E. P. Thompson and the Enormous Condescension of Posterity: A Midterm

I’ve been working on-and-off on a few other posts which may or may not end up finally published on the blog, such as one on politics. I’ve also got a few writing projects I’ve been adding to erratically that I may put up when done (or maybe even before done; don’t expect them soon). Meanwhile, I have been busy with schoolwork, which has thus far entailed few papers. This one, a midterm for The Study and Writing of History, may be of interest to others outside the class and does not require a whole lot of background knowledge. I quoted Blake at the front primarily because E. P. Thompson wrote on Blake and often quoted him in his academic work. It’s not my finest paper, but it’ll do, I think.


I am your Rational Power O Albion & that Human Form
You call Divine, is but a Worm seventy inches long
That creeps forth in a night & is dried in the morning sun
In fortuitous concourse of memorys accumulated & lost….

                        — William Blake, Jerusalem

E. P. Thompson and the Enormous Condescension of Posterity

The historian Edward P. Thompson, a prominent member of the New Left and communist-leaning political activist, approached his field with specific social goals. In the preface to his lengthy 1963 book, The Making of the English Working Class, he was explicit in at least one of his major aims: “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.”[1] His vision of history is not only subaltern but deliberately inclusive of “the blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers themselves….”[2] The rest of his book goes on to follow this philosophy by asserting the agency of the working class, not only in self-definition, but in the total political and social development of the nation.

Significantly, his language is active, even revolutionary in tone. To parse and explore the continuing historiographical significance of several elements of this concise and oft-quoted statement is the major aim of this paper. I first place Thompson in the historiographical narrative, then discuss more specific points of influence and explore several historical texts which owe something to Thompson’s philosophy, all to ask the question, “What remains of the vision to thwart the ‘condescension of posterity’?” Through the brief study it should become evident that E. P. Thompson’s ambition for a democratic history as expressed in his thought and method has had a massive impact within his discipline, becoming an example to be adopted, surpassed, or, at the very least, critiqued.

Geoff Eley’s A Crooked Line serves as a fine source for contextualizing Thompson and his work. Thompson came at the forefront of a new academic era, burgeoning in the mid-twentieth century, that integrated the techniques and insights of social science, even as rigid Marxist orthodoxy softened with the apparent failure of its traditional metanarrative.[3] Social historians began to attack more and more aspects of life with their analyses, such as youth and family. The potential for where this new kind of history could go seemed enormous. Historical journals, influenced by the emblematic Annales and Past and Present, were founded on innovative studies, and new groups were formed. The year Thompson published The Making of the English Working Class was the same year that the pioneering Urban History Group was founded by H. J. Dyos.[4] Optimism prevailed.

Thompson arrived on the scene through the Communist Party Historians’ Group, which he left in 1956 from dissent over the Soviet invasion of Hungary. The Making, which he researched and wrote himself outside of any university’s ambit, had the passion and nonconformism of his oratory and established him as a New Left social-intellectual leader and an influence on future generations. Eley asserts that Thompson turned the collective interest of new historians to the agency of those outside traditional narratives of history, and in so doing, Thompson subverted the gradualist or reductionist tendencies in the works of his peers and predecessors in the field, further opening up the study of the past for innovation, exploration, and discovery.[5]

Eley cites seven areas in which Thompson’s work as a whole was important: its oppositional and anti-marginalizing perspective, its reclamation of “national cultural traditions” for the Left, its opening up of cultural history’s “ambiguities and complexities,” its strong attention to ordinary persons, its rejection of classic Marxist assertions of the preeminence of economy over culture, its ideological and intellectual connection to the Communist Party Historians’ Group, and its inceptive rereading of the nature and breadth of politics.[6] In her essay “Crowds, Community, and Ritual in the Work of E. P. Thompson and Natalie Davis,” Suzanne Desan’s concise summary of his influence is includes his contribution to specifically European history and prevailing theory: “E. P. Thompson transformed the study of the Industrial Revolution and critically reshaped debates over Marxist methodology.”[7]

With these themes in mind, let us return to Thompson’s striking and missionary statement of intent. There are several obvious ways in which this bold assertion can be simply delineated in its aim: first, the rescuing of historically hushed voices from obscurity, and second, assertions of agency and resistance on the part of the oppressed. Today, these themes seem as important as ever, and it should hardly be a surprise they still manifest themselves in politically active historiographical contexts. An examination of the major streams of social history readily yields pursuits essentially similar to those of Thompson, giving strong evidence for his continuing importance and the relevance of his aims.

