E. P. Thompson

British historian & peace activist (1924-1993)

Edward Palmer Thompson (3 February 1924 – 28 August 1993), usually cited as E. P. Thompson, was a British historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner. He is best remembered for his historical work on the British radical movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular The Making of the English Working Class (1963).

E. P. Thompson in 1980


  • ...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 whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into which men are born—or enter involuntarily. Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems, ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as determined, class-consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just the same way.
    • The Making of the English Working Class (1963; rev. edn. 1968), pp. 8–9
  • I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the "obsolete" hand-loom weaver, the "Utopian" artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.
    • The Making of the English Working Class (1963; rev. edn. 1968), p. 12
  • We must commence to act as if a united, neutral and pacific Europe already exists. We must learn to be loyal, not to 'East' or 'West' but to each other, and we must disregard the prohibitions and limitations imposed by any national state.
  • We are going to stop those piffling cruise missiles, you know, on land if not on sea. What we have to do is seize this moment of mass consciousness to move directly into the structures of the Cold War themselves, the blocs behind the missiles. We have to keep to some very large and simple ideas – like remaking Europe and putting peace and liberty together. ... This is the most serious political work I have ever done or will ever do in my life. It won't last long. If we succeed a little, the politicians will move in and take it off us.
  • [I]n the early eighties, I was turned aside once again, by the emergency of the “second cold war” and by the heavy demands of the peace movement. I do not regret this: I am convinced that the peace movement made a major contribution to dispersing the cold war, which had descended like a polluting cloud on every field of political and social life.
    • ‘Preface and Acknowledgements’ (December 1990), Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture (1993), p. ix

Quotes about Thompson

  • The man who has done more than anyone else to rouse the national conscience over nuclear weapons is E. P. Thompson... Like Gladstone, who felt himself called away from writing about the Christine doctrine of eternal punishment to lead the agitation over the Bulgarian atrocities, Thompson abandoned his scholar's desk and the book that he is writing on William Blake last autumn to devote himself to the anti-nuclear cause.
    • Ian Bradley, 'The great crusade gets under way', The Times (25 October 1980), p. 14
  • The distinctive contribution of working people to the agitation for Reform between 1789 and 1832 is brilliantly invoked in E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class.
  • He once called himself the Muggletonian Marxist, and the title is too tempting to resist. He claimed some special affinity with one associate of the sect, William Blake, and all those who ever heard him lecture on the subject must at least draw some comfort from the fact that he completed this volume before his death. Almost every page offers fresh evidence, not merely of his vast, overflowing erudition, but of his wit, his humanity, his soaring historical imagination, the combination of qualities which made the publication of The Making of the English Working Class such an event not merely in the writing of English history but in the politics of our century.
  • Unlike the extreme radical, the Peace Movement does not make light of physical death. In fact, it feeds almost entirely upon the age-old fear of it. A few half-hearted realists (E.P. Thompson among them) admit that the probable consequence of unilateralist policies would be Soviet domination in some form. They know also that, much more than socialism (which they favour), it would be the end of most of what we, and even they themselves, value. But that, apparently, is less important than saving our own skins.
    • R. A. D. Grant, 'The Politics of Death', The Salisbury Review, Vol. 3, No. 2 (January 1985), quoted in Roger Scruton (ed.), Conservative Thoughts (1988), p. 167
  • [W]orking-class consciousness is no longer the talismanic concept it once was among historians. In retrospect it is clear that E. P. Thompson's magical evocation in The Making of the English Working Class (1963; rev. edn. 1968) brought a prominent line of inquiry to its culmination. Perhaps this should have been obvious at the time, given the author's determination to define class, not in material terms, but as a product of the daily experience of individual men and women.
    • Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad, and Dangerous People? England, 1783–1846 (2006), p. 676
  • Thompson's work combined passion and intellect, the gifts of the poet, the narrator and the analyst. He was the only historian I knew who had not just talent, brilliance, erudition and the gift of writing, but the capacity to produce something qualitatively different from the rest of us, not to be measured on the same scale. Let us simply call it genius, in the traditional sense of the word. None of his mature works could have been written by anyone else.
  • E. P. Thompson, ‘The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century’...has set the tone for much writing about popular protest.
    • Paul Langford, A Polite and Commercial People: England, 1727–1783 (1989), p. 753
  • The life and work of E. P. Thompson exemplified the social and cultural struggles that were taking place in the Britain of the 1950s and 1960s, a period which gave the working class access to higher education in a way that had never happened before. His writings, polemical, astringent and tough minded, had an imaginative sweep which questioned social complacencies and compelled institutions and individuals to look beyond their own narrow concerns and their conception of their past.
Wikipedia has an article about: