Historians make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing…

Guilt by Lynn Steinsonthompson-300x102 Historians make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing...

Edward Palmer Thompson’s selected works

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under circumstances of their own choosing, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”, Karl Marx.

Edward Palmer Thompson was a product of his time and circumstances. He was born in 1924 in Oxford to Methodist English missionaries. After a private education he was called up, at just 17, to fight in the Second World War, first in Africa, then in Italy at the battle of Cassino. His older brother Frank, a British officer, was executed fighting fascism in Bulgaria, a story Edward recounted in “Beyond the Frontier: The politics of a failed mission to Bulgaria 1944”. After the war Edward went up to Cambridge where, like many of his generation, he joined the Communist Party of Great Britain.

If one of his children had become leader of the Labour Party he would surely be the subject of a vitriolic campaign by the Daily Mail to be outed as a man who hated Britain. As it is, he is now remembered by the media in the book reviews of the broadsheets as the author of “The Making of the English Working Class”. The book is celebrating a landmark anniversary this year. It has been in continuous print for fifty years. Thompson is one of the 250 most frequently cited authors of all time, and the most cited historian. His seminal book is largely responsible for the attention given, during the late twentieth century, to the histories of neglected, or forgotten peoples, including the attention given to black history. The book is grand in many ways although its author may be charged with a serious omission – women are largely absent from the pages of the book.

Guilt by Lynn Steinsonthompson-300x102 Historians make history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing...

The Making of the English Working Class

Thompson rejected the rigid base/superstructure definition of class advocated by Marxian economic determinists. His paper in the New Reasoner No 1 Summer 1957 pp 105-143 “Socialist Humanism, An Epistle to the Philistines’ rigorously attacks Stalinism. Values were important to Thompson. He left the Communist Party following the Soviet invasion of Hungary. With Trevor Huddleston, A.J.P. Taylor and J.B. Priestly he shaped The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) in the late fifties and was a prominent leader of the peace movement until his death.

The sixties was a time of change when bright and creative men and women from the north were influencing national and international culture. For the first time in the media regional accents were not merely accepted but were fashionable. These young men and women did not “know their place” and if they did they were not going to accept it. Thompson’s “Making” was born at this moment unveiling the traditions, intelligence and ideas of this part of England which was suddenly in the public eye.

The number of undergraduate social scientists and historians expanded following the establishment of the campus ‘plate glass’ universities like York, Kent, Sussex and Warwick. The number of those obtaining first degrees more than doubled between 1960 and 1970, from 22,000 to 51,000. [1] Higher education was now available to a new generation of eighteen year-olds, many were the first in their families to benefit from higher education. Their ancestors may well have been those who were “making the English working class”. They provided an enthusiastic readership for the output of the campus historians of the sixties which included Ralph Miliband, Perry Anderson, Robin Blackburn, Asa Briggs, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawn, John Saville, Dorothy Thompson -his wife whom he had met at Cambridge- and Raymond Williams.

Marx’s statement that, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it” was a guiding principle. Thompson had a purpose, to rescue the stories of the losers in history from the “condescension of posterity”. Thompson had moved north after Cambridge, working under Asa Briggs in the University of Leeds, leading courses in the Extra Mural Studies department while he was researching and writing the “Making”. He was in the north, just as the north was asserting its cultural identity he was rescuing its cultural history.

I recall hearing Thompson speak in Hyde Park, sharing a platform with Tony Benn I seem to recall. He was a powerful speaker, a man who did not merely write about the theory of Marxism but was also committed to its praxis. He was steeped in literature and philosophy which informed his work, and a Marxism which he redefined. He was a socialist humanist, historian and activist, an intellectual of the New Left and, along with Miliband, a fierce critic of Soviet communism.

I have read “The Making” through at least twice – at over 900 pages, not a book which can be devoured too quickly- and dipped into it many times. My 1975 copy contains many marks in biro, and from a more recent read, in highlighter pen. On pages nine and eleven two quotes have been marked by both.

“And class happens when some men, as a result of common experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men and women whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.”

To Thompson class was a relationship, not a thing. It was the driver of historical change.

“If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences. But if we watch these men over an adequate period of social change, we observe patterns in their relationships, their ideas, and their institutions. Class is defined by men as they live their own history, and in the end, that is its only definition.”

And for me that is also the definition of history.

[1]House of Commons Library,Education Statistics. SN/SG/4252 Last updated: 27 November 2012. p 20.

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About Lynn Steinson

Author of psychological thrillers "Deluded" and "Guilt" about members of The Sun pub quiz team.
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