Why E.P. Thompson Matters: Theory, Academia, and Political Activism

by Sam Clevenger

Recently, while at a cultural studies academic conference, I walked past a group of striking hotel workers seeking better working conditions.  The strike was three blocks from the building where the conference was being held.  The conference sessions and panels concerned subjects of potential usefulness to political activism in their theorization and analysis of contemporary culture and social conditions, but there was such a stark separation between the conference and the protestors.  Academics at a conference accessible only through paid registration and affiliation in the membership association.  Workers on strike three blocks away.  For me, the gap between academic scholarship and the picket lines of political activism was as evident as ever.

The British social historian E. P. Thompson warned against this divide.  He understood the problems that come with an academia encased in commercial institutions and a scholarly community obsessed with esoteric social theory divorced from its political utility.  He pursued work addressing what he saw as the political crises of his times, like calling for a more humanist socialism and addressing the threat of nuclear proliferation.  His scholarly work stands out from his academic contemporaries in his consistent devotion to historical research that could aid in real political activism. His words on the importance of social history and the need for theory to be politically useful remain as important today as they did during his lifetime.  In a time where political crises erupt on all corners of the world, Thompson’s words and warnings deserve to be revisited.

Stuart Hall reminded us in the “The Life and Times of the First New Left” that the movement “attempted to define a third political space” between Western Imperialism and Soviet Stalinism.[1]  The First New Left, a “distinctive intellectual and political current” arising in Britain in 1956, of which Thompson was heavily involved in, was an important catalyst in rethinking Labour politics and socialist theory.  This rise in leftist political awareness, spurred on by writers many schooled social critics can immediately recognize by name, caused not only the creation of the New Left Review, but aided the subsequent flowering of many new areas of academia, carving important spaces for cultural, feminist, postcolonial, and queer analysis.  But, the New Left was also closely connected early on with political activism, including supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and university student activism through the formation and sponsoring of New Left Clubs.[2]  As one historian put it, part of the movement’s “creativity and distinctiveness flowed from their” juxtaposing of “creative intellectual practice and engagement with hard political realities.”[3]  The First New Left was connected from the beginning to both intellectually studying society and contemporary politics.

Yet, somehow today’s scholars seem to be content that reading and discussing Prison Notebooks or Discipline and Punish in the classroom is enough.  Their currency in political struggles of the present too often seems to fall down the list of priorities; too busy competing with each other publishing enough to earn tenure, while radical social theory becomes washed in esoteric jargon and discussed in circles disconnected from public discourse.  In this context, we must return to the scholars that emphasized the political utility of their writings and academic work.  We must return to scholars like Thompson who pointed toward the growing fissure between theory and activism that pervades academia today.

Thompson was one of the prominent social historians of his time.  His 1963 book The Making of the English Working Class is credited as helping spur the movement for social history.  When discussing academic work directly, Thompson advocated the pursuit of scholarly work infused with Marxist theorization to contribute at the ground level of protest, activism, and social change.  His “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization,” written during his association with the CND in the 1980’s, called for a “cogent theoretical and class analysis of the present war crisis.”[4]  This perspective was fueled by Thompson’s work being unified by a sense of political crisis, and evidenced in his early experience working as a tutor for the Workers’ Educational Association.[5]  His work in social history revealed the political awareness and struggles of the lower classes, an important point on human agency vital to the political utility of scholarship.

Thompson’s help in the drafting of the 1968 May Day Manifesto (with Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall) while at Warwick exemplified his balancing of academic work with political activism.[6]   The Manifesto sought to “extend the ‘third way’” of the First New Left, critiquing the current Labour Party government while reinvigorating the political issues that fueled the New Left’s genesis.  The Manifesto led to a short-lived New Left bid to enter into the upcoming government elections, but was the kind of direct attempt to enter into British politics that Thompson advocated.[7]

When student activists at Warwick in 1970 discovered the university had been keeping files on radical lecturers, Thompson, while head of Warwick’s Social History Centre, worked with the protesters.  He became a leading spokesman for the group of students angry over the university’s allegiance with business interests, and edited a volume of student writings on the protests titled Warwick University Ltd.. [8]  Like the student activists, Thompson saw the growing commercial influence pervading Warwick and institutions, and his involvement in the protests showcases his recognition of the scholar’s role in such resistance.

Thompson would subsequently resign from his position at Warwick over the university’s increasing commercialization and a desire to do free-lance writing, and devoted time to re-engaging and working with the CND.  His work with the CND stands as a poignant example of a scholar foregoing academia for political activism.  A strong supporter since the organization’s founding in 1957, Thompson devoted more time to the cause after his exit from a permanent academic position.  In 1980, he wrote the prominent pamphlet “Protest and Survive,” a damning critique of the British Civil Defence’s pamphlet on nuclear conflict titled “Protect and Survive.”  His pamphlet was paramount in reigniting the CND’s cause and foray back into the public discourse on nuclear proliferation.  Thompson himself served as a leading spokesman for the organization, while also helping to found and draft the mobilizing documents for the organization European Nuclear Disarmament (END).[9]  For Thompson, the threat of nuclear war was too significant not to engage and counter.

