EP Thompson: ‘Cultural’ and ‘Operational’ Marxist Historian

  Edward Palmer Thompson was a world-renowned historian who, along with Eric Hobsbawm, was a leading figure in the British school of Marxist history. He insisted on using Marx’s method of historical materialism to study British popular culture in the 18th and 19th centuries, pioneering the study of new social history, and was regarded as a “cultural Marxist historian” and even “the greatest Marxist history of the 20th century” scientist”. He also enthusiastically participated in theoretical debates and various social activities, ranking among the most charismatic social activists in contemporary Britain, also known as “the theoretical standard-bearer of the first generation of the British New Left” and “the Marxist historiography of action” Family”.
  Thompson came from a devout Methodist missionary family. His father severely criticized British imperialism and had a close friendship with Nehru, the leader of the British Indian independence movement. He and his brother Frank both became Communist Party members after entering college, and both participated in the anti-fascist war. Thompson once said that Frank aspired to popular and democratic communism, not rigid, dogmatic Stalinist communism. Thompson’s father and brother are poets, and he himself studied literature in college before turning to history. For Thompson. The romance of literature and the rigor of history are perfectly combined in him.
  Thompson’s generation of Britons has experienced a huge turning point in the history of the country and the world. World War II completely shattered European domination of the world. After the war, the “Cold War” broke out and the United States and the Soviet Union competed for hegemony. The national liberation movement was raging in the vast areas of Asia, Africa and Latin America. The original “Empire on which the Sun Never Sets” retreated sharply to the British mainland. A group of British historians who grew up after the war, such as Thompson, paid more attention to the problems of their own nation, such as the historical changes from feudal society to capitalist society. They were deeply influenced by Marxism and advocated a “bottom-up view of history” to pay attention to the history of the lower classes. They are in the context of the general improvement in the living and production standards of the working class in the post-war capital world. Emphasizes the necessity and importance of class consciousness and class struggle with a keen sense of reality.
  Thompson’s family environment and his own life experience complement each other, giving him a deep understanding of cultural factors such as literature and religion. Thompson recognized the value of culture in social systems in his historical research, and it became his research creed throughout his life. Thompson is talented and covers a wide range. He has written two highly influential biographies: William Morris: From Romanticism to Revolution (1953) and Evidence Against the Beast – William Blake and Moral Law (1993). He also wrote a science fiction novel against war and many poems. Of course, his most important areas are the study of the formation of the British working class and its influence and the study of British underclass culture in the 17th and 18th centuries. His writings in the professional field of history are difficult to describe as “the equivalent of writings”, but their influence and value are far from quantitative.
  Thompson’s most representative treatise is undoubtedly the famous “The Making of the British Working Class” (1963). From the perspective of cultural and social history, the book adheres to the Marxist class analysis method, and details the historical process of the formation of the British industrial working class from 1780 to 1832. This important history has been forgotten for a long time, and later scholars from different positions have cast a mysterious veil on it. Thompson’s self-proclaimed purpose of writing the book was “to try to bring the poor hosiery, the Luddite shearer, the ‘outdated’ hand-weaver, the ‘ideal’ craftsman, and even the deceived into following. The people of Joanna Southcott, rescued from the suffocating condescension of posterity.”
  Thompson believes that class is a historical phenomenon and a social relationship that is fluid and changing. He opposes seeing class as a “thing” in a purely economic sense, and more severely criticizes the argument that class does not exist or that class theory harms society. . Thompson uses Marx’s class theory and class analysis on the one hand, and insists on his own judgment on the other hand. He analyzes the formation of the British industrial working class from a cultural perspective, and believes that class comes from a special cultural tradition and is more of a subjective identity. He does not deny the role of economic factors in class formation, but fully considers that economic and non-economic factors are two sides of the coin of class, so he focuses on the side that has been neglected for a long time. He collected a lot of materials to prove that the most rebellious people in the working class are often not the workers in the big machine factories, but the handicraft workers, and the active participants in the working class movement are the craftsmen.
  Thompson explores the interaction between class structure and forms of state governance. He also examines the influence of religions such as Methodism in the British working class, and makes a historical moral assessment of social structures that have formed in the past. In his concept, the formation of the industrial working class and the advent of the industrial age cannot be evaluated by simple historical progress. On the contrary, he believes that sticking to traditional agricultural life also has its rationale. This view has considerable appeal to contemporary urban populations. In addition, Thompson’s research topic selected a longer time period, and it is not difficult to see the influence of the yearbook school. Of course, The Formation of the British Working Class ends in 1832, a year in which the world’s first industrial working class was formed, and it fits the book perfectly. But Thompson did not go on to study the more intricate history of the working class since then, which is very regrettable.
  Thompson’s book broke the isolation between social history, political history and economic history. After it was published, it was a great success. One of the most popular English-language treatises of the 1960s, and published in several language translations. Many scholars from all over the world have been directly or indirectly influenced by it, and have created many works on the history of workers with similar themes and methods, forming a worldwide trend of research on the history of workers.
  Since then, Thompson’s research horizon has moved forward and began to focus on British popular culture during the pre-industrial revolution. Marx believes that in the state of underdeveloped natural form, that is, before the state power has not fully controlled social life, the folk customs representing traditional have their irreplaceable existence value and historical significance. This tradition is embodied in the customary law in the United Kingdom. For example, the Magna Carta, which has been talked about so far, is essentially a written compilation of many customary laws that limit the power of the king. During the period of transition from feudal society to capitalist society, there was a fierce conflict between such traditions and the newly emerging state regulations. Thompson’s “Whigs and Hunters: The Formation of the Blackface Law” (1975) and “Common Habits” (1991) are representative results of this research.
  The infamous Black Mask Act was enacted by the British Parliament in 1723 and was not repealed until 1827. The law was originally used to punish less harmful masked bandits and poaching with harsh torture laws, and was later extended to prohibit demonstrations and protests by the lower classes. Thompson, who was the first to study the origins of the Act, analyzed the riots and violence in Berkshire and Hampshire with a profound humanist spirit, revealing that common law rights passed down through generations were gradually being legislated by the state. The process of erosion, and the conflict and compromise between the justice accepted by the people and the laws enacted by the upper classes. Thompson co-edited a collection of essays, The Deadly Tree of England: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England (1976), which examined the relationship between crime and law to the poor and the ruling class of eighteenth-century England, equally belonging to a Marxist society His achievements in British legal research reveal the dual attributes of law to maintain social justice and act as a tool of governance.
  The Common Habit can be regarded as a prequel to The Making of the English Working Class. The book examines the folklore of 18th and 19th century England. Folklorists have long noticed various anecdotes from this period, such as the popular “buying and selling of wives,” and regard it as an ancient relic. Thompson, dissatisfied with their interpretation, decided to study these phenomena from the standpoint of historians. Given that “tradition” has a static and long-standing connotation, he is careful to use the word “habit” rather than “tradition” to describe his work. Thompson sees popular culture from within, rather than as a “spectator,” and draws plausible and fascinating conclusions.

