, Alien Homage, vii.
(10) E. P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).
(11) Palmer, E.P. Thompson, 150.
(12) London: Merlin, 1994. This volume was published in the United States under the title Making History: Writings on History and Culture (New York: The New Press, 1994). In the introduction to Persons and Polemics, Dorothy Thompson wrote: ‘These essays were handed over for publication by Edward a fortnight before he died in August last year. During the previous six months he had been making a careful selection, and this, the order and the suggested title are all his.
(13) New York: The New Press, 1997.
(14) E.P. Thompson, Beyond the Frontier. The Politics of a Failed Mission: Bulgaria 1944 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997). In the introduction to this volume, Dorothy quotes an ‘apology’ that Edward gave at the beginning of his lectures: ‘In the past eighteen months I have been so fully preoccupied with matters which concern me as a citizen – the settled direction towards a terminal nuclear collision in Europe – that I have had to set aside for a time my work as a historian. I have been forced to leave libraries and to spend my time in public meetings and to turn my pen to pamphlets and public correspondence.’ (7).
(15) Quoted in Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory, 176-7.