E. P. Thompson
Labor Historian
Old v New Labor History
Old Labor History
New Labor History
Before the 1960s, most labor
historians around the world focused
on the history of labor unions.
In the United States labor economists
at the University of Wisconsin
dominated the academic discipline of
labor history.
Paramount in their research were the
development of markets, trade
unions, and political philosophies.
In the 1950s, British and other
European historians developed the
field of social history to correct the
structuralist imbalances they
perceived in the study of history.
Social historians not only sought to
enlarge the study of history but to
refocus it on the experiences of
common people rather than
institutions or elites.
Old v New Labor History
Old Labor History
New Labor History
• John R. Commons
• John Thomas
• Joseph Rayback
• Philip Taft
E. P. Thompson
Herbert Gutman
David Brody
Melvyn Dubofsky
John R. Commons (1862–1945)
An American institutional economist
and labor historian at the University of
• Themes of Old
Labor History
• Origins of work forces
• Conditions and rewards of
• Labor v Capital
• Labor and the Law
• Labor and Politics
John R. Commons
• Wisconsin School of labor
E. P. Thompson (1924 – 1993)
• E. P. Thompson (19241993) was a British
historian, writer, socialist
and peace campaigner.
• He is probably best known
today for his historical
work on the British
working class in the late
18th and early 19th
centuries, in particular The
Making of the English
Working Class (1963).
E. P. Thompson (1924 – 1993)
• Thompson was one of the
principal intellectuals of the
Communist Party in Great
• Although he left the party
in 1956 over the Soviet
invasion of Hungary, he
nevertheless remained a
"historian in the Marxist
tradition," calling for a
rebellion against Stalinism
as a prerequisite for the
restoration of communists'
"confidence in our own
revolutionary perspectives."
E. P. Thompson (1924 – 1993)
• Thompson's most
influential work was and
remains The Making of the
English Working Class,
published in 1963 while he
was working at the
University of Leeds.
• It told the forgotten history
of the first working-class
political left in the world in
the late-18th and early19th centuries.
The Making of the English Working
• History from below:
• “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.
Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their
hostility to the new industrialism may have been backwardlooking. Their communitarian ideals may have been
fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been
foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute
social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were
valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were
casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own
lives, as casualties.”
What is “class?”
• Thompson's work was also significant because of the way he defined
"class". To Thompson, class was not a structure, but a relationship:
• “And class happens when some men, as a result of common
experiences (inherited or shared), feel and articulate the identity of
their interests as between themselves, and as against other men
whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs. The
class experience is largely determined by the productive relations into
which men are born—or enter involuntarily.
• Class-consciousness is the way in which these experiences are
handled in cultural terms: embodied in traditions, value-systems,
ideas, and institutional forms. If the experience appears as
determined, class-consciousness does not. We can see a logic in the
responses of similar occupational groups undergoing similar
experiences, but we cannot predicate any law. Consciousness of class
arises in the same way in different times and places, but never in just
the same way.”
The Making of the English Working
• By re-defining class as a relationship that
changed over time, Thompson proceeded to
demonstrate how class was worthy of
historical investigation.
• He opened the gates for a generation of labor
historians, such as David Montgomery and
Herbert Gutman, who made similar studies
of the American working classes.
The Making of the English Working
• A major work of research and synthesis,
the book was also important in
historiographical terms: with it, Thompson
demonstrated the power of an historical
Marxism rooted in the experience of real
flesh-and-blood workers.
• It remains on university reading lists 40
years after its publication.
Voice of the peace movement
• From 1980, Thompson was the most prominent intellectual
of the revived movement for nuclear disarmament, revered
by activists throughout the world.
• In Britain, his pamphlet Protest and Survive, a parody on
the government leaflet Protect and Survive, played a major
role in the revived strength of the Campaign for Nuclear
• Just as important, Thompson was, with Ken Coates, Mary
Kaldor and others, an author of the 1980 Appeal for
European Nuclear Disarmament, calling for a nuclear-free
Europe from Poland to Portugal, which was the founding
document of European Nuclear Disarmament.
• Confusingly, END was both a Europe-wide campaign that
comprised a series of large public conferences (the END
Conventions), and a small British pressure group.
Voice of the peace movement
• Thompson played a key role in both END and CND
throughout the 1980s, speaking at innumerable
public meetings, corresponding with hundreds of
fellow activists and sympathetic intellectuals, and
doing more than his fair share of committee
work. He had a particularly important part in
opening a dialogue between the west European
peace movement and dissidents in Sovietdominated eastern Europe, particularly in
Hungary and Czechoslovakia, for which he was
denounced as a tool of American imperialism by
the Soviet authorities.
Voice of the peace movement
• He wrote dozens of polemical articles and essays
during this period, which are collected in the books
Zero Option (1982) and The Heavy Dancers (1985). He
also wrote an extended essay attacking the ideologists
on both sides of the cold war, Double Exposure (1985)
and edited a collection of essays opposing Ronald
Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars (1985).
• An excerpt from a speech given by Thompson featured
in the computer game Deus Ex Machina (1984).
Thompson's own haunting recitation of his 1950 poem
of "apocalyptic expectation, "The Place Called Choice,"
appeared on the 1984 vinyl recording, "The
Apocalypso," by Canadian pop group, Singing Fools,
released by A&M Records.