Thompson’s influence in academia extended beyond social history.  The Making of the English Working Class, with its revealing of working class struggles and culture, is considered one of the books influencing the development of British Cultural Studies (BCS).  BCS has often been described by scholars like Hall as the academic response to the socialist project the New Left reinvigorated, but as Cultural Studies grew as an academic field, the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser became popular and by 1981 the emerging field’s attachment to postmodern theory set in motion a separation from previous work like Thompson’s that has persisted to this day.[10]

Read only a few Cultural Studies’ articles detailing its British tradition to see a caricaturing of Thompson within the field’s memory.  The field’s treatment of its historical roots is unfortunate as it imparts a condescending label upon people’s histories in the name of “nuanced” theory’s ascending ivory tower while neglecting the significance of scholarship from academic movements like History Workshop.  Moreover, Thompson’s disappearance from Cultural Studies’ is symptomatic of the gap between the field’s theoretical rigor and their work’s isolation from the public debates in need of their insight, emblematic of the divide separating much of academia from the public debates today.

To understand the Thompson’s legacy, it is important to reinsert his significance into the theoretical debates that occurred within BCS.  Thompson played a key role in the divisive discourse over oppositional Marxist theorizations in the 1970’s, culminating in a debate at the 1979 History Workshop Conference in Oxford.  The oppositional theories in BCS comprised of two approaches they labeled “culturalist” and “structuralist.”  Structuralism was the cutting edge theorization of Marxism of the 70's, intending to cure the “naive humanism” of culturalists.  Influenced by the French philosopher Louis Althusser and his book For Marx, structuralists, like Stuart Hall, sought a return to the writings of Marx in order to scientifically study the structures of ideology and power in society and be able to theoretically understand the historical process without a subject.  Culturalists, an umbrella term which Thompson rejected “without reservation,” were seen as unified in their dedication to humanism and the historical process, and their allegiance to experience and social transformation as categories of analysis.[11]

Thompson’s debate speech, “The Politics of Theory,” decried the “psycho-drama” he found “within the enclosed ghetto of the theoretical left.”  On the subject of the usefulness of structuralist theory and criticism of his polemical style, Thompson said, “It is easy to be respectful, sisterly and brotherly, if one’s theory can never do so much as bend a pin in the real political world: if one never has to be called to account for one’s theories, since the gap between theory and actuality is so rarely crossed….”[12]  It was clear that Thompson was not so much concerned about the theoretical approaches in question, but how useful they could be for the politics and crises of the times.  By the next year, while Hall and others in BCS solidified their positions in academia, Thompson turned his focus back to political activism and protesting nuclear proliferation.

Thompson was not opposing the emphasis and value of theory itself, for his own work was theoretical in its interpretation of Marxism.  The crux of the 1979 debate concerned competing critiques of classical Marxism, and The Poverty of Theory’s attack on structuralism’s inability to conceptualize experience and how people can become aware of their conditions and work to resist them.  But, Thompson also emphasized the parallel need for intellectual activism outside the walls of academia.  The theories students learn from authors like Marx, Althusser, Foucault, and Derrida, in other words, should not be used as metaphorical devices to help students sound more intelligent at conferences and in academic publications.  They must also be useful in contemporary politics.  The utility of social theory lies in its ability to embolden the living political activist through the recovery of the historical articulations of previous struggles.  History “carries signs and evidences also of creative resources,” Thompson argued, “which can sustain the present and prefigure possibility.”[13]  This important point needs to be revisited.

To substitute political utility with internal theoretical debates and critique risks separating the theoretician from the people already experiencing and struggling in real social conditions.  Academic teaching and publications are not self-evident in their contribution to political discourse.  While his debate opponents argued for an increased emphasis on theoretical rigor, Thompson warned that they were risking removing themselves and their work from the people and struggles where it is needed.  “It was the politics of that moment” in the birth of the First New Left “which directed all of us, from different traditions, to certain common problems…,” Thompson argued.  To study those moments, Thompson said the scholar “must commence, not within theory, but within the political world.”[14]

Today, the links between academia, theory, and activism are too often lost in the hyper-splintering of academic fields.  The looming political crises of our times mean pedagogy cannot suffice as a form practically applying social theory within itself.  Humanities scholars cannot allow devotion to pedagogy to outweigh recognizing its own contextual limitations.  Critiquing neoliberalism while employed by a commercial educational institution itself married neoliberal tenets requires more than a few paragraphs of self-reflexivity in an academic journal article.  The political utility of social theory can be reinvigorated, but only when accompanied by an understanding that pedagogy is only one method in politicizing social and cultural conditions.  Here, more than ever, Thompson’s work and warnings remain vital, and warrant re-examination.

With 2013 marking the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Making of the English Working Class, and twenty years since Thompson’s untimely passing, the time has come for a conversation about how academic research and theorization can be politically utilized.  Thompson’s prolific work provided invaluable insight into the historical struggles and experience and struggles of the working classes, but he also reminded us through his own activism of the need for academia to be engaged with the political crises of their times.  It’s time for us to revisit Thompson’s words and warnings.  It’s time for the theorists to meet the strikers three blocks away from their academic conferences.

