Labour History Review

History and Commitment: E.P. Thompson's Legacy

Labour History Review (2013), 78, (3), 331–349.

Abstract

Fifty years after the publication of his groundbreaking study, The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson's legacy remains controversial. While the dominant liberal historical establishment has assimilated certain aspects of his approach, there has been a tendency to overlook or else dismiss the methodological and moral coherence of his work. Providing a synoptic reading of Thompson's oeuvre, this article argues against such disaggregating views, in the belief that it is important to grasp the internal connections from which Thompson's imaginative recreation of the past derives its enduring power. The question of what ‘commitment’ meant to Thompson, his complex and nuanced understanding of the difficulties inherent in writing a distinctively socialist ‘history from below’, furnishes the major focus. The formative influences of communist culture, the war against European fascism, followed by the experience of teaching workers in the adult education movement in West Yorkshire and his involvement in the early New Left are underlined. Thompson drew from these various sources a lifelong commitment to subaltern languages, particularly radical discourses, which gave his work a utopian dimension that has subsequently often been dismissed by his detractors as mere romanticism. Overall, the article stresses the continuing relevance of Thompson's argument for the importance of an emotional and affective - as well as an intellectual - relationship to the past.

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Author details

Gurney, Peter