If we look at women’s history, for instance, we see an assertion of agency similar to his own assertion of that of the working class, an agency for those almost invisible in most customary narratives of how modern institutions came into being. Like Thompson, women’s history is, or was at its inception, often unabashedly oppositional and political; the most prominent journal in the field, the appropriately-titled Journal of Women’s History, openly embraces its nascent connection to the much-politicized “feminist struggle.”[8] The correlation does not necessarily stem from direct influence by Thompson, but the vision in many respects runs parallel to his.

On a different line, I am also reminded of the subaltern studies of the Marxist political scientist and anthropologist James C. Scott, whose works have included historical studies and whose ideas have penetrated this field. Like Thompson, he is an energetically original Marxist willing to look beyond economics to powerful cultural forces, and beyond powerful cultural forces to individuals and groups whose significance has been ignored or forgotten by posterity. One of his arguments most significant to postcolonial historians in particular is that peasants and other subaltern groups actually engage in small, daily acts of resistance against a hegemonic power structure. Scott’s book The Moral Economy of the Peasant borrows Thompson’s terminology (also found in the title of Thompson’s “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century”) and develops and nuances some of the concepts beyond Thompson, as is evident in this quote.

If we understand the indignation and rage which prompted them [rebels] to risk everything, we can grasp what I have chosen to call their moral economy: their notion of economic justice and their working definition of exploitation—their view of which claims on their product were tolerable and which intolerable. […] If we understand, further, how the central economic and political transformations of the colonial era served to systematically violate the peasantry’s vision of social equity, we may realize how a class “of low classness” came to provide, far more often than the proletariat, the shock troops of rebellion and revolution.[9]

 An examination of specific historical research yields further evidence of Thompson’s massive hand. A work like Walter Johnson’s “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s” is based on an understanding of history that stems from Thompson and his kind. Here Johnson discusses a young woman, Alexina Morrison, raised in slavery but with an appearance indistinguishable from that of a pure-blooded white, suing for her freedom. It is a case that intrigues but can be safely said to have had no major impact in itself on the national narrative; Johnson notes explicitly, “Morrison was swimming against the current of history.”[10] But under Thompson’s assumptions the study is still worthwhile. For Morrison was herself a participant and agent in the making of history, and her story provides insights that reach beyond the limitations of herself and her circumstances. Rather than being a story of pivotal events such as the Dred Scott decision, Morrison’s story is one that is important because she herself and the culture her case represented are not only viable but valuable specimens for our historical understanding; there is no need to simplify or reduce her to a passive slot in the great machine of human progress, or to ignore her because contemporary writers did. As an individual, she asserted her own right to self-define within the constrictions of an unfair system, and the historian may “rescue” her from further obscurity by recognizing this. This is how I understand a part of Thompson’s legacy.

A similar example is Leonore Davidoff’s article “Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick.” Davidoff, like Johnson, deals with characters who are not only insignificant in the traditional historical narrative but unrepresentative of their position in time and society. Nevertheless, Davidoff aims to break down the “world view of Victorian society” inherited by historians which marginalizes those who wield no power in the elite hierarchy.[11] This is very much in line with Thompson, although Davidoff employs not only the language of class conflict but also the analytical device of gender to further her readers’ understanding of Victorian culture.

These monographs demonstrate not only the general influence of Thompson, but some ways in which Thompson’s vision has been taken beyond its roots. It is helpful at this point to turn again to Suzanne Desan’s essay “Crowds, Community, and Ritual in the Work of E. P. Thompson and Natalie Davis,” which reflects critically on Thompson’s legacy. This does not span Thompson’s complete influence, but in her look at his relationship to social history, especially the topic of crowd violence, she makes several excellent and relevant points with which to close.

