Even in a world tightly trussed by neoliberal dogma and basted by surges of populist anti-elitism, the role of the left intellectual has lost none of its fascination. There remains a yearning to find figures who combine intellectual distinction with radical politics, and who can bring their ideas and theories, analyses and eloquence, to the service of progressive causes. Few figures in the second half of the 20th century fit the romantic version of this profile better than the British historian E.P. Thompson. In the United States, Thompson probably remains best known as the author of The Making of the English Working Class, an indisputable classic of modern historiography and the founding document of a whole school of radical social history in the 1960s and ’70s. But such historical work constituted only one strand of Thompson’s career. No less important were his roles as an activist, polemicist, and writer—though in practice his abundant, restless talents could never be neatly divided or pigeonholed in this way.
Thompson’s activities were constantly energized by a sense of political purpose. After an initial period as an active communist in the late 1940s and early ’50s, he became one of the animating presences of the early New Left, which emerged in Britain in response to the Soviet crushing of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 and to mounting discontent with the Labour Party’s modest reformism. In the years to come, Thompson would also become one of the New Left’s most emphatic fraternal critics.
In the 1970s, partly spurred by a growing awareness of state surveillance, he put much of his energy into championing civil liberties; and in the 1980s, he metamorphosed into one of the best-known British campaigners against nuclear weapons. So prominent was Thompson in this last role that, as one commentator noted, “polls placed him high in the ranks of the most admired, trailing only the ‘first women’ of the nation: [Margaret] Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother.”
Like his political work, Thompson’s writings were also diverse—sometimes in unexpected ways. After his early biography of William Morris, a figure whose example remained a lifelong source of inspiration, he wrote a late study of William Blake, another spirited dissident. Alongside his magnum opus on the origins of the English working class, he also wrote influential studies that examined the suppression of popular rights in the 18th century and the supersession of older notions of a “moral economy” by the unforgiving exactions of industrial capitalism. In addition, Thompson was a polemicist of rare rhetorical gifts—he was a particular master of sustained and inventive sarcasm—and his essays and political journalism brought him swaths of admiring readers who knew little of his scholarly work. He also found time to write poetry and to publish an unnervingly dystopian novel.
At first sight, it’s not easy to find a guiding thread of continuity in such a varied public and intellectual life, but Christos Efstathiou makes a brave stab at it in E.P. Thompson: A Twentieth-Century Romantic, his careful and thoroughly documented study. Thompson’s personal papers are closed to researchers, but Efstathiou’s book draws on a wider range of other archival sources than any previous work on Thompson’s life and thought and, as a result, throws fresh light on his intellectual and political trajectory.
Thompson was of the generation for whom service in World War II was a defining experience, but, characteristically, he interpreted this experience primarily in political terms. What he identified in elements scattered across the Allied armies, the local resistance fighters, and the countless men and women who helped the war effort in other ways was a spirit of cooperation and, notably, resistance to fascism. In the years after the war, Thompson was stirred by evidence that this spirit might be transformed into a base upon which to launch a broad form of progressive politics, though he later came to feel that it had been blocked or killed off by the hardening polarities of the Cold War.