For example, he studied 250 cases of wives selling at the bottom of the society at that time, and concluded that this behavior was actually a decent unofficial way of divorce in the lower society. After studying the history of “mob” struggles in England in the 18th century, he found that law was not only a dictatorship tool for the ruling class, but also a powerful weapon for the lower classes to safeguard their own interests. On this basis, he proposes that the law is not merely a manifestation of the will of the ruling class, and cannot be simply classified as a superstructure, but a necessary means to maintain the existence and normal functioning of society.
  In this series of works, Thompson depicts the festivals, ceremonies, ballads, dances and legends of British 18th and 19th century popular culture with outstanding literary ability, showing people the independence, fighting and historicity of British popular culture. It reveals the rational pursuit and moral intentions of ordinary people in daily life and critical moments.
  Thompson has been engaged in the study of Marxist history all his life, but he is not the kind of study-type scholar who “doesn’t hear anything out of the window”. He is also deeply imprinted on this era of the world’s changing political situation. He was a staunch British Communist in the early 1940s. In 1946, together with Quebsbaum and others, he founded the British Communist Party’s Group of Marxist Historians. In 1952, he also participated in the founding of the most influential contemporary historical journal “Past and Present”. However, judging from the trajectory of his thought and practice, his truly creative academic and social activities began in 1956.
  In March 1956, Khrushchev secretly criticized Stalin at the 20th Congress of the CPSU, which immediately caused a big shock in the world. After hearing the news, Thompson and others also had a heated debate with the leaders of the British Communist Party, and then publicly quit the party because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. But he didn’t become a fan of capitalism and the Western world. Since then he has become a humanitarian and a liberal, a representative of the first generation of the British New Left, still adhering to Marx’s practical materialist approach. Thompson’s worldview was dramatically changed by this event, and he has since been deeply skeptical of any views that ran counter to Marxism as he himself understood it. For example, in the 1960s and 1970s, the second generation of New Leftists such as Perry Anderson, who were deeply influenced by Althusser’s “structuralist Marxism”, had a great influence on the academic circles, and fiercely criticized the first generation of new leftists such as Thompson. Leftist theory and practice. As a patriarch of the New Left, Thompson published a long essay entitled “The Poverty of Theory or the Fallacy of the Orrery,” in which he opposed the structuralists’ emphasis on the relationship between various parts of society and their disregard for the existence of “people”. At a large-scale academic symposium in 1979, Thompson publicly rebuked Althusser’s followers for taking over the fields of philosophy and art criticism, invading the field of literary criticism, and then aggressively attacking the field of history. This debate is a direct confrontation between “culturalist Marxism” and “structuralist Marxism”. Today, although Thompson’s criticism is extreme, it is basically confirmed by the development of history as a whole.
  Thompson joined the anti-war group “Nuclear Disarmament Movement” as early as 1958, not only publishing propaganda articles about the movement’s goals and strategies. Also involved in soliciting donations and organizing demonstrations. In the spring of 1980, Thompson put aside academic research again, and actively participated in the relevant work of the European Nuclear Disarmament Association. In a photo taken at a 1981 peace rally to abolish nuclear weapons, Thompson’s shaggy hair stood upright, his eyes pierced, and his arms waving powerfully, reflecting his fighting spirit vividly.
  After Thompson’s death, his writings and thoughts not only did not disappear, but attracted more attention and rethinking in the academic and ideological circles. This phenomenon may be the best summary of his life.

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