Her article is useful in part because it takes care to pronounce Thompson’s limitations, contrasting them with those of a contemporary and similarly influential cultural historian, Natalie Davis. She notes that his vision was focused, as has been mentioned, on class conflict, being somewhat ambivalent about the influence of anthropological methods, for instance, which had a profound effect on Davis and other social historians.[12] One criticism she makes of Thompson is the lack of nuance in his polar interpretation of classes; he hardly analyzes complexities within these social groups. The working class seems overly cohesive in its aims and interpretations and monotone in its inner dynamics, such that complexities—like the agency and perspectives of women and those who were not in assent with community actions like rioting[13]—have been left to later historians such as Johnson and Davidoff. Desan concludes her text by suggesting that historians ought not to return to pre-Thompson worship of structure, but rather to develop a more careful and nuanced interpretation of power and definitions within a given community.[14] Nevertheless, though Thompson may have left some areas in neglect, these other studies are still in line with his essential intent to “rescue,” and it is arguable that they do not obsolete Thompson but merely carry his struggle further.

A question, of interest but not critical for understanding the development of social history, is whether Thompson—certainly an innovator—was chiefly valuable as a figurehead of the new movement, elected by virtue of his work, or whether in fact much that has been credited by Eley and others to Thompson’s person truly belongs to the gradual mass turning of academic culture. The time was certainly ripe, as it had not been before, for his ideas to be received; Thompson in many respects seems the perfect charge for an explosion into intellectual overhaul: charismatic, clear-thinking, contentious, able to leave an impression. Regardless of the measure of credit due him personally, it is evident that Thompson’s work opened doors to once-radical and ever-evolving interpretations of history founded on culture and attention to any and all participants rather than reliance upon rigid metanarratives or formulae. The “enormous condescension of posterity,” it would seem to me, must be forever a problem as historians reprioritize and redefine elements within their field. But Thompson and the shift he represented was seminal to a conscious effort to undercut elitist and reductionist histories. He offered a vision that continues in its relevancy. For how long it will remain important to the field cannot be known, but as Eley remarked, his generation was “uniquely lucky to have had him.”[15]


Works Cited

Allman, Jean and Antoinette Burton. “Editors’ Note.” Journal of Women’s History 20 (Spring 2008): 8-13.

Davidoff, Leonore. “Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick.” Feminist Studies 5 (Spring 1979): 86-141.

Desan, Suzanne. “Crowds, Community, and Ritual in the Work of E. P. Thompson and Natalie Davis.” In The New Cultural Identity, edited by Lynn Hunt, 47-71. University of California Press, 1989.

Eley, Geoff. A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society. University of Michigan Press, 2005.

Johnson, Walter. “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s.” The Journal of American History 87 (June 2000): 12-38.

Scott, James C. The Moral Economy of the Peasant. Yale University, 1976.

Thompson, E. P. The Making of the English Working Class. New York: Vintage Books, 1963.

[1] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage Books, 1963), 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (University of Michigan Press, 2005), 40.

[4] Ibid., 44.

[5] Ibid., 48-50.

[6] Ibid., 54-58.

[7] Suzanne Desan, “Crowds, Community, and Ritual in the Work of E. P. Thompson and Natalie Davis,” in The New Cultural Identity, ed. Lynn Hunt (University of California Press, 1989), 47-71.

[8] Jean Allman and Antoinette Burton, “Editors’ Note,” Journal of Women’s History 20 (Spring 2008): 8.

[9] James C. Scott, The Moral Economy of the Peasant (Yale University, 1976), 3-4.

[10] Walter Johnson, “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s,” The Journal of American History 87 (June 2000): 37.

[11] Leonore Davidoff, “Class and Gender in Victorian England: The Diaries of Arthur J. Munby and Hannah Cullwick,” Feminist Studies 5 (Spring 1979): 88.

[12] Desan, 53-54.

[13] Ibid., 57-60.

[14] Ibid., 71.

[15] Eley, 60.


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