EP Thompson, live at Glastonbury
I'm currently writing an introduction to The Crisis of Theory which makes the case for Thompson's continuing relevance today, sixteen years after his death and forty-six years after the publication of his most famous book, The Making of the English Working Class. In The Making Thompson introduced his readers to the notion of a 'history from below' - a history which investigates the lives and thoughts of ordinary people rather than Kings and Prime Ministers, and which interprets processes like industrialisation and modernisation from the perspective of the people who most directly affected by these changes. Thompson's radically democratic approach to history remains vastly influential, not only in his homeland but in North America, in Australasia, and in 'Third World' nations like India which are still undergoing the traumas of industrialisation.
Though Thompson the scholar is still a household name amongst historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers, Thompson the political thinker and activist is a more obscure figure. His voluminous, restlessly intelligent writings on civil liberties, the danger of nuclear war, the case for socialism, the problems of Marxism, and the absurdities of Britain's ruling class are mostly out of print, despite their relevance to a twenty-first century world where the erosion of civil liberties, the fear of nuclear proliferation, and the follies of bankers and big companies are all hot button topics, and where the sharp leftward swing of Latin American politics has renewed discussions about the meaning and viability of socialism.
Thompson has not always been a relatively obscure figure amongst the general public. In the early 1980s, a survey found that he was the third most admired person in Britain (rather worryingly, he was beaten to the top two spots by Margaret Thatcher and the Queen Mother). At the beginning of the '80s the decision to deploy American Cruise missiles in Britain's leafy countryside set off a series of massive protests, and Thompson, who had been a leader of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament back in the late '50s, found himself in demand as an orator and as a pamphleteer.
Instead of the clipped, cliched phrases that most politicians serve up in their addresses to the public, Thompson the orator offered baroque, rolling sentences full of poetry and history. When he addressed one particularly large demonstration in Trafalgar Square, Thompson startled his audience by beginning his speech with a quote from William Blake, one of the heroes of his scholarly works, and went on to invoke the ghosts of great protest movements of the past like the Chartists, who demanded universal suffrage in nineteenth century England, and the Diggers, who tried to establish a rural socialist utopia in the revolutionary seventeenth century.
Thompson's approach to political theory was as original and as exciting as his approach to speech-making: to the displeasure of Tory technocrats and Stalinist bureaucrats alike, he insisted that politics should be about more than bread alone, and that a political discourse which was dominated by utilitarian thinking and short-term calculations was doomed to produce an alienated society and an authoritarian government. Like William Morris, another of his heroes, Thompson believed poetry should be taken as seriously as economics.
Thompson's public profile in the '80s is reflected in some of the details of a fascinating new site created to document the history of the Glastonbury Festival. It's hard to imagine any contemporary intellectual being invited on stage to wow the masses who descend on Glastonbury nowadays to hear acts like Bjork and Coldplay, but in the 1980s Thompson regularly spoke between sets from bands like Midnight Oil, The Pogues, The Boomtown Rats, and - of course - The Thompson Twins.
At the 1984 Glastonbury Festival, which has just been immortalised online, Thompson appeared early on a Saturday evening, after The Smiths and before the special guest star Elvis Costello. Admittedly, Glastonbury was a much more 'underground' event, with a much more political bent, in the '80s. Nevertheless, the fact that Glastonbury dairy farmer Michael Eavis kept inviting the sexagenarian intellectual back to his festival, year after year, is testament to Thompson's speaking skills, and to the fact that he had something interesting to say.
As I hope my forthcoming book will show, EP Thompson still has something to say to us today.