Friday, November 13, 2009

EP Thompson, live at Glastonbury

I'm pleased to be able to announce that Manchester University Press will be publishing The Crisis of Theory: EP Thompson, the New Left, and Postwar British Politics, a text which is based upon the PhD thesis I gave to the University of Auckland last year. It's an honour to get the thumbs up from Manchester, the third largest academic publisher in Britain, because it is particularly renowned for the works of history it offers the public.

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.

15 Comments:

Blogger harvestbird said...

Congratulations on publication. I hope the process runs smoothly from hereon in.

2:30 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

Manchester - I am impressed. Congratulations.

3:38 pm  
Blogger Paul said...

My recollection of the Eighties, and its political and academic life, was that Thompson was a crucial figure. It is a shame if he has been forgotten.

3:41 pm  
Anonymous PC said...

Respect.

Congratulations!

4:45 pm  
Blogger Blaize said...

Congratulations. Very impressive.

5:46 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Scott - fantastic! You and EP! Now get that book about Smithyman out!!

Booker and Nobel Prize next!

8:12 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

I must finish that book by Thompson on the English working class - I referred it to an American who was asking about transportation to Australia (and he thought NZ) etc...

Another book on that is "The Fatal Shore" by Hughes. Clearly E P Thompson was very wide ranging in his interests and tastes and ideas...I want to see that book of yours.

8:16 pm  
Blogger Mad Bush Farm Crew said...

Excellent Reading Maps. I love your blog - it makes me think. I'll add my congratulations onto the list for the publishing.

11:15 am  
Blogger Jack Ross said...

I too would like to add my congratulations. It's a great achievement, & a real tribute to your hard work and perseverance over the years ...

4:02 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Thanks very much for the congrats, folks - I thought it was appropriate the announce the news here because blogging really did help me finish the PhD in the first place. I was encouraged by positive comments on my work, but also by seeing the work that other bloggers were doing
in their different fields. Faced with such daily evidence of the creativity of others, I had no excuse to be lazy! I think I would have struggled without the stimulus of the blogosphere.

Richard is right, though - I am running behind on the book about Kendrick Smithyman!

6:40 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ngaa mihi nunui ki a koe Maps!

Ka pai taau mahi nei!

Congratulations Maps! There are not many academics who can write so fluently and reach such a diverse audience. E.P.'s own eloquence has rubbed off on you.

Naa,

Airihi.

6:29 pm  
Blogger Richard Taylor said...

Why did Smithy call Coleridge's Alph (That is his "Kublai Kahn") a "verbless river" (in his poem about Waitomo ?) It sounds right, it sounds great and that is a moving poem...It thought it might be one of his clevernesses - e.g. that Alph is a letter not a verb (or not a noun as such - it is named after after the letter!) and that it "ran" that it "has run" and is now verb - less ...
But then are not all rivers "verbless" ...? I mean rivers don't act, well they do but slowly, and sometimes very rapidly...hmmm..getting confused! ...I think also as it is in his dream or vision...and it has gone ..it goes or "went" when the (opium induced?) dream was interrupted in any case...as we forget a dream on waking...so it never was...or seems so...

Or am I missing something obvious...?

Anyway - good work Maps.

1:16 am  
Anonymous Len said...

Great news. Shows us antipodeans can cut the mustard in any sphere.
Cheers ... I'll have a beer in celebration at Gailbraiths.

2:04 pm  
Blogger Paul Reynolds said...

Just discovered your blog. Great work. Thanks for the effort!
I think E.P Thompson was one of the great figures of our time - and The Making a seminal text for many people,including me.
I discovered it it the early 80's while doing a BA at Middlesex Poly[as it was then] in the History of Ideas. Was hooked instantly.
Congrats on the book.
Also enjoyed you piece on JUdith Binney.

7:44 pm  
Blogger Derek Wall said...

He was one of the stars in the ecosocialist sky, I heard him speak at my first Ecology Party conference in Malvern in 1981.

His William Morris biog was very important to the emergence of contemporary ecosocialist networks.

Raymond Williams was pretty key but today its all Morales, Hugo Blanco and the best of the Latin American left moving ecosocialism forward.

I look forward to your book!

11:53 am  

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