Sam Clevenger is a Ph.D. student in Physical Cultural Studies at the University of Maryland. You can email him at scleveng@umd.edu.



[1] Stuart Hall, “Life and Times of the First New Left,” New Left Review 61 (2010): 177-80.

[2]A Brief History of New Left Review: 1960-2010,” New Left Review; Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain: History, the New Left, and the Origins of Cultural Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997), 68-9.

[3] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995), 4.

[4] Edward Thompson, “Notes on Exterminism, the Last Stage of Civilization,” in Exterminism and Cold War, ed. New Left Review (London: New Left Books, 1982), 1.

[5] See Scott Hamilton, The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left and postwar British politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2011).

[6] Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians: An Introductory Analysis (Oxford: Polity Press, 1984), 170.

[7] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain, 149-50.

[8] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Postwar Britain, 208-9.

[10] See Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism (London: Verso, 1980); E. P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory & Other Essays (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978); Richard Johnson, “Edward Thompson, Eugene Genovese, and Socialist-Humanist History,” History Workshop 6 (1978): 79-100.

[11] See Stuart Hall, “Cultural Studies: Two Paradigms,” Media, Culture & Society 1(1980): 57-75; E. P. Thompson, “The Politics of Theory,” in People’s History and Socialist Theory, ed. Raphael Samuel (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 396.

[12] Thompson, “The Politics of Theory,” 400.

[13] Thompson, “The Politics of Theory,” 402-8.

[14] Thompson, “The Politics of Theory,” 400.

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First published: 02 July, 2013

Category: Philosophy and Theory

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3 Comments on "Why E.P. Thompson Matters: Theory, Academia, and Political Activism"

By Todd, on 02 July 2013 - 17:00 |

Academics haven’t protected the conditions of their own labor, and so it’s challenging to see how much actual use they might be in larger struggles.

Isn’t it interesting that the past 3 decades which saw the height of theory in various guises –Marxist, gender or identity-based, postcolonial, deconstruction, etc.– also saw the neoliberal hollowing-out of the academy? Tenure-track jobs have been replaced with adjunct positions; benefits have disappeared or have been seriously diminished, and for the hard-working adjunct, there is no security of employment. 

Academics don’t have control of their own industry, and with austerity the new normal it doesn’t appear that they will have any time soon. While professional organizations are finally taking notice of how bad the situation of academic labor is, it feels very much to be too little, too late. 

While left-leaning academics were publishing subversive textual or cultural studies, the neoliberal war against public institutions was radically changing the economics of higher education for students, who now have huge debt loads, and teachers, whose employment is increasingly precarious. 

I don’t disagree with the article’s basic argument, but it strikes me that academics need to tend to their own house, a house in imminent danger of collapse. 

By Neil, on 03 July 2013 - 05:15 |

Todd seems be arguing that academics need to attend to protecting their own economic position as a precondition for being able to fight for that of ordinary people in the world outside. While there seems to be some logic in this argument it is not clear that higher education en masse could ever hope to resist on its own the icy blasts of neo-liberalism, and in my opinion it ignores the fact that the situation within academia is actually more nuanced than he suggests: while the deterioration in conditions is widespread, it nevertheless still contains extensive layers and sites of privilege that are becoming ever more closely integrated with economic and political power.

It would seem politically misguided therefore to strategise to privilege one’s own economic conditions above those of the mass of people - in other words, to try protect one’s own house from collapse while those of all people who are not privileged and powerful are also collapsing or threatened. Surely Thompson’s response - and the moral of this article - would be to concentrate on the cause of the crisis and engage on the ground with historical struggles that straddle or lie outside the narrow walls of academia, instead of practising a form of narrow defensive self-interest. 

By Todd, on 03 July 2013 - 09:04 |

Thanks for responding, Neil. 

I don’t think I proposed “a form of narrow defensive self-interest” when I noted that academics’ own labor has been hugely devalued and that the professionals in the colleges and universities ought to do something about that. That’s not so much a precondition for action as an observation that there hasn’t been much action, certainly not any industry-wide collective action against the increasing reliance on casual academic labor. 

What would such a national movement look like? Can we envisage it? Has the academy generated the ideas necessary to foster such a movement? Has the MLA or the AAUP communicated effectively on the issue with the larger public, with legislators, with business leaders? 

I don’t understand why you would think I’m privileging my own economic conditions: surely, 99% of us are in this sinking neo-liberal boat together.

Take for example the issue of student loans here in America. My students are going to be paying double the interest on their loans this year than they were last school year, and 9 times what a bank pays for loans from the government. Those loans pay tuition that doesn’t pay my meagre salary, but instead pays bonds that were taken out to underwrite the massive building spree that the Univ. of California system has been on, thanks to its rankings-obsessed Board of Regents and campus chancellors. 

It seems clear to me that my students, their parents, and I are “on the ground” when we protest and demonstrate and lobby Congress and state government against such inequities, and so the distinction you propose between the “mass of people” and academics doesn’t really obtain. 

Protecting my interests doesn’t dissociate me from others; it binds me closer to them. 

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